New Ancient Civilization found
May 6, 2001 5:10 PM   Subscribe

New Ancient Civilization found compareable to the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia civilizations. By Crom!
posted by stbalbach (31 comments total)

Very interesting. It looks like (totally unfounded guesswork based on some googling around, plus some old schoolin') that this is probably some form of an Indo-Iranian-speaking culture. I-I split off from Indo-European and headed east sometime before this period. Eventually it split into rival groups, Avestan-speaking peoples who became Zoroastrian Iran, and Vedic Sanskrit speakers who became Brahmanist/Hindu India. Sounds like this was part of the northern fringe of Avestan. Avestan isn't nearly as well known as Sanskrit, and some good archaeology in this area could tell us a lot about the early migrations of Indo-European.

This is probably not, however, some "previously unknown culture." Raphael Pumpelly, who the article cites, excavated Agau in Northern Persia in 1903, and the new work seems to connect Agau to a much wider area. Sounds like the richness and complexity of this culture might be a surprise, though.

The "wow" factor in this article seems to be four written sign on a seal that aren't clearly Iranian, Indic or Chinese. Writing in the western sense (alphabetic writing, as distinct from the few other systems--Chinese, Mayan and a couple others) seems to have emerged precisely *once* in the history of the world--every other alphabetic writing system developed out of Mesopotamian cuneiform. So any system that can't be classified as part of that lineage, but isn't Chinese either, is potentially a big deal. However, this new find is only four signs, and who knows if they're even writing (as opposed to some other kind of symbol system)? Avestan itself wasn't written down until the third century CE, so we have little idea what writing system--if any--would have been used in this early period. It'll be interesting to find out more.
posted by rodii at 6:25 PM on May 6, 2001

Rod, every form of writing involves phonetic representations -- even Chinese.

In the case of Chinese, when it was first created it was in fact phonetic for the language spoken at the time. But the language changed quite a lot, and the culture of China was such that the writing system wasn't permitted to, and now it really isn't very phonetic anymore. But it was originally.

Egyptian, Mayan and Chinese written languages derived their phonetic elements from the rebus, but they are phonetic nonetheless.

All three of them also include meaning-symbols, but then so did a lot of the early writing forms derived from cuneiform. This was a common solution to reducing unintentional punning, and such symbols are found in Minoan Linear B, for example. (Not quite as a formal part of the language, but they abound in the extant writings and are clearly intended to indicate the meaning of the words near them.)

And it's not correct to say that all modern alphabetic writing forms are descended from cuneiform: Japanese Kana is alphabetic and is an independent creation. Kanji is borrowed from the Chinese, and the two are mixed in common usage, but the Kana letters are exclusively alphabetic, as indicated by the fact that they can be used to represent words in foreign languages like English.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:57 PM on May 6, 2001

Steven, do you see the word phonetic in anything I wrote?

With respect, you don't know your facts on this. Kana is not an independent creation. Hiragana arose as a cursive style of writing kanji, and katakana was an offshoot. But neither form of kana is alphabetic anyway--they are both syllabaries.

True alphabets--the Greek and Latin scripts of Europe, plus a few extinct ones (Futhark, Ogam, Glagolithic), the various Aramaic-descended scripts of the Middle East (including Arabic, Hebrew and all the scripts of India and Southeast Asia), and Coptic--are all descended from the Proto-Canaanite script of the early second millenium BCE. There have been modern inventions (the Cree, Inuit and Cherokee syllabaries) but they have all been done inder the influence of the alphabet.
posted by rodii at 7:43 PM on May 6, 2001

So anyway, sorry for the distraction. Some sources on what turns out to be called the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex. Here's the best overview of it I've seen (and it's from a weblog!); here's an interesting page from the remarkable (great place to learn about the Indus Valley script); and here's an odd article, mostly notable for having some nice images, about how the BMAC might have been a source for textile motifs in the Middle East/Iran region.
posted by rodii at 7:54 PM on May 6, 2001

rodii is right there, Steven.

