Excerpt: Migrants: The Story of Us All by Sam Miller
This extract from a new book, that presents the historical movements of everyone from the Vikings, African Americans, and the Jews to the Yahgans, Pocahontas and the Chinese, looks at how the argument about ancient migration is part of the struggle over the identity of modern India
In the eighteenth century, several scholars noted the similarities between Sanskrit and Western classical languages. Soon it was accepted that these languages did indeed spring from a single source, and that therefore most of the languages of northern India, Iran and Europe were also inter-related. Before long, an ancient people had been imagined, called the IndoEuropeans, who had migrated throughout Europe and large parts of Asia, and whose legacy was a wide range of modern languages that were cousins or second cousins, from Icelandic in the west to Bengali in the east. But no one could agree on the identity of the Indo-European homeland, and there was no obvious historical or archaeological evidence of such a large scale migration, or proof that the spread of languages depended on big movements of populations.
But some European scholars thought they had an answer. They found some clues in those ancient references to Aryans. They decided, on pretty flimsy textual evidence, that the Aryans of the early Sanskrit texts, particularly the Rig Veda, were migrants or invaders from the west. Various putative homelands were suggested for the Aryans including, critically, Germany. The arguments for this were even more flimsy, and suffused with racism, but large numbers of scholars from several countries adopted the notion that the Aryans were originally blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned Germans – and that these traits had been diluted by intermarriage the further they had migrated from their north European homeland.
Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a British-born writer living was key to bringing these notions to the attention of Adolf Hitler and his nascent National Socialist Party in the 1920s. And before long the Nazis had adopted the idea that the Germans were the original Aryans, the master race. They even borrowed the ancient Indian swastika symbol as an emblem of their party. Since the defeat of Hitler, the use of the word Aryan has largely died out in the West, except among neo-Nazi groups. And the swastika, outside India, is almost unused.
But the argument about the origins of the Aryans lives on in modern India and is a matter of ill-tempered and often unpleasant debate. At the internet-trolling extremes are two theories known by almost-identical acronyms, AIT and OIT, standing for “Aryan Invasion Theory” and “Out of India Theory” respectively. Their supporters tend to shout at and curse each other on social media forums, often to the bafflement of outsiders. The old case for the AIT has been described above, but its more temperate modern supporters now suggest that migration would be a better word than invasion, and argue that, in fact, there was never evidence of a European origin for the Aryans, who probably originated in Central Asia or the Russian steppes. The supporters of the OIT, meanwhile, draw on ancient traditions, co-opted into modern nationalism, according to which Indians have always been in India. Megasthenes had asserted that India “is peopled by races both numerous and diverse, of which not even one was originally of foreign descent”, and indeed there are no clear references to any significant group migration in the earliest Indian writings. Therefore, by this logic, India must be the Indo-European homeland.
Far less dangerous than the Nazi claim to Aryan ancestry, though just as absurd, have been the more detailed arguments put forward by some supporters of the Out of India Theory. The forerunner here is PN Oak, an amateur Indian historian and author of Some Missing Chapters of World History, who argues that India’s history has always been written by its enemies. The book reads, at times, like a brilliant spoof, making satirical mincemeat of white supremacists and their notions of European Aryanism. The chapter titles give a clue: Ancient England was a Hindu Country, Westminster Abbey was also a Shiva Temple and Ancient Italy was a Hindu Country and the Pope a Hindu Priest. The cathedral city of Salisbury, we learn, was originally Shaileeshpury, meaning “town of the mountain god”. It goes on and on in this vein (Rome is named after Lord Ram, while Abraham was originally Brahma and Christ was Krishna). Sadly, it is not a spoof. PN Oak, who died in 2007, believed it all, and so did a tiny band of followers.
