During the last two centuries, the earth has lost approximately 65% of its living species, 85% of its spoken languages, all traditional kinds of trade
and rich legacies of folk worship
Disappearing infodiversity may yet be saved, says S.Ananthanarayanan.
Landry and M’batu, scientist-archeologists, have reverse-engineered ancient Cretan pottery to recover samples of speech as practiced
by those prehistoric potters.
We are all familiar with Thomas A Edison’s discovery of the phonograph, where he scratched a rotating drum with a needle that was set vibrating by sound
striking a diaphragm attached to the needle. Now, when the drum was rotated again, with a needle with a diaphragm attached touching the groove which was made the first time, that same, first sound was heard.
Cretan pots, dated
about 3,800 years ago, are decorated with a spiral groove that goes many times around, as if made by spinning the pots when still soft, with a metal
stylus sliding down the side.
Landry and M’batu said that if the Cretan potters had been speaking while they did their work, then the stylus would have vibrated with the speech, and
would have recorded the sounds in the patterns on the pottery!
As the Cretan pots were glazed, any such traces were perfectly preserved. Micro-analysis of the grooves with “molecular mapping” has now shown that there
were indeed some regular patterns in those grooves. And with a consistent pattern discovered in several pots, it appears that the Cretan potters chanted a standard drone, perhaps a prayer, during the operation
Study of this (yet un-translated) prayer, with compensations for variations in the speed of the potters’ wheel, and using sophisticated, computer
aided, statistical techniques has enabled decoding the phonemes of the prayer and other utterances unwittingly recorded!
This becomes hence a sample of actual speech retrieved from hopeless antiquity. And it serves to test out a theory of a global proto-language from which
all modern languages have descended. Comparison of the Cretan sounds with ancient parallels derived from Sino-Tibetan and other proto-languages are said to have confirmed the notion of a common origin of languages!
Recovering lost heritage?
But such conclusions apart, the recovery by Landry and M’batu of a long lost human record is an encouraging departure from the disconcerting loss, in
modern times, of the arduously garnered ‘evolutionary order’, biological and social, of millennia.
During the last two centuries, the earth has lost approximately 65% of its living species, 85% of its spoken languages, all kinds of trade outside that
driven by currencies and banking, and rich legacies of folk worship to four major religions.
Such reduction in the diversity of social and ecological systems leads to the same risk that over-specialised biosystems run, in respect of survival.
Instances are the extinction of dinosaurs, specialized civilizations, etc.
It is commonplace that ecologists call for protection of species of ‘wild’ grasses, such as crude varieties of wheat or millets. This is because these
‘seminal’ varieties, unspecialized by breeding for high yield or specific grain size, retain phenomenal resistance to attack by disease.
In case all samples of our regular strains of food-grain were destroyed by pest or disease, it is these ‘wild’ and ‘diverse’ varieties from which we
would be able to rebuild the lifestyle on which we depend.
In like manner, the rapid erosion of the diversity of social structures at the altar of economic globalisation is seen to invite the risk of catastrophic
breakdown of society, somewhat like Soviet Russia, but on a worldwide scale.
The breed of ‘informetrists’ study the levels of ‘information’ stored in social systems, and the effect that this store has on ensuring stability. Eroding
this information hoard, for the uniformity that the marketplace demands, would be akin to the occupants of a life-boat throwing off their life-jackets to help the boat make better speed.
Now informetrists are taking heart at ancient Cretan potters being heard again, like so many ways that science is helping regain the legacy of the past.
The understanding of the gene has allowed the recreation of extinct species, the Siberian tiger, the blue whale, many kinds of red algae. Genetic records
of rainforest species, so far thought lost, are preserved and awaiting possible revival.
Science has opened the doors to what may be our most valuable ‘fallback’, or safety net, as we press on with technological development, at the risk of
the collapse of the house of cards!
[The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org]