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Aug. 27, 2009 -- An ancient, indecipherable text from the Indus Valley region is slowly being decoded with the help of a computer program, according to recent research.
Though it has yet to decrypt this mysterious language, the program may help to decipher other ancient texts whose meanings have been long since forgotten.
"The computer program operates on sequences of symbols, so it can be used to learn a statistical model of any set of unknown or known texts," said Rajesh Rao, a University of Washington professor of computer science and co-author of the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
"In fact, such statistical models have been used to analyze a wide variety of sequences ranging from DNA and speech to economic data."
To start the search for what meaning the text might hold, American and Indian scientists input the symbols into a computer program and then ran a statistical analysis of the symbols and where they appear in the texts. With that information, the program can do many things: create new, hypothetical Indus Valley texts, fill in missing symbols in existing texts, and tell the scientist if a particular text has been generated by their computer model. "We used the latter to show that the Indus texts that have been discovered in West Asia are statistically very different from the texts found in the Indus Valley," said Rao, "suggesting that the Indus people used their script to represent different content or language when living in a foreign land."
Although Harappan cities were vast — Mohenjo-daro could have been populated by as many as 50,000 people, a staggering figure for such deep antiquity — they have left behind few towering monuments or epic ruins. Instead, we have clues in miniature, a copper figurine of a mercurial dancing girl, for example, and a treasure trove of delicately carved seals, most no larger than a postage stamp.