Archaeological evidence suggests that Indo-European speakers may have been present in Northwest India two millennia earlier than previously thought.
Between 4500 BCE and 2500 BCE, in the steppes north of Black and Caspian seas, in what is Southern Ukraine and Russia, there lived a group of people who spoke a language, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). This language was the ancestor of later languages such as English, Sanskrit, Latin, Old Saxon, and Lithuanian among others. Once they domesticated the horse and acquired the wheel, PIE speakers traveled long distances with their tents and supplies, spreading the Indo-European language around the world. One of PIE’s descendants, Proto-Indo-Iranian developed between 2500 BCE and 2000 BCE implying that Vedic, which descended from Indo-Iranian, could only have a date later than 2000 BCE. Following this period, Indo-European speakers either conquered or migrated into the Harappan region and imposed Vedic culture, Sanskrit language and caste system transforming Northwest India.
So far archaeologists have not found any intrusive material culture dating to this period. If Indo-European speakers arrived in large numbers and culturally and linguistically transformed the region, such evidence is absent on the ground. A late migration also fails to explain how Vedic people knew about the mighty Saraswati whose flow had reduced by then. Still many historians are wedded to an invasion/migration model derived from linguistics, an area of research done predominantly outside India.
Earlier migration of farmers
Now a 2012 paper by Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology of the Australian National University suggests that Indo-European speakers may have been present in Northwest India much earlier, maybe even two millennia earlier. This theory is based on new archaeological discoveries in the Gangetic basin working alongside another Indo-European dispersal theory. According to the West Anatolian model, that has been in existence for a while, Indo-European originated in Anatolia and not near the steppes near the Black Sea. The spread of the language happened due to population growth and the gradual spread of farming techniques and not due to carts, horses and wheels. Based on paleoethnobotanical dates, a date of 7000 BCE has been proposed for the spread of farming into Europe from Anatolia.
Around 6300 BCE, the catastrophic drowning of agricultural lowlands near the Black Sea may have triggered the migration of the farmers to other regions around the world. From Anatolia, the language spread through Armenia, Northern Iran, and Southern Turkmenistan and entered Pakistan by 4000 BCE. This implies that regions like Mehrgarh, the Neolithic antecedent which lead to the Harappan culture, could have been Indo-European speaking. According to Bellwood, the urban Harappan civilisation had a large number of Indo-European speakers alongside the speakers of other languages which may have included Dravidian. Thus the composers of Rig Veda were not the first Indo-European speakers in the region; their ancestors were present in the region at least two millennia before the current consensus.
Another piece of data, on which this earlier date is based, comes from extensive archaeology conducted in Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Just between Saraswati and Yamuna, around 350 sites were discovered and pottery in some of those sites date as far back 3700 BCE. Usually the Gangetic plains enters Indian history following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, but new evidence indicates movement of farming techniques from Middle East to the Gangetic basin and from Gangetic basin to the Indus region. A version of rice, legumes, millets and humped cattle were domesticated in India, but there was an external flow of wheat, barley, sheep and goats from the Middle East. Also between 3500 and 2000 BCE there is an increase in settlements from the middle gangetic plains towards lower gangetic plains indicating population movement.
The suggestion that Indo-European speakers lived in the Harappan cities is not one of those theories, which does not have much academic support. In a 2010 paper, Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who has been excavating at Harappa for three decades wrote that even though the Indus script has not been deciphered, he thinks more than one language was spoken in the settlements. The language families that co-existed include Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan. Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a 2013 paper writes that Indo-European speakers may have reached Mehrgarh much earlier than 4000 BCE. The model that these studies present is not of a civilisation dominated by one language as imagined by Dravidian politicians and textbook historians, but an Indus-Saraswati region which was cosmopolitan.
All these have serious implications to Indian history.
First, the theory suggests the possibility of the development of Vedic in the Indus region. There are many versions of the theory that describes the origins and spread of the Indo-European language family. Most historians have been using the short chronology tied to the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation and subsequent arrival of large Indo-European speaking population. Bellwood and Heggarty revive the longer chronology in which Indo-European speakers arrived early, much early than the Early Phase of the Harappan civilisation. As some farming techniques spread from the Indus region to the Gangetic plains, proto-Vedic too must have spread. This version allows for the possibility that Indo-Iranian branch and its children crystallized locally on the banks of Indus and not in the steppes of Central Asia. It also explains why the authors of the most ancient Indian text, the Rig Veda, had great awareness of the geography of Northwest India.
Second, many historians have argued that after the collapse of the Indus cities, a new civilisation emerged in the Ganges Valley and there was no continuity of material culture; according to them most of the second millennium BCE was a long dark age. In his book, The Lost River, Michel Danino contradicts this by listing many such continuities from the Harappan period to the present. These include symbols like the swastika, the patterns used in kolams, motifs like the pipal tree and seals like the pashupati seal which display a figure seated in yogic posture. Other elements like fire altars used by Vedic brahmins even now made John Marshall to comment in 1931 that the Indus religion was so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism. The new evidence of agricultural relationship between people who lived around the sapta-sindhu region and the Gangetic region confirms that the Ganges Valley urbanism was related to its Harappan antecedents.
Third, this theory discards the ‘elite dominance’ version of the migration theory. As per the short chronology, the Indo-European speaking people with their horses and chariots arrived in the Harappan region and influenced the residents to change their language or imposed their language. Even though the Indo-Europeans were few in number, people switched the language due to some utility of attaching themselves with the elites. The long chronology supports demic diffusion, a gradual spread which comes without the invasion and massive migration components. It is now clear that the decline of the Harappan civilisation was not caused by the invading or migrating Bronze-Age riders from the Eurasian steppes, but rather due to vagaries of nature: tectonic movements blocked the course of lower Indus river which must have caused floods that submerged Mohenjo-daro while either tectonic movements or weakened monsoons affected Saraswati and forced the residents to migrate east and south. (See: What caused the decline of Harappa?)
Finally, after two centuries of Indo-European studies there is no consensus on the homeland, on the path of dispersal or the time frame of Proto-Indo-European. A debate which is going on this year is if Basque, the ancestral language spoken by people living in the region spanning northeastern Spain and southwestern France, is an Indo-European language or not. According to Paul Heggarty, linguistic data does not convincingly support the claim that Proto-Indo-European speakers domesticated the horse. Even if they were domesticated, there is less evidence of the saddle or the stirrup that are required for riding, and hence a Mongolian style invasion from the steppes could be an anachronism. Further, the words that were reconstructed for wheeled vehicles refer to just movement and time and it is one interpretation that refers them as carts. Also, even now there is no agreed sequence of Indo-European branching, which could mean that there was no such straightforward branching, but rather a diffusion of people in waves. Hence the chronology of Indian history based purely on linguistics should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Peter Bellwood. “How and Why Did Agriculture Spread.” In Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Heggarty, Paul. “Europe and Western Asia: Indo-European Linguistic History.” In The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2013. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781444351071.wbeghm819/abstract.
Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
Jonathan Mark Kenoyer. “Indus Civilization.” In Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Academic Press, 2007.
Danino, Michel. Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati. Penguin Books India, 2010.
Danino, Michel. Indian Culture and India’s Future. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2011.
Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Reprint. Princeton University Press, 2010.
The piece has been updated to reflect certain corrections.