Thursday, December 22, 2005

On the origins of Indians, contd.

CapitalistImperialistPig remarked that would seem distinctly odd for a people to adopt a foreign language without some sort of powerful military or cultural motivation.

That cuts to the heart of the matter - the question boils down to whether the language was foreign!

The Standard Model of Indian history is that a civilization developed in the basin of the Indus river, reaching its highest point around 2200-2000 BC, when the urban centers of Mohenjodaro, Harappa, etc. flourished. The civilization extended from the northern plains all the way to Sindh and Gujarat on the Arabian Sea - over a million square kilometers. Their language (or languages) has vanished without trace. The civilization subsequently went into decline or deurbanization, at one time thought to be due to invasions of the bearers of Indo-European language - the Aryans - but now thought to be due to environmental changes. This invasion began perhaps 1700 BC, and also saw the introduction of the horse and the chariot to India. Subsequently the RgVeda was composed. There is no archaeological evidence for such an invasion or migration nor any sign of a sharp cultural discontinuity in whatever the archaeologists have found so far, but then supposedly that can happen. The Standard Model is based almost entirely upon historical linguistics.

There are some peculiarities that the Standard Model glosses over. I'll mention a few here. I'm writing from memory, so I will probably get specific details wrong, but the general idea will come across.

The first is that the RgVeda mentions the river Saraswati, along with the other rivers of northern India. The Saraswati is the mother of all rivers, as per the Veda. This river is no longer extant. A much later tradition, in the great epic, the Mahabharata, perhaps a thousand years younger than the RgVeda, mentions the Saraswati as having vanished in the desert sands. In the epic, Balarama does a pilgrimmage along the former course of the river; his route matches the channel of the mostly dry modern Ghagghar-Hakra. In modern times, beginning with the explorations of a 19th century Englishman whose name I cannot recall and culminating with satellite photography, it has been confirmed that once a mighty river flowed from the Himalayas, along this route. The bulk of the Indus Valley civilization sites found so far turn out to be on the banks of this river. (I'll point you to maps later). The river dried up 2000 BC or thereabouts.

Now, there is little doubt that the vanished river is the Mahabharata's Saraswati. The big question is - is it also the RgVedic Saraswati? If yes, then the composers of the RgVeda were in India long before the Standard Model allows them to be. The Standard Model postulates that the Aryans brought the river name along with the; the original is not identified, or is said to be the Helmand/Arghandeb in Afghanistan. The Iranian Avesta after all mentions the Harahvaiti (and the s to h shift is well attested to in the language of the RgVeda and Avesta. That the Helmand is hardly the mother of rivers and would be dwarfed by the Indus or the Ganges is attributed to poetic exaggeration. Because of the mention of all the other rivers of northern India, it is clear that the RgVeda was composed in India. Therefore, the Standard Model would have it that the Aryans, who venerated the rivers, carried the name Saraswati from outside, and gave that name to the river already drying up, and not to one of the others.

This leads us to the next puzzle. Elsewhere it has been observed that names of rivers, mountains, etc., are conserved even when there is a language change. But there are few if any such non-Indo-European names in Northern India. The RgVedic text has a vocabulary of some 10,000 words of which about four percent are of non-Indo-European roots - i.e., they are derived from borrowed words from a different language group. The comparative figure for ancient Greek is around 30%. The Greeks were definitely incursive into Greece, but into a smaller area, I'd think. So, the Indo-Aryans by invasion or elite dominance or whatever took over this million square kilometers of inhabited area, wiped out the language with so few borrowings, and all place names? It would be possible, but these supposedly nomadic pastoralists would have had to entered in very large numbers to overwhelm the sedentary agriculturalists. Certainly we should see genetic traces of it - which we simply don't. The paper whose abstract I referred to dates any such incursions to many thousands of years earlier than this period. The Standard Model glosses over all this as well.

I'll just mention one more puzzle - some verses in the RgVeda can be interpreted to mean that at that time a constellation ( the Pleiades) rose on the equator. It no longer does because of the earth's precession. But this places the date of composition to 3000 BC or thereabouts. The Standard Model copes with this by disputing the interpretation (e.g. "due east" could mean many degrees away from east in those days) and by postulating that this was a tradition, ancient by the time of the RgVeda , that was included in the RgVeda even when it was no longer true.

The RgVeda itself shows no memory of its people having ever been outside Northern India. So these people carried some traditions (e.g., the above) for a long time and forgot others, one must plead. ( In contrast, the Avesta does mention its people wandered around for a bit, including the Indus region, before settling in Iran.) The RgVeda does not know of cotton or of bricks, both of which the Indus civilization had in its urban phase - so either it was composed in India before this, or outside India with the Standard Model dates of post-1700 BC - though the geography remains Indian!

The simplest solution, in my opinion, is to push back the date of entry of IndoEuropean languages to India by several thousand years; but this would utterly destroy the field of historical linguistics.


CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I'm probably missing something important, but I don't see a coherent historical theory here. If the Indo-Europeans were, say, Harappans, it seems incredible that the characteristic Indo-European roots would not reflect this culture, especially its crops and domestic animals, which, to my eye at least have little in common with the basic PIE elements.

On the other hand, it's not so implausible that a small group of invaders with superior military technology conquered an empire. Less than one hundred Spaniards under Pizarro conquered the multi-million strong Inca Empire, and replaced its language.

Are you arguing for a point of view, or just presenting some controversies?

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Arun - I don't know if this fits in with your ideas or not, and I'm deeply skeptical myself, but have you heard of this
Paleolithic Continuity Theory? These guys are arguing for relatively stable linguistic distributions since the paleolithic.

Arun said...


The Indo-Europeans need not be Harappans. The question would be whether IE languages entered India early or late.

Yes, the Spaniards replaced the Inca Empire, but not as thoroughly that e.g., place-names have all become Spanish. And the technology gap between the Harappans and putative invaders would have been much much smaller than between Incas and Spaniards.

I'm presenting controversies - I don't think simple models explain the facts; but there is not enough information to build a more complex and more realistic model.

Arun said...

I'd say that the genetic data from India also lend support to the Paleolithic Continuity Theory.

Arun said...

Sorry for not marshalling all the arguments in a coherent whole. My excuse is that my conclusion a few years ago is that we'd have to wait for the evidence to come in, and I haven't paid much attention to all this till now, when definitive human genetic data is becoming available.

My current point has to go with the Pizarro, Spaniards, Incas - if we believe Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, old world diseases like smallpox wiped out 95% of the native New World population - (smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, diphteria, malaria, mumps, pertussis, plague, tuberculosis, yellow fever). Such a scenario is not plausible for South Asia - it was not isolated from the rest of the Old World, nor did horses introduce any new disease among humans. Clearly, losing 95% of the native population would aid immensely in a language replacement scenario.