Refuting AIT using Personal Names from Rig Veda and Avesta


Scheme of Indo-European language dispersal from c. 4000 to 1000 BCE according to the widely held Kurgan hypothesis By Joshua Jonathan (via Wikipedia)

There are many similarities between Avesta,  the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, and Rig Veda. Words are similar, like haoma (soma), daha(dasa), hepta (sapta), hindu (sindhu), and Ahura (Asura). Despite that, some of the words have reversed interpretations. For example, in Old Iranian, Ahura Mazdāh is the chief of the pantheon, and the daēuuas are considered demons or fallen gods. In contrast, the Vedic tradition considers devas as gods and asuras the demons.

The commonality of words suggests that these two cultures had a common origin and such an explanation comes from the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). The above map shows the scheme of Indo-European language dispersal. After spending time in Central Asia, a group went West and another to the East. The Westerners became Zoroastrians, and those who reached India became the Vedic people. Before the split, they spent time together in Central Asia, where the common culture developed.

According to Indian Marxist historians, Indo-European speakers had Central Asia as their habitat, and gradually over many centuries, they branched out in search of fresh pastures. According to them, these central Asian migrants wrote the  Avesta in Iran and Rig-Veda in India. They argue that people who migrated to India were dissidents of the Old Iranian; hence you find a significant reversal of meaning in concepts common to both Avesta and Rig-Veda.

Evidence from Personal Names

The Rig Veda and The Avesta: The Final Evidence

While this is the view AIT presents, what evidence do we get from the sacred texts themselves.? In this post, I will lean on the arguments laid out by Shrikant G. Talageri in his book Rig Veda and The Avesta: The final evidence. Spoiler alert: His text analysis does not support the AIT picture.

Shri. Talageri uses many data points to argue against AIT, but in this post, I want to summarize one of his arguments based on an analysis of personal names. Personal names identify society in time; just look at the change in names from your grandparent’s time to yours. Similarly, you see interesting patterns when you look at personal names used in Rig Veda and Avesta. It definitely shows a shared cultural environment.

If you were constructing a mental model in your mind based on the AIT dispersal, the above picture would make sense, right? This is because the personal names, developed in the common period, then carried over to both the sacred texts. Hence the commonality.

The examination of the books reveals something different. The commonality of Avesta is not with the entire Rig Vedic corpus; it’s only with certain books. Shri. Talageri looks at the personal names mentioned in all the books in Rig Veda and Avesta and concludes that the commonality is with the late books of the Rig Veda.

When we say the commonality of Avesta is with the late books of Rig Veda, it implies there is a temporal ordering of the 10 books. The Rig Veda Samhita consists of 10 mandalas, numbered 1 to 10. It does not mean that mandala 1 was the first and 10, the last. The chronological ordering of the books is as follows:

  • Early Books: 6, 3, 7
  • Middle Books: 4,2
  • Late Books: 5,1, 8-10

Coming back to Shri. Talageri’s argument, he noticed that in the Early Books, names with basic prefixes were common and these prefixes were simple. For example

  • Su (Good) – Das
  • Deva (divine) -sravas
  • Puru (many) – panthas
  • Viswa (every) – mitra

These names found in the Early Books of Rig Veda are also found in Avesta. This might indicate the common origin theory very well. But, these names are found in the Middle and Late books of Rig Veda.

As we move in time and come to the Middle Books, there are four Rig Vedic personalities like Turviti, Gotama, Trita, and Krsanu referred to in Avesta. When we come to the Late period, there is a flood of names common to Rig Veda and Avesta. These are complex names with both prefixes and suffixes. In the book, Talageri lists about 4 pages worth of common names. Compare that with just four names in the prior period. There are just five hymns in the Early and Middle books that have common names. When it comes to the late books, there are 326 hymns

If the common period occurred before the Aryans and Iranians parted ways, then the Early Books of Avesta and Rig Veda should have common elements. Also, as these cultures evolved over time, the common elements should diminish. But, the data shows that Avesta evolved during the period of the Late Books of Rig Veda. It shows that the common culture of Rig Veda and Avesta occurred during the period of the late books, and Rig Veda books of the Early and Middle periods predate the Avesta.

We need to update our mental model to the above diagram.

The Final Sequence

Now that we have all the pieces let’s understand what happened. Among the ancient tribes of India, the Puru/Paurava are identified with the Rig Vedic Aryans. Around 3000 BCE, they lived around and to the east of the river Saraswati (See In Pragati: Book Review – The Lost River by Michel Danino). The proto-Iranians are identified with the Anu/Anava tribe. They were originally the inhabitants of north India of the Kashmir region during the pre-Rig Vedic period. During the later part of the Early Rig Vedic period, the conflicts during Sudas’ time forced them to migrate Westward. During the middle and late periods of Rig Veda, the proto-Iranians were settled in most western parts of Punjab and Afghanistan. They had continuous interaction with the Vedic Aryans, and the Avesta was composed.

