Updated 8 July 2013.
Lecture given at Columbia University, 25 September 2012.
Steve Farmer, Neurobiology and Manuscript Cultures: The Evolution of Premodern Religious and Cosmological Systems
. (Click for Abstract
Lecture at the University of Strasbourg, France, 9 October 2011. Steve Farmer, Twisted Tales: Spurious Claims of Postural Yoga in Ancient India.
(Click for long abstract.) Mainly fictional accounts of the origins of
yoga are used in the paper to discuss common problems in studies of
comparative mythology in general and premodern India in particular.
Lecture at Harvard University, 8 October 2010. Steve Farmer and Michael Witzel, Indus Valley Fantasies: Political Mythologies, Academic Careerism, and the Poverty of Indus Studies.
for long abstract.) The title "Indus Valley Fantasies" is
reserved for a book on distortions of ancient history
promoted by right-wing Indian nationalists and Western
archaeologists and Indologists too meek to challenge them. That failure
is not innocuous, given the uses these distortions serve in
supporting reactionary social structures in India that affect
hundreds of millions of so-called Dalits or "untouchables," etc.
Overview of materials below.
Data are found below on theoretical issues in studies of the evolution
of thought as well as on the so-called "Indus script" issue - which was
certainly not a writing system as linguists use those terms (on claims by Rao et al. that defend older views, see studies below).
A popular article on the global controversy on this triggered by a paper Richard Sproat, Michael Witzel, and I wrote in
2004 (Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel, Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis), appeared in the
March-April 2010 edition of Archaeology magazine.
You'll also find data below on the Cultural Modeling Research Group, a
network of researchers in cultural history, philology, computational
linguistics, and related fields founded in 2008 by me, Richard Sproat,
Michael Witzel, and the physicist Bill Zaumen. Part of our work
involves new simulation software applicable to modeling
evolution in general. For an overview of our work, beyond the materials
below, see the abstract of a comprehensive paper we are currently
writing: S Farmer, W Zaumen, R Sproat, J Henderson, B Farmer, and M
Witzel, Simulating the Past and Predicting the Future:
Brain-Culture Networks and the Evolution of Thought.
The paper deals with how brain-culture networks have been transformed
by demographic forces and innovations in communications from the first
extensive appearance of external symbols ca. 50,000 years ago through
the present information revolution. The paper includes a number of
illustrative simulations built with our new cultural modeling software.
Link to the Indo-Eurasian_Research
moderated by Steve Farmer (comparative history, cultural neurobiology),
Michael Witzel (Harvard: Indology, comparative
mythology, linguistics), Lars Martin
Fosse (Oslo: Indology, linguistics), and Benjamin Fleming (University
of Pennsylvania: Indology, comparative religion). The List focuses on
premodern studies globally.
Core members are located in South Asia, Iran,
China, Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, Australia, Japan, and the
United States. The List is mainly aimed at professional
researchers, but lurkers are welcome.
Book-in-progress: Brains and history: The evolution of thought. Integrates neurobiology with evolutionary studies of
major world religious and philosophical traditions; contains further descriptions of our computer simulations.
Link to book description and PDF extracts, Syncretism in the West: Pico's 900 theses (1486).
My 1998 book on Pico's strange Roman debate -- his Latin text promises discussion of various methods leading to the discovery "of everything knowable" (de omni re scibili)
-- was meant as a "laboratory" to study how premodern
religious, philosophical, and cosmological systems evolved in textual traditions world-wide. The origins
of much of the broader model of brain and cultural interactions I
develop in later studies can be traced to this philological "laboratory." See here,
e.g., the text
and notes in that book's Theoretical conclusions, pp. 91-6.
Top article downloads (see also the papers in the further links above):
- Steve Farmer, The neurobiological origins of primitive religion: Implications for comparative mythology (preprint). Just appeared in October 2010 in New Perspectives on Myth
(Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Conference of the International
Association of Comparative Mythology, Ravenstein, The Netherlands.) Introduces the first testable neurobiological model of the origins of religion and includes an historical overview of earlier naturalistic models.
