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Ideological Agendas and Indo-European Origins: Master Race, Bloodthirsty Kurgans, or Proto-Hippies?

Submitted by on November 6, 2012 – 5:32 pm 83 Comments |  

This final contribution to the Indo-European series turns once again to the potential ideological agendas lurking behind theories of IE origin and expansion. As was noted previously, no other issue in human prehistory has been so ideologically fraught; the original IE speakers have been recruited to serve a variety of fantasies, ranging in temper from naively benign to unimaginably vile. For Nazis and their ilk, the original Indo-Europeans constituted the Aryan super-race whose descendants were destined to rule the world. Followers of a certain feminist school of prehistory, in turn, have turned the “Aryan thesis” on its head, portraying the same people as the bloodthirsty “Kurgans” overrunning the peaceful, matriarchal civilization of “Old Europe” and ushering in a global age of violence and male domination. As was argued in the earlier post, it is understandable that some scholars would want to discredit all such overreaching interpretations based on the crushing might of the horse-empowered original Indo-Europeans. If it could be demonstrated that the IE languages were actually spread by Neolithic farmers slowly pushing into new areas as their numbers increased, all such troublesome theories would be effectively undermined.

Yet it is one thing to hope for such a paradigm switch and another to push it along by a purposeful manipulation of data and analysis. Doing so would be a blatantly ideological act, and hence a betrayal of science and reason. Assessing scholarly motivations, however, is a hopeless task, and we have no way of knowing whether Bouckaert et al. have intentionally selected their data and skewed their model in order to support the Anatolian thesis of IE origins. We do think that it is possible, however, that they have unconsciously let their own ideological commitments guide their research program. Our evidence here comes from two sources. First, as we have demonstrated over the past two months, both the data selection and the model construction are warped to consistently favor the Anatolian hypothesis, most egregiously by ignoring all ancient IE language spoken in the steppe zone and by ruling out advection as a mechanism of language spread. Second, it seems likely from the comments posted on this website that distaste for the idea of violent incursions, often viewed as a necessary feature of the “steppe hypothesis,” colors the authors’ perspective. Quentin Atkinson, the article’s corresponding author, quotes Larry Trask to make this point:

Nevertheless, the vision of fierce IE warriors, riding horses and driving chariots, sweeping down on their neighbours brandishing bloody swords, has proven to be an enduring one, and scholars have found it difficult to dislodge from the popular consciousness the idea of the PIE-speakers as warlike conquerors in chariots.

Although the desire to wish away the “bloody swords” of the human past is understandable, it is also naïve, as violence unfortunately pervades our history. One does not have to embrace the vision of Thomas Hobbes, recently updated and re-theorized by Steven Pinker in his tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, to accept that this is indeed the case. I suspect that Pinker exaggerates the bloodiness of hunting-gathering societies, a charge made most forcefully by Christopher Ryan, co-author of the intriguing and controversial Sex at Dawn, yet I also suspect that Ryan descends into hyperbole of his own in emphasizing the peacefulness and sexual license of our Paleolithic ancestors. But when it comes to pre-modern agricultural societies, the evidence is overwhelming: enveloping violence was the norm almost everywhere. If one wants to rule out the possibility of bloody swords and other weapons, one would be advised to examine something other than human history.

But even if armed struggle has been pervasive for most of the past 10,000 years, it does not follow that all non-foraging societies have been equally bloody. As is always the case, different groups vary considerably on this score. If one searches the ethnographic literature, one can find a few documented tribal farming societies that shunned warfare and all of its trappings. Yet the unfortunate truth is that such groups were usually victimized by their more aggressive neighbors, and hence were seldom successful in maintaining their numbers and territories.

One of the most interesting groups of historically peaceful peoples is the Hanunó’o of the Philippines, whose social formation was described by the great American anthropologist Harold Conklin roughly a half century ago. The Hanunó’o constitute a small group (roughly 14,000) of tribal cultivators living in the southern interior portion of the lightly populated island of Mindoro. An encyclopedic treatment of Philippine ethnic groups* frames their peaceable inclinations in concise terms: “Warfare, either actual or traditional, is absent.” But Hanunó’o were able to maintain their irenic way of life only by retreating to rugged and inaccessible areas, and even so they were periodically targeted for centuries by slave raiders from the Sulu Archipelago. Intriguingly, the Hanunó’o seem to be a remnant of what was once a much larger and more sophisticated society, evident by the fact that they have long enjoyed widespread literacy in their own script, an essentially unprecedented phenomenon in a small-scale, tribal society. Conflicts between Spain and the Muslim naval powers of the southern Philippines (the so-called Moros) evidently destroyed the formerly prosperous mercantile centers of Mindoro, after which remnant groups fled the bloody swords of both the Spaniards and the Moros into the inaccessible uplands. There they maintained a generally peaceful way of life, although at a fairly significant cost.

But with the exceptions of some hunter-gatherer bands and a few societies of tribal cultivators, nearly continual violence was the common lot of humanity before the contemporary era. Thus even if Indo-European languages spread into Europe and South Asia through the gradual influx of Neolithic farmers, as Bouckaert et al. argue, the process would have almost certainly been marked by generalized conflict and extensive bloodshed as the Mesolithic indigenes were dispossessed of their lands. By the same token, had the IE languages been spread by horse-riders advancing into the lands of the Neolithic farmers, as most versions of the “steppe hypothesis” contend, violence would also have accompanied the process. But would such a scenario have necessarily entailed substantially greater levels of bloodshed than the majority of such cultural “encounters” experienced over thousands of years across the globe? Equestrian warriors would certainly have had profound military advantages over horseless peoples, but that does not necessarily mean that they would have been any more savage than the human norm. It is also quite possible that IE languages spread mostly through gradual incursions supported in large part by economic or other non-military advantages. Anthropological blogger Al West, for example, surmises that the early Indo-European speakers gained power by selling horses and other goods (see below) to other peoples. Certainly the massive non-IE linguistic substrates found in such IE branches as Greek, Germanic, and Indo-Aryan indicate deep levels of cultural exchange with the indigenous inhabitants of the regions into which the early Indo-European speakers moved.

