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Harappa Archives - Page 11 of 12 - varnamvarnam | Page 11
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Tag Archives | Harappa

The Markov Model of Indus Script

(From a Tantra t-shirt)

There is a school of thought which believes that the Harappan seals convey something linguistic; after all they had extensive trade contacts with literate Mesopotamia. Thus it is possible that these symbols — found on seals, pottery, terracota tablets — convey data regarding the origin of the consignment or owner. Then there is another school which believes that, yes, the seals had some meaning, but definitely not linguistic; maybe they were political or religious symbols.

As this battle continues — much like the one over the Aryan homeland — a new paper has been published, which analyzes the sequential dependencies between the symbols. In English we know that the the letter “s” is most likely to be followed by “e” or “o” or “u” than “x” or “z”. Similarly in the Harappan seals it was found that given a symbol, only a subset of the symbols could follow it. This order can happen only if there are some rules regarding the placement.

To find out if this model could predict the missing or illegible symbols in a damaged seal, a known data set was intentionally damaged. The model could predict the missing symbol with 74% accuracy. Also analysis of Harappan seals found in Mesopotamia and West Asia found that they were of a different encoding; maybe they represent different subject matter.

Our results appear to favor the hypothesis that the Indus script represents a linguistic writing system. Our Markov analysis of sign sequences, although restricted to pairwise statistics, makes it clear that the signs do not occur in a random manner within inscriptions but appear to follow certain rules: (i) some signs have a high probability of occurring at the beginning of inscriptions whereas others almost never occur at the beginning; and (ii) for any particular sign, there are signs that have a high probability of occurring after that sign and other signs that have negligible probability of occurring after the same sign. Furthermore, signs appear to fall into functional classes in terms of their position within an Indus text, where a particular sign can be replaced by another sign in its equivalence class. Such rich syntactic structure is hard to reconcile with a nonlinguistic system. Additionally, our finding that the script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia argues against the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols [A Markov model of the Indus script]

Now it turns out that Soviets and Finns had done such studies in the 60s and reached the same conclusion: there is a positional order in Indus symbols. What’s unique about this new study is that it uses the Markov model for the first time.

This paper does not decipher the script, but is work which hopefully will lead to an acceptable decipherment. The word “acceptable” is used because there are many decipherments right now, but without scholarly consensus. But what the paper suggests is that the symbols, most likely, encode a linguistic system and not religious or political symbols.

This work, like the previous one , has got extensive media coverage, with even the Time, writing about it. But anything connected to the Indus is controversial and this paper is no different: first the authors were accused of being Tamil/Dravidian nationalists and once that was found to be incorrect, it was about the deteriorating editorial standards in various journals. In response Prof. Dilip K Chakrabarti wrote, “There is a conscious attempt in certain quarters to disassociate this civilisation from the later mainstream tradition of Indian/ Vedic culture.”

Historically, the beginning of this attempt can be traced to the period around India’s Independence when Mortimer Wheeler proposed that the impetus for this civilisation came from Mesopotamia. Earlier, when India was a jewel in the British crown, there was no compulsion to depict it as an offshoot of Mesopotamian or other contemporary civilisations. The early excavators had no problem hypothesising that this civilisation was deeply rooted in the Indian soil and that many of its features could be explained with reference to the later Indian civilisation. [From Indus to India]

Besides this political side show, there is a serious question: is this method sufficient to show that the Indus seals represent a linguistic system? Can such statistical studies prove or disprove that the symbols represent a language.?  The answer depends on whom you ask.

On the other hand, if you believe that the symbols are non-linguistic, there is another question: why would the Harappans send non-linguistic symbols on seals, created on hard to work materials, with a certain syntax to their trading partners to the West and North. What was the relevance and what non-linguistic information did it convey to someone in Mesopotamia?

Comments { 9 }

A 4000 year old Leper's Tale

Dead men usually tell no tales; but a 4000 year old skeleton from Balathal, Rajasthan (40 km north east of Udaipur) has revealed some fascinating tales.

This skeleton, of a man who probably was 35+/-10 years and 5’10”, was found in a settlement which flourished from 3700 – 1820 BCE; the people there had pottery and copper and cultivated barley as well as wheat. He was buried between 2500 – 2000 BCE — much before the decline of the Harappan civilization — and was a leper. In fact, this skeleton is the oldest example of leprosy in the world.

But he was not Harappan: he belonged to the Ahar-Banas culture. In the Mewar region of Rajasthan, hunter-gatherers developed farming communities in the middle of the fifth millennium BCE, independent of the Harappan culture. By around 2500 BCE, they became prosperous and had fortified settlements, roads, and lanes. Also, the earliest burned brick (4000 BCE) was found in Gilund at this site[2].

By 2500 BCE, Ahars had trade relations with the Harappans to the north. They also had trade relations with their contemporaries in South and Central India and the skeleton confirms it. This skeleton was buried with vitrified ash from cow dung. So far the Southern Neolithic ash mounds found in South Deccan and North Dharwar were believed to be cattle settlements or the result of  cow dung disposal. Now we can speculate that they were the result of funeral activities of a shared tradition.