- Steve Farmer, Neurobiology, stratified texts, and the evolution of thought: From myths to religions and philosophies (Harvard
and Peking University International Conference on Comparative
Mythology, Bejing. A slightly revised version
of this paper (unfortunately omitting the abstract) appeared in
2009 in Cosmos (Edinburgh, pub. date given as 2006). The paper traces the evolution of my
work from traditional comparative
history to cultural neurobiology over the last two decades and includes
a capsule summary of simulations of how traditional religious and
philosophical systems arose over long periods. Tests of
the brain-culture model developed in the paper are proposed that
include the so-called
Indus script and newly discovered Chinese tomb texts.
- Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and
Michael Witzel, The collapse of the Indus-script thesis: The myth of a literate
Harappan civilization. EJVS 11-2
(13 Dec. 2004): 19-57. (Hundreds of thousands of downloads
since its publication.) See on the violant international debate this article generated Science 2004
(306): 2026-9. On my collaborators, see Richard
(computational linguistics, now at the Center for Spoken
Language, Division of Biomedical Computation, Oregon Health and Science
University) and Michael
Witzel (Indology, comparative mythology, and linguistics, Harvard University). Abstract
of our original 2004 paper, which has spawned hundreds of newspaper
articles and violent reactions from Indian nationalists:
Archaeologists have long claimed the Indus Valley as one of the four literate centers of the early
ancient world, complete with long texts written on perishable materials. We demonstrate the
impossibility of the lost-manuscript thesis and show that Indus symbols were not even evolving in
linguistic directions after at least 600 years of use. Suggestions as to how Indus symbols were used are
noted in nonlinguistic symbol systems in the Near East that served key religious, political, and social
functions without encoding speech or serving as formal memory aids. Evidence is reviewed that the
Harappans’ lack of a true script may have been tied to the role played by their symbols in controlling
large multilinguistic populations; parallels are drawn to the later resistance of Brahmin elites to the
literate encoding of Vedic sources and to similar phenomena in esoteric traditions outside South Asia.
Discussion is provided on some of the political and academic forces that helped sustain the Indus-
script myth for over 130 years and on ways in which our findings transform current views of the Indus
Valley and of literacy in the ancient world in general.
On spurious recent claims by Rao et al., see next item.
- Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Wizel, A refutation of the claimed refutation of the nonlinguistic nature
of Indus symbols: Invented data sets in the statistical paper
of Rao et al. (Science, 2009). See also the technical plots and discussion, with links to other deadly critiques of Rao et al. by leading computational linguists, at more on Rao. Later claims by Rao et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS] that Markov
models suggest that Indus symbols were supposedly part of an ancient writing
similarly trivial to debunk: crude structure in the absurdly short
groups of Indus symbols (averaging if all relevant
materials were included far under 4.5 signs per supposed "text") has been known
1920s and is a feature of all symbol systems -- not as Rao et al. oddly claim only those that encode language. (We discussed this long before Rao's work in Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel 2004 [pp. 20ff. and n. 5 and passim] and Sproat and Farmer 2006 [esp. p. 8ff]. Cf. also Richard Sproat's rightly dismissive note on Rao's claims here). The smoke and mirrors in the work of Rao et al.,
which via press
releases generated lots of attention in the pop press (especially in
India), is discussed in further detail in an expanded
version of a paper we gave at the critical Indus conference held in
Kyoto, Japan, on 29-31 May 2009. For an abstract of that paper (expanded
version with other conference papers to appear in early 2010), see Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel, The collapse of the Indus-script thesis, five years later:
Massive nonliterate urban civilizations of ancient Eurasia.
As the title suggests, the paper discusses implications of the
nonlinguistic nature of Indus symbols that reach far beyond India, radically
altering our views of
ancient urban societies in general. It also responds to polemical
2004 paper from Indian nationalists and researchers
have heavily depended on the Indus-script myth. For more on what
Indus symbols were (and weren't), see other materials in the sections
below. Back to top of page.
