In Pragati: Where is the Indo-European homeland these days?

(This article was originally published in Pragati)

The discovery of the relation between Sanskrit and European languages by Sir William Jones resulted not only in the birth of comparative philology, but it also initiated the search for the Indo-European homeland. There was no consensus on homeland location. In The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, Edwin Bryant writes, “The Indo-European homeland has been located and relocated everywhere from the North Pole to South Pole, to China. It has been placed in South India, Central India, North India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Urals, the Volga Mountains, South Rusia, the steppes of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic, western Europe, northern Europe, central Europe and eastern Europe.”

During the time of William Jones, scholarship was focussed on reconciling Indian history with theBible. In 1790, Jones reaffirmed the “sanctity of the venerable books (of Genesis)” and put the origins of Indian empire within the safe confines of Bishop Usher’s creation date of 4004 BCE. Under Max Muller, who claimed that Genesis was historical, the biblical heritage survived with the narrative that superior civilisations of Europe, Persia and India had one language family. Though India was initially considered as the homeland, by the 19th century that was no longer the case. Bryant writes, “The Indomania of the early British Orientalists did not die of natural causes; it was killed off and replaced by an Indophobia initiated by Evangelism and Utilitarianism epitomised by Charles Grant and James Mill respectively.”

The 19th century was also a period of racial science and it was encouraged by Orientalists in Madras who discovered that South Indian languages were not derived from Sanskrit. Following this discovery, Vedic texts were interpreted to read that white-skinned Aryans subdued dark-skinned and snub-nosed dasas. The similarity of Indo-European languages along with such heroic conquests led the search for the mysterious homeland from where these aristocrats set forth. With this the British could explain their presence in India as yet another wave of Aryan invasion, similar to the many waves that happened before. Once scholars started searching for the homeland, it turned out that you could throw a dart at a world map and there was a theory of origin from that place.

As of 2013, there are three homeland theories that are prominent. The first one — the Anatolian-Neolithic — proposes that Indo-European originated in Anatolia and spread through Europe along with the spread of farming. The spread of the language towards India was explained using two models. The first one proposed that the language spread eastward from Anatolia to India and the second one suggested that it was a later southward migration from Central Asia that bought the language to India. After going back and forth between these two models, the present version argues that Indo-European spread symmetrically westward to Europe and eastward to India. The second theory suggests that the homeland was not in Anatolia, but to the south of the Caucasus. The spread of the language did not happen with the spread of farming, but at a much later date. This theory also posits a secondary homeland located north of the Black and Caspian seas. The third one suggests that the homeland was located between the Volga and Dnieper (The Pontic-Caspian) during 4500–3000 BCE.

In a 2013 paper titled Twenty-first century clouds over Indo-European homelands, J P Mallory used the common notion that Anatolian was one of the first languages to split away in the proto-Indo-European framework to evaluate the three homeland theories. In the Pontic-Caspian model, the ancestors of Anatolians leave the region north of the Black Sea and move to Anatolia. Indo-European develops later in the Pontic-Caspian region and the speakers disperse both east and west in the Bronze age. The Near Eastern model presents crazy travel plans. First the Anatolians move out of Anatolia into the Balkans and Indo-European develops in that space. Before the Anatolians move back to their homeland, the Indo-Europeans move out requiring carefully choreographed movements of peoples. In the Anatolian Neolithic model, the Anatolians do not travel back and forth to the Balkans, but stay put. Instead the Indo-Europeans disperse around the world.

For each of the homeland theories and their paths of dispersal there are sufficient counter arguments that make it untenable or look ridiculous. To give an example, a theory presented in 2012, required two linguistic groups, and separated geographically for 2500 years to have similar linguistic changes. Mallroy writes, “the statisticians who devised this model seem to require some form of mutual contact at a distance, one of the stranger aspects of quantum theory that Einstein once dismissed as Spukhaftige Fernwirkung (“spooky action at a distance”) ”

A second problem with all these migration theories is this:  If agriculture was the source of language expansion, did the region from Anatolia to the Indus speak the same language at some point? Very often historians tell us that the invading/migrating Aryans changed the linguistic landscape of North-West India. If the agricultural spread theory is true, then it was not just the Indus languages that were changed. In the 2500 km distance from Anatolia to the farming community of Mehrgarh in Balochistan, there were four other non-Indo-European speaking regions (Hurrian, Semitic, Sumerian and Elamite) and the migration model requires major language shift in all these areas. Mallroy writes, “In any event, all three models require some form of major language shift despite there being no credible archaeological evidence to demonstrate, through elite dominance or any other mechanism, the type of language shift required to explain, for example, the arrival and dominance of the Indo-Aryans in India.”

One possibility is that the language did not spread through invasion or the current favourite — migration — or due to elite dominance, but due to demic diffusion. Peter Bellwood looked at the farming hypothesis and coupled it with new archaeological discoveries in the Gangetic plains, and proposed last year that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West two millenia earlier than expected. This gave possibility to the development of Vedic language in the region and not in Central Asia. It also provided the ability for the language to spread slowly rather than suddenly. Later in his life Max Müller questioned the concept of a single Proto-Indo-European language. Martin Lewis, a historical geographer at Stanford University, writes, “He [ Müller] further contended that speakers of these dialects might have spread their tongues not by way of massive invasions but rather through the gradual infiltration of relatively small numbers of people out of their Asian homeland.”

To paraphrase an Indo-European scholar, the right question to ask these days is not where the Indo-European homeland is, but rather, where do they put it now?  Since Indian history has been deeply tied to the movement of Indo-European people, it is important to understand the debate that is going on. If one has to be cynical of the whole enterprise, it has to come from an understanding of the complexity and not through a simplistic denial of the theory. In her book History of Ancient and Early Medeival India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century Upinder Singh wrote that most historians have
abandoned the idea of an Aryan invasion for a ‘several waves of migration’ theory. Though no one knows where they came from or which path they followed, Indian history is still firmly rooted in these external origins.

The problems with two centuries of linguistics do not end with diverse homelands or inconclusive paths of migration. There are fundamental issues on what languages belong to the Indo-European tree.  Where does Graeco-Armenian or Italo-Celtic belong? Is Tokharian an orphan or should it be associated with the German branch? A debate which is going on this year is if Basque, the ancestral language spoken by people living in the region spanning northeastern Spain and southwestern France, is an Indo-European language or not. These doubts, (See  An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India) which exist in Indo-European linguistics, is absent in Indian history narratives. There is not an iota of scepticism and a simplistic model still seems to be the norm.

2 Comments

  1. The OIT seems to explain all the linguistic problems present, atleast from Talageri’s work, and also the genetic data shows that there was no IN but only OUT, why is there still a debate, I have not an ounce of clue!!

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