Showing posts with label Witzel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Witzel. Show all posts

07 August 2015

Sanskrit, Dravidian, and Munda

Modern distribution of
Indian languages
In this essay, I will reiterate some important points made by Michael Witzel about the linguistic history of India. When the first anatomically modern humans reached India ca. 70,000 years ago, they almost certainly used language. But all the direct evidence for language is much more recent, the oldest being written forms of language. Comparative linguistics allows us infer a great deal more about the history of language so that we can get a picture of how people spoke long before writing was even invented.

Like many historians I use the term India or, sometimes, Greater India, to mean then whole of the sub-continent, taking in the political territories of modern day Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Given that the main languages of North India and Sri Lanka are all modern Indic Languages: Urdu, Panjabi, Hindi, Bihari, Bengali, Nepali, and Sinhala, the modern political divisions belie the common linguistic history they share. However, we must be a little cautious. Language, ethnicity, and geography can be independent variables when discussing culture. This essay mainly concerns languages and the speakers of languages. We cannot be sure of the ethnicity of these people.

We know with some certainty that the speakers of Old Indic languages (now represented only by Vedic) came from outside India. This is an unpopular thesis amongst Indian Nationalists, who try to make a case for Sanskrit arising in India and spreading out. Some would have us believe it is the original language (Cf Eco 1997). However, the relationship of Old Indic with Old Iranian and a variety of other internal evidence show that Indo-Iranian, an early offshoot from Proto-Indo-European that further split into two sub-families, Iranian and Indic, was spoken by nomadic peoples of Southern Central Asia. Old Indic is mostly distinguished from Old Iranian by a few sound changes. Later grammatical forms drifted apart as well, though the attested languages, Vedic and Avestan, were closely related. 

Comparative linguists showed in the late 18th century that Greek, Latin and Sanskrit are all so similar that they must have derived from a common ancestor. That hypothetical languages is nowadays called Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and the language family that it spawned is called Indo-European (IE). PIE also has a Germanic branch giving rise to all the Germanic languages (including English), a Slavonic branch incorporating all the Slavic languages, and takes in many of the languages of Iran and Afghanistan, not to mention Armenian. In addition, we have written evidence of a number of now dead Indo-European languages such as Tocharian and Khotanese from Central Asia. By comparing the changes in many languages, linguists are able to describe pragmatic 'rules' which describe how sounds and forms of words change. This procedure has been very successful in some areas. PIE is probably the best example. But the Sino-Tibetan language family also gives a clear view of the proto language that underlies them all. 

There have been efforts of varying success to try to cover all the languages of the world in this way. And this has naturally led some scholars to propose a further ancient layer of relatedness. So, for example, there is the conjectured Nostratic proto-language (or macro-family) that takes in Afroasiatic (including the Semitic languages), Kartvelian (Caucasian languages and possibly Basque), Indo-European, Uralic (including Finno-Ugric), Dravidian, Altaic (covering the Turkish, Central Asian, and probably Korean and Japanese), and Eskimo–Aleut. These macro-families are still controversial, though many of the objections are ideological, rather than logical.

A major branch of the PIE family is Indo-Iranian, taking in languages that were spoken throughout the combined sphere of influence of Persia and India, including large swathes of Central Asia. In this essay, I will refer to the Indian branch of the PIE or Indo-Iranian as Indic. It has previously been referred to as Aryan or Indo-Aryan, but these terms have been deprecated because of the racial overtones of the word 'aryan' and the discrediting of old ideas about race. Indic is a strictly linguistic term that gives us no information about ethnicity. We can talk about three phases of Indic: Old - principally attested as Vedic, though other variations must have existed (before ca. 500 BCE); Middle - attested by Pāḷi, Gāndhārī, and Apabramsa (ca 500 BCE - 1000 CE); and New or Modern (emerging in the last millennia).

When the speakers of Old Indic crossed the Hindu Kush and entered India, ca 1700-1500 BCE, they met people who spoke languages with a much longer history in Greater India.

There is a whole family of Dravidian languages, for example, including Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, and Kannada. Today, the people who speak languages from the Dravidian family are a large minority (about 20%). Some linguists (e.g., McAlpin 1974, 1975, 1981) have noted a similarity between Dravidian and the language spoken in ancient Elam, near what is now the border of Iran and Iraq on the Red Sea. Written records of Elamite stretch back to 3000 BCE. McAlpin, et al, believe that Dravidian speakers split off from Elamite speakers and entered Indian very early, perhaps 4000 BC. Others are more doubtful (Blench 2008), dismissing the evidence as flimsy and pointing out affiliations with other language groups, as well. 

