A Frits on the Aryan debate
Frits Staal, a Dutch Indologist and Sanskrit scholar, died on February. I read one of his latest books on the Vedas last year. It was a wonderful read, especially in describing the Athirathram, an ancient Vedic ritual that included a construction of a fire altar shaped like a bird.
But I also remember that Staal tried to bridge the long-standing debate between linguists and geneticists about the Aryan migration into India. It was linguists who had first argued that there must have been a migration of an Indo-European language speaking race into north India from somewhere in Central Asia and came to dominate a pre-existing Dravidian population. And this happened 4000 to 5000 years ago.
Then came the geneticists who carefully sampled the populations in India and northwestern Asia. Their conclusion was that there was no evidence, on the basis of gene markers, of any recent migratory links between the two populations.
Staal tried to bridge this divide in a cultured, reasoned way — unlike some of the public debates between the two Aryan schools which have been quite bitter. Staal argued, for example, that the gene studies used mitochondrial DNA which is passed down through the female line. So his solution was that the Aryan migration — he insisted it wasn’t an invasion — was probably bands of men crossing over the mountains of Afghanistan. Which made some sense: at that point in time the mountains to India’s northwest would have forested, filled with wild animals and lacking any roads and paths. Families would have perished en route.
He also had other explanations about how the idea of the chariot could have come over the hills. And he also tried to explain why the earlier Vedas have no mention of migration from the northwest. This was built into certain Vedic rituals, including the Athirathram, he argued, but the coded symbolism had been forgotten over the millennia.
Of course, his arguments are not really persuasive. There have been gene studies that looked at markers in the male line as well and they confirm the mitochondrial studies. And the coded symbolism is interesting but not persuasive.
Geneticists now seem to believe that there was a migration that occurred, but probably 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. But then the question is how the obvious linguistic link between India, Southwest Asia and Europe arose. It is clearly younger than 40,000 years.
So now we have theories about two or three waves of migration, but much smaller ones that followed the original very old biggie. How did they impose their language on a much more numerous indigenous population then? Who knows? An epidemic perhaps? As Javed Diamond described, disease has been a great equalizer in past ancient confrontations. And small conquering the large is not uncommon in history. As few as 20,000 Central Asian Turks are believed to have conquered the much larger Greek population in Anatolia, imposed their language and created the modern Turkish population — who today would be horrified to be told they a genetically Greek.