Farmer, W Zaumen, R Sproat, and M Witzel.
the evolution of political-religious extremism: Implications
for international policy decisions. (Working paper #1, The Cultural Modeling Research Group [CMRG],
2008, 2009.) The simulation software described in this
early working paper is now complete and is
being released on a limited basis to cultural researchers. A general
release of the software along with
several papers applying it is planned for mid 2010. (In its
final form specialized cultural simulations can be built with the
software without formal programming, using a graphic user
interface [GUI]. At present to use it you need knowledge of at
ideally some Java). Key
participants to date: W. Zaumen, S. Farmer, R. Sproat, J.B. Henderson, M. Witzel, and
B. Farmer, with others in a broad range of research fields soon to be
added. Inquiries are currently invited from professional
completed) interested in using the software to develop advanced
cultural simulations in archaeology, anthropology, historical
linguistics, philology, and related fields. We're currently (as of
early 2010) writing our first major paper on cultural modeling using the software. Write me for
further information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farmer, John B. Henderson, and Michael Witzel, Neurobiology, layered texts, and correlative cosmologies: A cross-cultural framework for premodern history, Bulletin
of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities
72 (2000 [written and published 2002]): 48-89. The first published paper to
seriously link neurobiology and the evolution of religious and
philosophical traditions, in a cross-cultural study of so-called
correlative systems (in China), bandhus or upanishads
(in India), and systems of correspondence (in the West). Hence the
collaboration of one Western specialist, one Chinese specialist, and
one specialist on premodern India and in writing the paper. The
first suggestion that the Indus civilization was not literate was a
direct prediction of the model developed in the paper (see the later
sections on tests of the model).
- Steve Farmer, John B. Henderson,
Michael Witzel, and Peter Robinson, Computer models of the evolution of premodern religious, philosophical,
and cosmological systems. (Online adjunct
of the article in the Bulletin of the Museum of Far
Eastern Antiquities noted above,
2002.) Discusses computer simulations
of the rise and fall of emergent self-similar structures (multilayered
mirroring cosmologies, scholastic hierarchies, Neo-Platonic
and Neo-Confucian systems, etc.) that evolved globally in key premodern types of textual traditions. Far more
sophisticated intelligent-agent network simulations extending the
methods discussed here are being planned using the cultural modeling
software developed by the Cultural Modeling
- Steve Farmer, John B.
Henderson, and Peter Robinson, Commentary traditions and the evolution of premodern religious and philosophical systems: A cross-cultural model.
This working paper, updated most recently in 2002, is
based on a lecture that the Sinologist John Henderson and I gave at the University
of Heidelberg in 1997. The paper presented our earliest theoretical views
of how multilayered hierarchies and other scholastic
structures were shaped cross-culturally in textual traditions.
The framework is provided by mathematical models
of nonlinear dissipative systems. Some but not all of the
data here show up the two papers noted above. See also from my 1998 book on Pico, theoretical conclusions (especially the notes on those pages), also written in this period.
- Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, Horseplay
in Harappa: The Indus Valley decipherment hoax, [cover
17 (19) (13 Oct. 2000): 4-11. For more links on this infamous story of
the connections between the extreme Hindu rightwing (the Hindutva
movement) and the myth of the so-called Indus script,
see other papers noted below. This paper has been downloaded several
million times since its first publication; it is widely used in
university classes on modern Indian politics.
- Steve Farmer, The first Harappan forgery: Indus inscriptions in the nineteenth century (2003). A short essay on the origins of
the Indus-script thesis, which prominent Western researchers slipped
in through the back door (along with a lot of fudged
evidence) in the 1870s and 1880s. Must reading for would-be
- Richard Sproat and Steve Farmer, Morphology
and the Harappan Gods. In Inquiries into Words,
Constraints and Contexts. Festschrift in the Honour
of Kimmo Koskenniemi on His 60th Birthday.
Preprint bound presentation version, Saarij”vi, Finland, 2005. Online
publication CSLI Studies in Computational Linguistics, Stanford
University, 2006. See the last part of the article on structure in the
so-called Indus script (which is no different from the kinds of
structure found in many other types of non-linguistic symbol systems).
few recent lectures. (Much of the data covered in these talks and
slide sets is still not formally published. I'm willing to share slides
with illustrations from these talks with serious researchers and science journalists, with a few restrictions:
- Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan, 31 May 2009. "The
collapse of the Indus-script thesis, five years later: Massive
nonliterate urban civilizations of ancient Eurasia. (With Michael
Witzel and Richard Sproat.) Paper abstract. Paper to appear in early 2010. Slides available on a limited basis (email me).
Kokugakuin University, Tokyo, Japan, May 2009. "The future of religious
education: Neurobiological, historical, and computational
approaches to comparative mythology and religion."
- University of Edinburgh, Scotland,
28-30 August 2007. "Methodological problems in studies of the global distribution of myths." Paper abstract.
