A 4,500-year-old mystery has been revived, with Indian-American scientists claiming on April 23 that the puzzling symbols that were found on Indus Valley seals are indeed the written script of a language from an ancient civilization.

But skeptics, such as historian Steve Farmer and Harvard University Indologist Michael Witzel, say that claims of the Indus Valley civilization having a written language, and therefore a literate culture, are generally created by pseudo-nationalists from India, Hindu chauvinists and right-wing political frauds who wish to glorify the existence of an ancient Hindu civilization.

The civilization on the banks of the 2,900-kilometer long Indus, one of the world's great rivers with a water volume twice that of the Nile, is said to have flourished between 2600 BC to 1900 BC.

Unlike its river valley contemporaries in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, very little is known about the Indus Valley civilization, largely because its "script" is yet to be deciphered, even though ruins were excavated 130 years ago.

There appears little doubt that a reasonably advanced civilization thrived in the Indus Valley before mysteriously vanishing. But for the past decade, scholars and scientists worldwide have argued whether engravings found on hundreds of Indus Valley objects, such as seals and tablets, are a mysterious script of a language - like the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics - or whether they are merely non-lingual signs or pictograms.

On April 23, the US-based Science journal published a paper by an Indian and Indian-American team of scientists and researchers that claimed patterns of symbols found on Indus objects had the definitive linguistic pattern found in written languages. Such a pattern is different from non-linguistic signs.

The paper, titled "'Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script", featured the findings of Indian-born researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.

It claims computer analysis revealed comparative "entropic evidence" that Indus signs have a linguistic order similar to some of the world's oldest languages, such as Sumerian from Mesopotamia, classical Tamil and Sanskrit from the Indian sub-continent.

Comparative entropy involves a mathematical process by which an unknown variable can be theoretically determined using known related variables. In this case, researchers say they used computer analysis to compare the pattern of Indus symbols with the patterns of known spoken and mathematical languages. This is the first time that such a process has been used to determine whether unknown symbols are the written script of a language.

"The findings provide quantitative evidence suggesting that the people of the 4,500-year-old Indus civilization may have used writing to represent linguistic content," said project leader Rajesh Rao, a computer scientist at the University of Washington.

"If this is indeed true," Rao told Asia Times Online, "then deciphering the script would provide us with unique insights into the lives and culture of the Indus people."

The 130-year-old excavations in the Indus Valley, covering areas in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have revealed evidence of an urban civilization. Ruins of excavated Indus Valley cities such as Mohenjadaro and Harappa have revealed elaborate urban infrastructure such as well-planned streets, brick houses, sophisticated drainage and water-storage systems, trading, use of weights, jewelry, knowledge of metallurgy and tool-making. Archaeologists say many more Indus Valley cities are yet to be excavated.

The problem is that any new "path-breaking" Indus Valley research findings have to pass credibility tests. The Indus Valley puzzle took a more crooked dimension in the past decade. India's right-wing political outfits that grew in this period, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been known to make clumsy, ridiculously amateurish attempts to "rewrite" over 5,000 years of Indian history.

Such fake coloring of authentic Indian and Hindu religious history was to feed a narrow-minded sectarian, political and chauvinistic agenda. The BJP has denied such history-faking tricks. But a senior BJP worker in Kolkata, an art critic by profession, told this correspondent in 2003 that he was engaged in rewriting history textbooks. The BJP was then heading India's central government.

This history tomfoolery included attempts to portray the Indus Valley culture as a Hindu civilization. Some fraudsters have even produced fake Indus seals as "proof" of an advanced society with rich, as yet undiscovered, literature.

But the genuine Indus symbols are merely simple non-linguistic signs common in the ancient world, according to a controversial paper in 2004 titled "The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization". The paper was written by comparative historian Steve Farmer; Richard Sproat, a biomedical computer scientist at the Oregon Health and Science University, Portland; and Michael Witzel, an Indologist from the Department of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Harvard University.

Five years later, in 2009, Rajesh Rao and his colleagues' year-long study claimed to have debunked the debunkers Farmer, Sproat and Witzel. The California-based Packard Foundation and Mumbai-based Sir Jamsetji Tata Trust sponsored the project. The global media reported on Rao's April 23 Science Journal paper supporting claims that the Indus symbols are the written script of an ancient language.

