Thursday, January 6, 2011

Three Variations on the Indus 'Man' Sign

In the following, I discuss three Indus signs that are variations on the basic MAN (V23).  The first of these appears to be this same MAN standing on a horizontal base and positioned upside-down.  Due to this resemblance, I term the sign DOWN MAN ON BASE (VI47).  It appears only in one of the lists, that of Wells, where it receives two different identifying numbers: W48 and W57.  Each of these instances is a singleton, the first appearing at Mohenjo daro (M-306) and the second at Chandigarh (Ch-3).  I prefer to group the two as variants of a single sign, “A” and “B” respectively.  I do not think they really represent humans, especially in the case of the “B” variant, which has a very long “head” or stem.  It is more likely that they represent flowers.

Seal M-306 with inscription: VEE IN DIAMOND / DOWN MAN ON BASE / POTTED ONE / PACMAN / CRAB / POT / TRIPLE BRICK (smoothing of image and coloring added by author).
Parallels to this sign are frequent, a fact that I find surprising.  There is a slight resemblance to the Egyptian hieroglyph that supposedly represents the bicornuate uterus of a heifer (F45).  If we wish to consider the Indus sign as actually representing a human, then for comparison there is also a glyph of an upside-down man (A29).  It is a determinative in a word meaning “be upside-down.”  The latter glyph does not actually resemble the Indus sign, though.

Pot shard Ch-3 with DOWN MAN ON BASE (coloring and smoothing of image added) -- note long "head."
 Old Chinese presents a much closer analogy in the character zi3, “a new-born child, swathed up...By extension, disciple; then, a sage, a teacher, because the ancient Emperors, in order to honour them, called them sons” (Wieger 1965: 233).  In its original form, the Chinese character has a round head and the arms are a curved line, so that the Indus sign resembles an angular version of this.  It is interesting to note that this same ancient character appears upside-down in the character that means “birth.”  Another anthropomorphic character occasionally occurs upside-down, early on: “In some very rare but most precious figures, the deceased Ancestor is represented diving, head foremost, from heavens above, towards the hand of his offering son” (1965: 370).  This ancestral figure has now become the character tian1, “heaven, sky.”

Chinese oracle-bone variants
of zi3, "child."
A closer parallel graphically than any anthropomorphic character occurs in the calendrical character xin, which looks essentially the same as one identified by Wieger as qian2, “to offend a superior...; offence, fault, crime...By extension, to attack” (1965: 249).  In addition, the abstract bu2 is very similar, indicating “a bird that rises...straight towards the an adverb of negation” (1965: 302).

Oracle-bone variants of xin or qian2, "to offend."
But the closest in form to the Indus sign is one found in proto-cuneiform, identified as GU.  It came to mean “string; flax; needle.”  This sign is identical to the Indus sign except for its horizontal position, a common feature.  Doubled, the proto-cuneiform sign becomes SUH3, which came to signify “chaos, disorder.” 
Two variants of oracle-bone bu2, "not."
Nearly the same sign as GU is one that appears in doubled form in proto-Elamite, but with the “head” on the opposite side and the “arms” angled away from this “head” rather than toward it (M127 + M127).  Despite the designation for the proto-Elamite sign, it does not appear singly in the list of signs (i.e., M127 is not listed as an independent sign).  It may be relevant to observe another similar sign in proto-Elamite (M099).  It is closer to the Indus BOWTIE, with the addition of a stroke crossing at the point where the apexes of the two triangles come together.
The final proto-Elamite example is identical in form to a symbol found in west Africa, the Adinkra dono ntoaso (Willis 1998: 92).  This African motif is positioned vertically, unlike the proto-Elamite example, and means “double dono,” referring to a particular type of drum.

Indus seal C-30 with inscription: STACKED FIVE / LOOP ARMED MAN HOLDING SLASH /
CARTWHEEL BETWEEN DOUBLE POSTS (smoothing of image and coloring added).

