Helicobacter pylori and Out of India Theory

Helicobacter pylori
Helicobacter pylori (via Wikipedia)

This is not a picture of a galaxy, but of your stomach. What you see is Helicobacter pylori or H. pylori, a bacterium found in our stomach. This particular bacterium is found in the stomach of half of the world’s population and is more than 100,000 years old. When our ancestor left Africa on their worldwide migration, this bacterium was present in their stomach. Currently, that one strain has seven different variations tied to different geographies. Thus, there is a variation for Europe, few for Africa and a couple for Asia.
The current strain which is found in Europeans came from two sources Ancestral Europe 1 and Ancestral Europe 2 (AE1 and AE2). It is believed that AE1 originated in Central Asia and AE2 in North-East Africa. The admixture of these two strains occurred sometime between 10,000 and 52,000 years back.
A recent study, which looked at the gastrointestinal tract of a 5300 yr old iceman has revealed some interesting information about this person. This iceman lived in the Italian Alps and was probably a European farmer. When he was between 40 and 50 years old, he was murdered by someone using an arrow. He is called an iceman because his body was preserved  by freeze drying in a glacier.
Analysis of the bacterium revealed that he did not have the strain that most modern Europeans have. His strain was from India, especially North India. This strain was also the co-ancestor of the current European strain.  What this tells us is that the India strain was present in Europe during the copper age; there was a movement of people into Europe  during that period.  This strain, which was found in the iceman’s body is also different from the strain that modern Indians have. This tells us that that people went from India to Europe, stayed there and were genetically isolated from the Indian population. This isolated group became ancestral to the European strain.
If you look at the age of the iceman, you will find that he lived in 3200 B.C.E. This was the Early Period of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. According to the Invasion Theories, the invasion would happen almost a millennia later. Now evidence says that, while Sarasvati was flowing and many sites existed on its banks, there was an Indian strain of bacterium going Out of India. Was this iceman an original resident of North India who reached the Italian Alps or was he one of the descendants of an earlier migration? We don’t know.  But the fact that Indians moved to Europe should not come as a surprise. If you look at the trading hubs of the ancient world, this movement was quite common.
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References:

  1. The 5300-year-old Helicobacter pylori genome of the Iceman
  2. Supplemental Material

Neuroplasticity of Vedic Pandits

Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)
Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)

It is not easy to be a Vedic Pandit.

Professional Vedic Pandits undergo rigorous training in exact pronunciation and invariant content of these oral texts for 7 or more years, with 8–10 h of daily practice (totaling ~10,080 h over the course of the initial training), starting in their childhood, and mastering multiple 40,000 to 100,000 word oral texts (compared to ~ 38,000 in the book of Genesis). The training methods strongly emphasize traditional face- to-face oral learning, and the Yajurveda recitation practice includes right hand and arm gestures to mark prosodic elements.

There are special exercises to ensure that the Vedas are chanted without mistakes. Now a new study shows that such intensive study changes the brain both in the white matter and gray matter. Extensive memorization and verbal recital practice resulted in the following changes

We found massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increases in Pandit brains in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory. Differences in hippocampal morphometry matched those previously documented for expert spatial navigators and individuals with good verbal working memory. The findings provide unique insight into the brain organization implementing formalized oral knowledge systems.

There are few other interesting points from the paper

  1. The Pandits were highly competent in Sanskrit. They memorized large volumes of Sanskrit text and understood its complex morphology. They were multi-lingual as well. That was a contributing factor for the increased gray matter density.
  2. Another reason was the way of learning, using gestures and articulation. The result of using hand and arm movement could be seen in the brain. Indian classical  music students too use that extensively, especially hand movements.

