Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Robin Bradley Kar on Proto-Indo-European

Robin Bradley Kar's paper "On the Proto-Indo-European Language of the Indus Valley Civilization (and Its Implications for Western Prehistory" is available here.

Since I haven't found a lot of citations of this paper, it either has not drawn any attention, or it is so far out of the mainstream that it is not worthy of comment.  But there are some interesting ideas there, in my opinion, and these ideas of Kar I mention below.

Kar sets up a problem as follows:

I begin with an observation. At the eve of the Holocene, and prior to the development of agriculture, all of our current evidence suggests that humans tended to live in relatively small hunter-gatherer bands, which were usually nomadic and typically consisted of somewhere between 30 to 50 people (and probably rarely exceeded about 300). Around the world, human populations were much smaller than they are today, and we know that conditions like these tend to produce fairly extreme levels of linguistic diversity.

If conditions like these had persisted, then there would have been no question at all about the origins of a major language family like Indo- European because there would have been no linguistic phenomena anywhere in the world with this kind of breadth or expansive reach.
So how did the world's major language families emerge? (the eleven major ones are spoken by 95% of the modern world's population).

Kar writes that he builds upon insights from Colin Renfrew's "agricultural-expansionist" model and Joanna Nichol's "prestige-based" model, and adds to it
a clearer recognition of the role that certain major river systems appear to have played in allowing a handful of early agricultural societies to become much more powerful, interconnected, populous and expansive centers of social and linguistic coordination.
These developments, he tells us includes "periods of urbanization and the creation of robust systems of urban networks".  The resulting model he calls the "riverine-agricultural model" of linguistic expansion.

The importance of riverine valleys for early human populations need not be repeated here.  When agriculture developed, the river valleys would have been extremely important:
River systems can ... support much larger increases in agricultural productivity and predictability—thereby amplifying the ordinary effects of agriculture on population density and social structure. There is, moreover, an important fact about the value of human language, which is especially important for the present analysis and would have certainly held true for the greater part of human prehistory: the value of being competent in a language to any particular person would have been frequency- dependent. By this, I mean that this value would have depended in large part on the frequency with which that person was likely to encounter other people with whom he or she either needed or wanted to speak but could only do so with the particular language in question. When coupled with the low population densities and nomadic lifestyles of most early hunter-gatherers, it is this fact that ultimately explains why our earliest human ancestors did not tend to produce any major language families prior to the Holocene.
River systems also provided the first long-distance transport networks.  Kar argues that

Major river systems should have therefore provided some of the very first potential nerve centers for the development of increasingly complex societies with much more robust forms of specialization and division of labor, much larger and more interdependent populations, and much greater capacities for political and economic growth.25 Given the frequency-dependent value of language, these regions should have also tended to produce some of the first and most important major linguistic phenomena to arise within our natural history as a species.
The diagram that Kar provides captures his insight.

The pastoralist expansion plays a big role in Kar's model.

On the current model, one of the reasons why major river systems would have contributed to early linguistic expansions in special and unparalleled ways is the following: these geographic topographies would have tended to produce a very specific division of labor between certain sedentary groups (who would have tended either to cultivate the land near the center of these major river systems or engage in budding industrial and/or trade-related activities from ports along these same river banks) and certain more nomadic, pastoralist groups (who would have tended to breed and raise livestock and would have tended to live further toward the edges of these expanding socio-cultural complexes). This predicted division—which is a division among linguistically related groups who exhibit distinct subsistence patterns—is depicted in Figure 1 by a grey band of semi-nomadic pastoralist groups who are surrounding the more settled populations at the center (near the major river system). This grey band also has a number of arrows leading radially outward from the center, which is meant to indicate the important role that these pastoralist groups are playing in the rapid expansion of the major language family of which they are a part.
Kar goes into various real-life complications of this idealized model.  And then concludes his theoretical motivation for this paper (we are barely into the paper at this point).
During the early to mid parts of the Holocene, major river systems, when combined with the development of agriculture, should have played a key role in the production of especially large and interdependent populations—along with the special cultural traditions (including incipient legal traditions) that tend to make large scale social complexity possible. These processes should have also involved some of the first developments toward urbanism and the creation of robust urban networks along these major river systems. Given the frequency-dependent value of language, these special riverine topographies should have therefore—and simultaneously—played a critical role in the earliest prehistoric expansions of the world’s very first major language families.

