In search of the origins of Kalash

In the remote valleys of Hindu Kush, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and more precisely in the region known to locals as Chitral, lives an enigmatic tribe of Kalash. Almost everything about Kalash distinguishes them from the other neighboring tribes of the area: their customs and beliefs, their language and clothing, their pale white skin and blue and green eyes. And while their existence is a well-known fact, Kalash somehow remain just a mere curiosity on scientific maps, and most of the authors who touch this subject nowadays are just carefully repeating the few well-known facts over and over again, especially when it comes to Kalash origins.

So who are the Kalash? Even though nobody really has a definite answer to this question, there are two mainstream versions. The first and the most popular one, comes from the Kalash oral tradition and states that they are offsprings of the army of Alexander the Great. Apparently, some of Alexander’s soldiers decided not to go back home and voila – some two and a half millennia later we have the Kalash. This version is as accepted by certain groups of scholars as it is opposed by the others. The other, less popular version traces their origins to the Middle East.

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So let us analyze some implications of the first theory. First of all, as already mentioned at the beginning of this text, Kalash have a very distinctive physical appearance compared to the other aboriginal tribes. This fact is also supported by genetics, which will be discussed a bit later. Important is that they are quite different, let us imagine that this is because their origin is really Macedonian. So… here is one simple question for which I am not sure if it fits better biology or logic – Who were these women with whom Alexander’s soldiers made babies? My point is, we do have very detailed descriptions of the Ancient Macedonian army, and there were no women there. In fact, apart from the famous Amazons, there were only a handful of women in the ancient warfare ever recorded, some of them have even met the Alexander himself, but these are all just individual cases. There was also no need to bring along Macedonian women all the way to India, when you are going there to conquer. On the other hand, if these women were local, would Kalash genetics really endure for almost 2500 years? Correct me if I am wrong, but to me this theory doesn’t make any sense.

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Oral tradition aside, it would be really interesting to see what the ancient historians had to say about Kalash people, but their name is nowhere to be found. Or is this really the case? On the official website kalashpeople.com we read that etymology of their name is related to their specific traditional black clothing:

The word “Kalash” means “black” and refers to the clothing worn by the women and girls.

Black clothing? Surprisingly enough it seems that nobody else had noticed that we have abundant evidence of ancient texts describing people with the same name (although in Greek translation) – people known as Melanchlaeni. 

On the highlighted article we read the following:

Melanchlaeni (Μελαγχλαῖνοι, meaning “black-cloaks”), may refer to three ancient tribes.

The article further explains that the first “black-cloaks” have been described by Herodotus in the northern regions where Russia borders with Finland, above the sources of Volga river. The second tribe is mentioned by many ancient historians and placed around the Black sea cost, sometimes on Pontus, the Turkish side and sometimes on Borysthenes, the Ukrainian side. The third tribe, mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus in the fourth century AD were the Alans.

Alans! Finally a name of the actual people. Because the identity of the first and the second black-cloaks tribe is forever lost in the annals of history. Unless… it was all one and the same tribe all along. The fact is that Alans were really restless people, their recorded migrations from the homeland of North Caucasus have almost covered the whole of the known world, as illustrated on this map.

Alani migrations

The migrations of the Alans during the 4th–5th centuries AD, from their homeland in the North Caucasus. Major settlement areas are shown in yellow, Alan civilian emigration in red, and military campaigns in orange.

Ok, so if we analyze this map, we see that Alans have migrated from their homeland on North Caucasus (pictured right in yellow) across the North side of the Black sea (where the second tribe of black-cloaks was supposed to be) and then North towards Russia and Finland (where the first tribe of black-cloaks is supposed to be). So geographically, it is pretty much a perfect match, even though the timeline is not matching, as this migration had happened almost a 1000 later from the writings of Herodotus. But how can we be sure that it was the first one? As Wikipedia article states:

The first mentions of names that historians link with the Alani appear at almost the same time in texts from the Mediterranean, Middle East and China

This is where we get back to Kalash. Even though an eastward migration is not shown on this map, we do know that Alans had also gone as far as China. Could it be that some of them had decided to settle down in the Hindu Kush?