In their attempt to place the Indo-European homeland firmly in India, most Out of India supporters do not go nearly as far as Oak. And, fortunately, amateur linguistics plays a smaller role these days, on both sides of the Aryan argument. Archaeologists tried to resolve the issue by focusing on excavations at sites belonging to the Harappan civilisation that pre-date the early Sanskrit texts. The theory was simple: if these excavations show a continuity with Aryan culture, then this would prove the OIT; if they don’t show a continuity, this would prove the AIT. In practice, it wasn’t so simple, and the divisions deepened... It feels as if there’s only one certainty now: if you are a Hindu nationalist, you are more likely to support the notion of India as the Indo-European homeland. While if you have a more secular, multicultural image of India, you are more likely to support the idea of large-scale migration into India.
Over the last few years, DNA evidence has been brought to bear on the wider question of the location of that supposed Indo-European homeland, and a potential resolution to the AIT/OIT dispute. As a result, there’s a growing scientific consensus about ancient movements of population from the stretch of land usually referred to as the Russian steppes, covering eastern Ukraine, parts of southern Russia and western Kazakhstan. This region’s ancient nomadic inhabitants have been identified as the first Indo-Europeans – whose descendants can be found in large numbers throughout communities who speak IndoEuropean languages in Europe and Asia and, as a result of more recent migrations, in the Americas and Australasia.
A journalist called Tony Joseph has taken on the task of explaining to his fellow Indians that the Aryans almost certainly came from the Russian steppes. He’s not been given an easy time. His 2018 book, Early Indians, sets out how, according to the latest research, migrants, largely male, entered what is now India around four thousand years ago, introducing an early version of Sanskrit as well as new religious beliefs and practices – some of which play an important role in modern Hinduism. He was roundly condemned for this by many Hindu nationalists. His critics appear deeply threatened by the idea that migrants had contributed to their genetic stock, and to the languages, beliefs and customs of which they are so proud. The internet, as usual, incubates and exacerbates all this. And the tone of some online comments has been both desperate and vitriolic (though there has been some more thoughtful criticism). Tony Joseph was accused of writing “propaganda” which will “destroy the fabric of the country”, of promoting “racist Eurocentric lies”, of being “deceptive, dishonest . . . a leftist has been”, of assembling a “hodge-podge of self-contradicting and incorrect claims” which should be consigned to the “trash heap”.
For those who have never lived in India, it can seem bizarre that an obscure debate about ancient migration should become so emotional, so clouded by rage. But most of those involved would admit, at least privately, that the question about Aryans in India is only partly about the truth, about what may have happened four thousand years ago. Ancient migration has become a proxy for a whole range of other issues. It is part of a struggle over the identity of modern India, in which issues of caste, gender, language, religion, skin colour and, yes, migration play an important role. There are profound disagreements over that identity, and deep divisions on each of those issues. The Aryan debate touches on all of them – a subject that deserves a book of its own, not this skimpy paragraph. But it’s worth noting that power in India remains largely, but not entirely, in the hands of paler-skinned, higher-caste male northerners who speak Indo-European languages. And they, if one trusts the geneticists, are more likely to be descended from people who migrated to India about four thousand years ago.
There’s a broader issue raised by the recent history of the search for the origins of Indo-European language-speakers. And it’s that very notion of an ancestral homeland, whether in the Russian steppes or anywhere else. It has become normal to suppose that we all had such a homeland, when, in fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. These possible ancient homelands – whether identified through DNA or archaeology or linguistic analysis or cultural tradition – were all, at best, regions of the world that our ancient ancestors passed through, temporary residences in deep history.
Indeed, when we look at those putative first Indo-Europeans in the Russian steppes, one of the few things we know about them is that they too were not settled peoples but nomads on the move. There’s a pattern here. And however hard we try to invent an ancient world in which some of us belonged to a particular place, we are all descended from nomads. If we really do need to identify an ancient homeland, if having such a prehistoric touchstone meets some deep psychological human need , then why can we not accept that our only true homeland is an entire continent, Africa, through which all our ancestors wandered, and from which we all came?