It should therefore come as little surprise that two of the four largest language families in the world (namely, Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic) originated from some of the earliest riverine civilizations in the world (namely, from the ancient Chinese civilizations that originally formed around the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and from the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian Civilizations, which originally formed around the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, respectively). There is only one major language family that is larger than both Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic, and it is the Indo-European language family. One way to understand the central thesis of this article is to see it as proposing a similarly intimate connection between this—the largest—major language family and the only other comparable seat of ancient human civilization—which, as it turns out, was located in the Indus Valley and was the largest of them all.

The Indus Valley would have included, apart from the perennial rivers, the monsoon-fed Saraswati.


Well, there is a problem, no? Kar points out:

I would, however, like to make an important observation about Indo-European language family itself: it is the only major language family ...that is split between two major Old World river systems that are separated by immense geographic distances (i.e., of over 2,000 miles). To get from the Indus Valley Valley to the lower Danube and Dnieper rivers (or the other way around) during the relevant periods of human prehistory, one would have had to take one of two basic routes. Either one would have had to take a northern route, which proceeds through those portions of the Eurasian Steppes that directly connect ancient Bactria to the relevant parts of eastern Europe. Or one would have needed to take a more southern route, which connects the eastern parts of Iran to the Balkans by way of western and central Iran and Anatolia. Hence, it is by one or the other (or both) of these routes that Indo- European languages must have spread between these two very distant riverine regions.

How did that happen? To cut a long story short:

Beginning in around 2300 BC, the archaeological record also shows the emergence of another complex urban (or at least proto-urban) civilization in ancient Bactria: the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC Civilization). This civilization was centered along the Oxus river (which is another major river in the region that begins very near the upper portions of the Indus River system), and there is extensive evidence of close links between the BMAC and Indus Valley Civilizations. The riverine- agricultural model of linguistic expansion thus predicts that—by 1900 BC— the languages of the Indus Valley Civilization would have been part of an extraordinarily large and continuous set of linguistic developments with close links to ancient Bactria and a very ancient history in the larger region.

At the other river system, Kar writes:

The contemporaneous developments around the Danube and Dnieper rivers, on the other hand, provide a stark contrast. In these regions, there is extensive archaeological evidence to suggest that—whatever their earlier history—the earliest complex settlements in these regions (which are often referred to as “Old Europe”) were all destroyed and burned to the ground in a rather spectacular fashion by about 3500 BC. Several centuries then passed before there is evidence of any substantial resettlement in these regions. Beginning in about 3300 BC, certain pastoralist groups from the steppes then began to resettle in these regions (in relatively small numbers at first) and move up the Danube River, where they eventually formed the basis for the Celtic-speaking branch of Indo-European.

This then is the picture Kar draws:

...the riverine-agricultural model of linguistic expansion predicts that this larger region—which I have called the “Eastern-Iran- Bactria-Indus-Valley” region—would have most plausibly been generating a highly coordinated set of dialects of a single language family prior to about 1900 BC.......
....If the language family in question was something other than Proto-Indo- European, then we must assume that Indo-European speaking groups displaced this pre-existing language family sometime after the demise of the Indus Valley Civilization—viz., sometime after 1900 BC.
Kar goes on to rule out unknown and extinct language families, and also Munda and Dravidian.  He rules out complete linguistic replacement.

But what about all the other evidence about the Indo-European languages?  Kar develops a new story that plays out in four stages to explain all of it.

he Primal Age (75,000 BC – 3500 BC)

The Primal Age begins with the rise of behaviorally modern humans (most likely in east Africa in or around 75,000 BC)204 and then lasts until about 3500 BC. For the greater part of this long period, human beings had not yet developed agriculture, and our best evidence suggests that humans tended to live in relatively small, nomadic social formations, with population densities that were very small. These conditions tend to produce extreme linguistic diversity,206 and we should therefore expect that for most of the Primal Age, all humans would have spoken languages that were relatively minor in scale and would have tended to diverge from others outside a fairly small geographic area over time. As a result, there would have been a great many language families, no one of which would have represented a very sizeable percentage of the world’s population.

Shortly after the first development of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, however, some groups who spoke languages directly ancestral to early Proto- Indo-European began to absorb these agricultural technologies—on the present view.207 This most likely took place through an intermediary, and it was from this intermediary that the earliest Indo-European groups would have absorbed both a great number of terms for agricultural technologies and some other Semitic and Sumerian loan words.208 Joanna Nichols has presented linguistic evidence to suggest that these people were most plausibly located just south of the Caspian Sea at this early time, and I have followed her suggestion in this regard.

