The venerable Charles Allen left perhaps his most contentious subject for his last (and posthumously-published) book. The Aryans: The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth is a wide-ranging discourse on history, science, archaeology, linguistics, the history of all four, interleaved with commentary on some two centuries of highly-objectionable politics and political discourse: he opens with a chapter titled: “The Rise and Fall of Superman: Aryanism and the Swastika”.
Allen’s purpose is both to tackle a fascinating (and fast-moving) subject—the origins of Indo-European and the people that original spoke it—and, in being clear about the epistemology, take aim at the rise of Hindutva. As David Lyon—who prepared the manuscript for publication after the author’s death in 2020—writes in his introduction, one “compulsion” for the writing the book was
sorrow at the way professional historical research has been hijacked in modern India by some in the politico-religious Hindutva movement who are politically ascendant and have been looking for a founding narrative for a newly emerging power on the world stage. They dispute the historical, linguistic and palaeogenetic evidence, which points to a major movement of people, calling themselves Aryans, into India from perhaps as early as 2000 BCE, bringing early Indo-European languages with them.
As the title of the first chapter shows, Allen considers this much of a piece with (earlier) Western attempts to misuse the history, terms and symbols. His deliberate use of the word “Aryan” in the title is to face the various controversies head on. (The term itself has, of course, perfectly acceptable origins, being derived from the name that speakers of Sanskrit and Avestan called themselves.)
However justified this compulsion may be, given the author’s lifelong association and relationship with India, the chapters which deal with history and related science are far more interesting than those which deal with politics. The Hindutva-favored “Out of India” theory—that the Indo-Europeans originated in India and migrated thence rather than the other way around—can’t be taken seriously. It’s as if a discussion of current developments in virology and vaccines were placed in the context of the history of “Intelligent Design”.
Allen has the advantage of being both very readable and comprehensive (if not intensely detailed). He covers linguistics, historical linguistics, history, archaeology, religion and mythology. He is also an excellent storyteller with an eye for the interesting anecdote and a feel for narrative.
There are several other books which cross this subject. The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Herders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W Anthony from 2010, was perhaps the first to gather together the evidence of language, archaeology and genetics to paint a picture of a how a steppe-based people domesticated the horse and invented the wheeled vehicle. It can be a bit heavy-going for those who are unaccustomed to pot reconstructions. More recently Early Indians: The Story Of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From by Tony Jacobs applied these recent developments and discoveries more specifically to India; he makes a particularly strong case that the Harappa civilization predates and has nothing to do with the Aryans. Peggy Mohan, in Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages, does a deep dive into the historical development of Indian languages which aligns with the theory that the people who composed the Vedas arrived from outside India.
Each of these covers material in more depth than Allen, but less broadly. Allen not only deals with the full geographical scope of the Indo-Europeans from Britain to the Taklimakan, but also includes such fascinating material as how the Indian Vedas and the Iranian Avesta not only relate to one another, but also to archaeology and geography.
Not that Allen’s book isn’t full of details of its own, some a bit eyebrow-raising or obscure even for those moderately read-up on the subject. Allen says that he doesn’t think the famous (and unique) Harappan bronze dancing girls were produced locally, precisely because they are unique. He also mentions a terracotta plaque (acquired in Nepal by a Hong Kong art dealer) showing a chariot that was dated in 2019 to a very early period, and that the Near Eastern Mittani language, insofar as we know it, has many close Vedic correspondences.
Aryans is as good, albeit a bit India-centric, introduction to the subject as any I’ve read. It isn’t, however, definitive (how could it be?) and will hopefully inspire those interested to read further.
And the subject remains in ferment. Just a few months ago, a paper was published “proving” an earlier Anatolian (rather than Eurasian steppe) source for Indo-European. We’ll have to see.