Diffusion of Sanskrit (was Re: The Coming of the Greeks) <fwd> (fwd)

Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at ucl.ac.uk
Wed Nov 20 10:12:55 UTC 1996

This is a summary of a discussion that has been going on in the
sci.archaeology group recently, which  Joe Bernstein thought -- rightly, I
think -- would be of interest here in INDOLOGY.

I'm not sure how to coordinate this discussion: perhaps INDOLOGISTS should
join the sci-archaeology debate if they wish to participate.  On the other
hand, this is bread-and-butter stuff for us too.

Dominik Wujastyk

---------- Forwarded message ---------- 
Date: Sun, 17 Nov 1996 08:56:20-0600 
From: Joe Bernstein <joe at sfbooks.com> 
Subject: Diffusion of Sanskrit (was Re: The Coming of the Greeks)  

In article <56lmr8$b1p at reaper.uunet.ca>, sshankar at waterloo.border.com wrote:

>Miguel Carrasquer Vidal wrote:
>> Indo-Iranians from Central Asia came into Iran and India somewhere in
>> the 2nd millennium.  Given that Indo-Iranian is closely connected to
>> languages in Europe (Greek especially), their ultimate origin must be
>> (Eastern) Europe.

(Just before we get any further...  I'm not current on I-E origins stuff,
but hadn't understood it to be *quite* that simple!)

> Do you know of  any archeaological evidence for the "movement of  
>Indo-Iranians into Iran & India" ??
> Recent studies seem to question the validity of the "IE movement into
> India" theories.

I've yet to see such studies unconnected to places with names like "Vedic
Research Institute"; in particular, I've seen a spectacularly unconvincing
paper by one David Frawley (presumably still findable on the Web, where I
first saw it).  (Also, in the distant past, various articles assuming or
claiming to support the <Mahabharata> chronology appeared in the <Journal
of Indian History>.)  I will appreciate any better references you can
provide.  The rest of this post proceeds on what I know, which
unfortunately derives from a lot of careful study years ago, plus rather
less, and less careful, recent reading.

There are lots of disagreements over how *many* Indo-European speakers
arrived in India, in particular (or South Asia more generally:  in this
post, I'm awake as to which I use, thanks), or about *how* these speakers
arrived.  Some months ago, Moin Ansari and I debated these issues at some
length on this newsgroup, and I'm cc'ing him on this post partly to let
him know the topic's back.

But there is very little doubt that such people *did* arrive in India, and
around the time Mr. Carrasquer Vidal says (though maybe the 3rd millennium
BC is a possibility).

Several lines of evidence converge on this, and there doesn't seem to be a
lot of room left for disagreement.  When I last studied the subject in
detail (1986-7), the main arguments that held water were still the
19th-century linguistic and textual ones (e.g., the similarity between
Avestan Persian and Vedic Sanskrit, or the tendency for the older texts to
use further-west place names).  While these were good enough to persuade
me the movement happened, I wasn't terribly confident about much more than
that.  (Mr. Ansari, by the way, disagrees strenuously with me on the
validity of the other older arguments, but he can make his own case.)

Recent evidence appears to make it much clearer.  First of all, Asko
Parpola's belief that the Indus Valley Civilisation's language was a
Dravidian language is now persuading quite a few people who had been
skeptical; I understand he's close to a translation of the seals.  (Mr.
Ansari's references are much likelier to be current than mine, here.) 
Much the most plausible way to explain the subsequent disappearance of
Dravidian languages from that area is by positing a migration from the
northwest, not one from the southeast.

Second, there's evidence for that migration.  See the interim site report
on Harappa, in particular (Meadow 1991 below).  In the chapter which John
Lukacs worked on, there is an unequivocal assertion of significant
population changes in the centuries prior to 800 B.C.  The people who
worked on this chapter have my respect, and their methods are as carefully
scientific as I can imagine a way to be; I haven't had the opportunity to
read it yet, but I'm inclined (reluctantly, I might add) to assume they're
   In addition (somewhat older argument here, but germane), there's more
general "touchy-feely" evidence of the pottery-styles sort of some sort of
migration southeast.  Notable stylistic traits in pottery show this
direction of diffusion.  I'm thinking in particular of the appearance of
fine grey wares.  It's also worth considering Pirak Damb (Jarrige 1979),
where there are clear Central Asian affinities in the post-Harappan
population's material culture.  Some summary of the "grey ware - Sanskrit"
equation may be found in Gaur 1983 (though this has to be read with care,
as Gaur was not entirely free to speak his mind there).

