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Why We Still Can’t Read the Writing of the Ancient Indus Civilization

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A typical seal of the Indus Valley Civilization, containing undeciphered signs (Credit: Harappa Archaeological Research Project, in Yadav et al 2010 PLOS One)

A typical seal of the Indus Valley Civilization, containing undeciphered signs. (Credit: Harappa Archaeological Research Project, in Yadav et al 2010 PLOS One)

Today, when we’ve unlocked the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Maya writing and hosts of far lesser known scripts, it seems as though there’s nothing left for enterprising epigraphers. Fear not, for there are actually a number of ancient writing systems still to be cracked. They include texts of the Olmec and Zapotec (Mesoamerican cultures preceding the Classic Maya), Proto-Elamite (writings of the earliest civilization of present-day Iran) and Rongorongo of Easter Island.

But if it’s fame you’re after (as well as intense scrutiny and even death threats) there’s no better challenge than the symbols of the Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished some 4,000 years ago in present-day Pakistan and northwest India.

From this culture, archaeologists have recovered several thousand short inscriptions, most with just 4 or 5 signs. There is no consensus on how to read them, although dozens of speculative decipherments have been proposed over the past century.

Complicating efforts, the underlying language the script is tied to is disputed, and there are complex modern-day political ramifications to the question. Rival ethnic groups claim to descend from this once-great civilization and knowing its language would help cement cultural ties. Hence the reported threats to scholars immersed in the matter.

Furthermore, some researchers go so far as to deny the existence of an underlying language. That is, they argue the Indus inscriptions were not true writing — visible signs that unambiguously represent speech — but an alternate symbolic system similar to emblems, conveying more general meanings.

Despite naysayers and challenges, decipherment efforts have progressed in the past decade, thanks to better databases of texts and new computational methods for finding patterns among the signs. Here’s what we know, for now.

That Lesser-known Great Civilization

4,000 years ago the Indus Valley civilization held an estimated one million people spread over a Texas-sized region, twice the area of contemporary Egypt or Mesopotamia. Its largest excavated cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, exhibit levels urban planning that rival modern standards, including grid-like streets, water management and the oldest toilets. Yet there’s no suggestion of royal, religious or military might — no grand palaces, temples or defensive fortifications. And after flourishing between 1900-2600 BC, it’s unclear what happened to the people, or if any populations today can count themselves as their descendants.

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Ruins of Mohenjo-daro, one of the largest cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. (Credit: Robinson, Cracking the Indus Script, Nature, vol 526, 2015)

One reason archaeologists, and average people, don’t know much about the Indus, is that it was only discovered in the 1920s. Since then, researchers have identified more than 1,000 settlements, which from the surface appear to belong to the culture. But less than 10 percent have been systematically excavated, due in part to unrest along the India-Pakistan border.

Another reason the Indus is elusive: that undeciphered script.

The Indus Inscriptions

Several thousand Indus texts have been discovered, mostly from Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, but also in far-flung lands of trading partners along the Persian Gulf and in Mesopotamia (and it’s probable the Indus were exposed to the idea of writing by these literate Mesopotamians). The majority are engraved on small stone seals, about one inch squared, above the image of an animal, such as a bull, elephant or unicorn-like creature. Fewer inscriptions are found on clay tablets, pottery and metal objects.

Examples of short inscriptions on seals and tablets from the Indus (Credit: Rao et al, A Markov Model of the Indus Script, PNAS vol 106, 2009)

Examples of short inscriptions on seals and tablets from the Indus. (Credit: Rao et al, A Markov Model of the Indus Script, PNAS vol 106, 2009)

With an average of just 4 or 5 signs, the brevity of most inscriptions poses a challenge for decipherment efforts. It’s also among the reasons that some scholars argue these characters are not true writing. Most other civilizations with a writing system have left examples that are hundreds of characters long. The longest example of Indus script, by contrast, is less than 30 characters.

Since 2004, there’s even been a standing $10,000 prize for anyone who discovers an Indus text over 50 characters, offered by an anonymous donor and valid through the lifetime of historian Steve Farmer, a vocal opponent of the view that the Indus civilization was literate.

