Scientist Smackdown: Ancient Indian Hieroglyphs, or Just Pretty Pictures?

By Eliza Strickland | April 23, 2009 5:57 pm

Indus scriptA computer analysis of symbols inscribed on stone tablets and artifacts more than 4,000 years ago has prompted a new debate on a fiercely contested question: Did the people of the Indus Valley civilization have a written language? According to the researchers who conducted the latest analysis, the answer is yes, and the next step is to search for the grammatical rules governing the language. But other researchers have harsh words for the methods used in the study. “As they say: garbage in, garbage out,” [New Scientist], one critic says.

The Indus civilisation flourished in isolation 4,500 years ago along the border of what is now eastern Pakistan, but almost no historical information exists about the people and their long-lost community. Archaeologists working in the region have unearthed a rich hoard of artifacts, including amulets, seals and ceramic tablets, many of which are embellished with the unusual symbols [The Guardian]. But some researchers contend that the symbols are simply religious or political imagery, and that they don’t add up to a language. They note that most of the inscriptions are extremely short (averaging only four or five symbols), and that few symbols are used repeatedly.

For the new study, which will be published in Science, computer scientist Rajesh Rao used pattern-analyzing software to first analyze a collection of languages, including Sanskrit, ancient Sumerian, and modern English. They then examined other information systems, including a computer programming language and the sequence of DNA. The analysis used what is called “conditional entropy”. When aimed at language, this statistical technique comes up with a measure for the “orderedness” of words, letters or characters – from totally ordered to utterly random [New Scientist]. Rao’s team found that the computer programming language was highly ordered (to avoid ambiguity in commands), the DNA sequence was very random, and that spoken languages fell in the middle.

When they next seeded the program with fragments of Indus script, it returned with grammatical rules based on patterns of symbol arrangement. These proved to be moderately ordered, just like spoken languages…. [A]ccording to Rao, this early analysis provides a foundation for a more comprehensive understanding of Indus script grammar, and ultimately its meaning. “The next step is to create a grammar from the data that we have” [Wired], he says.

But researchers on the other side of the argument say that comparing the inscriptions on the Indus tablet to a small handful of languages and other information systems doesn’t provide nearly enough information to reach an informed conclusion, and argue that Rao’s team has just impressed its audience with a fancy computer trick. “There’s zero chance the Indus valley is literate. Zero,” says Steve Farmer, … who authored a 2004 paper with two academics with the goading title “The Collapse of the Indus Script Thesis: The myth of a literate Harappan civilization” [New Scientist].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Writing on the Half Shell asks if writing was invented in Asia instead of the Middle East
DISCOVER: Writing Right explores why written and spoken languages can differ so dramatically

Image: J.M. Kenoyer/


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