Thursday, October 10, 2013

The “Varna event” and the Indo-European homeland question


Harald Haarmann is one of the leading scholars of Indo-European (IE) and among other things a pioneer on the first identifiable linguistic developments on the Balkans. I have just read his book Indo-Europeanization -- Day One. Elite Recruitment and the Beginnings of Language Politics (Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2012) on the train ride to Antwerp from Münster, where I bought it at the German Orientalist Conference. It was a very pleasant read, also quite accessible for the educated layman, though pioneering at the very edge of Indo-European (IE) research. It proposes a concrete answer to the question how the Europeans ended up speaking a language originating in the east, at least as far east as eastern Ukraine, if not farther.



Haarmann’s Homeland theory follows the widespread assumption that the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) can be identified with the semi-nomadic cattle-herders on the steppes of Eastern Europe. Their location, it is widely believed,  can be confirmed by the presence of a sizable vocabulary borrowed from IE in North-Caucasian and even more in Uralic, neighbouring the IE Homeland from the south c.q. the north. For the Iranian and Indian branches, this implies a migration from the steppe to their historical heartlands: Afghanistan and Northwestern India. In India, this is called the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT).

For Europe, this steppe homeland theory is tied in with an important archaeological finding. In the Pontic area, i.e. present-day eastern Ukraine and southwestern Russia, agriculture was introduced only ca. 5500, pastoralism at least a thousand years earlier (p.35). PIE shows older terms in its lexicon for herding than for agriculture. (The forthcoming IE conference in Leipzig, early December 2013, seeks precisely to verify and amplify the linguistic evidence for this thesis: do agricultural terms tend to be borrowed from substratal languages, in contrast with the pastoralist and wheeled-locomotion terminology which are thoroughly IE?)

Off-hand, he refutes the Anatolian homeland theory put forward by Colin Renfrew and the Diffusionists. Thus, the Hittites in Anatolia borrowed a lot of vocabulary (including, I may add, the name by which they are known) from the native Hatti, whose language also remained in use for sacred purposes, and this is a typical pattern of conquerors making themselves at home in a country deemed more civilized. I may confirm this objection, borrowing from the Greek Sankritist Nicholas Kazanas, with the observation that unlike the other branches of IE, the Anatolian language group lost practically all its IE-derived terms for family relations: symptomatic of a history of conquest where male invaders married native women who persisted in using their native kinship terminology.




That there could be a theory locating the homeland in India, seems unknown to Haarmann. As I could recently verify at IE conferences in Leiden (comparative IE linguistics) and Louvain-la-Neuve (comparative IE mythology), as well as at the IE sections of the Münster conference, quite a few scholars have not even heard of the challenge thrown by the Out-of-India Theory. Others have heard of it, have also vaguely heard of its association with Hindu nationalism, and don’t take it seriously. Thus, a leading French IE philologist who was given a prize at the Louvain-la-Neuve conference, said that he had read a review of Michel Danino’s book on Harappan civilization (The Lost River: On the Trail of the Saraswati, Penguin, Delhi 2010), countering the AIT, but that he wouldn’t waste his time on actually reading the book, as its main thesis was “obviously ridiculous”. This way, the arguments for the OIT remain, wilfully or involuntarily, perfectly unknown in professional circles.

This state of affairs would not be very surprising, given that the limelight for the OIT has been captured by Hindu noise-makers, whose arrogance rivals only with their ignorance. Their behavior caused scholars to deviate from the normal procedure of taking cognizance of any new theory and evaluate it seriously. (Well, “new”, let’s amend that to “renewed”, as the OIT was the very first homeland theory.) But it becomes surprising if you have entered this debate through the medium of Hindu literature and lists assuring us, fifteen years ago already, that “nobody believes in the AIT anymore”. It is this false confidence that caused the Hindu lobby to suffer an ignominious defeat in the California textbook affair (2005-2009). The said claim drew the attention of some academic India-watchers, no doubt partisan but at any rate more powerful than the Hindu outsiders knocking at the doors of multicultural policy-making. These scholars condescendingly overruled the Hindu demands for rewriting the history of Hinduism, including the replacement of the AIT by its opposite. Fact is that the AIT is alive and well, both in political circles (such as on  the Government of India website) and among academics.