Before we get back to this let us first see other possible connections between the Alans and Kalash, as a simple similarity of the names will surely not be enough.

Wikipedia article about Kalash states the following:

The language of the Kalasha is a sub-branch of the Indo-Aryan group, itself part of the larger Indo-European family.

and a bit further:

Kalash religion is similar to the religion that was practiced by Rigvedic Aryans. Kalash have retained most of the Proto-Indo-Iranian religion (Indo-European religion). The Hindukush area shares many of the traits of Indo-Iranian myths, rituals, society, and echoes many aspects of Ṛigvedic, but hardly of post-Ṛigvedic religion.

Now, who were the Alans? According to Wikipedia:

The Alans (or Alani) were an Iranian nomadic pastoral people of antiquity.

The name Alan is an Iranian dialectical form of Aryan, a common self-designation of the Indo-Iranians. Possibly related to the Massagetae, the Alans have been connected by modern historians with the Central Asian Yancai and Aorsi of Chinese and Roman sources, respectively.

So, it seems that the Aryan connection is certainly there, what about genetics?

From Wikipedia on Kalash:

Genetic analysis of Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) by Firasat et al. (2007) on Kalash individuals found high and diverse frequencies of these Y-DNA Haplogroups: L3a (22.7%), H1* (20.5%), R1a (18.2%), G (18.2%), J2 (9.1%), R* (6.8%), R1* (2.3%), and L* (2.3%).[36]

Genetic analysis of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) by Quintana-Murci et al. (2004) stated that “the western Eurasian presence in the Kalash population reaches a frequency of 100%” with the most prevalent mtDNA Haplogroups being U4 (34%), R0 (23%), U2e (16%), and J2 (9%). The study asserted that no East or South Asian lineages were detected and that the Kalash population is composed of western Eurasian lineages (as the associated lineages are rare or absent in the surrounding populations). The authors concluded that a western Eurasian origin for the Kalash is likely, in view of their maternal lineages.

From Wikipedia on Alans:

In a study conducted in 2014 by V.V. Ilyinskyon on bone fragments from 10 Alanic burials on the Don River, DNA could be abstracted from a total of 7. 4 of them turned out as belonging to yDNA Haplogroup G2 and 6 of them had mtDNA I. The fact that many of the samples share the same y- and mtDNA raises the possibility that the tested individuals belonged to the same tribe or even were close relatives. Nevertheless, this is a strong argument for direct Alan ancestry of Ossetians and against the hypothesis that Ossetians are alanized Caucasic Speakers, since the major Haplogroup among Ossetians is G2 either.[51]

In 2015 the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow conducted researches on various Sarmato-Alan and Saltovo-Mayaki culture Kurgan burials. In this analyses, the two Alan samples from 4th to 6th century AD turned out with yDNAs G2a-P15 and R1a-z94, while from the three Sarmatian samples from 2nd to 3rd century AD two turned out both with yDNA J1-M267 and one with R1a.[52] And the three Saltovo-Mayaki samples from 8th to 9th century AD turned out with yDNAs G, J2a-M410 and R1a-z94 respectively

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Looking closer at the haplogroup diversity amongst the Kalash, one can clearly see that this has to be a result of nomadic lifestyle and mixtures with tribes from different regions. However, what really stands out are the haplogroups G and J2, that are really related to a narrow area around Caucasus. (Unlike Slavic R1a which could be related to Ukrainian side of the black sea as well as North Russia)

To illustrate this better, here are the maps from Eupedia (click to enlarge):

I think that by now it is quite obvious that Kalash had quite a bit of genetic heritage that could be traced back to Caucasus, and not the ancient Macedonia. But when could this migration happen?