Sharon Begley has written about the effect mindfulness has on the brain. The brain has the ability to grow new neurons and rewire itself. Now for those who wonder if learning a “dead” or communal language like Sanskrit is worth it, read the paper.
Reference:

  1. Hartzell, J.F., et al., Brains of verbal memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems, NeuroImage (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.027

 

How the RigVeda is memorized

(This is a guest post by reader Ranjith P, after he saw a RigVeda chanting exercise in a temple near his home)
As you might  know it is a puzzle that how is RigVeda,  a ~4000 year old text is still memorized and chanted without making any mistake. It turns out that  people have made many special exercises to make sure that each person understands each word in detail, and can chant it in any order.  Once such exercise is called vaaram which helps people  learn RigVeda word by word by reciting it in a complex ordered way.
For example, these are the verses from Book 1, Hymn 23

Now watch these being recited
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJ_DgbVqFhw&feature=em-upload_owner
The two persons chanting are Dr. Mannoor Jathavedan Namboodiri (first person) and Mr. Naarayanamangalam Visakh. The second part (second person) is from Rig Veda Book 8 Hymn 11
When you see the video, you will note a few things

  1. In the first few minutes you can clearly see some stones near the person. They use some stones and somehow generate a random number. And using this, they choose a random hymn  in RigVeda and start from there. They don’t pre-plan where to start. That means, they have to know the whole of Veda by heart
  2. They repeat  words like: alpha beta, beta gamma, gamma, delta etc (first word, second word, second word, third word, third word fourth word etc).
  3. At the end of each sentence (and randomly) they have to split words (spitting sanskrit words is tough) .
  4. If you imagine transmitting some information orally, after some generations, very likely that one will goof up long and short vowels. For example,  words like “devaa” could be mistaken for “deva” and “vayoo” for “vayu“. To avoid it, they have developed a way of chanting where they stress the long vowels very clearly by extending it a bit too long so that the “deergham” is very clearly conveyed orally

When the second person chants you can see the first person, using his fingers, at random locations, ask the second person to split words (to test whether he knows)
This vaaram is like a minor day-to-day version of the famous Kadvalloor Anyonyam. vaaram is only one of the exercises and there are many others as well.
PS: This event happened at the Edakkuda temple, Malappuram district, Kerala

The Culprits who found Vedic Sarasvati

In an article about the appointment of Yellapragada Sudarshan Rao, as head of the Indian Council of Historical Research, Mihir S Sharma writes the following in Business Standard (BS)

They argue that the earlier Vedas, which the Marxist-Missionary nexus describes as being from a pastoral society, were actually written in the Indus Valley Civilisation – sorry, the Saraswati Valley Civilisation. It provides conclusive proof, in the unquestionably Indic form of frequent assertion, that it was from India that the Aryans spread out to Iran, Central Asia, and finally Europe. Such claims are looked down on by evangelical Christian CIA agents like Chicago’s Caroline E Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions Bruce Lincoln, who describes them as “exercises in scholarship (= myth + footnotes)”. Eh, but what does he know.[Eminently funny historians]

The usage of the word Sarasvati Valley in this context is used to imply that it is a ridiculous terminology used only by people who support people like Mr. Rao about whom no one has heard of. I have no idea who this Mr. Rao is and do not wish to defend him or whatever he stands for.
There is something about the word Sarasvati Valley Civilisation though. That is not a terminology scholars use. A more popular use is Indus-Sarasvati civilisation based on evidence that most sites of the Harappan civilisation lie along the path of the non-mythical Sarasvati river. If this is a conspiracy, then there are many scholars in that list. Michel Danino writes about the use of this terminology and names the main culprits.

First, let us note that a few dailies, while reporting the Minister’s statement, rushed to stick the label “mythical” to the Saraswati river, parroting the Leftist historians who, since the mid-1980s have objected to any attempt to identify the Saraswati of the Rig-Veda with a real river within India’s geography (their objection would have been dropped if it was located in, say, Afghanistan). These historians and their followers in the media do not seem to know that the bed of the Ghaggar river running through Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and on to Cholistan (where it is known as “Hakra”) has been identified with the Vedic Saraswati since 1855 by generations of geologists, geographers, Indologists, archaeologists and remote sensing experts. They are too numerous to list here, but among them are F Max Müller, HH Wilson, RD Oldham, CF Oldham, Marc Aurel Stein, Louis Renou, Herbert Wilhelmy, Mortimer Wheeler, Raymond Allchin, Jonathan M. Kenoyer, Gregory Possehl…. This is also not the place to go into the arguments favouring this identification, but let me briefly recall that they include, first, the Rig-Veda’s description of the Saraswati as flowing “from the mountain to the sea”; second, the text’s specific mention of the river between the Yamuna and the Sutlej; and third, the existence of a small “Sarsuti” stream as a tributary of the Ghaggar. Indeed, a number of British maps, right from 1760 noted the Ghaggar-Saraswati association.[Saraswati, Ganga, and India’s vanishing rivers]

