Why we shouldn’t care about the fixation of Neo-Nazis with the Middle Ages

People are obsessed with what racists, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, etc. use to cover their ignorance, to hide their lack of political or social arguments, and to boost their pathologically low self-confidence. Now it seems to be the Middle Ages.

Some time ago I already read about this new trend, but I didn’t care. For me, as a supporter of a revival of Indo-European as a modern language, it was a relief that their fixation was somewhere different than Indo-Europeans.

The usual false syllogism for Indo-European questions goes Right populists support the supremacy of Aryans, ergo supporting the existence of expansions/language/social customs/etc. of Indo-Europeans means supporting Aryan supremacy. You can see the immediate association by the general population of Indo-European matters with Aryan supremacy by looking for information on Indo-European + white supremacy/Aryans/nazism, etc. on the Internet.

If you do that search, you might read a lot of right populist crap using Indo-European matters to support their ideas. You might even begin to associate one with the other, because it seems as if research on Indo-European questions somehow boosted those extremist ideals, right? If you think that, you are obviously part of the problem.

Apart from Aryans, Nazis have had fixations with ancient symbols (like the Swastika or Celtic symbolism), neo-paganism, the Roman Empire, the western European ‘heir empires of Rome’ that ensued, Catholicism, Germanic peoples, Romans, Greeks, Slavs, whiteness, blondness, Neanderthals…

And all of this has come at a cost for anyone involved or interested in any of those themes. It is only natural that Nazis evolve; just like shit decays, they move on. However,their interest about medieval times is not new (as is clear from the featured image of this post, and other propaganda from the time); it is just stronger now.

Now I see some medieval scholars complaining, in Twitter and in the news, calling for all to do something to protect the field of Medieval Studies.

But why? Why should we care about those who will regard medieval historians as tainted with Nazism? About you being called a Nazi, about people tacitly suggesting that you support their ideas? What have you done to protect Indo-Europeanists from the accusations, from the name-calling, from the shame?

Perhaps more importantly: now that you have become aware of this problem for the study of the western Middle Ages… What have you planned to do to help Indo-European studies once you are free from that yoke, that presumption of guilt? Probably nothing, you just care about yourselves. We all do.

I think it might be actually beneficial for Academia if more scholars suffer the same discrimination, if Nazis keep widening their areas of interest, so that we can all just ignore a simplistic and overused Nazi-shaming by stupid critics.

I don’t recall anyone defending Indo-Europeanists from those playing the Nazi card. The most recent example I know is the discussion around Lazaridis et al. (2017) paper, on Minoans and Mycenaeans. Some outrage from those involved in Human Evolutionary Biology (read the comments), but not too much from the rest of the world; too much concern this year about poor medievalists to care, I suppose.

You might not remember the infinite other times when you didn’t care about us being called Nazis because of our interest in (or writings about) our beloved academic field. But we do. And if you are complaining now, you certainly knew what was happening (what is happening), because how else could you know what this new love of right populists means for Medieval History, the shit it will bring?

Now your turn has come to enjoy the populace’s unending ad Nazium arguments. Publish anything about the social life in the Mediaevum, about medieval wars, religion, peoples, languages, symbols, etc., and just about anything that does not follow perfect political correctness will get you publicly shamed. Publish anything remotely interesting, and populist sites will publicise and manipulate your words, and critics and journalists will destroy your work by using populists’ words to describe it, not yours.

But, really, you shouldn’t care about the automatic association of your field with Nazis, about the unending insults, about the tacit (and oftentimes also explicit) link they will make of your work with Nazi ideas.

Just take a look at Indo-European studies. Not many Nazis have felt inclined to study (this or any other subject) because of their historical fixation with Aryans, so fear not, they will not take over your scholarships. However, their fixation has been a great filter for our field, to get rid of the weak of the heart, of those who care too much about what other people think, of those who are not convinced that this is what they want to do.

It seems to me that Indo-European studies have fewer scholars than it should, compared to other (in my humble opinion less promising or interesting) subjects, but the community is strong. Not much fuck is given about political correctness when publishing theories and models on the spread of Indo-Europeans, on their myths and customs, on their language. ‘Patrilocality’, ‘violent conquest’, ‘migration of peoples’, ‘women exchange’, ‘slavery’, are common (otherwise unpopular) words to describe their history and evolution, their ancestry, and they are becoming popular to describe anthropological evolution in general. We are in a privileged position to observe reality, and also the stupid political correctness of many.

