The hammer of the All-Father

Unless you have been sleeping under a rock, a mildly slanderous piece in The New York Times Magazine has taken aim at David Reich and his band of paleogeneticists, Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps? I address this piece at my other weblog.

One of the major themes of the piece are the legends and myths of the people of Vanuatu:

I asked him about how the concept of Lapita migration to empty islands had been received by people whose oral traditions said they came from a stone or a coconut tree.

The reason this is relevant is that paleogeneticists have probed the history of Vanuatu. And yet this is the past. The future is that the Reich lab is collaborating with other paleogeneticists to crack the nut of the history of the Indian subcontinent with ancient DNA. They’ve been working on this for years, and they are working on it now. There are 275,000 people who live in Vanuatu. There are 1.7 billion people who live in the Indian subcontinent.

Within the next year I believe that the Reich lab will publish results which will falsify the beliefs of a substantial number of Indians about the nature of the origins of the native peoples of the region. This will shatter world-views, undermine mythologies, and rock peoples’ worlds. There will be sophists who live in denial, but the truth will be plain to those who see.

I understand that some of you reading this disagree with this assessment. Ultimately I don’t care because the data are coming, and if I’m wrong, that’s OK too. I don’t have emotional baggage invested in alternative models. But, I do wonder why the mythological traditions of “non-indigenous” people seem to warrant less attention than smaller nations or premodern tribes.

26 thoughts on “The hammer of the All-Father”

  1. Hopefully no ‘steppe’ or ‘Indo-European’ things. Even Lapita have their name.

  2. Razib,

    Reich lab has been putting out great work. I follow most of their publications. What is the new information that is going to be published this year? Is it new data or new analysis of existing data?

    Science is often incremental. Even if there is ground breaking discovery, it gets to population only in small doses. But with statistical models there is even less chance something would be considered world shattering to many. So, I am just curious.

    Also, Reich lab, as good scientists, change their models with change in data (Priya vs. Vageesh models). So, can there be anything that definitive to cause that much impact?

    If there is, please let us know. Or, at least point out if it’s data or methods.

  3. why the mythological traditions of “non-indigenous” people seem to warrant less attention than smaller nations or premodern tribes.

    One issue, I think, is the palimpsest issue. The myths of smaller nations or premodern tribes are often presumed (accurately or not) to be the bottom level of myth that is more or less directly traceable to their prehistoric archaeological ancestors. In the same way, the mysteries of Austronesian mass migration were among the first to be unraveled with genetics and archaeology, in part, because it was such a clean and simple story. And, much of the prehistory of Oceania isn’t even 2000 years old.

    Put another way, they are convenience samples that one or two researchers can master with a pretty small effort relatively to trying to figure out the sprawling complex historical saga that is South Asia.

    In the case of “non-indigenous” people, there is a presumption that there is layer upon layer of waves of cultural influence between the existing myths and their original forms, making the existing myths a poor window into the deep past. You can only understand the deep past influences if you carefully peel away the upper levels of the palimpsest first, which means you have to understand each layer of influence pretty well.

    In the same way, European folklorists are interesting in determining the oldest attested versions of myths rather than looking at the Disneyfied versions that have been sanitized to fit modern cultural norms and influenced by a lot of known historical influences between today and the deep past. But, even then, because the Brothers Grimm, for example, collected so many local variants of folktales, you have to sift through all of them to figure out what the source material was like, rather than simply taking the only available version and calling it definitive.

    1. You mention the Brothers Grimm. There is another Grimm angle to this: Jacob Grimm discovered Grimm’s Law about stop constanants in Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European. Small world!

  4. Totally irrelevant to the core issue discussed and extraordinarily nitpicky though expressed purely with a silly and lighthearted intent, but the South Asian All-Father in the picture of your post wields (wielded) a Thunderbolt (vajrAyudha) (which in Puranic literature is considered to be made out the rib cage bones of a sage named dadhIci from what I remember from one of my Hindi lessons in childhood (dadhIci muni ke (kI?, kA?) rIDh kI haDDI…)) and not a Hammer. The Hammer is (was) wielded by the North European All-Father (or some important North European Uncle who was slightly inferior than the NE All-Father)?

    1. In the version I have heard, they use his spinal cord [which is what ridh ki haddi strictly translates to as well]. Is Thor related to/same as the NE All-Father?

      1. Hello Konkaneya, thank you very much! Yes, it is the vertebral column or backbone of the sage, not bones from his rib cage. I was mistaken there. And I don’t know much about Thor so I gave two possible options to Him (or the Scholars of The World (SOTW) who specialise in Him) to choose from – either All-Father or Important Uncle.

        But then also, attributing an All-Father title to Indra is purely a modern, Dr.-Razib-Khan-ian conceit, I must say, because if anything, the Hindu All-Father tends to be Vishnu or Shiva generally and Indra, at best, a perverse eternally-young Guy always thinking about sexual things and not ruling His kingdom properly. But I might end up offending some or other person for mildly disrespecting Indra so I apologise in advance for any distress that I have caused to anyone.

        1. He is talking about the Vedic all father and not necessarily the puranic all father. Considering Indra “s place in vedas he can be called all father

    2. And apparently, there is a Proto-Finnic or Proto-Uralic reconstruction called *vashara in the meanings of ‘hammer’, ‘axe’ and is thought to be related to the Indo-Aryan vajra so the ‘hammer’ association may not be too off after all, maybe the All-Father Himself might have admitted the ‘hammer’ meaning also, in addition to the ‘Diamond’ and ‘Thunderbolt’ meanings. So we all bow down before the All-Father and His Scion acknowledging our errors and repenting our sins.

      Edit: And we also hereby declare that we have no plans to post off-topic content to this thread any further.

  5. // This will shatter world-views, undermine mythologies, and rock peoples’ worlds. //

    Nothing of this sort will happen because general public always have the greatest weapon i.e. Denial, whataboutry & confirmation bias.

    Everything can be termed as a mythological tradition if one is not willing to change their opinion in the presence of facts.

    Myths & facts are subjective for e.g. Just as you keep pointing to caste {thediplomat articles} only on the basis on Endogamy similarly other people Indigenous or non-Indegenous will keep making myths because myth making is part of survival, that’s why tribalism never ends & that’s why myths never end.

  6. Razib,

    Curious why you think the forthcoming work in South Asian paleogenomics will be (especially? ) revelatory. The broad outlines are already (relatively) clear, I think. Unless, of course, you have heard of forthcoming results that I haven’t. In which case, please do spill the beans !


  7. Reich and his team can forget about getting access to aDNA from India Modi or no Modi.

    “The far right wing Eurocentric supremacists, which dominated the Harvard Academics, could not digest this fact. David Reich being quite clever decided to stay at the back foot, and pretend a middle-path or centrist approach. Hence he himself claimed in his latest book that the homeland of the Indo-European was in Iran and/or Armenia. He wrote,..

    “While (Reich) himself maintaining the centrist posture, he sponsored now various young and ambitious Indian workers and students and job-seekers to re-create the myth of the steppe home of the Indo-European languages from a new cratch. Fellowships, grants and academic positions attract every academic person. Narasimhan, Moorjani, and Niraj Rai started working in a new line. People started writing copious reports after reports in support of the Far Right Wing (Nazi) ideologies which included the Ukrainian or Baltic homeland of the Indo-Europeans for a long time. However these reports were full of mistakes which even a casual reading could reveal.”

    1. Hence he himself claimed in his latest book that the homeland of the Indo-European was in Iran and/or Armenia.

      How is that supposed to be better than the Pontic Caspian steppe? Iran and Armenia may be closer to India, but they are still well outside India.

      The article linked to at the end of your comment is a poster child for poor argumentation, though I think it gets one thing right: the point about Y-DNA (like R1a) being carried only by males and not females; that would have been sloppy work by Tony Joseph.

  8. Well, geneticist are trying hard to trace human population movements in and out of South Asia and the rest of the world for that matter. Good for them. However,

    As archaelogist J. M. Kenoyer says

    “It is important to note however that
    mobile and/or sedentary foraging communities were
    clearly present in all areas of the Indus valley, prior to
    the emergence of urbanism and that THERE IS NO NEED to see an influx of new populations bringing a new
    way of life to the alluvial plains (emphasis added).”

    Now, who could have said it better and more authoritatively than a man who has spent 35 + years digging in South Asia? At the same time it must be acknowledged that there is no smoking gun evidence of people moving OUT of South Asia either.

    AIT or OIT? Which one is it? Passions are running high with the AIT/OIT debate. But let us step back and take a deep breath. Here is a commentary written anonymously by a professor of linguistics at the University of Rome on a dense but important monograph published in 2009 by Angela Marcantonio in the Journal of Indo European Studies

    Here is what I got out of it:

    1. Language families are a CAUSE of the comparative method not the RESULT of it. It is an accident of history that South Asia fell under colonial rule and scholars got busy comparing Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. In an alternative scenario if Turco Mongols had completely conquered South Asia in the 14th century and had the same bent of mind of as the Europeans, Turkish, Dravidian and Sanskrit could have became a family. Just look at Marcantonio’s list of “Turkisms” in English and Sanskrit. What stands out is the word for “to carry” or “bear”. This has been used to illustrate the comparative method

    But the Turkic word for the verb “to carry” is “ber”!

    2. Darwin’s theory has limited application to languages. Languages can CONVERGE and sort of travel back in time unlike living organisms. Even morphology can be borrowed wholesales or lost on purpose depending on the needs of the hour. This is like a human borrowing a tail from a monkey and making it their own to throw off biologist of the future.

    3. The sound “laws” are sufficiently manipulable to include or exclude languages into or out of families. What has been inherited and borrowed becomes a matter of accepted wisdom and opinion rather than an independently verifiable fact. It is worth quoting Marcantonio in full

    “It would therefore be desirable to be able to ‘demonstrate’ that the correlations shared by Sanskrit and Dravidian, for example, are the genuine effect of a typical process of Sprachbund convergence, rather than simply ‘labeling’ them as ‘contact-induced’ just because it is widely accepted that the languages in question are not genetically related… …The thesis that the correlations shared by Sanskrit and Dravidians are the genuine effect of Sprachbund…. …the issue of the origin of the non IE features present in Old (and Modern) Indo-Aryan languages… argue that Dravidian is a clearly distinct linguistic family from Indo-Aryan, although the latter does indeed display Dravidian features. In other words… “some of the four genetically distinct language stocks in South Asia have clear genetic linguistic relations outside of the subcontinent”. …a comparison of two classical languages of India, Sanskrit and Old Tamil,… would reveal and illustrate a typical Sprachbund situation, where “two languages may be genetically distinct, yet grammatically related”.

    So if OIT were to win on the basis of the comparative method the remaining five language
    families MUST have immigrated into South Asia.

    Also see James Clackson.

    Clackson does not deny existence of language families but cautions that these reconstructions are incapable of describing movements of actual peoples and culture.

    Clackoson concludes:

    “What does this mean for the origin of the Indic languages, and by extension, the origin of the Indic civilization? My answer is, I am afraid, inconclusive. From the linguistic data alone, without taking into account the evidence of archaeology or early texts, it is not possible to draw definite conclusions about the homeland of the speakers or Proto-Indo-European, or even the age of the language family. The Indo-European model, as a model of language relationships and of linguistic descent, tells us nothing certain about the origin of the Indic civilization.”

    In view of this it is unsettling to read that geneticist like David Reich have maps of language trees tacked around them as the NYT article at the top of the thread says.

  9. “This will shatter world-views, undermine mythologies, and rock peoples’ worlds. ”

    LoL. If you are imagining million man marches, heated parliamentary debates and street riots, then let me guarantee you that noting of that sort is going to happen.

    One disadvantage of writing about a foreign country sitting 20 thousand miles away, and having only a tenuous connection to the country via some socially maladjusted nerds is that one can completely miss the pulse of the country they are pontificating about. Also, having one’s livelihood tied to a particular field of science can delude someone to accord undue importance to the field.

    As one commentator had pointed out earlier in this blog, this whole obsession with pedigree doesn’t resonate with the muslim populations of the south asia even a tiny bit. Islam is such a culturally obliterating force that all ties of blood and languages pale is comparison. Anything that happened before their holy prophet set foot on this earth is immaterial.

    That there is some connection between Europeans and North Indians is known since 1786 AD (!), when William Jones first pointed out the similarities between Sanskrit and Latin. This has not affected the interaction between the Indians and Europeans even a tiny bit. This discovery was made even before the British rule had properly put roots in India. In fact Indians have gone thru the entire cycle of colonial rule to national movement to current republic, without this fact affecting their interaction with British in a perceptible manner.

    Topics like genetics are so esoteric that general population in south asia gives it an extra wide berth. I can confidently predict that Bollywood gossips and cricket matches will occupy the public debate arena, as always.

    1. This has not affected the interaction between the Indians and Europeans even a tiny bit.

      Sure, but note that this goes both ways. The British didn’t consider Indians (high caste or low) to be long-lost kin, but rather a degenerate breed with long-diluted “Aryan” ancestry who were only fit to be ruled by Europeans. The Germans, too, after their initial fascination with the topic.

      This discovery was made even before the British rule had properly put roots in India.

      This “discovery” has yet to seep into the consciousness of ordinary Indians, 70 years after British rule ended. Go to online fora where people talk about this stuff, and even educated people are either ignorant of the connection Jones pointed out over 200 years ago, or regard the putative connection and even the entire field of historical linguistics a Western hoax. A larger number of people are vaguely aware of similarities between Indian and European languages, but are unaware of or don’t dwell on the fact that this implies some sort of common descent.

      1. The Germans were different than the British in this regard and acknowledged their ancient connection with Arya varsha. German indology was far more respectful of eastern scriptures, and tried to integrate eastern philosophy with science, consciousness studies, meditation, neuroscience. Germans tried to hack Hinduism and Buddhism and learn how to improve and modify the brain and nervous system.

        In the 1940s western academics who studied consciousness studies, meditation and their connection with neuroscience and eastern philosophy were branded “Nazis”, “eugenicists” and thrown out. Several academic papers came out depicting Nazism as applied Hinduism and Buddhism. These papers are still coming out. The term “scientific racism” is still in use to discredit neuroscience, genetics, hard sciences and eastern philosophy.

        I would argue that Hitler was different from German Indology. German Indology was different from eastern philosophy. And that it is inaccurate to call Hinduism Buddhism Jainism Sikhism Nazi.

        Numinous, I think many educated Indians know the connection. The languages are so similar (especially French/Spanish/German). Plus seven days of the week to the same celestial objects. 360 degrees in a circle. The Dyaus connection with Zeus. Bhavishya Purana describes, Adam, Eve, Mary, Jesus etc. The similarities between Jewish scriptures/Bible and eastern philosophy. [Which Sri Yukteshwar and Swami Vivekananda wrote about so very long ago.]

        I noticed all these things as a child reading old texts. Don’t others also recognize these similarities? Or maybe these connections are better known in religious communities?

    2. True at an ordinary political, social level British considered Indians as colonized and very much needed British rule; needless to say they kept apart from Indians once the Empire building got serious in the 19th century. Actually, they were helped in social distance by the prevailing caste system in Indian which considered them another caste , unclean caste, at that what with eating beaf, meat, and WHY. However in early 19th century , the idea was Sanskrit is the mother of Indo-Germanic languages was prevalent. Even Karl Marx, writing in the 1850s, refers to India as the country which is a source of ‘our’ languages and religion. Even Marx was a believer in OIT. And he also had a dim view of India and Hinduism. However it is not at all contradictory in history when a group is considered superior in some way as well as all kinds of prejudice are piled up against it. Europeans considered themselves heavily indebted to Old Testament and Jewish prophets , that did not prevent ugly antisemitism.

      1. Voltaire and many other European Enlightenment scholars considered Vedic Sanskrit to be the proto Indo European Aryan language.

  10. One wonders why you are so gleeful about the impending release of information from the Reich lab if you are not invested in the form of the outcome?
    You definitely have emotional attachment to the outcome that is supposedly shattering of Hindu worldview. This is natural to yourself coming from a rich heritage of Islamic iconoclasm in India. Your posing as an unattached scientist fools no one.

    For most groups, myth serves an evolutionary function regardless of what we consider the current scientific truth. New myths will be created from new information.

    Different groups will interpret the same data to suit their evolutionary goals. Some groups and individuals having much more power and influence will drown out the rest and prevail. Scientists, intellectuals and researchers are hardly immune to this. In fact the scientific/intellectual community/priesthood is the one doing the drowning.

    I do not buy this story that (group) evolutionary motives cannot be ascribed to scientific discussion and scientists as if we are out of this world. You are a good example.

      1. Kabir, observe Razib’s response to criticism. This is how mature people with some mental health respond to criticism.

        Many sayings from the east (including Buddhist) suggest that we should be deeply grateful to those who criticize us.

    1. . This is natural to yourself coming from a rich heritage of Islamic iconoclasm in India.

      only spiritually. my genotype is public. i’m a hindu-through-and-through (i even have hindu great-great grandparents).

    2. @JustAnotherScientist:

      Why would release of information from the Reich lab shatter the Hindu worldview?

      Different groups will interpret the same data to suit their evolutionary goals. Some groups and individuals having much more power and influence will drown out the rest and prevail. Scientists, intellectuals and researchers are hardly immune to this. In fact the scientific/intellectual community/priesthood is the one doing the drowning.

      Replace “evolutionary goals” with “class interests” and you could be channeling Karl Marx himself.

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