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When do people forget where they come from?

When it comes to the arrival of Indo-Aryans to South Asia a major question Indians always post is “if they are invaders why don’t they mention that in their mythology?” My standard rejoinder is straightforward: we have plenty of paleogenetic evidence that many populations are intruders, but their mythology doesn’t indicate that. If the Indian objection is to hold then why not others? Are all human populations autochthonous in their native lands?

And yet the most recent work suggests that steppe ancestry didn’t arrive in the BMAC region until 2000 BC. That means that the Cemetery H culture in Punjab dating to 1900 BC is the earliest likely candidate for Indo-Aryans in South Asia. The Rigveda was composed as early as 200 years after this date, or as late as 700 years. Could they have “forgotten” where they came from?

The Irish are one people who have preserved their mythology due to the gradual and indigenous nature of Christianization. But 2,500 years after their arrival en masse from the continent they had forgotten the details. But, the motif of invasion was preserved, though we don’t know if that is a memory of their past, or just a channeling of the mythos of the period when their folklore was written down. Another example might be the Japanese, who arrived about 1,100 years before the Heian period, the first flowering of literate civilization on the island. To my knowledge, their mass migration from southern Korea was mostly forgotten by then.

With all this in mind, I decided to reread Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans. The conclusion of the paper is that it’s clear an appreciable, though minority, component of Mycenaean ancestry seems to have some affinity with Indo-European groups. The two candidates for the donors are people from the Eurasian steppe, or Copper age Armenians. For linguistic reasons that I can barely evaluate, I lean toward the former. This implies that the proto-Greeks arrived in the late 3rd millennium or early 2nd millennium. The mythology of ancient Greek as recorded by Hesiod and others in the Archaic period probably dates in part to the Bronze Age (some of the Greek gods are recorded in the Linear B tablets). To my knowledge the Greeks do not record when they arrived from outside of Greece.

This suggests that 1,000 years is sufficient for a forgetting, at least for a semi-literate society.

The last is key. Societies with written histories can maintain continuity. But what about oral societies?

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20 thoughts on “When do people forget where they come from?

  1. Is there any evidence of steppe-like ancestry appearing in Anatolia to mark the arrival of Anatolian speakers from the steppe?

    I ask after looking, and not finding any of this evidence, after reading Drews (Militarism and Indo-Europeanizing of Europe, 2017), suggesting that perhaps “Indo-Hittite” could have begun in Anatolia, before the ancestor of all non-Anatolian IE languages migrated to the steppe and evolved into PIE and spread out.

  2. (sorry my my icon but i moved daniel’s comment to this thread, which i had closed before)

    no evidence from their bronze age site. i think the reich group may actually lean toward the indo-hittite position from what i hear.

    my own opinion hinges on whether hittite actually did diverge first.

  3. Your estimate of collective memory anecdotally doesn’t seem too far off.

    The various North Dravidian language groups do have a migration myth that probably dates from about a 1000 CE migration, and the Maori of New Zealand who migrated to the island in a similar time frame also have a migration myth. These would have been committed to writing less than 1000 years later.

    Iceland had legendary history that recounted Leif Erikson’s migration to North America, and the Norman migration to England was well documented also around 1000 CE and committed to writing promptly. There is also legendary history of the migration of the ancient Puebloans around that time from the Chaco Canyon area that was not committed to writing for at least 700-800 years.

    The approximately Y1K migration of the Romani people to Europe is not documented in their own histories. There are lot of blanks in the attested origin story of the Jews between the fall of the Temple in 70 CE and their arrival in Eastern Europe about ten centuries later, despite the fact that they were an incredibly literate people for their day.

    There is some authentication of King Solomon’s mines and his relationship with the Queen of Seba, which happened about 3000 years ago and would have been documented within five hundred years or so. The Philistines really did exist although there origin story in the Aegean was pretty much lost. Genetics tends to support a Cannanite origin for the Jews per their origin story, but non-biblical support for a period as slaves in Egypt or their Exodus is thin to non-existent. Much of Genesis and Exodus was blatantly repackaged from Sumerian myths.

    Contemporaneous Akkadian records chronicle the expansion of the Hittites from very nearly the very beginning and this has archaeological corroboration, but neither they nor third parties recount an origin story that placed them in Anatolia from somewhere else, even though, linguistically, they have PIE origins at some point.

    The Myceneans do mythologically recount their replacement of the Pelopenesians and their mythology even recounts a transition of pagan pantheons. They are one of a number of instances where the sudden appearance of cremation or the theologically related air burial of the Parsis seems to be a pretty good litmus test for the arrival of Indo-Europeans (this applies to Cemetery H as well, and this transition is recounted in the early Rig Vedic material). Cremation seems to be a better litmus test than Kurgans.

    Then again, you have migration myths like Lemuria that don’t seem to correspond to real migrations.

    Southwest US Na-Dene people like the Navajo don’t to my knowledge have a myth of their ca. 1000 CE migration from Alaska via Canada.