Inscription on copper object: LOOP ARMED MAN HOLDING BACKSLASH /
CARTWHEEL (smoothing and coloring added).
The second Indus sign considered here is one I clumsily term LOOP ARMED MAN HOLDING SLASH, with a variant LOOP ARMED MAN HOLDING BACKSLASH (VI48).  It appears in all three of the lists: KP11, W2 and W23, and Fs A-5.  Fairservis declares it to be a man with an arrow, but gives its meaning as “mother, mother as a deity (?).”  This seems extraordinarily odd to me.  If it has female meaning, I should think it must represent a woman, not a man, and the object she is holding is more likely to be a baby than an arrow.  Bearing such a possible meaning in mind, compare the figurine which is holding a baby or small child, usually identified as a male but with nipples, reproduced at upper right ("bouncing baby blog").  It is a replica of an actual Harappan artifact.  Whatever the figurine really represents may be the model behind this Indus sign.
Wells gives the sign two designations, based on the side on which the diagonal stroke appears, with each one further subdivided into four variants (although his summary for W23 contradicts this by stating the number of variants to be only 1).  His W2 holds a backslash (i.e., diagonal stroke on the right in the actual inscriptions, which he reverses) totaling 49 occurrences: 33 from Mohenjo daro, including all four subtypes, “a,” “b,” “c,” and “d”; eight from Harappa, including “a” and “b”; three from Lothal, including “a” and “d”; three from Chanhujo daro including “b” and “c”; and two from Kalibangan including “c” and “d.”  I prefer to term these variants “Aa” through “Ad.”  His W23 holds a slash (i.e., actually a diagonal stroke on the left, reversed again in his list) totaling four occurrences: one from Mohenjo daro of “a”; and three from Lothal, described as “a,” “b” and “d,” which seems to leave no actual occurrences of “c.”  These I would term "Ba" to "Bc."  It is mostly the form of the upper half of the sign that varies, with only a minority having a clear anthropomorphic appearance.
To this rather unusual sign we may wish to compare the Old Chinese character nu3, which now means “girl, woman, female” (Wieger 1965: 169).  In the oldest form shown, the character is anthropomorphic but headless, with the arms hanging down and curved toward the center of the body.  Later, one arm essentially disappears, leaving an asymmetrical form.  The addition of strokes to represent breasts changes this to mu3, “mother” (1965: 171).

Proto-Elamite signs, from top: M127 and M099; at bottom, M123~d (cf. Indus
 Proto-Elamite has a sign with some resemblance to the more anthropomorphic variants of the Indus sign (M123~d).  This seems to be a horizontal “man” with angular arms bent at the elbow, but without any object held.  A variant is quite different, however, changing the looping arms into a symmetrical triangle crossed by a straight line, with the “legs” very short (M123~ca).  The whole thing then more closely resembles an arrow than a person.

Seal Ns-5 with inscription: CARTWHEEL / BI-QUOTES / (over) STACKED SIX / FISH / POT /
ROUND HEADED MAN (detail, smoothing of image and color added).
The last Indus sign for this post is another variant of MAN given the further description ROUND HEAD (to be designated either MAN WITH ROUND HEAD or ROUND-HEADED MAN).  I enumerate it VI49 as the forty-ninth of the six-stroke signs.  Only Wells gives this type a separate listing, as W3c.  That is, it is the “c” variant of Wells’ MAN, although to my eyes it ought to be conflated with Wells’ “b” variant.  Wells states that there are 47 occurrences of the MAN in four variants, but does not specify the frequency of “c” variant.  I consider these to be L-4, K-16, B-1 (which also has feet), and Ns-5 (which is more like Wells’ “b”).  Wells shows VI49 to have an inverted triangular body in addition to the round head, which increases the stroke number.  And we could subdivide these further, since B-1 is small and K-16 tall, B-1 also set apart by its feet.

Chinese Old Seal writing from bronze votive object,
showing tian1 (second character from bottom on left).
This sign has many parallels around the world.  In Old Chinese, the deceased ancestor often appears in inscriptions with a rounded head and sometimes with a body thicker than a simple vertical line (Wieger 1965: 372, 367).  This character becomes tian1, discussed earlier.  Also in China, the NaXi proto-writing system makes use of an anthropomorphic symbol that typically has a round head, but stick limbs and body.
Proto-Elamite has a vaguely similar sign with a boxy “body” and triangular “head” (M320~f).  It also seems to have “feet.”

