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VMs: O.T.: The Indus Script--Write or Wrong? (Science)


Science, Vol 306, Issue 5704, 2026-2029 , 17 December 2004

The Indus Script--Write or Wrong?

Andrew Lawler

For 130 years scholars have struggled to decipher the Indus script. Now, in a 
proposal with broad academic and political implications, a brash outsider 
claims that such efforts are doomed to failure because the Indus symbols are not 

Academic prizes typically are designed to confer prestige. But the latest 
proposed award, a $10,000 check for finding a lengthy inscription from the 
ancient Indus civilization, is intended to goad rather than honor. The controversial 
scholar who announced the prize last month cheekily predicts that he will 
never have to pay up. Going against a century of scholarship, he and a growing 
number of linguists and archaeologists assert that the Indus people--unlike 
their Egyptian and Mesopotamian contemporaries 4000 years ago--could not write.

That claim is part of a bitter clash among academics, as well as between 
Western scientists and Indian nationalists, over the nature of the Indus society, 
a clash that has led to shouting matches and death threats. But the 
provocative proposal, summed up in a paper published online last week, is winning 
adherents within the small community of Indus scholars who say it is time to rethink 
an enigmatic society that spanned a vast area in today's Pakistan, India, and 
Afghanistan--the largest civilization of its day.

The Indus civilization has intrigued and puzzled researchers for more than 
130 years, with their sophisticated sewers, huge numbers of wells, and a notable 
lack of monumental architecture or other signs of an elite class (see sidebar 
on p. 2027). Most intriguing of all is the mysterious system of symbols, left 
on small tablets, pots, and stamp seals. But without translations into a 
known script--the "Rosetta stones" that led to the decipherment of Egyptian 
hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform in the 19th century--hundreds of attempts to 
understand the symbols have so far failed. And what language the system might 
have expressed--such as a Dravidian language similar to tongues of today's 
southern India, or a Vedic language of northern India--is also a hot topic. This is 
no dry discussion: Powerful Indian nationalists of the Hindutva movement see 
the Indus civilization as the direct ancestor to Hindu tradition and Vedic 

[Searching for script. Richard Meadow excavates at Harappa.


Now academic outsider Steve Farmer (see sidebar on p. 2028) and two 
established Indus scholars argue that the signs are not writing at all but rather a 
collection of religious-political symbols that held together a diverse and 
multilingual society. The brevity of most inscriptions, the relative frequencies of 
symbols, and the lack of archaeological evidence of a manuscript tradition add 
up to a sign system that does not encode language, argue historian Farmer and 
his co-authors, Harvard University linguist Michael Witzel and computational 
theorist Richard Sproat of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 
Instead, they say the signs may have more in common with European medieval 
heraldry, the Christian cross, or a bevy of magical symbols used by prehistoric 

This idea has profound implications for how the Indus civilization lived and 
died. Instead of the monolithic, peaceful, and centralized empire envisioned 
by some scholars, the authors say that the new view points to a giant 
multilingual society in which a system of religious-political signs provided cohesion.

Their thesis has bitterly divided the field of Indus studies, made up of a 
small and close-knit bunch dominated by Americans. Some respected archaeologists 
and linguists flatly reject it. "I categorically disagree that the script 
does not reflect a language," says archaeologist J. Mark Kenoyer of the 
University of Wisconsin, Madison, who co-directs a dig at the key site of Harappa in 
Pakistan. "What the heck were they doing if not encoding language?" Asko 
Parpola, a linguist at Finland's University of Helsinki who has worked for decades to 
decipher the signs, says. "There is no chance it is not a script; this is a 
fully formed system. It was a phonetic script." Linguist Gregory Possehl of the 
University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia says that it is not possible to 
"prove" the script cannot be deciphered. All three argue that Farmer's thesis is 
a pessimistic and defeatist approach to a challenging problem. Meanwhile, the 
very idea that the Indus civilization was not literate is deeply offensive to 
many Indian nationalists.

