Prehistory and history are divided into two arenas of understanding. In history, we tend to clump and divide differently than we do in prehistory and as researchers this gives both great insights and gets us into profound trouble. The dividing line is the beginning of writing, but that is not a simple "line". The human species did not wake up as one day and say, "now we are all literate" ! Most early texts refer to the origins of a given culture and leadership as existing unbroken since the time of the gods. Those who focus on prehistory have lithic tools, pottery styles and the occasional organic remain to piece together similarities and differences.
The tempting notion in pre-history is to go to theoretical extremes. Researchers may clump everything they are studying together into one pre-historic soup of humanity, such as the advocates of the Great Goddess. Scholars may just as likely focus narrowly on one unique community to explore the clan unit of a particular sub-culture. Both approaches are equally true and false.
Researchers of historic societies have the luxury of complex symbols, stipulated political borders and propaganda, king lists with names, dates and places to assist the clumpers in defining the emergence of nation states. The dividers are also kept busy by looking at shifting changes in national identity over time as the human political map came to look more and more like our current one. Truly strong adherents of existential uniformity or conformity get sidelined to the theoretical realm of diffusionism, which comes in and out of academic favor, but is often on the side lines of mainstream historical research.
In the 19th century, social sciences became over zealous and Eurocentric. Scholars claimed that writing was invented only once in Mesopotamia, and that all subsequent writing systems were offshoots, including both Chinese and Indus writing, which supposedly evolved from Middle Eastern prototypes.
Linguists also misinterpreted Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by separating writing systems into functional types. Some observations concerning such classifications are valid, but assigned "evolved-ness" for each group, with alphabet being most evolved, and inherently best was markedly ethnocentric. Logographic systems, like modern Chinese, were considered primitive, archaic, and much inferior, and syllabic systems fall somewhere between. The rationale was that alphabets have a small number of signs (easy to remember) and allow the writer to specify every phonetic value down to minute details. If this were true then English speakers should write in Sanskrit, an alphabetic system far more accurate to vocalization of that language than a system inherited from Latin.
The biggest problem with any monogenesis of writing and its subsequence diffusion is obviously that of culturally tainted views, with Europe as the pinnacle of civilization, and the rest of the world relegated to "primitive" and "unevolved" helping to justify Europe's imperialistic age. A syllabary works well in Japanese because it can reproduce all Japanese words, but it wouldn't work with English because English has many consonant clusters that a syllabary would have trouble spelling. The pretense that an alphabet is more "efficient" is also flawed. While the number of letters is fewer, when one reads a sentence in English or Arabic for instance, no one really spells individual letters to form words. We scan entire words and even common word groups as if they were logograms. Ligatures in pictographic languages work much in the same way.
This monogenetic theory for the origins of writing started to break down with evidence for the indigenous origins of Chinese. The discovery of oracle bones (Jia-Gu-wen
) and the lack of any earlier text in the vast space between the Iranian plateau and the Yellow River. Now there is additional evidence from the Indus Valley for what appears to be independent development in Asia, largely unrelated to developments in the ancient Near East, or was the split from a common prehistoric language just earlier?
Where does this leave us in understanding the transitional pre-history to history, and the larger question of how to understand the connectedness of human existence? Are we moving toward or away from connectedness with our technological advances, such as writing, global communication, the internet, or are we static in this regard and simply existing on a constant equilibrium of relative disconnectedness?
While, I can not fully answer these questions in my paper, I will endeavor to raise some new questions by exploring the possible relationships between two geographically and temporally connected civilizations that shared a period of 1000 years during an initial development of writing: The Indus Valley Civilization and China of the Qin (Chin) Dynasty.
The Indus Valley rose to a culture that was very sophisticated in its creation of luxury goods, roads, urban planning, and trade. However, as far as we can tell, their writing system was very simplistic, as we define writing. Despite decades of efforts to link the Indus Valley signs, mostly found on stamp seals, to some later language group, the result are either laughable or meet at dead ends until now. Most recently, one scholar from Harvard proposed that these signs do not represent a language at all. My findings show the opposite.