Tallying all the characters appearing on all known texts, researchers count between 400 and 700 distinct Indus signs. In part, their estimates differ because of subjectivity in judging how much variation is permissible for a single sign. For instance, my handwritten “a” probably looks different than your “a,” but they are the same character. Regardless, having several hundred characters suggests the script — if it was writing — was likely logosyllabic, meaning signs represented full words as well as syllabic sounds. Other logosyllabic systems we’ve deciphered include Mesopotamian cuneiform (~600 signs) and Mayan glyphs (~800 signs).

How to Read Long-lost Scripts

Scholars have deciphered many extinct writing systems, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mesopotamian cuneiform and, most recently, a considerable portion of Maya glyphs. Aside from the short inscriptions, why does Indus give us so much trouble?

Successful decipherment efforts have followed similar courses (Part 3). Researchers cataloged the possible characters and their variations to infer the nature of the system — alphabetic, syllabic, logographic, etc. Then they found patterns in the distribution and frequency of signs. For instance, some characters may commonly occur at the beginning of lines or others may usually cluster together.

Though there’s some disagreement, we’re probably at that point for the Indus script. But serious decipherment breakthroughs have relied on three key elements so far absent from the Indus corpus:

1) Proper names, such as kings or cities, known from records of contemporaneous cultures. During the process of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, scholars benefited from the mention of rulers like Ptolemy and Cleopatra in ancient Greek texts, understood at the time. As for the Indus, we don’t know any historical figures or certain place names.

2) A bi- or trilingual inscription, which records the same text in both known and unknown writing systems. For Egypt, that was the famous Rosetta stone, a fractured slab transcribing a priestly decree in two Egyptian scripts and ancient Greek. No such thing has been found for the Indus.

3) The language the script transcribes. For Egypt, successful translators correctly reasoned that hieroglyphs represented Coptic, a language still used by the Egyptian Coptic Church. And indigenous people of Mesoamerica continue to speak the words of Maya glyphs.

But the actual identity of the Indus language (or languages) is contested and clouded by modern politics. Presently, many scholars (here, here) argue for an ancient form of Dravidian, a family of languages found today in mostly southern India, but also pockets of northern India and Pakistan, near the heart of the Indus Valley Civilization. Alternatively, some favor an Indo-European language, related to ancient Sanskrit, which supports Hindu nationalist claims to the culture. Still others propose different indigenous language families, like Munda, or no language at all.

Where We Stand

As early as 1966, archaeologist Shri B. B. Lal concluded the texts were normally read from right to left. But, as Indus scholar Bryan K. Wells wrote in 2015, that is “about the only fact that most researchers can agree on” (page 7). This conclusion is based on spacing of characters: rightmost signs are aligned comfortably at the edge, whereas leftmost signs hang, get squeezed or pushed lower.

The degree of disorder in different sequences. Indus inscriptions fall near writing systems, between DNA (top) and computer code (bottom) (Credit: Rao, Probabilistic Analysis of an Ancient Undeciphered Script, Computer, April 2010)

The degree of disorder in different sequences. Indus inscriptions fall near writing systems, between DNA (top) and computer code (bottom) (Credit: Rao, Probabilistic Analysis of an Ancient Undeciphered Script, Computer, April 2010)

For decades, researchers have used statistical analyses to show that certain signs often cluster together, suggesting words and/or word-order (what we would call syntax) exist in the texts (here, here, here) — an important counter to claims that Indus signs are not true writing. More recently, computer scientists have reinvigorated efforts. One approach analyzes how random or predictable the order of signs is within a text. By this measure, known as conditional entropy, Indus inscriptions appear like known writing systems, which fall between highly ordered sequences like computer code and disordered ones like DNA code. Other methods using statistics and probability theory have brought similar conclusions: Indus inscriptions exhibit a degree of predictability characteristic of true writing.

Reading that putative writing will take future research. Ancient DNA may soon shed light on the ancestry of the Indus people, providing clues about their language. And there’s always hope that future excavations will uncover more informative texts, a Rosetta stone of the Indus.

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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