Also, you might find comfort when passing this moment of truth professionally and personally knowing that, in the future, another field – whose scholars don’t give a fuck now about your popular shaming – will be their love object, and you will be able to tell them what I am telling you now.

Welcome to the dark side!

(EDIT 9/SEP/2017) I just realized that most (tacit or explicit) Nazi-shaming come from people within the field, who are obviously the ones interested in what you write. It is without a doubt the easiest way to criticise the work of your peers, who won’t need to do their research and answer formally with careful investigation. So good luck with that too!

Human ancestry solves language questions? New admixture citebait

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A paper at Scientific Reports, Human ancestry correlates with language and reveals that race is not an objective genomic classifier, by Baker, Rotimi, and Shriner (2017).

Abstract (emphasis mine):

Genetic and archaeological studies have established a sub-Saharan African origin for anatomically modern humans with subsequent migrations out of Africa. Using the largest multi-locus data set known to date, we investigated genetic differentiation of early modern humans, human admixture and migration events, and relationships among ancestries and language groups. We compiled publicly available genome-wide genotype data on 5,966 individuals from 282 global samples, representing 30 primary language families. The best evidence supports 21 ancestries that delineate genetic structure of present-day human populations. Independent of self-identified ethno-linguistic labels, the vast majority (97.3%) of individuals have mixed ancestry, with evidence of multiple ancestries in 96.8% of samples and on all continents. The data indicate that continents, ethno-linguistic groups, races, ethnicities, and individuals all show substantial ancestral heterogeneity. We estimated correlation coefficients ranging from 0.522 to 0.962 between ancestries and language families or branches. Ancestry data support the grouping of Kwadi-Khoe, Kx’a, and Tuu languages, support the exclusion of Omotic languages from the Afroasiatic language family, and do not support the proposed Dené-Yeniseian language family as a genetically valid grouping. Ancestry data yield insight into a deeper past than linguistic data can, while linguistic data provide clarity to ancestry data.

Regarding European ancestry:

Southern European ancestry correlates with both Italic and Basque speakers (r = 0.764, p = 6.34 × 10−49). Northern European ancestry correlates with Germanic and Balto-Slavic branches of the Indo-European language family as well as Finno-Ugric and Mordvinic languages of the Uralic family (r = 0.672, p = 4.67 × 10−34). Italic, Germanic, and Balto-Slavic are all branches of the Indo-European language family, while the correlation with languages of the Uralic family is consistent with an ancient migration event from Northern Asia into Northern Europe. Kalash ancestry is widely spread but is the majority ancestry only in the Kalash people (Table S3). The Kalasha language is classified within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.

Sure, admixture analysis came to save the day. Yet again. Now it’s not just Archaeology related to language anymore, it’s Linguistics; all modern languages and their classification, no less. Because why the hell not? Why would anyone study languages, history, archaeology, etc. when you can run certain algorithms on free datasets of modern populations to explain everything?

What I am criticising here, as always, is not the study per se, its methods (PCA, the use of Admixture or any other tools), or its results, which might be quite interesting – even regarding the origin or position of certain languages (or more precisely their speakers) within their linguistic groups; it’s the many broad, unsupported, striking conclusions (read the article if you want to see more wishful thinking).

This is obviously simplistic citebait – that benefits only journals and authors, and it is therefore tacitly encouraged -, but not knowledge, because it is not supported by any linguistic or archaeological data or expertise.

Is anyone with a minimum knowledge of languages, or general anthropology, actually reviewing these articles?

Related:

Featured image: Ancestry analysis of the global data set, from the article.

Spread of Indo-European folktale traditions related to cultural and demic diffusion (using genomic data)

folktale-genomics

New article at PNAS, Inferring patterns of folktale diffusion using genomic data, by Bortoloni et al. (2017).

Abstract:

Observable patterns of cultural variation are consistently intertwined with demic movements, cultural diffusion, and adaptation to different ecological contexts [Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach; Boyd and Richerson (1985) Culture and the Evolutionary Process]. The quantitative study of gene–culture coevolution has focused in particular on the mechanisms responsible for change in frequency and attributes of cultural traits, the spread of cultural information through demic and cultural diffusion, and detecting relationships between genetic and cultural lineages. Here, we make use of worldwide whole-genome sequences [Pagani et al. (2016) Nature 538:238–242] to assess the impact of processes involving population movement and replacement on cultural diversity, focusing on the variability observed in folktale traditions (n = 596) [Uther (2004) The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson] in Eurasia. We find that a model of cultural diffusion predicted by isolation-by-distance alone is not sufficient to explain the observed patterns, especially at small spatial scales (up to ~4,000 km). We also provide an empirical approach to infer presence and impact of ethnolinguistic barriers preventing the unbiased transmission of both genetic and cultural information. After correcting for the effect of ethnolinguistic boundaries, we show that, of the alternative models that we propose, the one entailing cultural diffusion biased by linguistic differences is the most plausible. Additionally, we identify 15 tales that are more likely to be predominantly transmitted through population movement and replacement and locate putative focal areas for a set of tales that are spread worldwide.

