The Indus script as proto-writing

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Thu Jul 14 21:20:32 UTC 2011

Dear George,

Actually, vs. my last message, let me get to your interesting  
questions quickly while Indus materials are still in mind.

On Jul 14, 2011, at 11:03 AM, George Hart wrote:

> In reading over the interchange between Steve and Asko, I can't help  
> wondering: if the IV civilization was in contact with other  
> civilizations in the Near East, as it apparently was, why didn't  
> they borrow writing from them if they had none of their own?  It  
> seems to me -- and I admit to being naive on this point -- that  
> writing systems spread quite readily and inevitably.  Thus Brahmi in  
> South Asia, Phoenician in the Middle East and Europe, Chinese in  
> East Asia, etc.  Wouldn't the IV civ. have borrowed cuneiform  
> writing if they had none of their own?  It's hard for me to imagine  
> that their traders came into contact with something so useful as a  
> developed writing system and didn't either imitate it or borrow it.   
> George Hart

The standard assumption is that writing normally spreads "quite  
readily and inevitably." But historically, interestingly enough, that  
doesn't turn out to be the case.

I'll leave aside the issue of how appropriate or not cuneiform would  
have been in encoding the unknown languages of the Indus -- which we'd  
certainly have to assume based on comparative evidence were multiple,  
as we've long argued -- since we know absolutely nothing about those  
languages. (The old assumptions from the 30s and 40s that Asko picked  
up in the 1960s that they were Dravidian have been pretty much  
debunked by now, I think -- but that's another issue. See here now  
even Frank Southworth, _Linguistic Archaeology of South Asia_, who  
bravely changed his book in the proofing stage, having (reluctantly!)  
been convinced by our arguments in our 2004 paper.)

Before turning to the Indus examples, just think of premodern  
Mesoamerica, where we we find a complex mixture of both literate and  
non-literate urban civilizations existing side-by-side. Thus the Maya  
of course among other Mesoamerican peoples had a fully functioning  
script, but the Aztecs and Mixtecs didn't (they did of course have  
very long mnemonic prompt texts with extremely limited phoneticism,  
but not writing as linguists think of it, pace Parpola 1994: 54).

Nor did the Incas have anything you can call a script in the strict  
linguistic sense, unless you believe (rather eccentric and unverified)  
claims that the quipu system functioned as a kind of writing system,  
loosely defined.

The same mixture of literate and non-literate urban civilizations --  
as is much less well-known -- also shows up in the Ancient Near East.  
Not long after a Harvard Roundtable talk I gave on the nonlinguistic  
status of Indus symbols in 2002, Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky published a  
paper  ("To Write or Not to Write." In Timothy Potts, Michael Roaf,  
and Diana Stein, eds. _Culture through Objects_, Cambridge, 2003, pp.  
59-72) that discussed the wonderfully wild mix of literate, half- 
literate, and totally non-literate urban civilizations of the Ancient  
Middle East. (His discussion overlaps with Indus times, but he avoided  
the whole issue of the Indus in the paper, which Michael Witzel and I  
at the time thought was interesting.)

Michael and I by this time had already taken this view much further,  
discussing in a variety of conference talks and papers a vast "No Text  
Zone"  that encompassed virtually everything East of Elam through  
Central Asia and India and the Persian Gulf as well from the early 3rd  
millennium BCE until well into the first millennium BCE.

It should be noted that we were forced at the same time, in  
conjunction with Richard Sproat, the proto-Elamite expert Jakob Dahl,  
and others, to debunk a lot claims coming out after 2003 --  now  
widely known as spurious and based on faked evidence, as I first  
argued -- about writing at the then much-hyped Jiroft digs.

In 2009 Dan Potts, at our Kyoto Indus conference, and in private  
emails as well confirmed his belief too in the total non-linguistic  
nature of the urban civilizations in these regions, including the  
Persian Gulf, where of course we have found seals with some Indus  
features. Dan, who is indisputably the world's expert on Persian Gulf  
archaeology, among much else, certainly does not agree with Asko that  
this is a sign of literacy in the region. Dan takes it as "obvious,"  
as he told me in Kyoto, that the Indus system was nonliterate.

