Cracking History

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Researchers recently decoded the “unknown Kushan script,” an enigmatic ancient writing system that has baffled linguists since its discovery in Central Asia in the 1950s, Scientific American reported.

And now, scholars are hopeful that the discovery opens up new possibilities for unraveling the language and history of the Kushan Empire.

In their study, a research team deciphered the text using rock face inscriptions found in northwest Tajikistan in 2022, which contained sections of a known but extinct language called Bactrian.

Lead author Svenja Bonmann explained the decoded script was used to record a previously unknown Middle Iranian language, likely one of the official languages of the ancient Kushan Empire. The empire existed in Central Asia and northwestern India from 200 BCE to 700 CE and co-existed with the Roman Empire at its peak in the second century CE.

Bonmann and her team explained that deciphering the Kushan script was not easy because many texts using the language were likely written on organic materials, such as palm leaves or birch bark, which decomposed over time. But surviving inscriptions on cave walls and ceramics found mainly in present-day Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan provided valuable clues to the researchers.

The recent discovery of bilingual inscriptions in Bactrian helped them decrypt the meaning of the Kushan script. Words referring to the Kushan emperor Vema Takhtu as the “king of kings” were crucial in unlocking the phonetic values of certain characters.

The authors hope to decipher the remaining characters and fully understand the mysterious Kushan script by analyzing more inscriptions.

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