...don't mess with rodii, especially when on his home turf. ;-j

There's no reason to assume that this writing is alphabetic, all that has been mentioned so far is that there are four "letters" (i.e. symbols) found. It's is far more likely to be some kind of hieroglyphic or cuneiform-like system.

Alphabetic representation was a innovation which dramatically increased the spread of literacy but it developed (presumably for an economic reason) after a millennia of using the cumbersome old systems. Before that writing was in the exclusive domain of priests and scribes who had little need to communicate outside of their small circles.

If this writing proves to be proto-Indo Iranian, not being alphabetic may help explain why it was forgotten so easily (i.e. rather than becoming the basis of Persian and Sanskrit writing which are both alphabetic).
posted by lagado at 8:13 PM on May 6, 2001

These Central Asian discoveries are facinating. Not completely unknown but mainly unknown in the West, I guess. A little like the the Mummies of the Tarim Basin kicking around in a remote Chinese museum before being "discovered" by Westerners.

I guess those Bactrians must have had something going for them for Alexander to have bothered going out there to conquer them.
posted by lagado at 8:24 PM on May 6, 2001

Persian and Sanskrit writing which are both alphabetic

I'm totally wrong there, aren't I? Old Persian was written in cuneiform. What about Sankrit?
posted by lagado at 8:30 PM on May 6, 2001

Care to explain what it is that you think alphabetic means, that distinguishes the european written forms from the ones created elsewhere?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:53 PM on May 6, 2001

Sanskrit was written in some form of Brahmi, I think probably Devanagari. Brahmi is the oldest type of Indian alphabet (3rd c. BCE), based on West or South Semitic scripts. It's the script that all Indian languages, plus Burmese, Tibetan, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Javanese, Cham and others are based on.

Sanskrit's written form is quite late--it was long dead as a vernacular by the time it was written down. So there never really was a "Sanskrit writing" per se. Avestan was written down about the same time, in Pahlavi, which was like the Brahmi of Iran, long after the BMAC.

I'm really boring, aren't I?
posted by rodii at 8:53 PM on May 6, 2001

By the way, Minoan Linear B (an early form of Greek) was almost exactly the same as Kana is, with each symbol representing a consonant sound followed by a vowel sound (with the vowel sounds often being dropped in practice). In both cases the letters can be placed in a grid with consonant sounds on one axis and vowel sounds on another. That was, indeed, the discovery made by Alice Kober about Linear B which permitted Michael Ventris to crack it. And I didn't claim that Kana appeared out of whole cloth, I claimed that it wasn't derived from Babylon.

But evidently alphabet has some specific meaning for you beyond what I think it means and one which is somehow important, so it's difficult for me to talk about it without knowing what you think it means.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:04 PM on May 6, 2001

Steven: alphabetic means that there is a symbol for (roughly) each distinct phoneme in the language. There are some variations on this: consonantal scripts (like some ways of writing Hebrew and Arabic) only have symbols for a subset of the phonemes; syllabic-alphabetic scripts (like most Indian scripts, or Ethiopic, can use one symbol to represent one "default" type of syllable (ka), and add others to modify it for other types (ko, ki, ku, ke)

(This isn't what I "think" it means, by the way, this is what it means. I trust you on cell phones; you can trust me on linguistics.)

Syllabic scripts (like kana, Linear B or Cherokee) have a distinct symbol for each syllable (so ka, ko, ta and to all have their own symbols). Syllabic systems usually have more symbols than alphabetic systems. However, they work best in languages, like Japanese, in which syllables have a fairly simple structure (which means there aren't too many distinct syllables).
posted by rodii at 9:06 PM on May 6, 2001

Then if early Greek (Linear B) was syllabic but later Greek was "alphabetic" then is Greek considered a separate invention of the alphabet?

And does English count as "alphabetic" considering that it has 26 letters but something like 45 phonemes? Indeed, dictionaries have to include many special characters to represent all the missing ones (usually by adding diacriticals to existing letters).

