The ZEE PINWHEEL, which I enumerate V21, is shaped something like our letter “Z” turned sideways. Alternatively, it may be considered a “ladder” in which the post on the right does not descend to the ground but stops at the bottom rung. In addition, the post on the left does not ascend above the top rung. In most cases, this zee-shaped PINWHEEL has three horizontal lines or rungs, but in some cases there are four (M-133 and M-425), in one case five (M-1087), and occasionally the striping is vertical (H-611). The whole PINWHEEL is tilted diagonally in two instances (M-636 and M-1320).
Inscription M-244 (Joshi and Parpola 1987: 61; hand copy showing ZEE PINWHEEL in usual final position).
This sign appears elsewhere as KP301, W494, and Fs I-13. Fairservis considers it a plow, defining it as both the noun and verb “plow.” Korvink classes it among the terminal signs, as it appears most often at the end of inscriptions. Wells states that there are six variants. Three of these are comprised of five strokes, two of six strokes, and one of seven strokes. Wells notes 27 occurrences altogether, with 15 from Mohenjo daro, seven from Harappa, and five from Lothal.
No Egyptian hieroglyphs closely resemble this Indus sign, although there is a winding glyph rather like a flattened “S” (F48). This glyph represents an animal’s intestine, functioning as a semi-ideograph in an expression meaning “in the midst of.” Luwian hieroglyphs do not have quite the same symbol either, although SOLIUM, “seat,” somewhat resembles two flattened, parallel “Z’s” turned sideways.
Proto-cuneiform comes close to the Indus ZEE PINWHEEL with UR4~b, a horizontal, three-striped version of this sign with one difference. One “leg” curves at the end, which is not the case in the Indus sign. The proto-cuneiform sign came to mean “to collect, gather,” as well as other things. Its “a” variant has six stripes and is vertical. Proto-Elamite has a different horizontal type, this one more resembling a fallen chair with uneven legs, each of which ends with a wedge (M025).
Inscription M-899 showing WY and two types of BEARER (Shah and Parpola 1991: 86; PhotoShop edited, colored, and enhanced for clarity).
Old Chinese also has a fairly close parallel, though it too has one curving line. This is er3, representing the ear, with that meaning (Wieger 1965: 313). The character is also more rounded than the Indus sign in the older writing. In modern Chinese, although the character has become squared off, it is also nearly rectangular as the 128th radical.
Old Norse runes include a somewhat similar shape to represent the “s” sound, with a single central “rung” (FUTHARK). There is one unclear variant of the ZEE PINWHEEL on a tablet from Harappa resembling this rune (H-207).
The second sign discussed here resembles a backward “y” executed in squared off fashion, hence my designation WY. I enumerate it V22 as it is the twenty-second of the five-stroke signs in my list. It also appears as KP302 and W493, but not in Fairservis. Wells notes that it is a singleton (M-899).
Inscription B-1 (Joshi and Parpola 1987: 344; hand copy, partial).
Note displacement of signs on right over horn of "unicorn" bull.
This variant of the MAN has feet and a round head.
I have not found an exact duplicate of this Indus sign anywhere else. It resembles the proto-cuneiform ZATU762~a, one variant of a square coil. This coil is flipped and rotated compared to the Indus sign, its two bent lines do not touch each other as the lines of the Indus sign do, and one of the horizontals of the Indus sign has no counterpart in ZATU762. Thus, this is not a close parallel. The closest proto-Elamite analog, M035, is even less similar, more closely resembling an open numeral “4” lying on its back (M035).
In Old Chinese, one character has a form similar to the WY, but again without the second horizontal of the Indus sign. The Chinese hua4 is “a man tumbled head over heels....to die....Derived meanings, to overthrow, to transform” (Wieger 1965: 87). In modern Chinese, the character no longer resembles the Indus sign in the least.
Inscription M-620 on the handle of a shell ladle (Joshi and Parpola 1987: 156; hand copy).
This MAN apparently lacks a "head" and is made with four strokes.
A single occurrence in the rock art of Texas is similar, but not matching (Newcomb 1996: 155, Pl. 108). Not only does this motif not have two horizontals, it adds a short vertical not present in the Indus sign. If we take this tri-pronged North American motif and flip it upside-down, then add two dots on either side of that extra vertical line, the whole thing becomes the Linear B logograph for “wine.” At this point, it is quite different from the original Indus WY but reminiscent of the modern Chinese character for “rain.”
