The Era of the Kushans

I have written a new post on my personal blog about the dating of the Kushan empire. I have shown through a range of facts and arguments that the Kanishka Era should start around 233 CE and not 127 CE as is currently believed.

The Era of the Kushans

Most of you folks are unlikely to go through the entire article. My intention behind it is to get some attention from the scholars and the academia. Hence I have tried to gather as much evidence as I could to strengthen my case.

Let me state here in brief what this article is all about.

It is generally believed now that the era established by Kanishka in his 1st yeat began in 127 CE. A minority of scholars still believe that it begins in 78 CE. At the same time there is a minority view that also believes that the Kanishka Era began in the 3rd century CE – most of them being numismatists.

The main reason why 127 CE and earlier 125 CE is so popular among the scholars as the likely Year 1 of Kanishka is the belief that Chinese historical texts of the Later Han and Wei dynasties, which are chief textual sources on the Kushans, give information about Kushans and India from a report that was given to the Chinese Court in 125 CE. As per the account Kushans had recently conquered North India and were ruling over it but Kanishka is not mentioned leading scholars to infer that he must have come to the throne around or after 125 CE.

Already a few years ago, I had come across an old article by the doyen of Indian historians, R C Majumdar, where he pointed out quite clearly that there was no basis to believe that this information about the Kushan state and India was only from this report of 125 CE since the Chinese texts mention lots of information which is clearly several decades later than 125 CE. And the texts maintain that their record of history closes at the end of Han period i.e. 220 CE and 239 CE respectively. So by default one has to assume that the current state of affairs these texts relate about India and the Kushans, according to which Kushans were in control of North India, dates to around 220 and 239 CE respectively.

Most strikingly I found out, the early Kushan Emperors, before the time of Kanishka were dating their inscriptions using two Eras which were separated from each other by 129-144 years. There are only two historical eras, which incidentally happen to begin around this period, which can fit in as per this criteria and these are the Vikram Era of 57 BC and Saka Era of 78 CE which are separated in time by 135 years. Dating the early Kushan inscriptions using these two Eras pushes the Kushans in the 3rd century CE which we already noted is what the Chinese texts seem to support.

Even more remarkable was the fact that in the homeland of the Kushans in Balkh or Bactria, there was an Era, referred to commonly as the Bactrian Era, which began in the 3rd century CE and was in use atleast until the 9th century CE. It is difficult to argue that this Era is not the same as that of Kanishka the Kushan since the Kushans were native to Bactria and we know of no one else who possibly inaugurated an Era during this period. So the Kanishka Era aka the Bactrian Era began in 233 CE as it fits in well with the dates given in Vikram and Saka Era of the early Kushans.

Modern Kushan scholarship is dominated by numismatic studies. The credit for this goes to Robert Gobl, an Austrian numismatist, who revolutionised the numismatic research on Kushan coins by his indepth study and research on the subject, unlike anything that came earlier. What is worth noting is that Robert Gobl, based on his indepth study of Kushan coinage and that of Sasanian and Roman coinage as well came to the conclusion that the Great Kushans ruled in the 3rd century CE.

So, I realised that there was strong inscriptional, textual and numismatic data that supports the date of Kushans in the 3rd century CE yet no one has tried to bring all of this data together in one place and make a strong case for the Kanishka Era beginning in 3rd century. This lockdown gave me the time and opportunity to do that and I bit the bullet, as it were.


One quite interesting fact about the history of the Kushans is that they appear to have had a long standing rivalry with the Sasanians on their west. As I have argued in my article, the Kushans seem to have lost their homeland Bactria to the Sasanians during the reign of Kanishka I’s son Huvishka who nevertheless appears to have regained it within a handful of years. However, during Kanishka II’s reign in the 330s CE, as per our dating, Bactria was again lost to the Sasanians under Shapur II, and this time for several decades. The Sasanians even managed to conquer Gandhara south of the Hindu Kush.

By the end of Shapur II’s life in the 370s, a new force rises and they are conventionally referred to as the Kidarites by the scholarship. These Kidarites however claimed that they were descendents of the Kushans and the Chinese texts also endorse this. But ofcourse, there is very little evidence to confirm or deny this claim. Nevertheless, these Kidarites get hold of all existing Kushan territory and also reclaim Gandhara and Bactria from the Sasanians. Later on, the Kidarites also manage to conquer the kingdom of Sogdia (Sughd) north of Bactria. What is also quite revealing is the evidence that the Sasanians were apparently forced by these Kidarites to pay tribute to them.

