“The Aryans”

2800 BCE. For more than two centuries scholars have known that most of the languages of Europe, Iran and Northern India, and assorted other places, are sprung from a common source, from an extinct language, never written down, that came to be dubbed Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It’s been a matter of speculation where and when PIE was spoken. Now, just in the last few years, it looks like the major questions about Indo-European origins are being answered. Research on ancient DNA has overturned an earlier view (which seemed viable to many researchers even a few years ago) that there were just two major waves of migration into Europe: hunter-gatherers 40 thousand years ago, and farmers from Anatolia starting 7000 years ago. But it turns out that there was also a later massive wave of immigration, coming from the grasslands north of the Black Sea, about 2800 BCE. This migration replaced much of the population of northern Europe, and contributed substantially to southern Europe as well. (See here and here for blog posts on the possible pre-Indo-European roots of Indo-Europeans.) The migration is a perfect fit for what historical linguists have been saying for a long time. For example, the newcomers brought ox-drawn wagons and wheels with them, matching vocabulary in PIE. (Here and here are some news reports, and here’s one of the best books on the subject, by archeologist David Anthony, written even before the latest DNA evidence came in.)

The intellectual history of the Indo-European question has not just been about pure and objective scholarship; it’s been bound up with the bloody history of the twentieth century.

In 1926, V. Gordon Childe, in his day probably the preeminent prehistoric archeologist in the English-speaking world, wrote a book addressing the topic of Indo-European origins. Synthesizing linguistic and archeological evidence, he named a likely place – the steppes of Ukraine and Southern Russia – and a time – the late Neolithic or Copper age, well after the advent of agriculture, but before the Bronze Age. (The corresponding archeological culture is now called the Yamnaya. However the very earliest split in the IE tree, bringing Hittite ancestors to Anatolia, comes earlier.) He argued that Indo-European speakers had migrated west to conquer big swathes of territory in Europe (Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures), and, later, east and south into Iran and India. In other words, he defended what now looks like the correct theory. This wasn’t just a luck guess. He got it right mostly because he took historical linguistics seriously, as a hard science in its own right.

Childe’s book was entitled “The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins,” and this suggests a problem. Childe acknowledged that the title was a misnomer. Strictly speaking “Aryan” applies only to speakers of Indo-European languages in Iran and India; Childe called PIE speakers “Aryans” simply because it made a better book title. But the title alone was not really the problem. Childe knew that Indo-European prehistory, and the Aryan label, were popular with the nationalist German Right. Childe had no sympathy for German nationalism. He was an Australian who lived most of his life in England. He was also a lifelong socialist and a man of the Left. In fact his book aimed at deflating nationalist claims. He located the Indo-European homeland in Eastern Europe, not Germany or Scandinavia, as some claimed. And he denied that the “Aryans” had any special racial genius. He did think that Indo-European languages (not a racial character) were “exceptionally delicate and flexible instruments of thought” that facilitated later intellectual developments. (This one probably won’t fly. Linguists nowadays mostly don’t think grammar has that much effect on cognition.) And he speculated that “Aryans” might have had an advantage over other folk simply by virtue of being large and well-fed. (This one isn’t totally crazy. Indo-Europeans were apparently big guys, like the Nilotic cattle herders of East Africa to whom they show some interesting convergent cultural similarities.) Nonetheless, the whole subject grew increasingly uncomfortable as the 1920s moved into the 30s. Childe let the book go out of print, and scarcely referred to it in the course of a long productive career.

Beyond killing tens of millions of people, Nazism also had a long lasting deforming effect on intellectual life. For most of the later twentieth century Anglo-American archeologists went out of their way to avoid topics like migration, barbarian invasions, and population replacements. These were, in today’s jargon, problematic. For example, it was clear that something dramatic happened over a huge stretch of Europe, from Poland to the Netherlands, in the early third millennium BCE: settled life gave way to nomadism, farming to cattle raising. But this was written off as a technological shift, the Secondary Products Revolution. (To be fair, there were some exceptions among archeologists, like David Anthony and Marija Gimbutas, and many exceptions among linguists. Jared Diamond also got it right.) In some ways, then, we’re just beginning to recover, intellectually, from the Second World War.

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4 thoughts on ““The Aryans”

  1. Pingback: The world at 1000 BCE | Logarithmic History

  2. Pingback: Weaving history | Logarithmic History

  3. Pingback: The modern synthesis and the blank slate | Logarithmic History

  4. Pingback: Rama’s ape | Logarithmic History

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