(Rod, I don't kowtow to anyone who says "I'm an authority"; I accept what they say if they can justify their position. Equally, I don't expect anyone to accept what I say about embedded software just because I say so; so when I make a statement about my area of expertise I try to back it up. [I argue with doctors about medicine, too.])
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:12 PM on May 6, 2001

Greek borrowed the Phoenician alphabet, according to Herodotus, and modern scholars agree. See it happen.

Yes, English is alphabetic. The correspondence is rarely exact, since the phonology of most languages changes more rapidly than their scripts do. The essential point is that if it were syllabic (the next step up on the complexity ladder) it would have to have a couple hundred distinct symbols.

(Steven, I'm not asking you to "kowtow"--but I might ask what gives you the "authority" to "correct" people, as you did in your first post, if not the assumption that you know what you're talking about. You know me; I may be wrong sometimes but I don't just talk out of my ass any more than you do. Give me some credit.)
posted by rodii at 9:26 PM on May 6, 2001

Thanks for the clearing up the Sanskrit question, rodii.

Didn't the Mycenaean Greeks also borrow the Linear B syllabary from the (non-Greek) Minoans in the first place? Anyway from what I understand the Linear B system didn't suit Greek very well and couldn't represent a lot of those crazy Indoeuropean sounds.

What is the main point of superiority of alphabets that helped them spread do you think? I'm guessing that (based on tons of examples) apart from being easier to learn than syllabaries they are more flexible and can adapt to a wider range of languages.

Kowtow, btw, is great word (bang-head, haha).
posted by lagado at 10:15 PM on May 6, 2001

Q: What is the main point of superiority of alphabets that helped them spread do you think?

A: The essential point is that if it were syllabic (the next step up on the complexity ladder) it would have to have a couple hundred distinct symbols.

Forget I asked, hey, look over there!!
posted by lagado at 10:24 PM on May 6, 2001

Lagado, the main result learned from the decipherment of Linear B was precisely that the language they spoke was Greek, and by implication they themselves were also Greek. This shattered the previous orthodoxy that the Minoan civilization was somehow separate.

Rod, how does one have any discussion without disagreement? It's no fun talking to people who never say anything except "Uh-huh; you're right!"

By the way, I was really hoping no-one would bring up any chauvinistic ideas about one way of doing writing being somehow superior to another. Alphabets (as defined by Rod) and syllabaries each have advantages and disadvantages.

I'm also not convinced that Kana is "more complex" in toto; it's more complex in the sense that more symbols are involved, but each symbol is unambiguous and their use is very regular. English spellings, on the other hand, are a real mess; English is about 300 years overdue for a spelling reform, but it probably won't happen. (There exists a book by Dr. Suess, not one of the kid's books, called "The tough coughed as he ploughed the dough.")

"Different" I'll accept. "More complex" is harder to justify. "Better/Worse", no way.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:02 PM on May 6, 2001

A grapheme may be defined as the smallest unit in a writing system capable of causing a contrast in meaning. With alphabetic writing, there is a direct correspondence between graphemes and phonemes.
The statement that every form of writing involves phonetic representations has to be qualified- remember its a fuzzy historical boundary between "writing" and "drawing" (etymologically as well in many languages) and a grapheme may be a recognizable picture of an entity as it exists in the the world, e.g. wavy lines representing the sea. Thus non-phonological writing exists- e.g. pictographic road signs. The red circle with a line through it is a grapheme not tied to phonetics. So, e.g., your about to be ex girlfriend might A.) send a letter saying "we're through" or B.)send a picture of you inside that red circle of negativity with the line bisecting your face. Either way-you'd get the meaning. So is A a "writing" and B merely a "drawing"? Me-i say its just symbolic communication either way while i drink bourbon over icecubes frozen fresh from my own tears.
posted by quercus at 11:23 PM on May 6, 2001

I think you might be forgetting about Linear A, Steven.