Besides this domestic connection, these people had international contacts as well. There are two strains of leprosy: an Asian one and an East African one. It is possible that the African one was transmitted to Asia around 40,000 BCE or vice versa at a much later date. The second one seems to have happened since lerosy depends on human contact and it must been transmitted over the trading network involving the Ahars, Harappans,people of Magan, Mesopotamians and Egyptians.

This skeleton fits well with  the Atharva Veda (Hymn 23, 24) making it the earliest historical reference to leprosy. The Ebers papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE has been interpreted to contain evidence of leprosy, but the earliest affected skeleton found in Egypt has been dated only to 400 – 250 BCE.

Another point is regarding the burial; after 2000 BCE, burial was uncommon except for some special cases like infants and spiritual people. Harappan skeletons were both cremated — there is evidence at Sanauli at least — and buried, but true burials are very few compared to expected numbers. Many archaeologists believe that cremation must have been widely practised by Harappans. Also, at Dholavira and other sites, dozens of graves turned out to be without any bones which implies symbolic burials.

It is believed that the burial at Balathal followed the Vedic tradition: lepers were buried alive in some parts of India. Also there is evidence that diseased bodies were sometimes not cremated.

Two other skeletons were also obtained from Balathal, but of a later date[3]. They were found in the padmasana or samadhi posture — a striking evidence of yoga practice and burial of people perhaps regards as spiritually advanced. Even now in India, spiritually advanced people are not cremated, but buried.

(One of the skeletons from Balathal in samadhi posture)

Also:

The excavations reveal a large number of bull figurines indicating the Ahar people worshipped the bull [6]. At Marmi, a site near Chittorgarh, these figures have been found in abundance indicating it could be a regional shrine of the bull cult of this rural population. Discovery of cow-like figurines in Ojiyana, the first site found on the slope of a hill, has baffled archaeologists. Cow-worship was not a known Ahar practice. “There are no humps and we can see small teats,” B.R.Meena, superintendent, ASI Jaipur circle, who undertook the excavation, says, “These are certainly cows.” Other archaeologists suspect them to be bull calves but insist if further studies prove these to be cows, one could infer that the cow was a revered animal and the Hindu practice of treating the cow as a holy animal can thus be of pre-Aryan antiquity. [Were they cow worshippers?]

Vedic burial, skeletons in samadhi posture, cow worship in a civilization contemporary with Harappa —- does this imply that the Ahar-Banas were Vedic people or Ahar culture was adopted by later Vedic culture or Ahars adopted it from an earlier Vedic culture?

The large number of bull figurines found at Ahar and Gilund could indicate a bull cult[6]. There is a debate over if the figurines represent bulls or cows, but these figurines were part of the second phase of the Ahar culture (2100 – 1800 BCE) or as late as 1600 BCE [7] and are the only clue to the religious beliefs of the Ahars[8].

Another clue is the time frame of these skeletons. While the leper was dated to 2000 BCE, the skeletons in samadhi were from700 BCE[9]. So while the leper burial was unusual, there is nothing unusual about burying a man in samadhi posture by the Early Historical Period.

While the bull figurines and the skeletons in samadhi were known earlier, this leper skeleton has added new information about this less known culture. Hopefully as more papers come out, we will get a clear picture on their religious beliefs, such as if this Vedic burial was an exception or a common practice.

Notes:

  1. This post is based on [4]. Many thanks to Michel Danino for information and images of the samadhi skeletons and Harappan burials. Also thanks to Gwen Robbins, the primary author of [2, 4], for patiently answering many questions.

Reference:

  1. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective by Gregory L. Possehl
  2. A panel on the The Cultural Diversity of Northwestern South Asia at the time of the Indus Civilization convened by Prof. Gregory Possehl (University of Pennsylvania) and Prof. Vasant Shinde: Deccan College
  3. Gwen Robbins, Veena Mushrif, V.N. Misra, R.K. Mohanty and V.S. Shinde, Human Skeletal Remains from Balathal: a Full Report and Inventory, Man and Environment, XXXII(2) 2007, pp. 1-25.
  4. Ancient Skeletal Evidence for Leprosy in India (2000 B.C.), Gwen Robbins et al.
  5. Piecing the Ahar Puzzle by Rohit Parihar
  6. Encyclopedia of Prehistory: South and Southwest Asia By Peter Neal Peregrine
  7. Tribal roots of Hinduism By Shiv Kumar Tiwari
  8. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan by Bridget Allchin
  9. The skeletons have also been dated all way back to 1800 BCE
Comments { 11 }

Smithsonian on Indus Script

Ever since Rao et al. published that the Indus script showed the structure of a formal language, a new debate on the topic was initiated. There were some hostile reactions to this paper. Now, Smithsonian has published an article on the topic which presents the findings in a positive way.

