Ecology, rhetoric or dumbing down? -- II

Simple solutions to complex problems may be appealing to many, and are successful in politics. But they are not suitable in scholarship, where manifold facts do not allow for a one-fits-all theory that takes care of complex subjects such as Indian prehistory.

DAVID FRAWLEY (Open Page, January 21) practises armchair ecology and history. This is true of his insistence that ancient civilisations, from the Nile to the Huang Ho, grew up on large rivers. Not that this is an exactly revolutionising idea. It was preached to all of us in high school, and the idea was in fact so ingrained that a great "link" culture, the Bactria Margiana Cultural Complex which evolved along the river deltas of this area, was largely overlooked until very recently. Equally so, neither the Olmec, Aztec, Maya, nor the Chibcha or Inca civilisations developed along large streams. Instead, they used clever ways to implement local irrigation in often very adverse climatic conditions. This was also how Mesopotamian, BMAC and subcontinental agriculture arose. Archaeologists would tell Frawley that the agricultural civilisations started out from the hills surrounding the great plains, both in Mesopotamia and S. Asia, and not in the flood plains of the Indus or the Tigris. In India, settled agricultural life began in places like Mehrgarh in E. Baluchistan (6500 BCE-), and slowly spread from these primitively but effectively irrigated hill areas over the Indus plains. Worse, Frawley's "Sarasvati" (Ghaggar-Hakra, with its delta lakes in Bahawalpur, cf. K.S. Valdiya River Sarasvati that disappeared, 2001) was reached still later (G. Possehl, Indus Civilization 2002: 34). However, Frawley simply imagines "water that is found in rivers, and flat land that can be easily irrigated."

He also wants to identify such beneficial, primordial riverine plains in the lower Gangetic valley where he imagines Vedic kingdoms at 10,000 BC and the "cradle of world wide civilisation" (Rajaram & Frawley 1995). "Ecologically speaking, north India was the ideal place in the world for the development of a riverine civilisation via agriculture." If so, why not in the geographically and ecologically very similar Congo or Amazon plains? Clearly, there are other factors in play as well. Frawley does not take notice.

Journal of Biosciences

Frawley's imagination, however, conjures up another mirage that is not supported by archaeology, a southern origin of Indian agriculture: "agriculture began to arise in the world around 10,000 BCE. Before the end of the Ice Age north India was much drier and cooler in climate. This means that if there was any pre-Ice Age basis for agriculture in north India it would have more likely come from these more suitable southern river regions which had better rainfall at that time." As mentioned, the beginnings of agriculture in India, only around 6500 BCE, lie elsewhere, in Baluchistan. The peninsula became Neolithic only from c. 2500 BCE onwards.

However, Frawley has found a way to explain South Indian civilisation as well — even while contradicting himself in the process. For, differently from his "southern origins of agriculture" around 10,000 BCE, he then says that the south must have got its culture from the Ganga — via the Sarasvati, which "in early ancient times ... flowed east [sic!] of the Yamuna into the Rann of Kachchh." From the supposed lower Sarasvati it is not far to the south, to the "Narmada and Tapti rivers in Gujarat and Maharashtra.... nearby the delta of the Sarasvati." Of course, in those early days, there simply was no agriculture that could be transported southwards, and in the Harappan and Vedic periods the "Sarasvati" ended in delta lakes in the deserts of the Panjab, near Ft. Derawar (Possehl 2002). Also, one of the three older "Sarasvatis" may have indeed have emptied into the Rann (Valdiya 2001), but it did so well before agriculture, when both N. and S. India were still in the deep Stone Age. The early farming societies that arose in the hills (Baluchistan, 6500 BCE) spread to the upper Ghaggar-Hakra "Sarasvati" only much later.

Further, S. India remained Neolithic down to the beginnings of the historical period, when a rapid shift to the Iron Age and to state formation took place, due to trade influences with the north and overseas (just as repeated, a little later, in S.E. Asia under Indian cultural, "elite kit" influence). All of this is well represented by the earliest Tamil inscriptions (I. Mahadevan, Early Tamil Epigraphy, Chennai & Harvard, March 2003) and by the genius of southern bards, collected in the Sangam texts — just as similar developments are captured by northern bards in the Mahabharata.

Clearly Frawley's imagination of an "ecological Sarasvati" North-South link simply is wrong; instead, we can observe a gradual spread of agriculture, out of Sindh, to the Gujarat/Maharashtrian Malwa and Jorwe cultures (c. 1700-900 BCE). In view of the rather different climatic and thus agricultural conditions (millet!) in the Deccan, it is just another fantasy to maintain: "cultures developing on the rivers in the south of the country ... shared a common climate."

All these ecological misconceptions apart, Frawley's paper still contains several much more serious glitches.

Frawley thinks that "Human culture derives largely from its first culture, which is agriculture." This may be a nice (Latin) "etymology," worthy of a Kratylos, Yaska, or rather a P.N. Oak, but it is a plain, uninformed fallacy. Worse, Frawley maintains that "Any humans in the region would have been aided by the land, the waters and the climate, affording them a great advantage in the development of language and culture."