I am very interested in folktales and their origins within Proto-Indo-European culture, so the title alone was an immediate click-bait for me. It did, as always, disappoint in its methods and conclusions, but just the idea it proposes is of great interest for future studies.

There are gross limitations in assessing folktales using simply the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification without further analysis or explanation, apart from a summary of tales in the supplementary materials.

But their maps and simplistic hypothesized waves of diffusion (‘African origin’, ‘northern Eurasian’, ‘Eastern European’, or ‘Middle-Eastern/Caucasian’) seem to me as if they try to swim with the tide of the current literature regarding the identification of Proto-Indo-European demic diffusion with “steppe admixture” distribution (and ancient language family diffusion in general through admixture), and as such it can only be wrong.

If you just look at actual folktale distribution (black dots) and compare them with prehistoric cultures and ancient Y-DNA distribution, you realize their maps don’t make much sense, and more complex methods (and a clearer idea of what admixture represents) are needed.

If their intention was to get published in a journal of high impact factor, they succeeded, so good for them. I am glad this subject gets more attention. Of course, their conclusions are kept formally in line with the many limitations of their methods, and are the most interesting aspect of the article:

By correcting for the presence of ethnolinguistic barriers, we find that the null model of cultural diffusion predicted by IBD alone cannot explain the observed distribution of folktales across Eurasia. Instead, beyond ~4,000 km, cultural diffusion biased by linguistic barriers exhibits the highest correlation at all geographic bins. At small geographic bins (<4,000 km), population movements and linguistic barriers may be more relevant than geographic proximity, pointing once again at the possible importance of small-scale processes of cultural transmission for testing more specific hypotheses when using genetic evidence. In addition, processes other than simple cultural diffusion may be more relevant for a smaller group of tales shared by pairs of populations that are genetically closer than populations not exhibiting those tales. Looking for smaller packages of tales or individual tales and their variants can be useful to shed light on the formation process of this vast body of popular knowledge. The long-range patterns detected by our analyses may complement this picture by suggesting a more ancient origin of some of these folktales (SI Appendix). On a broader level, these results can be used in the future to infer directional trends of cultural dispersal as well as to test for the emergence of systematic social biases [such as prestige bias, conformism/anticonformism, heterophily, and content-dependent biases] or cultural barriers different from linguistic ones, which have a chronology that may be independently ascertained.

If you are interested in studies about folktales, and especially those related to Indo-European traditions, you can check out the following articles I found interesting in the past:

Related:

Featured image (featured also in the article): Possible focal area and dispersion pattern for tale ATU313 “The Magic Flight,” one the most popular folktales in this dataset, which may have been additionally spread through population movement and replacement. It is interesting to note how this tale reached locations that are far from its putative origin (such as Japan and southeastern Africa), whereas it was not retained by many populations located in between (gray dots).

My European Family: The First 54,000 years, by Karin Bojs

steppe-expansion-corded-ware

I have recently read the book My European Family: The First 54,000 years (2015), by Karin Bojs, a known Swedish scientific journalist, former science editor of the Dagens Nyheter.

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My European Family: The First 54,000 Years
It is written in a fresh, dynamic style, and contains general introductory knowledge to Genetics, Archaeology, and their relation to language, and is written in a time of great change (2015) for the disciplines involved.

The book is informed, it shows a balanced exercise between responsible science journalism and entertaining content, and it is at times nuanced, going beyond the limits of popular science books. It is not written for scholars, although you might learn – as I did – interesting details about researchers and institutions of the anthropological disciplines involved. It contains, for example, interviews with known academics, which she uses to share details about their personalities and careers, which give – in my opinion – a much needed context to some of their publications.

Since I am clearly biased against some of the findings and research papers which are nevertheless considered mainstream in the field (like the identification of haplogroup R1a with the Proto-Indo-European expansion, or the concept of steppe admixture), I asked my wife (who knew almost nothing about genetics, or Indo-European studies) to read it and write a summary, if she liked it. She did. So much, that I have convinced her to read The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (2007), by David Anthony.

