Archive for Language and archeology

The Wool Road of Northern Eurasia

We all know about the Silk Road (which is actually a recent term), and some of us also know about the Bronze Road, the Iron Road, the Horse and Chariot Road, the Fur Road, the Glass Road, the Spice Road, and the Tea Road.  Now we really have to take seriously the existence of a Wool Road.

As I have often noted, I began my international investigation of the mummies of the Tarim Basin as a genetics project in 1991, since that was around the time that it became possible to study ancient DNA.  After four years of diligent collection and analysis, I grew disenchanted with the expected precision of genetics research, and in 1995 I returned to Eastern Central Asia (ECA) with Elizabeth Barber and Irene Good, prehistoric textile specialists, to study the archeologically recovered textiles of the region.  The results of their work turned out to yield tremendously valuable and revealing results about the origins and technology of the ancient textiles we examined.

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Genetic evidence for the peopling of Eastern Central Asia during the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age

Summary article on the genetics of the Tarim Basin and Dzungarian Basin and surrounding areas:

"Ancient Xinjiang mitogenomes reveal intense admixture with high genetic diversity"

Wenjun Wang, Manyu Ding, Jacob D. Gardner, Yongqiang Wang, Bo Miao, Wu Guo, Xinhua Wu, Qiurong Ruan, Jianjun Yu, Xingjun Hu, Bo Wang, Xiaohong Wu, Zihua Tang, Alipujiang Niyazi, Jie Zhang, Xien Chang, Yunpeng Tang, Meng Ren, Peng Cao, Feng Liu, Qingyan Dai, Xiaotian Feng, Ruowei Yang, Ming Zhang, Tianyi Wang, Wanjing Ping, Weihong Hou, Wenying Li, Jian Ma, Vikas Kumar, and Qiaomei Fu

Science Advances  31 Mar 2021:
Vol. 7, no. 14, eabd6690sss
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd6690

"Xinjiang", a contentious political designation, may geographically be better situated by referring to it as "Eastern Central Asia" (ECA).

Because I have been primarily interested in the initial settling of the Bronze Age peoples and their languages, the quotations below focus on that aspect of the article, though the article as a whole takes into account the Iron Age and Historical Era as well.

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"Configurations of the earth" and "patterns of the heavens" in Sinitic toponymy

The latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers:

James M. Hargett, "Anchors of Stability: Place-Names in Early China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 312 (April, 2021), 1-41.  (free pdf)

ABSTRACT:

The use of place-names in China predates its written history, which extends back at least 3,500 years. While the basic principles of toponym formation in ancient China are similar to those in other cultures around the world, early in its history a process took place that led to a standardization of the practices by which place-names were formulated. The central argument in this essay is that the essential features of place-name nomenclature in China were already in place before the Qin unification in 221 BCE.

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What a prehistoric pair of pretty pants can tell us about the spread of early languages

The following is a photograph of the world's oldest known pair of trousers:


(source)

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New Light on the Human History of Symbols

From Tali Aronsky, a spokesperson at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem:

While scientists and historians have long surmised that etchings on stones and bones have been used as a form of symbolism dating back as early as the Middle Paleolithic period (250,000-45,000 BCE), findings to support that theory are extremely rare.

A recent discovery by archeologists from the Hebrew University and the University of Haifa alongside a team from the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France have uncovered evidence of what may be the earliest-known use of symbols.  The symbols were found on a bone fragment in the Ramle region in central Israel and are believed to be approximately 120,000 years old.

Remarkably the fragment remained largely intact and the researchers were able to detect six similar etchings on one side of the bone, leading them to believe that they were in the possession of something which held symbolic or spiritual significance.  The find which was recently published in the scientific journal ‘Quaternary International’ was discovered in a trove of flint tools and animal bones exposed at a site during archaeological excavations.

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Bronze, iron, gold, silver

In our ongoing quest to link up linguistics with archeology, we have had numerous posts involving Iranian-speaking peoples spreading from west to east and bringing culture and language with them.  When I say "culture", I mean technological as well as spiritual, artistic, architectural, and other aspects, plus social customs and political organization.  Because the Iranian-speaking peoples were so active in spreading diverse manifestations of culture, I often refer to them as Kulturvermittlers par excellence.