So pace Greg Possehl (who is often quoted on this) and many others,  
you certainly *don't* need literacy in large urban civilizations. That  
is an historical myth that is easy to falsify empirically.

The question remains, of course -- as George Hart points out --  as to  
why some of these non-literate urban civilizations failed to pick up  
on writing before the Persians spread literacy into India and Central  
Asia after ca. 500 BCE. (The effects of that spread are part of what  
Michael and I have dubbed the "Gandharan thesis," which gives us  
powerful new ways to date Vedic texts; we plan as well to expand on  
this elsewhere; so far the thesis is discussed only online (in some  
depth, however) and in footnotes in some of our papers.)

Many possible reasons exist for rejecting literacy, but one of the  
most obvious in the case of India -- compare with anti-literate  
attitudes we know existed widely in Vedic traditions in the second  
half of the first millennium BCE, and indeed beyond -- has to do with  
the destructive power of literacy in respect to existing magical- 
religious and social-political institutions.

(Cf. the same situation in relation to Celtic religious traditions:  
the Celts used Greek frequently for economic purposes, but like the  
Vedic peoples eschewed its use in encoding their religious and  
literate traditions. Cf. too the highly negative comments about  
writing by the author or authors of the Phaedrus, in the Platonic  

There may be other reasons involved, including possibly the  
multilinguistic nature of the Indus peoples -- the Mixtecs and Aztecs  
too, who lacked full phonetic writing systems, were highly  
multilinguistic societies, making mnemonic systems in this case more  
useful than phonetic ones -- but at present this is just a guess. Many  
peoples have preferred oral traditions to literate ones, and often for  
similar reasons, even when in contact with fully literate societies.

What *is* clear, for whatever reason, is that ancient urban  
civilizations often never adopted literacy even when they knew of it.  
This is apparently true of the vast "No Text" zone we find after proto- 
Elamite times (proto-Elamite disappeared early in the third millennium  
BCE, long before Indus political-religious symbols appeared on the  
scene) in the urban civilizations of the Southeast Iranian plateau,  
among the BMAC and other semi-urban peoples of Central Asia, in the  
Persian semi-urban centers, and in the Indus civilization. And that  
condition apparently *lasted* until Persian times, when use of Aramaic  
as an administrative language was spread all the way from Egypt to  
northern India and Central Asia.

The "No Text Zone" idea, which Michael first suggested after one of my  
talks at Harvard in 2001, is a very exciting one. We discussed it  
briefly in our 2004 paper, in Kyoto in 2005 and 2009, and will do so  
at length at some point if we ever get around to finishing our _Indus  
Valley Fantasies_ book. I also include discussion of it in a book in  
progress on wider cross-cultural philological issues and topics in  
cultural neurobiology.

For a little on that, see the abstract of our Harvard talk from last  
October, here (pretty compressed, but it tries to pack a lot in):

Unlike Asko, I'm happy to discuss these issues just about anywhere --  
I think it is counterproductive to cut off debate of anything  
scientific -- but I am really caught up in other research issues now  
involving the Cultural Modeling Research Group, which (as noted in the  
abstract) includes neurobiological and computational as well as  
philological dimensions.

So many specialists in scripts and ancient archaeology, etc., by now  
have quietly accepted our views -- to proclaim them publicly the way  
we have inevitably invokes violent attacks from the Hindu right, so  
people for obvious reasons prefer to keep their opinions to themselves  
-- that we assume that eventually everyone will be saying that "all  
Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel have done is point out the obvious."

Well, it's true -- although it took over 140 years to notice the  
obvious. :^) See an amusing little paper from 2003 that I never  
bothered to publish that discusses the so-called script thesis back to  
its very odd origins in the late 19th century; and forgery even then!

Rushed again, and no time to proofread this, unfortunately....

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