Yet since a 2002 meeting at Harvard University at which Farmer laid out a 
detailed theory--and was greeted with shouts of derision--he has attracted 
important converts, including his co-authors. A growing cadre of scholars back the 
authors' approach as a fresh way to look at a vexing problem and an opportunity 
to shed new light on many of the mysteries that haunt Indus research. Harvard 
anthropologist Richard Meadow, who with Kenoyer directs the Harappa project, 
calls the paper "an extremely valuable contribution" that could cut the 
Gordian knot bedeviling the field. Sanskrit and South Asian linguist Witzel says he 
was shocked when he first heard Farmer's contention in 2001. "I thought I 
could read a few of the signs," Witzel recalls. "So I was very skeptical." Now he 
is throwing his scholarly weight behind the new thesis, as a co-author of the 
paper and also editor of the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, an online 
journal aimed at rapid publication, which published the paper. Addsarchaeologist 
Steven Weber of Washington State University in Vancouver: "Sometimes it takes 
someone from the outside to ask the really basic questions." Weber, who is 
now collaborating with Farmer, adds that "the burden of proof now has to be on 
the people who say it is writing."

Seeking the Write Stuff
Since the 1870s, archaeologists have uncovered more than 4000 Indus 
inscriptions on a variety of media. Rudimentary signs appear around 3200 B.C.E.--the 
same era in which hieroglyphics and cuneiform began to appear in Egypt and Iraq. 
By 2800 B.C.E., the signs become more durable, continuing in use in later 
periods; the greatest diversity starts to appear around 2400 B.C.E. Some signs 
are highly abstract, whereas others seem to have obvious pictographic qualities, 
such as one that looks like a fish and another that resembles a jar. Both are 
used frequently; the jar sign accounts for one in 10 symbols, says Possehl. 
As in Mesopotamia, the signs typically appear on small tablets made of clay as 
well as on stamp seals. The seals often are accompanied by images of animals 
and plants, both real and mythical.

The signs start to diminish around 1900 B.C.E. and vanish entirely by 1700 
B.C.E., when the Indus culture disappears. Oddly, the inscriptions are almost 
all found in trash dumps rather than in graves or in primary contexts such as 
the floor of a home. "They were thrown away like expired credit cards," says 

No one had ever seriously questioned whether the signs are a form of writing. 
But scholars hotly debate whether the system is phonetic like English or 
Greek or logosyllabic--using a combination of symbols that encode both sound and 
concepts--like cuneiform or hieroglyphics. Even the number of signs is 
controversial. Archaeologist and linguist S. R. Rao of India's University of Goa has 
proposed a sign list of only 20, but Harvard graduate student Bryan Wells is 
compiling a revised list now numbering 700; most estimates hover in the 400 

Farmer and colleagues reanalyzed the signs, drawing on published data from 
many sites and unpublished data from the Harappa project provided by Meadow. 
They found that the average Indus inscription, out of a total of 4000 to 5000 in 
a 1977 compilation, has 4.6 signs. The longest known inscription contains 17 
signs, and fewer than 1% are as long as 10 symbols. The authors argued that 
such short "texts" are unprecedented for actual writing. Although many scholars 
assert that longer inscriptions may have been made on perishable materials, the 
authors note that there is no archaeological evidence of the imperishable 
paraphernalia that typically accompanies literate culture, such as inkpots, rock 
inscriptions, or papermaking devices.

Farmer and colleagues also take apart a long-held assumption that the 
frequent repetition of a small number of Indus signs is evidence of a script encoding 
language. About 12% of an average English text, for example, consists of the 
letter "E," often used repeatedly in a single sentence to express a certain 
sound. In contrast, the paper notes that very few Indus symbols are repeated 
within individual inscriptions, implying that the signs do not encode sounds.

Further, the authors note that many Indus symbols are incredibly rare. Half 
of the symbols appear only once, based on Wells's catalog; three-quarters of 
the signs appear five times or fewer. According to the 1977 compilation put 
together by Iravatham Mahadevan, an Indian linguist now retired in Chennai, India, 
more than one-fourth of all signs appear only once, and more than half show 
up five times or fewer. Rarely used signs likely would not encode sound, says 
Farmer. It is as if many symbols "were invented on the fly, only to be 
abandoned after being used once or a handful of times," he, Witzel, and Sproat write.

[Short and sweet. Most Indus inscriptions are short.


Farmer believes that the symbols have nonlinguistic meaning. He speculates 
that the signs may have been considered magical--as the Christian cross can 
be--and indicated individuals or clans, cities or professions, or gods. He and his 
colleagues compare the Indus script to inscriptions found in prehistoric 
southeastern Europe around 4000 B.C.E., where the Vina culture produced an array 
of symbols often displayed in a linear form, including a handful used 

But these conclusions are not accepted by key archaeologists and linguists 
who have spent their careers digging at Harappa or trying to decipher the 
symbols. "Regularities in the frequency and distribution of signs are possible only 
in a linguistic script," says Mahadevan. Wells is more blunt. "He is utterly 
wrong," he says of Farmer. "There is something you recognize as an epigrapher 
immediately, such as long linear patterns."