It is news to any anthropologist or historian that agriculture was the first culture which humans developed, and that "language development" depends on agriculture and the intake of wheat, millet or rice. Both taken together, he presents us with a wholly new theory of human development: "You speak and think what you eat." Vaidika that he is, he nevertheless missed his Upanishadic "proof" (Chandogya Up. 6.7.5: `mind consists of food' annamayam ... manah) for this amazing theory.

By contrast, it is well-known that early Homo sapiens had developed highly complex systems of thought already by c. 30,000 BCE, as the evidence of the Stone Age rock paintings clearly shows, from Spain, France, the Sahara, Central India (Bhimbetka) to Australia and South Africa. The same can be seen in people who still live in Stone Age hunting or pastoralist societies. They all possess complex orally composed texts and rituals. For example, the Amerindian or Australian aborigines have long ritual texts, and the pastoralist, Turkic speaking Kirghiz have their Manas epic with 20,0000 verses, twice as long as the Mahabharata and still only partially printed. All of this was created without daily cereal intake that Frawley requires for the development of language and culture. If spiritual development depended on the state of agriculture, America would be the most spiritual country in the world... As always, Frawley's view is myopic, Indo-Centric, innocent of crucial (comparative) evidence — or he simply leaves out inconvenient data that do not support his pet ideas.

Frawley's "ecological" melange of great plains, rivers and a balmy climate cannot but lead him to one, predictable conclusion. "Therefore, we should look to an indigenous development of civilisation in the region. We need not import its people, animals, plants, culture or civilisation from the outside, particularly from barren and inhospitable Central Asia, for example, which would not have been suitable to India and which is separated from it geographically by very hard to cross mountain and desert barriers."

All Eurasians, South Asians included, have moved out of Africa, crossing the deserts and mountains of E. Iran, and such relations are also known right at the beginnings of settled life. Renfrew and Bellwood established migration pathways from Mesopotamia of wheat, barley, sheep, and cattle, reaching India by 6000 BCE. In Sanskrit, wheat is called godhuuma "cow smoke" — an early popular etymology again worthy of a P.N. Oak, but hardly an original local designation. Instead, it is derived from the West Asian (Hittite, etc.) khant, and more directly from the predecessor of Iranian (Avest.) gant-uma (Witzel, EJVS 1999).

Frawley's "inhospitable" Iranian "desert barriers" have not stopped anyone. In the third millennium BCE trade between Mesopotamia and India proceeded overland and by sea; in addition, millet was first introduced from Africa and was adopted then, by and large, in the dryer areas of the Deccan. The archaeo-botanist D. Fuller (London) has shown that southern Indian crops such as mung bean and foxtail millet appeared in the Deccan at 2800 BCE, but wheat and barley only about 2200 BCE. They were "held up" for some 3000 years in the northwest, before monsoon-tolerant wheat could be developed (Science Magazine 294, 2001, 989).

Nothing of all of this in Frawley. What he presents is just currently fashionable "indigenist" propaganda, contradicted by what any serious archaeologist tells us, and — in the case of Mesopotamia — even written documents of the third millennium BCE. South Asia was neither then, nor later on, isolated from the rest of the world.

Frawley's indigenism, or shall we say, "Indo-Centrism," is clearly stated: "so far we have looked at history mainly in a non-ecological way, mainly trying to define it according to political, economic or racial concerns" ... with "too much weight on migration, as if culture came from the outside, rather than on the characteristics and necessities of the ecosystems." Ecology apart, certain plants (wheat, millet) and animals (horse, camel) clearly have been imported from the west, from outside India, as linguistics, archaeology, genetics and palaeontology combined tell us (for earliest Indian horses, see now R. Meadow in Journal of Indo-European Studies 2003). Some indigenists, Frawley included, however, simply know better — against all of world-wide science.

No scholar, of course, maintains that everything has been imported. People import what they find useful. There are many South Asian success stories of domestication as well, such as Frawley's "Brahma bull" (that then made it into early Africa) or a host of local plants. Yet, we must recognise that India was not isolated even then from the steady current of transcontinental exchanges. This negates Frawley's now fashionable claim that any acknowledgment of outside influence must be due to "nineteenth century thought — the product of a colonial age — (which) found it easy to see culture as something brought in by intruders." He forgets traders. This sentence is, as expected, just the prelude to the Frawleyan mantra: "the Aryan invasion theory ... (as) a product of the pre-ecological age." Let us not go there again, as this is nothing but polemics. How will Frawley's indigenist books measure up 50 years from now — or indeed even today?

What we get in this article is old indigenist fare in a new, disposable, bio-friendly ecological wrapping. The "new" view remains contradictory, woefully uninformed in many of the humanities and sciences involved, and is simply fantastic in many respects. Frawley's is a simple-minded, monolateral view of history and, in the light of his "thought from food" discovery, even of spirituality, though coming from a staunch, self-avowed spiritualist. The allegedly "simplistic ideas of ethnicity, linguistics or migrations" have been replaced by a view of human development that is simplistically linear, monomaniac and clearly ahistorical as far as India is concerned. His effort aims at a dumbing down of readers for the nth time.

Simple solutions to complex problems may be appealing to many, and are successful in politics. But they are not suitable in scholarship, where manifold facts do not allow for a one-fits-all theory that takes care of complex subjects such as Indian prehistory. The study and writing of history should be guided by deliberations based on scholarship, not by religiously or politically motivated fashion.



Harvard University

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