The Indus script - lost perishable manuscripts

Asko Parpola asko.parpola at HELSINKI.FI
Mon Apr 27 16:33:51 UTC 2009

Quoting "Steve Farmer" <saf at SAFARMER.COM>:

The implausibility of the view that the so-called Indus script was  
true writing is suggested in many ways that do not require  
sophisticated analyses. The simplest argument is the best: the sheer  
brevity of the inscriptions. We possess thousands of inscribed Indus  
objects on a wide range of materials. The average inscription is 4-5  
symbols long and the longest, found on a highly anomalous piece,  
carries 17. Before our paper, the lack of real texts was explained  
away by invoking the purely speculative image of lost perishable  
manuscripts. The speculation was spurious: we know of hundreds of  
literate societies, but not of one that wrote long texts on perishable  
materials but failed to do so as well on durable goods. It is  
interesting that simple arguments like this have been ignored by  
defenders of the traditional view, who often hold that view for  
reasons that have nothing to do with science.


Steve Farmer here goes on repeating arguments published in 2004,  
claiming that "simple arguments like this have been ignored by  
defenders of the traditional view, who often hold that view for  
reasons that have nothing to do with science". Farmer thus forces me  
to this reply, given to make it easy to the members of the list to  
check if this is true or not. In my paper of 2008 referred to by  
Pankaj Jain and available for download at I  
list all the main theses of Farmer & Co. and reply to them one by one.  
(In addition I discuss some important issues not touched by Farmer &  
Co.) Below is a quote from pp. 117-118 exemplifying how I replied to  
this "Lost longer texts (manuscripts) never existed" thesis. Please  
note that the Harappans wrote on stone in their stamp seals, and that  
the Mesopotamian seal inscriptions are often equally short. Later on  
in the article I mention that the type of texts I expect to be lost is  
exemplified by the Mycenaean Linear B tablets, i.e. economic accounts,  
not literature, which was probably handed down orally, and even in  
Mesopotamia was written down at a relatively late date. The rest of  
this message consists of the quote from my paper.

With best regards, Asko Parpola


*"Lost" longer texts (manuscripts) never existed*

All literary civilizations produced longer texts but there are none  
from the Indus Valley — hence the Indus script is no writing system:  
Farmer and his colleagues reject the much repeated early assumption  
that longer texts may have been written on birch bark, palm leaves,  
parchment, wood, or cotton cloth, any of which would have perished in  
the course of ages as suggested by Sir John Marshall in 1931 (I, 39).  
Farmer and his colleagues are ready to believe the Indus script thesis  
only if an Indus text at least 50 signs long is found.

*But* even though Farmer and his colleagues speak as if our present  
corpus of texts was everything there ever existed, this is not the  
case. More than 2100 Indus texts come from Mohenjo-daro alone, and yet  
less than one tenth of that single city has been excavated. Farmer and  
his colleagues do not know what has existed and what may be found in  
the remaining parts of the city, even if it is likely that only  
imperishable material of the kinds already available continue to be  
found. The Rongo-Rongo tablets of Easter Island are much longer than  
50 signs. But does this make it certain that they represent writing in  
the strict sense?

Seed evidence shows that cotton has been cultivated in Greater Indus  
Valley since Chalcolithic times, and cotton cloth is supposed to have  
been one of the main export items of the Harappans. Yet all the  
millions of Harappan pieces of cotton cloth have disappeared for  
climatic reasons, save four cases where a few microscopic fibers have  
been preserved in association with metal (cf. Possehl 2002: table 3.2,  
with further references). Alexander‘s admiral Nearchus mentions  
thickly woven cloth used for writing letters in the Indus Valley c 325  
BC. Sanskrit sources such as the Ya:jñavalkya-Smrti (1,319) also  
mention cotton cloth, (ka:rpa:sa-)paTa, as writing material around the  
beginning of the Christian era. But the earliest preserved examples  
date from the 13th century AD (cf. Shivaganesha Murthy 1996: 45-46;  
Salomon 1998: 132).

Emperor Asoka had long inscriptions carved on stone (pillars and  
rocks) all around his wide realm in 260 to 250 BC. They have survived.  
But also manuscripts on perishable materials must have existed in  
Asoka‘s times and already since the Achaemenid rule started in the  
Indus Valley c 520 BC. This is suggested among other things by the  
mention of lipi ‗script‘ in Pa:Nini‘s Sanskrit Grammar (3,2,21) which  
is dated to around 400-350 BC. Sanskrit lipi comes from Old Persian  
dipi ‗script‘. The earliest surviving manuscripts on birch bark, palm  
leaves and wooden blocks date from the 2nd century AD and come from  
the dry climate of Central Asia (cf. Shivaganesha Murthy 1996: 24-36;  
Salomon 1998: 131). We can conclude that manuscripts on perishable  
materials have almost certainly existed in South Asia during 600 years  
from the start of the Persian rule onwards, but they have not been  
preserved; this period of 600 years with no surviving manuscripts  
corresponds to the duration of the Indus Civilization.

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