Rig Veda and Avesta: The final evidence is filled with evidence against the Aryan Invasion Theory with some original research. This argument based on personal names is just one chapter of this book. Other evidence against AIT comes from the geography of Rig Veda, the internal chronology of Rig Veda, and the absolute chronology of Rig Veda. By analyzing textual data, Shri. Talageri shows common culture across Rig Veda, Avesta, and the Mittanis.

Demolishing the Aryan Invasion Theory in 1912

(Saraswati river via Wikipedia)

The Aryan Invasion Theory and its first cousin twice removed, the Aryan Migration Theory, are dominant theories that explain the peopling of India. Many folks wishfully think this theory has been debunked. Still, sadly that’s what’s being taught in universities and repeated in books. The Indian National Congress has more MPs in the Lok Sabha than the people fighting against AIT.

While browsing some papers, I came across this paper by Srinivas Iyengar from Madras University, published in 1912, which attacks the Aryan Invasion Theory. Mr. Iyengar lived during a time when some of these theories were constructed and he decided to tackle them. This article will look at Mr. Iyengar’s arguments and how he calls out selection bias.

He says

Emotion plays a large part in the manufacture of history, and any theory that soothes the vanity of a people is straightway elevated to the rank of a fact ; so today a scientific examination of the bases of the theory of a superior Aryan race is resented more in India than anywhere else in the world

Comparative study of languages started with the observation that the languages of India and Europe were related. Hence, there had to be a parent language from which all the European and Indian languages descended. This imaginary language was called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). At some point, India was considered to be the PIE homeland, but later it was moved to various places in Europe. Either way, we are considered to be a slice of that pie.

Mr. Iyengar mentions two points made by the invasionistas and refutes them.

The first invasion point is based on a significant body part – the nose. Foundational research on this was done 20 years before Mr. Iyengar wrote this paper. According to the British dude (the name does not matter) who did this research, the Aryans had a long head, a straight, finely cut nose, a symmetrically narrow face, a well-developed forehead, and a high facial angle. The purest form of the nose was in Punjab, where the Aryans first showed up. As you went down South, the nasal purity went down. (Rajnikanth’s nose was inferior compared to Manmohan Singh’s). This happened because when Aryans arrived, the previous occupants with their inferior noses retreated to the South.

The British dude who did this nasal science defined 2378 castes as 43 races based on their nasal index. Also, Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman linguistic groups were identified as different races with Indo-European speakers or Aryans at the top of the tree. Based on this mythology, the skeletons found in Mohenjo-Daro were classified as various races, primarily non-Aryan.

Mr. Iyengar asks: Wasn’t there many more invasions? Didn’t the Mughals, Persians, Greeks, and Huns all show up in India at some point after the supposed AIT event? What nasal standards did they bring? When the British genius measured people’s noses in the 1890s, around 4000 years had elapsed since the imaginary invasion.

This outdated theory was still taught at UCLA as recently as 2010.

The next piece of evidence for the invasion came from the Rig Vedic mantras. The composers called themselves Aryans and referred to another tribe they fought as Dasayus or Dasa.

In the scriptures, the battles were local and not invasions. The Aryans do not speak of displacing local tribes who were their predecessors. The Aryans have no memory of a distant homeland (“I miss the rhubarb pie of the Baltic”), nor do they have any memory of their trip (“Remember when Barack took the wrong turn at Qaemshahr and fell into the Caspian Sea”)

They remember living a settled life in the Punjab valley in towns and villages, tending to their cattle. The Dasayus were another tribe living similarly. The problem was that they both had two distinct ways of life.

The Aryans were fire worshipers, and the Dasayus were not. The Dasayus did not worship Indra or offer oblations to Agni. The Aryans loved soma and raided Dasayu territory to get it to provide as oblations to their gods. They had high respect for soma and considered Dasayu oblations to their gods as worthless. When the Aryans offered their sacrifices, they chanted verses from their scriptures, which the Dasayus did not. All of these led to violent disagreements.

How did the Aryans get these traditions which are different from the Dasayus? Were they bought by the invading Aryans along with their language? Considering this, Mr. Iyengar writes that no Indo-Germanic history seems to have reached India. The Indo-Germanic god, Dyaus, is not acknowledged as a god in the Vedic pantheon. Mitra is familiar to Vedas and Avesta but is not an important god. Indra is a minor god in Avesta. The prominence of the Vedic gods is purely an Indian development. A striking fact is that so few Aryan gods came to India. Even if some tribe came from outside, it was thoroughly Indianized like Curry Pizza.

Finally, Mr. Iyengar writes that the so-called Aryan conquest definitely was not the substitution of the white man for the dark-skinned one.

When all is said, there may still remain in the minds of some the feeling of doubt how a cult or a speech can travel by itself. The fire cult and the speech of the Aryas must have come to India in the wake of a peaceful overflow of people from the uplands of Central Asia into the plains of India, or been the result of a peace-intercourse between the Indian people and foreigners. But theories cannot be built on metaphors, and there is absolutely no evidence at present to guide to a solution of the problem

Mr. Iyengar did not write about this, but here is some interesting trade information. Long distance trade between the Indus-Saraswati people and rest of the world is not intriguing at all as there has been plenty of evidence for commodities from India appearing in far away places, even further back in in time. In Dhuwelia, a seasonal hunting site in Eastern Jordan, archaeologists found cotton thread embedded in lime-plaster dating to the fourth millennium BCE. Cotton is not native to Arabia. That particular species could have come from only one place in the world: Baluchistan, where it has been cultivated since the fifth millennium.

