Date: Sun, 19 May 1996 20:13:37 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History <>
From: Patrick Manning, Northeastern University <>
Subject: diffusion--Indo-Europeans and western China
To: Multiple recipients of list H-WORLD <>

Diffusion—Indo-Europeans and western China

Part of a dialog from the H-World list, May 1996

Date: Sun, 19 May 1996 20:13:37 -0500
From: David Fahey, Miami University

The New York Times, 7 May 1996, has an interesting article by John Noble Wilford (based on a three-day international conference held at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in April and the current issue of the Journal of Indo- European Studies). Caucasians speaking an Indo-European language (Tocharian) lived in the Tarim Basin of what is now western China 4,000 to 2,400 years ago. One of the conference participants Michael Pruett (Harvard) argues that the recent archeological and other discoveries should force a rethinking of the emphasis since the 1960s on independent invention. Diffusionism needs to be taken seriously again.

Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 12:12:58 -0800
From: Jim Taylor <>

Re: Diffusion--Indo-Europeans and western China
By Haines Brown, extracted from a dialog on H-World list, 20 May, 1996

I've always assumpted that the Wu and Yuezi were Tocharian, and that Tocharian-speakers survived well after the date of 2400 BC and probably until absorbed into the Xiungnu confederation. Would someone kindly straighten me out?

As for the survival of the Tocharians, they lasted far later than the date above given. I am unsure of the exact date (no text handy) but I seem to recall them extant in fairly historic times. The contemporary pictures clearly show red-headed Caucasians. Their dress resembles that of the equally Caucasian (blondes, red-heads, blue-eyed) mummies found at Xin Zhiang/Xinjiang, and dated to c. 6-4400 BPE. (4-2400 B.C.)

As for the point about diffusionism, first, I've always considered the motives of its advocates suspect when the advocate happens to share the ethnic, linguistic, or racial identity of the originators of diffusing ideas.

That seems rather short-sighted. One's background should have no bearing on one's viewpoint/scholarship, if the individual is an honest scholar/seeker of knowledge. While admittedly cultural bias cannot be easily, or perhaps even completely eliminated, one can do their best to recognize and factor it into their writing. However, I agree many scholars write with an agenda. That's why I have a rather low opinion of academe in general.

I have some ideas on diffusionism, however. I feel that in some instances, where two cultures are in contact or close juxtaposition, diffusion is inevitable. However, there exists a strong case for parallel development in other instances, where such contact is rare or non-existant.

Second, my understanding of ‘migration’ is that today it is no longer felt typically to be a mass movement of peoples, but instead a ‘wave of cultural advance’ in which the movement of a language or culture does not necessarily imply a mass organized movement of peoples (genes). The Xiungnu themselves are a classic example.

I am unfamiliar with your example. However, I'd give the Xin Zhiang and Tocharian cultures as a prime example of physical migration in remote times, and the Saxon invasion of Britain as a more historic example. These hardly could be described as merely a movement of language or culture. And I'd wager most such impactful migrations of history were physical until the unfortunate modern cultural conquest of the world by TV, commerce, etc.,

Third, my understanding of modern notions of scientific innovation (Mokyr's Lever of Riches, for example) emphasizes that innovation is a dialectical process in which a new development depends as much as outside factors as it does on internal ones; that both outside stimulus and inside adoption require equally innovative active participation. Put more usefully, I'd insist that innovation is an ‘emergent process’ in which outcomes are constrained by initial factors, whether internal or external in origin, but are essentially novel, attributed not to the past, but primarily to the actors in an historical present.

If I understand you and your cited reference, this seems not unreasonable. However, many people/cultures have been resistant to change, even change that could be construed as beneficial in some respects. So my take is that the above could be operative in some instances, but not in others.

Sorry for burdening you with this, but the implicit racism that is inevitably part of diffusionism and hopefully is contributing to its demise, raised my hackles (hackles? As on a fishing fly?).

I feel that neither diffusionism, nor any other known means of cultural transmission is inherently/implicitly racist. It is only how (usually uninformed) people misuse it, as with Hitler's dimly and imperfectly grasped Aryan concept, which he subsequently perverted.

By the way, hackles are those feathers on a bird's neck (generally raptors) that rise when the bird is alarmed or angered. The term has been applied across the board in the vernacular to people and canines, who lack them.

Jim Taylor

Date: Tue, 21 May 1996 10:22:13 -0500
From: Patrick Manning, Northeastern University <>

Indeed, the Yuezhi (or, according to the reading of some Chinese scholars, Rouzhi) were well and alive into the early imperial period. Some of them were probably absorbed by the Xiongnu, but most of them are assumed to have been pushed into Central Asia, were they established the Kushan state. As far as I can say, any identification of the historical Yuezhi with Caucasian types that inhabited roughly the same area hundreds, or even thousands of years before the historical appearance of the Yuezhi themselves must be taken with extreme caution. For one thing, there were other nomadic groups that, according to Chinese sources, lived in present day northwest China, such as the Sai (*Sek) people, and the Wusun. Moreover, we must assume that the process of formation of a mature nomadic pastoral economy (including movements of people, technological advances, social and economic change), and the interaction of nomads with the people of the oases, affected the political and racial/ethnic configuration of the region through time.

Personally, I believe that establishing a sequence, or temporal framework, in which such a process might have been accomplished is the first priority. This can be done only through archaeological investigation based on research hypotheses (or simply questions) that can be only partially derived from the historical sources, which normally refer to a much later period. Geneticists and linguists may contribute their questions and insights, but I feel these questions and insights, must be placed within the bounds of the material evidence provided by archaeological work and, with the caveat mentioned above, written sources.

I agree with Professor Brown's interpretation of innovation. The spread of certain types of nomadic societies across Eurasia cannot be uniquely determined by technological diffusion or migration of peoples. The ability of socio-economic groups to innovate must be taken into consideration, too. Indeed, my impression is that the prehistory of Central Asia is best described as the struggle between groups that were able to use innovative technology (the Andronovo people, for instance) and people who were not. This is by no means a Darwinian argument, but rather the acknowledgement that social progress and transmission of knowledge is a dialectic process.

Date: Wed, 22 May 1996 08:23:14 -0500
From: David Fahey, Miami University

The Journal of Indo-European Studies, vol. 23, no. 3 & 4 (Fall, Winter 1995) has ten or so short articles on the Tarim basin mummies, analysis of language, etc., for those who want to supplement the NY TIMES article on the Philadelphia conference. By the way, as private and public posts have pointed out the quotation from the conference participant about diffusionism is both enigmatic and controversial. Would be interested in how archaeolgists interpret the new evidence (some of which in fact dates from the late 1970s).