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A debate over the PIE homeland

In 1668, Andreas Jager of Wittenberg proposed that there was an ancient language spoken in the Caucasus mountains which then spread throughout Europe and Asia through waves of migration. Mr. Jager did not know about Sanskrit or the similarities between Sanskrit and European languages when he wrote that. A century later,  Sir William Jones discovered that similarity, thus creating the field of historical linguistics. The mother language was postulated to be proto-Indo-European and now there are differing theories on the location of that homeland. One of those theories claims that proto-Indo-European speakers were chariot driving pastoralists from above the Black Sea, who left their homeland around 4000 years back. Another theory claims that, they were from the land below the Black Sea (Anatolia) and were farmers. Along with the spread of agriculture from 9000 years back, the language also spread.

Recently a paper claimed that they had solved the homeland mystery forever.

We used Bayesian phylogeographic approaches, together with basic vocabulary data from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages, to explicitly model the expansion of the family and test these hypotheses. We found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin. Both the inferred timing and root location of the Indo-European language trees fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8000 to 9500 years ago. These results highlight the critical role that phylogeographic inference can play in resolving debates about human prehistory.[Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family]

Based on this paper, The New York Times had a graphic which showed the timeline for the evolution of each language tree. If you note the time for Vedic Sanskrit, it falls to around 4000 BCE, which is much earlier than the Mature Harappan Period. This violates many sacred academic lakshmana rekhas. But if you note the time frame for Romani, it is around 1500 BCE, which actually does not agree with the known history of the Romani people, who left North India much later.

Here is a video (via GeoCurrents) where a two Stanford historical linguists   syntactician and historical geographer take the authors of the paper, who are computational linguists, among whom one is a computational linguist, to task calling them “creationists” but thinks this does not rise to the level of Creationism.


Another point they make is that PIE cannot be older than 3500 BCE because that was the time the wheel was invented and PIE contains words for the wheel.  Obviously the language cannot contain words for things which did not exist. Now if PIE cannot be older than 3500 BCE, then Vedic Sanskrit cannot be older than that. This is an important point for dating the presence of Vedic speakers in India based on historical linguistics (and not computational linguistics)


  1. Bouckaert, Remco, Philippe Lemey, Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Alexei J. Drummond, Russell D. Gray, Marc A. Suchard, and Quentin D. Atkinson. “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family.” Science 337, no. 6097 (August 24, 2012): 957–960. doi:10.1126/science.1219669.
  2. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
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State of Saṃskṛtam…


Rigveda MS in Sanskrit on paper

Rigveda MS in Sanskrit on paper

..is in dire straits according to this article from Samskrita Bharati. Here is the original article and here are some excerpts from the English translation.

What is this serious situation? The place of Sanskrit in schools is the biggest base of Sanskrit these days. But that also seems to be slipping away now. With the advent of the rule that to be a teacher in Elementary and Secondary schools, a teacher-qualification-examination must be passed. However, in many places for those exams Sanskrit subject is not set by the government. In these boards, we are able to secure this by going to the court – CTET exam coordinated by CBSE and Haryana’s TET examinations. But, for TET conducted by UP even the Highcourt did not help Sanskrit in this matter related to examinations. We don’t know how many courts in how many states we’ll have to go.

In Central (kendriya) Schools, at present English, Hindi and Sanskrit – these three languages are taught. But now as an option to Sanskrit, these two languages are offered – French and German. Central Schools follow the syllabus created by Central Board of Secondary Education, and in that syllabus as a third language these option of Foreign languages was already provided – so for this reason we cannot go to court related to this matter. (The adoption of Foreign Languages in the three-language-formula is another topic and some people are thinking about going to court regarding it)

In Maharastra’s Marathi Secondary Schools, Hindi is taught as a compulsory third language. Maharastra government changed the rule and said that in its place German or French can also be taught. Due to this there was a commotion in the state assembly and the Governement revoked the new rule. It had justified the change claiming that students studying in English-medium schools score higher due to the Foreign languages but the students studying in villages are deprived of high scores due to this rule.

Read the whole article here

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Imperial Expansion from 1860 to 1914

Japanese Troops, Sino-Japanese War, 1894

Japanese Troops, Sino-Japanese War, 1894

When we look at the period between the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 and Indian independence in 1947, it is important to view it not in isolation, but in the backdrop of global events during that 90 year period. Instead of viewing that 90 year period as one block, we will look at the common themes till the start of World War I as it was a period of imperial expansion and reactions to it.

Mercantilism and tributary system was replaced by capitalism. Spurred by the second industrial revolution, big companies came into existence and there was a need for cheap access to raw materials for the industrial complex. Goods that were the result of mass production could now, due to improvements in transportation, be shipped around the world easily. The rise of joint stock companies and large financial institutions helped scale the industrial production. Also, thanks to war, technologies like steam powered gunships and breech loading rifles helped imperialists conquer countries which would provide them with raw materials and also serve as captive markets. During this period, we United States, Europe, Japan and Russia became new economic titans and started competing with Britain.

