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.

Samskritam Notes: Classification of Letters

(This article requires you to have some basic knowledge of Samskritam and uses Devanagari script in between)

Panini’s Ashtadhyayi

I don’t know if grammarians of any other language have analyzed the letters of a language like Samskritam grammarians. Samskritam letters have been classified in many ways — from where the sound originates in the mouth to the amount of breath involved to the effort involved in saying the letter. In this post, I want to go over classifications based on length, tone, and nasalization.

In Samskritam, like most languages, there are vowels and consonants. In most Indian languages, they are kind of similar. For example, here are the Malayalam vowels. If you read the transliteration below the letter, you will find that your mother tongue has identical letters.

Malayalam Vowels

When it comes to Samskritam, the vowels are represented in the Maheshwara Sutras by the pratyahara अच् (See The brilliance of Panini). If you expand, अच्, you get the following letters: अ इ उ ऋ लृ ए ऎ ओ औ. There are just 9 letters.

The first letter is pronounced as “a” in both Malayalam and Samskritam. While Malayalam has “a” and “aa,” Samskritam has only “a.” Does it mean that Samskritam does not have a long a.?

In Samskritam, if you pick one of the vowels, it does not represent that single character but much more. For example, take the letter “a.” It’s not just one letter. It encompasses many different letters.

There are three different classifications of vowels, and they are based on

  • length (it can be short, regular, or long)
  • tone (there are three different tones or pitches at which you pronounce the letter)
  • nasalization (a letter can be said in a usual way and also in a nasalized way)

Length

Each vowel can be pronounced as either hrasva (ह्रस्व), deergha (दीर्घ ) or plutha ( प्लुत). Let’s say someone is mentioning the person named Krishna. They could say Krishna with a short ending and not elongating the end. That would be ह्रस्व or short. If they are calling on Latha, the ending “a” is long or दीर्घ. Now let’s say Krishna is far away in the field, and Yashoda calls him “Krishnaaa” with an elongated “a” for three beats. That would be a प्लुत. When you write a प्लुत letter, you put the number 3 next to it, to indicate that it should be elongated for three beats. Technically, ह्रस्व is of one matra of time, दीर्घ is two and प्लुत three.

If you put it into a table, it will look like this.

ह्रस्वाःदीर्घाःप्लुताः
अ ३
इ ३
उ ३
ऋ ३
ऌ ३
ए ३
ऐ ३
ओ ३
औ ३
Samskritam Aksharaprakaranam

As you can see, not all letters have all the variations.

  • लृ does not have a दीर्घ.
  • ए does not have a ह्रस्व. It starts off as दीर्घ
  • ओ, ऐ and औ does not have have ह्रस्व either.

The take away from this section is that, when you refer to the vowel अ, it refers to the three variations of अ, which are the ह्रस्व दीर्घ and प्लुत variations.

That’s not it.

Tone

Take the letter अ. You can utter it in a higher pitch, normal pitch, or low pitch. These three pitches are called उदात्त, अनुदात्त. and स्वरित

  • उदात्त is a higher pitch
  • अनुदात्त is a lower pitch
  • स्वरित happens when the उदात्त and अनुदात्त are combined, and you get the middle sound.

This is hard to explain verbally. So here are two videos where Vedic scholars demonstrate this concept. I visualize this as a sine wave. The उदात्त is the crest, अनुदात्त is the trough and स्वरित is the base.

Nasalization

Finally, you can utter a letter with a nasal sound or in a non-nasalized form.

These are referred to as

  • अनुनासिक (nasalized)
  • अननुनसिक (non-nasalized)

If you look at the अ mentioned in the Maheshwara Sutras, you can see that it has all these forms. If you take अ, it can have 3 lengths (ह्रस्व, दीर्घ, प्लुत), 3 tones(उदात्त, अनुदात्त, स्वरित), and 2 (अनुनासिक, अननुनसिक). Thus अ can have 18 forms. That is true for अ इ उ and ऋ. The remaining letters do not have three lengths. Hence they will only have 12 forms. So when you chant the Maheshwara Sutras, you should know that they have all these forms.

Who has ever thought about letters this way? Classifying and categorizing them in so many different ways.

References

  • संधिःby महबलेश्वरभट्ट्:
  • Lecture by Sri Varun Khanna at Chinmaya International Foundation

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:

Out of India, to Australia

Australia was populated by modern humans around 47,000 years ago. Then, 4000 years back, the dingo reached Australia suggesting another movement of people which bought changes in language and tools. There were studies which showed that the Aboriginal Australians descended from populations in India and Sri Lanka in the time frame (1300 – 13,000 years back), but were these the people who took the dingo to Australia?
Two pieces of evidence suggested that it was so

  1. There is definitely an Indian component in Aboriginal Australian genes
  2. Analysis of the Y chromosome lineage found that the common ancestor lived around 5000 years back, to the time of Indus-Saraswati civilization.