Some of these people moved westwards through Anatolia and into the Balkans, and others moved eastward through Bactria, eastern Iran, Mehrgarh and into the Indus Valley. {They would have arrived around 6500 BC.}

The river valleys then played their role per riverine-agricultural model, from about 4500 BC to 1900 BC.

Kar notes:

Because there is a reconstructible Proto-Indo-European term for “horse,” many have thought to locate the Proto-Indo-European homeland in the steppes, where the horse was first domesticated. During this early period, however, a proto-Indo-European term for “horse” would have plausibly spread throughout the larger socio-cultural complex that was developing in the Eastern-Iran-Bactria-Indus Valley region, because the Proto-Indo- European groups who lived directly adjacent to the steppes (such as in ancient Bactria) would have been familiar with the animal.

b. The Age of Expansion (3500 BC to 1900 BC)
The second major stage—or the “Age of Expansion”—began in around 3500 BC and lasted until about 1900 BC. There are three reasons why this period differed from the last one. First, in about 3500 BC, the Indus Valley Civilization began to enter into its first period of incipient urbanism, which would have greatly increased its political, economic, cultural and linguistic influence within the larger Eastern-Iran-Bactria-Indus-Valley region.

Second, by 3500 BC, the early proto-urban settlements of Old Europe around the lower Danube and Dnieper had all been destroyed.214 Third, in around 3400 BC, the wheeled wagon first begins to show up robustly in the archaeological record of the steppes.215 Before the invention of the wheeled wagon, the steppes would have been very sparsely populated, and would have almost certainly displayed a very great amount of linguistic diversity.216 Wheeled wagons can, however, be pulled by horses (which had been domesticated in the steppes a bit earlier—probably in about 4200 BC), and so the invention of the wheeled wagon meant that much larger groups (including families) could begin to migrate through the steppes and engage in forms of pastoralism that extended much further away from major riverine valleys. These developments essentially connected up the western parts of the steppes (viz., in Eastern Europe near the mouth of the Danube and Dnieper rivers) with those portions of the steppes that are directly adjacent to Bactria—thus opening up the “northern route” for migrations between the Indus-Sarasvati and Danube-Dnieper Valleys .... From this time on, the steppes were no longer sparsely populated regions that could only be traversed by horseback. They instead became potential conveyor belts for larger-scale pastoralist populations and migrations.

The Eurasian steppes transformed into a "linguistic spread zone".

Kar deals with the spread of the Yamnaya culture up the Danube river. It is the standard story, except for where the Yamnaya language originated - i.e., not in the steppes.

he Age of Dissolution (1900 BC through ~800 BC)

Let us now turn to the period beginning in about 1900 BC. We now have highly credible evidence that, beginning in about 1900 BC, the ancient monsoon-fed river that formed the main lifeline for the Indus Valley Civilization (and which I earlier associated with the Vedic “Sarasvati”) began to shorten and become less and less conducive to agricultural production. As this happened, some of the urban Indus Valley sites were abandoned, and new settlements began to appear and cluster further and further toward the upper regions of this monsoon-fed river, which remained conducive to agricultural productivity. The upper reaches of this river system also ran very close to the upper portions of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers, and—as the Sarasvati began to shrink even further—the archaeological record shows further changes in settlement patterns as groups from the Indus Valley began to move even further eastwards along the Gangetic Plain. These events also appear to have involved an initial decline in the social complexity and urbanization in these regions, and to have incentivized some increased reliance on pastoralist forms of subsistence.

Srikanth Talageri has made the following point too, Kar makes it independently:
Given the expansive geographic regions in which early Indo-Iranian dialects would have been spoken on the present view, we should also expect that Indo-Iranian speaking groups would have exhibited a much broader range of religious practices and customs than are reflected in the Vedic texts—even during the Vedic period. It would, after all, be an obvious error to infer from the fact that the Vedic texts provide us with the earliest written attestation of Indo-Aryan languages that these texts therefore describe the material culture and social or religious customs of all Indo-Aryan speakers of their era

The last stage:
d. The Historical Age

The final period is the historical age, which began at different times in different parts of the world, but which also witnessed the emergence of a number of distinctive traditions of mega-empires among Indo-European groups in different parts of Eurasia. These traditions emerged first in ancient Persia; then in ancient Greece; then in ancient India; then in ancient Rome; and then—much later—in northwestern Europe and, finally, Russia.261 Whereas the traditional story would explain each of these developments as the results of independent transitions from more nomadic and tribal forms of life, however, which were rooted in a fairly primitive form of pastoralism, the present theory suggests that all of them more likely had a much deeper and more complex social prehistory relevant to the emergence and stability of Indo-European forms of social complexity.


