The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization

  • Steve Farmer (Author)
  • Richard Sproat (Author)
  • Michael Witzel (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


Archaeologists have long claimed the Indus Valley as one of the four literate centers of the early ancient world, complete with long texts written on perishable materials. We demonstrate the impossibility of the lost-manuscript thesis and show that Indus symbols were not even evolving in linguistic directions after at least 600 years of use. Suggestions as to how Indus symbols were used are noted in nonlinguistic symbol systems in the Near East that served key religious, political and social functions without encoding speech or serving as formal memory aids. Evidence is reviewed that the Harappans' lack of a true script may have been tied to the role played by their symbols in controlling large multilinguistic populations; parallels are drawn to the later resistance of Brahmin elites to the literate encoding of Vedic sources and to similar phenomena in esoteric traditions outside South Asia. Discussion is provided on some of the political and academic forces that helped sustain the Indus-script myth for over 130 years and on ways in which our findings transform current views of the Indus Valley and of literacy in the ancient world in general.