The final character for this post is nearly universal, one I term MAN and enumerate V23. It is also KP13, W3, and Fs A-1. Fairservis considers it to represent a man but defines it as “to rule; ruler.” Wells states that there are 47 occurrences and four variants. Mohenjo daro provides 36 occurrences, Harappa seven, and the following locations each provide one: Lothal, Kalibangan, Banawali, and Nausharo. Only two of the variants listed by Wells consist of five strokes, a simple stick figure (“a”), and a similar one without a "head" (“d”). Two of his variants have round heads, a stick figure to which this is the only additional feature (“b”), and another with the round head and an inverted triangle for a body (“c”).
Egyptian "star" (a); Old Chinese "big" (b); Old Chinese "heaven" (c); Australian lizard (?) (d).
In my estimation, there are more than four variants and perhaps another independent sign among those enumerated by Wells. The Kalibangan MAN not only has a round head but also feet, as is the case with the instance from Banawali (K-16 and B-1). I would count these features as two more strokes, making them eight-stroke signs and "e" an additional fifth variant. One instance from Mohenjo daro with a round head and triangular body is standing on a thin rectangular base (M-669). This is an eleven-stroke sign which is more complex than the simple MAN. It ought to be counted as a distinct sign (MAN ON BASE). The headless variant appears to come in two forms, actually, one comprised of five strokes, and one of only four (H-440, five strokes; M-620, four strokes). If we wish to be quite accurate, these might be given distinct letters (“d” for the first and “e” for the second, listed and enumerated among the four-stroke signs).
Among the Egyptian hieroglyphs, there are many anthropomorphs: men, women, children, and deities. The glyphs that most closely match the Indus MAN are A27 (running man) and A28 (man with both arms raised). However, the most similar graphically is not a person or god; it is a star (N14). But for the fact that the angle of the upper “arms” differs, the star is almost identical to Wells’ “a” variant of the Indus sign, the same basic form shown in Fairservis’ list and in that of Koskenniemi and Parpola.
Proto-Elamite M096 (e); Linear B "man" (f); North American man/lizard (g); South American man/lizard (h).
This same Indus variant is virtually identical to the Old Chinese character da4, “a grown up man standing....by extension...great, tall” (Wieger 1965: 156). Thus, while this character represents a man, it does not mean that. It means “big, great.” In the old writing, some versions of another character match Wells’ “b” variant of the MAN with the round head. This is tien1, “the heavens, the firmament which is over men” (1965: 156, see example 382). A third character, representing a type of spoon, is also much like the Indus MAN except that the "legs" are formed by an upside-down "U" shape, now written as a curved "L" shape with an attached hyphen (1965: 74). The whole thing is now reminiscent of a stick figure seated on the ground, completely unlike its ancient form.
In proto-Elamite, there is a sign closely resembling the MAN, though the “legs” appear to come straight from the “head.” This feature is also seen in the Kalibangan example, which Wells would classify as a “b” variant, by the way. However, the “head” of the proto-Elamite symbol is an inverted triangle (M096). This, by itself, is not surprising, since proto-Elamite signs are usually angular. Still, a variant of this sign occurs in texts concerned with herds, where it seems likely to represent some type of livestock (Damerow and Englund 1989: 69).
Proto-cuneiform lacks even an approximation of the MAN sign. In this type of proto-writing, “man” was represented by a head alone. But in the later Bronze Age, Linear B developed a similar logograph for “man.” It uses an upside-down “U” or “roof” element for the legs, with a single horizontal line on top of this for the arms. Resting on the arms is a single quotation mark representing the head. There is, then, a general resemblance to the Indus sign, but significant differences as well. Even more distinct is the running man depicted on the Phaistos Disk. In these cases, one feels that it is only because the symbols resemble humans that the symbols, in turn, slightly resemble each other.
The rock art of North America shows many parallels to the Indus MAN, both in Texas and Nevada (Newcomb 1996: 67, Pl. 27, no. 3; 109, Pl. 69, no.; Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 161, fig. 98f; 162, fig. 99a; 176, fig. 113a; 177, fig. 114h). There are highly schematic stick figures, as well as more elaborate figures that date to later periods. Some of the stick figures appear to have tails or else represent well-endowed males. Where the “tails” are long, the figures may not represent humans, but rather lizards. Some figures are horned, a feature that occurs among Indus signs as well, as we will see in a later post (WINGED MAN / HORNED MAN). Round heads are not common but they do occur, in both Texas and Nevada.