The “Varna event”

The cattle-herders in South Russia and Ukraine had few conflicts with the hunter-gatherers to their north because their economies were complementary and they didn’t compete for resources. However, the “Varna event” marks a conflict with their western neighbours, known as the Old Europeans, or rather the resolution of a preceding conflict. Hundreds of graves near the town of Varna, Bulgaria, from ca. 4400 BCE, show a hitherto unknown stratification between the native masses and an intrusive elite. This is best exemplified by the presence of many golden grave-goods including a scepter. Apparently, the lowlier natives had come (or been forced) to accept the superimposition of an elite consisting of immigrants from the steppe. Yet, there are no signs of armed conflict: the immigrants from the east seem to have established themselves peacefully. It is from developments like this one that Aryan invasion theorists take heart to explain the peaceful demise of the Harappan cities and the lack of armed conflict of the supposed Aryan invaders with the natives.   

We do not pretend to be archaeologists, therefore we take the findings presented to us by the archaeologists at face value. So yes, the cattle-herding population established itself  in parts of Old Europe, forming a hierarchically structured symbiosis with the natives. This created the circumstances for language transmission: not so much a transmission imposed from above, but one wanted and organized from below within the power equation imposed from above. Ordinary people wanted to be on a par with the new, foreign-born elite, so they voluntarily adopted its language. This is indeed how we should explain the Indo-Europeanization of Europe: not the replacement of natives by invaders, but the adoption of the invader language by the natives. The large differences between the different IE language groups can then be understood as the effect of borrowing from the divergent languages of Old Europe, e.g. Greek has some 40% loans, often existing side by side with IE synonyms, but none of them the same as the loanwords in Germanic. So, the language situation prevailing throughout Europe (except for the Basque and the Uralic pockets) is nicely made sense of by the scenario outlined by Haarmann, with the Varna event as an early and spectacular illustration.



However, Haarmann’s basic data may lend themselves to other explanations than his own. First off, 4400 BCE is a bit early for the expansion and differentiation of PIE. At least, many scholars teach that some kind of unity of PIE must have existed until the invention of the wheel, not proven to be older than 3500 BCE. But this amounts to one archaeological finding against another, and we don’t want to prejudge the issue. The wheel may be older than the oldest findings of it. Maybe Haarmann ought to answer this objection first; here, he corroborates his estimate with the findings of lexicostatistics, admittedly an inexact science.

Secondly, while an intrusion and integration of a domineering community from the steppes may indeed be established, and while Haarmann’s thesis that hierarchization is   typical of pastoral rather than agricultural societies may be accepted, we don’t know what language these people used. Archaeological data don’t speak, so this IE component is a good guess at best. Haarmann bases his reconstruction of the history of both the IE and the Uralic family heavily on the book Early Contacts between Uralic and Indo-European: Linguistic and Archaeological Considerations, edited by Christian Carpelan et al. (Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura, Helsinki 2001), which remains on very shaky ground throughout though it is very happy to give details on each language’s genesis and whereabouts. In my book Asterisk in Bharopiyasthan (Aditya Prakashan, Delhi 2007), I have jocularly said that it gives the exact birthplace and date of each of these two language families’ branches, so that a family astrologer may draw up their horoscopes to reveal not just their past but even their future. Anyone not so desperate to find the Homeland at last would be skeptical of their detailed reconstruction, deemed valid for an era about five thousand years before writing appeared in Eastern Europe. Historical linguistics is more powerful than certain Hindu noise-makers imagine, but not as accurate as its own aficionados assume.