Here is her summary of the book, translated from Spanish:

The book is divided in three main parts: The Hunters, The Farmers, and The Indo-Europeans, and each has in turn chapters which introduce and break down information in an entertaining way, mixing them with recounts of her interactions and personal genealogical quest.

Part one, The Hunters, offers intriguing accounts about the direct role music had in the development of the first civilizations, the first mtDNA analyses of dogs (Savolainen), and the discovery of the author’s Saami roots. Explanations about the first DNA studies and their value for archaeological studies are clear and comprehensible for any non-specialized reader. Interviews help give a close view of investigations, like that of Frederic Plassard’s in Les Combarelles cave.

Part two, The Farmers, begins with her travel to Cyprus, and arouses the interest of the reader with her description of the circular houses, her notes on the Basque language, the new papers and theories related to DNA analyses, the theory of the decision of cats to live with humans, the first beers, and the houses built over graves. Karin Bojs analyses the subgroup H1g1 of her grandmother Hilda, and how it belonged to the first migratory wave into Central Europe. This interest in her grandmother’s origins lead her to a conference in Pilsen about the first farmers in Europe, where she knows firsthand of the results of studies by János Jakucs, and studies of nuclear DNA. Later on she interviews Guido Brandt and Joachim Burguer, with whom she talks about haplogroups U, H, and J.

The chapter on Ötzi and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (Bolzano) introduces the reader to the first prehistoric individual whose DNA was analysed, belonging to haplogroup G2a4, but also revealing other information on the Iceman, such as his lactose intolerance.

Part three, dealing with the origin of Indo-Europeans, begins with the difficulties that researchers have in locating the origin of horse domestication (which probably happened in western Kazakhstan, in the Russian steppe between the rivers Volga and Don). She mentions studies by David Anthony and on the Yamna culture, and its likely role in the diffusion of Proto-Indo-European. In an interview with Mallory in Belfast, she recalls the potential interest of far-right extremists in genetic studies (and early links of the Journal of Indo-European Studies to certain ideology), as well as controversial statements of Gimbutas, and her potentially biased vision as a refugee from communist Europe. During the interview, Mallory had a copy of the latest genetic paper sent to Nature Magazine by Haak et al., not yet published, for review, but he didn’t share it.

Then haplogroups R1a and R1b are introduced as the most common in Europe. She visits the Halle State Museum of Prehistory (where the Nebra sky disk is exhibited), and later Krakow, where she interviews Slawomir Kadrow, dealing with the potential creation of the Corded Ware culture from a mix of Funnelbeaker and Globular Amphorae cultures. New studies of ancient DNA samples, published in the meantime, are showing that admixture analyses between Yamna and Corded Ware correlate in about 75%.

In the following chapters there is a broad review of all studies published to date, as well as individuals studied in different parts of Europe, stressing the importance of ships for the expansion of R1b lineages (Hjortspring boat).

The concluding chapter is dedicated to vikings, and is used to demystify them as aggressive warmongers, sketching their relevance as founders of the Russian state.

To sum up, it is a highly documented book, written in a clear style, and is capable of awakening the reader’s interest in genetic and anthropological research. The author enthusiastically looks for new publications and information from researchers, but is at the same time critic with them, showing often her own personal reactions to new discoveries, all of which offers a complex personal dynamic often shared by the reader, engaged with her first-person account the full length of the book.

Mayte Batalla (July 2017)

DISCLAIMER: The author sent me a copy of the book (a translation into Spanish), so there is a potential conflict of interest in this review. She didn’t ask for a review, though, and it was my wife who did it.

The Aryan migration debate, the Out of India models, and the modern “indigenous Indo-Aryan” sectarianism

indus-valley-early-harappan

The Proto-Indo-European Urheimat

Not long ago, the Proto-Indo-European language Urheimat problem used to be cyclic in nature: linguistic and archaeological publications appeared supporting a Copper Age migration from the steppe proposed by Marija Gimbutas, or a Neolithic expansion from Anatolia (or Armenia) proposed by Colin Renfrew, and back again.

I have always supported the simpler, more recent Chalcolithic migration of Late Indo-Europeans from the Pontic-Caspian steppe over an older Neolithic expansion from Anatolia with agriculture. The latter model implied a complex cultural diffusion over a greater span of time than is warranted by linguistic guesstimates, understood as the general grasp that anyone can have on how much a language changes in time, comparing the different stages of different Indo-European languages. Whether they like to talk about it or not, or whether they would describe them as such (or else as terminus ante or post quem), most known linguists and archaeologists involved in Indo-European studies have published at some point their own guesstimates.