Before writing and history, humans were making symbolic marks on things for a wide variety of reasons. Strung together, such markings were never sentences and they do not just represent a universal language of the Great Goddess either, but they were intended to communicate ideas. We can see hints of this pre-historic "writing" in nearly every pre-historic culture, but that does not mean that the same sign had any particular universal meaning, like modern trademarks do - for instance the Nike symbol (swish) or the MacDonald golden arches. Or did they? Just because different civilizations independently created there own unique way of writing their own language does not mean that they could not have shared some pre-historic template for writing or even shared aspects of writing during the long road toward literacy, as researchers like Cyrus Gordon have already suggested.
It seems that the best way to approach this problem is to look closely at the time of that transition between the use of such symbols and the early steps of written language, as we know it today. Theoretically, one could start almost anywhere, but a comparison between the Indus Valley and ancient China is a good choice for several reasons.
1) We know that both were complex cultures - even civilizations.
2) We know that both used early forms of pictographic writing on very specific types of artifacts.
3) In both cases, these artifacts provide specific clues to understanding the function of the proto-writing.
4) While the Indus script ended before the beginning of ancient Chinese script, that same ancient Chinese is the only one that has an unbroken historical line of development to a modern language, which also happens to be used by more people in the world than any other modern language. English is a distant second.
5) Finally, this is a comparison that has received little (if any) scholarly attention, so there are many possibilities for new findings.
In China, the invention of writing was attributed to an ancient sage named Ts'ang Chieh, a minister in the court of the legendary Huang Ti (The Yellow Emperor, ca 2500 BCE), not a god as in Egypt. While not divine, this invention occurred in mythological times, and served as a communication tool between heaven (realm of gods and ancestors) and earth (realm of humans), as demonstrated by the inscribed oracle bones, carved tortoise shells or ox scapulas (shoulder blade), used for divination during the earliest historic times. According to recent archealogical research, indiginous writing may even date back as far as 4,800 years ago (ca. 2800 BCE), but there is only clear evidence for a structured written language in China dating to the Shang Dynasty, 1523 to 1028 BCE.
By comparison, in the Indus Valley, we have no record concerning the origins of writing and we can not read the signs. The script primarily is found on carved seals, dating to a civilization that flourished from ca 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE, just 23 years before the beginning of the Chinese Shang Dynasty, and contemporary with the earliest phases of writing in China.
This so-called "Priest King" was found at the major Indus urban center, Mohenjo-daro. The most recent evidence from Indus city of Harappa shows that indiginous origins of an Indus proto-writing trace back to the Ravi Phase (c. 3300-2800 BC) at Harappa, roughly five hundred years earlier than any writing in China. Some inscriptions were made on the bottom of vessels before firing. Other inscriptions such as this one were made after firing.
This Harappan inscription (c. 3300 BCE) appears to be three plant symbols arranged to appear almost anthropomorphic. The trident looking projections on these symbols seem to set the foundation for later symbols such as those seen on an inscribed sherd from the Kot Dijian Phase (Period 2, 2800-2600 BCE) HARAPPA.COM.
These particular symbols made on the bottom of terra cotta vessels prior to firing were probably made by potters during the Kot Dijian Period in order to identify their own vessels or ones being made for specific customers. Some of these single pre-firing potterï¿½s marks (2800-2600 BCE) were eventually incorporated in to later Indus writing (2600 BCE).
There is potentially an overlap of cultural exchange of about 1000 years, from ca 2500 to 1500 BCE. That was a period of Chinese unification and extensive Indus Valley international trade, so it is reasonable to expect that the two civilizations were in contact with each other.
Many sherds inscribed after firing have single geometric signs. This collection of Early Harappan sherds from Periods 1 and 2 (c. 3300-2800 BCE) show a range of geometric signs that are roughly similar to later signs in the Indus script.
Recent evidence from both the Indus Valley and China, appear to support the more-or-less scholarly consensus on a few points concerning the origin of writing.
1) Writing was developed and possibly invented independently in at least three places, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica.
