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Indo-Europeans’ origins

, March 17, 2016, 0 Comments

indo-europeans-origin-marketexpress-inSir William Jones was a famous Calcuttan. Born in 1746, he went to Harrow and Oxford. While still an undergraduate, he earned repute as an orientalist; so the King of Denmark asked him to translate a Persian account of Nadir Shah into French. But that could not support him, so he became personal tutor to the son of Earl Spencer. Meanwhile, he studied law. In 1770, he was admitted to Middle Temple. In 1783 he was knighted and sent to Fort William as a puisne judge in the Supreme Court of Judicature. Ensconced on the banks of the Hooghley, he studied Sanskrit.

He founded the Asiatic Society. In a lecture in 1786 to the Society, he said, “The Sanscrit 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…” That led to speculations about whether Sanskrit-speakers descended from the same race as the Europeans, and if so, where they all originally came from. Bal Gangadhar Tilak thought he had found evidence in the Vedas that their authors originated in the Arctic.

Then came Hitler, who made a distinction between superior German Aryans and inferior Jews, and massacred the latter. That gave a bad reputation to the Aryans, and sent them out of public discourse. But the affinity of Indo-Germanic languages is indisputable, and continues to form a basic pillar of linguistics. Nor is possible to kill off speculation about the origins of this affinity.

Amongst the words that show the affinity is the word for the horse – ekwos in proto-Indo-European, equus in Latin, ashwa in Sanskrit, hippos in proto-Greek, asuwa in Lithuanian, etc. It was not just an animal to ride, but figured in rituals, both Vedic and Germanic. Ashwamedha is familiar to Indians; it had a Latin equivalent, and continued in Ireland till the 12th century.

Originally, the horse must have been a wild animal; then at some point, it was domesticated. The date of its domestication would give one date in the history of the Aryans.

The search for the horse took me to archaeology. According to a 1990 paper of David Anthony in American Anthropologist, there were two cultures on the two banks of Dnieper river in what is Ukraine today around 3500-4000 BC. On the west bank, there were large villages with two-story houses; their residents used copper and made ceramics. On the east bank were small tribes still coming out of hunting and gathering, which had neither copper nor ceramics. They hunted horses for food, and eventually tamed them. Both people were agriculturists, but the easterners were the first to use horses.

The existence of horses can be inferred from their skeletons when archaeologists dig sites; but how can they know whether a horse so found was tamed or wild? Old seals and stone carvings show horse riding going back to 2500 BC. It must have originated earlier, but in the absence of illustrations, it is difficult to ascertain when.

To be tamed, a horse has to be bridled. A bridle consists of leather bands which go around the horse’s face and head and are connected to the rein; the rider holds the rein, and controls and instructs the horse by pulling the rein one way or another. One of the leather bands – the bit – goes through the horse’s mouth, between the front and the side teeth (premolars and incisors); it is more effective than the headbands in controlling the horse, since the mouth is a sensitive area. Horses are very conscious of the bit, and keep biting and chewing it so much that their teeth wear out.

David Anthony and Dorcas Brown went about measuring the teeth of 52 modern tamed and feral horses (Journal of Archaeological Science 1998), and tried out bits made of leather, rope and bones on previously unbitted horses. They made casts of the horses’ teeth from epoxy resin, and thus created an inventory of tooth wear in tamed and untamed horses. They found that horses varied in their bit-biting habits: some did not bite it at all, some bit it with teeth on both sides, and most bit more on one side.
Humans grow teeth twice. They first grow teeth as children; those teeth are later replaced, and the second set of teeth lasts until they fall out, chiefly in old age. Horses are different. Their teeth keep growing and replacing their surface. So bit wear can disappear if horses are not bridled for some months. Hence evidence of bit wear would underestimate the ubiquitude and frequency of riding.

After accumulating all this knowledge about bit wear, Anthony traced the first evidence of horse riding – and drinking of horse milk – to north Kazakhstan in 3600-3100 BC. Bones of horses were also found in the hills of Iran and Anatolia between 8000 and 5000 BC; but the horses were few, and wild. Horse bones increased in north Caucasus, eastern Anatolia and Azerbaijan in the fourth millennium BC, and then in Syrian sites. The first surviving image of a horse rider is that of an Ur king from the late 20th century BC. The middle east was full of donkeys; the first evidence of a horse in Egypt comes from the 17th century BC. By that time, horses were probably being exported from the north to the Middle East. The first chariots appeared in graves in Ural mountains in 2100-1800 BC. The first illustrations of cavalry appear very late, in the 9th century BC. Anthony’s explanation is that fighting with a sword or spear from horseback is difficult; a cavalier is vulnerable to a foot soldier. So the emergence of cavalry had to wait till advances in bows and arrows increased its reach. But by 600 BC, cavaliers had overtaken charioteers, and horses had become the favourite vehicle of kings.

After intellectual wanderings over 30 years, Anthony summed up his investigations in the Annual Review of Linguistics last year. Proto-Indo-European (PIE) probably originated in the hoary past somewhere in the Altai mountains in modern Kazakhstan, and moved west to the valleys of Ural, Volga and Dneiper rivers, north of Caspian and Black seas, some 7000-10000 years ago; then, over the next five millennia, it evolved into the currently identifiable linguistic families – Indic, Iranian, Anatolian, Slavic, Baltic, Italic, Germanic and Celtic. That makes the present Ukraine and southern Russia the original home of Proto-Indo-European.

And India? It was the home of Sanskrit, the most perfect Indo-European language with relatives all over the present Europe. But it was not the original Indo-European; it is too perfect to be the original, and India was not the home of horses. It got them much later – later than Mohenjo Daro – from Iran. Hindutwits may think that India is the cradle of the Aryan civilization; but they convince no one but themselves.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of MarketExpress – India’s first Global  Analysis & Sharing Platform or the organization(s) that the author represents in his personal capacity.