INDO-EUROPEANS 2: NATURAL HISTORY OF LANGUAGES
All non-African humans and their languages can be traced to about a thousand individuals in South Asia 60,000 years ago. Two events during the Ice Age, a gene mutation and a major natural catastrophe played a pivotal role.
By Dr. Navaratna Srinivasa Rajaram (NS Rajaram)
Aryan to Indo-European
Ever since Sir William Jones in 1786 noticed remarkable similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, the question of how people from Sri Lanka and Assam to Ireland and Iceland happen to speak languages clearly related to one another has remained one of the great unsolved problems of history. The usual explanation, at least in India is the famous, now infamous Aryan invasion theory or the AIT. It claims that bands of invading ‘Aryan’ tribes brought both the ancestor of the Sanskrit language and the Vedic literature from somewhere in Eurasia or even Europe.
This was the result of scholars assuming that the ancestors of Indians and Europeans must at one time have lived in a common region speaking a common language before they spread across Asia, Eurasia and Europe carrying their language which later split into different dialects and languages. They called these speakers Indo-Europeans and their languages—from North India to Europe—members of the Indo-European family. They called the original language Proto-Indo-European or PIE, a term sometimes applied to its speakers also.
European linguists soon followed up on these ideas but in their newfound enthusiasm committed two egregious blunders. First, they borrowed the Sanskrit word Arya which only means civilized and turned it into a geographical and then a racial term by applying it to the people and languages of North India. (The correct term for North India is Gauda, just as Dravida means South India.) Next, they placed South Indian languages in a totally different category called the Dravidian family excluding them from nearly all discourse about Indo-Europeans. In reality South Indian languages are much closer to Sanskrit in both grammar and vocabulary, whereas with European languages it is limited to vocabulary.
This point—the closeness of the so-called Dravidian languages to Sanskrit—needs to be emphasized because keeping the two separated continues to be part of a political and academic agenda. In truth, there are no reasons to suppose that Gauda and Dravida languages including Sanskrit had ever remained in separate exclusive domains. Some covert Aryan theorists like Thomas Trautmann go to the extent of claiming that the Dravidian family was ‘discovered’ by Bishop Robert Caldwell in 1835, just as Sanskrit was ‘discovered’ by Jones in 1786. The truth is by then they had a two thousand year history of coexistence, and at no time were people of the south ignorant of Sanskrit.
The Aryan myth and the idea of the invasion (AIT) were taught as history for nearly a century until archaeologists discovered the Harappan or the Indus Valley civilization. It continues to be taught in one form or another in spite of the many contradictions highlighted by archaeologists like Jim Shaeffer and B.B. Lal as well as natural scientists like Sir Julian Huxley L. Cavalli-Sforza and others. Politics and entrenched academic interests have succeeded in keeping alive this two hundred year old ad-hoc hypothesis but science may have put an end to its survival while at the same time opening a vast new window on the origin and spread of Indo-Europeans.
Recent discoveries in natural history and population genetics, especially in the past two decades have changed our understanding of Indo-European origins in ways that were totally unexpected. The picture, still a bit hazy, highlights the fact that theories like the AIT are naïve and simplistic. To begin with they very greatly underestimate the time scales involved and also ignore the revolutionary impact of natural history on humans in the past hundred thousand years. It is science, not linguistic theories that help us unlock the mystery of Indo-Europeans.
A volcano and a gene mutation
Our story takes us to Africa some hundred thousand years ago. Our ancestors, called ‘anatomically modern humans’ have been located in fossils in East Africa dating to about that time or somewhat earlier. We were not the only humans then existing: there were several other ‘humanoid’ species in Asia and Africa among which the now extinct Neanderthals are the best known. What separates us from them is we have survived and they have not. In addition we are a speaking species with language without which civilization as we know it is inconceivable. So it is the origin of spoken language that we must seek and not just phonetic similarities in surviving languages.
This means, before speaking of Indo-European, Proto-Indo-European or any other language, we must ask ourselves when did humans begin to speak in the first place? The answer is provided by the discovery of the mutation of a gene knows as FOXP2. It is a complex ‘transcription’ gene that controls both verbalization and grammar. The time when the mutation occurred cannot be pinpointed but based on the evidence of the extinction of all other human species following the Toba super-volcanic eruption about 73,000 years ago, we may place it around 80,000 years before present.
Then, around 74,000 years ago, there was a massive volcanic eruption on the island of Sumatra known as the Toba Explosion. It is the greatest volcanic explosion known, nearly 3000 times the magnitude of the 1980 Mount St. Helen’s explosion. It resulted in a 6,000 year long freeze causing the extinction of all the human species on the planet except a few thousand of our ancestors in Africa and the Neanderthals. In particular, all non-speaking humanoids became extinct. As a result, only speech capable humans survived this catastrophe. This means all of us are descended from this small group of speech capable Africans. (Neanderthals became extinct 30,000 years ago.)
Indo-Europeans, two waves
This was the situation until about 65,000 years ago when small groups of our African ancestors made their way to South Asia traveling along the Arabian coast. All non-Africans living today are descended from these one thousand or so original settlers in South Asia. They flourished in a small area for some ten thousand years in South-Central India. Their small number living in a small area meant a single language would have sufficed for their needs. This was the primordial language of our ancestors. My colleagues and I call it Proto-Afro-Indian. No trace of it has survived.
For the next ten thousand years they led a precarious existence by hunting and gathering. About 52,000 years ago there was a dramatic warming in climate. This led to increase in both population and territory. It was followed by a mass extinction of animals probably due to over-hunting. Shortly after this, about 45,000 years ago or so, small groups left the Indian subcontinent in search of better hunting territory and made their way to Eurasia and Europe. These are the first Indo-Europeans. The language they took with them, possibly more than one, was descended from the primordial Afro-Indian became the first Indo-European. We have no idea what it was like.
