|Indus Valley code is cracked - maybe
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - A 4,500-year-old mystery has been revived, with Indian-American
scientists claiming on April 23 that the puzzling symbols that were found on
Indus Valley seals are indeed the written script of a language from an ancient
But skeptics, such as historian Steve Farmer and Harvard University Indologist
Michael Witzel, say that claims of the Indus Valley civilization having a
written language, and therefore a literate culture, are generally created by
pseudo-nationalists from India, Hindu chauvinists and right-wing political
frauds who wish to glorify the existence of an ancient Hindu civilization.
The civilization on the banks of the 2,900-kilometer long Indus, one of the
world's great rivers with a water volume twice that of the Nile, is said to
have flourished between 2600 BC to 1900 BC.
Unlike its river valley contemporaries in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and China,
very little is known about the Indus Valley civilization, largely because its
"script" is yet to be deciphered, even though ruins were excavated 130 years
There appears little doubt that a reasonably advanced civilization thrived in
the Indus Valley before mysteriously vanishing. But for the past decade,
scholars and scientists worldwide have argued whether engravings found on
hundreds of Indus Valley objects, such as seals and tablets, are a mysterious
script of a language - like the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics - or whether
they are merely non-lingual signs or pictograms.
On April 23, the US-based Science journal published a paper by an Indian and
Indian-American team of scientists and researchers that claimed patterns of
symbols found on Indus objects had the definitive linguistic pattern found in
written languages. Such a pattern is different from non-linguistic signs.
The paper, titled "'Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus
Script”, featured the findings of Indian-born researchers at the University of
Washington in Seattle and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai
It claims computer analysis revealed comparative "entropic evidence" that Indus
signs have a linguistic order similar to some of the world's oldest languages,
such as Sumerian from Mesopotamia, classical Tamil and Sanskrit from the Indian
Comparative entropy involves a mathematical process by which an unknown
variable can be theoretically determined using known related variables. In this
case, researchers say they used computer analysis to compare the pattern of
Indus symbols with the patterns of known spoken and mathematical languages.
This is the first time that such a process has been used to determine whether
unknown symbols are the written script of a language.
"The findings provide quantitative evidence suggesting that the people of the
4,500-year-old Indus civilization may have used writing to represent linguistic
content," said project leader Rajesh Rao, a computer scientist at the
University of Washington.
"If this is indeed true," Rao told Asia Times Online, "then deciphering the
script would provide us with unique insights into the lives and culture of the
The 130-year-old excavations in the Indus Valley, covering areas in India,
Pakistan and Afghanistan, have revealed evidence of an urban civilization.
Ruins of excavated Indus Valley cities such as Mohenjadaro and Harappa have
revealed elaborate urban infrastructure such as well-planned streets, brick
houses, sophisticated drainage and water-storage systems, trading, use of
weights, jewelry, knowledge of metallurgy and tool-making. Archaeologists say
many more Indus Valley cities are yet to be excavated.
The problem is that any new "path-breaking" Indus Valley research findings have
to pass credibility tests. The Indus Valley puzzle took a more crooked
dimension in the past decade. India's right-wing political outfits that grew in
this period, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been known to make
clumsy, ridiculously amateurish attempts to "rewrite" over 5,000 years of
Such fake coloring of authentic Indian and Hindu religious history was to feed
a narrow-minded sectarian, political and chauvinistic agenda. The BJP has
denied such history-faking tricks. But a senior BJP worker in Kolkata, an art
critic by profession, told this correspondent in 2003 that he was engaged in
rewriting history textbooks. The BJP was then heading India's central
This history tomfoolery included attempts to portray the Indus Valley culture
as a Hindu civilization. Some fraudsters have even produced fake Indus seals as
"proof" of an advanced society with rich, as yet undiscovered, literature.
But the genuine Indus symbols are merely simple non-linguistic signs common in
the ancient world, according to a controversial paper in 2004 titled "The
Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan
Civilization". The paper was written by comparative historian Steve Farmer;
Richard Sproat, a biomedical computer scientist at the Oregon Health and
Science University, Portland; and Michael Witzel, an Indologist from the
Department of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Harvard University.
Five years later, in 2009, Rajesh Rao and his colleagues' year-long study
claimed to have debunked the debunkers Farmer, Sproat and Witzel. The
California-based Packard Foundation and Mumbai-based Sir Jamsetji Tata Trust
sponsored the project. The global media reported on Rao's April 23 Science
Journal paper supporting claims that the Indus symbols are the written script
of an ancient language.
However, the original Indus script debunkers refuse to be debunked. In a quick
counter response dated April 24, Farmer and Co rubbished the Washington
University study. Their two-page answer was cheekily titled, "A Refutation of
the Claimed Refutation of the Nonlinguistic Nature of Indus Symbols: Invented
Data Sets in the Statistical Paper of Rao et al. (Science, 2009)". Farmer and
Co argued that Rao and Co had compared the Indus sign sets with "artificial
sets of random and ordered signs”.
