On Sarasvati as mighty glacier fed river ... (was: Re: On Indus Civ. signs)

Jan Houben j_e_m_houben at YAHOO.COM
Sat Apr 25 07:09:30 UTC 2009

Dear Michael, 
This and the German article of your next message contain nothing new but are, indeed, interesting exercises in rhetorics. 
Since "even" you seem to accept that the Sarasvati "once upon a time" was a mighty river almost as big as the Indus, the following research (publ. in Current Science 2004 vol. 87, no. 8) would in my view deserve more critical attention. Acording to it the Ghaggar (even by you identified as the [late] Sarasvati of Vedic texts) NEVER WAS A SNOW FED RIVER because "Sr and Nd isotopic composition of the Ghaggar alluvium as well as Thar Desert sediments suggests a Sub-Himalayan sediment source, with no contribution from the glaciated regions". According to a friend in archeology who has nothing to do with the Sarasvati debate (and does not work on South Asia) the research looks solid and the conclusion compelling. 
Are there any comments, discussions on this, as it seems, quite crucial research? Or has it been overlooked as it does not conveniently suit any party's rhetorics? 
An earlier research by Y. Enzel, et al. on Holocene environmental changes in the Thar desert (Science 284, 125 (1999)) perhaps points in the same direction. 
Received 12 March 2004; revised accepted 14 June 2004 
Is River Ghaggar, Saraswati? 
Geochemical constraints 
Jayant K. Tripathi1,*, Barbara Bock2, 
V. Rajamani1 and A. Eisenhauer2 
1School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 
New Delhi 110 067, India
2IFM-GEOMAR, Leibniz-Institut für Meereswissenschaften, 
Wischhofstrasse, 1-3, D-24148 Kiel, Germany
The identity of the river along which the famous 
Harappan Civilization developed and the causes of the 
demise of this culture are topics of considerable debate. 
Many of the Harappan sites are located along 
the ephemeral Ghaggar river within the Thar Desert 
*For correspondence. (e-mail: jktrip at yahoo.com) 
On Fri, Apr 24, 2009 at 11:44 PM, Michael Witzel <witzel at fas.harvard.edu> wrote:
Dear All,
A propos yesterday's SCIENCE article <http://www.sciencemag.org.>
 "Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script."
By Rajesh P. N. Rao, Nisha Yadav, Mayank N. Vahia, Hrishikesh Joglekar, R. Adhikari and Iravatham Mahadevan. Science, Vol. 324 Issue 5926, April 24, 2009.  (In the Brevia section: Published Online April 23, 2009; Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1170391)
This less than 2 page paper is based on *invented* data;  however, this fact appears only if you actually read the additional materials, not easily available, unless you have a subscription:
Its conclusions about 'script', language, etc. therefore are baseless, wrong and misleading:
Garbage in, garbage out, as  has been reported by www.newscientist.com..
Instead, see our (S. Farmer, R. Sproat, M. Witzel) brief refutation, published on the same day as the Rao paper, at:
Rao et al. somehow managed to get through the review process at Science, though it took them 4 months to do so.
They did so by failing to indicate in their  paper proper that their "representative examples of nonlinguistic signs"  are *made-up* corpora..  These "non-linguistic signs" lie at the center of their argument (i..e., that Indus signs are *not*  nonlinguistic).  But, their Type 1 and Type 2 systems of signs (tokens) are radically different from anything found in the real world.
If they had said that openly in their paper the paper would never have been published.
And, if the press releases had noted that people would not  have been misled.
Instead, they barely indicate the "assumed" nature of their data, and this only in their online "Supplemental Information", which very few people will see -- and certainly not those who merely follow the current news and internet tsunami.
If they had calculated the 'conditional entropy' (certain signs necessarily following others) of ANY *real* nonlinguistic symbol system, they would instead have found that there are frequent statistical overlaps with linguistic systems. Not unexpectedly also with the Indus symbols. In fact, real world nonlinguistic signs will fall somewhere in the middle: no sign system is either totally disordered or totally disordered.
We (Farmer, Sproat, WItzel) have already shown precisely that for symbol frequencies in our 2004 paper that they supposedly refute. See:  <http://www.safarmer/fsw2.pdf> (see the chart on p. 27)
Again, if they had calculated the entropy of any genuine, not made up, "representative nonlinguistic symbols" they would have found that they looked much like writing as well. Take a look the  Scottish heraldic signs in our paper.
There are many more technical arguments than the ones we list in our little Refutation -- involving gross misuse of the concept of conditional entropy, language structure, attestation and localization of ancient Sumerian, Vedic and Tamil, etc.  -- that we can lay out in a little piece later.
In the margin: the  Rao, et al. paper is depends on an article by Claude Shannon "A Mathematical Theory of Communication," in The Bell System Technical Journal 27 (1948), pp 379-423 and 623-656. See the employment
of the phrase: "conditional entropy."
Rao, et.al., however, do not even bother to give the title of this article in their bibliography. The Shannon article is available here (see esp. pp. 14-15 of that study):

More to come SOON.
Amusingly, even A. Parpola, who has spent most of his career on the 'decipherment' of the Indus signs, the  so-called Indus script, comments:
"It's a useful paper," said University of Helsinki archaeologist Asko Parpola, an authority on Indus scripts, "but it doesn't really further our understanding of the script."
Parpola said the primary obstacle confronting decipherers of fragmentary Indus scripts — the difficulty of testing their hypotheses — remains unchanged." (see:  <http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/04/indusscript.html>)
And the Guardian, in rather garbled fashion, has him say:
""Language is one of the hallmarks of a literate civilisation. If it's real writing, we have a chance to know their language and to get to know more about their religion and other aspects of their culture. We don't have any literature from the region that can be understood."
To my mind at least, language is a hallmark of ANY human culture, whether hunter-gatherer or state society...
Others however, who too have  been heavily involved in this futile exercise, such as the Indus archaeologist M. Kenoyer, are even less cautious:
"J. Mark Kenoyer, a linguist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says Rao's paper is worth publishing, but time will tell if the technique sheds light on the nature of Indus script. "At present they are lumping more than 700 years of writing into one data set," he says. "I am actually going to be working with them on the revised analysis, and we will see how similar or different it is from the current results." <http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17012-scholars-at-odds-over-mysterious-indus-script.html>
None of them, apparently, has read the supplementary materails carefully. O si tacuisses...
I will tell him so in our May Round Table at Kyoto, where Indus specialists will get together from Japan, S. Asia, America. Perhaps he will then rethink this "working together" with them...
By the way,  Kenoyer is an earth digging archaeologist, not a linguist --  not  by any stretch of imagination :^)

Conclusion: read the "footnotes" carefully, not the hype.

Michael Witzel
witzel at fas.harvard.edu
Dept. of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University
1 Bow Street,
Cambridge MA 02138, USA
phone: 1- 617 - 495 3295 (voice & messages), 496 8570, fax 617 - 496 8571;
my direct line:  617- 496 2990
Prof. Dr. Jan E.M. Houben,
Directeur d Etudes « Sources et Histoire de la Tradition Sanskrite »
Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, SHP,
A la Sorbonne,45-47, rue des Ecoles,
75005 Paris -- France. 
JEMHouben at gmail.com


More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list