To have an idea about how guesstimates work, you only have to learn some Indo-European languages from different branches, the ancient languages from which they are derived, how they have evolved from them through time, and their proto-languages, to see how unlikely it is that the differences from Late Indo-European to Proto-Greek, Proto-Indo-Iranian, Proto-Celtic, or Proto-Italic need a leap of ca. 3000 years almost without change, as required by the Anatolian hypothesis. Some have strong reactions against guesstimates arguing you cannot compare historic or proto-historic changes to prehistoric ones, to support a different linguistic change rate from Proto-Indo-European to proto-languages. I find this to be a sound criticism, but often used justify a worse, ad-hoc estimate that supports other theory.

Glottochronology – in case you are looking for mathematics or statistics to solve the problem – is as useless today as it always was. Not everything – in fact few things in anthropology – can be solved with algorithms and statistics. I do love algorithms and statistics, because their results – if based on sound assumptions – are hard to be contested, but not a single good one has been proposed for comparative grammar, as far as I know.

Algorithms solve everything

Steppe hypothesis

The steppe hypothesis was always the simpler connection with modern Indo-European languages, from a linguistic and archaeological point of view, and archaeogenetics (since the advent of haplogroup investigation, and the finding of modern R1a distribution) did also support it. However, it implied a conquest by warring patrilocal peoples, that substituted the ‘original’ Neolithic European and Asian population and languages, and invasions have not been a fashionable antrhopological subject for a long time.

One of the consequences of the genocidal racism and xenophobia seen during World War II was the strong reaction to its ideological foundations, and there was a common will to end with Kosinna’s trend of historic ethnolinguistic identification of modern peoples. Linguistics and archaeology did then search for more complex models of human relations and exchange, mostly to avoid what appeared as simplistic concepts of migration or invasion. Marija Gimbutas’ simplistic kurganist, male-driven invasion of territories inhabited by matrilocal Old Europeans, albeit reasonable, did not fit well with these post-war times. One could accept historic and proto-historic atrocities and genocide by any people against others, and even tribal conflicts between prehistoric hunter-gatherers that ended in the destruction of one of them, but a violent, massive spread of ‘Aryans’ was considered a dangerous idea to be avoided.

Thanks to the effort of David Anthony (among others) in supporting migration models in Archaeology, the steppe model did have a strong revival even before archaeogenetics began to be a thing in anthropological research.

Anatolian hypothesis

The Anatolian hypothesis, on the other hand, seemed like a fine, long evolution of a language accompanying the peaceful spread of a technological innovation, farming and cattle herding. Originally believed to be mostly a cultural diffusion (now it has been demonstrated to be a mixed diffusion event, with strong demic diffusion in its early phase), it was thus in line with a more politically correct view of prehistoric events.

This cultural diffusion gave in turn way to more peaceful and innovative solutions to language spread, like waves of expansion, or a constellation of languages influencing each other for long periods, so that even the potential reconstruction of a single Proto-Indo-European language or people was doubted. Prehistoric friendly neighbours would have adopted farming and exchanged goods and languages for thousands of years, and only with proto-historic events did people have ethnolinguistic identification that caused conflicts…

While recently there have been some doubts expressed by Mathieson et al. (2017) on the of the steppe hypothesis regarding Proto-Anatolian, it is likely that the lack of enough ancient DNA of the Balkans and Anatolia is the key factor here.

An interesting linguistic proposal, the glottalic theory, while sound in its assumptions and results – much less likely in my opinion than the more common two-dorsal theory, and this much more likely than the prevalent three-dorsal one – gave some theoretical support to the Anatolian (or Armenian) hypothesis, since some proponents felt that a glottalic Proto-Indo-European should have an origin near to the Armenian homeland – because glottalic Proto-Armenian would have retained a phonetic state nearer to the “original” Proto-Indo-European.

That simplistic regional continuity explanation is akin to the trend of Basque researchers to discover links of Proto-Basque with the Pyrenees in Mesolithic and Palaeolithic times, when there is no data to warrant such identifications – and it seems in fact that Proto-Basque, Proto-Iberian, and Palaeo-Sardinian might have accompanied the expansion of farming in the Neolithic. Probably most proponents left of the Glottalic theory today (like Frederik Kortlandt and Alan Bomhard) would accept a steppe migration unrelated to an Armenian or Anatolian origin.