The orthodoxy still stands, the Minoans of Crete were a separate civilization with their own language. Ventris and Kober both argued that Linear A and Linear B were (while undeniably related systems of writing) of two different languages.

It is now accepted that Linear A was used to write the Minoan language and Linear B was adapted to write the language of the (previously illiterate) Greeks who invaded the island and brought it under Greek control.
posted by lagado at 11:33 PM on May 6, 2001

I respect your call for neutrality as to the ranking of various writing systems-i do believe you might say that some systems are more efficient than others. It's like doing long division with Roman versus Arabic numerals-the result is the same-but the Arabic numerals are just better suited to the task- Alphabetic writing is just that-more efficient
posted by quercus at 11:33 PM on May 6, 2001

Welcome to Mefi, quercus!

While you can communicate in a way (i.e. poorly) with pictographs like road signs, no written language (including Chinese, ancient Egyptian and Mayan etc) operates purely in the symbolic. There is ultimately always a correspondence between the symbol and the sound of the spoken word.
posted by lagado at 11:43 PM on May 6, 2001

I'm also not convinced that Kana is "more complex" in toto

I think rodii's point is that syllabaries like kana work well with some languages such as Japanese which have relatively few syllables.

re: my point about "superiority": yes, it's the wrong word to use, I simply should have pointed to the "success" of alphabets in getting adopted around the world by so many diverse languages (with a few few notable exceptions like Japan, China and Korea).

There are some advantages to other writing systems, Chinese children are said not to suffer from the kinds of dyslexia that can often afflict alphabet readers. Of course they still can have their own kinds of reading difficulties but it indicates that different parts of the brain are used to read this kind of writing.

As for English spelling reform, English spelling ain't that bad really.
Hou tu pranownse Inglish

and from the same source, for some interesting insights into Chinese writing and how good it is.
If English was written like Chinese
posted by lagado at 12:00 AM on May 7, 2001

thanks for the welcome Lagado-"no written language operates purely in the symbolic" eh? I know what you mean- still-a fascinating topic-considering spoken words are themselves merely symbols-symbols of what-there's the rub, e.g what is "justice"? The point i was going for is historically-i believe-writing evolved from drawing when some anonymous genius realized he could draw a sound-and the line between writing and drawing is a fuzzy one-not a discontinuity as some posit.
posted by quercus at 12:04 AM on May 7, 2001

To clarify-writing is merely a specialized form of visual representation-it's the drawing of sounds-the real question is-what do words themselves represent? i.e. What is the prelinguistic idea soup in our minds that we use words to represent? Thoughts must be represented in the mind prior to their embodiment in concrete phonological form? right? how else could we learn a new concept if the words had to be there already? But is this idea-soup itself a protolanguage of a further basic level in a infinite regression down to what? the mind of the earliest cells?-beats me
What is a thought?
posted by quercus at 12:26 AM on May 7, 2001

While we are on the topic of ancient languages, can anyone point me to any research work on why and how any particular culture decided for or against a written form?

One of my friends brought this up a few days ago, that rarely are there any written form of any tribal African language. My guess was that most languages incorporated a written form to keep track of property records and religious and social laws. Many African tribes just didn't need those records, and knew the tribal customs well enough that they did not need any reminder a la the Tablets of Hamburabi. (This is true of the preservation of the Holy Quran. Not until there were significant number of Hafiz - people who had memorized the Quran - were killed at a war did Uthman decide to compile the entire Quran in one piece. There did exist written copies of the various verses, but, only a dire need for preservation moved Uthman to compile the entire book in one volume.)

Not to give anyone the wrong impression, I should clarify that I am not implying anything racist towards any group/race etc. I am just curious as to if there have been any significant research about the lack of written from in tribal African languages and how it all fits into the big picture of how and when did the various cultures decide that they needed a written form of the language they speak.
posted by tamim at 12:42 AM on May 7, 2001

I think that you had the answer already in terms of writing fulfilling a social need. Civilizations which develop into powerful agricultural societies also develop elites, taxation and the need for accurate record keeping. From there the written word serves the needs of the religious order. Once they get around to amassing enough man-power to build megalithic architectural projects I think they need some kind of decent writing system.

