Who’s the barbarian now? Empires of the Silk Road

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If there is one word that is applicable to Empires of the Silk Road, Christopher I. Beckwith’s magnum opus, it would be dense. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is a complement of similar density and topical intersection (they do not quite overlap, and The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is missing from the bibliography of Empires of the Silk Road). A quick perusal of Beckwith’s ouvre shows that he writes history from the center. What we might term the Ecumene he calls the “periphery.” Page after page he defends the “barbarians” of the Heartland against the slander of peripheral scribblers. Though in the introduction the author takes a stand against both the Whiggishness of much of Modernism and the vacuous relativism of Post-Modernism, this work is clearly written as something of a corrective, not an objective treatment where all scales are balanced with care, caution and precision.

One of the themes of Empires of the Silk Road which distinguishes it from most pre-modern history is its mobility, scope and breadth, of space. A history of ancient Egypt or the Roman Empire spans centuries, and even millennia. But their geographic expanse is limited. Roman expeditions to eastern Germany shock and surprise, but the Roman Empire was fundamentally a polity of the western periphery of Eurasia. In contrast Beckwith’s subject matter naturally pushes the boundaries to a far greater extent. For example, the flight of the Avars, who dominated what is today Hungary for several centuries, covers from what is today Mongolia to the Danubian plain in less than 10 years! It is a common assert that before the modern era a typical human would be born, live and die with a 10 mile radius. The exact number of miles is irrelevant, the moral is that one wishes to project a sense of incredible spatial stasis which we modern people could not comprehend. Similarly, the fashion in archaeology to assert that a shift in culture as evident through artifact is never through migration, but always through communication, internalizes this assumption. But the reality is that this assumption is only valid for the vast peasantry of peripheral societies (if even there), not for hunter-gatherers, nomads and those who practice mixed-lifestyles. In other words, not for the peoples of the Eurasian Heartland which is the subject of Empires of the Silk Road. The very high likelihood that much of what we today call Xinjiang was inhabited by peoples of Western provenance is one of those “mysteries of the ancient world” which surprises us, but that’s because we’re the descendants of peasants who are conditioned to assume that pre-moderns were immobile! Conversely, the descriptions of some of the more exotic nomadic groups which arrived on the Central European plain after the collapse of the Roman Empire strongly hint at an East Eurasian provenance for an element of these hordes (the physical characterizations of the Huns and Avars seem qualitativey different from that of Scythians and Samartians).

There are two great pulses, Volkerwanderung, which loom large in Beckwith’s narrative, that of the Indo-Europeans and of the Turks. The former is always much more difficult than the latter because in the case of the Turks we have copious records from other groups as to their appearance on the margins of major civilized states. In contrast, when the Indo-Europeans were on the march there was very little widespread literacy, and what there was was often devoted to the kind tedious accounting which dominate the Linear B tablets. The model in Empires of the Silk Road seems to lean strongly on Robert Drews’ The Coming of the Greeks, chariot riding martial elites swooping down on the settled peripheral civilizations from the Eurasian Heartland, and rapidly generating synthetic creole cultures in a matter of centuries if not decades. In Beckwith’s telling the Indo-Europeans mastered the horse and chariot, and used these technological advances to take over civilized states, though he suggests that instead of full-frontal attack the norm would much more likely be that warbands were invited or their services purchased by the settled elites. Only after this period service would the Indo-European warriors rebel and take over the reigns of power (think the takeover of Britain by Anglo-Saxons after their having been brought over as mercenaries by native warlords). This specific model of servitude is assumed to be an instantiation of a general dynamic which characterizes the ethos of the Heartland, fealty of the comitatus to a leader who they will follow ’till death. We are familiar with this in its classical form among the Mongols or the Japanese samurai, but Beckwith suggests that Islamicized Turks and Christianized Franks continued to express some of the values of this ethos even after repudiation of its more extreme aspect of collective suicide in case of the death of the leader. This sort of non-kin based group cohesion can often be very powerful, and even if it is the exception historically in many societies, these exceptional periods can sometimes serve as hinges which determine the course of nations. The Arabs are a kin-based society, but the presence of non-kin among the Muhajirun, and the obvious non-kin status of the Ansar, is notable as it was they who helped Muhammad rise to power. Though the early Muslim movement was co-opted by the Umayyad clan, it nevertheless relied on an esprit de corps which was not kin-based in its early decades (though it was to a great extent ethnically based, see The Great Arab Conquests).

Though the effect of the chariot in the short term, and Indo-European languages in the long term, are not dismissed, one of the interesting suggestions made in Empires of the Silk Road is that perhaps more critical is the role that Indo-European nomads, and perhaps in particular North Iranians, played as facilitators, communicators and even originators, of ideas and technologies across Eurasia. It is not an exaggeration to note that sometimes Beckwith seems to see Indo-Europeans everywhere. The most controversial and perhaps tendentious claim (which he admits is not the scholarly consensus) is that Indo-Europeans may have played an essential formative role in the emergence of Shang & Zhou China. In particular, it is known that some elements of the culture of the Shang elite is of western origin, in particular the style of chariot warfare. It is also known that the Zhou were a semi-barbarian group from western China, and Beckwith makes a philological argument that the maternal lineage of the Zhou are not Tibetan barbarians, but Indo-European ones. He even goes so far as to offer that perhaps the original Chinese language was Indo-European, now overlain by the indigenous substrate so as to be unrecognizable. I find this last to be rather implausible, but then I know little philology so I can’t critique it technically. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we know that Indo-Europeans were a presence in ~2000 BCE in what is today western China, and some aspects of technology were transmitted from them. My skepticism is partly due to the fact that the Han populations of China are genetically very distinct from those of West and Central Eurasia. The Europoid remains from Xinjiang have had enough of their DNA extracted so as that we know that on many genes where Europeans and Chinese are disjoint in frequency, so were they. Additionally, some historical remains of individuals who were claimed to be of western origin have been analyzed, and yes, they were West Eurasian. The thinness of distinctive West Eurasian genes in China proper, genes which are found in abundance among the Uighurs, shows that there were limits to the genetic admixture in this case, to the point where the indigenous substrate totally absorbed and marginalized the exogenous input. This may explain why even if Indo-European warbands had a critical role to play as a cultural stimulus among the elites of the North China plain they seem to have left a rather marginal biological impact.

The contrast with India is illustrative, as there are candidates for genes which the Indo-Europeans brought. Not only that, but the sex asymmetry in terms of genome content is very striking in South Asia, exactly in the direction which Beckwith would argue insofar as they are roving bands of males who engage in societal takeover. India naturally does seem to have a highly creolized culture, most manifest in the Indo-Aryan languages of northern India which show many hallmarks of being the synthetic product of local dialects and an intrusive language. The author barely even manages to conceal his contempt for South Asian nationalists who make arguments to the effect that Aryans were indigenous to South Asia. I think that though the tone could have been a bit more scholarly, anyone who looks as the total range of data from all Indo-European traditions can not escape the conclusion that the probability that Indo-Europeans originated in South Asia is very low, to the point of triviality. He exhibits the same attitude toward those who argue for a deep history of Indo-Europeans in Greece or Anatolia, sentiments with which I sympathize and am in general agreement, but, I would have liked the arguments sketched out in more detail rather than asserted blithely (the footnotes on this topic often don’t satisfy since Beckwith cites his future work!).

One interesting facet of the story in Empires of the Silk Road seems to be the winner-take-all and positive-feedback-loop dynamic which reoccurs. The spread of the Indo-European languages is rather amazing, and invites more scholarly interest, but that is not where the story stops. Beckwith notes that for much of antiquity the heart of Asia was dominated by one group of Indo-Europeans, the Northern Iranians. The term “Iranian” here is something of a misnomer, as groups such as Scythians, Samartians and Alans may have had little to do with the contemporary Iran. Rather, the peoples of modern Iran speak a language which is related to the dialects of the Scythians. Up until fall of Rome the Northern Iranian nomads drove all others before them. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the Iranians displaced the Indo-Aryans from the plateau of what later became Persia, and Herodotus seems to describe peoples under Scythian hegemony who would later become Slavs and Balts.

This winner-take-all dynamic repeats with the Turks, who swept the Iranians from the plains of Central Eurasia after marginalizing other groups such as the Avars in their climb to the top. What was so special about the Turks? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps to some extent this is a stochastic process which is characterized by positive-feedback-loops, someone has to win, and winners become even more powerful over the course of time. Eventually these great confederations which have eaten dozens of other smaller confederations expand until they lap up against the margins of peripheral civilizations, at which point the scribes of the settled marvel as to the savage superhuman nature of the nomads at the gates. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World the author clearly implies that Temujin’s personal qualities were essential in allowing for the mobilization of the whole Mongol nation. He notes in particular his rejection of kin-based favoritism and elevation of his comitatus (he does not use that word, but same difference) as critical ingredients in scaling up the Mongol war-machine. But do note that the Mongols had risen before, under Genghis Khan’s great-grandfather Khabul Khan, and been crushed by the Tatars. Perhaps Khabul Khan had all the necessary personal qualities, but the fates did not smile upon him, and now he is simply a footnote in history. The domain of the Goturks in the 6th century was nearly was expansive as that of Genghis Khan in his lifetime, but most readers of this weblog are likely unaware of the Goturks. Why? Some of this is simply that the Goturks crested at a lower maximum of territory, but some of it is simply that in the mid-500s much of peripheral civilization was in low ebb and so the Goturks did not come into conflict with the lettered lands (in fact, the Turks were often used sought out as allies against the true barbarians at the gates).

What I’m trying to say about the importance of positive-feedback-loops is not going to shock and surprise anyone. The larger the Roman or Persian Empire got, the more resources were at their disposal. So the more likely victory against other powers became (though at a certain point holding territory becomes more difficult due to diminishing returns on force projection with more numbers). But the parameters are somewhat different in the center. Rome took centuries to reach its “climax” configuration under Augustus (with only changes at the margins under Trajan, etc.). In contrast, most of the area of the Mongol Empire was conquered within 20 years. 30 years after the death of Genghis Khan Baghdad was sacked, and 50 years later all of China was finally conquered. It is understandable why the rate of conquest slowed as the Mongols pushed into the periphery; capture of the territory of nomads by nomads is far different from the taking and holding of cities, or the pacification of mountains. But winner-take-all dynamics on the plains of Eurasia did result in a series of polities which had the numbers and expertise to learn the game of peripheral states, and beat them at it, repeatedly. The Mongols famously learned siege warfare in in the process of conquering China, while the Ottomans hired European gunners, and the Huns made recourse to infantry in forested regions. But the size of their forces due to winner-take-all dynamics, and the cohesion of the comitatus, served them in good stead until the natural decay of soft civilization set in.

About which, Christopher Beckwith has serious objections to the characterizations which posit dichotomies between the soft sedentary and barbarian hardy nomads. He correctly points out that most “nomads” were not pure nomads, but lived a mixed lifestyle (hunting, herding and farming). Additionally, there’s plenty of evidence that disgruntled peasants could turn roving brigand when authority was disrupted. So the boundaries between the two are not so clear cut (also, whole populations seem to have switched between settled farming and nomadic animal husbandry several times). The idea of the nomad as the born warrior is also exaggerated, and Beckwith points out the widespread literary evidence which attest to the love of luxury and laziness of the nomad populations (they’re humans). And as evidence of the hardiness of peasants, he offers the examples of the citizen soldiers of Republican Rome (before Marius’ reforms) and the Greek hoplites who formed the famous phalanx. Good points all, but Beckwith protests too much. He asserts repeatedly that the peoples of Central Eurasia tended to be larger and more well fed than the peasants of the periphery. Why? In a pre-modern society the population would push up against the Malthusian limit, so why were the nomads larger? To some extent this was a function of their higher quality diet in regards to meat and milk, but one might suppose that another issue was that there were greater ecological fluctuations which culled the nomad populations in a manner which was more extreme than among peasants. I bring this hypothesis up because in Empires of the Silk Road this particular problem, starvation due to theft of livestock of their deaths (disease?) is introduced as one issue which made the life of the nomad more uncertain than that of the peasant. But another factor may simply be interpersonal violence on the plains. If the peasant toiled on the margins under the boot of their sedentary nobles, they were often shielded from the sort of violence we read about in the raids common among herders. These facts lead me to contend that that Beckwith overemphasizes the symmetry between nomad and peasant when it comes to their viability as fighters. Finally, I think the body of evidence implies that nomadic populations did mobilize a greater fraction of their able bodied males in organized violence than peasant-based societies (consider Imperial Rome with its professionalized army). This would naturally give the average nomadic male more martial skills simply through experience.

Before I go to the most explosive contentions of Empires of the Silk Road, let me address a peculiar set of chapters near the end of the book. These chapters throw repeated polemical salvos at “Modernism.” They attack populism, democracy, and the overall degeneracy of contemporary “high culture.” Though they make the factual observation that the old architecture and traditions of Central Eurasia have been totally decimated by Modernist ideology, specifically Communism, the bigger issue here seems to be that Christopher Beckwith objects vociferously to the general slant of the Modernist era in culture. Though I have some sympathy with this, these sections of the book read rather uncomfortably next to the great mass of erudite, if assertive, scholarship which is the majority of the narrative. It is clear that Beckwith believes that Modernism is a base expression of human preferences, and that our better nature has its origins in the genius of the Heartland.

About that genius, the proposition is forwarded by Beckwith that the philosophical production of the Axial Age may have something to due to the facilitative or even original contributions of the peoples of Central Eurasia. As noted above these were peoples who could span great distances in short periods of time, so in some ways it is plausible that they would be the “Pony Express” of their age. Beckwith notes that at least one philosopher who resettled in Greece was Scythian, so the peoples of the Steppe may have been familiar with philosophy. Some of the ideas originated by the Greeks, Indians and Chinese seem eerily similar, while the religious genius of the Jews and ancient Iranians was also operative during this period. Zoroaster is likely a figure of Central Eurasia, not the sedentary world of Fars.

The simultaneous aspect of the Axial Age is rather peculiar. If you are a theist who believes in an active God this is one historical epoch which would seem a likely candidate for divine intervention. Barring that, though I am not convinced by Beckwith’s hypothesis, I think a less ambitious model which posits the Central Eurasians not as drivers but as enablers of the spread of ideas is plausible. The civilized areas of the periphery were expanding during this period so they would be in more intimate contact with the Heartland than before, and also naturally more culturally productive because of gains of efficiency due to scale. There are cases later in history where the trade routes and peoples of Central Eurasia were critical in the spread of ideas: Buddhism became a religion of East Asia almost certainly through the cities of Central Eurasia. Islam also spread through the same trade routes, from the Crimean Tatars in the west to the Uighurs in the east. Finally, as Arnold Toynbee observed Far Eastern Christianity spread along these routes, during the time of Genghis Khan most of the tribes of western Mongolia was nominally of Nestorian Orthodox Christian affiliation.

In keeping with Beckwith’s thesis that in the period between 2000-1000 BCE a series of cultures arose as syntheses between Indo-Europeans and the sedentary polities of distant antiquity he concludes that Central Eurasians are the spiritual ancestors of modern people, and not the Sumerians, or Egyptians, or the people of the Indus Valley civilization. This is naturally a contentious point. It is for example often noted that of the gods of ancient Greece only Zeus is of undisputed Indo-European origin, even the Mycenaean Greeks may mostly have been culturally indigenized! (or barely Indo-Europeanized if you invert it) Buddhism, arguably India’s most impacting cultural export, has been argued by many scholars to be one example of a reemergence of some of South Asia’s indigenous religious strands after a period of Vedic Indo-Aryan cultural domination. And so on. I can grant that the ethos of the Heartland was powerful, the expanse of the Indo-European and Turkic languages are manifest evidence of this, but I am not eager to abandon one biased narrative from another. The nature of modern civilization, and its antecedents, are complex. Empires of the Silk Road is admirable at exploring one particular neglected strand, but I’d rather not turn that tree into the forest just yet.

Note: I want to emphasize that did not touch upon many aspects of Christopher Beckwith’s argument. When I say that the book is dense, I mean it is dense.



  1. Beckwith’s anti-modernism should appeal to Mencius here. He said some interesting things, but basically it was grumpy old man stuff, and not really appropriate to the rest of the book. (I looked at his Indiana U. Home page, and he’s not that old — 64).  
    He’s an old-style philologist, historical linguist and orientalist of the oreintalizing type. His linguistic writings look impressive — history must be sort of a sideline, though he does very well. The skills of the two disciplines are quite different, though both involve lots of detail work. 
    The four Amazon reviews gave it 4-3-2-1 stars. No one dared to give zero. The low rankings were because it was too technical (sorry, gut, if you don’t know who the Avars are, for example, this book isn’t for you), and because the anti-modernism was offensive. (I actually skipped the polemical chapter.) 
    The military aristocracies of the world, especially in Eurpose and the Islamic world, all have distinguishing traits also prominent in Central Asia: the hawk, the horse, and the hound, for example. Long distance traders also have to nomads and their seagoing equivalents. Since the steppe-settled (barabarian-civilized) boundary was always permeable, with military talent going from the steppe to the sedentary world and often becoming political power, you never had a clear oil-and-water separation at all, and you can really talk about the nomadic aspect of the settled world.  
    Likewise there is a constant sedentary aspect of the nomad world, which consumes many products it can’t produce and is heavily dependent both on trade with the settled world, and in taxing transit trade between the settled empires.  
    In many respects civilization tends toward conservativism and stagnation, with a state and state a religion emphasizing control, the suppression of merchants and long-distance traders, cautious peasants wanting to preserve what they have, and the fear of the outsider. This is only an ideal type but in some cases (some Chinese dynasties, some Ottoman periods, and perhaps the Habsburgs and Romanaffs during some periods). By contrast the steppe elements of the civilized world represent change (through war and long-distance trade) and at times, progress. 
    Obviously this is a Big Idea of an unrespectable kind, and I wouldn’t want to put too much weight on it, but whan you oook at a “medieval empire” and try to sort out the tendencies toward stagnation and toward change, the steppe-like elements tend toward change (for better or worse) and the civilized elements (orthodox religion, legitimacy, the ideologies of control, peasant custom) tend toward stagnation.

  2. Beckwith’s attitude that you describe is very similar to that of Robert E. Howard’s. Conan the Cimmerian was the heroic (yet barbaric) foil to the perceived degeneracy of the modern age and the modern man. Both authors seem to share a similar contempt for the rule laden sedentary lifestyle of civilization as contrasted to the more dynamic societies of the nomads and otherwise semi-barbarous peoples. 
    I on the other hand believe this to be nothing more than romanticist myth making. If the societies of the nomads were so superior, why were they constantly seeking to invade and plunder the “peripheries” of sedentary civilization and not the other way around. Why did the nomadic peoples keep wanting to migrate further and further into settled lands? The sounds of marching feet rings truer than the music of poets’ verse.  
    It probably really sucked to live on the Eurasian steppes, even more so than slaving away on a field of dirt as a peasant. Say what you will about farm life, but most people would probably consider it preferable to living under the tender mercies of some two kopeck chieftain whose duty is to protect you from the predations of another two kopeck warlord several hills over. I suspect the average person then as now did not find an existence subject to such random and prolific violence to be as admirable when alternatives existed.

  3. If the societies of the nomads were so superior, why were they constantly seeking to invade and plunder the “peripheries” of sedentary civilization and not the other way around. Why did the nomadic peoples keep wanting to migrate further and further into settled lands? The sounds of marching feet rings truer than the music of poets’ verse.  
    this is not really true. the “circle of civilization” kept expanding into the domain of the nomads too. evident if you read the history of the persian, roman or chinese empires. additionally, the running away of peasants across borders was also a real phenomenon. on the borders between the “peasants” and “nomads” the two groups actually weren’t nearly as different as one might assume. 
    in any case, beckwith seems to suggest there are two reasons for nomad invasions: 
    1) cuz they could. many other historians, such as adrian goldsworthy in how rome fell suggest that “barbarian invasions” aren’t an issue with a polity is robust and vigorous. the ability of nomads to strike deep into states only becomes an issue when the states are weak. 
    2) the same reason that europeans bullied asian states during the “age of discovery,” to trade and facilitate trade, which physiocratic sedentary trades discouraged.

  4. on a specific case of sedentary expansion, a chinese case you should: the chin and han pushed out the boundaries of the chinese state to the north considerably. the ordos campaigns are rather famous. the conflict with the xiongnu was to some extent a byproduct of new found proximity, though it also seems that the people of the eastern steppe learned a whole new cultural toolkit during this period (that is, they hadn’t been very nomadic).

  5. Beckwith’s attitude that you describe is very similar to that of Robert E. Howard’s. Conan the Cimmerian was the heroic (yet barbaric) foil to the perceived degeneracy of the modern age and the modern man. Both authors seem to share a similar contempt for the rule laden sedentary lifestyle of civilization as contrasted to the more dynamic societies of the nomads and otherwise semi-barbarous peoples. 
    there is some truth to this characterization, but i didn’t emphasize to the extent that beckwith doesn’t think that the barbarians are that barbarian in any case. or that the peasant populations aren’t that soft. i probably think there is more of a disjunction than he does.

  6. In many respects civilization tends toward conservativism and stagnation, with a state and state a religion emphasizing control, the suppression of merchants and long-distance traders, cautious peasants wanting to preserve what they have, and the fear of the outsider. This is only an ideal type but in some cases (some Chinese dynasties, some Ottoman periods, and perhaps the Habsburgs and Romanaffs during some periods) 
    stagnation to some extent is good for sedentary states, because it means that they’re existence to the next generation has a higher probability of success. OTOH, the nomad confederacies are relatively ephemeral anyhow, unless they sedentarize like the ottomans or moghuls did. the fixation on tradition in many climax sedentary civilizations seems perverse, but i think the reality is that they were paper tigers and need to stabilize themselves in any way possible. 
    the post-malthusian world has different rules of course.

  7. also, i did not mention this, but beckwith emphasizes that today’s modern states & cities have a relationship to what he terms “littoral societies,” that is, maritime. these are distinct from the peripheral ones. e.g., england (littoral) vs. the hapsburg empire (periphal). in many ways these littoral societies do seem to share more with the nomads in deep values than either do with the periphery, insofar as they are less invested in stasis.

  8. Indian languages and religion have a clear external influence, but the evidence is murkier on population movements. The R1a1 marker doesn’t look definitely Indo-European, as many Southern tribes (such as the Chenchu now looking for the lost chief of Andhra Pradesh) bear it. The caste studies you point to all compare Southern brahmins to other Southern caste populations; this may be simply be a north/south difference as many southern brahmin populations have northern ancestry, and their “non-Indian” ancestry is in line with reported figures from other northern populations. Nor can the admixture be isolated into Indo-European as opposed to, say, other numerous historically attested migrations into India (Jats, Rajputs, Bajara, etc.).  
    Introduction of ideas outside the immediate environs of Greece seems highly unlikely given their xenophibia; though Zorastrianism quite possibly influenced Christianity.

  9. Indian languages and religion have a clear external influence, but the evidence is murkier on population movements 
    Nor can the admixture be isolated into Indo-European as opposed to, say, other numerous historically attested migrations into India (Jats, Rajputs, Bajara, etc.).  
    yes. though most of these were probably indo-european (e.g., “sakas”). 
    the genetic data are confused, and i do think skepticism of r1a is warranted. but the contrast with china is very strong in terms of the possibilities for exogenous input. additionally, though one can make the case that all of the west eurasian lineages which are now extent in south asia at very low frequencies (i’m not talking about R1a here, but haplotypes which are more certainly of west eurasian provenance) were of recent origin (sakas, turco-persians, etc.), combined with the non-genetic data it seems that we should admit a high likelihood that some of these are due to pre-historical migrations. 
    Introduction of ideas outside the immediate environs of Greece seems highly unlikely given their xenophibia; though Zorastrianism quite possibly influenced Christianity. 
    peoples don’t have fixed natures. there are many ways in which the classical greeks seem to be a sharp break from mycenaeans, one reason why before michael ventris deciphered linear B many scholars discounted the idea that mycenaeans spoke greek. additionally, it isn’t true that the greeks were hyper-xenophobic in the way you are characterizing them even the classical era. yes, they were xenophobic, but some of their cultural traditions pointed to egypt, or even the gymnosophists of india, as the point of origin for some ideas which the greeks propounded. others point to autochthounous origins. the truth of this is less important than the fact that there was a debate in the first place. additionally, the philosophers who congregated to athens during its golden age were disproportionately from ionia, which was a multicultural melting pot (greek colonies were generally founded by men without women, the women were almost always indigenes who were wooed or kidnapped). 
    as for zoroastrianism, it was highly influential on exilic judaism, and so through that on both islam and christianity. later it was more directly influential on islam, and to a lesser extent christianity.* the influence of zoroastrianism upon the abrahamic religions is so obvious that the tentativeness of your assertion is unwarranted. 
    * the indirect effect upon christianity through judaism may actually be higher than the direct effect on islam. but i haven’t thought about it in detail.

  10. btw, beckwith argues that many of the institutional features of islam derived from the encounter with buddhism in central asia. e.g., vihara -> madrassa. and of course some of the prominent figures in the abbasid court came from a buddhist background. he also makes the argument that avestan was an iranicized indo-aryan language, and that therefore zoroastrianism is by origins an indo-aryan religion. finally, there are many suggestions by other scholars that some structures which become common among abrahamic religions, such as monasticism among christians, might have dharmic diffusionist roots. buddhists were known in alexandria in the centuries before christ, so the general ideas of that religion were probably in wide circulation (though distorted). the story of barlaam and ioasaph show how this sort of thing can happen more recently.

  11. The bit about “littoral” societies as nomadic reminded me of Franz Oppenheimer.

  12. Unlike the Hellenistic Greeks (ie, Questions of King Milinda), the Classical Greeks did not hold a high opinion of Indian wisdom. The impact of an occasional holy man cannot be discounted, but the total lack of any mention of Indians present in classical Greek sources is telling. Indians seem not to have passed the mouth of the Red Sea, and no embassies were recorded before Augustus. While gymnosophists receive much attention, it is their extraordinary ascetic and sensational acts (ie, Zarmaros’ self-immolation) that receives attention, rather than the justification for those acts. Whatever Greek attention was paid to foreign religions was far removed from textual sources; even in the Hellenistic era, few Greeks appear to have read Egyptian, Zoroastrian, or Indian texts. Even if they did read them, the cultural gap between the Greeks and others would have been huge. Convergent evolution would seem a more likely reason for the Axial age, rather than direct influences.

  13. Claim of ancient Chinese civilization xia, shang, zhou found by Indo-european was developed long ago with concept of `master race’ idea. It is hard to believe such claim for China when there is even no trace of linguistic or genetic mark left behind. India might be good example of such claim though.

  14. If the societies of the nomads were so superior, why were they constantly seeking to invade and plunder the “peripheries” of sedentary civilization and not the other way around.  
    Because the could, and the sedentary peoples couldn’t.  
    Nomads honored violence, but so did the Greeks, Romans, and medieval Europeans.

  15. It is hard to believe such claim for China when there is even no trace of linguistic or genetic mark left behind. 
    there is linguistic evidence in terms particular technologies borrowed. i think perhaps a good model for what happened in china would be the hyksos in egypt. these people did not replace the language or the core culture of egypt, but they left a strong imprint via the widespread adoption of chariots and the like. 
    Because the could, and the sedentary peoples couldn’t.  
    again, this is false. going “native” is probably universal. the borders between sedentary and nomad were generally rather fluid, with a lot of hybridization.

  16. My first comment was about the last chapter or two and the scattered crankiness. I neglected to make my main point, which is that this is a great book with lots of great stuff at various levels (fact, interpretation, analysis, etc.) Probably you need a fair familiarity with the material to appreciate it much.

  17. “Civilized nations couldn’t”: much of the the steppe was never ruled by a civilized nation before the Russian conquest in the 18th and 19th centuries. China made incursions into Inner Mongolia, but not Outer Mongolia until the 19th century. Turkestan (Xinjiang and the Turkish Republics) were contested by China and Alexander the Great, but their rule was never secure. 
    Turkestan is really a hybrid zone: civilized urban oases surrounded by open spaces unsuitable for agriculture (desert and steppe). The individual cities tended to affiliate as free units with whoever seemed most powerful, and switch loyalties whenever convenient. (The Mongols were able to defeat the Khwarizmians in considerable part because the Shah could not maintain the loyalty of significant parts of his enormous, patched-together empire. The Shah appears in history as a weak, pitiful figure, but before the Mongols showed up he was moving into the Middle East and even had a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula).

  18. Ask any linguist about the Oracle Bone language of the Shang and they?ll tell you it?s definitely Sinitic and most definitely not Indo?European?I?ve looked at it myself to know that much?Archaeological-wise? besides the chariot what is Indo-European about the Xia-Shang-Zhou? It?s basically a Neolithic Liangzhu ?actually in the Yangtze Delta? which makes it Southern? core with Dawenkou and Hongshan influences? 
    His claims are pretty far out? biased? and follow a long tradition of Orientalists making outrageous claims on Chinese civilization? He should?ve stopped at IE loan words such as ?horse??

  19. Thanks.

  20. His claims are pretty far out? biased 
    he admits that.

  21. Victor Mair has been working on the IE influences on Early China for some time. As I piece it together, there was major early contact with the Tokharians and later contact with the various Iranian peoples. Certainly elite contact, but possibly also more extensive interchange.  
    There was an apparent break at about the middle of the Shang dynasty during the reign of Pán G?ng. (The later period was sometimes called Yin Shang. Dates are uncertain but the Yin era began around 1300. This would be a candidate for the entry of IE influence in force. (KC Chang, “Shang Civilization”, read some time ago. I don’t think Chang mentions the IE theory). 
    Shang has always been recognized by the Chinese as ancestral but cruel and barbarous — a step on the way to real civilization. The succeeding Chou civilization has always been the Chinese ideal. Finding IE influences in Shang would not really damage the Chinese origin legend much at all. 
    There is also a pretty good argument that Shang and earlier proto-Chinese were in some kind of cultural contact with Pacific coastal peoples of the Americas. At the moment I cannot find good documentation of this on the internet, since the internet is flooded with speculative amateur stuff.  
    Both theories would make the Shang into proto-Chinese or pre-Chinese, which is not really much different than they’ve always been thought to be.

  22. John Emerson: except Beckwith argues that the Zhou, too, were “non-Chinese,” and that the Zhou maternal line was “probably Indo-European.” This would make almost the entirety of early Chinese history Indo-European (if you also believe the Shang era entrance), which seems suspicious – how could such a large impact, akin to the founding of a civilization, not be reflected at the genetic or linguistic level? Everywhere else the Indo-Europeans went, the descendant populations have marked Indo-European traits and ended ups peaking an Indo-European language. Why would the Chinese be exempt? 
    My own thought is that too little credence is given to the possibility that the Eastern Eurasians were also active at this time – not in Central Asia, but perhaps in Siberia and Manchuria. Koreans claim that they were part of the Scytho-Siberian cultural sphere in ancient days. If this is true, then there might have been a diffusion into China from the Eastern steppes. This would preserve China’s genetic composition and also explain the extensive word borrowing from Indo-European by Old Chinese, since the Eastern Eurasian steppes would’ve had contact with the West Eurasian steppes, which were dominated by the Indo-Europeans.

  23. Beckwith definitely make the maximal case and in the end I think he’ll have to pull back. 
    A point I’ve made with regard to the Turks is that there is no Turkish race any more, if there ever was one. The Turks expanded their range continuously starting as early as 100 AD, and at every point they were intermarrying: by voluntary alliance, by kidnapping and capture, by fotering and adoption, and so on. The Turks (and other steppe peoples) were highly mobile, travelling hundreds of miles to find a bride even in peacetime, and there were really no structures causing the production of definable racial groups — the opposite of the Iceland (island) effect, where a genetically definable group came into being over time even though all of its ancestors are known and none of them are exotic. 
    So imagine that the Tokharians were mixed race after a thousand years or so (I believe that the archeology confirms this) and perhaps mostly bilingual too, and they neighbor on the Chou (Zhou), intermarry with them, learn the Zhou language in some cases and teach their own. 
    By this method you could have enough contact to explain the data Mair and Beckwith are working with, without a great deal of genetic evidence even at the time, and over the course of centuries the genetic evidence would be diluted to disappearance. (This mostly assumes that Yin and Zhou conquests were elite replacement, with already-existing substrates.) 
    There are a couple of welsome changes I’ve seen in my lifetime. One is big history — Eurasian rather than national or areal history. The second is to take serious contact as the default, rather than taking isolation as the default. Indo-European influence on China, Persian influence on Greece and Israel, and Muslim influence on medieval Europe are four cases where I think that the cultural (and racial) influence has been mistakenly minimized for various good and bad reasons.  
    In short, probably neither the Shang nor the Zhou “were” Indo-Europeans (i.e Tokharians). But some of their ancestors may have been, and culturally they may have been significantly “Indo-Europeanized”.

  24. i’m enjoying the comments. just a note, let’s keep discussions free from casting aspersions of “orientalism” or what not. this is 2009, not 1809. i think that beckwith’s assertions in many areas are a bit too far, but it sounds like that’s more of a function of a tibet and central eurasia focused academic philologist talking about what he knows about without knowing what he doesn’t know. though for the record, i found the author’s support for the thesis that old chinese is at its root indo-european rather thin in the text (excepting obvious lexicon which is borrowed). i’d like to get john’s perception.

  25. A point I’ve made with regard to the Turks is that there is no Turkish race any more, if there ever was one 
    this is true. but, let us observe that the frequency of “eastern” alleles, that is, genetic variants more common in eastern eurasia, drops off proportionally from the altai. there is also a secondary component i think of lifestyle; those groups who remained nomadic more did not admix as much as those which became sedentary. so, the uyghurs of the tarim basin are probably turkicized tokharians and other western eurasian types, and so their genes are about 50/50 “east” and “west.” in contrast, for the kazakhs to the west it’s more 75 east and 25 west. think the difference here has less to do with distance from the ‘turkic homeland’ and more to do with the larger extant population in the cities of the tarim basin than in the plains between the arab sea and siberia. 
    So imagine that the Tokharians were mixed race after a thousand years or so (I believe that the archeology confirms this)  
    the frescos from the mid-first millenium AD seem to show a predominant european type, thoughs already exhibited mongoloid or south asian appearances. this is about 2,500 years after the first tokharians settled the tarim basin, and if the archaeologists are right they were the first to really populate the basin in any numbers (probably pre-agriculturalists simply needed too big of a range). by the time of genghis khan though the tokharian language was gone and they’d be turkicized. it seems likely that most of the action occurred between 500-1500 AD. 
    y. The second is to take serious contact as the default, rather than taking isolation as the default.  
    amen. the extremes of diffusion and isolationism don’t work as a catchall model for all geographic regions.

  26. Beckwith is basically a western advocate for the steppe peoples. Someone can call it orientalism if they want, but it’s really a major revision of the way we think about 3 or 4000 years of history, and it doesn’t seem to me to be Eurocentric — the Tokharians may have been Indo-Europeans, but they weren’t at all like any other European since perhaps the pagan Lithuanians around 1400. I don’t see it at all as a revival of 19th c. Teutonism.  
    On Chinese being originally an Indo-European language: I can’t believe that at all. Beckwith is a trained linguist, but also sort of a crank, and the historical linguistics of the distant past is a can of worms, and may be entirely unrecoverable.

  27. re: the chinese as indo-european, i think one can’t emphasize enough that reading beckwith you are quite aware that he is in an extreme and eccentric minority on this issue. he doesn’t hide that, nor does he act as if he’s being persecuted. he just disagrees and seems to suggest that sinologists are parochial. when he’s in the minority on a position i don’t get the sense he’s slipping in a heterodox reading without telling you that it’s heterodox.

  28. Thanks for the comments.  
    I largely agree that it is not implausible for there to have been significant contact between the Tocharians and the Chinese. But I am not sure that it is prudent to trace all or most outside influences to them. Are you guys familiar with the Seima-Turbino Phenomenon? Or the presence of bronze artifacts in Thailand in 2000 BC, or Majiayao (2700-3100 BC in Gansu) even earlier? Contact between China and the outside world might have occurred before the Tocharians, prompted by either settlers or traders. The Seima-Turibno Phenomenon, in particular, suggests a rapid migration of peoples from the Altai Mountains region into China (as well as Europe) around 1500-2000 BC. I hesitate to say what people these were, but they could’ve been Indo-European (perhaps Indo-Iranian) or Altaic.  
    These peoples seem to have had the chariot and metallurgy, but did not appear strong enough to attack major civilization centers. It could be that they were simply absorbed by the Chinese elites, and that would’ve been another way by which the technology & ideas could have been transmitted. Ultimately, though, I think a major piece of the puzzle that is currently missing is the precursor to the Chinese logorams. Historically, scholars have noticed similarities between these and the written forms of Babylonian and the Indus Valley culture, but nothing so significant that would suggest that it was a simple adaptation. Yet these influences could provide clues as to who, exactly, the Chinese were in contact with. Any thoughts?