Proto-Elamite sign M320~f, which resembles an angular anthropomorph.

In the rock art of North America, there are often human-like figures with round heads and these frequently have thick bodies but stick limbs.  Such figures appear in Texas (e.g., Kirkland and Newcomb 1996: 177, Pl. 125, no. 2-C), in Arizona (e.g., Noble 1991: 62), and in Nevada and eastern California (e.g., Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: after 245, Pl. 20b; 294, fig. D-1n).  The last of these sources note 34 occurrences of anthropomorphic figures with semi-realistic heads and bodies but stick limbs (1984: 90). 
Schematic human figures from a "wampum belt" (Mohawk; redrawn from Appleton 1971: 18).

Similar figures occur in rock art elsewhere, both in Africa (e.g., Le Quellec 2004: 39, fig. 37 in the Wadi Sura of the Libyan desert; 71, fig. 22, in the shelter of Modjodje-Do in Mali; and 86-87, figs. 46 and 47 on the Pedra do Feitiço on the bank of the Zaire River) and in Australia (e.g., Flood 1997: 218, at Euriowia, western New South Wales; 219 at Mootwingee; and 220 in a rock shelter in Gunderbooks Range, Cobar region, western New South Wales).  In Australia this type of depiction is termed Simple Figurative.  It is variable in size (large and small), form (painting, drawing, and engraving), and date (from several thousand years old to considerably more recent) (1997: 220).  Large engravings and paintings tend to occur in the Sydney region, while small figures appear in the Cobar region.  Many, if not all, of both types (large and small figures), in Australia and Africa, are thought to have served ritual and religious functions in the societies of their creators.
It is very possible that the icons – the pictorial elements – on Indus seals and tablets also served a religious function.  That is, the people of the Indus Valley may have worshipped deities in the form of animals and, occasionally, human-animal hybrids.  Fairservis, on the other hand, sees the icons as representing social groups such as lineages or clans.  This is another possibility.  Most scholars in this field do not consider the inscriptions and icons to be related.  But, in the absence of decipherment, this point of view remains hypothetical, not proven.


Appleton, Le Roy H. 1971. American Indian Design and Decoration. New York: Dover (originally published 1950 by Chrles Scribner's Sons with the title Indian Art of the Americas).


  1. Hi

    the Indus script had certainly reached the syllabic stage and longer texts certainly agreed .read my paper Sujay

  2. I have read your paper, Sujay, and I thank you for the link. However, I remain unconvinced of the existence of longer texts, since none exist (longer meaning 30 or more symbols per inscription). I also remain unconvinced of the hypothesis that it was a logo-syllabic script. For one thing, the very statistics on frequency that you quote (from Mahadevan's concordance) as well as the tables comparing Indus sign frequency with that in proto-cuneiform (from Wells' work) both strongly suggest that this was proto-writing. While proto-cuneiform did eventually evolve into true writing, and the early proto-hieroglyphs of Egypt did evolve into true writing, proto-Elamite did not. It seems to me that the Indus proto-writing system also did not evolve into true writing.

  3. Diwiyana, I will send you another paper to be published which clearly shows why longer texts existed in the Indus. This has backing of many arechologists. Can I have your mail id? you can mail it to me at or


    Please find my two papers below and circulate amongst the skeptics, particularly!

    To state the obvious, the Indus script was a logo-syllabic script and a lost corpus did exist.

    Published in the ICFAI journal of history and culture, January 2011

    Published in International journal of philosophy and journal sciences , November 2012

    I am also introducing logo-syllabic thesis B in this paper

    The paper is very self-explanatory! does anybody still beg to differ?

    Sujay Rao Mandavilli

  5. Having read your latest paper in addition to the earlier one, yes, there is someone who still begs to differ. There is no real evidence for long texts, just hypotheses that such once existed. In the absence of real evidence, nothing further can be said about this.
    Again, the statistics on sign frequency suggest the Indus symbols did not comprise a fully developed writing system, whether logo-syllabic or logographic. The fact that a single sign (the one I term CARTWHEEL) is repeated in a single inscription (the signboard from Dholavira) is not sufficient evidence to contradict this.