Introduction to Study of the Indus Script

Terra cotta sealing from Mohenjo-daro

In 2004 Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat (University of Illinois) and Michael Witzel (Harvard University) stunned the world of ancient Indus scholarship with the claim that the Indus sign system was not writing (their joint paper, The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization can be found on Dr. Farmer's website). Their work received widespread publicity, even in popular science magazines. They based their reasoning on computer analysis of Indus sign properties apparently not in common with other ancient written languages. The lack of lengthy inscriptions common to other early written languages is another major factor in their argument.

A target of their critique was the work of Dr. Asko Parpola (University of Helsinki, website) who - like a number of other ancient Indus "decipherments" in the past century - had concluded that the Indus sign system represented an ancient Dravidian language. Like the Jesuit priest Father Heras in the 1930s, he proposed (to the layman, rather convincingly) that the fish sign represented the word min, (pronounced meen) which designates both fish and star in most Dravidian languages. Dr. Parpola and his team's further "decipherments" based on the fish sign and old Tamil words for heavenly bodies seem to fit (to the layman, again) very nicely with words designating Venus, Saturn, the Pleaides, and other astral entities. The stars and heavenly signs were important to ancient peoples everywhere, especially ones who built economies on maritime navigation. Although it is not possible to test his interpretations, it would not be surprising if some of them are close to the truth. Still, important scholars like Gregory Possehl (University of Pennsylvania) do not accept Dr. Parpola's interpretations, while others like Indian and early Tamil expert Iravatham Mahadevan add to them. Something as clear as a definitive Rosetta stone for the ancient Indus language still eludes archaeologists. Nonetheless the discovery in the spring of 2006 of Indus signs on a hand-axe in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu could increase the probability that the ancient Indus signs are related to the Dravidian language family. Until this apparent discovery, there was no clear physical evidence for such a link.

Dr. Parpola's work also stems from a deep knowledge of Bronze Age ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Some of the largest world trade ever must have taken place between Indus and Mesopotamian merchants during the heyday of these urban civilizations around 2350 BCE. (Discussion of this trade by Massimo Vidale (Centro Scavi IsIAO) and Dennys Frenez (University of Bologna) will be featured on on this website in the coming years.) Then there are the further discoveries in recent years of adjacent cultures between the Euphrates and Indus, like the Bactria Margiana Architectural Complex (BMAC) civilization of central Asia and Afghanistan and the city of Jiroft in southwestern Iran at the edge of the Indus plateau. Ancient human history from Turkey to India was international long before the global economy.

All these entitites traded with each other. The birth of signs or writing on stamp seals to designate ownership of goods is intertwined with the rise of early cities. To assume that other cultures with whom the Indus people traded were writing on stamp seals but the ancient Indus people were not seems slightly improbable. The objective of the seals and the symbols on them was to facilitate efficient communication across cultures.

Dr. Parpola's work is also rigorously informed by the early Vedic Hindu tradition that followed the ancient Indus civilization after around 1700-1500 BCE. Some of his interpretations, like the link between the gods Rudra and Shiva, continue the linkages to later Hindu traditions.

Nonetheless, to simply equate the Vedic and Indus cultures is wrong. The debate around the myth of an Aryan invasion of India is remarkable for its two-dimensionality. Largely south Indian Dravidian and largely North Indian or Indo-European languages have different origins. While there is no evidence for a single physical invasion of India by Indo-European language speakers, the steady growth of Indo-European language speakers through migration at the fringes and even into the heartland of Indus civilization is possible and needs archaeological and bioanthropological research. Proto-Dravidian languages are thought by some scholars to have originated on the Iranian plateau in 3500 B.C., almost two thousand miles from where Tamil is spoken in modern South India. Other scholars suggest that they emerged indigenously in peninsular India. Analogously, Indians speak English today without being considered "European." People who attach race, political and religous agendas to ancient Indus studies miss the point.

Study of the Indus Script was first delivered as a lecture in Japan by Dr. Parpola in the summer of 2005 and has been updated since. It contains a response to the Farmer et. al paper. For someone new to the subject, it summarizes key issues and facts about the ancient Indus interpretations. It presents the cornerstones of Parpola's interpretation. It is a milestone in a lifetime of research from someone who has studied this puzzle in ancient communication longer and more deeply than anyone else.

As an essay, as the literary critic George Lukacs might say, it casts an ultraviolet light on its subject.