Undeciphered writing systems

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Seals showing Indus script, an ancient undeciphered writing system
Page 32 of the Voynich manuscript, a medieval manuscript written with an undeciphered writing system

Many undeciphered writing systems exist today; most date back several thousand years, although some more modern examples do exist. The term "writing systems" is used here loosely to refer to groups of glyphs which appear to have representational symbolic meaning, but which may include "systems" that are largely artistic in nature and are thus not examples of actual writing.

The difficulty in deciphering these systems can arise from a lack of known language descendants or from the languages being entirely isolated, from insufficient examples of text having been found and even (such as in the case of Vinča) from the question of whether the symbols actually constitute a writing system at all. Some researchers have claimed to be able to decipher certain writing systems, such as those of Epi-Olmec, Phaistos and Indus texts; but to date, these claims have not been widely accepted within the scientific community, or confirmed by independent researchers, for the writing systems listed here (unless otherwise specified).


Certain forms of proto-writing remain undeciphered and, because of a lack of evidence and linguistic descendants, it is quite likely that they will never be deciphered.

Neolithic signs in China[edit]

Yellow River civilization

Yangtze civilization

Other areas

  • SawvehGuangxi, from China; possible proto-writing or writing.

Neolithic signs in Europe[edit]

Afro-Eurasian scripts[edit]

Indian subcontinent[edit]

West Asia[edit]

East Asia[edit]

Southeast Asia[edit]

Central Asia[edit]


North Africa[edit]

Sub-Saharan Africa[edit]

  • Eghap scriptCameroon, c. 1900, partially deciphered.
  • Ancient inscriptions in Somalia, According to the Ministry of Information and National Guidance of Somalia, inscriptions can be found on various old Taalo Tiiriyaad structures. These are enormous stone mounds found especially in northeastern Somalia. Among the main sites where these Taalo are located are Xabaalo Ambiyad in Alula District, Baar Madhere in Beledweyne District, and Harti Yimid in Las Anod District.[5]

American scripts[edit]

Andean South America[edit]


  • OlmecOlmec civilization, c. 600 BC, possibly the oldest Mesoamerican script.
  • Epi-olmec, c. 500 BC - 500 AD, apparently logosyllabic.
  • Izapan script, Late Preclassic, possibly logosyllabic. Guatemalan and Chiapas Pacific Coast. Probably an offshoot of Epi-olmec.
  • ZapotecZapotec, c. 5th century BC - 8th century AD, possibly logosyllabic.
  • Ñuiñe script, Late Classic. Similar to and possibly an offshoot of Zapotec in the Mixteca Baja.
  • Teotihuacan, c. 100 BC - 700 AD, possibly a logosyllabary. Possibly descended from the Zapotec script, and itself being the probable ancestor of the Post-classic Mixtec and Aztec scripts.
  • MixtecMixtec, 12th - 14th century, the pictographic elements which accompany the script are well-understood, but semantic and linguistic components of the script proper are less well known. The glyphs proper which accompany the pictographs are logosyllabic.

Virtually all Mesoamerican Glyphic Scripts remain undeciphered, with the only exceptions being the Maya Script and the Aztec Script.

There were other scripts in several areas of Postclassic Mesoamerica descended from the Teotihuacan script and siblings of the Aztec and Mixtec scripts, but they are very poorly attested in some colonial period codices.

Pacific scripts[edit]

Related concepts: texts that are not writing systems[edit]

One very similar concept is that of false writing systems, which appear to be writing but are not. False writing cannot be deciphered because it has no semantic meaning. These particularly include asemic writing created for artistic purposes. One prominent example is the Codex Seraphinianus.

Another similar concept is that of undeciphered cryptograms, or cipher messages. These are not writing systems per se, but a disguised form of another text. Of course any cryptogram is intended to be undecipherable by anyone except the intended recipient so vast numbers of these exist, but a few examples have become famous and are listed in list of ciphertexts.


  1. ^ "MS 73525". British Library. Retrieved 20 June 2023.
  2. ^ "Mysterious Voynich manuscript is genuine, scientists find". Archived from the original on 2009-12-07. Retrieved 2009-12-07.
  3. ^ Lee, Rob; Jonathan, Philip; Ziman, Pauline (2010-09-08). "Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application of Shannon entropy". Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 466 (2121): 2545–2560. Bibcode:2010RSPSA.466.2545L. doi:10.1098/rspa.2010.0041. ISSN 1364-5021.
  4. ^ Cacciafoco, Francesco Perono (1 September 2021). "The Undeciphered Inscription of the Baptistery of Pisa". Academia.edu. Retrieved 22 February 2024.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. ^ Ministry of Information and National Guidance, Somalia, The writing of the Somali language: A Great Landmark in Our Revolutionary History, (Ministry of Information and National Guidance: 1974)

External links[edit]