In the latter half of the 5th century CE, the Sasanians refuse to pay tribute and this leads to a conflict which perhaps brought the downfall of the Kidarites around 460-470 CE. Bactria again went to the Sasanians. But by 484 CE, another obscure group, who are known as Hephthalites in modern convention defeated the Sasanians and even killed their emperor Peroz I. The Sasanians were again forced to pay tribute, this time by this new group and Bactria was lost by the Sasanians once again.

Another interesting thing during this period is that Hinduism’s influence in Central Asia kept on spreading during the Kidarite and Hephthalite rule. During the Kidarite era, it even spread to Sogdia. The Indian cultural influence across Bactria, Sogdia and all across the kingdoms of Tarim Basin lasted for several centuries until they were Islamised.

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The Indo-Iranians go west!

I’ve long been curious about the Indo-Iranians who “went west”. I’ve tried to run some qpAdmin with Iranians, and the results are erratic. I think the main issue is the reference populations are quite different from the “simple” situation in India. But, I think it is plausible to say that Sintashta ancestry is lower in much of Iran than among Afghan and Pakistani Iranians, and Indo-Aryans in Northwest South Asia and upper-caste groups in South Asia. The frequencies of Indo-Iranian (Sintashta) ancestry seem closer to North Indian peasant groups, at best.

This is quite perplexing.

Additionally, looking closely at the data in regards to the well known split between “European” and “Asian” R1a1a

– In Turkey and the Levant, there is a mix between the two. I think this is indicative of Balkan migration during the Ottoman period. A small number of Bedouin, for example, have “European” R1a1a, while the single Druze has the “Asian” lineage.

– In Iran and the Caucasus, it’s mostly the “Asian” variant, except for cases where it looks like there is Slavic admixture (then it’s “European”).

– In Iran, the frequency of R1a1a seems highest in Kerman in their samples. It is, of course, the “Asian” variant.

Haber et al. found “steppe” ancestry arrived in the Levant after 1800 BC. We know from Mitanni that Indo-Iranians were part of the mediation of this.

I’ve put the “Asian” mutations and their frequencies below the fold, but look in the supplements of The phylogenetic and geographic structure of Y-chromosome haplogroup R1a.

Continue reading “The Indo-Iranians go west!”

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Browncast episode 101: The “Swedish model” of Covid-19 response

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up with the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

Due to the costs of both recording software and storage space, I would appreciate if you could also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. It also compensates me for my admittedly mediocre editing (I’m a data scientist/geneticist). If we get more patrons I have reached out to have someone professional edit…but really we don’t have the funds now.

If you can’t give (in these times may cannot!), I would appreciate more positive reviews!

In this episode, I talk to Yeyo, a Peruvian-based-in-Sweden. We discuss the Nordic nation’s response to coronavirus, and Yeyo’s own change in views.

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The memes reflected in our genes

One of the major findings from Narasimhan et al. is that when it comes to total ancestry, Brahmin groups are enriched in the groups which have more “steppe” ancestry than you’d expect (West Eurasian ancestry is a function of steppe + IVC). That being said, Narasimhan et al. could not find evidence that Brahmins are a monophyletic clade. What this means is that Brahmins do not descend from a common group of founders, but a heterogeneous ancestral population.

How can we reconcile the consistently higher steppe ancestry with the fact that Brahmins seem to have diverse origins?

I think the answer has to do with the social ecology of India and the Brahmin role within that ecology.

In the period between 2,000 to 3,500 years ago, there was considerable genetic and cultural heterogeneity within India. This heterogeneity and population structure were “broken” and reconfigured through significant admixture. For example, where Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh have 25-30% steppe ancestry, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh are closer to 5-10%. In South India castes such as Reddys also have steppe ancestry, in the range of 5% or so. This is indicative of the spread and admixture of steppe enriched people all across the subcontinent.

But the flip side of the spread of steppe ancestry is that steppe people themselves mixed with local groups. ~25% of the ancestry of Uttar Pradesh Brahmins is from indigenous “Ancient Ancestral South Indians.” This is above and beyond the AASI ancestry from the Indus Valley population (in contrast, the Jat Rors are ~10% AASI, and well above ~30% steppe). Brahmins in Bengal and Tamil Nadu are very distinctive from non-Brahmin populations, and in their overall genome more like Uttar Pradesh Brahmins, but, both populations clearly have ancestry from local groups (~25% of the ancestry).

