Who Were the Aryans? Hitler's Persistent Mythology

Did the "Aryans" Exist and Did They Destroy the Indus Civilizations?

Harappa, Pakistan of the Indus Valley civilization
Harappa, Pakistan of the Indus Valley civilizations: View of brick and rammed earth homes and streets. Atif Gulzar

One of the most interesting puzzles in archaeology, and one that hasn't been completely solved yet, concerns the story of the supposed Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent. The story goes like this: The Aryans were one of the tribes of Indo-European-speaking, horse-riding nomads living in the arid steppes of Eurasia. Sometime around 1700 BC, the Aryans invaded the ancient urban civilizations of the Indus Valley, and destroyed that culture. The Indus Valley civilizations (known as called Harappa or Sarasvati) were far more civilized than any horse-back nomad, with a written language, farming capabilities, and a truly urban existence. Some 1,200 years after the supposed invasion, the descendants of the Aryans, so they say, wrote the classic Indian literature called the Vedic manuscripts.

Adolf Hitler and the Aryan/Dravidian Myth

Adolf Hitler twisted the theories of archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931), to put forward the Aryans as a master race of Indo-Europeans, who were supposed to be Nordic in appearance and directly ancestral to the Germans. These Nordic invaders were defined as directly opposite to native south Asian peoples, called Dravidians, who were supposed to have been darker-skinned.

The problem is, most if not all of this story--"Aryans" as a cultural group, invasion from the arid steppes, Nordic appearance, the Indus Civilization being destroyed, and, certainly not least, the Germans being descended from them--may not be true at all.

Aryans and the History of Archaeology

The growth and development of the Aryan myth have been a long, and historian David Allen Harvey (2014) provides a great summary of the roots of the myth. Harvey's research suggests that the ideas of the invasion grew out of the work of the 18th-century French polymath Jean-Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793]. Bailly was one of the scientists of the "Enlightenment", who struggled to deal with the growing mound of evidence at odds with the biblical creation myth, and Harvey sees the Aryan myth as an outgrowth of that struggle.

During the 19th century, many European missionaries and imperialists traveled the world seeking conquests and converts. One country which saw a great deal of this kind of exploration was India (including what is now Pakistan). Some of the missionaries were also antiquarians by avocation, and one such fellow was the French missionary Abbé Dubois (1770-1848). His manuscript on Indian culture makes some unusual reading today; the good Abbé tried to fit in what he understood of Noah and the Great Flood with what he was reading in the great literature of India. It was not a good fit, but he did describe Indian civilization at the time and provided some pretty bad translations of the literature.

It was the Abbé's work, translated into English by the British East India Company in 1897 and with a laudatory preface by German archaeologist Friedrich Max Müller, that formed the basis of the Aryan invasion story--not the Vedic manuscripts themselves. Scholars had long noted the similarities between Sanskrit, the ancient language in which the classical Vedic texts are written, and other Latin-based languages such as French and Italian. And when the first excavations at the large Indus Valley site of Mohenjo Daro were completed early in the 20th century, and it was recognized as a truly advanced civilization, a civilization not mentioned in the Vedic manuscripts, among some circles this was considered ample evidence that an invasion of people related to the peoples of Europe had occurred, destroying the earlier civilization and creating the second great civilization of India.

Flawed Arguments and Recent Investigations

There are serious problems with this argument. There are no references to an invasion in the Vedic manuscripts; and the Sanskrit word "Aryas" means "noble", not a superior cultural group. Secondly, recent archaeological evidence suggests that the Indus civilization was shut down by droughts combined with a devastating flood, not a violent confrontation. Recent archaeological evidence also shows that many of the so-called "Indus River" valley peoples lived in the Sarasvati River, which is mentioned in the Vedic manuscripts as a homeland. There is no biological or archaeological evidence of a massive invasion of people of a different race.

The most recent studies concerning the Aryan/Dravidian myth include language studies, which have attempted to decipher and thereby discover the origins of the Indus script, and the Vedic manuscripts, to determine the origins of the Sanskrit in which it was written. Excavations at the site of Gola Dhoro in Gujarat suggest the site was abandoned quite suddenly, although why that may have occurred is yet to be determined.

Racism and Science

Born from a colonial mentality, and corrupted by a Nazi propaganda machine, the Aryan invasion theory is finally undergoing radical reassessment by south Asian archaeologists and their colleagues, using the Vedic documents themselves, additional linguistic studies, and physical evidence revealed through archaeological excavations. The Indus valley cultural history is an ancient and complex one. Only time will teach us what role if an Indo-European invasion took place in the history: prehistoric contact from the so-called Steppe Society groups in central Asia is not out of the question, but it seems clear that a collapse of the Indus civilization did not occur as a result.

It is all too common for the efforts of modern archaeology and history to be used to support specific partisan ideologies and agendas, and it doesn't usually matter what the archaeologist herself has said. There is a risk whenever archaeological studies are funded by state agencies, that the work itself may be designed to meet political ends. Even when excavations are not paid for by the state, archaeological evidence can be used to justify all kinds of racist behavior. The Aryan myth is a truly hideous example of that, but not the only one by a long shot.

Recent Books on Nationalism and Archaeology

Diaz-Andreu M, and Champion TC, editors. 1996. Nationalism and Archaeology in Europe. London: Routledge.

Graves-Brown P, Jones S, and Gamble C, editors. 1996. Cultural Identity and Archaeology: the Construction of European Communities. New York: Routledge.

Kohl PL, and Fawcett C, editors. 1996. Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology. London: Cambridge University Press.

Meskell L, editor. 1998. Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. New York: Routledge.


Thanks are due to Omar Khan of Harappa.com for assistance with the development of this feature, but Kris Hirst is responsible for the content.

Guha S. 2005. Negotiating Evidence: History, Archaeology and the Indus Civilisation. Modern Asian Studies 39(02):399-426.

Harvey DA. 2014. The lost Caucasian civilization: Jean-Sylvain Bailly and the roots of the aryan myth. Modern Intellectual History 11(02):279-306.

Kenoyer JM. 2006. Cultures and societies of the Indus tradition. In: Thapar R, editor. Historical Roots in the Making of 'the Aryan'. New Delhi: National Book Trust.

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Lacoue-Labarthe P, Nancy J-L, and Holmes B. 1990. The Nazi Myth. Critical Inquiry 16(2):291-312.

Sahoo S, Singh A, Himabindu G, Banerjee J, Sitalaximi T, Gaikwad S, Trivedi R, Endicott P, Kivisild T, Metspalu M et al. 2006. A prehistory of Indian Y chromosomes: Evaluating demic diffusion scenarios. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103(4):843-848.