They said the Rao study proved nothing that is not known - that is, "the Indus
sign system has some kind of rough structure, which has been known since the
1920s”, said their rejoinder.
"Indus Valley texts are cryptic to extremes, and the script shows few signs of
evolutionary change," Farmer and Witzel wrote in October 2000. "Most [Indus]
inscriptions are no more than four or five characters long; many contain only
two or three characters. Moreover, character shapes in mature Harappa appear to
be strangely 'frozen', unlike anything seen in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia or
The left-leaning Indian news magazine Frontline carried Farmer's and Witzel's
article in a cover story titled "Horseplay in Harappa - In the 'Piltdown Horse'
hoax, Hindutva propagandists make a little Sanskrit go a long way”. The article
debunked sensational claims in 1999 that the Indus script had been "deciphered"
by N S Rajaram and Natwar Jha.
The motive of this fraud was to prove that the Indus civilization was an early
Hindu civilization. As proof, Rajaram and Jha produced an Indus Valley "horse"
seal as evidence that the Indus people used horses, an animal commonly
mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Indian texts dating to the 2nd millennium
BC - over 2,000 years later than the earliest dated Indus Valley seals. But no
images of horses were found in the Indus Valley excavations, until Rajaram and
Jha produced their horse seal.
Farmer and Witzel proved that the horse seal was a fraudulent computerized
distortion of a broken "unicorn bull" seal. The fake horse seal was derided as
the "Piltdown Horse", an imaginary creation to fill the gap between the
Harappan and Vedic cultures, just as the famous "Piltdown Man" did in 1912.
That year, skeletal remains of the "missing link" between ape and man were
"discovered" in Piltdown, a village in England. They were later found to be
In their April 23 paper, Rao's team said they compared statistical patterns in
sequences of Indus symbols with sequences in known ancient and modern spoken
languages, computer language and natural sequences such as in human DNA.
While Farmer and Co claim in their April 24 rebuttal that Rao's team used
limited and artificial comparative language tools, Rao's team says the
comparative computer analysis included:
1,548 lines of Indus text and 7,000 signs, from veteran Indus scholar Iravatham
Mahadevan's 1977 compilation from the Archaeology Society of India.
20,000 sentences from The Brown University Present Day Standard Corpus of
Present-Day American English - a well-known dataset compiled from a wide range
of texts including press reports, editorials, books, magazines, novels,
scientific articles and short stories.
100 Sanskrit hymns from Book 1 of the Rig Veda, said to be composed between
"Ettuthokai", or "Eight Texts", anthologies of poems in classical Tamil from
the Sangam Era, circa 300 BC to 300 AD.
Sumerian - nearly 400 literary compositions dated between 3 BC and 2 BC.
DNA - first one million nucleotides in the human chromosome 2, obtained from
the Human Genome Project.
Protein - the entire collection of amino acid sequences from the Bacteria
Escherichia Coli, more famous as E coli.
Programming Language - 28,594 lines of code from FORTRAN.
Both camps are adamant they are right. But both could be wrong, given how
vested interests and human egos often stubbornly cling to inaccurate views by
seeing what they want to see, instead of reality as it is.
If the Indus Valley has an equivalent to the sensational 18th-century discovery
of the Rosetta Stone, considered one of the greatest-ever historical finds,
that would indeed confirm whether the Indus symbols are a written language -
one possibly opening the doorway to an unknown civilization. An officer in
Napoleon Bonaparte's invading French army, Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard,
found a grey-pinkish granite stone in an Egyptian village called Rosetta on
July 15, 1799.
Dating to 196 BC and displayed in the British Museum since 1802, the Rosetta
plaque carried a royal decree in Egyptian and Greek in three scripts -
Hieroglyphic, Demotic Egyptian and Greek. Since Greek was a known language,
stunned scholars could use the translation to decipher the 3,500-year-old
hieroglyphics. The doorway to ancient Egypt was opened to the modern world.
Even if the Indus Valley symbols are indeed a written script, there is little
chance of deciphering them unless a Rosettta Stone equivalent is available.
Archaeologists from India and Pakistan continue to work at Indus Valley sites,
unearthing new discoveries each year.
1. The April 23, Science journal paper "Entropic Evidence for Linguistic
Structure in the Indus Script" was by:
Rajesh P N Rao - Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of
Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.
Nisha Yadav, Mayank N. Vahia - Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Tata
Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai 400005, India.
Hrishikesh Joglekar - 14, Dhus Wadi, Laxminiketan, Thakurdwar, Mumbai 400002,
R. Adhikari - The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai 600113, India.
Iravatham Mahadevan - Indus Research Centre, Roja Muthiah Research Library,
Chennai 600113, India.
(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about
sales, syndication and
All material on this
website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written
© Copyright 1999 - 2009 Asia Times
Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East,
Central, Hong Kong
11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110