However, the original Indus script debunkers refuse to be debunked. In a quick counter response dated April 24, Farmer and Co rubbished the Washington University study. Their two-page answer was cheekily titled, "A Refutation of the Claimed Refutation of the Nonlinguistic Nature of Indus Symbols: Invented Data Sets in the Statistical Paper of Rao et al. (Science, 2009)". Farmer and Co argued that Rao and Co had compared the Indus sign sets with "artificial sets of random and ordered signs".

They said the Rao study proved nothing that is not known - that is, "the Indus sign system has some kind of rough structure, which has been known since the 1920s", said their rejoinder.

"Indus Valley texts are cryptic to extremes, and the script shows few signs of evolutionary change," Farmer and Witzel wrote in October 2000. "Most [Indus] inscriptions are no more than four or five characters long; many contain only two or three characters. Moreover, character shapes in mature Harappa appear to be strangely 'frozen', unlike anything seen in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia or China."

The left-leaning Indian news magazine Frontline carried Farmer's and Witzel's article in a cover story titled "Horseplay in Harappa - In the 'Piltdown Horse' hoax, Hindutva propagandists make a little Sanskrit go a long way". The article debunked sensational claims in 1999 that the Indus script had been "deciphered" by N S Rajaram and Natwar Jha.

The motive of this fraud was to prove that the Indus civilization was an early Hindu civilization. As proof, Rajaram and Jha produced an Indus Valley "horse" seal as evidence that the Indus people used horses, an animal commonly mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Indian texts dating to the 2nd millennium BC - over 2,000 years later than the earliest dated Indus Valley seals. But no images of horses were found in the Indus Valley excavations, until Rajaram and Jha produced their horse seal.

Farmer and Witzel proved that the horse seal was a fraudulent computerized distortion of a broken "unicorn bull" seal. The fake horse seal was derided as the "Piltdown Horse", an imaginary creation to fill the gap between the Harappan and Vedic cultures, just as the famous "Piltdown Man" did in 1912. That year, skeletal remains of the "missing link" between ape and man were "discovered" in Piltdown, a village in England. They were later found to be fake.

In their April 23 paper, Rao's team said they compared statistical patterns in sequences of Indus symbols with sequences in known ancient and modern spoken languages, computer language and natural sequences such as in human DNA.

While Farmer and Co claim in their April 24 rebuttal that Rao's team used limited and artificial comparative language tools, Rao's team says the comparative computer analysis included:
  • 1,548 lines of Indus text and 7,000 signs, from veteran Indus scholar Iravatham Mahadevan's 1977 compilation from the Archaeology Society of India.
  • 20,000 sentences from The Brown University Present Day Standard Corpus of Present-Day American English - a well-known dataset compiled from a wide range of texts including press reports, editorials, books, magazines, novels, scientific articles and short stories.
  • 100 Sanskrit hymns from Book 1 of the Rig Veda, said to be composed between 1700-1100 BC.
  • "Ettuthokai", or "Eight Texts", anthologies of poems in classical Tamil from the Sangam Era, circa 300 BC to 300 AD.
  • Sumerian - nearly 400 literary compositions dated between 3 BC and 2 BC.
  • DNA - first one million nucleotides in the human chromosome 2, obtained from the Human Genome Project.
  • Protein - the entire collection of amino acid sequences from the Bacteria Escherichia Coli, more famous as E coli.
  • Programming Language - 28,594 lines of code from FORTRAN.
Both camps are adamant they are right. But both could be wrong, given how vested interests and human egos often stubbornly cling to inaccurate views by seeing what they want to see, instead of reality as it is.

If the Indus Valley has an equivalent to the sensational 18th-century discovery of the Rosetta Stone, considered one of the greatest-ever historical finds, that would indeed confirm whether the Indus symbols are a written language - one possibly opening the doorway to an unknown civilization. An officer in Napoleon Bonaparte's invading French army, Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard, found a grey-pinkish granite stone in an Egyptian village called Rosetta on July 15, 1799.

Dating to 196 BC and displayed in the British Museum since 1802, the Rosetta plaque carried a royal decree in Egyptian and Greek in three scripts - Hieroglyphic, Demotic Egyptian and Greek. Since Greek was a known language, stunned scholars could use the translation to decipher the 3,500-year-old hieroglyphics. The doorway to ancient Egypt was opened to the modern world.

Even if the Indus Valley symbols are indeed a written script, there is little chance of deciphering them unless a Rosettta Stone equivalent is available. Archaeologists from India and Pakistan continue to work at Indus Valley sites, unearthing new discoveries each year.