2) There is evidence to link some signs of Indus Valley script with the earliest forms of Chinese writing. Recent discoveries might also show that writing was invented in Egypt and the Indus, independent of Mesopotamia.
3) Furthermore, the concept of "evolved-ness" prevalent in the monogenesis theory is refuted in the modern view. No type of writing system is superior or inferior to another, as the type is often dependent on specific language needs.
4) That writing systems developed independently according to individual linguistic and cultural needs does not preclude the possibility that those writing systems shared some common pre-literate sign or symbol heritage or that the cultures could not have exchanged ideas about developing writing systems during the long process toward literacy.
5) Finally, having or not having writing system is not a marker of civilization. Many major urban cultures in the world did not employ writing as we understand it, such as the Andean cultures (Moche, Chimu, Inca, etc), but that did not prevent them from building impressive states and even empires whose complexity rivaled those in the Old World. Some scholars argue that the Indus Valley Civilizations should be added to this list.
Indus Valley Harappan and Earliest Chinese Scripts Compared
(LEFT) Incised Harappan mold used for making large storage jars has three pre-firing signs. Such symbols when combined may have served to indicate the owner's name rather than just being abstract symbols. This piece dates to the end of the Early Harappa Phase (c. 2600 BCE).
(RIGHT) Closeup of Chinese carved shell example of what is commonly called "oracle bone script," because many objects are thought to have been used as oracles, although the script was not restricted to oracle applications.
While visual similarities between these two ancient scripts will become clear, especially in their earliest phases, I wish to point out the close proximity each civilization had in the context of the Silk Road.
Often referred to as a single east-west route - from China to the Mediterranean, the Silk Road (丝绸之路, sī chï¿½u zhī lï¿½
) is a simple name for a complex trade network. Lapis lazuli was traded from its only known source in the ancient world (Badakshan, in what is now northeast Afghanistan) as far as Mesopotamia and Egypt by the second half of the fourth millennium BC. By the third millennium lapis trade extended to Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. In its heyday, towns along it were open to influences from all major world civilizations, especially India to the south, China to the east, and the Turks to the north. That link between China and the Indian sub-continent is the hotly contested modern Kashmir.
In the Indus Valley, interaction networks of the Ravi Phase (c. 3300-2800 BCE) already indicate trading links with the Silk Road. Arrows extend from Harappa to likely source areas for raw materials such as agate, lapis lazuli, steatite, marine shell and copper. These raw materials were transformed into ornaments and tools at Harappa, first for local trade and then as the center for international bead production.
Comparison of the Indus Valley script and ancient Chinese requires a four stage approach to identify the likelihood and nature of any linguistic associations. While there is no doubt concerning the historic longevity and continuity of the Chinese language, there is considerable doubt among academics as to whether or not Indus script was even a language. In particular, Steve Farmer has recently proposed that Indus script was more decorative and symbolic than functional as a readable language.
The approach I take is as follows:
1) * Individual cultural and physical contexts for inscriptions need to be explored. The purpose of the inscriptions provides a vital key to understand the range of possible meanings.
2) * Contextual similarity conjunctions between the inscriptions of the two civilizations are examined, noting also differences to provide the limitations for such comparisons.
3) * Individual signs and sign groups can then be compared for specific similarities between the scripts. Even exact matches of individual signs do not necessitate linguistic sameness since many ancient groups borrowed writing systems from each other. Consider the case of the Hebrew and Phonecian borrowing of Egyptian hieratic, Akkadian borrowing of Sumarian script, or Japanese borrowing of Chinese script.
4) * Once similar signs and sign groups are identified it is useful to note how the meaning of the signs in the known language (Chinese) may make sense within the cultural context of the sign use in the unknown language (Indus). If there is a logical match, this provides a strong support for shared linguistic heritage, and with additional evidence could lead to an understanding that the two languages had either shared origins or even were variants of the same language.
