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The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part III

Submitted by on December 17, 2013 – 12:04 pm 23 Comments |  
(Note to readers: This is the third of at least five posts derived from a draft chapter of our forthcoming book on the Indo-European controversy. This particular chapter examines the intellectual history of Indo-European studies, focusing on the most contentious ideas and ideologically motivated arguments. Its ultimate aim is to help explain why the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origins, which is rejected by almost all specialists in their field, would nonetheless appeal deeply to journalists, editors, funding agencies, and scholars in other disciplines. Again, references are not included in this draft.)

 Renewed Confusion of Race and Language

While early 20th century racial scholars were reducing the scope of the White (or “Caucasian”) race in Europe, stressing the separation of its so-called Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean stocks, a countervailing tendency operated in Africa. Although this movement was not directly linked to debates about Indo-European origins, it did feed into a renewed conflation of race and language in the postwar period that influenced popular conceptions of the so-called Indo-European peoples. It also provoked a sequence of scholarly reactions what would eventually begin to sever the race-language connection.

race4The main tendency in early 20th century African physical anthropology was to inflate the geographical bounds of the Caucasians at the expense of Black Africans. Some writers have traced this maneuver to the defeat of the Italian Army by the Kingdom of Abyssinia at the Battle of Adwa in 1896; since Blacks were widely thought to be incapable of defeating a modern European military force, the conclusion followed that the victorious Ethiopians must actually be sun-darkened Whites. As the facial features of Ethiopians tend to be more like those of North Africans than those of sub-Saharan Africans, this idea received some support from physical anthropology. By the mid 20th century, however, cartographers were expanding the Caucasian label deep into the heart of the continent, encompassing peoples of wholly African appearance. A map in the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs, produced with support from the U.S. military, treated not just Ethiopia and Somalia as demographically dominated by “Caucasian (or white)” people, but also northern Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda, and the northeastern corner of D. R. Congo.

As the peoples of Uganda and South Sudan are hardly “White” by any physical indicators, one must ask how they could have been so classified. The answer, in essence, is language. The scholars responsible for this maneuver knew that it was problematic. Yet as C. G. Seligman explained in his influential book Races of Africa (1930):

 Language—helpful as it may be—is no safe guide to race. Yet the study of the races of Africa has been so largely determined by the interest in speech … that names based on linguistic criteria are constantly applied to large groups of mankind and, indeed, if intelligently used, often fit quite well. … [I]n this volume linguistic criteria will play a considerable part in the somewhat mixed classification adopted. (9-10)

The key construct employed by Seligman and his peers was the “Hamitic Hypothesis,” which takes us back again to Noah’s son Ham. As Hebrew, Arabic, and other closely related languages were defined as Semitic (i.e., linked to the progeny of Shem), more distantly related languages in the same family, such as Ancient Egyptian, Somali, and Galla (Oromo), were linked to Ham and hence deemed Hamitic. As Europeans gained knowledge of interior Africa, scholars increasingly linked all advances in African culture to conquests or incursions by the generally dark-skinned yet putatively Caucasian Hamites; as Seligman put it, “the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites” (96). European writers often seized on dubious physical or linguistic markers among elite African populations as a sign of Hamitic descent. Thus the taller and more sharply featured Tutsi aristocrats of Rwanda/Burundi were viewed as largely Caucasian Hamites, unlike the Hutu commoners. In this case, the two communities spoke the same Bantu language, but it was reasoned that the Tutsis must have spoken a Hamitic language before they overcame the more numerous Hutus. As linguistic information was gathered from eastern Africa, Nilotic-speaking peoples—including many of the pastoralists of the region—were often subsumed into the same putative Hamitic family (although Seligman classified the southern Nilotes such as the Masai as “half-Hamites” [157] while regarding those of what is now South Sudan as “hamiticized Negroes”[169].) At the extreme, as in the portrayal in the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs, it would seem that all eastern Africans speaking non-Bantu languages, such as the Zande of northern D.R. Congo, were assigned to a Caucasian or at least a half-Caucasian racial position, regardless of their physical attributes. Yet Seligman himself thought that even the Bantus have some “Hamitic blood” (178), and he thus limited the “True Negroes” to the coastal zone of West Africa.