Less well known is the Austroasiatic family. This family of languages extends from the North-east of India to Vietnam. One Indian branch of this widely geographically spread out family, is Munda, with several languages spoken in small pockets of India today, but probably more widespread in the past. In Burma there is a strong overlay of Tibeto-Burman languages that descended from the north, but there are still enclaves of Austroasiatic speakers, as well. Genetic studies of Austroasiatic speakers suggest that the Austroasiatic language family may have arisen in India and spread east. 

Additionally, there are a number of languages in India that appear to be unrelated to any known languages. These language isolates, as they are called, are found in the so-called tribal peoples who seem never to have been assimilated into the mainstream of Indian culture (in other words, they were never Brahmanised).

Michael Witzel's exploration of the linguistic history of India begins by establishing his parameters; most important for the purposes of this essay is the periods of composition of the Ṛgveda (1999: 3).
  • I. The early Ṛgvedic period: c. 1700–1500 BCE: books (maṇḍala) 4, 5, 6, and maybe book 2, with the early hymns referring to the Yadu-Turvaśa, Anu-Druhyu tribes;
  • II. The middle (main) Ṛgvedic period, c. 1500–1350 BCE: books 3, 7, 8. 1–66 and 1.51–191; with a focus on the Bharata chieftain Sudās and his ancestors, and his rivals, notably Trasadasyu, of the closely related Pūru tribe.
  • III. The late Ṛgvedic period, c. 1350–1200 BCE: books 1.1–50, 8.67–103, 10.1–854; 10.85–191: with the descendant of the Pūru chieftain Trasadasyu, Kuruśravana, and the emergence of the super-tribe of the Kuru (under the post-RV Parikṣit).
These layers of composition have been established on the basis of "internal criteria of textual arrangement, of the ‘royal’ lineages, and independently from these, those of the poets (ṛṣis) who composed the hymns. About both groups of persons we know enough to be able to establish pedigrees which sustain each other." (1999: 3).

Dutch Indologist, F. B. J. Kuiper, had already identified some 383 words in the Ṛgveda that are not Indic and must be loan words from another language family. We know this because they break the phonetic rules of Indic languages. We can use an example from English to demonstrate this. We have a word ptolemaic, which comes from the Egyptian name Ptolemy. It refers to a particular view of the world as earth-centred. Now we know that ptolemaic cannot be a native English word because English words cannot start with /pt/, and, indeed, native English speakers cannot easily pronounce this sound combination and tend to just say /t/. It is clues like this that linguists use to identify loan words. And we have to take into account that loan words are often naturalised. Many loan words in English are Anglicized. So another loan word like chocolate has been altered to fit English spelling patterns from an original spelling more like xocolātl, which clearly breaks English phonetic rules. We also have a number of Yiddish loan words like shlemiel, shlep, shlock, shmaltz, shmuck, and shnoozle, etc., that defy, but also. to some extent. redefine English spelling. Similarly. no other Indic language has retroflex consonants (ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ, ṣ), but Old Indic absorbed these from languages it met in India and they became a naturalised aspect of the Indic phonology by the time the Ṛgveda was composed.

It's not always possible to identify where a loan word has come from. But Kuiper and Witzel manage to identify most of the 300 words as belonging to Proto-Dravidian or Proto-Munda, with a few from other language families like Tibeto-Burman.

Perhaps the most striking finding that Witzel gives, repeatedly, in his essay, is that in the early Ṛgvedic period there are no loan words from Dravidian, e.g.:
"It is important to note that RV level I has no Dravidian loan words at all (details, below § 1.6); they begin to appear only in RV level II and III." (Witzel 1999: 6)
Ṛgvedic loans from Drav[idian] are visible, but they also are now datable only to middle and late Ṛgvedic (in the Greater Panjab), and they can both the localized and dated for the Post-Ṛgvedic texts. (Witzel 1999: 19)
This is an important finding. The landscape of the Ṛgveda is that of modern day Panjab. This is clear, for example, from the names of rivers that are mentioned, e.g., the Kabul, Indus, Sarasvati (now dried up) and Yamuna rivers.

