“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.” – Dr. N.S. Rajaram
1 – INDO-EUROPEANS ORIGINS
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.)
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.
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. – Folks, 15 December 2012
2 – INDO-EUROPEANS: NATURAL HISTORY OF LANGUAGES
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 Shaffer 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.)
This was the situation until about 65,000 years ago when small groups of our African ancestors made their way to South Asia travelling 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 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. – Folks, 18 December 2012
» 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.
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