When it comes to the geographical areas occupied by those who spoke Aryan languages, we have to erase modern boundaries and think more in terms of geomorphology. The initial geographical frame goes from north-eastern Iran, eastern Afghanistan, the borderlands to Punjab and the Doab. The spread from here is towards the Ganga plain, eventually continuing southwards as well, as far as the Vindhyas and later into the peninsula.

The standard chronology of what is called the Vedic period is taken to be from roughly 1500 to 500 BCE. This is the period of the composition of the first Veda, the Rig Veda, and then the later ones, the Samaveda, Yajurveda and finally the Atharvaveda. It is also the period of the compositions that were exegeses on the ritual texts, such as the Brahmanas and the Shrauta-sutras. Towards the end of this period came the Aranyakas and the Upanishads.

In the search for the Aryan-language speakers much has overtaken the initial attempts to provide a viable history. The history of this period has become central to a political ideology that insists on the Aryan culture of the Vedas being the foundational culture of India, and of the Aryans therefore being entirely indigenous to the subcontinent and its earliest inhabitants. This is being projected as the popular explanation of how it all began, especially in northern India.

However, it tends to be set aside by most historians. Origins and identities are investigated, but these are not questions avidly chased by scholars. What is being discussed much more now is that insofar as it is a language label how did this language come to be dominant in the first millennium CE, and what were the social changes that took place in this millennium. This involves investigating the structures of societies in different areas and enquiring into how and why they changed.

The concept of the Aryans has been a contentious historical subject as it has been used in various ways to suit a variety of ideologies. What is sometimes called “the Aryan Question” is probably the most complex question in early Indian history and it requires considerable expertise in the interpretation of the evidence which ranges from ecology to philology to genetics.

The basic expertise requires some familiarity with many fields of enquiry: historiography, archaeology, linguistics, comparative mythology, social anthropology and more recently, genetics. The evidence from these when interrelated provides some historical hypotheses. Historians today map cultures, observe their varied interconnections at different levels of society and try to understand the societies that emerge. That there is continual fresh evidence from archaeology, linguistics and other sources further complicates the analyses.

Historiography has now become preliminary to most historical studies as it introduces the intellectual context which shapes historical generalisations. It relates to the concepts with which historians work, their ideological roots and their role in explaining and understanding the past. This is particularly significant when a subject is controversial and where ideological concerns can colour a reading of the evidence.

The discussion of the Aryan in India is an appropriate example. There was a time when language and/or race were primary in defining “the Aryan”. Now linguistics is important to the definition. For some, the focus has shifted to whether the Aryans were alien or indigenous. Most scholars prefer to focus on the more relevant question of what is meant by “Aryan” rather than who were “the Aryans”.

This involves analysing whether it was a kind of cultural package that was imposed on an existing population when those that brought it settled amidst them, and this monolith then became foundational to Indian civilisation; or, whether cultural elements came in with small circuits of migrants who settled amidst existing cultures and new cultural forms gradually evolved from the interaction of the two.

The evidence is substantially of two kinds: archaeological and linguistic. Very recently the results of DNA analyses are beginning to be introduced, their reception being debated.

Archaeological data for this period and subject is extensive. It is to be found in post-Harappan cultures especially those of Punjab and the Doab, the Indo–Iranian borderlands, the Oxus plain and north-eastern Iran. Subsequently the picture from northern India becomes relevant.

Coping with fresh evidence from such a large area makes further demands on organising the argument. The earlier approach of selecting an item from an excavation and trying to identify it with an object mentioned in literary sources no longer suffices. Comparisons between societies as a whole are more valid when seen as a system rather than as reflected in individual artefacts.

This involves juxtaposing a combination of items that go into the making of a culture whether they come from archaeology or from a text. Thus, where a cluster of items are mentioned in the Rig Veda such as horses, chariots, cattle-herding and the rituals of sacrifice, the archaeological counterpart of such a cluster is sought from the excavations of specific cultures. Such artefacts are not just items in a list of material goods; they provide clues to the structure of the society that they refer to.

Much the same applies to the method of linguistics. In terms of nineteenth century philology it was possible to suggest connections and language identities by resorting to similarities in words from different languages. But the discipline of linguistics requires that the word be placed in the larger syntactic context.

This is particularly important, for example, when attempts are being made to decipher the Indus script by applying known languages. Linguistic evidence for this period can come from a variety of languages; the Indo–Aryan of the Vedic corpus and its earliest composition, the Rig Veda, and possibly other languages in its neighbourhood such as Dravidian and Munda. Comparative data for Indo–Aryan is available in the Iranian Avesta and from scattered fragments of Proto-Indo–Aryan in Anatolia.

Familiarity with the linguistic evidence is again quite demanding. In addition, there has to be an understanding of the contents of texts, keeping in mind that Vedic Sanskrit is a specialised form of Sanskrit and not every Sanskritist has expertise in it.

Social anthropology is a more recent addition to the agenda of both the archaeologist and the historian. It can provide a comparative analysis to explain how various societies function. The idea is not to import a model from anthropology or from ethno-archaeology and apply it to the data, but to enquire into the type of questions that social anthropologists ask of various categories of pre-modern societies, and then ask similar questions, where feasible, of the archaeological and historical data.

Let me in passing mention one interesting comparison of this sort. The anthropologist EE Evans-Pritchard worked on the Nuer society, a cattle-keeping society of Sudan. Bruce Lincoln made a comparative study of this material with the data from the Rig Veda and the Avesta, all cattle-keeping societies. It has been the subject of contention but the discussion has resulted in some useful insights into the functioning of such societies. This was also what DD Kosambi emphasised in the concept of a living prehistory in India – that there are earlier social forms existing in remoter areas and historians should study these.

In discussing the concept of the Aryan, a fundamental question relates to the spread of the Indo-Aryan language. How does a language spread among people who are speaking other languages at the same time? And together with the spread of a language there are many other items of culture that are also mutually appropriated.

It was earlier argued that conquest and warfare brought about the acceptance of the language of the victorious by those conquered. But even where there were no conquests, languages are known to have gradually changed.

Historians look to factors such as a change in society and economy, a social evolution, possibly accompanied by the introduction of new technologies, and the propagation of new rituals. The relevant questions then would be that given that the Rigvedic society was an agro-pastoral society how did it relate to similar local societies or to societies of cultivators? Were they all clan-based societies with chiefs as their authority, in which case similarities would have made interrelations easier? What was the social and economic impact of new and more effective technologies of transport and communication such as the horse and the chariot, and the later use of iron artefacts, a metal superior to copper- bronze?

It becomes necessary to establish not only when such new technologies were introduced but how they altered society. Rituals can have a dramatic effect as doubtless the Vedic yajnas did in the ambience of what were rather small settlements of the time. Claims to magic and the supernatural would have furthered the effect.

Knowledge requires the teasing out of complexities and this cannot be done by insisting on the answer to a question being either this or that – what I like to call the one-bite answer that the media has now made so fashionable. Often, it is the nuances that lie in between the options that push ideas forward and encourage explanations. This book, therefore, does not claim to provide definitive answers but rather to lay out the field as it were, explain where we are at and indicate by implication the directions in which the analyses could proceed.

Excerpted with permission from the “Foreword: The Search For The Aryan”, by Romila Thapar, to Which Of Us Are Aryans? Rethinking The Concept Of Our Origins, Romila Thapar, Michael Witzel, Jaya Menon, Kai Friese, Razib Khan.