Loan words from the earliest period are from the Austroasiatic language family, meaning that the people living in this area when the Vedic speakers arrived, spoke a variety of proto-Munda. This is important because it is believed that the people living in this area were the descendants of the collapsed Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC). They had scattered as the climate became much drier and caused their large scale cities to be unlivable. The IVC had disappeared by 1700 BCE. If the people of the Punjab, ca 1500 BCE, spoke a variety of proto-Munda, this strongly suggests that the people of the IVC also spoke an Austroasiatic language, rather than, as is usually supposed, a Dravidian or even Indic language. Indian nationalists often assume that the IVC spoke Sanskrit, but this was never plausible. Interestingly, the very name we have for the north of this region, Gandhāra, is itself an Austroasiatic loan word.

It's often suggested that, because there are northern pockets of Dravidian speakers, with whom the Vedic speakers presumably interacted, that Dravidian was once considerably more widespread and perhaps that the language of the IVC was Dravidian. The loan words in the Ṛgveda argue against this view. The north-western pockets of Dravidian could be isolated populations left behind by the migration of Dravidian speakers into Southern India from Mesopotamia. Those in the North-East are more consistent with a previously larger territory, but if they were ever on the Ganges Plain they were forced out of it completely, leaving remnant populations only as far north as mountain ranges on the southern edge of the Ganges Valley.


The picture that emerges is that Old Indic speaking people crossed the Hindu Kush in small numbers and met people who spoke a form of proto-Austroasiatic; and then later, perhaps as they penetrated further into the sub-continent, people who spoke proto-Dravidian languages. The Dravidian speakers, themselves probably immigrants had lived in India for some thousands of years already, displacing and assimilating even earlier waves of human migrants. The pockets of people who speak language isolates, not related to any known language, have presumably lived in India for a very long time. Indeed, they often pursue a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that reinforces this impression.

Other authors have suggested that the Old Indic speakers had the advantage of superior technology and this led them to dominate the original inhabitants. We can't really know how it happened at this distant time but, in any case, Indic languages came to dominate the North of India - from Afghanistan to the Ganges Delta. Again, it is worth repeating that language, culture, and location may not be correlated. To the extent that we can make comparisons, there were a few surviving similarities between the people who composed the Ṛgveda and those who composed the Avesta. But, in many respects, their cultures had diverged along with their languages. Zoroastrianism was the major innovation in Iran, although the dates of the founder are difficult to pin down; the most likely scenario places him a little after the Ṛgveda. Based on informal comments by Michael Witzel, I have argued for a trickle of Iranian tribes entering India ca. 1000-800 BCE, who ended up settling on the margins of the Central Ganges city states of the second urbanisation, especially Kosala and Magadha (Attwood 2012). Genetic studies suggest that, though their language came to be spoken throughout the Punjab and down into the Ganges Valley, the Vedic speakers contributed little to the gene pool, which is remarkably homogeneous in India. The genetic contribution is far less striking than we might imagine by patterns of culture or language family (Attwood 2012).

This poses a difficulty for Indian Nationalists who want Sanskrit to be the mother tongue of India (I'm not sure how they fit Dravidian into the picture) and for it to have originated within the subcontinent. People with this view often express their hatred of Michael Witzel, referring to him in extremely uncomplimentary terms. But, as rational people, we have to follow the evidence and allow it to guide us to conclusions, even when these are uncomfortable for us. And the evidence is abundantly clear in this case. If any language is the mother tongue, then it is probably Proto-Austroasiatic, the ancestor of the modern Munda and Austroasiatic languages. Sanskrit developed from Indo-Iranian, initially somewhere in Greater Iran, then was carried into India with Vedic speaking migrants. Since we know they were nomadic cattle herders (unlike, say, the Śākyas who were settled agriculturalists) they may have made the journey up the Khyber Pass seeking greener pastures.

In Attwood (2012) I tried to show that certain important features of early Indian Buddhist culture could be tied to Zoroastrianism and/or Iran. Unfortunately, all too often, the history of the region is divided into Indian and Iranian by academics. And thus I fear that many connections between the two regions have been overlooked. The connections that are evident seem to demand more attention from suitably qualified scholars. We know a great deal about the interactions of Greece and Persia, but far too little about relations between Persia and India.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2012) Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3.

Blench, Roger (2008) Re-evaluating the linguistic prehistory of South Asia. Toshiki OSADA and Akinori UESUGI eds. 2008. Occasional Paper 3: Linguistics, Archaeology and the Human Past. pp. 159-178. Kyoto: Indus Project, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature.

Eco, Umberto. (1997) The Search for the Perfect Language. London: Fontana Press.

McAlpin, David W. (1974) Toward Proto-Elamo-Dravidian. Language 50: 89-101.

McAlpin, David W. (1975) Elamite and Dravidian: Further Evidence of Relationship. Current Anthropology 16: 105-115.

McAlpin, David W. (1981) Proto Elamo Dravidian: The Evidence and Its Implications. American Philosophy Society.

Witzel, Michael. (1999) Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan: Ṛgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic. Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. 5(1): 1–67.

24 January 2014

Origins of Myth: The Other Evidence

image credit:
A few weeks ago I reviewed Michael Witzel's book Origins of the World's Mythologies. In that review I focussed, as Witzel does, on the evidence from comparative mythology. It's fairly obvious that if we share a grand narrative into which our myths fit, that there ought to be other evidence that follows a similar pattern. And Michael Witzel devotes a chapter of Origins exploring this evidence.

It must be said that none of the evidence is unequivocal and much of it is still rather ambiguous. More information is being added all the time. For example in the main text the book claims that there is no evidence of interbreeding between Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis. However between writing and publishing just such evidence was found indicating that all humans outside of Africa, New Guinea and Australia share a small number of genes with Neanderthals and Witzel acknowledges this in the forward. In the meantime further examples hybridisation have been discovered. (See Evolution: Trees and Braids)

To briefly recap, Michael Witzel sees a shared grand narrative in the mythologies of Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Americas (what Witzel calls "Laurasia") that is distinct from the grand narratives found in Sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea and Australia ("Gondwana"). The Laurasian narrative involves creation of the universe from nothingness (void, chaos) via an egg or giant; the emergence of the earth from an abyssal ocean; the birth and lives of gods who fight amongst generations; the pushing apart of (father) sky and (mother) earth; the genesis and age of humanity, with an heroic age followed by our more mundane times; and finally the destruction of this universe, sometimes followed by the creation of a more perfect one. Local variations exist in abundance, but the overall story-arc seems to follow this broad outline. Gondwana mythology, by contrast, places no importance on creation.

Comparative Linguistics

The science of comparative linguistics is Witzel's home turf. He has, for example, studied the regional vations in Vedic Sanskrit and mapped the geographic areas that can be associated with various Vedic texts. He has also extensively studied loan words in Vedic showing that Munda may well have been the substrate language in Northwest India where the Vedic speakers first became firmly established. The early successes of comparative linguistics in the 18th and 19th centuries were impressive. It initially became clear, for example, that Greek, Latin and Sanskrit sprang from a common ancestor language. Germanic, Celtic, Iranian, and Slavic languages were soon added to the family, now most commonly called Indo-European. Systematic changes (such as /f/ for /p/ in Germanic as compared to Latin, part of Grimm's Law) across whole languages make it certain that they share a common ancestor and that language can be reverse-engineered on the basis of its surviving transformations. The reconstructed ancestor language is called Proto-Indo-European. The theory for example predicted three laryngeal sounds (related to our /h/) for PIE, which were not found in any living language, but were subsequently discovered in a written form of Hittite.

More recently the effort has been to try to create superfamilies by trying to locate systematic relationships across families or in reconstructed proto-languages. One result of which is a super-family called Nostratic (= "our language"). Nostratic includes Indo-European, Semitic, Sino-Tibetan, Austric (South-east Asia and Polynesia) and American Indian languages. The reconstruction is yet to find universal support amongst linguists. Witzel thinks this is in part due to artificial limits placed on the possibility of language reconstruction, but also due to the inherent difficulty of comparing so many languages at once. After all, few have the linguistic skill to do so. If we accept the proposed Nostratic language superfamily then we are immediately struck by the fact that its range is almost identical to the Laurasian mythology. For Witzel this is no coincidence, though he concedes that more work is required to establish Nostratic as a reality. But the tantalising conclusion is that the Laurasian mythology might have originally been framed in something like a Nostratic language. We are not there yet, but we have fine null hypothesis to try to disprove.


