Skeletons in Our Collective Closet

An article in the New Yorker, The Skeletons at the Lake (December 14, 2020), draws together several exciting historical currents, linking them through recent discoveries in archeological genetics.

Engraving by James Posselwhite, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

William Jones (1746-94)

PIE, if you are not familiar, is the study of Proto-Indo-European languages, a discovery by an 18th century Anlgo-Welsh colonial administrator and pioneering philologist in Bengal, William Jones, who noticed deep similarities between European languages and the Sanskrit languages of India. PIE, which actually predates Darwin’s discovery of evolution (1859), uses the same evolutionary strategy to work backwards from existing languages to decipher the family groups of languages and to note differences, branches and common ancestors. The idea that many European languages were relatively close cousins with Indian languages is counter-intuitive and intriguing. 

By Monica Boirar, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Marija Gimbutas (1921-94)

Separately, I’ve long been fascinated by the work of Marija Gimbutas, the archeologist, beloved by my mother, who hypothesized about a European prehistory that was goddess-centred and nonviolent, an ancient pre-Patriarchy. Her Kurgan Hypothesis was based on burial mounds that she said traced the path of ancient Bronze-Age invaders from the Russian Steppes, men on horseback with weapons, inventors of the wheel, who raided Europe in the 3rd millennium BC. The New Yorker article cites recent archaeological genetic testing that corroborates this story. Around 2500 BC, the Y chromosomes of European people were suddenly replaced, suggesting a sweeping, violent subjugation, rather than a slow cultural process. 

Map by Joshua Jonathan, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The genetic record traces these invading men to the Steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas, to a group called the Yamnaya who arose 5000 years ago. The Yamnaya invaded India later in 1500 BC and north and western Europe around 2500 BC, spreading widely their language and their Y chromosomes. In India, it would have been the ancient Harappans — inventors of the brick — who were invaded by the Yamnaya. The character of this shift, called the Neolithic Transition, involving new technologies and increased mobility, seems to have been traumatic and violent, with new social structures established associated with the large-scale domestication of animals.

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads (2015) presents a Persian-centred version of history, with the idea that much of old-world history can be best understood as centering on the Middle East. In Frankopan’s telling, invaders from the Steppes twice swept across the ancient world, led by Attila the Hun in 5th century and Gangis Khan in the 13th century. Frankopan describes these raiders as not being particularly interested in Europe, which was poorer and battling plagues during those times. However, it now seems that this pattern of invasion from central Asia extends even further back to prehistory, and that the earlier raiders fully occupied and transformed Europe.

Gimbutas championed the idea that these ancient Bronze-Age invaders represent the Patriarchy, a violent, weaponized, male-dominated chapter in human history that is, on the grand scale, relatively recent, and is still in full force today. (The fact that her own Wikipedia entry calls into question the validity of her claims is perhaps as much evidence of the gender-bias within Wikipedia as any critical flaws in her argument.) 

I was at first excited by the idea of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, the Origin of our Discontents (2020), but I’ve come to see it as a giant missed opportunity. I should admit up front that I have only read reviews and excerpts, but as I understand it, Wilkerson focuses on American racism and tries to generalize her analysis to include Nazism and the caste system of India. In so doing, I feel like she fails to accurately characterize the complex system of caste oppression in India and instead tries to mash everything into an American-centric gaze. 

What if we were to take the evolutionary strategy of backwards tracking that is common to the PIE approach to understanding the languages of prehistory and also to archeological genetics which grows directly out of Darwin’s approach to evolution — what if we were to apply these techniques of inquiry to racism. Having lived in the US, Brazil, and India, I see the Brazilian construction of race as a distinct cousin to America’s, related but also different. In contrast, I see India’s caste system as a far more distant relative, having perhaps evolved from some common ancient seed, but at this point with a very distinct character and with many unique adaptations. Nazism is fascinating in this context because they cottoned on to the PIE connection early with the notion of the Aryan race which is linked to India and caste as well as to white-supremacy in the West. Whereas the Nazis and their neo followers would seem to celebrate the Yamnayan conquests, I am much more interested in the ancient Harappans and prehistory Europe, with the suggestion of a time more stable and balanced, perhaps with clues of how we might now establish a culture that can heal rather than exploit the environment around us and of which we are inextricably a part.

Gimbutas’s notion of gender oppression as an historically-situated construction rather than a biological inevitability is liberating and exciting, offering a

Photo by Jim from Stevens Point, WI, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

suggestion of how such a construction might be dismantled. Similarly, Howard Zinn’s description of the establishment of racism in the United States serves a similar function, suggesting that racism is less a natural inevitability and more of a deliberate strategy of divide-and-conquer oppression. Both of these scholars have been criticized, but I see in their approaches great potential to deepen our collective understanding of the history and evolution of oppression. Such an approach speaks to the deep connections between sexism and racism, a co-evolutionary process, tangled and related but also distinct. It also makes room for other distinct families of ideas and relations, beyond PIE.

We need a William Jones or a Marija Gimbutas and a PIE-like movement to better understand racism.


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