- Stanford University, 11 July 2007. "The strange case of the so-called Indus script: Distinguishing writing from non-linguistic symbols." Paper abstract.
The paper was given at an international conference on my work with
Richard Sproat (now of Oregon Health and Science University) and
Michael Witzel (Harvard) beginning in 1999 debunking the so-called
"Indus script" myth.
University of California at Berkeley, 29 March 2007.
Society of Ethnobiology. Steve
Weber, Dorian Fuller, and Steve Farmer (Presenter: Steve
Farmer). "Seed, Plant, and Farming Signs in the Indus
Symbol System: New Methods for Studying Harappan Civilization." Paper
Abstract. A major paper on this, which describes how Indus symbols were used, is still in the works.
Further links (including early slide shows) on the so-called Indus script. (See also other resources above.)
discussion in the popular press (often quoting people whose whole
careers or nationalist views are intimately entwined with the
myth) has been so distorted, in 2004-5 we added the links in the box
below for fun. Our "One Sentence Refutation" is totally valid, but
it is only one of a dozen or so arguments, others far more formal, that
can be used to debunk the script myth. (No one will ever collect our
$10,000 prize, which one of these days we'll raise to $100,000 or more
without losing sleep):
- A feature story on the original Farmer,
Sproat, and Witzel paper (Collapse of the Indus-script thesis) appeared in the 17 Dec. 2004
issue of Science.
See A. Lawler, The Indus Script:
Write or Wrong? Science 2004
(there is also a funny Italian version based on a bad
translation). There are numerous errors in Lawler's story, but it
does faithfully reflect the fierce heated debate generated by our
paper, which criticizes all the script adherents cited in the
article by name. For those criticisms, see our
original paper. Another article on our paper appeared
in Facts magazine
(Switzerland) on 17 February 2005 (PDF, 600 K, Die
Sauberm”nner vom Indus).
Another appeared in Der
Tagesspiegel (Germany) on 21 February (Wer
die Zeichen zu deuten weiss). An abbreviated version
of the latter appeared in Der
(Austria) on 18 February 2005. A big-budget documentary for German
public TV (predicably sensationalistic and including annoying
faked evidence, including a huge Indus seal many times its real size being protected by a (hmm) cobra about to strike.
- On the extremely tiny size of all Indus seals, see Size Matters!
-- where it is compared to a proto-Elamite inscription (which too
doesn't quite contain "writing" in the linguistic sense).
given at the joint Harvard-Kyoto Roundtable in Kyoto, Japan,
on 6-8 June 2005. Steve Farmer, Steven A. Weber, Tim Barela,
Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel. Temporal
and Regional Variations in the Use of Indus Symbols: New
Methods for Studying Harappan Civilization. Abstract. See also our more recent Kyoto talk, above.
- Sixth Harvard University
Indology Roundtable, 8 May 2004. The mythological functions of Indus inscriptions: Eight conclusions arising from the nonlinguistic model of Indus symbols. 3.6
meg pdf including many slides. Introduces new data, some still unpublished, on the magical origins,
later ritual, administrative, and political uses, and sudden
disappearance of the Indus symbols. Also gives prima
evidence of human sacrifice in the Indus Valley. (We know for sure it
was there but know little yet of its scale. I've repeatedly made
suggestions at conferences, most recently this past May, as
to where to dig, but no one has taken those suggestions up yet, in
part because of security problems at the Harappan site [in
- University of Bologna, 15 January
analfabeti: Implicazioni teoriche delle ultime ricerche
sulla pi˜ antica civiltý indiana.
3.5 meg pdf. An English adaptation of parts of this Italian slide
lecture, which I gave in one of my favorite Italian cities (I was a
research fellow at Harvard's Villa I Tatti in Firenze at one time) is
found in the next slide set.
- The illiterate Harappans: Theoretical implications of recent studies of the first Indian civilization.
4.2 meg pdf. A superset of slides made up for talks at Washington State
University at Vancouver on 19-20 February 2004, combining materials
from earlier lectures. Put together a bit hastily, but it contains a lot of
still unpublished materials as to what the Indus symbols were and were not used for.
