Tag Archives | Before 1 CE

The First Buildings

We know that agriculture was invented about 12,000 years back in various places around the world, starting with the Fertile Cresent. Many models have been proposed to explain why humans left a foraging for farming. With the discovery of the 11,500 year old temple at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, we also know that religion played an important role quite early in the settled life.

Now we have new evidence of how people lived during that transitory period. The earliest permanent buildings found during this period were not individual homes, but places for communal living or gathering.

Finlayson, Mithen, and their colleagues conclude that the evidence from WF16, combined with evidence from other sites, suggests that the earliest villages were not made up of houses, but rather communal structures where people came together to process their wild harvests and possibly also to engage in community performances. “These settlements appear to be all about community and not about emerging households,” the team writes, adding that this “ritualized community activity” might have helped to bring together the work force necessary to harvest the wild crops.

The authors don’t speculate on where the farmers lived, and there is no way to be sure. Researchers working at similar sites have surmised that they lived in small camps near the central site, but such open air habitations are very difficult to find and often leave little or no archaeological traces.

Archaeologist Trevor Watkins, emeritus at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, says he “agrees strongly” with the authors’ conclusion that the social changes that took place during the transition from hunting and gathering to farming were at least as important as the later economic changes that led to full-blown domestication of plants and animals. But he thinks that it’s still possible that some of the other buildings at WF16 were used as domestic dwellings. Nevertheless, Watkins says, the communal activities at WF16 and other Neolithic sites probably created “powerful bonds of collective identity” in the earliest farmers that kept them together in stable societies “over many generations.”[First Buildings May Have Been Community Centers]

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God’s Wife and Competitors

Baal (via Wikipedia)

(Baal, right arm raised. Bronze figurine, 14th-12th centuries, found in Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit img via Wikipedia)

We know the three Abrahamic religions as monotheistic: there is an all powerful unique male god with no equivalent. The popular perception is that Israelites have been monotheistic from the beginning and the traditional view holds that Abraham made a pact with God to worship only him and his followers continued that practice. Thus Joseph took this belief to Egypt, Moses bought it out of Egypt and Joshua went to Caanan and wiped out the polytheists. The monotheists also believe that the polytheistic world is a lie and the eventual destination for them is hell.

A new BBC documentary by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou steps out of the theological realm, looks at Bible as literature and comes up with the conclusion that the monotheists themselves were polytheists; they worshipped divine beings, quite similar to the ones in the Indian and Greek pantheon of gods. God himself had a competitor and the documentary also makes the revolutionary claim that the God of the monotheists had a female companion.

Once you stop reading the Bible with the preset monotheistic mindset, it reveals many secrets, even though the humans who wrote them attempted to conceal this information. Thus Baal, the Caananite god, was a competitor to the God of the Israelites. Baal was a warrior god, often seen in representations raising his hand to use the thunderbolt weapon. He was the Indra of the Middle East and was important for the people of Caanan who depended on the rains. But in the Bible, Baal and his prophets are ridiculed and in the documentary and Francesca argues the reason is that people were straying from the idea of monotheism and it was necessary to put down other gods.

There is archaeological evidence for the worship for Baal as well as another deity El, who was the Chief Caananite God. El was the head of the pantheon and one who maintained order in the world, like Varuna in the Pre-Upanishidic era. In this pantheon, there were gods for Dawn and Dusk much like other cultures around the world.

While the Biblical God is called Yahweh, he is called El in some places. Jacob calls El, the god of Israel. He is also the god of the Exodus. El tells Moses that he had revealed himself to Abraham as well, similar to what Krishna tells Arjuna in 4.1. A rabbi on the program explains that all these variants are the name of the same God and it indicates what attribute God wanted to reveal to the devotee. The rabbi then agrees that you could read polytheism into it, but that is not the traditional understanding.

For Francesca, in ancient Israel, polytheism was the norm, not the exception and there are clues all over the place. God is mentioned sitting on a throne with diving beings on his right and left. According to Psalm, “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods”. According to Genesis, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image” and in Exodus, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?.” Thus in Israelite theology, Yahweh managed a council of divine beings, quite similar to the Caananite theology.

For the Caananites, El had a wife named Asherah, who was considered the goddess of fertility. She had an erotic representation with huge breasts and a pubic region marked with a tree of life motif. Many figurines excavated in Jerusalem and dated to the peak of the Israelite period show that Asherah was still worshipped. Francesca shows that if you skip the translations and read the Bible in Hebrew, Moses refers to God arriving with goddess Asherah. In fact evidence shows that she was even worshipped in the Temple of Jerusalem. An inscription discovered in a shard (dated to 8th century BCE) in Sinai mentions God along with Asherah. Thus God having a female partner maybe a minority position among believers, but not among scholars.

This polytheism is not surprising since the scholarly view is that Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. Following a social collapse in Caanan, Israel rose and was made of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people. They created a new identity, adopted the stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua and came up with the idea of a monotheistic God from a desert people called Shashu. Thus these people with new identity could have co-existed alongside the polytheistic Caananites and shared some of their practices.

So what happened to Baal, El, Ashera and the divine council of gods? Why were they removed, ridiculed or concealed? The purge of polytheism followed the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem which happened during the time of Buddha in India. The Israelites were defeated, their temple destroyed and their all powerful God could do nothing about it. This would have been sufficient for most groups to lose their culture, but the Israelites persisted. During exile, while trying to make sense of their defeat, they wrote the Bible. Those authors transferred the power of Caananite gods to Yahweh, blamed the defeat partly on polytheism, and created new myths and histories. According to the NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets:

Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.

It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.

This re-write during exile was responsible for dis-empowering women, demonizing other gods and eradicating polytheism which was common till the 6th century B.C.E.

Postscript: You can watch the documentary in four parts on YouTube

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Harappan Toys

Archaeologist Elke Rogersdotter, who was investigating the Bronze Age civilization at Harappa, has an interesting observation. Every 10th item found is related to play: dice, gaming pieces etc.

Repetitive patterns have been discerned in the spatial distribution, which may indicate specific locations where games were played.
“The marked quantity of play-related finds and the structured distribution shows that playing was already an important part of people’s everyday lives more than 4,000 years ago,” says Elke.

“The reason that play and game-related artefacts often end up ignored or being reinterpreted at archaeological excavations is probably down to scientific thinking’s incongruity with the irrational phenomenon of games and play,” believes Elke.“The objective of determining the social significance of the actual games therefore, in turn, challenges established ways of thinking. It is an instrument we can use to come up with interpretations that are closer to the individual person. We may gain other, more socially-embedded, approaches for a difficult-to-interpret settlement.”[Play was important - even 4,000 years ago]

The entire Doctoral dissertation is available for download.

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Talk by J M Kenoyer on Harappan Civilization

In May, 2010, Prof. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer — who has been conducting archaeology in India and Pakistan since 1986 — gave a talk on the trade relations between the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. In the talk (watch video), he presented the latest scholarship regarding the Indus: on origins, on the script and on the cultural exchange between Indus and Mesopotamia. He also used the S-word, a taboo among eminent historians.

A quick summary:

  • The Indus civilization flourished around two rivers — Indus and Sarasvati. Yes, he mentions that Ghaggar-Hakra is that river of antiquity. (Additional Reading: The Lost River by Michel Danino).
  • Potter’s marks were found in pottery of the Ravi phase (from 3300 BCE) which is around the same time writing developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This writing evolved into the Indus Script, which he says is a writing system, which codifies multiple languages. It was used for trade, accounting and rituals. He is working with folks from TIFR on some theories about the Indus script.
  • One of the seals display a diety sitting on an elephant and grabbing two tigers. While many have suggested that this represents a scene from Gilgamesh, Prof. Kenoyer suggests that this independently evolved in India.
  • He showed one Mesopotamian seal, dated to between 3300 – 2900 BCE, made from a shell found near Karachi. This falls between the period of the Dhuwelia cotton and time of Sargon of Akkad. (Additional Reading: Trading Hubs of the Old World)
  • Wheeled carts were being developed around the same time they were developed in the steppes.
  • Water Buffalo (both motif and animal) went to Mesopotamia from India. Dr. Asko Parpola also made a similar point. (Additional Reading: The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia)
  • There is similarity between the head dress of women in Harappa and one region of Mesopotamia. Maybe the women went via marriage?
  • Swastika was painted in Indian caves about 10,000 years back and in the Samara culture. Swastikas were also found in the Indus Valley.
  • He could not find evidence of warfare and thinks that warfare was not used a mechanism for integration. No weapons were found. Even in the motifs, the fights are between humans and animals or between humans and supernatural beings; never between humans.
  • Yoga had its origins in Indus Valley.
  • There was intensive trade with Mesopotamia from 2600 BCE. He also mentions Queen Puabi. He also talks about the Meluhhan interpreter and Meluhhan villages. (Additional Reading: The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia).
  • There was a concept of a passport in Central Asian trade. They found seals with the Central Asian motif on one side and the Harappan motif on the other. No such seal exists for Mesopotamian trade.
  • Women who had wide bangles were burried separately. Similar wide bangles, crafted in the Indus, were found in Susa,Iran and he makes the argument that they were powerful nomadic traders.
  • There was a social hierarchy – land owners, elites, ritual specialists — and this was deduced from burial patterns.

 

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In Pragati: An Outdated Syllabus

(Photo: Justin Gaurav Murgai)

(a shorter and sweeter version of this article appeared in the Nov 2010 issue of Pragati)

Recently M. Night Shyamalan kicked off a race row with his latest movie The Last Airbender (2010). In the TV series, the characters, Aang, Katara, Sokka are Asian, but in the movie, they were portrayed by white actors; the casting call specifically asked for Caucasian actors. Shyamalan was accused of “whitewashing” and “racebending.” Another movie which attracted similar attention was Walt Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) where actor Jake Gyllenhaal played an Iranian Prince. But in this case, most Iranians were pleased that a fair skinned actor played the role because it accurately represented how “Aryan” Iranians looked before Islam was forcibly imposed.

In Iran, the external Aryan ancestry is a non-issue, but in India it is a matter of angry controversy. The fact that it is a source of controversy in India has been bothering scholars in Western universities. In his course, History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Prof. Richard W. Bulliet, an Iranian specialist at Columbia University ridicules the people who oppose Aryan invasion theory and tells students that Indians believe that proponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory are members of CIA who want to portray India as a wimpish state; he specifically mentions members of BJP as belonging to this group.

In the first lecture he mentions the similarities between Old Iranian and Vedic and their relation to the Indo-European languages. For him, this similarity indicates invasion, and this invasion theory is supported not just by philologists, but also by archaeologists and historians. This Grand Canyon wide gap between scholarly consensus and what is being taught in American universities is not surprising. Last Fall, in a course titled  History of India, at University of California, Los Angeles, Prof. Vinay Lal lectured about rejected 19th century racist concepts like “subdued snub-nosed and dark skinned people known as the Dasas” and how forts and citadels were attacked by the invading Aryans.

These professors are wrong — about the Aryan Invasion Theory, about race, about the people who dispute it and the reason they dispute it. Though nationalism and sometimes Hindu nationalism is blamed, the reason why Indians are suspicious of colonial theories will become obvious as we look at an example where “scientific” European minds applied pseudoscience and divided the Indian population.

First, let us look at the Aryan Invasion Theory. In his book The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (2004), Prof. Edwin Bryant who looks at both sides of the Aryan debate concludes that, “there is general consensus among South Asian archaeologists that, as far as archaeological record is concerned, clear, unambiguous evidence of invading or immigrating Aryans themselves is nowhere to be found either in central Asia or in the Indian subcontinent.” Romila Thapar writes in Early India: From the origins to the AD 1300 (1995), that, “The theory of an Aryan invasion no longer has credence.”