I'm not sure what else goes into the shift in opinion.  Ten years ago,
there was a general sense in South Asian archaeology of an opening, a
sense that much of the standing interpretation of that archaeology was
simply wrong and needed revising.  One of the things that grew out of that
was, of course, the opening for claims (e.g.) that Sanskrit (or for that
matter the human race) originated in India.  But there was also a lot of
work being done trying to replace the flawed conclusions of the past with
better ones.  Unfortunately, my brief opportunity to watch that work
happen ended; in the past eight years, I haven't even found a library
where I can read <Puratattva>.
   I have, however, found a number of supporting references.  Ghosh 1989
is a full-blown encyclopaedia of Indian archaeology.  This has been
supplemented by a number of books from Dilip Chakrabarti synthesising the
archaeology of specific regions (I'm sure of both Bangladesh and West
Bengal, but there may be more; no references handy, sorry); I believe
there's been similar regional work in Pakistan, which Mr. Ansari can
perhaps confirm or deny.
   In addition, a full-blown synthesis of protohistorical and early
historical archaeology has appeared, cited below as Allchin 1995.  This
contains two different discussions of the "Aryans", quite at odds with
each other.  But the contributors (again trustworthy, George Erdosy and F.
R. Allchin) leave no doubt that the fact of Aryans arriving is settled.

I'm sorry that this is the best I can offer.  Mr. Ansari and I were
supposed to go back to the libraries after our last debate ran its course,
revise our respective opera, and come back here in the spring.  I believe
he's ready now, but I'm not:  shame on me.

All the same.  His case for a full-blown "Aryan invasion" with all the
blood and gore that implies is stronger than I then gave it credit for,
though I continue to prefer a model more analogous to that by which
Spanish became the dominant language of Mexico (say), or perhaps less
violent than that.  Much of my evidence for this has to do with pottery
sequences and such from sites which I don't believe Mr. Ansari is that
familiar with*, just as much of his "invasion" evidence has to do with
sites I don't know well.  But either way, there doesn't seem to be any
room left to deny that Sanskrit came from elsewhere.

While this post is rather less confident than my ones in the prior debate,
by the way, it's got something those generally didn't.  I now have my
bibliography on this stuff stored where I post from:  so this one has
REFERENCES.  These follow.

Joe Bernstein

*  Some of what I mean by this:  At least as of 1987, I was pretty firmly
convinced:  that the dish-and-bowl assemblage which characterises
protohistoric pottery in the region had originated in the Doab, based
partly on Sahi 1978; that the Black-and-Red pottery technique had been
learnt from the south (common sense, see H. Singh 1982); that the first
settlers in UP other than the mysterious Ochre-Coloured Pottery folks were
from the hills south of the Doab (I'm having trouble finding a good
reference for this; try G. R. Sharma in Kenoyer X below, if Sharma has an
article there); and that both rice and iron (Chakrabarti 1977 on the
latter) reached the Doab from Bengal.  On top of all this, I was
confident, on the basis of Erdosy 1985 and other sources, that the
urbanisation of the region was more or less independent of, and prior to,
the arrival of the Vedic Aryans.  Ultimately, my argument was that they
just didn't matter that much.  How much of this I can still sustain
remains to be seen.

Items referenced in this post:

EMERGENCE OF CITIES AND STATES, by F. R. Allchin, with contributions from
George Erdosy, R. A. E. Coningham, D. K. Chakrabarti, and Bridget
Allchin.  (Erdosy has since changed his name to Muhammad Usman Erdosy,
according to the preface.)  Cambridge:  Cambridge, 1995.

Chakrabarti 1977:  "Distribution of iron ores and the archaeological
evidence of early iron in India" by Dilip K. Chakrabarti.  JOURNAL OF THE
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE ORIENT 20:  166-84.  I am quite aware
that this topic has remained controversial; at the time I wrote my paper,
*this* paper still looked good to me, and I haven't had the opportunity to
catch up or reassess my judgement then.. My apologies for lacking full
references to Chakrabarti's books on Bangladesh etc.  I've seen them in
the library of Northwestern University, and I'd look them up there now if
this computer would allow that, but at the moment it won't.

Erdosy 1985:  "Settlement archaeology of the Kausambi region" by George
(now Muhammad Usman) Erdosy.  MAN AND ENVIRONMENT 9:  66-79.