All this took place during the last Ice Age or what scientists call the Pleistocene. Towards the end of the Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago, agriculture originating in India and Southeast Asia replaced hunting-gathering leading to much larger populations. Important domestic animals including the horse were also domesticated in the region (There is no truth to the claim that horses were unknown in India before the Aryan invaders brought them.) There were now several languages in north and south India which my colleagues and I call Gauda and Dravida languages. (Arya means civilized and inappropriate for region or language.)
There were two major developments in the Indian subcontinent during the Holocene or the period after the Ice Age 10,000 years ago. First, there was intense activity leading eventually to the creation of the Vedas and the language that became Sanskrit. These were not dialects but carefully constructed by incorporating features found in both northern (Gauda) and southern (Dravida) sources. This accounts for the so-called Dravidian features found in the Vedas as well as the closeness of Dravidian grammars to Sanskrit grammar.
The other was a second wave of people out of India who took with them both Sanskrit related languages and agricultural skills along with domestic animals including rats and mice! This accounts for the closeness of Sanskrit to European languages, in vocabulary but not grammar. AIT advocates claim a reverse movement but this is convincingly refuted by genetic analysis of humans as well as domesticated animals. They show a movement out of the Indian subcontinent. Even linguistic arguments fail because while the Vedas show ‘Dravidian’ features, they show no traces of European or Eurasian influences. (Modern Indian languages on the other hand do show the influence of both English and Persian, testimony to their presence.)
This means there were two major waves of Indo-Europeans, both out of India into the north and west. We know of the first (c. 45,000 BCE) only from genetic studies of modern populations around the world. We have no idea what their languages were like. The second, and much more recent, occurred at the turn of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition some 10,000 years ago. It has left many traces in archaeology, genetics, culture, and above all in the Sanskritic imprint on the languages of Europe and Eurasia. This is supplemented by genetic and other scientific data relating to animals that accompanied them including of rats and mice!
India’s pivotal role, Sanskrit’s perfection
India was (and is) pivotal because of its strategic location and climate. Both land and sea routes—east-west as well as north-south—are accessible from India. Also, India enjoys a subtropical climate that allows both tropical and temperate flora and fauna to flourish. Further, relative to other large countries India has the largest arable land area and receives ample rainfall over a wide area.
Sanskrit and movements that led to it played a crucial role in the evolution and spread of Indo-European languages. Sanskrit itself evolved along two parallel tracks— Vedic and what became classical. Since the idea that it was brought by invading Aryans has been demolished by science, we must look to indigenous sources to understand its history. Unique conditions prevailing in India for tens of thousands of years until the end of the Ice Age proved congenial for creating the language of the Vedas and what later became literary Sanskrit.
Sanskrit enjoys a pivotal position among languages just as mathematics does in the sciences. This is because Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest surviving language whose origins may go back to the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene or 10,000 years. Then there is the perfection of its grammar (like Panini’s famous Ashtadhyayi) attained over millennia of cultivation. Sanskrit was a carefully created language to meet specific needs and its pristine form has been carefully preserved through the efforts of hundreds of generations of scholars. (‘Samskrita’ means composed, compiled or created.)
We can only speculate, but the stability and close-knit and relatively small population during these millennia must have been factors that contributed to the unmatched linguistic perfection of the Sanskrit language and the Rig Veda. Its creators must have realized that they had succeeded in creating something extremely precious, which made them go to great lengths to preserve its purity through their unique method of teaching from generation to generation.
This accounts for the perfection of phonetics and grammar found in Sanskrit and nowhere else. The grammar followed by Kalidasa 2000 years ago is the same as the one we use today. This is not true of any other language. (Just compare Shakespeare’s English with today’s English.) Some Eurocentric linguists find it hard to digest the fact that Sanskrit is central to their discipline. They have tried to relegate it to a secondary position by creating something called Proto-Indo-European or PIE from which they try to derive Sanskrit. This will not work because many different PIEs have been constructed over the last century, but there is only one Sanskrit preserved for thousands of years. Sanskrit can do without IE Studies (as it has done for thousands of years) but IE Studies will collapse without Sanskrit. PIE cannot save it.
As far as methodology is concerned, observant readers will have noticed that the approach outlined here reverses the usual procedure of looking at language similarities and then trying to infer movements and location of speakers, in the process creating artifacts like PIE. What is done here is the opposite: we use science, particularly natural history and genetics supplemented by archaeology and related fields to arrive independently at the movements, extinctions, ‘drifts and selective sweeps’ from which we go on to derive the spread of languages. This avoids the circularity involved in deriving movements from language similarities and then attributing those similarities to the movements.
Finally, the picture given here is by no means definitive but decidedly in better agreement with scientific data and the fossil record than linguistic theories like the AIT which must now be relegated to the dustbin of history. The goal at this time is to build a scientific framework: many details remain to be filled, but any new theory must account for scientific data, especially from natural history and genetics, and take also into account the vast time scales involved. Such momentous developments as the evolution and spread of languages over half the world cannot be squeezed into a few thousand years like the Biblical account of Creation in 4004 BC on which the AIT was based.
Acknowledgements: The author is happy to acknowledge suggestions and comments from Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer, Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Premananda Priyadarshi and Dr. Rosalie Wolfe.
Dr. Navaratna Rajaram is a scientist and historian. Ideas of the article are explored in greater detail in his forthcoming book Genes of Time and the Birth of History.