Thirdly, while the steppe people intruded from the east into Old Europe, we don’t know from how far east they came. Haarmann, like Elena Kuzmina in The Origins of the Indo-Iranians (Brill, Leiden 2007), assumes a steppe homeland in working out the archaeology of that area, but fails to clear the deck, declare the homeland question open, and then prove the East-European Homeland from scratch. Of course he does, since all his predecessors and colleagues and textbooks say that the East-European homeland is an established fact. But to our knowledge, nothing stands in the way of a different scenario, viz. a linguistic assimilation with a population intruding all the way from India, in several stages of mixing and linguistic assimilation.

The latter unknown is now the missing link that scholars convinced of the OIT, or willing to consider the OIT as a possibility, ought to explore. Many Indian archaeologists have abandoned the AIT and turned against it because after 150 years of being the official and well-funded theory it has still not been corroborated by any archaeological proof. It is simply assumed and not questioned, see Haarmann for a very recent example. The Aryans entering India have not been traced. Prof. B.B. Lal, who once made his name by identifying the Painted Grey Ware with the Aryans fighting their way into India, has turned against the AIT later in life, arguing that it was only an assumption that the people concerned were Aryan invaders. We simply don’t know the linguistic situation. But then it falls upon these Indian (and a few Western) archaeologists to explain how the Indo-European languages reached Europe, and to identify Aryans on their way from India to Europe in the archaeological record. So far, the Indian archaeologists have been satisfied to refute the reigning AIT as explaining the Indian situation, but the state of affairs outside India has not been of any interest to them. Their horizon stops at the Khyber Pass.




Haarmann is aware that hundreds of IE, mainly Iranian words have entered the lexicon of the Uralic languages. He acknowledges that the Uralic tribe names in Russia are Iranian (p.65). But then he makes an observation that, while uncontroversial, upsets the whole steppe homeland theory: “Lexical borrowing was unidirectional, from Indo-European to Uralic.” (p.84) This off-hand assertion summing up the professional communis opinio is actually strong proof against any East-European Homeland scenario.

As I too have asserted in my book Update on the Aryan Invasion Theory, it “was a one-way traffic” (Aditya Prakashan, Delhi 1999, p.135). At the time, I still didn’t realize the straightforward simplicity of the only conclusion allowed by this one-way borrowing. The point was made at greater length and more forcefully by Shrikant Talageri in his book The Rigveda, the Final Evidence (Aditya Prakashan, Delhi 2008), who devotes a chapter to it. He concludes that an AIT scenario would have shown up as a string of Uralic loans into Indo-Iranian. By contrast, the present scenario of a one-way imparting of loans from Indo-Iranian to Uralic is only compatible with a wayward and peripheral section of the Indo-Iranians settled in Uralic-speaking areas imparting their vocabulary, and perhaps also borrowing some words but not communicating them back to their linguistic heartland.



Haarmann is convinced that the agricultural Old European society of the town of Varna had been more egalitarian than the hierarchical class system imposed by the immigrating pastoralists. He sees an even more decidedly egalitarian society in a more developed urban society, viz. the Harappan civilization. On p.91-92, Haarmann quotes Charles Keith Maisels (Early Civilizations of the Old World, Routledge, London & New York, 1999, p.252-254): “The Indus civilization (…) is doubly remarkable: first, because it was the only complex society of either Antiquity or the modern world, that operated without social stratification and the state; and, second, in what must be a related phenomenon, because it was an agrarian society in which the villages were not oppressed by the towns (…) In sum, Indus Civilization is by far the most egalitarian of any of the pristine Old or New World civilizations, and that by a long way and by any measure.”