Human figures appear in the rock art of Australia, too, though not usually in this particular abbreviated form. Among the Australian anthropomorphs, a few of the Bradshaw paintings (also termed Gwion Gwion) have a similar, schematic shape (see reference to Bradshaw Foundation website below). Most of those shown on the cited website either wear a tasseled headdress or their stance differs from that of the Indus sign. In one case, spearmen have a round head, arms depicted with simple, straight lines, and a single thick line apparently represents both the body and legs, with the legs together. One arm is raised over the head, the other hanging down. Thus, although highly schematic and abbreviated, in stance these spearmen are quite different from the Indus MAN.
Among engraved motifs described as animal tracks, there is a simple Australian type that resembles the possible lizard of North America (Flood 1997: 107). This may also be a lizard, perhaps the goanna, or, when it appears in pairs, another example of a track (at Red Gorge, Flinders Ranges, South Australia). One reason for thinking such engravings date to an early period is that the native people of this area do not know their meaning or who made them (1997: 106). When queried on the subject, some older men suggested that the marks must have been engraved by Iti, a legendary lizard-man, in the Dreamtime.
In the rock paintings of Tassili N’Ajjer in Algeria, anthropomorphs typically are more detailed once again (reference below). But an occasional simplified figure has a round head, inverted triangle body, and stick-limbs. Even in these cases, though, the fact that elbows and knees are bent makes these joints visible. This is generally not true of the Indus anthropomorphic signs, with the exception of occasional elbows in the BEARER, a sign to be discussed in a later post.
In South America, the most common shape is somewhat ambiguous, although not identical to the “lizard” of Australia and North America. Like the latter, it has a central vertical line with two horizontal lines across it. Each horizontal has two more verticals attached, one at either end. Those attached to the “arms” point up. Those attached to the “feet” point down. This gives the South American “lizard” or “man” a distinctively square look (see various examples at rupestreweb, citation below).
Thus, some form of abbreviated human appears on every inhabited continent. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that people are highly interested in depicting people and people tend to look much the same everywhere. Richard McDorman provides another way of looking at similar symbols in different scripts (2009: locations 115-117). He posits a series of principles of universal iconography operating on all early scripts. That is, because people are much alike in psychology and the way they perceive the world, there are certain parallels between unrelated scripts. When people first begin writing, their first impulse is to draw pictures of objects, sometimes “abbreviating” such a drawing by depicting only a characteristic part. For example, proto-cuneiform contains a simple drawing of an ox’s head with its horns to represent an ox. The Luwian symbol for the same word is also an ox’s head, showing its horns, at times so abbreviated it is difficult to recognize the animal. The Egyptian symbol is most often a complete ox, seen from the side (E1), but again the head may suffice, especially in lists of offerings (F1). In Old Chinese though, the symbol for “ox” is a variation on a trident shape, with an additional horizontal crossing the stem, said to depict the animal from the back (Wieger 1965: 301, niu2).
Thus, despite the operation of these supposedly “universal” principles, the specific form of any particular symbol cannot actually be predicted, even when it seems a straightforward matter to depict the object represented. This is what has happened with the basic “man” representation. Sometimes the stick figure resembles the Indus MAN closely. But sometimes it is quite different or this symbol has a different meaning.
In the final illustrations, "a" is the Egyptian star glyph; "b" the Old Chinese character meaning "big," "c" one variant of the Old Chinese character meaning "heaven"; "d" an Australian engraving that may be a lizard or an animal track; "e" the proto-Elamite sign M096 rotated 90 degrees for better comparison; "f" the Linear B logograph "man"; "g" one North American human or lizard form as found in Nevada (the same form appears in Texas with the head filled in); and "h" the common South American human or lizard form.
Damerow, Peter and Robert Englund. 1989. The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
McDorman, Richard E. 2009. Universal Iconography in Writing Systems: Evidence and Explanation in the Easter Island and Indus Valley Script. Amazon Kindle.
Australian rock art at:
North African example at:
South American rock art at: