Friday, July 20, 2012

Who Were the Earliest Bactrians?

When answering such a question as 'Who were the earliest Bactrians?,' I find myself choosing which linguist, which archeologist and which writer on these subjects to use as an authority.  Seemingly the best work in English to reconcile some of the divergences among a wide array of linguists and archeologists is David W. Anthony's prize-winning work, The Horse, the Wheel and Language, 2007.

In my own much stripped down version of his very detailed and documented account of the folk migrations that occurred from about 4,000 to 1,500  B.C., I will give an account here of the people that came into what is now the Iranian Desert and also into Bactria and Margiana.  He also includes a folk migration from the same origin into the Altai mountain region to the East and then down into parts of what is now China.  But that is for a different blog.

Going back to the Bactrians' origin, let us rely on Anthony and follow his choice of linguists and archeologists that identify the area north of the Black Sea and extending eastward to the Caspian as the probable origin of an extensive cultural expression among people whose skeletons and mummified remains show physical traits of the people now called Indo-Europeans, based on the language family that connects them.  From Welsh Gaelic to ancient Sanskrit, in Iceland and in India, the languages are related through a root language that we call Indo-European.  The cultural objects from pots and ornaments to the clothes on the 3,500 year old mummies in northwestern China, we find that they wore twill woven plaid garments, and sometimes had red hair and blue eyes.  Of course, there were many that looked more like the people of Tadjikistan or northern India as well.  

But over all, the people who left the steppes north of the Black Sea and moved South and East, covering over a thousand miles in just a matter of a few centuries, and settling the Anatolian-Iranian plateau, oases in the area around the Kopet Dagh and along the Amu Darya, and finally through the steppes of Kazakhstan and southern Siberia, this easternmost branch settled the area east of the Kunlun Shan and west to the Tarim Basin of northwestern China.  With them they all carried some elements of what became the Indo-European material culture of the second and first millennium B. C.  Their metaphysical culture seemed to include a theological system of belief in the dualistic nature of the universe; a belief in the Good Force and the Evil Force.  As they created amulets to carry or to wear on their person, they shaped in clay, carved in stone, engraved on bone, wood or gemstones the figures that represented these forces.  Often they showed the forces in physical struggle on their personal ornaments and on ritual objects.  

The Bactrians showed a heroic figure, sometimes a human with an animal's head,  battling with whatever symbol represented Evil in their artistic imagination.  More often than not, the eagle or a human with a bird-like head was chosen to represent the force of Good, usually in the position of vanquishing the force of Evil,  represented by coiled or writhing serpents.  

As one example, I offer a drawing from a cast bronze miniature seal from Bactria:

after Sarianidi, 1998
In this seal iconography, we can see the eagle-headed winged human representing the force of Good and the Evil Force is represented by six or seven scaled, writhing cobra-like serpents with their crests flared being held and controlled by the hero figure.   The angelic eagle-human is in a kneeling posture, adding to the probability that this cast bronze amulet is religious art.  

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