Indian Beads in the Mediterranean

Excavations conducted in Turkey, Greece and Israel has revealed stone beads that can be traced back to workshops in and around India. Among these sites, the oldest contact is with Israel dating from 3000 BCE to 400 BCE. This was before the Mature Harappan period (2600 – 1900 BCE) and after cotton from Balochistan was found at Dhuwelia in Eastern Jordan dating to 4000 BCE. This is also much before the formation of Israelites as people with a separate identity and much more closer to the period the first dynasties were getting setup in Egypt.

Following this, the next contact was with Turkey, dating from 2300 to 1180 BCE and with Greece (2200 – 1200 BCE).

The beads were all studied using a combination of stylistic analysis, raw material sourcing, and technological analyses of shaping and drilling using scanning electron microscopy (SEM). The 3rd millennium beads reveal the presence of different perforation techniques, including the wide spread technology of drilling with a pecking technique, and the use of tapered cylindrical stone drills. In addition, there is evidence for the use of emery abrasives with solid or tubular copper drills. The most significant discovery is the presence of beads perforated using constricted cylindrical stone drills that are characteristic of drilling technology of the Indus civilization (circa 2600-1900 BC). Some of the beads from later levels appear to have been drilled using single or double diamond drills which is a technique that also can be traced to the South Asian sub-continent. These discoveries provide a new source of information for trying to understand the complex exchange systems that linked the Mediterranean regions with West Asia and South Asia during the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. The identification of these long distance contacts and the long period during which they occurred has significant implications for other studies of technology, artistic styles, and even ideologies between these distant regions. [The 42nd Annual Conference on South Asia]

 

As I had written before, all of this is not surprising and these data points fit well into the model that has been constructed before. But here is an interesting thought: If traders from the subcontinent were traveling to far off places like Israel or exchanging goods via a trading network or if people from those regions in the Mediterranean were visiting the subcontinent, what was the language of trade? Was it Proto-Indo-European or something else?  If Indian traders or ideas were traveling West much before the mythical Aryan invasion time, who influenced whom?

New date for Chauvet Cave

If you have seen the the Bavarian film maker Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams(2010) about the Chauvet caves, you would be wonderstruck by the amazing paintings on the walls. The paintings were dated to around 30,000 years back, when the Neanderthal man roamed alongside humans. Now new data says, these caves were old, but not that old.

But its study – when one places it in its natural regional, cultural and thematic framework – makes it impossible to see it as an isolated entity of astonishing precocity. This needs to be reconsidered, and the affinities that our research has brought to light are clearly incompatible with the very early age which has been attributed to it. And if one extends this examination to the whole of the Franco-Cantabrian domain, the conclusion is inescapable: although Chauvet cave displays some unique characteristics (like every decorated cave), it belongs to an evolved phase of parietal art that is far removed from the motifs of its origins (known from art on blocks and on shelter walls dated by stratigraphy to the Aurignacian, in France and Cantabrian Spain). The majority of its works are therefore to be placed, quite normally, within the framework of the well-defined artistic creations of the Gravettian and Solutrean. Moreover, this phase of the Middle Upper Palaeolithic (26,000–18,000) coincides with a particularly intensive and diversified local human occupation, unknown in earlier periods and far less dense afterwards in the Magdalenian. A detailed critique of the treatment of the samples subjected to AMS radiocarbon dating makes it impossible to retain the very early age (36,000 cal BP) attributed by some authors to the painted and engraved figures of Chauvet cave.[New investigations into the cultural and stylistic identity of the Chauvet cave and its radiocarbon dating]

Camels and ashva, Hebrew Bible and Rig Veda

(by Martin Allen)
(by Martin Allen)

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv university, who were investigating the date when camels first appeared in Israel discovered something interesting. Here is the gist:

Now Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’sDepartment of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures have used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant, pushing the estimate from the 12th to the 9th century BCE. The findings, published recently in the journal Tel Aviv, further emphasize the disagreements between Biblical texts and verifiable history, and define a turning point in Israel’s engagement with the rest of the world.[Finding Israel’s First Camels]

This is interesting because the Genesis mentions the camels but those events in the Genesis, according to this new evidence happened before the camels arrived on the scene. For example, among the living beings that Abraham acquired, there were  sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. There are further mentions of a servant going from Northwest Mesopotamia to the town of Nahor on camels, providing water and food to the camels and an explanation of why one should not eat a camel.
If camels were not present in Israel while these events supposedly happened, then how did it appear in the text? There are two possible explanations: (1) The events happened not in an earlier period, but later after the camels appeared or (2) The events happened in the earlier period, but was written down in a much later period by scribes when camels were also present and camels were back projected to earlier events.
The New York Times had an exchange with an expert who suggested this answer

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”
Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.

There was no dissenting voice here; there was no scholar arguing against the historicity of the events. Compare that with the response in The Guardian. This also has to be contrasted with the relation between another animal and another text. The Rig Veda uses the word ashva over two hundred times, and according to some, horses arrived with the invading Aryans following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Thus the Vedic culture could have occurred only after the arrival of the Indo-European speakers to North-West India. According to Wendy Doniger in The Hindus, “No Indus horse whinnied in the night. Knowing how important horses are in the Vedas, we may deduce that there was little or no Vedic input into the civilization of the Indus Valley or, correspondingly, that there was little input from the IVC into the civilization of the Rig Veda.”
Most of this argument has been analyzed by Michel Danino and found to be suspect. Various scholars — linguists, archaeologists and historians — are proposing a higher chronology now. That debate is one with no end in sight. But will any scholar stick out his head and say that based on the evidence from Saraswati, the Vedas were composed much earlier than we thought when ashva was not around, but it may have been altered later and the ashva was added. If you do that the Wendytva proponents will be up in arms.

In Pragati: Evidence for the continuity between Harappan Signs and Brahmi letters

(Original published link)
Instead of a complete termination of one civilisation and the beginning of a radically new one, there was a period of both continuity and change.

Harappa
(Image used under Fair Use from The Art Newspaper)

One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.Though there are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, tablets and pottery, the writing has not been decoded.  One of the problems is that the writing is too short mostly being four or five symbols long. The decipherment is also hard because the Indus writing falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. While the easiest one is where the script and language are known, like English written using Roman alphabets, the most difficult one is where the script and language are unknown; the Indus writing falls into this category.
Now a 30 cm tall varaha found under the foundation of a home in Haryana is now providing an interesting clue into the later usage of the Indus-Saraswati script. This 2 kg, copper figure went on display for the first time in Brussels last year and will be exhibited at the National Museum in Delhi from March 6th for two months. According to the description which appeared in The Art Newspaper, “The figure has a cast relief on its chest of a unicorn-like animal, similar to motifs found on seals of the Harappa culture, which thrived until around 1900 BC.” But the most interesting part is the inscription above this creature; according to the curator  Naman Ahuja  the inscription represents “a combination of Harappan signs and Brahmi letters”, suggesting that it comes from “a period of overlap between the two cultures.” The inscription reads  “King/Ki Ma Jhi [name of king]/ Sha Da Ya[form of god]” and according to the curator, “looks unmistakably like the Hindu god Varaha”. The Uttar Pradesh archaeological department has accepted this as an antique piece and dates it to the second to the first millennium BCE.
(Indus valley seals showing unicorns)
(Indus valley seals showing unicorns)

Before going into the relation between Harappan signs and Brahmi letters, we need to pay attention to the unicon like figure on the varaha. In his book, The Wishing Tree: Presence and Promise of India, Subhash Kak writes about the importance of the unicorn in Sanskritic texts. The Puranas referred to Vishnu and Shiva as ekashringa or the one-horned-one. The Mahabharata describes the varaha as triple humped, as shown in the Harappan iconography. In some seals, the unicorn is shown with the horn coming from the side as mentioned in Sanskrit texts.
Michel Danino too writes about the unicorn, which has been found in three quarters of the seals found in the Indus region, in The Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvati. For Danino, the clues come from the Rig Veda. The Harappans added horns for not just the unicorn, but for tigers, serpents and various composite animals; the Vedic deities too have horns, sometimes even as high as four. The horn is prevalent all over the text: in describing how Indra destroyed the enemy’s den,  to describe Soma, or while mentioning how the sun god spreads truth. Danino concludes that it cannot be proved that the carefully executed unicorn stood for Indra, but the affinity with Vedic concepts calls for attention.
Now to the writing. India’s first script which we can read is written in Brahmi; Asokan inscriptions were written in Brahmi and so was early Tamil. Many of the Asian scripts such as Burmese, Tibetan, Cham, Malayan, Javanese, Sumatran and the Tagalog were all derived from Brahmi. Even the so called Arab numerals, which are actually Indic numerals are derived from Brahmi. That said, there are different theories regarding the origins of Brahmi. One theory suggests that it was derived from an earlier Indian script while the other suggests it was derived from Phoenician or South Semitic scripts.
(A fragment of an inscription in the Asokan Brahmi script. The inscription records Asoka’s Sixth Edict dating to 238 BCE.)
(A fragment of an inscription in the Asokan Brahmi script. The inscription records Asoka’s Sixth Edict dating to 238 BCE.)

Indologist and scientist Subhash Kak wondered if there was a relation between Brahmi which has 48 letters and Indus script which has more than 300 signs and what he discovered was absolutely stunning. In his paper, On the decipherment of the Indus script –  a preliminary study of its connection with Brahmi, he noted that letters of Brahmi could be combined to produce modified symbols and tabulating all the common modifications, he found they totalled between 200 and 300. He also identified the primary characters of the Indus script — ones which account for more than 80 percent of the signs — and they totalled 39 which is close to the letters in Brahmi.  Also just looking at the Brahmi characters, he was able to identify many characters in Indus symbols which visually look similar. With this insight and by  assigning sounds to those characters, Kak was able to read the names of Vedic deities into some texts. His work did not conclusively prove that Brahmi and Indus are related, but showed that the probability was high.
Continue reading “In Pragati: Evidence for the continuity between Harappan Signs and Brahmi letters”

In Pragati: Where is the Indo-European homeland these days?

(This article was originally published in Pragati)

The discovery of the relation between Sanskrit and European languages by Sir William Jones resulted not only in the birth of comparative philology, but it also initiated the search for the Indo-European homeland. There was no consensus on homeland location. In The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, Edwin Bryant writes, “The Indo-European homeland has been located and relocated everywhere from the North Pole to South Pole, to China. It has been placed in South India, Central India, North India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Urals, the Volga Mountains, South Rusia, the steppes of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic, western Europe, northern Europe, central Europe and eastern Europe.”

During the time of William Jones, scholarship was focussed on reconciling Indian history with theBible. In 1790, Jones reaffirmed the “sanctity of the venerable books (of Genesis)” and put the origins of Indian empire within the safe confines of Bishop Usher’s creation date of 4004 BCE. Under Max Muller, who claimed that Genesis was historical, the biblical heritage survived with the narrative that superior civilisations of Europe, Persia and India had one language family. Though India was initially considered as the homeland, by the 19th century that was no longer the case. Bryant writes, “The Indomania of the early British Orientalists did not die of natural causes; it was killed off and replaced by an Indophobia initiated by Evangelism and Utilitarianism epitomised by Charles Grant and James Mill respectively.”

The 19th century was also a period of racial science and it was encouraged by Orientalists in Madras who discovered that South Indian languages were not derived from Sanskrit. Following this discovery, Vedic texts were interpreted to read that white-skinned Aryans subdued dark-skinned and snub-nosed dasas. The similarity of Indo-European languages along with such heroic conquests led the search for the mysterious homeland from where these aristocrats set forth. With this the British could explain their presence in India as yet another wave of Aryan invasion, similar to the many waves that happened before. Once scholars started searching for the homeland, it turned out that you could throw a dart at a world map and there was a theory of origin from that place.

As of 2013, there are three homeland theories that are prominent. The first one — the Anatolian-Neolithic — proposes that Indo-European originated in Anatolia and spread through Europe along with the spread of farming. The spread of the language towards India was explained using two models. The first one proposed that the language spread eastward from Anatolia to India and the second one suggested that it was a later southward migration from Central Asia that bought the language to India. After going back and forth between these two models, the present version argues that Indo-European spread symmetrically westward to Europe and eastward to India. The second theory suggests that the homeland was not in Anatolia, but to the south of the Caucasus. The spread of the language did not happen with the spread of farming, but at a much later date. This theory also posits a secondary homeland located north of the Black and Caspian seas. The third one suggests that the homeland was located between the Volga and Dnieper (The Pontic-Caspian) during 4500–3000 BCE.

In a 2013 paper titled Twenty-first century clouds over Indo-European homelands, J P Mallory used the common notion that Anatolian was one of the first languages to split away in the proto-Indo-European framework to evaluate the three homeland theories. In the Pontic-Caspian model, the ancestors of Anatolians leave the region north of the Black Sea and move to Anatolia. Indo-European develops later in the Pontic-Caspian region and the speakers disperse both east and west in the Bronze age. The Near Eastern model presents crazy travel plans. First the Anatolians move out of Anatolia into the Balkans and Indo-European develops in that space. Before the Anatolians move back to their homeland, the Indo-Europeans move out requiring carefully choreographed movements of peoples. In the Anatolian Neolithic model, the Anatolians do not travel back and forth to the Balkans, but stay put. Instead the Indo-Europeans disperse around the world.

For each of the homeland theories and their paths of dispersal there are sufficient counter arguments that make it untenable or look ridiculous. To give an example, a theory presented in 2012, required two linguistic groups, and separated geographically for 2500 years to have similar linguistic changes. Mallroy writes, “the statisticians who devised this model seem to require some form of mutual contact at a distance, one of the stranger aspects of quantum theory that Einstein once dismissed as Spukhaftige Fernwirkung (“spooky action at a distance”) ”

A second problem with all these migration theories is this:  If agriculture was the source of language expansion, did the region from Anatolia to the Indus speak the same language at some point? Very often historians tell us that the invading/migrating Aryans changed the linguistic landscape of North-West India. If the agricultural spread theory is true, then it was not just the Indus languages that were changed. In the 2500 km distance from Anatolia to the farming community of Mehrgarh in Balochistan, there were four other non-Indo-European speaking regions (Hurrian, Semitic, Sumerian and Elamite) and the migration model requires major language shift in all these areas. Mallroy writes, “In any event, all three models require some form of major language shift despite there being no credible archaeological evidence to demonstrate, through elite dominance or any other mechanism, the type of language shift required to explain, for example, the arrival and dominance of the Indo-Aryans in India.”

One possibility is that the language did not spread through invasion or the current favourite — migration — or due to elite dominance, but due to demic diffusion. Peter Bellwood looked at the farming hypothesis and coupled it with new archaeological discoveries in the Gangetic plains, and proposed last year that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West two millenia earlier than expected. This gave possibility to the development of Vedic language in the region and not in Central Asia. It also provided the ability for the language to spread slowly rather than suddenly. Later in his life Max Müller questioned the concept of a single Proto-Indo-European language. Martin Lewis, a historical geographer at Stanford University, writes, “He [ Müller] further contended that speakers of these dialects might have spread their tongues not by way of massive invasions but rather through the gradual infiltration of relatively small numbers of people out of their Asian homeland.”

To paraphrase an Indo-European scholar, the right question to ask these days is not where the Indo-European homeland is, but rather, where do they put it now?  Since Indian history has been deeply tied to the movement of Indo-European people, it is important to understand the debate that is going on. If one has to be cynical of the whole enterprise, it has to come from an understanding of the complexity and not through a simplistic denial of the theory. In her book History of Ancient and Early Medeival India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century Upinder Singh wrote that most historians have
abandoned the idea of an Aryan invasion for a ‘several waves of migration’ theory. Though no one knows where they came from or which path they followed, Indian history is still firmly rooted in these external origins.

The problems with two centuries of linguistics do not end with diverse homelands or inconclusive paths of migration. There are fundamental issues on what languages belong to the Indo-European tree.  Where does Graeco-Armenian or Italo-Celtic belong? Is Tokharian an orphan or should it be associated with the German branch? A debate which is going on this year is if Basque, the ancestral language spoken by people living in the region spanning northeastern Spain and southwestern France, is an Indo-European language or not. These doubts, (See  An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India) which exist in Indo-European linguistics, is absent in Indian history narratives. There is not an iota of scepticism and a simplistic model still seems to be the norm.

In Pragati: Book Review of Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Margalit Fox reveals the life and struggles of the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, an unknown language in an unknown script, similar to Indus-Saraswati writing. 
One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. There are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, on tablets and on pottery; of the 400 signs, only 200 have been used more than five times. Decoding this writing would not only reveal details of life during that period, but also put an end to various debates over the identity of the residents of the Indus region. There has been no dearth of decipherments: many have read proto-Dravidian into the script and others Sanskrit. In The Lost River, Michel Danino writes that the only safe statement that can be made is that the seals played an important part in trade and permitted the identification of either traders or their goods.
Linear B Image
A sample of Linear B script
Decipherment of Indus writing is hard because it falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. The easiest one is where a known language is written in a known script, like English written using Roman alphabets. A difficult case is where a known language is written in an unknown script like when Rongorongo is used to write Rapa Nui. Equally difficult is the case where a known script is used to write an unknown language like when Greek alphabets are used to write Etruscan. The most difficult one is when the language and script are unknown and there is no help for the decipherer. The Indus writing falls into this category.
Linear B, the writing found on the island of Crete, belonged to this category as well but was decoded half a century after it was discovered. The writing was used by Minoans who flourished during the Bronze age following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. Found by an English digger named Arthur Evans, it was named Linear Script Class B. The decipherment story of Linear B might have turned into a dry academic discussion on the difference between proto-writing and writing or on if it was a memory aid for rituals or just meaningless visual art, but Margalit Fox makes it a fascinating tale as the decipherment is tied to the life of three unusual people: a glorified English tomb robber, a largely forgotten American classicist and a gifted English architect; it is the human element that adds depth to the mystery.
The three decipherers
The challenges that faced the decipherers looked insurmountable. When Evans found the tablets in 1900, there were no computers that could detect patterns or do statistical analysis. It looked as if we would never find out if the tablets would reveal a Western epic like the Iliad or just bland accounting records. Though there were no external clues from a Rosetta Stone, some information could be gleaned from the tablets. Evans, for example, figured out the direction of writing and the word breaks because they were separated by tick marks. He also figured out the numerical system used by the Cretan scribes. Some tablets, which had arrow signs on them, were found near a chest filled with arrows; the context gave an idea of what those tablets represented. Some of the tablets were found in the palace complex in boxes with pictograms representing the contents
Nothing beyond this was known when Alice Kober started work on the script in the United States of America. She was an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, who taught introductory Latin and Classics during the day and worked on deciphering the secrets of the Cretans by night. In preparation for the work, Kober learned many fields such as archaeology, linguistics, statistics. Since she was not sure about the language of the Linear B writing, she spent fifteen years studying languages from Chinese to Akkadian to Sanskrit. Without seeing the tablets and by looking the two hundred inscriptions that were available, she worked on them methodically and came close to solving the mystery. Not much credit was given to her in other books about Linear B decipherment and the book tries to correct that by detailing her contributions.
She solved many mysteries, which Arthur Evans or other scholars could not solve; this included figuring out which signs depicted male and female animals as well the sign for boy and girl.  A major breakthrough for Kober was the discovery that Linear B was inflected, which meant that they depended on word endings like adding -ed to denote past tense and -s to indicate plural. With this discovery, she was able to eliminate many languages, which don’t use inflection and focus on languages, which did. She was also able to figure out what was known as a bridging character, which enabled her to figure out the relative relationship between the characters in the script.