I have omitted a lot, but what Kar claims to explain is:
The larger body of evidence that the present theory would explain includes:

(1) the most plausible phylogenetic structure of the Indo-European language family itself ....including its well-known branching structure and

(1-b) the identification of a plausible “main stalk” in the archaeological record that could have generated these many branches;

(2) the well-known centum-satem division (including the diverse geographic locations of the centum and satem groups);

(3) the larger set of dialectical groupings that Gamkrelidze and Ivanov have identified within the Indo- European language family;

(4) the most credible and somewhat conflicting findings of linguistic paleontology; and

(5) the far eastern location of the Tocharian branch.

The present theory would also explain and can thus find support in:

(6) all of David Anthony’s extensive archaeological evidence concerning Indo- European prehistory;

(7) all of Joanna Nichols extensive linguistic evidence favoring an early Bactrian homeland for Proto-Indo-European, which suggests that

(7-a) Proto-Indo-European absorbed a number of early Semitic and Sumerian loanwords through an intermediary but not directly and that

(7-b) Proto-Indo-European could not have plausibly emerged from the steppes or the Ukraine but

(7-c) does not rule out the possibility that Proto-Indo- European dialects originally expanded throughout the larger Eastern-Iran- Bactria-Indus-Valley region and would, in fact,

(7-d) be augmented by the present theory because the present theory would help explain why Bactria would have played such an important and consistent role in spreading Indo- European languages through the steppes (i.e., because ancient Bactria would have been part of a much larger and more powerful expanding socio-cultural complex centered in the Indus Valley).

The present theory would also explain:

(8) the existence of a reconstructible Proto-Indo-European term for “horse” even though

(8-a) the horse was apparently unimportant to the Indus Valley Civilization and

(8-b) horses are not indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and show up only rarely if at all in the early archaeological record prior to 1500 BC;

(9) the descriptions of the material and social cultures found in the Vedic texts, including

(9-a) the pastoralist proclivities of these groups,

(9-b) their predominantly tribal social structure and

(9-c) the increased importance they attached to the horse as pastoralist segments of a specific Indo-Aryan society in the middle of the 2d millennium BC).

The present theory would similarly explain and can thus find further support in:

(10) the larger archaeological record of agricultural production and social complexity from the Indus Valley, Bactria, and related places like Mehrgahr;

(11) our best contemporary understanding of the hydronomy of the Indus Valley, including the centrality of a particular monsoon-based river for this Civilization;

(12) our best contemporary understanding of the Vedic “Sarasvati,” as clarified by Ashok Aklujkar’s recent work...;

(13) the incredibly pervasive Indo- Aryan hydronyms and toponyms that are found in northwestern India; and

(14) an important part of Michael Witzel’s linguistic evidence, which suggests the early Sanskrit texts exhibit earlier influences from a language that resembled Proto-Munda than from Dravidian languages.

The present theory would also explain and can thus find some additional support in:

(15) our best understanding of the famous “Harappan” seals, which

(15-a) have not yet been translated in a definitive manner and

(15-b) may not contain a full-blown language at all but for which

(15-c) plausible and internally consistent Indo-Aryan translations have been devised (including one prominent one by S.R. Rao himself) and which

(15-d) show certain statistical patterns, along with a seeming base ten numbering system, that increase the plausibility of their reflecting an Indo-European language.

The present theory is also fully consistent with and would explain:

(16) recent genetic evidence, which suggests that a major admixture event took place between so-called Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians and may have begun around 1500 BC;

(17) genetic evidence that suggests that there were nevertheless no major population replacements or genetic intrusions in northern India at or around 1500 BC (or, indeed, for the entire time beginning in around 4500 BC until the periods when historical record begins around 800 BC); and

(18) evidence that suggests that the Indian populations east of the Indus exhibit a number of distinctive linguistic, cultural, and genetic influences that differentiate them from most of the other Indo-European branches.

But perhaps most importantly: the current theory is also uniquely consistent with all of the new arguments developed in this article, including:

(19) the predictions of the riverine-agricultural model of linguistic expansion and

(20) the extensive empirical evidence concerning the persistence of the major linguistic phenomena to arise in accordance with the riverine- agricultural model of linguistic expansion within these riverine locations.

Finally, the current theory can also help to explain

(21) many of the larger patterns of Indo-European social complexity that we see in the historical record.

Whether Kar's theory works out or not, it is a fascinating story.