Queen Puabi, who lived in Iraq during the Mature Harappan period (2600 – 1900 BCE)  had Harappan carnelian beads in her tomb. Following her, Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2279 BCE) boasted about ships from Meluhha, primarily identified with this Indus region), docked in the bay. This suggests that ships from the Indus region journeyed all the way to Iraq about 5000 years back. If Indus-Saraswati people journeyed around the world before the Aryan Invasion, in what language did they speak to Queen Puabi?  

To suggest that people can move only in one direction is plainly ignoring the trading culture of the Indus people. The existences of an Indus trading colony in Mesopotamia and the ancient trading hubs is nothing to sniff at.

References:

  • Iyengar, P. T. Srinivas. “THE MYTH OF THE ARYAN INVASION OF INDIA.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 60, no. 3113, 1912, pp. 841–846. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41340228. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.

Also read:

Book Review: Breath by James Nestor

Breath

A long time back, in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, some people had mastered the secrets of breathing, says James Nestor in his book Breath. The evidence is the meditating man seal or what we call the Shiva seal. It is from here that the wisdom spread to the world. The Indus-Sarasvati people discovered that breathing with different patterns — really fast, very slow, or holding breath — can cure diseases without medicines, influence body weight, and affect overall health. By influencing the nervous system and controlling the immune response, these breathing patterns can help a person live longer and healthier.

While the Yoga Sutras are well known, there are other ancient texts as well.

Thirteen hundred years ago, an ancient Tantric text, the Shiva Swarodaya, described how one nostril will open to let breath in as the other will softly close throughout the day. Some days, the right nostril yawns awake to greet the sun; other days, the left awakens to the fullness of the moon. According to the text, these rhythms are the same throughout every month, and they’re shared by all humanity. It’s a method our bodies use to stay balanced and grounded to the rhythms of the cosmos, and each other

This knowledge then surfaced worldwide, like Japan, Africa, Hawaii, and Native America. They developed breathing techniques and benefitted from the calming effects.

Two things make the book interesting. The first is when the author acts as a human guinea pig, trying out various techniques with breathing experts worldwide. These are not yogic techniques, but activities like Holotropic breathing or the Wim Hoff method or taking a carbon dioxide shot.

The other is when he explains what happens inside our body when you do these practices. Breathing is more than just the physical act. Medically it’s known that breath affects every single internal organ affecting heart rate, digestion, and moods. Deep breathing influences the parasympathetic nerves, which signals the organs to rest.

Often you see remarks like what’s there to learn about breathing, after all, it’s just inhaling and exhaling. The modern age has caused us to pay little attention to breathing. This has resulted in diseases like asthma, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Another aspect is that as we age, the lung capacity decreases, leading to high blood pressure and immune disorders.

The book acknowledges India as the source of all this knowledge. All the techniques the author tried, he says, comes from ancient Indian texts. The ancients people who did these experiments with breathing and discovered the possible miracles knew that breathing was not just inhaling and exhaling. They knew how to manipulate body functions by controlling their breath. They obviously knew a lot more than what Western science knows, like how the prana can control the mind.

When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there were the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above the soft palate so that it’s pointed toward the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.

There are a couple of issues with the book. While the book mentions Indus-Sarasvati civilization by that name, it also mentions the Aryan Invasion Theory. It has a fascinating twist – the Aryans came from Iran and not Russia. Second, the author gives credit to Indians for discovering the secrets of breathing, but to talk to a yogi, he goes to Brazil. Why not go to the land where it started and where it’s a living, breathing tradition.

If you were one of those skeptical about yoga and pranayama, this book would change the way you think about breathing. By combing ancient wisdom with scientific evidence and first-hand experience, the book distills the knowledge in an easy-to-read narrative. In the end, it advocates breathing slow and less through the nose as it sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues.

Swami Vivekananda wrote that the breath is the fly-wheel of the body. In a big machine, the fly-wheel is set in motion first. That motion is conveyed to finer machinery until the delicate and finest machinery is in motion. “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days, but the number of his breaths,” wrote B. K. S. Iyengar. The fact that a sick child would live to the age of 95 is proof of the book’s secrets.

In Pragati: Evidence for the continuity between Harappan Signs and Brahmi letters

(Original published link)
Instead of a complete termination of one civilisation and the beginning of a radically new one, there was a period of both continuity and change.