As to the brevity of inscriptions, Wells says averages can be misleading. The 
longer Indus inscriptions, he says, can't be explained as magical symbols. 
Vina symbols, for example, rarely are grouped in numbers greater than five. "And 
you don't get repetitive ordering" as with Indus signs, he adds. "The Indus 
script is a highly patterned, highly ordered system with a syntax--it just 
looks too much like writing." Wells also says that a mere 30 signs are used only 
once, rather than the 1000 Farmer postulates, because many of the "singletons" 
transform into compound signs used repeatedly.

Parpola agrees that the pattern of symbols argues for an organized script. 
"There are a limited number of standardized signs, some repeated hundreds of 
times--with the same shape, recurring combinations, and regular lines," he says. 
But Wells and Parpola, like most linguists in the field, agree on little 
beyond their opposition to Farmer. Wells rejects Parpola's method of deciphering 
the signs, and Parpola dismisses Wells's contention that there are significant 
differences between the signs of upper and lower Indus.

Wells and some other scholars believe that the attraction of Farmer's idea 
has less to do with science than with the long history of decipherment failures. 
"Some have turned to this idea that it is not writing out of frustration," he 

[Sign or script? Farmer says Indus seals (left), like Vina signs (right) are 
not writing.


But many others are convinced that Farmer, Witzel, and Sproat have found a 
way to move away from sterile discussions of decipherment, and they find few 
flaws in their arguments. "They have settled the issue for me," says George 
Thompson, a Sanskrit scholar at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, 
Massachusetts. "We have the work of a comparative historian, a computational linguist, and 
a Vedicist," he adds. "Together they have changed the landscape regarding the 
whole question." In a forthcoming book on South Asian linguistic archaeology, 
Frank Southworth of the University of Pennsylvania calls the paper an 
"unexpected solution" to the old troubles with decipherment.

Meanwhile, Farmer is injecting a bit of fun into the melee. "Find us just one 
inscription with 50 symbols on it, in repeating symbols in the kinds of 
quasi-random patterns associated with true scripts, and we'll consider our model 
falsified," he wrote on a listserve devoted to the Indus. And he is putting his 
money--or, rather, that of a donor he won't reveal--where his mouth is, 
promising the winner $10,000. The orthodox dismiss the prize as grandstanding, 
whereas Farmer boasts that "no one is ever going to collect that money."

Each side clearly has far to go to convince its opponents. "I'm not sure the 
case is strong enough on either side," says linguist Hans Hock of the 
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "Let each side of the controversy make their 

Yet there already is a retreat from earlier claims that the Indus symbols 
represent a full-blown writing system and that they encoded speech. Many scholars 
such as Possehl now acknowledge that the signs likely are dominated by names 
of places, people, clans, plants, and gods rather than by the narratives found 
in ancient Sumer or Egypt. They say the script may be more similar to the 
first stages of writing in those lands. Harvard archaeologist Carl 
Lamberg-Karlovsky says the meanings of the Indus signs likely are "impenetrable and 
imponderable" and adds that whether or not the signs are considered writing, they 
clearly are a form of communication--and that is what really counts. Recent 
research in Central and South America has highlighted how complex societies 
prospered without traditional writing, such as the knotted strings or khipu of the 
vast Incan empire (Science, 2 July, p. 30).

[Literacy promoter. J. Mark Kenoyer, on the dig at Harappa, thinks Indus 
signs are script.


Farmer adds that a society does not need to be literate to be complex. "A 
big, urban civilization can be held together without writing," he says. He and 
his co-authors suggest that the Indus likely had many tongues and was a rich mix 
of ethnicities like India today. Wells has found marked differences between 
signs in the upper and lower Indus River regions, backing up the theory of a 
more diverse society. But some, such as D. P. Agrawal, an independent 
archaeologist based in Almora, India, doubt that a civilization spread over more than 1 
million square kilometers, and with uniform weights, measures, and developed 
trade, could manage its affairs without a script.

This debate over Indus literacy has political as well as academic 
consequences. "This will be seen as an attack on the greatness of Indian 
civilization--which would be unfortunate," says Shereen Ratnagar, a retired archaeologist who 
taught at Delhi's Nehru University. Tension is already high between some 
Western and Indian scholars and Indian nationalists. "Indologists are at war with 
the Hindutva polemicists," says statistical linguist Lars Martin Fosse of the 
University of Oslo, and the issue of the script "is extremely sensitive." 
Farmer says he regularly receives e-mail viruses and death threats from Indian 
nationalists who oppose his views.