- Long Beach State International
Conference on the Beginnings of Civilization on the Indian
Subcontinent, 18 October 2003: 'Writing'
or non-linguistic symbols? The myth of the literate Indus
3.5 meg pdf. Most materials in this invited talk are now incorporated,
in updated form, in the slides above. I'm quite fond of the "Mr.
Symbol Head" artifact from Harappa, which I first discussed in this lecture.
2.5. Fifth Harvard University
Indology Roundtable, 10 May 2003. Five cases of 'dubious writing' in Indus inscriptions (1.6
megs). Working paper that presents the first detailed evidence that the Indus
symbols did not encode speech. The statistical arguments
developed here are now superceded by materials presented in Farmer,
Sproat, and Witzel 2004; but much of the data
here even now remains unpublished.
Additional background materials
on the so-called Indus script
Fairservis and the Indus Symbol Problem
(webpage). In the late 1960s, the great archaeologist Walter Fairservis
nearly became the first researcher to reject the old Indus-script myth,
but then went through an odd conversion due to unfortunate timing
(Parpola and his Finnish colleagues claimed they had "cracked" the
supposed "Indus code" in 1969) and spent the last 20 years
of his life trying to decipher the undecipherable. A cautionary tale to
archaeologists and would-be decipherers who mistake crude structure in symbols for evidence of "language encoding."
files from online discussions between 2002-2006 of the Indus question.
Parts but not all of these materials are incorporated in
the articles and slide lectures noted above.
discovered signs from Umm el-Marra: Linguistic or nonlinguistic? (Added
27 October 2006).
Indus "texts"? Another case of spurious evidence
(vs. Bryan Wells) u
do highway signs have in common with the 'Dravidian'
Indus-script model? A reductio ad absurdum (obviously made tongue-in-cheek, though many journalists have apparently missed that) of
the most famous argument advanced by Indus-script adherents
(small pdf file).
predictions concerning unique Indus signs (makes
predictions concerning findings in the still unpublished
third volume of the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions).
From 2003, with minor update in 2009. All indications by 2009, reinforced by each new dig, confirm that "Sproat's Smoking Gun"
(first discussed at Harvard in 2003) holds.
(pseudo)reconstructions of Indus inscriptions (reviews
a strange 'reconstruction' of some Indus inscriptions
by Fairservis that illustrates one way in which those
inscriptions are commonly distorted).
odd (pseudo)reconstructions (looks
at three different 'reconstructions' [not so labeled]
of a single inscription by Mackay, Parpola, and Mahadevan
as another example of such distortions).
Papers on extreme Hindu
nationalist manipulations of ancient history: The famous 'Horseplay in Harappa' incident
The following articles, accompanied
by comments by Romila Thapar, Asko Parpola, Iravatham Mahadevan,
Richard Meadow, and other researchers, can all be accessed
- Michael Witzel and Steve
in Harappa: The Indus Valley Decipherment Hoax, [cover
17 (19) (13 Oct. 2000): 4-11. Widely read in university classes.
At the time Michael and I wrote this, we hadn't yet entirely rejected
the old script
model; hence the discussion of the "direction of writing"in a sidebar story. On that
topic, which we know now is a non-issue (nonlinguistic symbols don't
necessarily have a fixed "reading" order), see the important
and often overlooked footnote 5 in our 2004 paper (Collapse of the Indus-script thesis).
Miscellaneous (Renaissance studies)
- Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, New evidence on the 'Piltdown Horse' hoax, Frontline 17
(23) (24 Nov. 2000): 126-129. See also articles on pp. 122-26, collectively entitled A
Tale of Two Horses. Hindutva black humor at its finest.
- Hindi translation of Michael
Witzel and Steve Farmer, Horseplay
in Harappa, with a supporting
editorial by Romila Thapar (New Delhi, 2001).
(in French) of Pico's nephew-editor Gianfrancesco Pico, an
extreme anti-syncretist who collaborated (with Girolamo
Savonarola) in the posthumous doctoring of Pico's works, has been published as Steve Farmer and
Steven Vanden Broecke, Jean-Francois
Pic de la Mirandole (c. 1470-1533), in Centuriae
latinae II. Cent une figures humanistes de la Renaissance (Geneva, 2006). We originally wrote the paper in 2000: so it goes with academic publishers.
I have an informal English translation of the work (in a PDF) that I will eventually publish; email me if you want a copy.