One question is key to tracing the formation of Indian populations: what language did the Harappans speak? Most historians argue that many languages would have been spoken in the vast region of the civilisation, not just one. Considering how many languages are spoken in the region today – from Baluchi, Pashto, Punjabi and Gujarati to Hindi, Brahui, Sindhi and Burushaski – this is not an unreasonable surmise.

However, it is still possible that the civilisation had one predominant language family with its own dialects or subgroups. It is also likely that it had an official language that was depicted in the seals. How do we know that? When a script is used for writing different languages, the order in which the signs/letters appear usually changes in a noticeable manner.

For example, in the Harappan seals that were found in Mesopotamia or the Gulf region, experts have found that the pattern or order in which the signs appear is different from the way they appear on seals found in the Harappan Civilisation itself, suggesting that in the seals found abroad the Harappan script may have been used to write a different language, perhaps Akkadian or Sumerian or other languages spoken in the Gulf region. There are no such differences in sign patterns among seals found in the Harappan Civilization region itself.

Therefore, it is likely that at least during the Mature Harappan period, when there was a high degree of standardisation in general, there was one language that was predominantly used, perhaps for administrative, trade and legal purposes.

So what language could this be? This would be an easy question to answer once the Harappan script is deciphered. But a century of sustained and determined efforts by a wide variety of experts from all over the world have failed to crack the script. This is not necessarily surprising because the hieroglyphic script of Egypt may not have been deciphered at all had people not stumbled upon an inscription that used multiple scripts to say the same thing.

In 1799 French soldiers rebuilding a fort in Egypt discovered a stone with carvings on it in a town called Rosetta in the Nile valley. This came to be called the Rosetta Stone, and it was found to have been carved in 196 bce by a group of priests in Egypt to honour the then pharaoh, by listing all the things he had done for the people. (Propaganda, obviously, has very ancient beginnings!)

Remarkably the Rosetta Stone had inscriptions in three scripts, all of them in use in Egypt when the stone was carved. The first was hieroglyphic, which was used for important religious documents. The second was demotic, which was then the common script of Egypt. And the third was Greek, the language of the rulers of Egypt at that time. Shortly thereafter the hieroglyphic script was deciphered by the French scholar and philologist Jean-François Champollion, who could read Greek and Coptic (a language that shares much with Demotic). Thus a script that had resisted all attempts at decipherment for centuries was finally decoded within a couple of decades of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

The story is similar in the case of the cuneiform script in which many Mesopotamian languages were written, including Sumerian, Akkadian and Elamite. Here too, it was the discovery of a multilingual inscription at Mount Behistun in the Kermanshah province of Iran that led to the final decipherment. The Behistun inscription was authored by Darius I, the fourth king of the Persian Achaemenid empire, sometime between 522 bce and 486 bce, and is an account of the king’s life, battles and victories.

The inscription had the same text in three different languages written using the same cuneiform script: Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. For the Harappan language, however, we have not yet found an equivalent of the Rosetta Stone or the Behistun inscription and until we do cracking the code might prove to be difficult.

Historians and archaeologists have so far overwhelmingly backed up the idea that the language underlying the Harappan script was Proto-Dravidian, but the inability to break the code has left the question hanging, without a final resolution.

The debate over what language the Harappans spoke has resembled a Gordian knot more than anything else – until now. The Gordian knot is being cut, not because the script is closer to being deciphered, but because ancient DNA findings have now joined hands with archaeology and linguistics to provide a consistent and coherent explanation for the demographic composition and the language of the Harappans.

The crucial thing to keep in mind is that these three disciplines are independent of each other, with different starting points. They also use very different materials, methodologies and scientific techniques to arrive at their conclusions. Thus it is remarkable that they all arrive at the same conclusion is remarkable.

We saw in chapter 2 how new ancient DNA evidence from west Asian and the “Indus Periphery” individuals showed that an Iranian agriculturist population from around the Zagros region had contributed significantly to the populations in India today. This discovery rested on two sets of ancient DNA evidence – let’s recount them briefly.

The first set of ancient DNA evidence was from the Zagros region of Iran dated to between 8000 bce and 7000 bce. It showed that these Zagrosians had a distinct type of west Eurasian ancestry. What differentiated them from others of the region was that they lacked the early Anatolian ancestry that the rest of them had.

The second set of evidence was ancient DNA from three “Indus Periphery” outlier individuals with a unique genetic composition. Between 14 and 42 per cent of their ancestry related to First Indians, and the rest to Iranian agriculturists, and none of them had any Anatolian ancestry. This was quite unlike others around them in the same region, who all had Anatolian ancestry and no ancestry related to the First Indians.