Harappa
(Image used under Fair Use from The Art Newspaper)

One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.Though there are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, tablets and pottery, the writing has not been decoded.  One of the problems is that the writing is too short mostly being four or five symbols long. The decipherment is also hard because the Indus writing falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. While the easiest one is where the script and language are known, like English written using Roman alphabets, the most difficult one is where the script and language are unknown; the Indus writing falls into this category.
Now a 30 cm tall varaha found under the foundation of a home in Haryana is now providing an interesting clue into the later usage of the Indus-Saraswati script. This 2 kg, copper figure went on display for the first time in Brussels last year and will be exhibited at the National Museum in Delhi from March 6th for two months. According to the description which appeared in The Art Newspaper, “The figure has a cast relief on its chest of a unicorn-like animal, similar to motifs found on seals of the Harappa culture, which thrived until around 1900 BC.” But the most interesting part is the inscription above this creature; according to the curator  Naman Ahuja  the inscription represents “a combination of Harappan signs and Brahmi letters”, suggesting that it comes from “a period of overlap between the two cultures.” The inscription reads  “King/Ki Ma Jhi [name of king]/ Sha Da Ya[form of god]” and according to the curator, “looks unmistakably like the Hindu god Varaha”. The Uttar Pradesh archaeological department has accepted this as an antique piece and dates it to the second to the first millennium BCE.
(Indus valley seals showing unicorns)
(Indus valley seals showing unicorns)

Before going into the relation between Harappan signs and Brahmi letters, we need to pay attention to the unicon like figure on the varaha. In his book, The Wishing Tree: Presence and Promise of India, Subhash Kak writes about the importance of the unicorn in Sanskritic texts. The Puranas referred to Vishnu and Shiva as ekashringa or the one-horned-one. The Mahabharata describes the varaha as triple humped, as shown in the Harappan iconography. In some seals, the unicorn is shown with the horn coming from the side as mentioned in Sanskrit texts.
Michel Danino too writes about the unicorn, which has been found in three quarters of the seals found in the Indus region, in The Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvati. For Danino, the clues come from the Rig Veda. The Harappans added horns for not just the unicorn, but for tigers, serpents and various composite animals; the Vedic deities too have horns, sometimes even as high as four. The horn is prevalent all over the text: in describing how Indra destroyed the enemy’s den,  to describe Soma, or while mentioning how the sun god spreads truth. Danino concludes that it cannot be proved that the carefully executed unicorn stood for Indra, but the affinity with Vedic concepts calls for attention.
Now to the writing. India’s first script which we can read is written in Brahmi; Asokan inscriptions were written in Brahmi and so was early Tamil. Many of the Asian scripts such as Burmese, Tibetan, Cham, Malayan, Javanese, Sumatran and the Tagalog were all derived from Brahmi. Even the so called Arab numerals, which are actually Indic numerals are derived from Brahmi. That said, there are different theories regarding the origins of Brahmi. One theory suggests that it was derived from an earlier Indian script while the other suggests it was derived from Phoenician or South Semitic scripts.
(A fragment of an inscription in the Asokan Brahmi script. The inscription records Asoka’s Sixth Edict dating to 238 BCE.)
(A fragment of an inscription in the Asokan Brahmi script. The inscription records Asoka’s Sixth Edict dating to 238 BCE.)

Indologist and scientist Subhash Kak wondered if there was a relation between Brahmi which has 48 letters and Indus script which has more than 300 signs and what he discovered was absolutely stunning. In his paper, On the decipherment of the Indus script –  a preliminary study of its connection with Brahmi, he noted that letters of Brahmi could be combined to produce modified symbols and tabulating all the common modifications, he found they totalled between 200 and 300. He also identified the primary characters of the Indus script — ones which account for more than 80 percent of the signs — and they totalled 39 which is close to the letters in Brahmi.  Also just looking at the Brahmi characters, he was able to identify many characters in Indus symbols which visually look similar. With this insight and by  assigning sounds to those characters, Kak was able to read the names of Vedic deities into some texts. His work did not conclusively prove that Brahmi and Indus are related, but showed that the probability was high.
Continue reading “In Pragati: Evidence for the continuity between Harappan Signs and Brahmi letters”

In Pragati: Where is the Indo-European homeland these days?

(This article was originally published in Pragati)

The discovery of the relation between Sanskrit and European languages by Sir William Jones resulted not only in the birth of comparative philology, but it also initiated the search for the Indo-European homeland. There was no consensus on homeland location. In The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, Edwin Bryant writes, “The Indo-European homeland has been located and relocated everywhere from the North Pole to South Pole, to China. It has been placed in South India, Central India, North India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Urals, the Volga Mountains, South Rusia, the steppes of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic, western Europe, northern Europe, central Europe and eastern Europe.”

During the time of William Jones, scholarship was focussed on reconciling Indian history with theBible. In 1790, Jones reaffirmed the “sanctity of the venerable books (of Genesis)” and put the origins of Indian empire within the safe confines of Bishop Usher’s creation date of 4004 BCE. Under Max Muller, who claimed that Genesis was historical, the biblical heritage survived with the narrative that superior civilisations of Europe, Persia and India had one language family. Though India was initially considered as the homeland, by the 19th century that was no longer the case. Bryant writes, “The Indomania of the early British Orientalists did not die of natural causes; it was killed off and replaced by an Indophobia initiated by Evangelism and Utilitarianism epitomised by Charles Grant and James Mill respectively.”