The last person mentioned in the book is the one who finally deciphered it. Michael Ventris, is a person who would have been dismissed by modern scholars as a quack for he was not a linguist or a classicist or a scholar in any other field of humanities; he worked as an architect. Like Kober, he too was obsessed with Linear B, even publishing a paper when he was 19. Unlike Kober, Ventris had access to larger number of Linear B symbols. As he sorted the characters based on their frequency and position, he found certain characters appeared at the beginning of the words.
He made one major intuitive leap, which Alice Kober failed to do, and with that he was able to solve the mystery. There were codes, which differed only in the last character and they were found only in Knossos which meant that those characters represented the name of the place. Now it was time to figure out what the words actually meant. Since Kober had figured out that it was an inflected language, he discarded Etruscan and considered other options like Greek. According to the wisdom at that time, Greek speakers arrived much later and so this would have been unacceptable. Ventris, then performed a second leap. During the Iron Age, a writing system called the Cypriot script existed. While the language remained a mystery, the sounds of the symbols were known as the script was used to write Greek following the Hellenization of Cyprus. As those sound values were substituted, the words began to make sense. By the time he was 30, he had solved Linear B.
Lessons for the Indus Decipherers
ten indus glyphs
Ten Indus glyphs discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira 
The people who worked on the decipherment faced great challenges, but they had some qualities that helped them makes progress. They were intelligent, had great memory and were single mindedly focussed on the issue. Margalit Fox explains in detail the tremendous skills that are required to find success in an impossible task like decoding an unknown script of an unknown language. You need rigour of the mind, ferocity of determination, a deliberate way of working, along with a flair for languages. When you are stuck with such a problem, where no external help is available and the problem looks unsolvable, you have to look closely for sometimes the clues lie in the puzzle itself revealing itself to the careful observer.
There is a certain orthodoxy in the Indus politics, which prevents scholars from considering that an Indo-European language was spoken in the region. Solely based on linguistics, it has been argued that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West India following the decline of the Indus civilisation and hence the language should not even be considered as a possibility. Thus most decipherments argue that the language spoken in Indus Valley was non Indo-Aryan. Similarly, for decoding Linear B, there was intense speculation on the language of the tablets, but Greek was ruled out because Greek speakers were known to have arrived later. Evans thought that the Minoan culture was different from the later Greek culture and there was no relation between the two. Alice Kober refused to play that game, refused to give sound values to the characters, and firmly said that the script had to be analysed based on the internal evidence devoid of the decipherer’s  prejudice. She was highly against starting with a preconceived idea and then trying to prove it.
Now even in Indus studies the data is pointing to interesting possibilities. A 2012 paper by Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Australian National University suggests that Indo-European speakers may have been present in Northwest India much earlier, maybe even two millennia earlier than previously assumed.  According to Bellwood, the urban Harappan civilisation had a large number of Indo-European speakers alongside the speakers of other languages which may have included Dravidian.
In a 2010 paper, Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who has been excavating at Harappa for three decades wrote that even though the Indus script has not been deciphered, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan co-existed in the region. Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a 2013 paper writes that Indo-European speakers may have reached Mehrgarh much earlier than 4000 BCE. With such information, there is a need to break away from the orthodoxy. (See “An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India”)
Maybe there is a scholar or an amateur who is as meticulous as Kober or as gifted as Ventris to whom the secrets of the Indus would be revealed, but the  decipherment of Indus script is hard because of the brevity of the seals; the average is five symbols. To figure out anything from seals averaging just five signs is an impossible task. Another possibility that could help is the existence of  a bilingual inscription in one of the regions with which the Indus people traded. For example, there existed an Indus colony in ancient Mesopotamia. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba. Scholars also found a  reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan (assumed to be a person from the Indus region) translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia.
Thus 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages. This also suggests that there could exist a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever.
Finally when it was decoded, the Linear B tablets did not reveal an epic like the Iliad or the Odyssey; they found a record of crops, goods, animals and gifts offered to gods. They revealed the working of the society, about the status of various holdings, and about the personnel who worked there. They revealed their food habits, religious habits and how they spent their time. It revealed the pyramidal structure of the Minoan society with elites at the top, craftsmen and herdsmen below them and slaves at the bottom. The tablets were predominantly economic and was concerned with keeping track of  the goods produced and exchanged.