Another source of imperial expansion was the rise of nation states and a part of nation building involved conquering new territories, like what Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama did in the 15th century. Newly formed countries like Germany and Italy competed with the other industrialized countries in this matter. This also allowed “Enlightenment” driven countries to display their hypocrisy as they colonized people around the world.

A third source were missionaries. In Africa, the European missionaries saw a great opportunity to display their religious intolerance by failing to respect native traditions. They felt an urgent need to “civilize” Africa and “save” the souls and in fact in countries like Uganda, northern Nigeria and central Africa, missionaries went ahead of the European armies. Americans too used religion as a reason for their imperialist cause.

 The Berlin Conference on partition of Africa, 1884

The Berlin Conference on partition of Africa, 1884

United States, which was once a colony itself, started grabbing frontier lands once they became a nation. By coining a phrase called “Manifest Destiny” and touting their exceptional role in the world which was based on unverifiable divine assertions, United States used muscle power to deprive the indigenous people of their land. Once the natives were conquered, this theory was applied to rest of the world and soon Puerto Rico, Cuba and Philippines came under American control, apparently to rescue them from Spanish tyranny.

Following the Anglo-Indian war of 1857, the crown took over the administration of India and also expanded to Malaya and Burma for oil and rubber. The French colonized Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, while the Dutch took over coffee production in Indonesia. Following Commodore Perry’s visit to Japan in 1853 the Dutch, British, Americans and Russians forced the Japanese to sign humiliating treaties giving them favored access to its port and exemption from local laws. Following the Meiji restoration, Japan conquered Korea and Manchuria and defeated China. The worst was saved for Africa where in a meeting in Berlin, the continent was carved up among seven European countries. If you look up the history of Carl Peters, Cecil Rhodes and King Leopold of Belgium, you can see what really happened.

A consequence of imperial expansion was economic development for the benefit of the imperial forces. In the frontier lands of United States and British Raj, new railway lines were laid and telegraph was introduced, While this looked like generosity from the colonizers, the truth is that the colonies themselves paid for all this. Dams were built and agriculture and tea plantations prospered. Japanese built transportation networks and educations institutions in the colonies of Taiwan and Korea mostly for their own benefit.

Mutilated people from Congo Free State, 1905

Mutilated people from Congo Free State, 1905

But there were disastrous consequences for the subjugated. For example, in Indonesia, the Dutch policies resulted in widespread famine. In Africa it caused dislocation of families as people were forced to move across distances to find employment in mining industry or in plantations. The imperial expansion resulted not just in the domestic movement of labor but also in the movement of labor across nations as Indians moved to South Africa, Japanese moved to Brazil and Chinese to California. But once the colonies were stabilized like in Africa, riches started flowing to the industrialized countries.

There were radical changes in some of the countries involved in imperialism. Japan, during the Meiji restoration and in an attempt to keep up with the Western forces, abolished the feudal system, modeled its Constitution on Germany, had its army trained by Prussians. The Russians, following the defeat in the Crimean War by the British, French and Ottomans realized that their weapons were inadequate and their supply chain, weak. Serfdom was abolished, industrialization was pursued and the Trans-Siberian Railroad constructed linking Moscow to Vladivostok.

There was a cultural impact as well as it led to the loss of traditional values and identity of local people.The languages (English, French, Spanish) and religion (Christianity) of the colonizers were inflicted on the native population. There was a racial separation of people as well. The colonized were not given the same rights; in India and other colonies, the colonizers never mingled with the local population and kept them at their place. People of American colonies could never become American citizens, in British caste system Indians were in the lower rung and Japan considered Okinawans backward.

Thus as the colonizers gained power and wealth, resentment grew among the subjects. It resulted in armed resistance in countries like Indonesia and Senegal and violent and non-violent resistance in countries like India. As empires jostled for supremacy, the response to imperialism was the rise of nationalism in the colonized countries. All the way from India to Philippines to Cuba to Latin America, nationalist movements arose to overthrow the colonists.

(Adapted from a writing assignment for A History of the World since 1300 course)


  1. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition). Third Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
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The King who cried Wolf

Francis Barlow's illustration of the fable, 1687

Francis Barlow’s illustration of the fable, 1687

Aesop’s Fable of the boy who cried wolf is well known, but less known is a story from Chinese history which parallels this.

It happened during the reign of King You of the Zhou dynasty in the 8th century BCE. He had a concubine named Bao Si whom he loved more than the queen. The queen and her son were demoted and Bao Si and her son took the place. Everything looked good, except for one thing: Bao Si would not smile. This “no-laughing-matter” bothered the king and he pondered over various solutions.

The Zhou dynasty was established in the 11th century BCE and ruled by what is known as the Mandate of Heaven. According to this theory, the heaven would react based on the character of the king. If the king had bad character and did not govern properly, the heaven would send messages to correct him. The king had to govern with fairness and provide justice. In other words, he had to govern based on dharma. Confucius would be born into during the reign of this dynasty, but centuries later.