R4Africa was not the only part of the world in which race was widely confused with language. In the post-WWII intellectual environment, the extreme claims of pre-war racial scientists were no longer credible, but race remained a key concept for understanding human diversity. For general pedagogical purposes, the most expedient solution was simply to map races along language lines. As a result, peoples speaking Indo-European languages in Europe and India were often racially separated from peoples speaking Uralic, Turkic, and Dravidian languages. In the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs mentioned above, Turks, Hungarians, and (most) Finns are mapped as “Mongolian (or yellow).” In the popular World Book Atlas, Hungarians and eastern Finns are classified as mixed Caucasian and Mongolian, whereas most Turks are depicted as purely Mongolian, as are the Hungarians living in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. A more extreme conflation of race and language is found in a map edited by the noted Welsh geographer and race4-1anthropologist H. J. Fleure, published in Bartholemew’s Advanced Atlas of Modern Geography of 1962. Here Finns and Estonians are mapped as “Asiatic or Mongolian” because of their “yellow skin colour.” On the same map, “Dravidian” is also advanced as a skin-color group (as part of an “Australo-Dravidian” race of “Melanodermic” people). Here even the map projection, deemed “Nordic,” is seemingly racialized.

carleton-coon-map-originalThis chaotic conception of racial diversity in the postwar period provoked a minor reaction. One scholar in particular, the American physical anthropologist Carleton Coon, sought to place racial understanding on a more scientific basis by stripping out involuted taxonomies and firmly rejecting the mixing of racial and linguistic categories. Coon noted the absurdity of classifying the Finns as “yellow”—albeit while failing to see that there is nothing “yellow” about the skin of East Asians— and scoffed at the idea that Europeans are divided into discrete races. Relying on a variety of physical indicators and guided by evolutionary theory, Coon, divided humankind into the Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Congoid (sub-Saharan African), Australoid, and Capeoid (far southwestern African) stocks, which he regarded as distinctive enough to constitute separate subspecies. Coon’s conception remained racially hierarchical, but he no longer placed Caucasians—let alone Aryans—at the apogee. In an illustration tellingly captioned “The Alpha and Omega of Homo sapiens,” Coon contrasted an Australian Aborigine, supposedly possessing a cranial capacity of a mere 1000 cubic centimeters, with a Chinese scholar enjoying “a brain nearly twice that size”(p. XXXII).

Just as Coon was developing his evolutionary approach to racial taxonomy, the entire concept of physical race came under devastating attack. The key figure here was the anthropologist Ashley Montague, who cartographically demonstrated that the main diagnostic traits for race—including skin color, cranial index, nose shape, stature, and so on—have their own distributional patterns, failing to exhibit the spatial co-variation that would be required to support the notion of distinct races. By the late 1970s, few scholars considered race as anything but a social construct, and a pernicious one at that. The pendulum swing was so extreme that any talk of physically based divisions among humankind came to be seen as unacceptable, leading some scholars of genetic diversity to despair. As modern analysis shows, numerous genetic markers do indicate significant physical differentiation among such groups as western Eurasians and Eastern Eurasians.

Marija Gimbutas and the Feminist Revision of Indo-European Studies

As racial anthropology was being reformulated and then abandoned, Indo-European studies were undergoing their own transformation. The key figure here was the Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas, who turned the Aryan hypothesis on its head, portraying the original Indo-Europeans not as history’s heroes but rather as its villains. In 1956, Gimbutas linked the kurgan burial mounds in the Pontic Steppes north of the Black Sea to speakers of the proto-Indo-European language. She associated this so-called Kurgan culture with pastoral, patriarchal warrior bands. In later excavations of Neolithic villages in southeastern Europe, she described a culture that seemed to be the opposite on all scores: sedentary, peaceful, and gender egalitarian. Gimbutas elaborated this thesis in the 1970s in a series of books on the deities of what she called Old Europe, essentially the Balkan Peninsula before the coming of the Kurgans. These female-centered, goddess-worshiping societies, Gimbutas claimed, were highly cultured, almost fully egalitarian, and peaceful, lacking fortifications and offensive weapons. Their irenic civilization, she further argued, was demolished by the Kurgan invasions, which spread not just the Indo-European language family but also warfare, hierarchy, and male domination.

kurgan2aGimbutas’s basic archeological work was solid, and most Indo-Europeanists have accepted some version of her Kurgan hypothesis that places the origin of the language family among the pastoral (or semi-pastoral) peoples of the Pontic Steppes. But her characterizations of both the “Kurgans” and the “Old Europeans” went too far for most specialists, who saw vast leaps from scanty remains to huge generalizations. And some of her lay followers went farther still. In Riane Eisler’s 1988 treatise, The Chalice and the Blade, the Kurgan conquests are seen as ushering in a global age of male domination, social hierarchy, and mass violence. The implication was that a gentle, egalitarian social order is the human birthright, and could yet be reclaimed if only we undo the social damage imparted by the early Indo-Europeans. The Chalice and the Blade was a bestseller, helping propel the wave of goddess worship that swept certain feminist circles in the late 20th century. It was lauded by prominent intellectuals, including Joseph Campbell, the doyen of mythology study. The famed anthropologist Ashley Montagu, noted above for his dismantling of the biological concept of race, hailed The Chalice and the Blade as the “most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.” And in odd corners of current popular culture, “Kurgans” still play the role of malevolent sub-humans; in the popular Highlander film series, for example, a character named “the Kurgan” comes from a tribe of the same name, “infamous for their cruelty, and … known to ‘toss children into pits full of starved dogs, and watch them fight for [the] meat’ for amusement.”[1] The same idea reappears in the video game Blackmoor Archives.