Among the more prominent features of culture that Iranian-speaking peoples transmitted across Eurasia was metallurgy.  That includes all four of the main metals:  bronze, iron, gold, and silver.  The first two were mainly for weapons and implements, and where they went, they transformed military affairs, agriculture, and daily life.  The changes that bronze and iron brought about amounted to revolutions of civilization.  Gold and silver were primarily for ornament and embellishment, and the Iranian-speaking people created breathtakingly beautiful works of art out of these precious metals

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Zoroastrianism and Mazdaism: Evidence from Sogdian and Pahlavi

Since we've been having, and will continue to have, a series of posts on Zoroastrianism and related topics, this is a good opportunity to review a recent, substantial publication related to this subject:

Barakatullo Ashurov, "Religions and Religious Space in Sogdian Culture: A View from Archaeological and Written Sources", Sino-Platonic Papers, 306 (December, 2020), 1-41. (free pdf)

[The following is a guest post by Richard Foltz in reaction to the above paper.]

I cannot understand why scholars (and others) insist upon talking about Sogdian "Zoroastrianism", even while presenting evidence that usually suggests it was something else. Ashurov goes so far as to call it the "national religion" of the Sogdians, despite noting that they had no supreme deity such as Ahura Mazda. The term "mazdayasnish zarathushtrish", used as the self-identification in the Pahlavi texts, means literally "[we who] sacrifice to Mazda [in the manner prescribed by] Zarathushtra". So if a religion doesn't demonstrably consist of performing sacrifices to Mazda by following the liturgical prescriptions of Zarathushtra, then what is the basis for calling that religion Zoroastrianism? The Sogdian Ashem Vohu prayer discussed at length by Ashurov could indeed seem to provide evidence of the presence of a Zoroastrian rite among the Sogdians, but this isolated example can hardly justify calling Zoroastrianism the Sogdians' "national religion". We don't know the context for this prayer, whether it was part of a full Sogdian liturgy (which we do not possess), or represents an attempt by Sasanian missionaries to impose their form of religion on Sogdiana, or (as Gershevitch suggested) was part of a Manichaean text. Meanwhile the bulk of textual, iconographic and architectural relics from Sogdiana show devotional practices which were either their own particular expressions of pan-Iranian religiosity (Siyavash, Nana/Anahita) or — the cult of Vakhsh, for example — entirely local in nature.

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Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 7

[This is a guest post by Chau Wu, with additions at the bottom by VHM and others]

On the akinakes* (Scythian dagger / short sword) and Xiongnu (Hunnish) horse sacrifice

Chinese historical records suggest that the akinakes, transliterated from Greek ἀκῑνάκης, may be endowed with spiritual significance in the eyes of ancient Chinese and Northern Barbarians, for it was used in solemn ceremonies.  Let me cite two recorded ceremonies and a special occasion where an akinakes is used to “finesse” an emperor.

In the Book of Han (漢書), Chapter 94 B, Records of Xiongnu (匈奴傳下), we see an akinakes is used in a ceremony sealing a treaty of friendship between the Han and Xiongnu.  The Han emissaries, the Chief Commandant of charioteers and cavalry [車騎都尉] Han Chang (韓昌) and an Imperial Court Grandee [光祿大夫] Zhang Meng (張猛) visited the Xiongnu chanyu** (單于) [VHM:  chief of the Xiongnu / Huns] in 43 BC.  Han and Zhang, together with the chanyu and high officials, climbed the eastern hill by the river Nuo (諾水)***, killed a white horse, and the chanyu using a jinglu knife (徑路刀) and a golden liuli**** (金留犁, said to be a spoon for rice) mixed the horse blood with wine.  Then they drank the blood-oath together from the skull of the King of Yuezhi, who had been defeated by the ancestor of the chanyu and whose skull had been made into a goblet.  Essentially, this jinglu knife was a holy mixer.