Marginal proposals

There were indeed other marginal proposals, with people supporting origins of Proto-Indo-European in both ends of the current distribution of Indo-European languages, from the “Indo-” in Out of India theories, to the “-European” in Eurocentric proposals. Most Eurocentric proposals – based on certain archaeological cultures and their evolution in- and outside Europe – have been dismissed with archaeological and genetic research, and the remaining ones usually favour the more fashionable peaceful spread of languages.

Palaeolithic Continuity Theory

A small group in support of the more recent Palaeolithic Continuity Theory remains. It seems to me as deeply flawed from a linguistic point of view (with a much larger time span needed than for a Neolithic expansion), but their arguments are led by research on genetics and archaeology, and not much is left for European romanticism, so it has always appeared to me as a professionally acceptable – although futile – attempt by eccentric researchers to disentangle prehistoric events.

Similar to what happens with proponents of the Anatolian hypothesis, new linguistic, archaeological, and genetic research is used to remake PCT models – instead of just dismissing it -, so it is likely that we will have many different proposals of stepped population movements that will make both models eventually converge with the steppe migration theory, to the point where only the steppe migration theory remains, with some added details on its most ancient origin. I guess sometimes it is difficult to let (part of) your life’s research just go away without fighting for some recognition… You desperately look for a tap on the back by some colleagues, even out of pity, who will tell you ‘it seems you might have been right in some details, after all!’…

Out of India

The Out of India theory is the name given to a group of (mostly) independent models that usually propose a Proto-Indo-European homeland based on or around India. Contrary to the PCT, an Out of India theory set during the Mesolithic or Neolithic would be feasible from a linguistic point of view: you could somehow connect some archaeological migrations to support the spread of Early-Proto-Indo-European-speaking R1a lineage happen east-to-west (and north), and genetically it had support in some papers on modern distribution of R1a subclades, for example in Underhill et al. (2014). Underhill himself has since questioned his conclusion in view of recent papers publishing ancient DNA analysis.

Out of India theories, overall, could thus be as strong (or as weak) as the theories concerning an Anatolian origin, in their potential for explanation of the ancient origin of the Proto-Indo-European language spoken in the steppe during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic. However feasible they might a priori be, I have yet to encounter a decent modern paper with that kind of proposal, based on recent genetic papers. Most modern articles are just Indian nationalist crap, and the only decent papers on this matter are becoming quite old fpr this relatively young field of Indo-European studies. Maybe that’s because I don’t have enough time to look for the hidden good anthropological papers among so much dirt. After all, it is not a very likely theory, and one has a limited amount of time.

In recent papers, if you get rid of simplistic reactionary and revisionist views, conservative Indo-Aryan Hindu nationalist or religious bigotry, fantastic connections with the Indus Valley civilization, and simplistic identifications of Proto-Indo-European as ‘nearer’ to Vedic Sanskrit – with absurdly old and odd references to Schleicher’s reconstruction and dialectal Indo-Slavonic or Satem references -, you are left at best with some basic criticisms of Eurocentrism and the known shortcomings of anthropological disciplines in investigating Proto-Indo-European Urheimat, but no data to support any connection with India whatsoever.

If there is a reason for a generalised inferiority complex in India, I would find it in the shameless publication and popularity of such worthless research papers, a trend that is also seen in scientific fields, with Indian researchers having a increasingly tougher time passing editorial and peer reviews, and resorting thus to national journals. In the case of Indo-European studies, instead of trying to fit data with what we know, the only aim in Indian research seems to be to connect the Indus Valley with Proto-Indo-European, and Proto-Indo-European with a “pure” (i.e. Vedic) Indo-Aryan, to support a mythological Indo-Aryan Hinduist India. And that is mostly what you will find in any Out of India article today, whether based on linguistic, archaeological, or – what is prevalent today – genetic investigation.

This has been The Out of India Controversy Week: it began last week with the publication of a quite decent article in The Hindu by Tony Joseph summing up the current situation of anthropological research. It was followed by reactions in conservative Indian news, and this in turn was contested by Davidsky and Razib Khan. The original article by Tony Joseph has been echoed by Victor Mair in Language Log, and I agree with his description of Joseph’s paper as “informed, sensitive, balanced, and nuanced. This is responsible science journalism”, even if I disagree with some of his statements (in a different way than Mr. Mair). However, this propaganda disguised as scientific criticism is what you get from Indian nationalists.

EDIT (25/6/2017): Razib Khan has published a thorough post on Indian evolutionary genetics as follow-up to this week’s controversy. I think there is too much effort being invested during these controversies precisely by the people who need not explain themselves. Anyway, good summaries of anthropological matters are always welcome.