Where language provides tantalising hints at an underlying unity in the form of a common ancestor tongue, the field of genetics provides further insights into the relatedness and movements of peoples around the world. Two main subjects make up this evidence: phylogenies (or family trees) of mitochondrial DNA which is passed from mother to daughter; and phylogenies of Y chromosomes which are passed from father to son. Both types of DNA change only slowly, but at a rate we can estimate. However of all the evidence, the genetic evidence is most difficult to follow. The results of experiments are somewhat confused at times and the use of acronyms is intense.

In outline genetic studies show that all modern humans are related and that our ancestors lived in Sub-Saharan Africa. Anatomically modern humans emerged ca. 150 kya (1000's of years ago) plus or minus about 50 kya. More than one migration event seems to have taken place, but the one that succeeded in populating the earth seems to have happened about 65 kya. There are competing models for exactly how this was accomplished, but most include a small group of between 1000 and 10,000 travelling along the coastline eastwards. Sea levels were between 50m-150m lower, the figures cited vary wildly even within Origins, so evidence for this migration is mostly now covered by the ocean. But modern humans arrived in Australia (having crossed the open ocean) by about 45 kya for which we have good archaeological evidence. They continued North as well settling in China between 42-39 kya. Across Eurasia, modern humans encountered other species of hominids, but in every case survived, probably at the expense of the predecessors (and probably also interbred with them to some extent). The image below shows an up-to-date outline of the migrations based on mitochondrial DNA.

Migrations: approximate routes and times from Guha et. al (2013)

Theories on how the rest of Eurasia was settled are much less clear. There are two most likely scenarios. Firstly a second wave of migrants left Africa ca. 45 kya and went north into Western Asia and spread from there. Or secondly part of the first wave, perhaps based somewhere in West Asia, were the source of the expansion (this is what the image above shows). Eurasia being backfilled from China is also a possibility. In any case modern humans entered Europe 40-50 kya where they met, and to some extent interbred with, Neanderthals. From about 20-11 kya successive waves of migration occurred from Siberia into the Americas which were very quickly settled all the way to Tierra del Feugo. From about 5 kya inhabitants of Taiwan began the epic ocean voyages that peopled the islands of Polynesia, reaching New Zealand ca. 800 CE, but not before making contact (directly or indirectly) with South America or people from there. These dates are broadly supported by archaeological and anthropological evidence.

The dates for the settling of the Americas are important in dating the Laurasian mythology. Since the mythology is shared between all of the Americans and Eurasians the main outlines must have been in place before the first American migrations across the Beringia land bridge ca. 20 kya. This is long before any evidence of civilisation in the form of agriculture or large-scale permanent settlements. However, if Witzel is right about the implications of shared narratives then we have to accept that the narrative was in place by 20 kya at the latest.

Beringia Land-bridge from Balter (2013)

Recently a complete genome was sequenced for a child who died some 24 kya in Mal'ta, southern Siberia (Balter 2013). This boy is closely related to Amerindians, but also, surprisingly to populations in west of the Altai mountains. "Before 24,000 years ago, the ancestors of Native Americans and the ancestors of today's East Asians split into distinct groups. The Mal'ta child represents a population of Native American ancestors who moved into Siberia, probably from Europe or west Asia. Then, sometime after the Mal'ta boy died, this population mixed with East Asians. The new, admixed population eventually made its way to the Americas."

And just as with language studies the broad outlines of this evidence is consistent with Witzel's hypothesis. If a people, probably (initially) sharing a language or group of related languages, spread through Eurasia then we would expect to see evidence of relatedness in their genes. The best fit to Witzel's myth and language data involves two out-of-Africa migrations. The first, beginning ca. 65 kya, along the southern coastal route to Australia took with it the Gondwana mythology and certain mitochondrial genes. They left behind a string of languages with no connection to the languages of Laurasia. The second began around 45 kya and pushed first north and then both east and west populated Laurasia. These people spoke languages unrelated to the first migration, had a new, or at least different, mythology, and shared variants of mitochondrial genes not common amongst the first wave.


It is often commented on that although anatomically modern remains are found by about 150 kya, other features we associate with ourselves - burial, complex art, music - are first seen only about 40 kya. Witzel notes that more recent research indicates a slow build up to this so-called explosion of culture. But none-the-less there does seem to be a turning point. Most of the complex cave art begins around this time. The first evidence of musical instruments in the form of bone flutes are found. And burials with valuable items or indications of a belief in an afterlife also date to around this same period.

I've already cited the migrations to America as a latest date by which the Laurasian mythology can have been known in a more or less complete form. Since we know that the Gondwana mythology was unknown in Africa, New Guinea or Australia ca. 45 kya we have a upper limit for it's existence. It would seem then that the creation of the Laurasian mythology broadly coincides with the expansion of culture into Europe and Asia ca. 40 kya., but not later than 20 kya. 

Thus, with many caveats and hedges, we can draw out from the evidence a coherent picture in which ca. 40 kya a change took place amongst the ancestral Laurasian population that they subsequently spread, along with their genes and their language, across all of Eurasia, the Americas and the Pacific. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this story itself fits the Laurasian mythology, what we might call the Laurasian worldview. It is a peculiar feature of human beings that we are constantly seeking out new frontiers, while at the same time obsessing about our origins.

It's important to note that in the case of genetics and language we see evidence of hybridisation - shared genes across species on one hand, and loan words and regional language features on the other. The image we tend to have in our minds is a tree structure branching out from a singularity. This singularity almost certainly never happened. If you view railway lines going off to the horizon they appear to converge due to parallax error. I think we need to be aware of the historical equivalent of this. Just because we can find common factors underlying present complexity, does not mean that everything converges. History is complex at whatever magnification or scale we choose.



Balter, Michael. (2013) 'Ancient DNA Links Native Americans With Europe.' Science. 25 October 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6157 pp. 409-410. DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6157.409.
Guha P, Srivastava SK, Bhattacharjee S, Chaudhuri TK. (2013) Human migration, diversity and disease association: a convergent role of established and emerging DNAmarkers. Frontiers in Geneticsdoi: 10.3389/fgene.2013.00155. eCollection 2013.  Aug 9;4:155. 
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.

Note 27 Jul 2015

A recent large scale genetic study ( strongly suggests a single movement of people from the Siberia region into the Americans ca. 23,000 year bp.
The new genetic analysis suggests that the first immigrants to America left Siberia no more than 23,000 years ago, and then lived in isolation on the grassy plains of the Beringia land bridge for no more than 8,000 years. Those plains disappeared beneath rising seas 10,000 years ago. 
Once in the Americas, ancient Native Americans split into two major lineages about 13,000 years ago. One lineage populated both North and South America and one stayed in North America.

13 December 2013

Origins of the World's Mythologies

Michael Witzel is one of the most prolific scholars in Indology of any period. His publications have set the standard in the field of the early history of India and the Indic languages. His 2012 book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, published by Oxford University Press, is extremely ambitious in scope and intriguing in its content. In a lesser scholar I'm sure that such a work would be dismissed, but Witzel has the stature and the background to carry it off. I've previously been strongly influenced by Witzel's work. His theory on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe led to my own article on that subject being published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (Vol. 3). 

I'm a long way from assimilating all of the ideas in the book, but want to begin to note what I find interesting about it. I won't be critiquing his methods because frankly I'm not qualified. They are explained in some detail and my layman's eye tells me only that he has at least set out how he proceeded. It seems a plausible enough way to proceed and I see every sign of his dealing well with complexity and exceptions. Witzel repeats several times that the project is heuristic a term he borrows from textual criticism to mean still gathering information, though he thinks his outline of the general features is likely to accommodate any new facts. Inevitably the result is a broad brush-stroke, rather speculative picture. There will be many who find this kind of speculation unwarranted, but I have always been fascinated by such an approach which crosses disciplines and fields. Books like this are pioneering efforts, providing a background against which more detailed investigations can proceed.

Witzel's method is primary comparative mythology, but he approaches this in a novel way. Instead of comparing individual myths or themes, he compares whole mythic systems. In this I believe Witzel has been strongly influenced by the field of comparative linguistics. The comparative method works best across whole languages rather than with isolated words or points of grammar (though these may be important signposts). So while it is neither here nor there that Latin pater becomes fader in Germanic, it is very significant that everywhere that Latin words begin with  /p/ the Germanic cognate will begin with /f/. This systematic shift in consonant sound is an aspect of Grimm's Law (after the elder of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob). As an example I have looked in detail at how the sounds in words for five and finger are related across various Indo-European languages in studying the Sanskrit word prapañca. Similarly here Witzel is looking for, and finds, systematic correspondences in the mythologies of far flung cultures.