Second, when it is mentioned that only members of the BJP are against the Invasion Theory, it is incorrect. Edwin Bryant is not an Indian; Romila Thapar is an antagonist of Hindu Nationalists. Truth is the casualty when he says that opponents of Aryan Invasion Theory have been ignoring archaeological evidence for Prof. Bryant’s survey shows that it is the lack of archaeological evidence, among other things, which prompted many historians to re-think. Instead of the invasion theory, many scholars now believe in a migration theory.

Finally, Prof. Bulliet says that opponents of the invasion might take refuge in the writings of his colleague Edward Said, the author of the seminal book Orientalism. On this point, he is absolutely right. It was the colonial historian who gave us the concept of race. 19th century Europe was the center of racial studies; scientists measured the volume of the skull for various races and found that the white race was the largest and hence of superior intellect.

From 1891, the British official, Herbert H. Risley defined 2378 castes as belonging to 43 races on the basis of their nasal index. Also, Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman linguistic groups were identified as different races with Indo-European speakers or Aryans at the top of the tree. Based on this mythology, the skeletons found in Mohenjo-daro were classified as belonging to various races, mostly non-Aryan.  Coming to the Vedic texts, a racial interpretation was assigned to various passages. The dark skinned and nose-less Dasyu was considered of a different race than the fair and high-nosed Aryan. This racial identification was objected to by Indian scholars like Srinivas Iyengar as early as 1914, but such dissenting voices were not the ones writing history.

Following World War II, Western anthropologists realized that race cannot be scientifically defined, based on cranial size or nasal index. According to Prof. Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, who has studied the Harappan skeletal remains extensively, “Biological anthropologists remain unable to lend support to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or demographic entity.” According to Prof. Gregory Possehl, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Pennyslvania, “Race as it was used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been totally discredited as a useful concept in human biology.” Thus there is nothing to distinguish the invaders from the natives; in short, there is no Aryan or Dravidian race.

A century after Indian scholars raised objections, Western scholars are realizing that the racial interpretation was based on over reading soft evidence; it was a consequence of the 19th century racial insanity that ruled Europe. In 1999, Hans Hock reexamined the supposedly racial Vedic material and found them either to be mistranslated or open to alternative non-racial interpretations. Among multiple interpretations, the racial one was preferred because it favoured colonialism. Still the Professor at UCLA still talks about the snub-nosed Dasyus, even though Indian scholars have interpreted that the Vedic word means one devoid of speech, not nose.

Over the years, historians have accepted that various language groups are just that — language labels — and does not map to racial identity. In the 11th Neelan Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture given in Colombo on Aug 1, 2010, Prof Romila Thapar made this very clear. According to her the notion of separate Aryan and Dravidian racial identities has no basis in history. According to Prof. Thomas Trautmann, “That the racial theory of Indian civilization still lingers is a matter of faith. Is it not time we did away with it?” But even in the last general elections, the Dravidar Kazhagam party leader exhorted his followers to reject “Aryan” candidates.

It is such non-benign theories and their consequences that has caused Indian scholars to view Western theories with suspicion. Prof.  Edwin Bryant writes, “I argue that although there are doubtlessly nationalistic and in some quarters, communal agendas lurking behind some of this scholarship, a principal feature is anti-colonial/imperial.” Thus the issue is not what members of BJP believe or do not believe; the issue is what is the latest scholarly consensus and why is it not being taught to students. Maybe the Prince of Persia can investigate if the CIA is involved.


References:

  1. Michel Danino, The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and its Bearing on the Aryan Question
  2. Michel Danino, Genetics and the Aryan Debate, Purtattva, Bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society No. 36 (2005- 06): 146-154.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  4. History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Columbia University (Podcast, Lecture 1)
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