What race do Iranian people belong to?

Mudassir Ali
Feb 18, 2020 05:25 AM 0 Answers
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Mudassir Ali
- Feb 18, 2020 05:26 AM

Since Iranians are definitely not native to Europe, they are not “white” by (sociological) definition. In Europe, immigrants from Iran are considered “racially foreign”.

(“Biological” definitions of human races are considered pseudoscientific by modern biologists, therefore I shall not use them. They are also uninteresting since Iranians have always been classified as “Caucasoid” according to these definitions without controversy, and there was never an agreed-upon classification of “subraces” that does have potential for controversy.)

However, Iranians have, in part, distant European ancestors.

The native population of Iran, especially the Persian-speaking majority, seems to have arisen through a blending of two main components that started in the Bronze Age (from c. 2000 BC):

The indigenous Western Asian population of the Ancient Near East
An intrusive population from Central Asia (the Eurasian Steppes) which is associated with the Andronovo and Sintashta archaeological cultures and whose ultimate origin is thought to be in Eastern Europe
Component #1 is associated mainly with Haplogroup J (Y-DNA) – Wikipedia, and with Semitic languages (best fit with subclade J1), and an assortment of languages from minor families such as Hurro-Urartian, the language isolates Sumerian, Elamite, Hattic and others that are poorly attested or only in traces (all now extinct), as well as the families Kartvelian, Northeast Caucasian and Northwest Caucasian in the Caucasus (best fit with subclade J2). On the Iranian Plateau, J2 is much more widespread than J1, which is rare in the northeast especially.

Component #2 is associated with Haplogroup R1a – Wikipedia (mainly subclade R1a1a1b2 aka R-Z93) and with Iranian languages: Persian, Kurdish, Balochi and others.

This blending of two distinct components is apparently still fairly obvious, because I’m told there is a cline in Iran from the west to the east, where people in the west look more like their Middle Eastern neighbours, and people in the east look distinctively more different, having not only more often light eyes but also sometimes lighter hair.

This woman is from the east of Iran:

To me she looks conspicuously European.

Even further east, in mountainous areas especially of Afghanistan, this trend continues, so much that there are isolated mountain tribes whose members can look very European, even with surprisingly light – blondish or reddish – hair.

The Iranian languages belong to a larger family called Indo-Iranian, which also includes Sanskrit and the many languages of India – mainly in the north – which are descended from it.

Indo-Iranian, in turn, belongs to the Indo-European languages. Among these, this analysis judges the Balto-Slavic languages of Eastern Europe to be their closest relatives, which also fits the old conclusion that Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic together form the core of the “satem” (see footnote) languages (perhaps together with the group of the “Balkan Indo-European languages”, which however are not all of the “satem” type).

It is well known among experts on the Uralic (Finno-Ugric) languages that these languages contain ancient Indo-Iranian loanwords, some of which must be reconstructed even for their common ancestor, Proto-Uralic.

Combined with evidence from archaeology (link between Andronovo and Sintashta cultures in Central Asia, likely Indo-Iranian, and Poltavka, Abashevo and Fatyanovo cultures in Eastern Europe) and genetics (see Corded Ware culture – Wikipedia; the haplogroup R1a1a1 is shared by Slavs and Indo-Iranians), this points to Eastern Europe in the third millennium BC as the region of origin of the Indo-Iranian languages. (A distant echo or memory of a homeland on the Volga may still be found in Avestan and Sanskrit, see Volga River – Wikipedia.)

The name of Iran, which originally referred to the whole ancient domain of the people speaking Iranian languages (including Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia), now known as Greater Iran, gave its name to the Iranian languages.

The name Iran comes from the ancient Iranians’ name for themselves: Proto-Iranian *árya-. This is found in Middle Persian as ēr (plural ērān) meaning “Iranian”, and in Old Persian as ariya-ciça-, usually translated as “of Iranian lineage”.

Similar words are found in Sanskrit too, but the details, like their origin and relationship with the Iranian self-name, are unclear.

(Details can be found here: Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-Iranian/áryas – Wiktionary.)

This is the reason why the Indo-Iranian languages are also sometimes called the Aryan languages.

