SATURDAY, 15 DECEMBER 2012 17:34 NS RAJARAM
A gene mutation 80,000 years ago and a super-volcano 73,000 years ago led to the birth of civilisation as we know it today. All non-African humans and their languages can be traced to a thousand individuals in India 60,000 years ago
Ever since Sir William Jones in 1786 found remarkable similarities between Sanskrit and European languages, the question of how people from Sri Lanka and Assam to Ireland and Iceland happen to speak languages clearly related to one another has remained one of the great unsolved mysteries of history. The usual explanation, at least in India, is the Aryan invasion theory. It claims that bands of invading ‘Aryan’ tribes brought both the ancestor of the Sanskrit language and the Vedic literature from somewhere in Eurasia or even Europe.
This was the result of scholars assuming that the ancestors of Indians and Europeans must at one time have lived in a common place speaking a common language before they spread across Asia, Eurasia and Europe carrying their language which later split into different languages. They called these speakers Indo-Europeans and their languages — from north India to Europe — the Indo-European family. They called the original language Proto-Indo-European, a term sometimes applied to its speakers also.
European linguists soon followed up on these ideas but in their newfound enthusiasm committed two egregious blunders. First, they borrowed the Sanskrit word Arya, which only means civilised, and turned it into a geographical and then a racial term by applying it to the people and languages of north India. (The correct term for north India is Gauda, just as Dravida refers to the south.) Next, they placed south Indian languages in a totally different category called the Dravidian family, excluding them from nearly all discourse about Indo-Europeans. In reality, south Indian languages are much closer to Sanskrit in both grammar and vocabulary, whereas with European languages it is limited to vocabulary.
For nearly a century, until archaeologists discovered the Harappan or the Indus Valley civilisation, the Aryan invasion theory was taught as the beginning of history in India. It continues to be taught in one form or another in spite of the many contradictions highlighted by archaeologists like Jim Shaeffer and BB Lal as well as natural scientists like Sir Julian Huxley, L Cavalli-Sforza and others. Politics and entrenched academic interests have succeeded in keeping alive this 200-year-old ad hoc hypothesis but science may have finally put an end to its survival while at the same time opening a vast new window on the origin and spread of Indo-Europeans. Recent discoveries in natural history and population genetics, especially in the past two decades, have changed our understanding of Indo-European origins in ways that were totally unexpected. The picture, still a bit hazy, highlights the fact that our theories like the Aryan invasion theory are naïve and simplistic. They greatly underestimate the time horizons involved and also ignore the revolutionary impact of natural history on human beings in the past hundred thousand years.
volcano and gene mutation
Our story takes us to Africa some hundred thousand years ago. Our ancestors, called ‘anatomically modern humans’, have been located in fossils in East Africa dating to about that time or a bit earlier. We were not the only humans then: There were several other ‘humanoid’ species in Asia and Africa among which the now extinct Neanderthals are the best known. What separates us from them is we have survived and they have not. In addition, we are a speaking species with language without which civilisation as we know it is inconceivable. This means, before speaking of Indo-European, Proto-Indo-European or any other language, we must ask ourselves when did humans begin to speak and why? The answer to it is provided by the discovery of the mutation of a gene knows as FOXP2. It is a complex gene that controls both verbalisation and grammar. The time when the mutation occurred cannot be pinpointed but based on the evidence of the extinction of all other human species following the Toba super-volcanic eruption about 73,000 years ago, we may place it around 80,000 years before present. The Toba explosion was a massive volcanic eruption on the island of Sumatra. It is the greatest volcanic explosion known, nearly 3,000-times the 1980 Mount St Helen’s explosion. It resulted in a 6,000-year long freeze causing the extinction of all the human species on the planet except a few thousand of our ancestors in Africa and the Neanderthals. In particular, all non-speaking humanoids in Asia became extinct. (Neanderthals became extinct 30,000 years ago.) This means all of us are descended from this small group of Africans capable of speech.
Indo-Europeans, two waves
This was the situation until about 65,000 years ago when small groups of our African ancestors made their way to South Asia travelling along the Arabian coast. All non-Africans living today have descended from these one thousand or so original settlers in South Asia. They flourished in a small area for some 10,000 years in south-central India. Their small number in a small area meant a single language would have sufficed. This was the primordial language of our ancestors. My colleagues and I call it Proto-Afro-Indian. No trace of it has survived. For the next 10,000 years these people survived precariously by hunting and gathering. About 52,000 years ago there was a dramatic warming in climate. This led to increase in both population and territory. It was followed by a mass extinction of animals probably due to over-hunting. Shortly after this, about 45,000 years ago or so, small groups left the Indian subcontinent in search of better hunting territory and made their way to Eurasia and Europe. These are the first Indo-Europeans. The language they took with them, possibly more than one, descended from the primordial Afro-Indian and became the first Indo-European. We have no idea what it was like.
All this took place during the last Ice Age or what scientists call the Pleistocene. Towards the end of the Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago, agriculture originating in India and Southeast Asia replaced hunting-gathering, leading to much larger populations. Important domestic animals, including the horse, were also domesticated in the region (There is no truth to the claim that horses were unknown in India before the Aryan invaders brought them.) There were now several languages in north and south India which my colleagues and I call Gauda and Dravida languages. (Arya means civilised and is inappropriate for region or language.) There were two major developments during the Holocene or the period after the Ice Age 10,000 years ago. First, there was intense activity leading eventually to the creation of the Vedas and the language that became Sanskrit by incorporating features found in both northern (Gauda) and southern (Dravida) sources.
This accounts for the so-called Dravidian features found in the Vedas as well as the closeness of Dravidian grammars to Sanskrit grammar. The other was a second wave of people out of India who took with them both Sanskrit-related languages and agricultural skills along with domestic animals, including rats and mice! This accounts for the closeness of Sanskrit to European languages, in vocabulary if not grammar.
This means there were two waves of Indo-Europeans, both out of India going north and west. We know of the first (c 45,000 BCE) only from genetic studies of modern populations around the world. We have no idea what their languages were like. The second, much more recent, occurred at the turn of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition some 10,000 years ago. It has left many traces in archaeology, culture and, above all, in the Sanskritic imprint on the languages of Europe and Eurasia. The picture given here is by no means definitive but decidedly more in agreement with scientific data and the fossil record than linguistic theories like the Aryan invasion theory. Any new theory must account for scientific data and take also into account the vast time scales involved. Such momentous developments as the evolution and spread of languages over half the world cannot be squeezed into a few thousand years like the Biblical account of creation in 4004 BC on which Aryan invasion theory was based.