Still, Eisler’s comprehensive vision failed from the onset. As male domination characterized almost all historically known human societies, it can hardly be attributed to a single ancient people located in one particular part of the Earth. In today’s world, rates of male on female violence reportedly reach a peak in Melanesia, a realm of small-scale societies about as far removed from the “Kurgans” as could be imagined. Despite its appeal to the left, Eisler’s thesis was overwhelmingly Eurocentric, substituting Europe (actually, a corner of Europe) for the world as a whole. But even many of the less extreme assertions of Gimbutas herself have been undermined by scholarly analysis. The peoples of Old Europe were not altogether peaceful and female-centered, just as the speakers of proto-Indo-European and their immediate descendants were almost certainly not insistently androcentric and violent.

Work in world history also casts doubt on the Gimbutas vision. It is easy to imagine militaristic nomads from the Eurasian steppes as much more male-dominated than their sedentary neighbors, but comparative analysis suggests otherwise. Through the early modern and modern periods, women among the traditionally pastoral Kazakhs and Kirghiz of Central Asia have generally enjoyed more autonomy and power than those living in the village and urban societies of the (Sart) Uzbeks[2] and Tajiks. In medieval Mongolia, female empowerment was pronounced; as Mongol men were often absent at war, it is hardly surprising that women took on major managerial and political roles in the homeland. It is also noteworthy that the Scythians, ancient Indo-European-speaking pastoralists of the Pontic Steppes, not uncommonly buried their females in military gear. Perhaps Herodotus was on to something when he wrote of Amazon warrior women among the tribes of the area. Whether such conditions of relative female empowerment existed among the proto-Indo-European-speakers is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that we cannot simply assume overwhelming male domination based on pastoralism and military prowess.

Orientalism and the Renewed Assault on Indo-European Philology

In the works of the pre-WWII Aryan school and those of the late 20th century feminist revisionists alike, the deep Indo-European past primarily served ideological ends. Certainly the goals of the two camps were opposed; where the former romanticized violence and domination, the latter sought to bolster peace and equality. But whatever their motivations, writers in both groups allowed their desires and prejudgments to guide their conclusions. In this regard, the early Orientalist philologists stood on much more solid ground. Max Müller and and his fellows certainly had their biases and blind spots—as we all do—but their commitment to empirical scholarship allowed them to partially transcend their prejudices.

Yet at the same time that the early Indo-European past was being reimagined by Gimbutas and her followers, the reputation of the early Indo-European philologists was again being savaged, as the field itself was again brought to the forefront of scholarly discourse. The key text here was Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, which condemned the entire project of philological scholarship for serving European imperialism by facilitating intellectual domination over the non-Western world. To be sure, Said subjected Jones to relatively light criticism and mostly ignored Müller, but both were ultimately damned. Said accused Jones of trying to “subdue the infinite variety of the Orient” by attempting to codify the main texts of the region (p 78). For Said, there was no escaping the taint; even “great Orientalist works of genuine scholarship,” he argued, “came out of the same impulse” as “Gobineau’s racial ideas”(p. 8).

From a historical point of view, there was something deeply ironic about this broad-brush attack on the Indo-European philologists. For the early Orientalists who wrote on India were demonized by the arch-racialists of their own day precisely because they sought to erase rather than inscribe the “ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and … “the Occident”—the very distinction in which Said located the essence of Orientalism (p. 2). To be sure, one can find passages in Jones, Müller, and their peers that strike the modern reader as inadequately sensitive or even bigoted, but so too one can find such sentiments in all writers of the period. In the end, to tar all Orientalists as complicit in the imperial project is to descend into a form of anti-intellectualism, rejecting out-of-hand an invaluable legacy of thought.

