Sunday, August 22, 2010

In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth

Book Review: In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth by J. P. Mallory (Thames & Hudson 1989)

This book is basically a survey/overview of all the past and current ideas of Indo-European origins, culture, and language based on linguistics, archaeology, and to a lesser extent, myth. It was certainly a fascinating read and served to acquaint me with the methods used in linguistics, archaeology, and again to a lesser extent, comparative mythology.

It was only in the early 1800’s that it was realized and noted by scholars that many connected groups of languages had remarkable similarities with other languages far separated in place and current cultural attributes as well as in time. Nowadays there are several varying classifications of these language groups based on how they were presumed to have developed and progressed through time and place. Basically, there is presumed to be a Proto-Indo-European Language developed when the earliest of peoples of the Indo-European tribe lived in a smaller homogenous area. The language groups stemming more directly from this are thought to be: Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan (sometimes Aryo-Graeco-Armenia to Greek, Armenian, and Indo-Iranian), Balto-Slavic-Germanic (from which English comes), Tocharian (or Tocharian-Italo-Celtic), Italo-Celtic, and Anatolian (which includes Hittite, Palaic, and Luwian and can be traced to ~1900 BCE). These languages and the many languages derived from them are all very related but it is not very well known how they developed farther back in time. The eastern languages – Indo-Aryan, Indo-Iranian, Anatolian, Baltic-Slavic are called satem and the western languages of Europe are called centum – this referring to the word for 100. Unexpectedly the easternmost IE language – Tocharian of Chinese Turkestan is a centum language and apparently shares much with Celtic.

The oldest Indo-European words, references, names, and place-names in the historical record are from Anatolia in the form of clay tablets in Assyrian cuneiform – much of them the records of Assyrian merchants trading with the Hittite Empire. The Hittites and their rivals the Luwians and some of their subjects the Palaic peoples all have IE languages. There are also several ancient non-IE languages from Anatolia. Most linguists and archaeoligists consider the Indo-Europeans to be intruders to this region (with the exception of Colin Renfrew who considers Anatolia to be the original IE homeland). Much of this book is concerned with migrations and migration routes of the various IE languages. It should be noted that from the 1900’s BCE a little further south from Anatolia into northern Syria/Mesopotamia there is also linguistic evidence of a people known as the Mitanni who headed a powerful Mesopotamian empire along with the Hurrians (Sumero-Akkadians). Some of the Mittani spoke an Indo-Aryan language as is indicated by a cuneiform document on horse-training with clearly Indo-Aryan terms very close to Sanskrit. Also there is a Hittite/Mitanni treaty document from around 1400 BCE that invokes Indo-Aryan Vedic deities, Indra, Mitra-Varuna, and the Ashvins. Ceramics of the greyware type have been associated with Indo-Aryans and one can trace the greyware appearance to the Pontic-Caspian region in time migrating into Anatolia and the Mitanni-Hurrian region. Horse domestication also can be traced from the Pontic-Caspian steppe region. There were wheeled carts pulled by donkeys in Mesopotamia but horse-drawn spoked wheel chariots are thought to have derived from Indo-Europeans as we see that horse-care and horsemanship language retained its Indo-Aryan terminology. There are other possibilities but these are the most accepted. Indeed one thing this book shows is that a lot of the most accepted theories are by consensus of specialists and even though they make good cases based on the evidence at hand there are still a lot of possibilities as truly convincing evidence is often scant and much is developed on good but indirect evidence.

Regarding the Indus Valley Culture the author seems to favor that they were of an Elamo-Dravidian type that was invaded-assimilated by Indo-Aryans later on and much of the Vedic mention of dark-skinned ‘dasas’ referred to the Dravidian peoples of this area that they were assimilating. Again this is the most accepted theory but also far from certain. There is also linguistic evidence that the Iranian split from the Indo-Aryans occurred before the Indo-Aryan presence in Anatolia but I do not follow his argument that the Iranians went west and the Aryans went east since the deities invoked in the Hittite treaty were clearly Aryan vs. Iranian. Zoroaster is commonly dated to 600 BCE but here is suggested maybe 500-1000 yrs before that and others date it back even further to 3500 BCE.

In assimilating this book one needs to keep in memory many places on maps and different cultures in different times and consider their possible migrations, language developments, and archaeological evidence so it is not easy to keep everything well-sorted and in memory. He gives the evidence for the Iranian groups – linguistic evidence through time indicates Iranians being around the Caspian since at least 2000 BCE – the Andronovo Culture is likely Indo-Iranian. He goes through quite a bit of archeological evidence mainly in the form of ceramic styles and burial styles and caches for several Neolithic groups from these vast areas. He notes the use of ochre in Neolithic burial sites all over the place. He notes the interactions when possible of agricultural and more pastoral communities.

The structure and place-names and names in the Ancient Greek language indicate absorption of local non-Indo-European languages by the Mycenaean Greeks. The Balkan Indo-Europeans to the north were once populous and powerful kingdoms before the Romans Subdued them. These were the Thracians (who left no language remnants), Dacians, and Illyrians (Albanians). Further east were the Slavs and north were the Baltic tribes. Apparently the archaic nature of these languages suggests that they moved very little since late Indo-European times. Westward were the Germans who later moved further west. The Italians apparently encountered several non-Indo-European languages in the Italian peninsula so like Greek there came lots of “loan words” from other languages – particularly Etruscan. Another linguistic method used in these studies is that of the “isogloss” or a linguistic feature confined by a geographic boundary (the satem and centum boundaries would be an isogloss). The Celtic languages, although now confined to small areas, were once more widespread as the Celts expanded during the La Tene cultural period in the first millenium B.C. The Celts encountered the non-Indo-European Basque language (more widespread than now) in Iberia. Pictish language in Scotland likely does retain a non-Indo-European element as well. In any case, what can be shown is that the Indo-Europeans migrated quite a bit and typically became the dominant language and likely the dominant culture as well. The warrior-horse culture of the Indo-Europeans likely helped them become dominant.

