A small proportion of Afghan children have a distinctively European appearance, sometimes blonde or red-haired, quite different from the dark Asian looks of most Afghans. Western explorers have always wondered whether they might be descended from the Greek soldiers in Alexander’s army whom we know settled in Asia. The Afghans themselves are proud of this tradition: Marco Polo records that in the thirteenth century the Kings of Badakshan (the remote eastern part of Afghanistan that abuts China) claimed descent from the Greek conqueror .
These people may be the descendants of Alexander’s settlers who have moved higher up the mountains over the past 2,300 years. The inhabitants at Boroghil, where the samples were taken in 2002, have named one of the huge mountains that tower over their village Qala Iskanderiya – the Fort of Alexander. So the knowledge of Alexander’s conquests live on in these people’s collective memory. Elsewhere in Afghanistan the murderous Mongol invaders probably killed all the inhabitants, but people up in high mountain villages escaped.
A second, and parallel, explanation is that these people share a common ancestry with the Greeks. Intriguingly, when Alexander conquered the inhabitants of what is now Nuristan he greeted them as fellow worshippers of Dionysus. Certain tribal groupings in Afghanistan may well be descended from Indo-Europeans, a prehistoric people who spread their languages across Asia and Europe.
The 2003 Spectator Alexander in Afghanistan Expedition and University College, London will use the latest genetic technology to test these two hypotheses. A clear and scientific result will be obtained to these two questions that have preoccupied scholars and explorers for hundreds of years.
The 2002 Expedition was financed by donations from readers of The Spectator, who, for £100 became Patrons and sponsored one day’s journey. This prospectus sets out the history and science of this old problem for those people who have expressed an interest in becoming a Patron in 2003.
Alexander in Afghanistan
Alexander the Great succeeded where the Soviet Union failed. He conquered and held Afghanistan.
Along his route, he founded cities, always called Alexandria, in which he settled troops too old or too injured to continue on the campaign. He founded between eight and twelve in Afghanistan . These cities formed the backbone of one of the least known civilisations in the ancient world: the Greek kingdom of Bactria that flourished between 300 and 148 BC.
After Alexander’s death his eastern conquests were taken over by his general Seleucus, who became Seleucus Nikator I and who gave his name to the Seleucid dynasty in Persia. In about 250 BC, the province of Bactria became independent and ran its own affairs under a king until it fell to nomad invaders from Central Asia.
Until 1961 Bactria was known only from a handful of references in the ancient writers and some exceptionally high quality coins, including the world’s first cupro-nickel currency. Then the city of Ai Khanoum was discovered and excavated by a French team between 1965 and 1978. This city was a large one, containing a massive palace, and gives an idea of the wealth and power of the Bactrian kingdom.
I have visited this site in 2001 and 2002. In 2001 it formed the front line between the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces. Standing on the banks of the Oxus, the river that forms the boundary with the former Soviet Union, on a dusty central Asian plain, the full scale of Alexander’s achievement in bringing his victorious army to the very edge of the known world is awe-striking. And still he did not stop until his spirit finally outran the courage of his troops who forced him to turn back at the Beas. He was thirty years old.
Although the site has been shelled and badly looted, there are still Corinthian column heads, the remains of an ancient palace, a gymnasium and a tiered Greek theatre. Excavations revealed an inscription by Cleiarchus, a philosopher whom we know to have been (like Alexander) a pupil of Aristotle, and a temple dedicated by a Greek with a Thessalian name, who was obviously from Alexander’s army.
The settlers here lived a thoroughly Greek life; they exercised at a gymnasium with a pebble mosaic floor; bought olive oil and wine in terracotta amphorae certified by an agoranomos; and worshipped at a hero shrine displaying the Maxims copied from Delphi. The names of some of the six generations of Greeks who lived here were also uncovered by the French archaeologists: some clearly Macedonian – Lysanias, Molossos and Triballos – and others more specifically Greek – Theophrastos, Hippias, Hermaios and Callisthenes.
We know of three other Alexandrias in Afghanistan. In the Panjshir he founded another Alexandria on the site of modern day Bagram, a site the Americans now use as an airbase. This was called Alexandria-ad-Caucasum, because Alexander’s surveyors believed they were in the Caucasus. Herat and Kandahar, in western and southwestern Afghanistan, were also the sites of foundations. Alexander’s fort at Herat has always been said to lie underneath the Timurid castle in the centre of the town.
Then, in 2002, an astonishing discovery was made at Balkh, in the north of the country. Balkh was the capital of the Bactrian kingdom, and Alexander’s headquarters. Archaeologists have been searching for Greek and Hellenistic remains there since the 1920s. Then, last year, a local farmer unearthed a building with classical columns. These ruins have been seen by only two French archaeologists and I have seen one of their jealously-guarded photographs. It seems that the first building that can definitely be linked to Alexander’s life has now been uncovered and it is likely that the finds will be spectacular.
