New Delhi: A new book on Indo-European migrations has cautioned against the misuse of new genetic findings for political and ideological reasons, including by citing an example from India.
Titled The Indo-European Puzzle Revisited, the book brings together 41 authors and examines the impact that research on ancient DNA has had on our understanding of the spread of the Indo-European languages in prehistory.
It is edited by well-known archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen, linguist Guus Kroonen and geneticist Eske Willerslev and the contributors include familiar names J.P. Mallory, David W. Anthony and Alexander Lubotsky.
“We must be aware of the huge popular interest in the new genetic results, and the need to constantly and critically debate their dissemination … where complex knowledge can sometimes be transformed into dangerous stereotypes,” the book says in its introduction.
It continues: “One of the most destructive political misuses of the past has been in constructing nationalist narratives of exclusion”.
The Indo-European languages are a family of languages that includes English, German, Spanish, Russian, Greek, Armenian, Persian, Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati, as well as classical languages like Latin and Sanskrit.
These languages are all ultimately descended from a common ancestor language which scholars call Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Since there is no direct record of its existence, scholars have hypothesised what PIE words were like through a method called comparative reconstruction.
Where the original PIE speakers lived has been long contested: some say they lived in the steppes of what is today southern Russia, while others say they lived in what is today Turkey.
But the authors of Revisited say that evidence from breakthrough genetic studies in 2015 points towards the former as the PIE homeland.
At the same time, they believe that the results of these genetic studies must be used to dispel racist theories that were spread about the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
“If there is anything that the recent interdisciplinary biomolecular studies have shown, it must be that the once-dominant Eurocentric and supremacist perspectives on the Indo-European homeland are not supported by any genetic or linguistic evidence,” they say in the book.
About such theories that were developed in Germany to support nationalist ideologies, they say:
“In the pre-war period, the prehistoric spread of the Indo-European languages was increasingly attributed to the superiority of an alleged Indo-European-speaking ethnolinguistic unity, which, despite all linguistic evidence to the contrary, was claimed to have developed … in North Europe.
The question of Indo-European linguistic origins was integrated into nationalist theories of German ethnic origins, which demanded a North European centre of spread.”
In the introduction, the book advises caution against nationalist theories about the Proto-Indo-Europeans from outside Europe:
“Here we should mention the rise of an “Out of India” model of Indo-European languages during the last generation, motivated primarily by Hindu nationalism. These are the same kind of forces that used the model of Gustaf Kossinna to support a Nazi racist ideology nearly one hundred years earlier.
However, the Out of India model has been ﬁrmly refuted by recent aDNA [ancient DNA] results, and it has little or no support in historical linguistic research … [It] should serve as a warning example of the political impact of nationalism, even in the present.”
The Out of India model – also known as the Indigenous Aryan theory – refers to a theory that says the Indo-European languages originated in the Indian subcontinent and spread outwards from it.
Apart from the importance of how the results of genetic studies are disseminated, Revisited also underscores that the integration of various fields such as linguistics, archaeology and genetics is necessary for the study of ancient migrations.
It talks about how each field is dependent on the other: for example, linguists depend on archaeologists to give absolute dates to communities that spoke ‘protolanguages’ (such as PIE), archaeologists depend on linguists and geneticists in order to correctly interpret how different human populations mixed with each other, and geneticists depend on archaeologists to make full sense of ancient DNA.
“The importance of the book lies in the range of scholars that it has brought together to provide a more granular understanding of the formation of the Eurasian linguistic landscape,” said Tony Joseph, author of the award-winning book Early Indians, which explains the four major prehistoric migrations that make up the Indian demography, including the migrations from the Eurasian steppe.
“From the nomadic pastoralism of the Yamnaya to the chronology of chariot-making in northern Eurasia, The Indo-European Puzzle Revisited provides a number of finer details,” he added.
The Indo-European Puzzle Revisited: Integrating Archaeology, Genetics and Linguistics is published by Cambridge University Press and was released online in April 2023.