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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

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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