Gaur 1983:  EXCAVATIONS AT ATRANJIKHERA, by R. C. Gaur.  Delhi:  Motilal
Banarsidass, 1983.

New Delhi:  Munshiram Monoharlal, 1989.  Two volumes, one with entries on
topics, the other with entries on sites.  (I've seen this cited as also
appearing in Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1991, as AN ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF ANCIENT
INDIA, but have not seen this edition.)

Jarrige 1979:  FOUILLES DE PIRAK, by Jean-Francois Jarrige, Marielle
Santoni, Jean-Francois Enault, et al.  Paris:  Diffusion de Boccard, 1979.

Meadow 1991:  Meadow, Richard H., ed. 1991. Harappa Excavations 1986-1990:
A  Multidisciplinary Approach to Third Millennium Urbanism. Monographs in 
World Archaeology No. 3. Prehistory Press. Madison, WI.  (Entry from Ben

Sahi 1978:  "New light on the life of the Painted Grey Ware people as
revealed from excavations at Jakhera (Dist. Etah)" by M. D. N. Sahi.  MAN

(CHALCOLITHIC PERIOD) by H. N. Singh.  Delhi:  Sundeep Prakashan, 1982.

Additional items for which I have references handy, which seem likely to
be of interest (credit to Ben Diebold and Moin Ansari for these, except
for King 1984, Lal 1984 and Shaffer 1981):

Clark, John E. and William J. Parry 1990  " Craft Specialization and
Cultural Complexity." Research in Economic Anthropology, vol. 12, pp:
289-346. (from Moin Ansari.  I haven't yet looked for this, but the title
certainly relates to the topics of current discussions of Harappan civ)

Michael Jansen `Forgotten Cities of the Indus' 1993 or 1994 - (from
Moin Ansari; apparently a good introductory book; the Jansens have been
central to recent work systematically re-examining the records of the
Mohenjo-daro digs)

Old Problems and New Perspectives in the Archaeology of South Asia
edited by J.M.Kenoyer, Wisconsin Archaeological Reports Vol 2, 1989. [from
conference in 89] (from Moin Ansari)  Nope, the conference was in 1986 or
1987, I was there.  Lots of good stuff here.  If there's an article by G.
R. Sharma or R. C. Gaur there, check it for material on the earliest
settlers of the Doab.

Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. 1991a. "The Indus Valley Tradition of Pakistan 
and Western India." Journal of World Prehistory. 5:4:331-385. (from Ben
Diebold:  I've skimmed it; a good solid basic article on the Harappan civ;
at first glance not much about Aryans)

King 1984:  "Some archaeological problems regarding Gangetic cultures in
early historical India" by Anna King.  In STUDIES IN THE ARCHAEOLOGY AND
PALAEOANTHROPOLOGY OF SOUTH ASIA, ed.. Kenneth A. R. Kennedy and Gregory L.
Possehl, pp. 109-19.  New Delhi:  Oxford & IBH, 1984.  Forcefully presents
the case against invasions during the first millennium BC in the Doab and
adjacent regions.

DOAB:  FROM 1500 B. C. - 300 A. D. by Makkhan Lal.  Delhi:  B. R., 1984. 
Though strongly bound by the old consensus, this is still a superb
synthesis of knowledge on the subject as of its date, and includes the
first substantial settlement survey done in north India (I believe M.
Rafique Mughal's work in the Cholistan area of Pakistan preceded, but am
not that familiar with that).

Lukacs, John R. 1992. "Dental Paleopathology and Agricultural 
Intensification in South Asia: New Evidence From Bronze Age Harappa." 
American Journal of Physical Anthropology 87:133-150. (from Ben Diebold)

Shaffer 1981:  "The protohistoric period in the Eastern Punjab:  a
preliminary assessment" by Jim G. Shaffer.  In A. H. Dani, ed., INDUS
CIVILISATION:  NEW PERSPECTIVES, pages 65-102.  Islamabad:  Centre for the
Study of the Civilization of Central Asia, Quaid-i-Azam University, 1981. 
The only thing I've read which synthesises the relevant period in any of
the Punjab, though one hopes it's now fully superseded by Allchin 1995.
Joe Bernstein, free-lance writer and bookstore worker joe at sfbooks.com
speaking for myself and nobody else    http://www.tezcat.com/~josephb/
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