War of words in the cradle of south Asian civilisation

In the heart of Pakistan, the ruins of a 4,000-year-old city have spawned a cross-continental row about language, culture – and racism in academia

At the quiet ruins of Harappa, one of the two main centres of an ancient civilisation that once spread from the Himalayas to Mumbai, Naveed Ahmed took in the arid hills dotted with thorn-bush. "I think the people who lived here were very different from us," said the part-time guide. "The stones and the beads [they made]; it was as if they were more sophisticated."

However peaceful this ruined city of the Indus civilisation may appear, the former residents of Harappa and the remnants of their society are today at the centre of one of the most acrimonious disputes in academia, a controversy that has allegedly led to death threats and claims of racism and cultural chauvinism.

Many experts in south Asia and elsewhere believe that symbols and marks inscribed on seals and other artefacts found here represent an as yet undeciphered language. Arguing it may be the predecessor of one of several contemporary south Asian argots, these experts say it is proof of a literate Indian society that existed more than 4,000 years ago.

But other experts based in the West say although the symbols may contain information, they are not a true language. They claim the judgement of their counterparts in south Asia may be swayed by regional nationalism.

Mohammed Hassan is curator of the museum beside the dust-blown ruins. Before leading a tour, the government official served tea and biscuits in his office and insisted the people of Harappa must have possessed a written language to store information. "If they were not literate, then how could they do so many things?" he said. "They had well-made pottery, big cities that were well-planned. They had a lot of knowledge about these things. They grew cotton, wheat, rice and barley. They traded with other cities."

The Indus civilisation covered more than 500,000 square miles and lasted, during what experts term its "mature phase", from 2,600 till 1900 BCE. The ruins, 100 miles south-west of the Pakistani city Lahore, the ruins were rediscovered in the early part of the 19th century.

The skills of its residents – at least in terms of making bricks that could endure centuries – were revealed by two British engineers, John and William Brunton, who were building the East Indian Railway Company line to connect Lahore and Karachi and needed ballast for their track. The engineers later wrote that locals told them of well-made bricks from an ancient ruined city that the villagers had made use of. With little concern for preserving the ruins, huge numbers of the Indus-era bricks were reduced to rubble and used to support the tracks heading west.

In the early 20th century, excavation of Harappa proceeded along with that of the other Indus city at Mohenjo-daro, in the south of Pakistan, and it was at that time many of the seals now on display in Mr Hassan's museum containing symbols and images of animals were discovered. And they have continued to beguile, fascinate and frustrate scientists, causing a running controversy that has played out on internet message boards, scientific papers and at academic conferences.

Like Mr Hassan, Iravatham Mahadevan, an expert in epigraphy from southern India who has been awarded the country's highest civilian award for his work, has no doubts the symbols on the Indus seals represent a genuine language. "Archaeological evidence makes it inconceivable that such a large, well-administered, and sophisticated trading society could have functioned without effective long-distance communication, which could have been provided only by writing," he wrote last year in a magazine.

"And there is absolutely no reason to presume otherwise,considering that thousands of objects, including seals, copper tablets, and pottery bear inscriptions in the same script throughout the Indus region. The script may not have been deciphered but that is no valid reason to deny its very existence."

Mr Mahadevan believes the Indus script may have been a forerunner of so-called Dravidian languages, such as Tamil, spoken today in southern India and Sri Lanka. In addition to technical clues, he says the continued existence of a Dravidian language in modern Pakistan – Brahvi, which is spoken by people in parts of Balochistan – supports his idea.

Over the years, there have been plenty of other theories both from established experts and enthusiastic amateurs. Some, with the backing of Hindu nationalists, have claimed the script may be an early Indo-European language and that remnants of it may even exist in Sanskrit, an ancient language that is the root of many present languages in north India, including Hindi. It has even been claimed the Indus script belonged to metalsmiths, and others believe it died out with the city of Harappa itself and gave rise to no successor.

Part of the problem for the experts is that, unlike for those who cracked the hieroglyphics of Egypt, there is no equivalent of the Rosetta stone, the slab of granite-like rock discovered in 1799 that contained Egyptian and Greek text. In the 1950s, academic interest in Mayan hieroglyphics intensified when experts began to study modern spoken Mayan, but for the Indus scholars there is no agreement on which, if any, modern language is the successor to their script.

In 2004, the debate was jolted into a war of words after three American scholars claimed the Indus symbols were not a language at all. In a paper provocatively subtitled The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilisation, they said there was insufficient evidence that the symbols constituted a proper language. They pointed to various factors: that there was no single long piece of text; that there was disagreement over the number of actual symbols and that other well-organised societies had been illiterate. The symbols, they argued, may well contain information in the same way that an image of a knife and fork together might represent a roadside eatery but they were not a language that could record speech.

The ensuing uproar came mainly from south Asians. One of the American scholars, Steve Farmer claimed people would approach him in tears after he gave talks and that he had even had death threats. Comments on internet discussion boards accuse him and his colleagues of trying to prove that "non-Western cultures were less advanced". Mr Farmer, who lives in California, said he believed much of the anger was driven by those wishing to promote pet theories about Dravidians, indigenous Aryan Hindus or "the general man in the street who wants to think ancient India was of the same order as Egypt or Mesopotamia. It's total rubbish". He added: "I have never seen anything like the passion that there is in India. There is not that sort of passion in the Middle East about ancient things."

More recently, the Indus controversy has been joined by a team of Indian scientists who ran computer programmes which led them to conclude the symbols almost certainly constitute a language. Central to their claims, published last year in Science, was the theory of "conditional entropy", or the measure of randomness in any sequence. Because of linguistic rules – such as in English the letter Q is almost always followed by a U – in natural languages the degree of randomness is less than in artificial languages.

One of the authors, Rajesh Rao, who was born in Hyderabad but is now based at the University of Washington, became fascinated by the Indus culture after studying it at school. His team measured the randomness with which the individual Indus symbols appeared on seals and compared that to the randomness of several natural and artificial languages. Mr Rao said it was closest to a natural language. "The Indus civilisation was larger than the ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Mesopotamian civilisations and the most advanced in terms of urban planning and trade," he said. "Yet we know little about their leaders, their beliefs, their way of life, and the way their society was organised. Many of us hope that decoding the script will provide a new voice to the Indus people."

Yet as soon as Mr Rao's team published its findings, Mr Farmer and his colleagues hit back, denouncing their conclusions and methodology. Mr Rao, whose team has since issued a detailed defence of their theory, said he was surprised at the level of contention, within south Asia and beyond, but also at some of the comments he claims Mr Farmer's group levelled at him.

So whether the Indus is a script with hidden meanings may never be deciphered. Naveed Ahmed, a 24-year-old part-time guide, whose family has lived "forever" in a village on the edge of the ruins speaks Punjabi, an Indo-Aryan language from the same family as Sanskrit. Was it possible a linguistic thread connected the language he used with what had been spoken - and possibly written – by the people who once occupied the ruined city? "I don't know if it is the same," he said. "But it's a possibility that our language came from them. It is always a possibility."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
people
News
20. Larry Page: Net worth: $23 billion; Country: U.S; Source of wealth: Google
business
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A collection of 30 Banksy prints at Bonhams auction house in London
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness