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3000 year old India-Israeli Cinnamon trade

An article in live science points to evidence of three millennia old trade between South India and the Israelites.

Researchers analyzing the contents of 27 flasks from five archaeological sites in Israel that date back around 3,000 years have found that 10 of the flasks contain cinnamaldehyde, the compound that gives cinnamon its flavor, indicating that the spice was stored in these flasks. At this time cinnamon was found in the Far East with the closest places to Israel being southern India and Sri Lanka located at least 3,000 miles (nearly 5,000 kilometers) away. A form of it was also found in the interior of Africa, but does not match the material found in these flasks.[Evidence of 3,000-Year-Old Cinnamon Trade Found in Israel]

Cinnamon was one spice that was a used for embalming dead kings as well as for manufacturing perfumes and holy oils. One line in that article mentions that this discovery raises the intriguing possibility of long distance trade from the Far East.  The article also mentions that this was not direct trade and could have happened using intermediaries.

In fact this long distance trade is not intriguing at all as there has been plenty of evidence for commodities from India appearing in far away places, even further back in in time. Archaeologists in Dhuwelia, a seasonal hunting site  in Eastern Jordan found cotton thread embedded in lime-plaster dating to the fourth millennium BCE. Cotton is not native to Arabia and that particular species could have come from only one place in the world: Baluchistan, where it has been cultivated since the fifth millennium. Queen Puabi, who lived in Iraq during the Mature Harappan period (2600 – 1900 BCE)  had Harappan carnelian beads in her tomb. Following her, Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2279 BCE) boasted about ships from Meluhha, mostly identified with this Indus region), docked in the bay.   This suggests that ships from the Indus region made journeyed all the way to Iraq about 5000 years back.

Burial sites in third millennium BCE Mesopotamia had shell-made lamps and cups produced from a conch shell found only in India; Early Dynastic Mesopotamians were consumers of the Harappan carnelian bead. By 2000 BCE, the trade between Africa and India intensified. While crops moved from Africa to India, genetic studies have shown that the zebu cattle went from India via Arabia to Africa.  Around 1200 BCE, among the dried fruits kept in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II was pepper which came from South India. If you are familiar with the trading hubs of the old world (1, 2), there is nothing unusual about this trade from both North and South India.

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In Pragati How old is Proto-Dravidian?

Dates for the branching of different language groups. PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

Dates for the branching of different language groups. PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

(This article appeared was published in Pragati in Julu 2013. This is an expanded version of an earlier post)

According to linguists, there is a relation between the Sanskrit word satam, Latin centum, Old Saxonhunderod and Lithuanian simtas; these words derived from a common word in an ancestral language named Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The word in this theoretical ancestral language was deduced by listing the daughter terms and applying some linguistic sound change rules to figure out if the daughter terms were cognates of the mother term. Using this technique, a substantial vocabulary has been constructed for PIE, which is assumed to have been spoken between 4000 – 3500 BCE to 2500 BCE.

In India, about 75 percent of the population speaks a language that belongs to the Indo-European family (Hindi, Bengali, Marathi among others and 22 percent speak languages belonging to the Dravidian language family (Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam). While Indo-European languages are spoken mostly in North India, Dravidian languages are spoken in South India. This fact, along with some interpretations that the Indus-Saraswati script is Dravidian, has led to a theory that the Indo-European speakers came from outside India and pushed the Dravidian autochthons to the South of the peninsula. This is a contentious issue even now, popping up in elections speeches by Dravidian politicians who like to split people as ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

In the midst of this Aryan controversy, as it is popularly known, comes a new paper which claims that there existed a super linguistic ancestor, older than Proto-Indo-European, around 15,000 years back. The authors identified a class of words whose sound meaning lasted long enough to retain traces of their ancestry between language families separated by millennia. While half of the words in various languages are replaced by a new word roughly every two to four millennia, the authors argue that there are some ultra-conserved words that live as old as ten to twenty millennia. These words, which include adjectives, pronouns and special adverbs (Thou, Not, To Give, Mother Fire), are spread over such diverse language families as Indo-European and Dravidian.

Another interesting piece of information from the paper is regarding the date when Pro-Dravidian split from the ancestral language and when Proto-Dravidian speakers moved to the subcontinent. One of the first language families to split from this Eurasiatic ancestor was Proto-Dravidian, which was around 14,000 years back, much earlier than Proto-Indo-European. These Proto-Dravidian speakers expanded from Central Asia to South Asia and reached a region at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan from where they were displaced by Indo-European speakers much later. Though the model does not specify when the Dravidian languages evolved from Proto-Dravidian, it is clear that the evolution happened in the subcontinent. There are some who believe that Dravidian speakers lived in the Indus-Saraswati area until the invading Indo-European speakers displaced them and this model augments that theory.

So far there has been no consensus on the origins of Dravidian and only speculation on the time and place of the distinctive origins of its speakers. Some scholars have put their origins around 4000 BCE in Northeastern Iran from where they moved to India. However there have not been any traces of Dravidian languages outside India, which makes the external origins of Dravidian, a challenge to explain. Regarding Proto-Dravidian itself, a date of 3000 BCE was previously suggested which others claimed was in the realm of ‘guesswork’. But the new paper not only suggests a much older time frame for Proto-Dravidian, but also a Central Asian origin which disagrees many previous theories. For example, one theory argues that there was no Dravidian influence in the early Rig Veda; Dravidian lone words appear only in subsequent stages suggesting that Dravidian speakers arrived around the same time as the Indo-European speakers in North-West India.

With the new discovery, does this paper change the chronology of events and change the narrative of Indian history? It is too early to get into the impact of an earlier date for Proto-Dravidian as other linguists have panned the paper; it seems the paper has a “garbage in, garbage out” problem. The semantic looseness with which the reconstructions have been made of Indo-European words has been extreme and does not agree with the consensus. For example, taking one of the reconstructed words, one linguist was able to show that the word had the meaning “with the teeth, biting together” in Greek and “reach, strike” in Sanskrit. The problem was not just with the semantic interpretation; the Sanskrit word that was reconstructed did not match with the word in the Indo-European database. Since there are doubts on some reconstructions, the relationships among such words in different family trees are questionable.

But the bigger problem is this. After five to nine millennia, most words change so much in their meaning that it is hard to figure out other words, which originated from the same ancestor. Sometimes you don’t have to go that far either as words change quite a lot within a couple of millennia. Thus a sentence in one language family would be incomprehensible to a member of another language family even if they derived from the same ancestor as seen from the difference in meaning in Sanskrit and ancient Greek of the same word. Due to all this, critics have mentioned that the paper is of poor academic quality, displayed poor knowledge of linguistic geography and linguistic history. Thus even though this paper claimed a sensational finding, the origins of Proto-Dravidian and Dravidian continues to remain in the realm of guesswork.


  1. Pagel, Mark, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade. “Ultraconserved Words Point to Deep Language Ancestry Across Eurasia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 6, 2013). doi:10.1073/pnas.1218726110.
  2. Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. 1st ed. Prentice Hall, 2009.
  3. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
  4. 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.
  5. Ultraconserved words? Really?? by Sally Thomason at Language Log
  6. Do ‘Ultraconserved Words’ Reveal Linguistic Macro-Families?” GeoCurrents.
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Importance of Thar in Out of Africa Migration

Map showing Katoati site along with other  Palaeolithic sites (via Blinkhorn et al)

Map showing Katoati site along with other Palaeolithic sites (via Blinkhorn et al)

Few years back, it was believed that the volcanic eruption of Mt. Toba (74, 000 years back) affected Indian population catastrophically, but evidence from Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh indicated that Indians were a tough lot. Going further back in time, we now find new evidence regarding the path the Out of Africa humans took as they reached India.

One of the theories suggest that the early humans took a coastal route from Africa and reached Kerala where they made bird sounds. A new paper now suggests that the humans actually lived in Thar desert around 95,000 years back. During that period, Thar was not that arid, had fluvial activity and hence vegetation. Thus rather than using the coastal route, humans may have used a continental route and the river network to travel.

Another interesting find is the similarity of the tools used by the people who lived in Jwalapuram and in the Thar region and it suggests technological continuity between people who lived in North-West India and South India. That’s  not it. There were similarities between tools found in Thar and Sahar and Arabia and it could either be due to independent technological evolution in those places or due to cultural connections. It looks like Thar desert has now become an important region in the study of the dispersal of humans from Africa to rest of the world.


  1. Blinkhorn, James, Hema Achyuthan, Michael Petraglia, and Peter Ditchfield. “Middle Palaeolithic Occupation in the Thar Desert During the Upper Pleistocene: The Signature of a Modern Human Exit Out of Africa?” Quaternary Science Reviews. Accessed July 22, 2013. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.06.012. (Thanks @Karmasura)
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Indo-European Speakers in North-West India by 4000 BCE?

The dates and method of arrival of Indo-European speakers in North-West India is a contentious issue. Once held sacred, the Aryan Invasion Theory is no longer considered valid by some scholars. Instead of the invasion model, a migration model is now favored with the Indo-European speakers reaching India from an unknown homeland following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization.

The decline of the Harappan civilisation is no longer attributed to “invading Aryans”, though that theory is still kept alive by political parties in South India. Even the non-Aryan invasion theory has been refuted as there is no trace in the archaeological record for such a disruptive event or the arrival of a new culture from Central Asia. The skeletons, which were touted as evidence for the invasion, were found to belong to different cultural phases thus nullifying the theory of a major battle. Due to all this, historians like Upinder Singh categorically state that the Harappan civilisation was not destroyed by an Indo-Aryan invasion. Instead of blaming the decline of the civilisation to invading or migrating population, the end is now attributed to environmental changes and whims and fancies of rivers.[In Pragati: What caused the decline of Harappa?]

If the Vedic speakers reached Punjab following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, then how did they know about Saraswati, which was no longer a mighty river.? Does this mean that this theory is incorrect and Vedic speakers were present in the region while the river was flowing over a longer distance? Most academics don’t go down that path and insist that IE speakers reached the region not long before the composition of the Rig Veda, even though there is no strong archaeological evidence for such a migration in the 1500 – 1000 BCE period.

If there is one thing that can work up historians, it is the suggestion that Indo-European speakers were present  in the region, much before the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Such a suggestion has serious implications like the possibility of an earlier date for the Vedas than the academically correct one which dates it to post 1500 BCE.

A recently published paper has some interesting observations on this issue. It suggests that the Indo-European speakers were present in the region during the Chalcolithic period (4300 – 3200 BCE) and they arrived as part of an agricultural colonization of a hunter-gatherer territory.  The language which was ancestral to Indo-Iranian spread from Anatolia via Armenia, north-Iran, southern-Turkmenistan and finally IE speakers entered Pakistan by 4000 BCE.  The paper suggests that IE speakers could have been present even before this period (the Neolithic). During this time Dravidian speakers, who were pastoralists and farmers moved from Gujarat or South Indus region to South India

To understand the impact of this date, it should be noted that the Mature Harappan Period is considered to be from 2600 – 1900 BCE. The paper explicitly suggests that urban Harappan civilization had a large population of Indo-European speakers and possibly some Dravidians as well.  By 2000 BCE, before the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, IE speakers were present in the Ganga basin along with Munda speakers.

All these change our understanding of the changes that occurred in the region. The Avesta and Rig Veda were written during a period of great change in the region. An older date for the arrival of Indo-European speakers can explain why they knew about the events which happened in the Sapta-Sindhu region and not in some foreign land. Another important point to note is that it was not just one linguistic group which lived in Neolithic/Chalcolithic Iran,  Harappan region or BMAC.  Many groups co-existed and overlapped in time, space and ideology.

(Many thanks to Carlos for providing the reference)


  1. Gepts, Paul, Thomas R. Famula, Robert L. Bettinger, Stephen B. Brush, and Ardeshir B. Damania. Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
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The Peaceful Harappans (2)

There is a theory that the people of Indus-Saraswati civilization were quite peaceful and this makes them quite different from other Bronze age civilizations like Egypt, Mesopotamia or the Minoan.

But, the Indus cities had fortified walls. Archaeologists have found arrowheads, and spearheads, besides a small number of daggers and axes. Sir Mortimer Wheeler believed that the tools could have been used for hunting and not warfare. The walls, it is believed, were built to protect the city against flood or to impress. There is no evidence of swords or body armor or military equipment like swords or catapults. Even the Indus art does not depict warfare or killing. Probably the residents were concerned with defense and had no experience in warfare. All this caused Mark Kenoyer to say it is possible that the Indus civilization, which evolved over a period of 4000 years from the local cultures of Mehrgarh, managed to resolve conflict without warfare. If so, this would be a unique example of living among the bronze age civilizations – an early example of ahimsa.[The Peaceful Indus People]

Now a new paper suggests that the Indus-Saraswati people were not so peaceful after all.

Well, it turns out that there may have been some amount of brutality in the Indus cities too. Skulls were caved in, noses were broken. One can’t be entirely surprised – a purely non-violent society on such a large scale sounds like a pipe-dream. According to [1], out of eighteen skulls studied from the later Harappan period (1900-1700 BC), nearly half had suffered heavy trauma. More interestingly, they report that the prevalence and patterning of cranial injuries, combined with striking differences in mortuary treatment and demography among the three burial areas indicate interpersonal violence in Harappan society was structured along lines of gender and community membership. To wit, the farther you lived from the city centre (or, possibly if your remains were found outside the city sewers), the likelier you were to have had a more violent death. Furthermore, the Harappan culture appears to have become more violent over time, with women being more affected in the later periods.[Some Indus Gossip]

Prof. Jim Shaffer asks people to look at the period during which this violence happened

Jim Shaffer, professor at Case Western University, tempers this finding as a characterization for Indus civilization as a whole by pointing out that the sample comes from a late period in the history of Harappa, between 1900 and 1700 BCE, when Indus civilization was in decline.[Indus civilization continues to intrigue]

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