It’s one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world: which languages did the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation speak? Existing in the Bronze age, the Indus hosted the largest such civilisation of its time, with settlements spanning what is now northwestern India and Pakistan.
Yet, while we know what their cities looked like, we know nothing about their languages, given that the Indus script remains, as yet, undeciphered.
The mystery further acquires sharp political overtones in India, given that the ruling Hindutva ideology has strongly argued against the idea that modern Indian culture has ever been influenced by forces from outside the subcontinent. Culturally placing the Indus Civilisation thus becomes critical both for academic as well as political purposes.
A new paper published in Nature.com by independent researcher Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay innovatively looks at cultures which were in contact with the Indus people to try and sift out words that might have been adopted from the Indus language. She finds that one particular word – “elephant” – traces quite clearly back to the Proto-Dravidian, the ancestor of all Dravidian languages in existence today, thus proving that it was at least one major language spoken in the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Some of the sharpest minds in linguistics have grappled with the problem of the language spoken in the Indus Valley Civilisation. Michael Witzel, a philologist at Harvard University, had suggested that the language was close to the Munda languages now spoken by Adivasi groups in eastern India such as the Santhals. However, he has now withdrawn the thesis and prefers to wait for more data before restarting his research.
Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki, mapped symbols in the Indus script to words in modern Dravidian languages, concluding that the language spoken by the Indus Civilisation was Proto-Dravidian.
Elephant in the room
While Mukhopadhyay arrives at a similar conclusion as Parpola, she ignores the script in her analysis. Instead, the paper cleverly looks at cultures in contact with the Indus Valley Civilisation in order to fish out an Indus loanword.
Given its trade links with the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia (largely in modern-day Iraq), the paper finds that both Old Persian and Mesopotamia’s official language Akaddain might have such a word. In the latter it is “pīru’/‘pīri” meaning elephant and the former “pīrus” meaning ivory.
The paper sets out to prove that these words have been borrowed from the Indus Valley by tracing them back to “pal”, the proto-Dravidian word for “tooth”.
First, the paper notes that both the words for elephant in the modern Dravidian languages as well as that for tooth seem to be closely related to these Akaddain and Old Persian words. What is the connection between elephants and teeth? “Two most unfailing taxonomical features of elephants are trunks and tusks,” argues the paper, pointing out that even in Sanskrit, one word for elephant, “dantin” refers to the animal’s spectacular protruding front teeth or “danta”.
“Thus, the relation between Proto-Dravidian tooth-word and the Dravidian ‘pal’/‘pīl’-based elephant-words must be deeply etymological, not accidental,” concludes the paper.
To add to this is the fact that Sanskrit seems to refer to the toothbrush tree or meswak with the word “pīlu”, with the ancient epic Mahabharata associating it with the Indus basin. Given that the tree’s branches were – and still are in modern South Asia – used as tooth cleaners, the paper surmises that the word must be related to “tooth”.
Notably, while Sanskrit is from the Indo-Aryan language family, the word “pīlu” is not – it is loaned from some other family. Like elephant, the tree name provides another, independent clue that the Proto-Dravidian word for “tooth” existed in the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Given that “tooth” is what linguists call an “ultraconserved” vocabulary item, rarely borrowed from other languages, the paper concludes that the “basic vocabulary-items for a significant population of IVC must have been Proto-Dravidian”.
To add to the paper’s etymological analysis is the fact that the latest genetic research also backs up this conclusion. The paper quotes research to show that the Brahui ethnic group in modern Pakistan – that speak a Dravidian language thousands of kilometres from South India – were a pre-existing group and not a result of migration from the modern Dravidian speaking parts of the subcontinent.
Thus, the genetic evidence makes it clear that Dravidian languages spread from the Indus Valley Civilisation to South India after the entry of Sanskrit-speaking Steppe pastoralists (who were earlier called “Aryans”) into India.
While tools such as linguistics, archaeology and most recently genetics have shed great light on prehistoric populations, nowhere is this research more closely follows than in India. In fact, in an interview to Scroll.in, David Reich, a pioneer in inventing genetic methods to study ancient populations, noted that India was unique when it came to being invested in the origins of its ancient populations. In contrast, in neighbouring Pakistan or even in Europe, “there’s almost no emotionality at all about the ancient farmers or Bronze Age people or hunter-gatherers. There’s in fact, no emotion about the dead.”
Much of this possibly flows from the fact that Hindutva, India’s current dominant political ideology, envisages a nationalism based on nativism to the Indian subcontinent. Vinayak Savarkar, the founder of Hindutva argued that for a “true” Indian, India had to be both his pitribhumi (ancestral land) and punyabhumi (the land of his religion). “A Hindu therefore could not be descended from alien invaders,” said historian Romila Thapar, explaining how Hindutva tried to exclude Muslims and Christians from its idea of nationalism.
This is why there have been repeated attempts within India to argue that the Indus Valley Civilisation spoke an Indo-Aryan language in order to argue that Sanskrit as well as the entirety of Vedic culture had a native Indian origin. In fact, as recently as 2019, reacting to the first large-scale genetic studies of ancient population movements in India, there were further attempts to prove that the “Harappans were the Vedic people” – even though this argument went against the very conclusions of the said genetic research.
While there is little evidence to back up these arguments, politically it helps counter linguistic, archaeological and most recently genetic evidence which proves that the Indo-Aryan language family was not native to the subcontinent but was brought to India by pastoralists from the Eurasian Steppe who entered the subcontinent speaking Sanskrit.