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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

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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