A possible counterexample to this is the Incan civilization which got by using some kind accounting system which was based on tying knots on a bunch of strings. (This may have been a writing system but it is no longer understood).

It would be interesting to know if the Zimbabwe civilization of Southern Africa ever developed a written language to go with its impressive architecture. Unfortunately (at least for my theory) no evidence there of writing has been found.

The Arabs in your example had been literate for millennia before the Quran. So had the Yemenis, Ethiopians and of course the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hebrews and Phoenicians.

I think a good introduction to this notion of social development begetting the need for writing is in the book:
"Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond
posted by lagado at 1:25 AM on May 7, 2001

What is a thought?

Okay, now it's getting harder... What are words and how do they map to thoughts? What are thoughts?

posted by lagado at 1:30 AM on May 7, 2001

I did not mean to imply Quran begat the Arabic language. I was just illustrating the "pressing need to keep records" that made them compile already existing copies of various verses.

Is there any culture[s] that rejected a "written form" of their language? Is there any group[s] of people still in existance without any form of written communication? And how did some of these civilizations without any written language build thier cities/towns without any blueprints or measurements?

BTW, lagado, I answered without any qualified proof. For the sake of good-ol' academic incest, are there any other research papers on these theories? [Or do I have to wait for re-runs of "In Search of" on A&E ?] (j/k)
posted by tamim at 1:40 AM on May 7, 2001

So if we can leave aside this vicious flamewar {deadpan} on Linear B and alphabetic systems ...

What is the significance of the BMAC in terms of what was previously known about the region? Was this area simply considered to be like other areas on the margins, a fringe pre-literate civilization that was absorbed as technology and social structures spread out from the Fertile Crescent? Does the fact that it seems to have been something more throw any monkey wrenches into conventional wisdom about that spread? What does it suggest about other regions: is it possible other such civilizations have been overlooked because of academic assumptions, or is it simply a matter of having been locked away in the USSR for so long? What can we say about the independent influence it may have had on northern nomadic peoples?

And does anyone else see BMAC and think, "Bactrian Margiana Athletic Club"?
posted by dhartung at 5:28 AM on May 7, 2001

Is there any culture[s] that rejected a "written form" of their language? Is there any group[s] of people still in existance without any form of written communication? And how did some of these civilizations without any written language build thier cities/towns without any blueprints or measurements?

There are certainly cases of people losing the written word, the Archaic Greeks and their Linear B script is a good example. This was associated with the collapse of their society around 1200 BC into a "Dark Age" before it reemerged again in its more well known form with Homer and the (phoenician) alphabet. In the process they also lost nearly all recollection of that previous civilization.

The Mayans also stopped using their writing or atleast appeared to do so when they stopped building monumental architecture around 800 AD. Nevertheless there were enough readers and writers of Mayan alive in 1566 for the Franciscan Diego de Landa to be able to write down a crude mapping of the Spanish alphabet to Mayan symbols (and thus create a kind of "rosetta stone" text which later became invaluable to modern decipherers).

I don't know of other advanced civilizations abandoning their writing system other than to either pick up a new one or as a consequence of some catastrophic collapse.
posted by lagado at 6:49 PM on May 7, 2001

What are words and how do they map to thoughts?

Oh, you don't even want to begin to hear all the stuff that semanticians have to say on the subject. You really don't want to hear the fights they have about it (though you might enjoy hearing about some of the fights on the subject--Randy Allen Harris has a nice layman-friendly account of the bad blood spilt over it in the '70s).

Once again, I've gone hideously off topic. Drat. Sorry, I just can't help myself when it comes to my beloved object of study.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:52 PM on May 7, 2001

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