A hundred years ago, in the early 20th century, many German scholars believed that Arya- or Aryo- was the original name not only of the Iranians or Indo-Iranians, but of their Proto-Indo-European ancestors themselves. This was largely based on etymologies that are now discredited. However, the result was that the Indo-European languages were known as the “Aryan languages”, Proto-Indo-European (the reconstructed language from which all Indo-European languages descend) as “Proto-Aryan” and its speakers as the “Aryans”.

Gustaf Kossinna, a German archaeologist, identified the Corded Ware or (as it was known back then) Battle Axe culture in Northern Europe with them, especially the expression of the culture found in Northern Germany, and placed the original homeland of the “Aryans” specifically in Schleswig-Holstein (the northernmost federal state of Germany).

Thus, the “Ancient Germans” (the Germanic peoples of antiquity) and their modern German descendants (and to some extent other Germanic-speaking peoples, especially Scandinavians, and some other Indo-European-speaking groups) were considered the most direct and “purest” descendants of the “Aryans”, who were portrayed as a “race” of very light-skinned, blond and blue-eyed (“Nordic”), genetically gifted “supermen” and powerful warriors with a highly developed culture, explaining the wide spread of Indo-European languages. This view – which originates with Karl Penka, an Austrian philologist and anthropologist (who also was the first to use “Aryan” in the “Indo-European” sense, and placed the homeland in Scandinavia) – was promoted especially by German nationalists, and became the core of the racist ideology of the Nazis.

After WWII, the whole topic was increasingly avoided and became unfashionable to research. Still today, the idea of blond Indo-Europeans (“Nordics” or not) invading Asia, or in fact of a European (or sometimes any) homeland of the Indo-European languages remains unpalatable to many people (including scholars) who have no sympathies for the far right. However, interest and even a fascination with the mystery of Indo-European origins has persisted and revived, and newer generations of scholars (much indebted to the work of Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, including scholars with rival theories) have taken on the problem.

Gimbutas resurrected an old idea (preceding even the “Nordic” theory) that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European actually lived in the southern part of Eastern Europe, in the westernmost extension of the Eurasian Steppes. Although the controversy has raged on for decades (with many traditional philologists sympathetic to or even favouring the “steppe hypothesis” or at least a European origin, while archaeologists tended to prefer an origin in Asia Minor, the Armenian Highland or elsewhere in Asia, or even alternative views), in recent years, archaeogenetic research has increasingly bolstered the “steppe hypothesis”.

Sometimes it may seem that the “Nordic theory” has been vindicated – but that’s not really true. The steppe is very far from Northern Europe. As archaeogenetic research has revealed, the Proto-Indo-Europeans of the Yamna culture weren’t even blond, but more Mediterranean (Southern-European-like) in type – the real original “Nordics” were indigenous people of Northern Europe who were assimilated by the Proto-Indo-Europeans and mixed with them, forming a new culture, the Corded Ware culture. It appears to be the source of many Indo-European branches (Germanic, Celtic, Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Italic), or even most (“Core Indo-European”), but not all of them (the more highly divergent Anatolian and Tocharian languages seem to have always been spoken by people of the original, not the “Nordic” type; however, these languages were not known yet in the 19th century).

Moreover, ironically, it is the (especially Western and Eastern) Slavs, considered “un-Aryan” and “racially inferior” by German nationalists and later the Nazis despite their blondness, who turn out not only (with the Balts) the closest kin to the real ancient Aryans (the Iranians/Indo-Iranians), but also live where the true origin of the Indo-European languages is to be sought (actually, the origin of Balto-Slavic appears to lie further in the north, between the Vistula and Dnieper rivers), so the Slavs (along with the Balts) have a much better claim to be the “real” closest descendants of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (if there is even such a thing – probably not), at least geographically.

And the early Indo-Europeans were no supermen, they were completely regular humans – as far as we can tell, their crucial technological advantage was mainly that they employed domesticated horses (and wheeled vehicles, probably) before pretty much everyone else. And the early Indo-Iranians did the same with chariots (drawn by two horses each), which were light (due to their spoked wooden wheels) but fast and therefore a powerful advantage in the Bronze Age. (See also Krivoye Lake – Wikipedia.)


“Satem” alludes to the word for hundred in Avestan (an ancient Iranian language), satəm; compare Sanskrit śatám and Lithuanian šimtas, which begin with a sibilant, a “hissing” or “hushing” “s”- or “sh”-like sound, unlike Latin centum, pronounced with a [k] at the beginning, which is the prototypical example for an Indo-European language of the “kentum” type.

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