EDIT (29/6/2017): Other posts on the subject, from Brown Pundits: On the “Aryan” debate – the linguistics POV; Razib Khan’s Indian genetics, part n of many; and Aryan Migration and its Discontents.

Interestingly, any time new research comes to shake certain Indian nationalist foundations, a stronger backfire effect happens, and more criticism is done on the shortcomings of such anthropological research. Because, indeed, if the anthropological theory is flawed, mythical Indo-Aryans spread from the Indus Valley, right…? One can only expect this kind of controversies to escalate in conservative Indian blogs and fora alike, and then deescalate until the next paper is published. A dialectic cycle whose only evident result is the increased opposition that conservative Indian researchers – or researchers that depend on funding by such groups – will have in publishing anything related to a potential Aryan invasion, and the addition of a stronger bias in Indian research.

Western European history

It might well be because I am western European, and western Europeans tend to accept quite well multiple invasions from the East. After all, they have happened so many times in proto-historical and historical times, that it is part of our ethnolinguistic nation-building lore. French people trace their history to the expansion of Celts, Romans, and Franks; Spaniards and Portuguese trace it to the spread of Celts, Ibero-Basques, Romans, and Westgoths; Italians to the expansion of Etruscans, Celts and Italics, Romans, Ostrogoths and Langobards; the English to the expansion of Celts, Angles and Saxons, Vikings, and Normans…

It often seems to me that western Europeans will romanticise their origins no matter what appears in historic and genetic investigation: if Neanderthals are unrelated to Europeans, they are ‘cavemen’; if they intermixed with our ancestors, then they suddenly become quite human in their behaviour, and it is great to have more Neanderthal admixture. If Indo-European-speaking R1a lineages invaded central Europe from the east, and transferred their languages, great, because “we” are heirs of original western European hunter-gatherers of Palaeolithic R1b lineages; if R1b lineages represent an invasion of eastern peoples speaking Late Indo-European, great too, because it means that our paternal forefathers were the ‘original’ Indo-European speakers…

This reaction, our history is great no matter what, seems to be a good one for research, since it allows for any change in our romantic views of the past. This, however, does not seem to be the case for some nations, and this inability to change their views is likely related to the inferiority complex that some nations have developed, in turn probably caused by western European colonialism, so one is left to wonder how responsible we are of modern chauvinist trends.

The sad future

Seeing how so many people of eastern European ancestry are convinced of an origin of R1a-M417 in Indo-European migrations from Yamna – when there is (yet?) not a single proof of it – may be just as troubling as the Indian case, or maybe more, since it affects an important part of Europe. I cannot believe that even today only western Europeans are capable of romanticising their own past no matter what, while the rest of the world lives in a quest to appropriate whatever they view as some great ancient culture, people, or language for their own ancestors.

I have already received complaints and have seen people (of Y-DNA haplogroup R1a) complain online that their forefathers cannot have been Uralic speakers, and some Uralic speakers (of haplogroup N) that original Uralic speakers cannot have been of R1a lineages. Firstly, if I were eastern European – be it Germanic, Balto-Slavic, or Uralic speaker, or a speaker of Indo-Aryan languages, of R1a or N lineage, whatever my country of origin, I like to think I would prefer to know where my forefathers actually came from, and what languages they did in fact speak thousands of years ago, even if that disrupts everything I or my fellow countrymen (wrongly) assumed for a long time. Secondly, we – as western Europeans speaking Romance or Germanic languages – have the right to know exactly how our peoples and languages really came to be, even if that means disrupting others’ dreams. Our paternal ancestors probably changed languages 3 or 4 times during their multiple migrations from the east, and were not peaceful hunter-gatherers living since the Palaeolithic in the same region we do now, as traditionally held; if we can get over this, eastern Europeans and Indians can get over it, too.

I think everyone deserves to know the truth, and they will eventually like it and fantasise with it. But many individuals want to disrupt any possible change to keep their current ethnic and nationalist agendas untouched, and that can affect us all. Nationalistic and romantic trends are understandable: Romans needed Virgil at the peak of their conquests to tell them that they had a glorious past in Troy, connecting them to the immortal Greek epics. The most important lesson one can learn from that example is that Italian researchers are still (2000 years later!) influenced by that myth, and they keep trying to look for Anatolian remains in Latin studies, and in the archaeology and evolutionary genetics of Italy. I guess you could therefore say these mythification trends are naturally human…but losing so much time in absurd quests for mythological identities seems absurd, and can only damage research.