Indo-European Revisionism in South Asia

Meanwhile, the legacy of Müller and his peers have came under increasing attack from another quarter altogether, that of Indian nationalism. This school is epitomized in D. N. Tripathi’s edited collection of 2005 entitled A Discourse on Indo-European Languages and Cultures. The various contributors to this volume understandably object to the old narrative of the Aryan invasion of the sub-continent, a story that emerged in the 19th century from a combination of philological inquiry and racial science. According to this account, superior Aryans invaded South Asia in the Bronze Age, conquering and ruling over the indigenous dark-skinned people and then creating the caste system to ensure that the two groups remained distinct and unequal. Support for this theory was supposedly found in the Rigveda, one of humankind’s oldest text. Yet as Trautmann shows, this neat and simplistic narrative of Aryan invasion had actually been opposed by most of the leading European Sanskritologists of the 19th century. It has also been rejected by modern mainstream scholars, who deny stark racial divisions and tend to posit plodding infiltrations of Indo-European speakers into the Indian subcontinent, along with a gradual and complex development of caste ideology. And regardless of the seemingly clear division of South Asia into an Indo-European north and Dravidian south, it has long been recognized that the entire region shares numerous linguistic features, making it a Sprachbund or linguistic convergence zone.

The current school of Indo-European revisionism in India, however, goes much further in denouncing the old Aryan hypothesis. Some of these writers deny any foreign impact on ancient South Asian civilization, as if in fear that acknowledgement would sunder the unity of India and compromise the nationalist agenda. As Tripathi specifies in his introduction, the main point of the volume is to show that the Indo-European language family originated in South Asia with the Indus Valley civilization and then subsequently spread westward. Sanskrit, he contends, “is the most suited choice as the proto-Indo-European language,” adding that the “antiquity of the Vedas is far more than what Max Müller and others have tried to fix” (p. 13). Other chapters redeploy from Europe to India the exhausted trope of the intrinsic Aryan inclination to migrate. Ajay Mitra Shastri, for example, argues that, “the frequent migrations of enterprising peoples from India westward are responsible for the commonness and great similarity in the vocabulary of the speakers of Indian, West Asia, and European languages.” Yet Shastri is moderate compared to T. P. Verma, who claims not only that Sanskrit was the original language of all humankind, but that it was a direct gift from above. As he boldly argues, “Vedas are verbal transformations of God” (p. 116), essentially taking us back to an early 19th century conception of human prehistory. A more extreme version of this thesis is found in the Wikipedia “Talk” page on Max Müller, where the philologist is accused of being a “bigot who was trying to destroy a civilization” merely because he dared to examine religious texts through the lens of secular scholarship.

This Indocentric school of Indo-European studies has generated significant opposition among more traditional scholars, both in the West and in India. According to Edwin Bryant, tensions grew so pronounced that it became “increasingly difficult for scholars of South Asia to have a cordial exchange on the matter without being branded a ‘Hindu nationalist,’ ‘western neo-colonialist,’ ‘Marxist secularist,”’ or some other simplistic and derogatory stereotype.” In an attempt to break down such barriers, a joint volume entitled The Indo-Aryan Controversy was published in 2005, containing insightful arguments from both camps, with several authors emphasizing the influence of the non-Indo-European languages of South Asia on the region’s Indo-European tongues. In the end, however, the “out of India” theory favored by Tripathi and his colleagues cannot withstand the scrutiny that it receives in this volume. As Michael Witzel demonstrates, no linguistic evidence supports an Indian origin of the Indo-European languages, whereas a vast amount of evidence can be found against it. As he concludes, “To maintain an Indian homeland of IE … requires multiple special pleading of a sort and magnitude that no biologist, astronomer, or physicist would tolerate”(p. 375).

Although many Indian scholars have been trying to put the Aryan invasion myth to rest for once and all, the idea nonetheless retains potency in other corners of southern Asia. In the far south of India, many so-called Dravidianists accept the Aryan invasion thesis on face value, but give it a negative spin to oppose Brahmin interests, favor Tamil over Sanskrit and Hindi, and more generally advocate Tamil nationalism. In northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and especially Iran, a pro-Aryanist movement still attracts support, as evidenced by a minor YouTube video genre that celebrates the racial nature of the local population. More than 300,000 views, for have example, have been garnered by a video entitled “Aryan Race in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India”; its creator (PersianCyrus) claims that:

The real Aryans live in Iran, Afghanistan 
Tajikistan, Pakistan and India. With the attack of the mongols and turks most of the people there got “turkified” or “mongolzied”. However some of those survived!

In such a manner, anti-Arab and anti-Turkish prejudice in Iran is given a pseudo-scholarly gloss.


[1] I am indebted to GeoCurrents reader William Barnard for  bringing this character to my attention. The quotation is from the Wikipedia article on the fictional character known as “the Kurgan.”

[2] The term “Uzbek” has been used to refer to two separate groups. Originally it referred to a largely pastoral group speaking a Turkic language closely related to Kazakh, a group that created the Uzbek Khanate of the Early Modern Period. In the early 20th century, Soviet ethnographers reassigned to the term to the sedentary peoples of the region who speak a heavily Persian-influenced Turkic language. Previously, these people, along with their Tajik neighbors, had generally been called “Sarts.”

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