The 19th century was also a period of racial science and it was encouraged by Orientalists in Madras who discovered that South Indian languages were not derived from Sanskrit. Following this discovery, Vedic texts were interpreted to read that white-skinned Aryans subdued dark-skinned and snub-nosed dasas. The similarity of Indo-European languages along with such heroic conquests led the search for the mysterious homeland from where these aristocrats set forth. With this the British could explain their presence in India as yet another wave of Aryan invasion, similar to the many waves that happened before. Once scholars started searching for the homeland, it turned out that you could throw a dart at a world map and there was a theory of origin from that place.

As of 2013, there are three homeland theories that are prominent. The first one — the Anatolian-Neolithic — proposes that Indo-European originated in Anatolia and spread through Europe along with the spread of farming. The spread of the language towards India was explained using two models. The first one proposed that the language spread eastward from Anatolia to India and the second one suggested that it was a later southward migration from Central Asia that bought the language to India. After going back and forth between these two models, the present version argues that Indo-European spread symmetrically westward to Europe and eastward to India. The second theory suggests that the homeland was not in Anatolia, but to the south of the Caucasus. The spread of the language did not happen with the spread of farming, but at a much later date. This theory also posits a secondary homeland located north of the Black and Caspian seas. The third one suggests that the homeland was located between the Volga and Dnieper (The Pontic-Caspian) during 4500–3000 BCE.

In a 2013 paper titled Twenty-first century clouds over Indo-European homelands, J P Mallory used the common notion that Anatolian was one of the first languages to split away in the proto-Indo-European framework to evaluate the three homeland theories. In the Pontic-Caspian model, the ancestors of Anatolians leave the region north of the Black Sea and move to Anatolia. Indo-European develops later in the Pontic-Caspian region and the speakers disperse both east and west in the Bronze age. The Near Eastern model presents crazy travel plans. First the Anatolians move out of Anatolia into the Balkans and Indo-European develops in that space. Before the Anatolians move back to their homeland, the Indo-Europeans move out requiring carefully choreographed movements of peoples. In the Anatolian Neolithic model, the Anatolians do not travel back and forth to the Balkans, but stay put. Instead the Indo-Europeans disperse around the world.

For each of the homeland theories and their paths of dispersal there are sufficient counter arguments that make it untenable or look ridiculous. To give an example, a theory presented in 2012, required two linguistic groups, and separated geographically for 2500 years to have similar linguistic changes. Mallroy writes, “the statisticians who devised this model seem to require some form of mutual contact at a distance, one of the stranger aspects of quantum theory that Einstein once dismissed as Spukhaftige Fernwirkung (“spooky action at a distance”) ”

A second problem with all these migration theories is this:  If agriculture was the source of language expansion, did the region from Anatolia to the Indus speak the same language at some point? Very often historians tell us that the invading/migrating Aryans changed the linguistic landscape of North-West India. If the agricultural spread theory is true, then it was not just the Indus languages that were changed. In the 2500 km distance from Anatolia to the farming community of Mehrgarh in Balochistan, there were four other non-Indo-European speaking regions (Hurrian, Semitic, Sumerian and Elamite) and the migration model requires major language shift in all these areas. Mallroy writes, “In any event, all three models require some form of major language shift despite there being no credible archaeological evidence to demonstrate, through elite dominance or any other mechanism, the type of language shift required to explain, for example, the arrival and dominance of the Indo-Aryans in India.”

One possibility is that the language did not spread through invasion or the current favourite — migration — or due to elite dominance, but due to demic diffusion. Peter Bellwood looked at the farming hypothesis and coupled it with new archaeological discoveries in the Gangetic plains, and proposed last year that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West two millenia earlier than expected. This gave possibility to the development of Vedic language in the region and not in Central Asia. It also provided the ability for the language to spread slowly rather than suddenly. Later in his life Max Müller questioned the concept of a single Proto-Indo-European language. Martin Lewis, a historical geographer at Stanford University, writes, “He [ Müller] further contended that speakers of these dialects might have spread their tongues not by way of massive invasions but rather through the gradual infiltration of relatively small numbers of people out of their Asian homeland.”

To paraphrase an Indo-European scholar, the right question to ask these days is not where the Indo-European homeland is, but rather, where do they put it now?  Since Indian history has been deeply tied to the movement of Indo-European people, it is important to understand the debate that is going on. If one has to be cynical of the whole enterprise, it has to come from an understanding of the complexity and not through a simplistic denial of the theory. In her book History of Ancient and Early Medeival India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century Upinder Singh wrote that most historians have
abandoned the idea of an Aryan invasion for a ‘several waves of migration’ theory. Though no one knows where they came from or which path they followed, Indian history is still firmly rooted in these external origins.

The problems with two centuries of linguistics do not end with diverse homelands or inconclusive paths of migration. There are fundamental issues on what languages belong to the Indo-European tree.  Where does Graeco-Armenian or Italo-Celtic belong? Is Tokharian an orphan or should it be associated with the German branch? A debate which is going on this year is if Basque, the ancestral language spoken by people living in the region spanning northeastern Spain and southwestern France, is an Indo-European language or not. These doubts, (See  An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India) which exist in Indo-European linguistics, is absent in Indian history narratives. There is not an iota of scepticism and a simplistic model still seems to be the norm.

