The Indus valley civilization flourished some 6000 years ago over a large part of what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwestern India. It was one of the most advanced and urbanized civilizations of its time, and left us with quite a few enduring mysteries to chew on, including the mystery of the Indus script. In the 150 odd years since the ruins of Harappa were first described and samples of the Indus script started showing up on archeological finds (principally seals), no one has been able to figure out (a) whether it’s a real language (b) if it is, what the script stands for.
Among the problems that make this hard are the fact that no one has a clue what the underlying language is (is it an early version of some Brahmi language, is it Dravidian, Aramaic, Martian?) is; the length of the inscriptions that have been found is very very short (about 5 signs on an average, imagine if most English sentences were 5 letters or words long!); and there isn’t the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone that would help in matching the Indus script with the words from some known language of the time.
Quite apart from the debate on what family of languages the script belongs to, there is a serious disagreement on whether the script actually represents an underlying oral language, or is it merely a bunch of pictures or pictograms. There are at least 2 camps that make incompatible claims about it, and there has been much to-ing and fro-ing in the internet and elsewhere about this riddle.
For one, the pictogram fans hold that all sufficiently advanced, literate civilizations made sure that they wrote loads and loads of stuff on non-perishable things like pots, stones, pyramids etc. (and not just on flimsy manuscripts), and it’s just mind-boggling that there isn’t a single such artifact from the Indus civilization. Au contraire one of the script advocates’ claims is that it’s well nigh impossible to create and sustain such an advanced level of urban civilization, without the use of writing for record keeping. Both arguments sound equally plausible. In passing, we note that the Inca civilization was huge and complicated, and seemed to do fine without a system of writing (although they did have a sophisticated way of record keeping via counting).
The latest bout of punching started in April this year, when a number of Indian scholars including (as far as I can tell) at least one historian, linguist and computer scientist, published a paper (paid download) in Science magazine. They used the methods from computer science and statistics to examine the known corpus of the script and compared it against other known languages (including programming languages) and concluded that in all probability it represents and underlying language. The paper goes so far as to say that the highest degree of correlation is with Old Tamil.
This was promptly refuted (PDF) by the pictogram folk, who not too subtly suggested that the authors of the paper have Tamil/Dravidian nationalist axes to grind, which explains their motivation. In the rarefied heights of historical studies and computer science, the equivalent of an Akshay-Kumar-unzipping-on-catwalk level controversy has been going on (all parties seem to have taken a breather for a bit to lick their wounds). There’s a very useful post that gets into some detail on how exactly one can hope to determine from a random set of symbols whether we’re looking at a language or not. There’s an absorbing discussion in the comments section, if you have the time and appetite for this sort of thing.
As it stands, the baseline rally between the various factions continues. It doesn’t seem like we’re much closer to getting to the bottom of the mystery. One may wonder why the language of a people now dead 6 millenia should matter in this day and age. Alas, if things were only that simple. Given that there are so many conflicting groupings of people based on race, religion, caste, nationality, dietary preference and what not jostling for their ”rightful” place in the world, we’re only half a step away from one of these groups using historical ”facts” to make claims that affect the present.
The Dravidian nationalist (her north Indian and western interlocutors will say) is just looking to fudge the data to prove that the Indian subcontinent was originally Dravidian, and that all the northies are ”outsiders”. The Hindu supremacists need to prove that the Indus civilization is a Sanskritic (or whatever) civilization, and thus show the continuity of our ”hoary traditions” from time immemorial, not to mention prove that it all happened here first, and there was no Aryan migration/invasion into India. Western academia (say the pro-Aryans-germinated-in-India wallahs) just wants to belittle the contribution of ”Indic” civilization to the world, and it’s all a gigantic conspiracy to keep Hindus away from their rightful legacy.
Seems like the lay person can’t do much other than remember that everyone has an axe to grind, and while one needn’t reject everything everyone says out of hand as being motivated by extraneous, non-academic/scientific reasons, it’s good to examine the evidence keeping in mind who is doing the analysis.