What emerges is that mythic systems spanning Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, India, Asia, South East Asia, the Pacific and the Americas share important features. In particular they share a story arc. Individual myths are fitted into this same story arc in these regions. By contrast the myth of Subsaharan Africa, New Guinea and Australia follow an very different story arc. These two areas roughly correspond to the ancient landmasses of Laurasia and Gondwanaland and Witzel has chosen these names to represent them - though he is fully aware of the different chronologies of geology and human evolution.

The striking conclusion from the shared features of Laurasian myth that the mythology "...can be traced back to a single source, probably in Great Southwest Asia, from where it spread across Eurasia, long before the immigration of the Amerindian populations into North America and before the Austroasiatic colonisation of the Indonesian archipelago, Madagascar, and the Pacific." (19)

That is to say that Witzel claims that he can identify elements of an ancient mythology common to a group of people who lived at least ca. 20,000 years ago. This figure emerges because the first migrations from Siberia into America via the Beringa land bridge (which crossed the Bering Strait). Testing this thesis will be a monumental task as it involves a huge amount of evidence from across multiple disciplines (the book is about 660 pages). Along the way Witzel provides many examples of testable hypothesis and gaps in our knowledge. We get no sense that the theory is complete or unequivocal. Witzel is not making unwarranted claims to knowledge, but proposing a conjecture to be further tested.

Chapter One introduces the main ideas and situates his study in the history of such studies. Chapter two explores his comparative method and chapter three explores the Laurasian myth in greater detail, noting all the variations and contrary evidence. Witzel is not afraid to cite contradictions which is always a good sign. However he does try to show how or why such evidence might be understood in his framework. Chapter four explores evidence from other fields such as linguistics, physical anthropology. genetics, and archaeology which serve to bolster the thesis because they are largely in agreement with the results of comparing myths. It should be noted however that much of this evidence is disputed or ambiguous. Interpretations exist which flatly contradict Witzel. Thus here at least we need to be aware of confirmation bias. Chapter five looks at the Gondwana mythology as a study in contrast, giving both the main characteristics of these myths and discussing the similarities and differences. Clearly in some cases the two broad traditions intrude on each other. Chapter six speculates on the first myths that might underlie both Laurasian and Gondwana mythology, which Witzel refers to as Pan-Gaean Mythology. Certain myths, such as the story of a flood that nearly wipes out humanity, are more or less ubiquitous around the world. Chapter seven deals with changes in Laurasian Myth over time.

Witzel's provisional outline of the story arc of Laurasian Myth is as follows:
In the beginning there is nothing, chaos, non-being. Sometimes there are primordial waters. The universe is created from an egg or sometimes from a cosmic man. The earth is retrieved from the waters by a diver or fisherman. (Father) heaven and (mother) earth are in perpetual embrace and their children, the gods, are born in between them. They push their parents apart and often hold them apart with an enormous tree. The light of the sun is revealed for the first time. Several generations of gods are born and there is infighting. The younger generation defeat and kill the elder. One of the gods kills a dragon and this fertilises the earth. Slaying the dragon is often associated with an intoxicating drink. The sun fathers the human race (sometimes only the chieftains of humans). Humans flourish but begin to commit evil deeds. Humans also begin to die. A great flood nearly wipes out humanity which is re-seeded by the survivors. There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the brining of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman. having survived and now equipped with culture, humans spread out. Local histories and local nobility begin to emerge and then dominate. Consistent with their being four ages of the world everything ends in the destruction of the world, humans and gods. In some stories this destruction is the prelude for cyclic renewal.
Cultures as far flung as Indigenous Americans, Polynesians, Japanese, Malaysians, Indians, Greeks and Celts have a system of mythology which draws on these themes (or mythemes as Witzel terms them) and in this order. Which is to say their system of myth is structured around this story or something very like it. Of course there are many variations and exceptions. Having grown up with Greek and Māori mythology and comparing it with the Indian myth I have subsequently studied, I am particularly struck by the parallels between Vedic and Māori myth both of which closely follow the general outline above. These are two populations that simply could not have come into contact for many thousands of years, suggesting that they must have shared these stories for the kinds of time periods Witzel is proposing. 