A new study reveals that the divergence time between Australians and Indians occurred not 5000 years back, but around 54,000 years back.

Australia-divergence
Image source: Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes by Bergstrom et al.

To understand this, one has to look at the journey of man from Africa. The path of the initial migrants was from Africa via the Middle East through India to rest of the world including Europe and Australia. A great visualization for this movement can be seen at the Bradshaw Foundation.
Australia
via the Bradshaw Foundation

The paper concludes

Here, we sequence 13 Aboriginal Australian Y chromosomes to re-investigate their divergence times from Y chromosomes in other continents, including a comparison of Aboriginal Australian and South Asian haplogroup C chromosomes. We find divergence times dating back to 50 kya, thus excluding the Y chromosome as providing evidence for recent gene flow from India into Australia [Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes]

 

Brain Surgery in Bronze Age

Trepanation is a surgical technique in which a hole is drilled into the human skull to treat intracranial diseases. It was quite popular during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Count Philip of Nassau had 27 successive trepanations done in the 17th century. In England, it was a common form of treatment among miners who suffered cranial trauma.
Trepanation has a much older history; it was done during the Bronze Age in Peru and Jericho as well. During those times, it was done to repair skull fracture resulting blows, to remove splinters and blood clots. It was also done on dead people, to obtain skull bones to create necklaces.

At Ikiztepe, a small settlement near the Black Sea occupied from 3200 to 1700 B.C., archaeologist Önder Bilgi of Istanbul University has uncovered five skulls with clean, rectangular incisions that are evidence for trepanation, or basic cranial surgery. The procedure may have been performed to treat hemorrhages, brain cancer, head trauma, or mental illness. Last August Bilgi also unearthed a pair of razor-sharp volcanic glass blades that he believes were used to make the careful cuts.
There is ample evidence that Bronze Age sawbones knew what they doing. Last summer, biological anthropologist Handan üstündag of Anadolu University in Turkey excavated the 4,000-year-old trepanned skull of a man at Kultepe Höyük in central Turkey. üstündag says the surgeon cut a neat 1- by 2-inch incision, and  there are clear signs of recovery in the regrowth of bone tissue at the edges. Judging from the frequency of healed bone in such skulls, anthropologist Yilmaz Erdal of Hacettepe University in Turkey recently proposed that about half of all Bronze Age trepanation patients- and 60 percent of those in Turkey- survived the procedure.[Bronze Age Brain Surgeons]

Trepanation was practiced in Harappa (Lothal, Kalibangan) and the megalithic site of Maski too.

Trepanation is known from the Bronze Age Harappan (ca. 4300 BP) people of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Sarkar (1972) attributed a squarish hole on the right temporal skull of a child of 9-10 years skull found at Lothal, a Harappan site. Roy Chowdhury (1973) also believed that evidence of trepanation was present in Harappan skull No. H 796/B and H 802/B, from Cemetery R37 and possibly in a Kalibangan skull (another Harappan site) in Western India. A megalithic skull (M30) from Maski (Karnataka) in South India also showed evidence of trepanation (Sarkar, 1972): it has two circular holes of 22 mm and 15 mm respectively on the either side of the sagittal suture of the vertex.[Evidence of Surgery in Ancient India:Trepanation at Burzahom (Kashmir) over 4000 years ago]

While the skull of the child found in Lothal is considered the earliest evidence of this type of surgery, a ~4300 year old skull found in Burzahom (10 km north-east of Srinagar)  in Kashmir Valley is definite proof of trepanation. In this particular case, the victim had suffered a blow from a strong wooden stick. She survived the blow as well as the trepanation process.
(Thanks Michel Danino, for the links)
References:

  1. The Chicago medical recorder, Volume 35 By Chicago Medical Society
  2. God-apes and fossil men: paleoanthropology of South Asia By Kenneth A. R. Kennedy
  3. First evidence of brain surgery in Bronze Age Harappa, Current Science, Vol 100, No 11, 10 June 2011

Preserving Vedic Chanting

(Photo via Ujjwol Lamichhane)

If you have played the party game called “Pass the Secret”, you will know that by the time the message reaches back to you, it would have been distorted beyond recognition.  But for many millennia, the Vedic hymns were memorized and handed down by word of mouth and the contents were preserved intact. The actual wording, intonation and pronounciation had to be perfect and for this the Vedic seers created a system to prevent alteration.
At Huffington Post, Suhag Shukla explains this system