In Pragati: Book Review of Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Margalit Fox reveals the life and struggles of the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, an unknown language in an unknown script, similar to Indus-Saraswati writing. 
One of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the ancient world is the writing system of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. There are over 4200 inscriptions, on seals, on tablets and on pottery; of the 400 signs, only 200 have been used more than five times. Decoding this writing would not only reveal details of life during that period, but also put an end to various debates over the identity of the residents of the Indus region. There has been no dearth of decipherments: many have read proto-Dravidian into the script and others Sanskrit. In The Lost River, Michel Danino writes that the only safe statement that can be made is that the seals played an important part in trade and permitted the identification of either traders or their goods.
Linear B Image
A sample of Linear B script
Decipherment of Indus writing is hard because it falls into the most difficult category in the relation between script and language. The easiest one is where a known language is written in a known script, like English written using Roman alphabets. A difficult case is where a known language is written in an unknown script like when Rongorongo is used to write Rapa Nui. Equally difficult is the case where a known script is used to write an unknown language like when Greek alphabets are used to write Etruscan. The most difficult one is when the language and script are unknown and there is no help for the decipherer. The Indus writing falls into this category.
Linear B, the writing found on the island of Crete, belonged to this category as well but was decoded half a century after it was discovered. The writing was used by Minoans who flourished during the Bronze age following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. Found by an English digger named Arthur Evans, it was named Linear Script Class B. The decipherment story of Linear B might have turned into a dry academic discussion on the difference between proto-writing and writing or on if it was a memory aid for rituals or just meaningless visual art, but Margalit Fox makes it a fascinating tale as the decipherment is tied to the life of three unusual people: a glorified English tomb robber, a largely forgotten American classicist and a gifted English architect; it is the human element that adds depth to the mystery.
The three decipherers
The challenges that faced the decipherers looked insurmountable. When Evans found the tablets in 1900, there were no computers that could detect patterns or do statistical analysis. It looked as if we would never find out if the tablets would reveal a Western epic like the Iliad or just bland accounting records. Though there were no external clues from a Rosetta Stone, some information could be gleaned from the tablets. Evans, for example, figured out the direction of writing and the word breaks because they were separated by tick marks. He also figured out the numerical system used by the Cretan scribes. Some tablets, which had arrow signs on them, were found near a chest filled with arrows; the context gave an idea of what those tablets represented. Some of the tablets were found in the palace complex in boxes with pictograms representing the contents
Nothing beyond this was known when Alice Kober started work on the script in the United States of America. She was an assistant professor of classics at Brooklyn College, who taught introductory Latin and Classics during the day and worked on deciphering the secrets of the Cretans by night. In preparation for the work, Kober learned many fields such as archaeology, linguistics, statistics. Since she was not sure about the language of the Linear B writing, she spent fifteen years studying languages from Chinese to Akkadian to Sanskrit. Without seeing the tablets and by looking the two hundred inscriptions that were available, she worked on them methodically and came close to solving the mystery. Not much credit was given to her in other books about Linear B decipherment and the book tries to correct that by detailing her contributions.
She solved many mysteries, which Arthur Evans or other scholars could not solve; this included figuring out which signs depicted male and female animals as well the sign for boy and girl.  A major breakthrough for Kober was the discovery that Linear B was inflected, which meant that they depended on word endings like adding -ed to denote past tense and -s to indicate plural. With this discovery, she was able to eliminate many languages, which don’t use inflection and focus on languages, which did. She was also able to figure out what was known as a bridging character, which enabled her to figure out the relative relationship between the characters in the script.
The last person mentioned in the book is the one who finally deciphered it. Michael Ventris, is a person who would have been dismissed by modern scholars as a quack for he was not a linguist or a classicist or a scholar in any other field of humanities; he worked as an architect. Like Kober, he too was obsessed with Linear B, even publishing a paper when he was 19. Unlike Kober, Ventris had access to larger number of Linear B symbols. As he sorted the characters based on their frequency and position, he found certain characters appeared at the beginning of the words.
He made one major intuitive leap, which Alice Kober failed to do, and with that he was able to solve the mystery. There were codes, which differed only in the last character and they were found only in Knossos which meant that those characters represented the name of the place. Now it was time to figure out what the words actually meant. Since Kober had figured out that it was an inflected language, he discarded Etruscan and considered other options like Greek. According to the wisdom at that time, Greek speakers arrived much later and so this would have been unacceptable. Ventris, then performed a second leap. During the Iron Age, a writing system called the Cypriot script existed. While the language remained a mystery, the sounds of the symbols were known as the script was used to write Greek following the Hellenization of Cyprus. As those sound values were substituted, the words began to make sense. By the time he was 30, he had solved Linear B.
Lessons for the Indus Decipherers
ten indus glyphs
Ten Indus glyphs discovered near the northern gate of Dholavira 
The people who worked on the decipherment faced great challenges, but they had some qualities that helped them makes progress. They were intelligent, had great memory and were single mindedly focussed on the issue. Margalit Fox explains in detail the tremendous skills that are required to find success in an impossible task like decoding an unknown script of an unknown language. You need rigour of the mind, ferocity of determination, a deliberate way of working, along with a flair for languages. When you are stuck with such a problem, where no external help is available and the problem looks unsolvable, you have to look closely for sometimes the clues lie in the puzzle itself revealing itself to the careful observer.
There is a certain orthodoxy in the Indus politics, which prevents scholars from considering that an Indo-European language was spoken in the region. Solely based on linguistics, it has been argued that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West India following the decline of the Indus civilisation and hence the language should not even be considered as a possibility. Thus most decipherments argue that the language spoken in Indus Valley was non Indo-Aryan. Similarly, for decoding Linear B, there was intense speculation on the language of the tablets, but Greek was ruled out because Greek speakers were known to have arrived later. Evans thought that the Minoan culture was different from the later Greek culture and there was no relation between the two. Alice Kober refused to play that game, refused to give sound values to the characters, and firmly said that the script had to be analysed based on the internal evidence devoid of the decipherer’s  prejudice. She was highly against starting with a preconceived idea and then trying to prove it.
Now even in Indus studies the data is pointing to interesting possibilities. A 2012 paper by Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Australian National University suggests that Indo-European speakers may have been present in Northwest India much earlier, maybe even two millennia earlier than previously assumed.  According to Bellwood, the urban Harappan civilisation had a large number of Indo-European speakers alongside the speakers of other languages which may have included Dravidian.
In a 2010 paper, Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who has been excavating at Harappa for three decades wrote that even though the Indus script has not been deciphered, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan co-existed in the region. Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a 2013 paper writes that Indo-European speakers may have reached Mehrgarh much earlier than 4000 BCE. With such information, there is a need to break away from the orthodoxy. (See “An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India”)
Maybe there is a scholar or an amateur who is as meticulous as Kober or as gifted as Ventris to whom the secrets of the Indus would be revealed, but the  decipherment of Indus script is hard because of the brevity of the seals; the average is five symbols. To figure out anything from seals averaging just five signs is an impossible task. Another possibility that could help is the existence of  a bilingual inscription in one of the regions with which the Indus people traded. For example, there existed an Indus colony in ancient Mesopotamia. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba. Scholars also found a  reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan (assumed to be a person from the Indus region) translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia.
Thus 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages. This also suggests that there could exist a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever.
Finally when it was decoded, the Linear B tablets did not reveal an epic like the Iliad or the Odyssey; they found a record of crops, goods, animals and gifts offered to gods. They revealed the working of the society, about the status of various holdings, and about the personnel who worked there. They revealed their food habits, religious habits and how they spent their time. It revealed the pyramidal structure of the Minoan society with elites at the top, craftsmen and herdsmen below them and slaves at the bottom. The tablets were predominantly economic and was concerned with keeping track of  the goods produced and exchanged.

