The Indus script as proto-writing

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Thu Jul 14 19:48:05 UTC 2011

Not to quibble, Asko, but your dates are way off, and associations of  
late Indus artifacts bearing symbols with Sumerian writing long before  
it still seems very odd and anachronistic. Note also of course that  
the length of Sumerian texts by the dates you cite were also orders of  
magnitude longer than the longest Indus "texts" (so called) ever found.

Also your claim of "new evidence" of when the "Indus script was  
created." Are we back to traditional claims that some Harappan genius  
created the supposed script (now claimed as "proto-writing") in one  
fell swoop and then it became "frozen"? It isn't a credible view.

And that aside, you still fail to address the obvious question that  
would pop up in the mind of anyone not trained by a massive (and  
misdirected) literature to think otherwise: Why would the Indus still  
be using a putative proto-script 700 years or later -- with the  
average length of the supposed "texts" being under 5 symbols long --  
while at the same time throughout the Middle East they were writing  
massive volumes, indeed *hundreds* of thousands of them longer than  
the longest supposed Indus "text" -- on similar durable materials, in  
a wide range of urban civilizations?

The thesis that all the thousands of Indus artifacts carrying  
ridiculously short "texts" represent "writing" or "proto-writing"  
stretches all credulity. If this was a "proto-writing" system frozen  
in its development that is an indication of a profound conservatism in  
ancient civilizations that we don't find elsewhere.

Not ONE ancient literate civiization is known that failed to leave  
long texts behind on durable materials -- unless of course the Indus  
peoples are a lone example, which is highly unlikely given their long  
contact with literate civilizations.

A picture is worth a thousand words: To put this all in context, it is  
fun to look at the longest Indus "inscription" (if that's even the  
right word) on a single-sided object bearing symbols (17 of them, 11  
of them high frequency and none repeated even once on the object --  
hardly a suggestion of phoneticism) with a single proto-Elamite  
inscription from 800-1000 or more yeasr earlier.

The caption on the photo: "Size Matters" -- some evidence of what  
*true* "proto-writing" (the usual status assigned to proto-Elamite)  
typically looks like:

George Hart earlier today asked some extremely interesting and  
relevant questions about why the Indus didn't borrow a script from  
their neighbors. I don't have time to address that right now (noon  
California time), but I will say something about that later tonight,  
George. I think the question has some good answers and possibly clues  
to why the Harappans (like Vedic peoples even by the middle of the  
first millennium BCE, until the Persians entered the scene) eschewed  
writing, though they certain knew of it.

Back later tonight.


On Jul 14, 2011, at 11:24 AM, asko.parpola at wrote:

> Quoting "Steve Farmer" <saf at SAFARMER.COM>:
>> Asko below (and elsewhere) has tried to counter this argument by  
>> anachronistically citing Archaic Sumerian as a parallel example.  
>> That is a very strange claim: it seems quite odd to us to draw  
>> parallels between uniformly short Indus symbol strings from ca.  
>> 1900 BCE -- a very high literate period throughout the Middle East  
>> -- with "proto-writing" from the Sumerians as much as 1500 years  
>> earler!
> When the Indus script was created - according to the new evidence  
> from Harappa around 2600 BCE - the Sumerian script had become more  
> phoneticized but was still at the "nuclear writing" stage: I have  
> illustrated this by citing a recurrent phrase in its Early Dynastic  
> version from Fara (c 2500 BCE) and its later 'classical' Sumerian  
> version (see Parpola 1994: 34, after Miguel Civil and R. D. Biggs,  
> Notes sur des textes sumériens archïques, Revue d'Assyriologie 60,  
> 1966: 12f.). Apparently the Indus script functioned sufficiently  
> well for the Harappan needs so that they found no reason for any  
> major modification.
> My participation in this debate ends here as far as the present  
> discussion is concerned. Thank you for the opportunity to present my  
> present view on the nature of the Indus script.
> With best regards, Asko Parpola

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