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Who Were the Aryans?

The Aryan Invasion Myth

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One of the most interesting puzzles in archaeology, and one that hasn't been completely solved yet, concerns the story of the supposed Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent. The story goes like this: The Aryans were a tribe of Indo-European-speaking, horse-riding nomads living in the arid steppes of Eurasia. Sometime around 1700 BC, the Aryans invaded the ancient urban civilizations of the Indus Valley, and destroyed that culture. The Indus Valley civilizations were far more civilized than any horse-back nomad, having had a written language, farming capabilities, and led a truly urban existence. Some 1,200 years after the supposed invasion, the descendants of the Aryans, so they say, wrote the classic Indian literature called the Vedic manuscripts.

Adolf Hitler and the Aryan/Dravidian Myth

Adolf Hitler twisted the theories of Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931), to put forward the Aryans as a master race of Indo-Europeans, who were supposed to be Nordic in appearance and directly ancestral to the Germans. These Nordic invaders were defined as directly opposite to native south Asian peoples, called Dravidians, who were supposed to have been darker-skinned.

The problem is, most if not all of this story--"Aryans" as a cultural group, invasion from the arid steppes, Nordic appearance, the Indus Civilization being destroyed, and, certainly not least, the Germans being descended from them--may not be true at all.

Aryans and the History of Archaeology

During the 19th century, many European missionaries and imperialists traveled the world seeking conquests and converts. One country which saw a great deal of this kind of exploration was India (including what is now Pakistan). Some of the missionaries were also antiquarians by avocation, and one such fellow was the French missionary Abbé Dubois(1770-1848). His manuscript on Indian culture makes some unusual reading today; the good Abbé tried to fit in what he understood of Noah and the Great Flood with what he was reading in the great literature of India. It was not a good fit, but he did describe Indian civilization at the time, and provided some pretty bad translations of the literature.

It was the Abbé's work, translated into English by the British East India Company in 1897 and with a laudatory preface by German archaeologist Max Muller, that formed the basis of the Aryan invasion story--not the Vedic manuscripts themselves. Scholars had long noted the similarities between Sanskrit, the ancient language in which the classical Vedic texts are written, and other Latin-based languages such as French and Italian. And when the first excavations at the large Indus Valley site of Mohenjo Daro were completed early in the 20th century, and it was recognized as a truly advanced civilization, a civilization not mentioned in the Vedic manuscripts, among some circles this was considered ample evidence that an invasion of people related to the peoples of Europe had occurred, destroying the earlier civilization and creating the second great civilization of India.

Flawed Arguments and Recent Investigations

It turns out that there are serious problems with this argument. There are no references to an invasion in the Vedic manuscripts; and the Sanskrit word "Aryas" means "noble", not a superior cultural group. Secondly, recent archaeological evidence suggests that the Indus civilization was shut down by droughts combined with a devasting flood, not a violent confrontation. Recent archaeological evidence also shows that many of the so-called "Indus River" valley peoples lived in the Sarasvati River, which is mentioned in the Vedic manuscripts as a homeland. There is no biological or archaeological evidence of a massive invasion of people of a different race.

The most recent studies concerning the Aryan/Dravidian myth include language studies, which have attempted to decipher and thereby discover the origins of the Indus script, and the Vedic manuscripts, to determine the origins of the Sanskrit in which it was written. Excavations at the site of Gola Dhoro in Gujarat suggest the site was abandoned quite suddenly, although why that may occurred is yet to be determined.

Racism and Science

Born from a colonial mentality, corrupted by a Nazi propaganda machine, the Aryan invasion theory is finally undergoing radical reassessment by south Asian archaeologists and their colleagues, using the Vedic documents themselves, additional linguistic studies, and physical evidence revealed through archaeological excavations. The Indus valley cultural history is an ancient and complex one. Only time will teach us what role if any an Indo-European invasion took in the history; but it seems clear that a collapse of the Indus civilization did not occur.

Thanks to Omar Khan of Harappa.com for assistance with this feature.
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