Precisely the same thing was said about Rg-Vedic society. Thus, the Marxist historian Shereen Ratnagar asserts: “if, as in the case of the early Vedic society, land was neither privately owned nor inherited by successive generations, then land rights would have been irrelevant to the formation of kin groups, and there would be nothing preventing younger generations from leaving the parental fold. In such societies the constituent patrilineages or tribal sections were not strongly corporate. So together with geographic expansion there would be social flexibility.” (“Agro-pastoralism and the migrations of the Indo-Iranians”, in Thapar, R., et al.: India. Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, National Book Trust, Delhi 2006, p.157-192, spec. p.166) Nowadays it has become fashionable to moralize about the caste system, with evil Brahmins inventing caste and then imposing it on others; but hard-headed Marxists don’t fall for this conspiracy theory and see the need for socio-economic conditions to explain the reigning system of hierarchy or equality. In particular, it is pointless to lament the inequality of “feudal”, premodern societies, as the socio-economic conditions for equality didn’t prevail yet. Socialism or feminism simply couldn’t exist or emerge in a feudal society. However, the pastoral early-Vedic society did have the conditions for a far more equal relation between individuals. In the later Vedic period, the caste system emerged, first with mixing of castes (caste was passed on in the male line, but the father was free to marry a woman of another caste, see the Chandogya Upanishad or still the Buddha), then with endogamy.  

So, not everyone is convinced that pastoral societies such as the Rg-Vedic one were inegalitarian or even the source of inequality. But in the case of the Harappans, we have tangible evidence that convinces mainstream scholars of their egalitarianism. In Haarmann’s view, this ancient egalitarianism was not unique to the Harappans: “This concept of egalitarianism has parallels in Old European society (…) There is no evidence of a state organization or domination by a centralized political organization in the areas where Old European civilization flourished. The distribution of goods and resources was organized on the basis of interregional trade for mutual advantage. Additionally, Old European civilization exhibits social egalitarianism (i.e. gender imbalance)”. (p.92) The usual AIT reading of this proposition is indeed to draw a parallel between Harappan and Old European society: both were fairly egalitarian, and both were overpowered by immigrating Indo-Europeans and henceforth became hierarchical. The OIT pleads for a different reading of Indian history, but accepts the European part of Indo-European history.


Language transmission and transformation

There is no objection to Haarmann’s main thesis: that the immigrating pastoralists imposed inequality on the native Old Europeans and thus created the conditions for language transmission. The lower classes imitated the upper class, if only to give their children a better chance in life, and took to their Indo-European language. After a few generations, the native language was forgotten, though the resulting Indo-European mother tongue was influenced by the native substratum language, “producing various locally-specific cultural-linguistic blends of old and new constituents”. (p.119). Sometimes the substratal influence was from Uralic (e.g. the stress on the first syllable in Germanic, a typical feature of Uralic and not attested in the other IE branches), mostly from languages that have disappeared (such as the large Pelasgian or otherwise native substratum in the Greek vocabulary). Similar substratal effects are visible in material culture and in mythology.

Summing up, we find in this book an excellent and pioneering account of the Indo-Europeanization of Central and Western Europe. Over the eastern part of the IE speech area, by contrast, the discrepancy between the homeland theory assumed here and the actual data leaves a question mark. That the IE homeland was vaguely somewhere on the Volga, is assumed here, as by most scholars, but by no means proven.   


Shravan Tanjore said...

How can caste emerge by mixing of castes? for castes to mix there must first be caste so if castes already existed for them to mix how then caste emerge because of mixing of caste?

Endogamy between successful people might have been a reason why caste emerged.

Also what is meant by Father was free to marry a woman of another caste? I am confused. Do you mean a married man could take another wife of another caste but a married woman could not take another husband from another or whichever caste? how could this lead to caste system?

Shravan Tanjore said...

I would like to have your opinion on the belief that caste has something to do wit innate nature, this belief was widespread in ancient times, how did this opinion form?

Koenraad Elst said...