1 : Contexts
The context of the Indus Valley script in its earliest phase is on clay sealing fragments and incised pottery fragments. Both phases indicate an association with goods and commodities, consistent with the strong mercantile focus of the Indus civilization and early seal related findings from other ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This context in the Indus Valley continues through the high period of their civilization through inscribed stamp seals, used to stamp sealings in clay, thus identifying trade, ownership, intent, and use. Within these contexts, the type of inscriptions one expects to find are titles, names (royal, elite, family, clan, private, locations), dates (year of ruler, season of year, religious event, cycle of moon), gods, commodity type, purpose, and destination (temple, palace, region, city).
The context of ancient Chinese script is mostly oracular bones used for divination in an effort to predict the outcome of events and a leader's fortunes. Possibly inscriptions were intentionally broken as part of their use, as we are left with inscriptional fragments in most cases. Within these contexts the types of inscriptions one expects are titles, names (royal, elite, family, clan, private, locations), dates (year of ruler, season of year, religious event, cycle of moon), gods, events, lists of good vs. bad outcomes, and even astrological indicators.
2 : Similarities and Dissimilarities
It is immediately clear that there are a number of overlapping similarities in the type of inscriptions that one might expect to find, however different the intended purpose of the inscriptions within their respective cultures. Most prominently, the similarities of titles, dates (year of ruler, season of year, religious event, cycle of moon), and general terms for events, and common words (temple, god, ruler, city, father, or son) are more likely to be universal and shared than individual specific names (divine, royal, elite, family, clan, private, or locations).
The dissimilarities of use also limit comparison. The words, and even word placement, in the context of oracular inscriptions are very different than a carving on a stamp seal. It must also be remembered that the seal's purpose was to make a readable impression, thus it would have been in reverse. Carving a seal in reverse is tricky and there may have been errors. There may have been modifications to the linguistic structure to accommodate this limitation and even an abbreviation of the script to a shorthand format.
3 : Sign Parallels
Several years ago, I noted a close visual similarity between certain signs in Indus Valley script and the most ancient form of Chinese. In particular, the most simple Chinese characters show close association and many of the more complex Chinese signs look like ligatures of simpler signs as found in Indus script. With differences of use and manufacture in mind I recently experimented with inverting and flipping around the Indus inscriptions and found several identical parallels, once the fact that Indus was written horizontally while Chinese was written vertically is taken into account. The eureka
moment happened when I looked at a very common phrase at the beginning of many ancient Chinese inscriptions that gives the date in context of a festival for a ruling elite. The very same phrase is on a well known long Indus seal inscription.
4 : Meaning and Application
The Indus phrase that we are considering clearly reads, in modern Chinese pin-yin, (xīn chŏu bŭ) and means "8th sequence of the year of the ox celebration"
in the context of a traditional Chinese calender cycle of 60 year repetitions. This is made up of two cycles, known as the Stems and the Branches. There are ten stems which are jia, yi, bing, ding, wu, ji, geng, xin, ren and gui. These words do not have English equivalents. The branches number twelve and they are (followed by the corresponding animal) zi (rat), chou (ox), yin (tiger), mao (hare), chen (dragon), si (snake), wu (horse), wei (sheep), shen (monkey), you (fowl), jia (dog) and hai (pig). The 60 year cycle starts with both the Stem and Branch cycles set to one. The next year both are incremented so now stand at two. This continues until year eleven when the Stem cycle returns to one. In year thirteen the Branch cycle restarts while the Stem increments to three. This sequence continues until both cycles are back at one together. This will be year one of the next 60 year cycle. The years are named after the animals of the Branch, so the names form a twelve year cycle.
The most recent 60 year cycle started in 1984 CE and the next year of "xīn chŏu bŭ" will be in 2021 CE. This Indus Valley inscription records the same festival day that will happen in sixteen years from now. This meaning fits easily in both artifact contexts. As an oracular inscription it set the time of the divination event and on a seal it would have been used to reserve commodities for a particular event, such as a festival.
