The “Aryans” May Not Have Been White
Adolf Hitler referred to white people as a superior “Aryan” race, and modern white supremacists follow his example. The term comes from the 1800’s, when European scholars realized — correctly — that most languages of Europe, Persia, and much of India have a common ancestor. A long-lost mother tongue gave rise to English, German, Gaelic, Greek, Latin, Russian, Farsi, Hindi, Sanskrit, and the other “Indo-European” languages. The scholars called the lost people who spoke the mother tongue “Aryans,” after the ancient Sanskrit (Indian) word, arya, which meant something like “noble.” These same scholars reasoned that the Aryans must have conquered most of Europe, Persia, and India during prehistory. The scholars were white, and most Indo-European languages come from white societies. So they figured the Aryans must have been a nation of white warriors, dominating weaker and darker races. That view of prehistory inspired Hitler and his ilk. But the scholars got the story wrong — in so many ways, including very possibly the Aryans’ color.
Modern linguistic analysis reveals that the Indo-European mother tongue comes from the steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine (or possibly Turkey). It spread from there between 4000 and 2500 B.C.E. White people do speak many of the daughter tongues, but that’s probably not because white genes spread with the Aryan language. It’s more likely the Aryans developed a useful package of cultural institutions, like nomadic herding and client/patron relationships, and their language spread with their culture — in the same way American culture and language are spreading today. And even if Aryans did conquer this or that country, they must have been a small group, and they must eventually have mixed with the larger native population. So their genes wouldn’t dominate modern populations. That means the white skin found in places like England, Germany, and Iran probably comes from the natives who adopted the Aryan languages, not from the Aryans themselves.
So we don’t know what color skin the Aryans had. But their likely steppe-land home has hosted many peoples, including several with East Asian features — and it’s not far from the lands of the darker Indians. And ethnic groups move around regularly, particularly nomadic herders, like the Aryans. Plus, scholars now suspect India’s earliest Aryans — its first speakers of an Indo-European language — were the dasa: a people the ancient texts remember as dark-skinned, flat-nosed, and short.
The upshot is that Hitler and his successors pledged their Aryan allegiance to a tribe that may have sported dark skin or even East Asian features.
Incidentally, we no longer use “Aryan” for those prehistoric language-spreaders. Researchers today call the mother tongue they spread “proto-Indo-European.” And they use an elegant name for the people who spoke it: “people who spoke proto-Indo-European.”
- Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (2010).
- Malhotra, European Misappropriation of Sanskrit led to the Aryan Race Theory, Huffington Post (2011).
- Keay, India, A History (Grove Press 2000, 2010).
© 2012, 2016, 2017 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.