For decades, Indus researchers have tended to stick with their established 
positions, as on the script, a tendency that has kept the field from moving 
forward, says one archaeologist who compares the small cadre of Indus scholars to 
a "dysfunctional family" with a proclivity for secrecy, ideological positions, 
and intolerance. Meadow is among those who argue that it is time to set aside 
old ideas, no matter how much time and effort has been invested in them, in 
order to push the field forward. "We're here to do science, and it is always 
valuable to have new models," he says. Adds Ratnagar: "We must get back to an 
open mind." Given the strong emotions swirling around the Indus symbols, 
discovering the key to that open mind may prove the hardest code to break. 

Volume 306, Number 5704, Issue of 17 Dec 2004, pp. 2026-2029.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. 
All rights reserved. 



Science, Vol 306, Issue 5704, 2028 , 17 December 2004

Outsider Revels in Breaking Academic Taboos
Andrew Lawler

Steve Farmer describes himself as "the ultimate collaborationist," but he has 
a way of making enemies. When he showed up at a 2002 Harvard University 
gathering to propose that the Indus script is no script at all, participants recall 
that his ideas were greeted with shouts of derision. And his positions on the 
role of the Indus civilization in Indian history have earned him a place in 
the demonology of Indian nationalists.

Yet despite what many call an abrasive personality, this former street kid 
from Chicago, who lacks a high school diploma, has shaken up the closed field of 
Indus studies (see main text). "It is healthy the way this is turning things 
upside down," says archaeologist Steven Weber of Washington State University 
in Vancouver.

Farmer's linguistic ability got him off the streets when he joined the Army 
in the 1960s. After learning Russian at the military's language school in 
Monterey, California, he worked for the National Security Agency listening in on 
the conversations of Soviet pilots. Then, radicalized by the Vietnam War, he 
left the military for academia. After winning a high school equivalency diploma, 
he studied history at the University of Maryland, College Park, and earned a 
Ph.D. in comparative cultural history at Stanford University in California. He 
taught history of science and European history at George Mason University 
outside Washington, D.C., and then moved to Louisiana State University in Baton 
Rouge as a tenure-track professor. But he says he rejected full-time academic 
life to avoid teaching courses he found boring and moved back to California, 
where he was on the adjunct faculty at Ohlone College in Fremont until 1997. To 
support his scholarly pursuits, Farmer has edited a journal on narcolepsy, 
worked on a PGA golf tournament training program, and helped develop a device to 
aid people with brain disorders.

In 1999, after putting together a model of cross-cultural frameworks for 
premodern history using ancient China as an example, he turned his attention to 
India. "I didn't know anything about this stuff," he says. "I was the naïve 
outsider too dumb not to recognize the field's taboos." But he was struck by the 
brevity of Indus inscriptions and unconvinced by the many efforts to decipher 
the symbols. He didn't hesitate to poke fun at Indian nationalists who 
attempted their own decipherments and who promulgated theories connecting the Indus to 
Hindu culture. "I still get death threats daily," he says. "And I'm careful 
about opening packages from India." He also was irritated by what he calls 
archaeologists' proclivity to "hoard data."

"He can be abrasive and aggressive, and many in the field find him 
presumptuous," says linguist George Thompson of Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, 
Massachusetts. At the 2002 Harvard meeting, a few of the academics present 
hooted Farmer off the stage. "People were literally screaming," Farmer recalls. 
Nonetheless, his arguments ultimately impressed Harvard anthropologist Richard 
Meadow, who granted him access to unpublished Harappa data. "Steve stepped in 
and did an enormous amount of work" on the Harappa data, says Thompson.

His arrogance makes him hard for some scholars to get along with. "I've 
remade the field," he recently boasted. Others resent his methods. "He uses verbose 
arguments," says archaeologist J. Mark Kenoyer of the University of 
Wisconsin, Madison, co-director of the Harappa dig. "And he's not basing it on 
science." Adds linguist Gregory Possehl of the University of Pennsylvania in 
Philadelphia, "I don't think his ideas are interesting or viable, and I'm surprised 
they have raised interest." At this point, however, that interest is undeniable, 
so Indus specialists are making room, albeit reluctantly, for a new member of 
their small family. But the intellectually peripatetic Farmer insists he will 
not make himself at home: "This is just a chapter in my book."

Volume 306, Number 5704, Issue of 17 Dec 2004, p. 2028.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. 
All rights reserved. 
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