Portraying the early Indo-Europeans as a uniquely fierce or malevolent people, as some of Marija Gimbitas’s followers were inclined to do, involves more ideological projection as sound appraisal. One can certainly stress the violent nature of their social interactions, but one can just as easily place the emphasis elsewhere. In fact, one can even turn the Gimbutas thesis on its head and portray the steppe-dwelling early Indo-Europeans as gender-egalitarian precursors to the hippies of the late 20th century. Although such a portrayal strays again into the realm of fantasy, it is no less reasonable than either the Herrenvolk (“master race”) or the “demonic Kurgan” theses. As such an inversion of the conventional framing of the original Indo-Europeans makes an interesting thought experiment, and I would ask my readers to indulge me here for a few paragraphs.

The prime evidence for “gender egalitarianism” among early Indo-Europeans derives, ironically, from the realm of war. As was mentioned in an earlier post, the Scythians, an Iranian-speaking group who maintained a largely pastoral way of life in the hypothesized IE steppe homeland, were noted for their female warriors. Herodotus famously wrote of the Amazon fighting women of the region, an observation partially conformed by recent archeological finds; as David Anthony reports, twenty percent of the Scythian/Sarmatian “warrior graves” of the lower Don and Volga river valleys include female remains that had been dressed for battle in identical fashion to the males whose skeletons were found in the same graves. The mere presence of women warriors does not, of course, imply actual gender egalitarianism, nor does it say anything about the social relations of the actual proto-Indo-European speakers, who lived in earlier times. It does, however, indicate a significant extent of female empowerment in an important IE group that maintained an equestrian mode of life on the Pontic Steppes.

Imagining the early Indo-Europeans as proto-hippies is made possible by the group’s close association with marijuana and perhaps other psychoactive plants. Building on the works of archeologists Andrew Sherratt and David Anthony, Al West argues that, “it’s possible that proto-Indo-European speakers became rich and powerful through selling … intoxicants,” further claiming that “Indo-European-speaking people traded THC-laden hemp from the steppes all the way down into the Near Eastern cities, which were naturally a major centre for trade from all over Eurasia. … If this scenario is right, then to the people of Babylon the arrival of Indo-European speakers must have seemed like one crazy dream.”

Although West is probably off-track in suggesting that proto-Indo-European speakers were responsible for the spread of cannabis as a recreational or spiritual drug, such an association is reasonably made for the progenitors of one the main branches of the IE family, the proto-Indo-Iranians. Evidence again comes from both Herodotus, who famously wrote of cannabis ingestion among the Scythians, and from archeological digs; Sherratt discovered charred cannabis residue in a Kurgan site dating back some 3,500 years BCE. Linguistic evidence also plays a role. The hemp plant, which produces valuable fibers and seeds in addition to its mind-altering resin, had been known across much of Eurasia for millennia, and thus had undoubtedly been referred to by many different local names. Cognates linked to the word “cannabis,” however, spread across and beyond the Indo-European-speaking realm in the third millennium BCE, which is believe by some experts to indicate that a new pharmaceutical use for the plant had been discovered and was itself expanding. Although the lines of linguistic descent are not clear, the new term for the plant, which eventually gave rise to the Latin word Cannabis, seems to have been associated with proto-Indo-Iranian steppe dwellers (see the discussions here, here, and here).

Cannabis was probably not the only mind-altering substance used by these people. Perhaps the largest mystery in the history of pharmacology is the identification of soma, the ritual intoxicant of the Rigveda, known as haoma in the Avesta (the sacred text of Zoroastrianism). More than a hundred Vedic hymns extol the unknown substance. Linguistic evidence indicates that soma/haoma was probably not cannabis, although it has been speculated that they were often consumed together. Numerous plants and fungi have been proposed as soma candidates, as spelled out in a detailed Wikipedia article. The primary division in the scholarly literature is between those who think that it was a hallucinogenic substance (such as the mushroom Amanita muscaria) and those who think that it was a stimulant, such as ephedra (also known as má huáng or “Mormon tea”). Recent research seems to be inclining in the direction of ephedra.

Regardless of its true identity, “soma” was ensconced in the Western public imagination by the publication of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932, in which a drug called soma is used as mechanism of social control. More recently, the name has been embraced by the hippie community of northern California. The Wikipedia includes a “soma” article dedicated to a marijuana breeder of that name; the article itself notes that this particular Soma is “internationally known as a ‘Ganja Guru’ after developing award-winning cannabis strains.” I doubt very much, however, that ancient Indo-Iranian folk pharmacologists would have recognized this Soma as a kindred spirit.

The point of this excursion is not to argue that such a deeply anachronistic “proto-hippie thesis” has any merit. It is rather merely to show that making such an argument is possible. All human cultures are complex assemblages of ideas and practices, any number of which can be selected for emphasis. Especially when it comes to poorly understood cultures of the ancient past, we should be wary of any thesis that is based on any kinds of essential traits.

*Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Volume 2: Philippines and Formosa. Edited by Frank M. LeBar. 1975. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press. Page 76.


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