If this was not clear, let me explain. The oldest texts say nothing about caste at all. We rarely hear about a rishi who is the descendent of a non-rishi, though. Later, status was determined by the status of the father, regardless of the mother's provenance. Satyakama Jabala is a classical example. The Buddha still defends this view of caste before king Prasenadi, who wants to disown his son Virudhaka when he lears that his wife, the son's mother, is not a proper kshatriya. Clearly at this time two views were competing. Later on, the provenance of both parents was taken into account and full endogamy required.

Shravan Tanjore said...

Bhishma also relates story or an incident from a very ancient time when all were Brahmins, there were no rulers or ruled and society lived according to commonly understood norms.

I do not however know why it should be taken to mean that there were two competing ideas? Why can't it simply be that Prasenadi did not understand Varna Vyastha correctly, it is possible.

I think the Manu Smriti says that caste comes from the father and whatever fault is found in children born to Rishi's from women of other castes is due to the fault in the mother, if we consider the Manu Smriti to be later to Buddha can we then assume that Caste still comes only from the father?

Yes yes Jabali Rishi's case is strong evidence but were not three sons of Yayati born of a Brahmin woman then how did they become Kshatriya instead of Suta?

I think caste has amost always existed in India whether one is in or out depends on whether the community is willing to accept someone.

The case of Matanga Rishi is also very interesting.

One final thing more of a question you can say, Rk Veda is about praising the Deva, then why does it need to mention Varna? Is it absolutely must? Rk Veda does not directly mention Yagna does it? But 'Agnimile Purohitam...' shows that Yagna was there if so Yajurveda was also there?

CHAKRAM said...

"First off, 4400 BCE is a bit early for the expansion and differentiation of PIE. At least, many scholars teach that some kind of unity of PIE must have existed until the invention of the wheel, not proven to be older than 3500 BCE." - If this assumes that IE people migrated only when wheel based mobility was available(if that was the assumption), why dont we think whether they used horses and other animals for mobility?

Koenraad Elst said...

Horses were not (yet) very practical for transporting serious loads, as in a migration; but wagon were. Probably wheeled vehicles were part of the technological advantage that made the Indo-European expansion possible. By the time their neighbours had caught up, the Indo-Europeans occupied a space from India to Western Europe.

Vraja Dev said...

Looked at logically, there really isn't any good argument for anything but an OIT, unless you're a certain type of linguist who is either unaware of competing theories, or doesn't care one way or the other since it's not really important to them (outside the mainstream is not a good place for a professional scholar to be).

Anywhere in the world we can see that climate has played a part in the development of society. This is especially evident in the Americas because an outside civilization was able to stumble upon them before they homogenized and take notes. Civilization in the warm and wet areas of the Americas developed earlier than the colder or dryer areas (North American native cultures weren't anywhere near as advanced societies as Central and South American).

This is only logical, as a warm and wet climate affords more time to be invested in more things than a hard scrabble for existence.

When looking at the AIT vs OIT, we can see that India, with it's large areas of wet and warm climates was more suitable for social progress than other suggested homelands. And logically, therefore we see in the Harrapan civilization the most advanced form of civilization for it's time.

It's only logical that the most advanced civilization would be the most influential upon the various others in it's orbit. That alone speaks a lot in favor of an OIT theory. We know they had a far reaching trading empire. Travel by land westward out of India was difficult, but by boat it was simple and therefore must have been commonplace to ride the currents to and fro to the Middle east and Iran.

Proving that India was the original source of the the Indo-europeans is not going to be completely possible since all direct evidence is subject to alteration throughout time, i.e. the Vedic literatures. Although it is very substantial.

It's easy to disprove the AIT, or at least it's easy to cause serious damage to it's assumptions, much more so than the OIT. That should tell us something of a logical conclusion as well.

The questions remains - why does it matter in India (and the Hindu diaspora), the only place outside of academia where it matters? I think the traditionalists and the modernists see in it as something to use as a propaganda tool to sway people to their POV. Those opposed to the OIT see it as a political cause in that they want an India that is moving away from tradition, and see in it something that will hold that agenda back. By giving credence to the idea of a Hindu homeland in India, they fear that will impede progress away from what they perceive as the goal of a more secular India.