3000 year old India-Israeli Cinnamon trade

An article in live science points to evidence of three millennia old trade between South India and the Israelites.

Researchers analyzing the contents of 27 flasks from five archaeological sites in Israel that date back around 3,000 years have found that 10 of the flasks contain cinnamaldehyde, the compound that gives cinnamon its flavor, indicating that the spice was stored in these flasks. At this time cinnamon was found in the Far East with the closest places to Israel being southern India and Sri Lanka located at least 3,000 miles (nearly 5,000 kilometers) away. A form of it was also found in the interior of Africa, but does not match the material found in these flasks.[Evidence of 3,000-Year-Old Cinnamon Trade Found in Israel]

Cinnamon was one spice that was a used for embalming dead kings as well as for manufacturing perfumes and holy oils. One line in that article mentions that this discovery raises the intriguing possibility of long distance trade from the Far East.  The article also mentions that this was not direct trade and could have happened using intermediaries.

In fact this long distance trade is not intriguing at all as there has been plenty of evidence for commodities from India appearing in far away places, even further back in in time. Archaeologists in Dhuwelia, a seasonal hunting site  in Eastern Jordan found cotton thread embedded in lime-plaster dating to the fourth millennium BCE. Cotton is not native to Arabia and that particular species could have come from only one place in the world: Baluchistan, where it has been cultivated since the fifth millennium. Queen Puabi, who lived in Iraq during the Mature Harappan period (2600 – 1900 BCE)  had Harappan carnelian beads in her tomb. Following her, Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2279 BCE) boasted about ships from Meluhha, mostly identified with this Indus region), docked in the bay.   This suggests that ships from the Indus region made journeyed all the way to Iraq about 5000 years back.

Burial sites in third millennium BCE Mesopotamia had shell-made lamps and cups produced from a conch shell found only in India; Early Dynastic Mesopotamians were consumers of the Harappan carnelian bead. By 2000 BCE, the trade between Africa and India intensified. While crops moved from Africa to India, genetic studies have shown that the zebu cattle went from India via Arabia to Africa.  Around 1200 BCE, among the dried fruits kept in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II was pepper which came from South India. If you are familiar with the trading hubs of the old world (1, 2), there is nothing unusual about this trade from both North and South India.

Indo-European Speakers in North-West India by 4000 BCE?