Furthermore, the entire Indus text makes perfect sense in this context. The first character to the left is also "xīn" meaning in this context "to slaughter
" or "sacrifice
" and is followed by a sign that is most likely arrows or lances in a frame, which meant in Chinese "to prepare
". The next sign could be the word for house, temple, or place or less likely the number six, followed by the Chinese sign for the moon, also meaning "month
" or "time of
." New moon makes most sense in this context. The following signs "xīn chŏu bŭ" means "ox year celebration
" followed by the number twelve (12) and a moon, probably meaning "month
" here. The last sign is clearly an ox or bull head, providing further support for my reading of "xīn chŏu bŭ". Chinese New Year is normally the second New Moon after Winter Solstice. The Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar based on calculations of the positions of the Sun and Moon. Months of 29 or 30 days begin on days of astronomical New Moons, with an intercalary month added every two or three years. In this context this seal may be special for an extra intercalary month and the sign that I have read as "celebration: bŭ
(卜) may indicate this special 13th "month
", called in modern Chinese rï¿½n-yï¿½e
. A year with this extra month is called rï¿½n-niï¿½n
Xīn bï¿½i jiā yï¿½e xīn-chŏu bŭ shï¿½-ï¿½r-yï¿½e nï¿½u.
辛 备 家 月 辛丑 卜 十二月 牛
If read in modern Chinese, this Indus Valley inscription means, "Sacrifice to prepare at the place (home or temple) at the (new) moon for 8th cycle year of the ox celebration (or leap month) for the 12th month (moon, 十二月; is now equated with December), ox (meaning: year of the ox in the zodiac cycle or a physical ox for sacrificial use, or both meanings
)." This New Year event is still the major Chinese festival, called Spring Festival
and can fall anywhere between January 21st and February 21st. It makes sense that such an important event would have had deep ancient cultural roots. What is more surprising is to find such roots in the Indus Valley, modern Pakistan.
With such a close parallel on several levels of association the likelihood of chance similarity is nearly zero and we are left to conclude that ancient Indus Valley script and the earliest phase of Chinese share such close associations that they are at least members of the same language family. These two inscriptions, one made in what is now China and the other made in what is now Pakistan were either made in the very same year or exactly 60 years apart, exactly 120 years apart, or exactly 180 years apart ..., but it is clear that they share the same culture. The year date links to an ancient calendar of 60 year cycles still in use and indicates that the Indus seal found in Harappa, Pakistan was carved roughly 65 to 70 year cycles ago (in 1879 BCE, 1939 BCE, 1999 BCE, 2059 BCE, 2119 BCE, or 2179 BCE). All of these dates are possible since the foundation of this system in China dates back to 2600 BCE, the same time as the Early Harappan Phase in the Indus Valley, and attributed to Chinese Emperor Huang Di.
Through a sequence of examinations, I have provided an approach to study possible relationships between two ancient writing systems, Indus and Chinese. I have concluded that these two systems are closely related and have at least a common ancestry. Further study will be able to identify this linguistic relationship more accurately.
In the context of this meeting in the setting of the restored Bibliotheca Alexandrina
, and near the find-spot of the Rosetta Stone, I am please to make public this initial evidence of a linguistic "Rosetta stone
" for the Indus Valley language, long thought to be undecipherable. It is my firm belief that the key to deciphering the oldest known language in the Indian sub-continent is through direct comparisons with its sister language (or daughter language), ancient Chinese. Or, was there a time when the two proto-languages were the same?
Toward the beginning of my paper I posed another question, that I wish to leave you with to ponder. Are we moving toward or away from connectedness with our technological advances, such as writing, global communication, the internet, or are we static in this regard and simply existing on a constant equilibrium of relative disconnectedness? In the case of Pakistan and China, it appears that they have grown more disconnected over the centuries, at least as far as their writing systems are concerned. A little over a week ago, on 11 April 2005, China and India signed an agreement aimed at ending their 53-year-old border dispute. Let us pray that the new revelation concerning the ancient cultural and linguistic connectedness of this region that I offer here can bring about a peaceful understanding in the modern worldview of Pakistan, India, and China over the contested region of Kashmir. May these three modern states take joy in their common heritage and may this knowledge lead to increased political reconciliation.
Prof. Sheldon Gosline
Director of Hieratic Font Project
IHAC, Northeast Normal University
Changchun, Jilin Prov., P R China