  4. The Navajo are an interesting case: arrival in their present territory well under a thousand years ago, and a creation myth that involves a journey through a series of worlds that my or may not reflect something about physical movement through this world.

  5. Razib,

    “This suggests that 1,000 years is sufficient for a forgetting, at least for a semi-literate society.”

    There’s an even better, more drastic example for South Asia. As “late” as c.1150 AD Buddhists and Buddhism were still in existence in significant parts of the sub-continent (i.e. Kashmir, Bihar, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, etc. albeit fast disappearing) with numerous monasteries, monuments, and actual “universities” to their name. By 1750 AD almost no memories were preserved about that formerly vast, tangible existence by the Hindu and Muslim majority in neither text nor folklore after the 12th century. Only took about six centuries, probably less.

    -Riordan

  6. “To my knowledge the Greeks do not record when they arrived from outside of Greece.”

    Didn’t the Ionians get treated differently than the other greeks — because people thought that they were the original inhabitants and not real greeks?

  7. “To my knowledge the Greeks do not record when they arrived from outside of Greece.”

    They did for a portion of them, the Dorians.

  8. Didn’t the Ionians get treated differently than the other greeks — because people thought that they were the original inhabitants and not real greeks?

    no, they thought they were not ‘real greeks.’ they asserted they are autochthonous and descended from pelasgians.

    They did for a portion of them, the Dorians.

    no, the dorians were from northern greece.

  9. @ohwilleke “Southwest US Na-Dene people like the Navajo don’t to my knowledge have a myth of their ca. 1000 CE migration from Alaska via Canada.”

    Oh, this kind of stuff can happen in much less time than that! I live in South Dakota, and it’s not too uncommon for modern Lakotas from this area to believe that they originated within the Black Hills– basically at the dawn of time. This has to do with oral tradition and the Creation myth, so there’s a religious and cultural (and irredentist and identitarian…) element to this, such that people apparently place great importance in believing it. The historical record shows that the Lakota still lived in Minnesota in the 1600s, and even their own tribal winter counts (written on buffalo hide in the 1800s) record that the Lakota first discovered the Black Hills in ~1775. And yet I’ve known, personally, members of the Lakota community who essentially deny that their forebears ever migrated from the east, and who apparently think the whole thing is a crazy idea cooked up by Euro-Americans. It’s an… interesting thing, to be sure.

  10. > appreciable, though minority, component of Mycenaean ancestry seems to have some affinity with Indo-European groups.

    How come I-E language/religion dominated completely but I-E genes did not?

  11. Also, speaking of Mycenaeans…has ancient DNA shed any light on the bronze age collapse?

  12. How come I-E language/religion dominated completely but I-E genes did not?

    language transitions happen all the time. the basque are more ‘indo-european’ than sardinians, but the latter shifted from non-IE to IE during roman period.

  13. “Could they have “forgotten” where they came from?”

    Assuming a nomad even has that concept. Gypsies in reverse.

  14. There are some interesting samples that came up in the recent papers on the genetics of people with Artifical Cranial Deformation that date from the late Roman to Early Medieval period, with very low levels of steppe ancestry and high levels of EEF, almost comparable to Sardinians and the Iron Age Balkans. (Judging by the Eurogenes blog analysis of some of the outliers.)

    Scaling up, it seems possible have been populations about with quite low levels of steppe ancestry, on the mainland, during the Roman period in the very south of Europe and that Sardinia did see a mass migration from a heavily EEF IE speaking population from the Boot (Italic speaking specifically). While Basques may have seen lower levels of migration from a more steppe influenced Beaker/post-Beaker Central Europe who ultimately culturally and linguistically assimilated… Further research is needed!

  15. Don’t say that in the Basque country! They are still so proud of “their” RH. To me, the Basque, the Lakota, it is all a case of selective hearing or remembering. If there is status on being foreign, invaders, different, then there is a higher chance of memories surviving.

  16. razib writes: “This suggests that 1,000 years is sufficient for a forgetting, at least for a semi-literate society.

    The last is key. Societies with written histories can maintain continuity. But what about oral societies?”

    The putative Abrahamic migration from Mesopotamia would be an edge case: The Patriarchal Narratives in Genesis were first written down around 800 BCE, which would be roughly 1000 years after the migration is supposed to have occured.

    https://goo.gl/8Ly4y7

  17. The Chinese and Egyptians are an interesting case in this because they had one of the earliest written scripts(or rather tradition across generations to impart and carry information) and it was spread over long surviving/thriving timelines.

    But then Egyptians lost the Linguistic capability and lost their history even though they had archaeological structures all around them.

    Language IS Culture. Literally.

    There is only so much Oral tradition can do. Even if it survives the population scale that carrier it becomes smaller and smaller and the cultural pressures from the majority overwhelms or dilutes the narrative 1000 years later. This happened in India. People forgot/evolved their ancestry even if there were a gross minority of class who remembered their class’s origin myths in a certain way.

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