The reasons for why populations lose their distinctiveness are straightforward. Endogamy is not perfect. But, I would hold that the cultural customs of endogamy are going to be more persistent and strict among ritual priestly castes. My hypothesis that the original Indo-Aryan populations were invariant in terms of ancestry fraction (steppe, IVC, AASI). But the non-priestly castes would not enforce endogamy so strongly, because their status was accrued and obtained through other means than ritual purity. For the Kshatriyas, for example, status is obtained through power and domination. For Vaishyas, it is through primary and secondary production. Both these groups intermarried with local people who were militarily and economically of high status. In contrast, there were no equivalents for the Brahmins, who were spreading a particular ideological self-conception.

This is not a universal explanation. That is one reason I allude to Jat Rors. But, I think it gets at why Brahmins stand out as being steppe enriched.

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Why Did the EIC Win in India

From Major Amin. A look at some factors that made the EIC so successful militarily. As usual, the Royal Navy gets a lot of credit.

Native troops played a significant role in the East India Company’s conquest of  India. Certain aspects however made the military potential and effectiveness of East India Company’s troops stand out from their other opponents in India. The East India Company employed European officers trained in the European way of war to drill train and command native Indian troops.In addition in almost every battle native troops were grouped around a relatively much smaller nucleus of European troops. Another factor which played an important part in the East India Company’s conquest of India was naval power.Naval power gave flexibility to the operations of the East India Company. This meant that troops from Bengal Army could be swiftly transported from Bengal Presidency to the Madras presidency,thereby reinforcing the Madras troops in case of any serious military reverse. This happened many times during the Mysore Wars. Naval power also played an important role in logistically supporting the operations of land based armies. Three widely separated bases of the English East India Company which were interconnected with each other by sea meant that loss of any one of these could not defeat the company,since troops from one presidency could be switched to another quickly via the sea route. No single Indian power had common borders with all the three presidency and this meant that no single Indian power could destroy the English East India Company. The only way that this could be done was by an alliance of native powers and this was made extremely difficult since no two native powers could agree on anything for a long time. Above all the center of gravity of the English East India Company was naval power and no native power possessed naval potential to challenge British naval mastery. For sometime the French were in a position to do so,but the only opportunity to do so was lost during the Second Mysore War at Cuddalore when all the French squadron under Admiral D’ Orves had to do was to remain in position off the coast of Cuddaiore while the English East India Company’s main army under Sir Eyre Coote facing Hyder Ali of Mysore could have been starved into surrender. (1) Due to some inexplicable reason D ‘ Orves simply sailed away and the French lost their last decisive opportunity to defeat the English East India Company. Continue reading “Why Did the EIC Win in India”

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Extraction, a Bangladeshi view

A good review of the film Extraction by a Bangladeshi. The author perceives a pro-Indian and anti-Bangladeshi bias, which I didn’t really see, but your mileage may vary. But this part is of interest to me:

Extraction carries all the elements of the racist Islamophobic mindset: Muslims cannot run the state, they have many children, their economy is a criminal shambles, their country is uninhabitable, their leaders are outlaws, there is no human dignity anywhere. The colours of this Bangladesh are as yellow as the desert. In contrast, the views of Mumbai are full of turquoise light – neat, beautiful, and luxurious. Mumbai’s mafia child is capable of love; Tyler too is mourning the death of his child. Even villainous Saju has a beautiful family. These spices create empathy towards cruel protagonists.

Extraction was not Islamophobic. In fact, extraction seems to exist in a world where religion does not exist. Too often cultural criticism “fits” art into preexistent analytic frames. Some of the elements of Extraction are perfectly aligned with well-known motifs. Chris Hemsworth is a “Mighty Whitey” par excellence. But a Western watcher of the film would have no idea that Indians are mostly Hindu and Bangladeshis are mostly Muslim, and in fact, a Western watcher would not even know that these are religious people.

If I had to make an analogy, the Bangladesh depicted in the film seems most like the 1990s gangster-dominated Russia, with the aesthetic of 1990s Mogadishu.

The fundamental problem with a lot of modern criticism and analysis is to the fallback upon common arguments and analytic structures, which add nothing familiar, and simply reinforce the familiar.

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