The traditionalists are less political in their support, and more interested in seeing their cultural legacy come home. I think it's mostly a point of pride rather than a blatant political tool. For those fearful of empowering traditionalists, I don't think it matters enough to change their views on anything. Mostly they are taught that whether or not the Aryans were originally from India, that it's irrelevant in the ultimate sense -- since we are all a part of a cosmic being, manifesting a grand illusion (a magic trick!) anyways ;)

Arun said...

Dear Dr. Elst,

Your opinion on this paper by Robin Bradley Kar would be most appreciated by me. While his theory may turn out to be wrong, it is not the work of a crank, in my opinion.

On the Proto-Indo-European Language of the Indus Valley Civilization (and Its Implications for Western Prehistory)

Robin Bradley Kar
University of Illinois College of Law

August 4, 2012

The Sindhu-Sarasvati Civilization: New Perspectives (Essays in Honor of Dr. S.R. Rao) (2014)

The paper is downloadable from there.

Quote: "Section 1 develops a contemporary model of prehistoric linguistic expansion (the "riverine-agricultural model of linguistic expansion"), which suggests that certain major riverine topographies have played a critical role in producing all of the world's major language families - including the Indo-European language family. This model suggests that, during the height of the Indus Valley Civilization, the languages spoken in this region would have almost certainly represented one of the most important and monumental linguistic phenomena ever to have arisen within our natural history as a species. Section 2 then argues that if we assume (plausibly) that significant pockets of this language family should therefore remain in the northwestern portions of the Indian subcontinent, then the Indus Valley Civilization must have spoken dialects of Proto-Indo-European. "


"Section 4 discusses another common source of resistance to the claim that the Indus Valley Civilization might have spoken dialects of Proto-Indo-European. This objection is based on the perception that this linguistic claim carries with it certain necessary implications about Indo-European prehistory that can be hard to square with the broader body of evidence relevant to this larger topic. In order to address this concern, Section 4 embeds the linguistic claim within a broader narrative concerning Indo-European prehistory that is - I argue - actually better able to explain (or at least render coherent) this broader body of evidence than its main competitors. Hence, the current linguistic proposal - once properly construed - can be understood as the beneficiary of a much broader and more extensive form of evidentiary support.

Section 5 ends, finally, with a direct response to some of Michael Witzel’s important and influential work, which purports not only to establish that Indo-European languages and cultures were first brought to the Indian subcontinent from the Eurasian Steppes sometime between 1500 to 1200 BC but also to trace with some precision the exact timing and path of the Indo-Iranian groups who (in his view) carried these languages and cultures with them. Witzel is one of the most pre-eminent Indologists alive today, and he has collected an important body of evidence relevant to these topics. I will nevertheless argue that Witzel's evidence ultimately underdetermines the choice between his traditional theory and the newer one developed here. In construing his evidence to support his theory uniquely, Witzel has therefore, in effect, mistaken a failure of theoretical imagination for a set of inferences that are required by his evidence. Once our full theoretical options have been made explicit, Witzel's evidence can, moreover, be seen to slightly favor the current theory. The choice between these two theories will, however, become even clearer once Witzel's evidence is harmonized with all of the other evidence relevant to these topics (including all of the new considerations discussed in this article). Based on this entire combined body of evidence, we now have compelling reasons to think that the Indus Valley Civilization spoke dialects of Proto-Indo-European."

Arun said...

I should add, as with Talageri, the Vedic people are but one of the peoples of India in that era, maybe not even the most important. Kar thinks that the Indus Valley civilization linguistic influence extended to BMAC and beyond all along the Amu Darya; the horse is like an invention getting carried from the 18th century US to Great Britain (i.e., from the periphery of the Anglosphere to the center), etc., etc.

But please take a look, and please comment, I'd really appreciate it.