INDO-EUROPEANS ORIGINS 1: THE 200 YEAR-OLD QUESTION
Science has finally answered the 200 year-old question of why people from India to Iceland speak languages clearly related to one another. Natural history, not linguistics unlocks the puzzle of Indo-European origins.
First of two parts article by Dr. Navaratna Rajaram (NS Rajaram)
A two hundred year-old question
Unlike most academic disciplines, Indology (i.e. Western study of India) and its offshoot of Indo-European studies can be dated almost to the day. In a lecture in Kolkotta delivered on 2 February 1786 (and published in 1788) Sir William Jones, a forty year-old British jurist in the service of the East India Company observed:
“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists…”
This influential statement is well known but not the errors Jones committed like his dating of Indian tradition based on the Biblical superstition that the world was created on Sunday, 23rd of October 4004 BCE at 9:00 AM— time zone not specified. The date was first derived by the Irish bishop James Ussher (1581 – 1656) based on a literal reading of the Bible combined with the belief that world would end 2000 years after Christ or twelve years ago.
While it sounds comical today, it was taught as history through most of the nineteenth century even though both Darwin’s theory of evolution and geology had determined the earth had to be millions of years old to support fossils and the enormous diversity of life forms found on the planet. Even this very greatly underestimated its age. (The current estimate for the age of the earth is about 4.5 billion years.)
Jones was a capable linguist and knew some Sanskrit. His task was to study Indian texts and understand Hindu law to help administer British justice in a manner acceptable to them. In his study of Hindu texts like the Puranas he came across dates that went much further back than the Biblical date for Creation. He dismissed them as superstitions (for failing to agree with the Biblical superstition) and imposed a chronology on Indian history and tradition to fit within the Biblical framework.
This was to have fateful consequences for the study of India over the succeeding two centuries down to the present. To cite an example, Indian tradition going back at least to the mathematician Aryabhata (476 – 540 CE) has held that the Kali Age began with the Mahabharata War in 3102 BCE. This marks the end of an era known as the Vedic Age. Accepting it takes the beginning of the Vedic period as well as several dynasties like the Ikshwakus to 6000 BCE and earlier. This is millennia before the Biblical date for Creation which men like Jones could not accept.
Dates based on the Biblical chronology were accepted as historically valid by most Western scholars of the period including influential ones like F. Max Müller. He explicitly stated that he took the Biblical account including the date to be historical. Most of them were classical scholars or students of religion and had no inkling of science. The widely quoted dates of 1500 BCE for the Aryan invasion and the 1200 BCE date for the Rig Veda were imposed to make them conform to the Biblical date of 4004 BCE for Creation.
The situation has not changed much in the succeeding two centuries. Indologists like Wendy Doniger, Diana Eck, Michael Witzel and their Indian counterparts like Romila Thapar have little comprehension of the revolution in our understanding of the past brought about by science in the past two decades. They continue to quote 1200 BCE for the Rig Veda without mentioning that it rests on the authority of a 400 year-old Biblical superstition! (Some ‘scholars’ like Doniger and Thapar don’t know any Sanskrit either, but that is a different matter.)
Language puzzle, linguistic inadequacy
To return to Jones and his successors, in their ignorance of science it was natural they should have come up with some speculative theories to account for similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, especially Greek and Latin. Being linguists, they created a field called philology of comparing languages and cultures and called it a ‘science’ of languages. But it soon got mixed up with crackpot theories on race and language— like the ‘Aryan’ race speaking ‘Aryan’ languages somehow ending up in Nazi Germany!
There was even an ‘Aryan’ science movement that denounced Einstein and his ‘Jewish’ physics! (This can be compared to some present day anti-Hindu academics who denounce anyone objecting to their theories and conclusions as ‘Hindutva advocates’.) It was denounced by scientists, especially in the twentieth century, but politics and prejudice kept it alive for over a century. In addition to the Nazi ideology, British colonial policy used race as a way of classifying its British Indian subjects.
Setting aside such aberrations, Jones did raise a legitimate question: why do people from India and Sri Lanka to Ireland and Iceland speak languages clearly related to one another, and have done so for more than two thousand years? This fact has been widely noted but a few examples help illustrate the point. What is deva in Sanskrit becomes dio in Latin, theo in Greek and dieu in French. Similarly, agni for fire in Sanskrit becomes ignis in Latin from which we get the English words ignite and ignition. A particularly interesting example is the Russian drink vodka meaning ‘a little water’ is related to the Sanskrit udaka. And there are many more, far too many to be seen as coincidence. Prejudice and politics aside this basic question remains.
Over the past two hundred years many theories have been created to account for these similarities. These are based mostly on superficial phonetic similarities but none has proved satisfactory. Even without the confusion introduced by race theories, these explanations give glaring inconsistencies. To take an example, using the same data and the same methods some scholars have argued that a branch of Indo-Europeans called ‘Aryans’ invaded India, while some others claim the reverse— that Aryans (or Indo-Europeans) originated in India and migrated to Eurasia and Europe taking their language(s) with them. The AIT of course holds the opposite view—that the invading Aryans were the eastern branch of Indo-Europeans.
Science to the rescue
With the benefit of hindsight one can see that the science needed to unlock the language mystery did not become available until about twenty years ago. It was only in the last few decades, with the emergence of molecular biology after World War II and especially gene sequencing and genome research in the past decade and more that we are able to trace the origin and spread of Indo-Europeans and their languages. Two areas of natural history— the distribution of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes in the world’s population groups and the fate of humans in the face of natural events have resulted in the spread of Indo-Europeans and their languages from a group perhaps as few as a thousand 60,000 years ago over two billion speakers today.
What has allowed us to unlock the mysteries of IE origins is science, especially natural history and population genetics. Population genetics was founded by Sir Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and J.B.S. Haldane. Fisher, a geneticist as well as a statistician had two outstanding students, C. Radhakrishna Rao (C.R. Rao) and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Rao became known as the world’s greatest mathematical statistician while Cavalli-Sforza carried forward Fisher’s work in population genetics, combining microbiology with mathematical genetics. If we are able to unlock the secrets of our origins today much of the credit must go to these pioneers.
The material presented here, especially in the second part draws heavily on the work of Cavalli-Sforza, Stephen Oppenheimer and their colleagues. (This author had the good fortune of working with C.R. Rao while a student in the U.S.) What is extraordinary in all this is the depth and power of scientific analysis needed to unlock the puzzle. Linguistics, the principal tool used for over two hundreds has proved unequal to the task of unlocking the mystery of our origins. The creation of Vedic and Sanskrit languages in India going back perhaps 10,000 years or more was crucial in the evolution of the final phase of Indo-European languages.
No less remarkable is the vast time scales involved— not thousands but tens of thousands of years. Even this is miniscule by evolutionary standards. We Indo-Europeans have been on the planet for barely 65 thousand years, while dinosaurs ruled the earth for as many million years. With this as background, we may next look at a brief account of our origin and spread.
(To be continued)
Dr. Navaratna Rajaram is a scientist and historian. The ideas of the article are explored in greater detail in his forthcoming book Genes of Time and the Birth of History.