The origin of the Laurasian universe is mysterious. In the beginning there is darkness or chaos (from Greek khaos meaning "abyss") or non-being. Such images are found in myths from the Pacific, Greece, China, India and the Middle-East. The commonality spans geographical areas and language families (though language superfamilies are now being proposed, which I will discuss in a future essay). Sometimes this phase is characterised as primordial dark waters (water has no form) from which the earth (order) emerges. "The myth of primordial waters is very widely spread, especially in northern Europe, Siberia, and the Americas, the Near East, India, and Southeast Asia/Oceania" (113). One of the ways that the world is brought into being is through speech - a theme in Vedic, Icelandic, Maya, Maori and Biblical texts (111).

In his final chapter he sums up Laurasian myth:
"Viewed from the present vantage point... Laurasian 'ideology' seems to be based on a fairly simple idea, the correlation of the 'life' of humans and the universe. But someone, about 40,000 years ago, had to some up with it. As it is closely related to the concepts of the Paleolithic hunt, the rebirth of animals, and shamanism, it must have been a shaman who did so." (422)
Chapter three provides a detailed look at the sources and variations of what Witzel calls "Our First Novel", including lengthy quotes from published versions of world mythology. Witzel has given special place to old tellings of myth. "The earliest written codifications consist of the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, the (four major) Egyptian cosmogonies, the oral but--due to extremely faithful oral transmission--virtually "tape recorded" Vedic corpus, the Greek Theogony of Hesiod, the Japanese Kojiki, the Quiché Mayan Popol Vuh, the Hawai'ian Kumulipo, and not to forget, the Torah, the Hebrew Bible." (65) The point here being that, just as with older written texts the connections between cultures are clearer than in more recent texts.

One of the interesting contrasts of Laurasian and Gondwana mythology is cosmogony. The Laurasian stress on the creation of the universe is entirely absent in Gondwana mythologies (105). For these people the world has always existed and always will exist. By contrast creation is a particular fascination for the majority of the world's people (given that the Laurasian area takes in China, India and Indonesia, who between them account for half the population of the world, in addition to Europe and the Americas). Gondwana myth is concerned with the origins of people however.

In addition there are some stories which are found to be ubiquitous. Chief amongst these is the flood. According to a widespread, more or global story (178ff and 348ff) at some point a flood nearly wiped all of humanity except for a few survivors. Witzel treats this myth as a survival of a much older Gondwana story since it is found in Africa, New Guinea, Melanesia and Australia as well. And it has been intelligently incorporated into the Laurasian story line. It is one piece of evidence pointing to what Witzel calls Pan-Gaean Mythology that must have existed when the migration out of Africa began ca 65,000 years ago.

All this is interesting from a Buddhist point of view because the Buddhist universe is beginningless and endless and has no creation story. In Buddhist stories there no primordial chaos and no bringing the world into being and no interest such things. Though many people cite the Agañña Sutta as a creation myth in fact it represents a Śākyan parody of a Vedic myth. There are elements of the Vedic cosmogony of a cyclic creation and destruction overlaid on this substrata, but its clear that it is part of a much larger process of assimilating elements of Vedic culture (for example virtually all the names of the members of the Buddha's family, including Siddhartha, have Vedic overtones. See my essay Siddhartha Gautama: What's in a Name?). According to Witzel this absence is characteristic of the mythologies of Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and New Guinea. So this raises a question of how we relate Buddhism to Witzel's characterisation of world mythology. At first glance the basic Buddhist worldview would appear to be more like the Gondwana than the Laurasian. This is a subject that would require more study.

Witzel appears to have done something at once similar to, and yet vastly more far reaching than, Joseph Campbell's characterisation of the Hero's Journey. This overview can hardly do justice to the sweep of a 600+ page book that purports to describe 65,000 years of story telling and myth, though I hope that readers with an interest in myth and/or history will take up the challenge of reading it. It's clearly a book written by and for academics, but Witzel is a good writer who repays careful attention. I don't imagine the book would be beyond anyone who regularly reads this blog.

Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. Pbk: 978-0-19-981285-1
See also the article (2008) 'Slaying the Dragon Across Eurasia.' in In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Essays in the Four Fields of Anthropolog: In honor of Harold Crane Fleming. Ed. John D. Bengtson. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
See also Origins of Myth: The Other Evidence. 24 Jan 2014