The king had around 148 vassals and they were kept happy and loyal. Once the beacon fire which is lit to summon the vassals in case of an emergency was accidentaly  lit. Various armies reached the capital only to find that it was a false alarm. But Bao Si was very happy seeing the military parade. Seeing her smiley face,  King You lit the beacons again and again and after a few times, the feudal lords said, “You, this is not funny!”

Then one day the real wolf showed up: the steppe people attacked and the beacons were lit again. This time the vassals ignored the king’s summons. The steppe people took over the capital in the Wei valley, killed the king and captured Bao Si. That was the end of the Western Zhou.

Is there any truth to this story? What is known is that the Western Zhou was attacked and the king was killed at this point. Regarding Bao Si, it loos like the story was made up by Chinese historians to either drum up the point that kings (or CIA directors) should not fall under the spell of women or to illustrate how a woman could cause the fall of a dynasty.


  1. MMW 11, Lecture 14 by Prof. Matthew Herbst at UC San Diego
  2. Tanner, Harold Miles. China: A History. Hackett Publishing, 2009.
  3.  Feng, Li. Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou 1045-771 BC. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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Causes and Processes of European conquests of the Americas

The above image shows a globe made by Martin Behaim in 1492. Filled with inaccuracies, it also does not depict the Americas because Columbus had not yet gone for the conquest of paradise and Americas were not part of the Eurasian trading system. But all that changed in a span of a century as large and wealthy empires fell to the Spanish.

Following the fall of Constantinople, Europeans were forced to look for new trading paths to the East. This was essential to procure spices from India and silk from China by cutting out the middlemen. The two options they had at this point were warfare and exploration. Following the devastation inflicted by the Black Death, Europe was not in a powerful position in attacking the Muslims, though they were quite successful in expelling Muslims from the Iberian peninsula. But success on the East, where it mattered most, was almost impossible. Also, they lacked the wealth — gold and silver — for a massive war.

Thus exploration became an option of necessity and few things lined up for them. First, there were advances in building ships like the caravel which helped them navigate longer distances. Second, they gained expertise in using the astrolabe and the compass as opposed to solely relying on the stars. Third, they discovered ocean currents and trade winds which helped them move across the Atlantic. Finally, they also figured out how to mount canons on ships and that changed the nature of maritime commerce.

Pizarro meets with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, 1532

Pizarro meets with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, 1532

The mission to the Americas depended on various partners; it was similar to funding a startup. There were Venture Capitalists (kings and rich merchants), Business Team (explorers and exploiters like Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortes and Pizzaro) and employees (or slaves and low wage earners in this case). The explorers were motivated by wealth, fame and religion. While the first two are obvious, the last one requires an explanation. Europeans saw that they had to civilize the natives of the countries they conquered and thus found lot of support from the religious authorities.

While those were the causes, the process of conquest had many components as well. The most common answer is “Guns, Germs and Steel”, but the process of the European conquest of the Americas had multiple components to it. The Americas, it is true, did not have guns or steel. They also did not use animals for fighting. They had their conflicts, but it was mostly never about conquest or exploitation, but about conquering people.The Europeans came with a much different mentality and weapons that the Americas could not win against. The task left incomplete by guns and steel, were finished off by the pathogens. The Americans were not immune to the European diseases and it decimated them. Thus the spread of small pox helped the Spanish kill more Americans than was possible using the sword.

The largest Aztec market  near Tenochtitlan

The largest Aztec market near Tenochtitlan

A less mentioned aspect of the Spanish conquest is the help they received from the insiders. For example, Cortes had a mistress named Donna Marina who helped them in uncovering Aztec plots against the Spaniards and served as his translator. They also made alliances with the enemies of the people whom they were trying to conquer. As we saw in the lessons from Peru, some facts were conveniently left out in the European narratives. Thus with the case of the Aztecs, the Tlaxcalans and other Mesoamericans helped the Spaniards and with the Incas they were able to take advantage of a civil war. How else could few hundred Spaniards win a war in which tens of thousands of people fought?

Once the Aztec and the Inca empires were conquered, the Spaniards had to find a way to keep it under their control as a colony. The Spaniards were a few and the empires they conquered, besides being wealthy,  had a large population. The way they found was to attack the ruling class, decapitate the indigenous structure and replace the ruling elites with Spaniards. As money flowed up the native tribute-paying pyramid system, it reached the hands of the Spanish elites.  During their early exploration phase, they had experimented with setting up colonies, importing slaves and cultivating crops for exports in the Azores and the Canary Islands. Now they were able to implement a large scale version of those laboratory experiments and Americas for the first time started growing things for the consumption of others.

(From my assignment for A History of the World since 1300 at Princeton)


  1. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition). Third ed. W. W. Norton & Company
  2. Lectures by Prof.  Jeremy Adelman
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