Indo-Iranian Origins

CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY Volume 43, Number 1, February 2002

Archaeology and Language
The Indo-Iranians

by C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky


Russian scholars working in the Eurasiatic steppes are nearly unanimous in their belief that the Andronovo culture and its variant expressions are Indo-Iranian. Similarly, Russian and Central Asian scholars working on the Bactrian Margiana complex share the conviction that it is Indo-Iranian. The two cultures are contemporary but very different. Passages from the Avesta and the Rigveda are quoted by various researchers to support the Indo-Iranian identity of both, but these passages are sufficiently general as to permit the Plains Indians an Indo-Iranian identity. Ethnicity is permeable and multidimensional, and the "ethnic indicators" employed by Kuzmina can be used to identify the Arab, the Turk, and the Iranian, three completely distinctive ethnic and linguistic groups. Ethnicity and language are not so easily linked with an archaeological signature.

Furthermore, archaeology offers virtually no evidence for Bactrian Margiana influence on the steppe and only scant evidence for an Andronovo presence in the Bactrian Margiana area. There is certainly no evidence to support the notion that the two had a common ancestor. There is simply no compelling archaeological evidence for (or, for that matter, against) the notion that either is Indo-Iranian.

Indo-Iranian is a linguistic construct with two branches, one of which went to Iran and the other to northern India. The time of their arrival in these new homelands is typically taken to be the 2d millennium B.C. Not a single artifact of Andronovo type has been identified in Iran or in northern India, but there is ample evidence for the presence of Bactrian Margiana materials on the Iranian Plateau and in Baluchistan (e.g., at Susa, Shahdad, Yahya, Khurab, Sibri, Miri Qalat, Deh Morasi Ghundai, Nousharo [for a review see Hiebert and Lamberg-Karlovky 1992]). It is impossible, however, to trace the continuity of these materials into the 1st millennium and relate them to the known cultures of Iranian-speakersthe Medes or the Achaemenids (or their presumed Iron Age ancestors [see Ghirshman 1977, Young 1967]). The only intrusive archaeological culture of the 2d millennium that directly influences Iran and northern India is the Bactrian Margiana archaeological complex, but it cannot be linked to the development of later 2d- and 1st-millennium archaeological cultures on the Iranian Plateau.

The identity of the Indo-Iranians remains elusive. When they are identified in the archaeological record it is by allegation rather than demonstration. It is interesting that the archaeological (and linguistic) literature has focused entirely upon the Indo-Iranians, overlooking the other major linguistic families believed to have been inhabiting the same regionsthe Altaic, the Ugric, and the Dravidian. Each of these has roots in the Eurasiatic steppes or Central Asia. The fact that these language families are of far less interest to the archaeologist may have a great deal to do with the fact that it is primarily speakers of Indo-European in search of their own roots who have addressed this problem.

In an interesting "Afterword" to Sarianidi's Margiana and Protozoroastrianism, J. P. Mallory asks, "How do we reconcile deriving the Indo-Iranians from two regions [the steppes and the Central Asian oases] so different with respect to environment, subsistence and cultural behavior?" (1998a:181). He offers three models, each of interest, none supported by archaeological evidence, one of which is that the Bactrian Margiana complex was Indo-Iranian and came to dominate the steppe lands, serving as the inspiration for the emergence of fortified settlements such as Sintashta in the southern Urals. Thus, an external source is provided for the development of the "country of towns" and with it a linguistic affiliation. Mallory admits that this model is unlikely. His conclusion is that the nucleus of Indo-Iranian linguistic developments formed in the steppes and, through some form of symbiosis in Bactria-Margiana, pushed southward to form the ancient languages of Iran and India (p. 184). It is, however, that "form of symbiosis" that is so utterly elusive!

Linguists too often assign languages to archaeological cultures, while archaeologists are often too quick to assign their sherds a language. Denis Sinor (1999:396), a distinguished linguist and historian of Central Asia, takes a position that more might consider: "I find it impossible to attribute with any degree of certainty any given language to any given prehistoric civilization." The works I have mentioned in this piece offer archaeological data of great interest and importance, and all their authors identify the archaeological cultures with which they are working as Indo-Iranian. Linguists cannot associate an archaeological culture with words, syntax, and grammar, and archaeologists cannot make their sherds utter words. We need a third arbiter, which may or may not offer some degree of resolution to the relationships between archaeological culture and language. Perhaps that arbiter will be in our genes. To date only a few mitochondrial and Y-chromosome studies of Eurasian populations have been undertaken (Voevoda et al. 2000). Eliza Khusnutdinova and her team at the Uta Research Center are conducting pioneering DNA studies in the Volga-Urals region of Russia. In the context of a renewed fashion of relating archaeology, culture, and language it is well to remember that neither sherds nor genes are destined to speak specific languages, nor does a given language require a specific ceramic type or genetic structure.

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Gerry Reinhart-Waller
Independent Scholar