Next there are sections on Proto-Indo-European Culture and Indo-European Religion. The religion section shows some words common to many IE languages such as Dyeus pater – or father sky – discernible in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Hittite, and several other IE languages. The sun gods, Surya (Sanskrit), Tsar Solnitse (Slavic), Sulis (Gaulish), Saule (Lithuanian), and Sol (Germanic) are noted. The mother of Thor, Fjorgyn, is noted as a possible cognate of the Lithuanian Perkunas and the Slavic Perun, both thunder gods. Another interesting one given is the Avestan Apam Napat and the Latin Neptunus and the Irish Nechtain, all water gods. There are many more of these favorable comparisons of both names and attributes – Varuna/Uranos, Yama/Yima/Ymir, etc. There is also note of a common structure attributed to important or final battles such as Kurukshettra in the Mahabharatta, the Ragnarok, the 2nd Battle of Mag Tured (Irish), and others. Next he talks about the ideas of Georges Dumezil about the tripartition of Indo-European society. These are compared in a chart with Indian, Iranian, Greek, Roman, and Gaulish versions. There are the priests (druids/brahmins), warriors, and herder-cultivators. Dumezil notes this tripartition way back in the Hittite treaty (1380 BCE) which calls on Mitra-Varuna (king/priest dual function), Indra (warrior), and the Ashvins – the divine horse-twins often associated with fertility. There appear to be many parallels of this tripartition in Greek and Roman myths. Even in Nordic myths there is Tyr and Odin, the king/legality aspect and the priest aspect. There is also evidence that each of the three aspects received separate animals for sacrifice – ie. sheep for the priest class, horse or bull for the warrior caste, and cattle or goat for agricultural class. Another triplet is the way the legendary Greek healer Asklepios healed afflictions: sores were healed with spells, wounds with incisions, and exhaustion with herbs and potions. There is some evidence that white was the color for priests, red for warriors, and possibly black or blue for herder/agriculturists. The horse sacrifice was a rather elaborate affair in several ancient Indo-European cultures. A myth of cattle raiding is prominent in Indo-European societies (related to warrior development) as well) and a whole “Cattle Cycle” has been theorized whereby the cattle come originally from the gods to the tenders then are stolen by enemies then recovered by the warriors then sacrificed by the priests back to the gods. Strange as it sounds this appears to have been the case. Next is covered the idea of “The War of the Functions” where the priest-king class wars with the warrior class. This is possible as the Aesir-Vanir conflict as well as similar conflicts recorded in the Illiad and the Mahabharatta. another interesting observation made presumably by Duzemil was that of the so-called threefold death – or the three styles of death given to criminals and sacrificial victims. If sacrificed to a king/priest god or if one violated this function one was hanged, if to a war god or violation of a warrior code one was burned or killed by the sword, and if to a fertility deity or violating that type of precept one was drowned.

A large chunk of this book deals with the Proto-Indo-European homeland possibilities and various evidence for migrations and expansions. It is clear that there is no great consensus in these matters. The best one can generally say is that one scenario is more likely than another. The author seems to favor a PIE homeland in the vicinity of the Pontic-Caspian Steppe region which extends westward to the Black Sea. according to his analysis of the data he sees this as most likely. Marija Gimbutas places it just north of the Caspian based on the timing ad expansion of kurgan burials. Burial types and body positioning have been used to identify IE steppe peoples. As far as timing of the proposed PIE culture the author likes 2000-4000 BCE. One of the main reasons for this is that the PIE language appears to have vocabulary for the so-called “Secondary Products Revolution” which includes words for plough, milking, dairy products, wool, and wheeled vehicles. The author criticizes the theories of Colin Renfrew on several grounds. Renfrew’s idea of an Anatolian PIE homeland would make the PIE culture and language much older perhaps beyond 7000 BCE as he thinks the Linear A language of Crete is in the IE group and is ancestral to Greek. If that were true it would mean that the Neolithic agricultural settlements of Europe after the ice age possibly already had Indo-European elements

One thing is certain though – that some tribes were displaced long distances. The Alans, an Indo-Iranian tribe from Southern Russia ended up moving west through Spain into North Africa. The Huns, whose language is Finno-Ugric and not IE, moved from the Urals far west into Europe. The Celts moved from Eastern Europe to Ireland.

Another thing worth mentioning is that there is most definitely the chance of further archaeological discoveries and there have been several since this book was published – in the Urals in Russia, in Anatolia including some settled temple-building cultures dating back to 9500 BCE, in Eastern Europe also.

Mallory in this book makes no mention of archaeo-astrological data which is being refined all the time as more becomes known about ancient capabilities of the builders of the megalithic ritual observatories.

This is a great survey of all the data. It should be noted that basically half the population of the world speaks an Indo-European language so studies of why this culture was able to expand and become primary are worthwhile. Basically horses, chariots, war capabilities, a functional social structure, and an ability to assimilate agriculturists are some reasons. It does appear that there were long stable generally peaceful agricultural societies in Europe and Western Asia before the arrival of these steppe tribes.

The Epilogue of the book serves to debunk the Myths of Aryan Supremacy that actually derived from the early studies of Indo-European characteristics in the late 19th centu

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