It is sad to think about future generations of Indians looking for any sign to support an autochthonous Indo-Aryan homeland, while the rest of the world keeps moving in the right direction…

(Note: featured image is licensed CC-by-sa 4.0 from Avantiputra7 at Wikipedia)

How ‘difficult’ (using Esperantist terms) is an inflected language like Proto-Indo-European for Europeans?

For native speakers of most modern Romance languages (apart from some reminiscence of the neuter case), Nordic (Germanic) languages, English, Dutch, or Bulgarian, it is usually considered “difficult” to learn an inflected language like Latin, German or Russian: cases are a priori felt as too strange, too “archaic”, too ‘foreign’ to the own system of expressing ideas. However, for a common German, Baltic, Slavic, Greek speaker, or for non-IE speakers of Basque or Uralic languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian), cases are the only way to express common concepts and ideas, and it was also the common way of expression for speakers of older versions of those very uninflected languages, like Old English, Old Norse or Classical Latin; and their speakers didn’t consider their languages “difficult” …

Therefore, to use different cases is the normal way to express concepts that non-inflected languages express in different ways – i.e. not “more easily”, but “differently”. That’s the point Esperantism has lost in its struggle to convince the world of its “easiness”. In fact, the idea that cases are difficult is so impregnated in Esperantism, that some did create “an old version” [probably deemed “more difficult”] of Esperanto called Arcaicam Esperantom, as a fiction of evolution from an older language…

Thus, among the European population (more than 700 million inhabitants), just around 200 million speak non-inflected languages, while the rest use at least 4 cases to express every possible concept. Within the current EU, more or less half of its speakers speak an inflected language – like German, Polish, Czech, Greek, Lithuanian, Slovenian, or non-IE Hungarian, Finnish, etc. – as their mother tongue.

For example, the literal sentence “I go to-the-house” [not exactly the common expression “I go home” which is expressed differently in each language] would be said in Spanish “voy a-la-casa”, or in French “je vais a-la-maison”, in Italian “vado a-la-casa”, etc. Therefore, in an “easy conlang” for Western European speakers, say in something called Esperanto, a sentence like “io vo a-lo-haus” is apparently “easy”, because the syntactical structure is similar to those non-inflected languages.

NOTE: In fact, there are other interesting concepts behind the use of the obligatory subject before the verb in languages like English or Esperanto, that appears usually in those languages that have reduced the verbal system; therefore, the subject is necessary only in those languages whose verbal inflection becomes too simple to express an idea that must still be expressed some way – more or less like different combinations of prepositions and articles are often needed to substitute the lost nominal inflection, as we discuss here. In those ‘less innovative’ languages that retain a rich verbal system, the subject appears for some reason, as e.g. in Spanish “yo voy a la casa”, which must be expressed differently in innovative languages, using different linguistic resources, like e.g. Eng. “I myself go to the house” (or maybe “it’s me who…“), or French “moi, je vais a la maison”. Is that obligatory subject and ‘simplified’ verbal system of Esperanto “easier”, and therefore “better”…? I guess not. It’s just an imitation of French or English that Mr. Zamenhoff deemed “better” for his creation to succeed, given the relevance of those languages (and its speakers’ acceptance) back in 1900…

On the other hand, in German it would be “Ich gehe nach-Haus-e”, in Latin, it is “vado ad-domu-m”; in Polish “idę do-dom-u” etc. The use of declensions, if compared to uninflected languages, is usually made of just a simple change of “preposition+article” -> “declension” – or, in the ‘worst’ case (as it is shown here), by a “preposition+article” -> “preposition+declension”.

To sum up, can some languages be considered “more difficult” than others? Yes, indeed. If seen from a European point of view, some linguistic features are not easy to learn: the Arab writing system, Chinese unending kanjis, Sino-Tibetan or Vietnamese tones, etc. can cause headaches to [adult] speakers willing to learn them… Also, from an English, French or Spanish point of view, learning a language like Esperanto might seem “better” because of its apparent and equivocal “easiness”… But, between (a) all Indo-European speakers learning a non-inflected language like English [or ‘easy’ Esperanto], or (b) all Indo-European speakers learning an inflected one like Proto-Indo-European?; I guess there is no language “easier” than other, and therefore the “better” option should come from other rational considerations, not just faith in the absurd ramblings of an illuminated Polish ophthalmologist.

Therefore, the question remains still the same: why on earth should any European willing to speak a common language select an invented one (from the thousand “super easy” ones available) than a natural one, like the ancestor of most of their mother tongues, Proto-Indo-European?