  29. I’m probably the only one here that has read Beckwith’s earlier work “Koguryo: the language of Japan’s continental relatives.” I have a background in linguistics specifically E. Asian (Kr&Jp) so this book was right up my alley. 
    I don’t want to review the book here, but suffice it to say this relationship, Beckwith’s claim that Japanese is a Koguryo language, is based on the tenuous comparison of about 140 Koguryo etyma. To me this is like looking at the skin of an elephant through a microscope and trying to 
    guess what the animal is. It is not impossible, mind you, just highly difficult, and requires great skill. 
    Just to give a couple reservations I have with Beckwith’s work in the book: it bothers me to see his lack of knowledge about Japanese historical phonology (which forms half of this theory) and his grouping of homonyms. Beckwith’s grasp of Japanese historical phonology has serious weaknesses, so I’m suspicious of his other conclusions in this book. This doesn’t mean his theory is wrong, mind you, but it hasn’t solved the problem, in my opinion. Others have claimed that Koguryo and Japanese may be related, and I don’t necessarily dismiss that claim. All I want is for the work to be well-grounded in the historical linguistic methodology (as well as phonology), and take account of what we already know about Japanese historical phonology and its development. Beckwith falls short in this regard and this makes me cautious in general of some of his claims. At times it feels like he is being provocative just to be provocative and stretching his claim when the support is tenuous at best. 
    Now having said this, Beckwith is a Central Eurasia specialist, so I imagine he makes much better arguments in “Empires of the Silk Road.” Though after reading “Koguryo” I’m not surprised at all that Beckwith makes some rather provocative and tenuous claims in that book as well.

  30. Mair is another Orientalist who has a lot of theories that can’t be substantiated. For example, his claim that the Tao Te Ching is basically a translation of some as yet unknown Tocharian oral masterpiece. 
    Some of his exploits are even more entertaining, such as translating the word “qing” (ancient Chinese word for “dark” that has come to slightly mean “green” in modern usage) so that he ended up claiming the Yellow Emperor had green eyes instead of the accurate translation that the emperor had dark, cruel eyes. 
    It’s amazing this guy teaches at the Ivy Leaque level. 
    Anyway, if the chariot and bronze can imply IEs, then Ancient Egyptians must’ve also been. For bronze, there was a culture in Qinghai which seemed to have bronze earlier than the Xia-Shang, and mtDNA analysis show them to exhibit all East Eurasian lineages, with some closeness to Tibetans. So, the Xia-Shang complex got bronze through intermediaries, and I imagine the chariot was the same way.

  31. There is also a pretty good argument that Shang and earlier proto-Chinese were in some kind of cultural contact with Pacific coastal peoples of the Americas.  
    I’d really like to get some reaonably reliable sources for that. Sounds pretty mind-boggling.

  32. I agree with Razib that the “orientalist” slur should be dropped. Anybody can study anybody. I have a degree of sympathy with anthropologists defending threatened peoples, but China and Japan haven’t been victim peoples for some time. 
    I’ve also read a fair amount of Japanese and Chinese occidentalism, and some of it seems to be right on the money. I plan to write something about this one of these days. 
    As Razib said, Beckwith is explicitly on the edge, and his theories certainly can’t be substantiated. The further back you go the harder it is to be sure of anything; this is true of most areas of history and prehistory. The recent integration of archeology, anthropology, and pre-history, with the use of tools from climatology, metallurgy, genetics, pollen studies, etc., has really revolutionized and transformed what we know and don’t know in every area, above all in central Asia. And one of the results of this is that unsubstantiated theories now approach testability and can be put seriously on the table. (So can traditional concepts, such as that of a Xia dynasty preceding the Shang. There’s a plausible candidate, but there are problems too). 
    I’m familiar with Beckwith mostly from his Tibetan History, which seems very well done, though I’m not in a position to critique it.

  33. In any event, Beckwith’s book is entertaining. As was Conan the Barbarian. 
    His discussion of the hero and his friends brings to mind the stories of David in the Old Testament. These read like the foundation myth of an Indo-European group and include all the elements of the myth. Is David an Indo-European interloper in the Semitic world?  
    Gordon wrote a book entitled “The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations.” If one takes Beckwith seriously, then Gordon’s results might stem from a common Indo-European background. Gordon points out that Abraham looks a lot like a Greek war lord.

  34. I’ve enjoyed this review and the disscussion here in the comments section. It’s a period of history that has so many compelling aspects to it including the archaeology and genetic history. 
    As to motives for the movements of people considered here, do none of the theories take into consideration the changing climate and the impact of herding cultures and their land-us practices on the hydrologies and ecosystems of landscapes that could not support them in great numbers as their success brought about population increases? I’d heard that mentioned in a lecture many years ago long before the current climate concerns regarding AGW.

  35. Is David an Indo-European interloper in the Semitic world?  
    Beckwith too often assumes that cultural traits originating among Indo-Europeans are evidence for actual IE language / descent. Cultural traits are transmissible.  
    Moses in the Bible can be compared to Genghis Khan. One theory of this is that Moses was a tribal interloper into the Mesopotamian-Egyptian world. Or you could say that many Mongols were Christians.  
    On the other hand, certain cultural traits (going to a mountaintop to talk with God, which Moses and early Hebrews did but which later was forbidden or discouraged by the priesthood) may simply have been extremely archaic traits (shamanism-like?) which had survived among peoples of certain types and whose origin cannot be found.  
    Or then, the heroic leader and his band of sworn followers, which you see all over the place, may not have been a cultural marker at all, but just a functionally-effective form of organization which, whenever discovered, tends to win.

  36. What half-spiritual type of person could fail to get off on climbing a mountain? It’s about as indo-european as drinking water and eating food. Does Beckwith actually put that forth as evidence?

  37. [...] years ago I reviewed Christopher Beckwith’s magisterial Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia [...]