To ensure that the Vedas remained unchanged in content, intonation, and inflection, a number of techniques of recitation with increasing complexity and difficulty were developed, including Jatapata.
The first is Samhita, the simplest form of recitation that approaches the mantra as it is, for example,”the sky is blue” (abcd). Next is Padha, where each word is broken down, as in, “the/sky/is/blue” (a/b/c/d). Krama, the third technique, adds the first real level of difficulty into the recitation through a pattern of “the sky/sky is/is blue” (ab/bc/cd). Jatapata, the first of the more challenging, alternates between a repetitious interposing and transposing of words to create a pattern of “the sky sky the the sky/sky is is sky sky is/is blue blue is is blue” (abbaab/bccbbc/cddccd). Between Jatapata and the last technique are six other techniques (called Mala, Shikha, Rekha, Dvaja, Danda and Ratha) that again are built-in combinations and permutations that have ensured that the order and words of the Vedas remain unchanged. The ultimate and most complex technique is called Ghanam. Its mind-boggling backwards and forwards pattern is, “the sky sky the the sky is is sky the the sky is/sky is is sky sky is blue blue is sky is blue” (abbaabccbaabc/bccbbcddcbcd).[Peeling Back the Layers of Sanskrit and Vedic Chanting]

Revolutionary Ideas from Göbekli Tepe

(via Wikipedia)

National Geographic has an article (HT Vipul) on Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey where people constructed a huge temple complex much before the invention of agriculture. This site is now prompting historians to rethink the theories on the origins of complex societies. How were foragers, who usually follow the resources like the Nanook, able to stay at one place and move 16 ton stones without wheels or animals? Why did they even bother constructing such a massive structure? Did pilgrimage pre-date the Neolithic revolution?

Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. “I, my colleagues, we all thought, What? How?” Schmidt said. Paradoxically, Göbekli Tepe appeared to be both a harbinger of the civilized world that was to come and the last, greatest emblem of a nomadic past that was already disappearing. The accomplishment was astonishing, but it was hard to understand how it had been done or what it meant. “In 10 or 15 years,” Schmidt predicts, “Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason.”[Göbekli Tepe]

There is a new explanation for the origin of agriculture

If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world. The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, “If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area.” Agriculture followed.[Göbekli Tepe]

and it is connected to religion

Schmidt speculates that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Göbekli Tepe created the temple as a holy place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to its priests and crafts­people. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. One imagines chanting and drumming, the animals on the great pillars seeming to move in flickering torchlight. Surely there were feasts; Schmidt has uncovered stone basins that could have been used for beer. The temple was a spiritual locus, but it may also have been the Neolithic version of Disneyland.
Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height. Today the closest known wild ancestors of modern einkorn wheat are found on the slopes of Karaca Dağ, a mountain just 60 miles northeast of Göbekli Tepe. In other words, the turn to agriculture celebrated by V. Gordon Childe may have been the result of a need that runs deep in the human psyche, a hunger that still moves people today to travel the globe in search of awe-inspiring sights.[Göbekli Tepe]

See Also: Photos from Göbekli Tepe | Video of a clay model

Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

(via IMDB)

In Southern France, the Ardèche River flows through a spectacular landscape. Surrounding the river are white limestone cliffs, covered with vegetation, rising up over hundreds of feet. Over the river runs the Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, a natural arc like the one at Arches National Park. The cliffs on either side of the river are perfect places for hiking and that is what Jean-Marie Chauvet and his two friends, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire were doing in December, 1994 when they chanced on a narrow entrance within the cliffs.
When you enter through this obscure shaft which was hidden for twenty millenia, you reach a dark cave with high ceiling where there is not much to see. If you have seen any Ramsay Brothers or Ram Gopal Varma movie, this is the point where you scream and run as fast as possible. Fortunately Chauvet and his friends explored the caves and as they went through the network of chambers they saw not just animal bones or stalactites, but undulating cave walls painted with spectacular animal images. And they were 30,000 years old.
Some of us may enter Mt. Athos, but we will never enter the Chauvet Cave. The cave is closed to public. But then if the French culture minister is a big fan of your movies you may get the once in a life time opportunity to film inside the cave. This is how the Bavarian film maker Werner Herzog (Aguirre) got permission to make this 3D documentary. But even then there were too many restrictions. The crew had to minimal (3 people). They had to use only hand held cold lights and always stay on the narrow walkway. They would be allowed inside only for a few hours every day. Despite such restrictions, the result is a spectacular film.
Since the cave was naturally sealed by a landslide for more than 20,000 years, it is like walking into a time capsule. The walls are filled with drawings of horses, bisons, lions, bears and mammoths. In one depiction, there are a bunch of animals running and to give the impression of running, the artist chose to depict the animal with multiple legs, similar to how you do in modern cartoons. You can call them the precursor to animation. Drawn during the period when Neanderthal man roamed alongside humans and Europe was covered with glaciers, the images are lifelike. They seem to be telling various stories: of fighting and mating and of hunting and movement.