The dates and method of arrival of Indo-European speakers in North-West India is a contentious issue. Once held sacred, the Aryan Invasion Theory is no longer considered valid by some scholars. Instead of the invasion model, a migration model is now favored with the Indo-European speakers reaching India from an unknown homeland following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization.

The decline of the Harappan civilisation is no longer attributed to “invading Aryans”, though that theory is still kept alive by political parties in South India. Even the non-Aryan invasion theory has been refuted as there is no trace in the archaeological record for such a disruptive event or the arrival of a new culture from Central Asia. The skeletons, which were touted as evidence for the invasion, were found to belong to different cultural phases thus nullifying the theory of a major battle. Due to all this, historians like Upinder Singh categorically state that the Harappan civilisation was not destroyed by an Indo-Aryan invasion. Instead of blaming the decline of the civilisation to invading or migrating population, the end is now attributed to environmental changes and whims and fancies of rivers.[In Pragati: What caused the decline of Harappa?]

If the Vedic speakers reached Punjab following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, then how did they know about Saraswati, which was no longer a mighty river.? Does this mean that this theory is incorrect and Vedic speakers were present in the region while the river was flowing over a longer distance? Most academics don’t go down that path and insist that IE speakers reached the region not long before the composition of the Rig Veda, even though there is no strong archaeological evidence for such a migration in the 1500 – 1000 BCE period.

If there is one thing that can work up historians, it is the suggestion that Indo-European speakers were present  in the region, much before the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Such a suggestion has serious implications like the possibility of an earlier date for the Vedas than the academically correct one which dates it to post 1500 BCE.

A recently published paper has some interesting observations on this issue. It suggests that the Indo-European speakers were present in the region during the Chalcolithic period (4300 – 3200 BCE) and they arrived as part of an agricultural colonization of a hunter-gatherer territory.  The language which was ancestral to Indo-Iranian spread from Anatolia via Armenia, north-Iran, southern-Turkmenistan and finally IE speakers entered Pakistan by 4000 BCE.  The paper suggests that IE speakers could have been present even before this period (the Neolithic). During this time Dravidian speakers, who were pastoralists and farmers moved from Gujarat or South Indus region to South India

To understand the impact of this date, it should be noted that the Mature Harappan Period is considered to be from 2600 – 1900 BCE. The paper explicitly suggests that urban Harappan civilization had a large population of Indo-European speakers and possibly some Dravidians as well.  By 2000 BCE, before the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, IE speakers were present in the Ganga basin along with Munda speakers.

All these change our understanding of the changes that occurred in the region. The Avesta and Rig Veda were written during a period of great change in the region. An older date for the arrival of Indo-European speakers can explain why they knew about the events which happened in the Sapta-Sindhu region and not in some foreign land. Another important point to note is that it was not just one linguistic group which lived in Neolithic/Chalcolithic Iran,  Harappan region or BMAC.  Many groups co-existed and overlapped in time, space and ideology.

(Many thanks to Carlos for providing the reference)

References:

  1. Gepts, Paul, Thomas R. Famula, Robert L. Bettinger, Stephen B. Brush, and Ardeshir B. Damania. Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

The Peaceful Harappans (2)

There is a theory that the people of Indus-Saraswati civilization were quite peaceful and this makes them quite different from other Bronze age civilizations like Egypt, Mesopotamia or the Minoan.

But, the Indus cities had fortified walls. Archaeologists have found arrowheads, and spearheads, besides a small number of daggers and axes. Sir Mortimer Wheeler believed that the tools could have been used for hunting and not warfare. The walls, it is believed, were built to protect the city against flood or to impress. There is no evidence of swords or body armor or military equipment like swords or catapults. Even the Indus art does not depict warfare or killing. Probably the residents were concerned with defense and had no experience in warfare. All this caused Mark Kenoyer to say it is possible that the Indus civilization, which evolved over a period of 4000 years from the local cultures of Mehrgarh, managed to resolve conflict without warfare. If so, this would be a unique example of living among the bronze age civilizations – an early example of ahimsa.[The Peaceful Indus People]

Now a new paper suggests that the Indus-Saraswati people were not so peaceful after all.

Well, it turns out that there may have been some amount of brutality in the Indus cities too. Skulls were caved in, noses were broken. One can’t be entirely surprised – a purely non-violent society on such a large scale sounds like a pipe-dream. According to [1], out of eighteen skulls studied from the later Harappan period (1900-1700 BC), nearly half had suffered heavy trauma. More interestingly, they report that the prevalence and patterning of cranial injuries, combined with striking differences in mortuary treatment and demography among the three burial areas indicate interpersonal violence in Harappan society was structured along lines of gender and community membership. To wit, the farther you lived from the city centre (or, possibly if your remains were found outside the city sewers), the likelier you were to have had a more violent death. Furthermore, the Harappan culture appears to have become more violent over time, with women being more affected in the later periods.[Some Indus Gossip]

Prof. Jim Shaffer asks people to look at the period during which this violence happened

Jim Shaffer, professor at Case Western University, tempers this finding as a characterization for Indus civilization as a whole by pointing out that the sample comes from a late period in the history of Harappa, between 1900 and 1700 BCE, when Indus civilization was in decline.[Indus civilization continues to intrigue]