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Middle Eastern harps and "harp" in Eastern Central Asia

There is an abundance of ancient harps archeologically recovered from the Tarim Basin and surrounding areas.  Just in the Tarim Basin alone, there are 23 harps dating to the first millennium BC:

Yánghǎi 洋海 (east of Turpan, just south of the foothills of the Flaming Mountains at the broad, pebbly ("gobi") terrace embouchement of the Toyuq Gorge) — Uyghur Yankhi, Yanghi, Yangkhe, Yangxé. Uyghur Wikipedia has Yanqir; Turkic Yarghol (5 harps dating from 999-250 BC)

Zhāgǔnlǔkè 扎滚鲁克 (village in Toglaklik Township, Chärchän / Qiemo County) — Uyghur Zaghunluq (3 harps dating 600-300 BC)

Àisīkèxiáěr 艾斯克霞尔 (southern cemetery, along the lower reaches of the Baiyang / White Poplar River [originally a Mongolian name transcribed in Sinitic as Nàmùguōlè 纳木郭勒] in the vicinity of Qumul / Hami) — Uyghur Eskişehir, Eski Sheher ("Old City") (11 harps dating 8th-5th c. BC)

Qūmàn 曲曼 (Zankar cemetery near Tashkurgan) — Chushman (2 harps dating 6th-3rd c. BC

Yú'érgōu 鱼儿沟 (west of Turpan about a hundred miles and south of Ürümchi about a hundred miles, in Dabancheng District — modern Uyghur name is Iwirghol or Éwirghol (1 harp dating 3rd c. BC)

Chärchän / Qiemo District Museum (1 harp collected from the people)

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Inscription decipherment with digital image enhancement

John Bellezza, an archeologist and cultural historian whose work focuses on the pre-Buddhist heritage of Tibet and the Western Himalaya, and who has lived in high Asia for three decades, sent me the following two photographs of inscriptions that he took at Lake Gnam-mtsho, Tibet (TAR):


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Nomadic affinity with oracle bone divination

Anyone who has studied the history of writing in China is aware that the earliest manifestation of the Sinitic script dates to around the 13th century BC, under the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600- BC).  It is referred to as jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文 ("oracle bone writing") and was used primarily (almost exclusively) for the purpose of divination.  The most ideal bones for this purpose were ox scapulae, since they were broad and flat, and had other suitable properties, which I shall describe below.

The bones used for divination were prepared by cleaning and then having indentations drilled into their surface, but not all the way through.  A hot poker was applied to the declivities, causing cracks to radiate from the heated focal point.  This cracking was called bǔ卜, a pictograph of the lines that form in a heat-stressed bone.

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Horse culture comes east

In Friday's New York Times:

"A Record of Horseback Riding, Written in Bone and Teeth:  Close examination of horse remains has clarified the timeline of when equestrianism helped transform ancient Chinese civilization", by Katherine Kornei (11/13/20)

More archeological evidence that the horse, horse riding, and related equestrian technologies and culture came to East Asia from the Eurasian interior before the rise of extensive trade along the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD), and that these developments had a profound impact on the civilization and political organization of East Asia.

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"Skin" and "hide" ("pelt") in Old Sinitic and Proto-Indo-European

Browsing through the The American Heritage Dictionary "Indo-European Roots Appendix", a favorite activity of mine, even before the pandemic lockdowns, I came to "pel-3" and was stunned when I saw that one of the derived words was Greek peltē, a shield (made of hide), about which three years ago I had written a very long post (nearly three thousand words): 

"Of armaments and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 6" (12/23/17)

Utilizing a mass of archeological, art historical, textual, linguistic, and other types of evidence, I had shown a close resemblance between the Greek peltē and Sinitic fá 瞂  pelta; small shield — Middle Sinitic bjwot — as defined in Paul Kroll, ed., A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Leiden: Brill, 2015), p. 104a.  In that whole, long post, I did not mention Sinitic pí 皮 ("skin; hide; pelt; leather"), because I was determined to cite only linguistic evidence from the Classical Greek to the Middle Sinitic period and the associated artifacts and images.

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