After publishing the paper, Rao got a surprise. The question of which language family the script belongs to, it turns out, is a sensitive one: because of the Indus civilization’s age and significance, many contemporary groups in India would like to claim it as a direct ancestor. For instance, the Tamil-speaking Indians of the south would prefer to learn that the Indus script was a kind of proto-Dravidian, since Tamil is descended from proto-Dravidian. Hindi speakers in the north would rather it be an old form of Sanskrit, an ancestor of Hindi. Rao’s paper doesn’t conclude which language family the script belongs to, though it does note that the conditional entropy is similar to Old Tamil—causing some critics to summarily “accuse us of being Dravidian nationalists,” says Rao. “The ferocity of the accusations and attacks was completely unexpected.” [Can Computers Decipher a 5,000-Year-Old Language?]

Comments { 3 }

A Talk on Indus People and their Script

In April 2009, “a team of Indian scientists reports in Friday’s issue of Science journal that the Indus script has a structured sign system showing features of a formal language.” One of the authors of that paper is giving a talk at IISc on June 9th at 10 am (e-mail from Ranjith).

NIAS LITERARY, ARTS AND HERITAGE FORUM
Cordially invites you to a lecture entitled
Indus People and their script
By
Prof. Mayank Vahia
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai
On Tuesday, 9th June, 2009, at 10.00 am
in
J R D Tata Auditorium,
National Institute of Advanced Studies,
Indian Institute of Science Campus,
Bangalore 560 012

Abstract

Indus Valley Civilisation was the first truly urban civilisation with  several cities with population of 20,000 people or more at its peak. It  flourished in the Western part of the Indian Subcontinent from around 7000  BC to 1900 BC with a peak period of 2500 BC to 1900 BC when it went into a  decline. The hallmark of this civilisation is the miniature seals on which  they produced truly magnificent art work and wrote in small cryptic notes.  Their writing has been enigmatic and since their first discovery some 130  years ago, it is still not clear if it is linguistic writing or not. Our  recent work has shown that not only is the writing similar to linguistic  writing but detailed structure of writing can be clearly seen. We will  discuss the issue of Indus writing in the context of the Civilisation and  our recent work.

About the speaker

Prof. Mayank Vahia is an astronomer at the Tata Institute of Fundamental  Research, Mumbai. After having spent 3 decades in space astronomy  instrumentation, his recent interests in growth of astronomy in India has  taken him to study various aspects of India’s history and prehistory with  special emphasis on astronomy and intellectual growth of the Indian  civilisation.

Hope some of you will be able to attend this talk and blog about it.

Comments { 2 }

Hostile Reactions

In 2004, the Dover, Pennysylvania, school board decided to teach students an alternative to evolution called Intelligent Design.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.[Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District]

Promptly a law suit was filed and an opening witness at the trial was Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biologist and leading proponent of evolution. During the trial he had to face not just the lawyers, but the public as well. Lot of people expressed hostile reactions — via letters, via e-mails, via phone. He was told he would spend eternity in hell. He was told he was not respecting God. He was asked how he could be a Christian and believe Darwin — all from folks who read the book of Genesis literally[1].

Such hostility exists not just between scientists and people who want to enforce their religious beliefs on others, but also between proponents of the Aryan migration/trickle down theory and non-believers. Anyone who opposes the external origins of Aryans can pick one of these labels: “Hindu fundamentalist”, “revisionist” or “fascist”. Any supporter of the external origins of Aryans is either a “colonialist-missionary” or one who harbors “racist-hegemonial” prejudices.[2] Edwin Bryant’s The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate has a great collection of polemical reactions from both sides.

This is one of those debates where even tenured professors do what Jamal did to watch his favorite actor. Also this kind of language is common in Indian History mailing lists where proponents of various theories display juvenile behavior to much amusement. If you think, quite naively, that to demolish a theory you just to counter the interpretation of data, you are wrong. Not in this field. So when a recent paper on Indus script was published, it was countered with the statement (among other things) that the authors of the paper are Dravidian nationalists.

Before 2004, the Rao et al. paper would not have gathered any attention. (Of course the Indus system is a language script! Why are you discussing it?) But that year, Steve Farmer managed to persuade two others — one of whom, Michael Witzel, is a well-respected authority in the field — to add their names to his thesis that it is not a language. The resulting manuscript was absurdly and unprofessionally bombastic in its language, while containing essentially nothing convincing. Regardless of the work of Rao et al, their hypothesis would have died a natural death — but Rao et al do have Farmer et al to thank for enabling them to publish their work, with its obvious conclusions, in a prestigious journal like Science. Farmer et al are so rattled that they promptly post an incoherent, shrill, content-free, ad hominem rant on Farmer’s website. Sproat even shows up on my previous post, leaving a chain of comments that reveal that he has neither understood, nor cares to understand, the argument. [More Indus thoughts and links]

As Kenneth Miller writes in his book,  finally bad science will fail. Intelligent Design was thrown out by the courts since the advocates could not present any peer-reviewed articles or evidence for intelligent design or proof of scientific research or testing. The Aryan Invasion Theory was discredited and discarded and now the Illiterate Harappan hypothesis is being questioned. No amount of polemics can stop that.

Now compare that to a response by Iravatham Mahadevan

References:

  1. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth Miller
  2. A Survey of Hinduism by Klaus K. Klostermaier
  3. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate by Edwin Bryant
Comments { 5 }