“The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia” study, therefore, arrived at the inescapable conclusion that these three ancient individuals were recent migrants from the Harappan Civilisation; that they represent the genetic composition of the population of the Harappan Civilisation itself; and that they are a mixture of Iranian agriculturists from the Zagros region and descendants of the First Indians. The scientists also concluded that the admixture between the two populations had taken place at the latest between 4700 bce and 3000 bce.

Please note that at no stage of this genetic trail was any reliance made on archaeological or linguistic discoveries.

No less emphatic than the genetic evidence is the archaeological evidence. In chapter 2, we saw extensive confirmation of a connection between the Zagros region and the early farmers of Mehrgarh in Balochistan. From quadrangular houses built with narrow bricks about sixty centimetres long to circular firepits filled with burnt pebbles and sequential slab construction of pottery, the similarities were striking.

To quote Jarrige:

“In spite of some obvious differences...the full setting of the farming economy at Mehrgarh displays evident similarities with what had been noticed in the case of the early Neolithic settlements in the hilly regions forming the eastern border of Mesopotamia [that is, the Zagros mountains of Iran]...

The similarities noticed between Neolithic sites from the eastern border of Mesopotamia to the western margins of the Indus Valley are significant...A sort of cultural continuum between sites sharing a rather similar geographical context marked with an also rather similar pattern of evolution and transformation becomes more and more evident.”

In other words, archaeological evidence comes to the same conclusion as ancient DNA evidence: there is a strong connection between the Zagrosians and the people of the Harappan Civilisation region, dating back to a period when agriculture was only beginning in Mehrgarh. This now brings us to the third and equally important evidence linking the two regions: language.

It is no surprise then that most of the attempts at deciphering the Harappan script have assumed that the language underlying it was Dravidian. Even though the script has not been deciphered after nearly a century of concerted attempts, the efforts of two independent experts in particular have been noteworthy: Professor Iravatham Mahadevan, the epigraphist who helped decipher the Tamil Brahmi script in which the earliest records of Dravidian are kept, and Professor Asko Parpola. Each of them brought new perspectives on how to start reading the script.

Until the script is deciphered, it cannot be used to either buttress or weaken the common conclusions being reached by archaeology, genetics and linguistics. However, it is worth quoting Mahadevan’s convocation address at the Dravidian University in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh, in 2015, for two reasons. One, his strong rebuttal of the belief that the Harappans spoke an Indo-European language and that they were Vedic Aryans. And two, his description of the direction in which the deciphering efforts are tending:

“The results I have obtained so far confirm that the language of the Indus script is an early form of Dravidian. I do not claim to have deciphered the Indus Script completely. But I sincerely believe that I have discovered important clues for interpreting many of the frequent Indus signs and sequences proving conclusively the Dravidian character of the language and the survival of the Indus elements in the twin streams of later Dravidian and Indo-Aryan traditions . . .

There is substantial evidence that the Indus Civilisation was pre- Aryan.

  1. The Indus Civilisation was mainly urban, while the early Vedic society was rural and pastoral. There were no cities in the Vedic period.
  2. The Indus seals depict many animals but not the horse. The horse and the chariot with spoked wheels were the defining features of the Aryan-speaking societies. The bronze chariot found at Daimabad in Western Deccan, the Southernmost Indus settlement, has solid wheels and is drawn by a pair of humped bulls, not horses.
  3. The tiger is often featured on Indus seals and sealings, but the animal is not mentioned in the Rigveda.”

Mahadevan goes on to enumerate the substantial archaeological and linguistic evidence that supports the Dravidian nature of the Harappan Civilization. The evidence includes pictorial depictions on seals and sealings that suggest the worship of a buffalo-horned male god, mother goddesses, the peepul tree, the serpent and, possibly, the phallic symbol, all of which have been derived not from the earliest Vedas, but from the pre-Aryan population. Many of these went on to become part of the Indian cultural tradition as we know it today, and this is a crucial point Mahadevan makes.

“The Indus heritage is shared by Dravidian as well as Indo-Aryan speakers. The Dravidian heritage is linguistic. The Indo-Aryan heritage is cultural, preserved through loanwords [words taken from another language], loan translations [phrases taken from another language], and myths . . . As I read it, the message of the Indus Script is: unity in diversity.”

In other words, after Indo-European language speakers reached south Asia, the language of the Harappans became limited to south India, while the culture and myths of the Harappans melded with those of the new Indo-Aryan-language-speaking migrants to create a unique, syncretic tradition that is today seen as an essential part of Indian culture.

Therefore, there is a disconnect between the earliest Vedas and the culture and practices of the Harappan Civilisation, but a connect between the later Vedic corpus and the Harappan Civilisation because these by then incorporate some of the ideas and themes of the Harappans. It is thus possible to see the heritage of Harappa in the language/s of the Dravidians, and in the myths, phrases and words borrowed by the Indo-Aryans from the Harappan tradition.

Early Indians

Excerpted with permission from Early Indians: The Story Of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From, Tony Joseph, Juggernaut.