It is an undisputed fact that Kalash belong to a wider group of people known as Dards. As for their language:

Parpola identifies “Proto-Dardic” with “Proto-Rigvedic”, suggesting that the Dards are the linguistic descendants of the bearers of proto Rigvedic culture ca. 1700 BC, pointing to features in certain Dardic dialects that continue peculiarities of Rigvedic Sanskrit, such as the gerund in -tvī.

Proto-Rigvedic culture? 1700 BC? Are there any other facts that could support this claim? Perhaps yes. About the etymology of the name the Hindu Kush, where Kalash dwell, we read the following:

The origins of the name Hindu Kush are uncertain, with multiple theories being propounded by different scholars and writers. In the time of Alexander the Great, the Hindu Kush range was referred to as the Caucasus Indicus or the “Caucasus of the Indus River” (as opposed to the Greater Caucasus range between the Caspian and Black Seas)

So in Alexander’s time the mountains were known as Caucasus. Was it just because of some physical resemblance or there is something more to it? Nevertheless, this is where it etymology gets bizarre, to say at least:

The Persian-English dictionary indicates that the word ‘koš’ [kʰoʃ] is derived from the verb (‘koštan’ کشتن [kʰoʃˈt̪ʰæn]), meaning to kill. Although the derivation is only a possible one, some authors, including Sanjeev Sanyal, have proposed the meaning “Kills the Hindu” for “Hindu Kush”, a derivation that is reproduced in Encyclopedia Americana which says that the name Hindu Kush means “kills the Hindu” and is a reminder of the days when slaves from the Indian subcontinent died in the harsh weather typical of the Afghan mountains while being transported to Central Asia. The World Book Encyclopedia states that “the name Kush … means Death”.

The word Koh or Kuh means “mountain” in a local language, Khowar. According to Nigel Allan, Hindu Kush meant both “mountains of India” and “sparkling snows of India“, as he notes, from a Central Asian perspective.

Kills the Hindu? Sparkling snows of India? Seriously?

Well, it is precisely this sort of “scientific” work that made me question everything. I agree that it would be hard to dispute that the word Hindu relates to Hindu population, but if we follow the same logic, could the word Kush simply relate to Kushan empire? Wouldn’t that be more logical, especially if we take into consideration that the mountain chain was a natural border of this empire?

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Now, this article is already getting too long, so let me just give you the basics:

The Kushans were one of five branches of the Yuezhi confederation, a possibly Iranic or Tocharian, Indo-European nomadic people.

Bear in mind that we are talking about the first century AD here, and even though to me this is a very plausible explanation of the etymology of Hindu Kush, we are still quite forward in time from 1700 BC. However, it seems that this region was quite interesting to Iranic people even long before this period, as we can see that Jat people of North India still claim Indo-Scythian heritage. On the linked page we read the following:

James Francis Katherinus Hewitt wrote: “Further evidence both of the early history and origin of the race of Jats, or Getae, is given by the customs and geographical position of another tribe of the same stock, called the Massagetae, or great (massa) Getae.”

and

Syed Muhammad Latif wrote: “A considerable portion of the routed army of the Scythians settled in the Punjab, and a race of them, called Nomardy, inhabited the country on the west bank of the Indus (river). They are described as a nomadic tribe, living in wooden houses, after the old Scythian fashion, and settling where they found sufficient pasturage. A portion of these settlers, the descendants of Massagetae, were called Getes, from whom sprung the modern Jats.”

Now the name of Jats can be easily traced to the Vedic period, but what is even more interesting is the quote about the Alani that I will repeat from the above text:

Possibly related to the Massagetae, the Alans have been connected by modern historians with the Central Asian Yancai and Aorsi of Chinese and Roman sources, respectively.

So it seems that there is some ground to connect Alans with this part of the world and even prove continuity since the iron age. But can we relate it all to Kalash directly? Interestingly enough there is another tribe of black-cloaks that everyone seems to forget. They are known as Kambojas. Kambojas (who gave Cambodia its name) were a tribe of Iron Age India, frequently mentioned in Sanskrit and Pali literature including Mahabharata whose date has lately been pushed to third millennium BC. Wikipedia states:

The ancient Kambojas were probably of Indo-Iranian origin. They are, however, sometimes described as Indo-Aryans and sometimes as having both Indian and Iranian affinities.The Kambojas are also described as a royal clan of the Sakas.(Scythians)

…Some sections of the Kambojas crossed the Hindu Kush… The two Kamboja settlements on either side of the Hindu Kush are also substantiated from Ptolemy’s Geography, which refers to the Tambyzoi located north of the Hindu Kush on the river Oxus in Bactria, and the Ambautai people on the southern side of Hindukush in the Paropamisadae

Some scholars believe that the Trans-Caucasian hydronyms and toponyms viz. Cyrus, Cambyses and Cambysene were due to tribal extension of the Iranian ethnics — the Kurus and Kambojas of the Indian texts, who according to them, had moved to the north of the Medes in Armenian Districts in remote antiquity.

Chandra Chakraberty also theorizes that the Kambojas —the Kambohs of NW Panjab, was a branch of the Scythian Cambysene from ancient Armenia.

As against the above, Buddha Prakash, S. Misra and others conclude that the Kurus and Kambojas were in fact, a Eurasian Nomads from the Central Asian Steppe who, as a composite horde, had entered Iran, Armenia, Anatolia as well as Indian Sub-continent through the passage between the Pamir mountains and the Caspian sea around 8th or 9th century BCE (or even earlier)

The etymology of Kamboja (or Kambuja, Kambujiya) is unclear. There are several suggestions, most scholars favouring Iranian origin (visible in the de-aspiration of the b, from an Indo-Iranian bhuj).

So Kambojas could be of Iranian origin, and were present in this region in the Iron age. Today, a scattered minority of their offsprings still lives there, known as Siah-Posh Kafirs or “black-robe infidels” The last quote in this article is about them:

The Siah-posh Kafirs of the Hindukush ranges, who used to be collectively known as Kamoges or Kamojis  (Sanskrit Kambojis or Kambojas) are stated to have been a remain of a considerable ancient people among whom were original Kashmerians and a greater part of Badakshan and Kabol as far as Deggan tribes…and on the southern face of the higher ridges of Himalaya extending to an unknown distance…Though whole of their pristine population being subjected to Muslim conquerors in the Middle Ages, and having mixed with them, they have now lost their pristine individuality of national character but still among the Kabulis, in particular, it is still not infrequent to observe heads and figures that might serve for models to the sculptors who would portray a Jupiter or a Mars according to the refined idealism of the ancient Greeks. The Kafirs have oval faces, their brows are well-arched and the nose and mouth even more refined than the Greeks. They are still fairer, generally, with lighter hair and gray eyes. Blending with the nearest black-haired tribes, the ancestors of the Kamoges are believed to have given rise to ancient Persians and with the faired-haired on the north, they are said to have produced the handsome tribes of the Goths.

In conclusion, it seems that there could be a lot of evidence that Kalash, as well as other black-robe infidels, haven’t really arrived at this region with Alexander the great, but have been there since times immemorial. If this is the case it would mean that their ancestors have probably witnessed the time when Alexander’s army had marched there, and some of the soldiers might indeed decided to stay, mixing with the local population and giving rise to the oral tradition. There are in fact plenty of records of local Scythian tribes joining Alexanders ranks.

It would be interesting to see further genetic, cultural and linguistical research of this enigmatic tribe, a tribe that is unfortunately pushed to the verge of extinction, being only around 3-4 thousand strong nowadays. If you would like to get involved and help them before they become just another black cloak tribe lost to history, you can use one of the many of donation websites available on the internet (make sure to check the credentials)

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