The sequencing takes us in through that cliff-face door, away from sunlit faces and landscapes and down the torchlit shaft leading to the cave’s long chambers. These stretch back some eight hundred feet. The cave’s miracles of geology—the extravagance of its glittering stalagmites and calcite curtains—surpass those of the Pont d’Arc outside. But the chambers also have undulating walls, and it was on these that the ancient artists chiefly worked. We are given a foretaste of their images: we exit; we return to this item, to that; we leave again. “It is a relief to go outside,” Herzog explains: inside the caves we get to feeling “as if we were disturbing,” as if our distant ancestors’ eyes were still upon us. But finally we surrender to the flow of their art, immersed at length in the interplay of torchlight, rippling cave flanks, scorings, charcoalings and red ochre.[Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

But there are no human depictions.

One thing, though: There’s a partial depiction of a female, the lower part of a female body, somewhat embraced by a bison. It’s very strange that this motif reappears 30,000 years later in some etchings of Picasso—the Minotaur and the female.But why no human beings? You see depictions of human beings 20,000 years later, 18,000 years later, at the beginning of Neolithic times. By the end of Paleolithic—during the Magdalenian epoch of Paleolithic culture—that’s where you start seeing human depictions.[Werner Herzog Finds at Least Three Dimensions in the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

The documentary also reveals the amount of care taken by the French to protect the caves. This has not been developed into a tourist site because the visitors’ breath could bring mold on the paintings like what happened in Lascaux. Even the scientists stay on the narrow metal path so as not to plant their foot prints next to the 20,000 year print of an extinct cave bear. For tourists, they are planning a replica site nearby.

(via Wikipedia)

The other impressive thing is the research that has been done in these caves. Every inch has been laser scanned and specialists have looked at every artifact. Near the opening there is a wall with hundreds of hand prints and they belonged to a man who had crooked fingers. Deep in the caves, researchers found another painting which was done by a man who too had crooked fingers. The Chavuet painters used torches and some of them rubbed those flames against the cave walls leaving 28,000 year old charcoal fragments. A surreal moment is when Herzog tells us about two sets of foot prints: one belongs to a bear and the other to a child. Did the bear eat the child, or were they friends or were the foot prints made thousands of years apart? Again, we don’t know.
What makes this a non-boring documentary is Herzog’s commentary. His imagination is quite wild. Standing in the silence, looking at the art, he says one can hear one’s own heartbeat and the sound track switches appropriately. The cave paintings remind him of Fred Astaire’s dancing with the shadows and we get a visual from Swing Time. Then he gets the most wonderful characters to explain the past: a circus employee turned archaeologist, a scientist who walks in reindeer skin, a perfume maker who sniffs for smells in caves. These are very unique Herzog touches.
This is probably the only documentary I have seen in a theater and it was worth it.
Furthur Reading:

  1. What does the world’s oldest art say about us? The New Yorker article that inspired Herzog.
  2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), NYTimes Review
  3. Werner Herzog Finds at Least Three Dimensions in the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  4. Herzog on Fresh Air

The First Buildings

We know that agriculture was invented about 12,000 years back in various places around the world, starting with the Fertile Cresent. Many models have been proposed to explain why humans left a foraging for farming. With the discovery of the 11,500 year old temple at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, we also know that religion played an important role quite early in the settled life.
Now we have new evidence of how people lived during that transitory period. The earliest permanent buildings found during this period were not individual homes, but places for communal living or gathering.

Finlayson, Mithen, and their colleagues conclude that the evidence from WF16, combined with evidence from other sites, suggests that the earliest villages were not made up of houses, but rather communal structures where people came together to process their wild harvests and possibly also to engage in community performances. “These settlements appear to be all about community and not about emerging households,” the team writes, adding that this “ritualized community activity” might have helped to bring together the work force necessary to harvest the wild crops.
The authors don’t speculate on where the farmers lived, and there is no way to be sure. Researchers working at similar sites have surmised that they lived in small camps near the central site, but such open air habitations are very difficult to find and often leave little or no archaeological traces.
Archaeologist Trevor Watkins, emeritus at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, says he “agrees strongly” with the authors’ conclusion that the social changes that took place during the transition from hunting and gathering to farming were at least as important as the later economic changes that led to full-blown domestication of plants and animals. But he thinks that it’s still possible that some of the other buildings at WF16 were used as domestic dwellings. Nevertheless, Watkins says, the communal activities at WF16 and other Neolithic sites probably created “powerful bonds of collective identity” in the earliest farmers that kept them together in stable societies “over many generations.”[First Buildings May Have Been Community Centers]