For a relatively modest sum of money, this area could be examined by Ground Penetrating Radar and a clear picture of what is there obtained. The same technology could be used to locate Alexander’s foundation at Herat and at Ai Khanoum.
So how likely is it that descendants of these Greek and Macedonian settlers survive? That depends how many settlers there were. Diodorus says that there were at least 23,000 when Alexander died in Babylon and they attempted to go back to Greece before being stopped by Alexander’s successors . This is an extremely large number of settlers and the statistician at UCL who worked on the genetic samples collected on last year’s Expedition says ‘The probability of such a population becoming extinct between 300 BC and 2001 AD is vanishingly small – I calculate it at .00000057.’
Having founded his chain of Alexandrias, and before turning his attention to India, Alexander conquered the area known today as Nuristan. The information given in the ancient sources about this is extraordinarily interesting. They record that the inhabitants made wine, there was ivy such as the Greeks used to wreathe their brows , myrtle, box trees and laurels. The native name seemed to be Nysa and Alexander decided that he had stumbled on a sanctuary of Dionysus founded by the god on his wanderings. Alexander sacrificed to Dionysus and some of his officers, wearing ivy garlands, became possessed by the god. ‘What a scene it must have been, like some painting of Poussin!’
Later Western explorers, too, have been fascinated by these people and their European appearance. Alexander Gardner, an eccentric Scotsman who spent most of the years 1817 to 1830 wandering all over the western Himalayas, was very taken with their women. He wrote that ‘they have hair varying from the deepest auburn to the brightest golden tints, lithe figures, fine white teeth and the loveliest peach blossom on their cheeks.’ He also pointed out certain other characteristics he thought were European, such as sitting on chairs rather than squatting. Nuristanis in Afghanistan today are immediately obvious by their red hair and blue eyes, features that make them, to an Englishman, look Celtic.
Classically-trained British administrators saw them as the descendants of Alexander’s troops . Anthropologists speculate today about the origin of their three legged tables called tripos, their silver drinking cups and their dances, which do indeed seem to show Greek influence. This may be true, but there is another, more intriguing possibility, first suggested by the world’s greatest living explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger : the Nuristanis are descended from the same people as the Greeks.
The ‘Indo-European problem’ is the name given by scholars to the extraordinary fact that most of the languages spoken throughout Asia and Europe are closely related. Sanskrit, like Latin, seems to be the ancestor of many of them. This map shows the distribution of the main modern and ancient Indo-European languages:
This is really very surprising. There is nothing that we know in recorded history that would explain this state of affairs. The explanation that most historical linguists favour is that these areas were conquered before recorded history by a group (or groups) of invaders speaking a language we refer to today as ‘Proto Indo-European.’ The various waves of conquest gave rise to the various language groups we see today. An Oxford University expedition and study in 2001 identified genetic markers that seem to correlate with the distribution of these languages in western Asia.
The Nuristanis speak five different, but related, Indo-European languages and are therefore likely to be descendants of a very early Indo-European migration. The recognised academic authority on the languages of Nuristan is Richard Strand of the University of Chicago. He dates the arrival of people bringing an Indo-European language to Nuristan sets their arrival at about 2,000 BC . We are fortunate that Dr Strand will be accompanying the Expedition to Nuristan.
The Greek language is also Indo-European. The first intrusive Greeks are almost certainly to be identified with invaders shown in the archaeological record between 2200 and 1450 BC , and would thus be very closely related to the migration that peopled Nuristan.
Recent genetic data on the movement of ancient peoples suggests that the Indo-European people originated between the Black and Caspian seas . The Celts are also descended from another wave of Indo-European migrations. So the story of Alexander welcoming them as fellow-worshippers of Dionysus may well express a historical truth.
Nuristan today is one of the most remote and inaccessible regions anywhere in the world. It is a wooded mountain fastness separated from the rest of Afghanistan by paths as high as 17,000 feet. The twentieth century has not affected it and travel is still only possible by foot or horse.
Evidence from this area is of crucial importance in solving scientifically the Indo-European question. Because of their inaccessible location, the Nuristanis almost certainly preserve the original genetic signal of the Indo-Europeans. If we have this piece of the jigsaw, many other pieces will fall into place. The Expedition will have played a key role in solving a question which has fascinated linguists and archaeologists since the eighteenth century.
A scientific experiment requires a hypothesis to test. The hypothesis that we will be testing is this:
Can we identify any modern population groups, either near ancient Alexandrias or in isolated mountain areas, that have a) genetic characteristics dissimilar to other Afghan population groups and b) whether any discovered dissimilar population groups have genetic characteristics similar to known ancient or modern European types?
In Nuristan , we will be testing the following hypothesis:
Are the Y-chromosomes of Nuristanis different from the ‘average Afghan’ and can these differences be related to known European types or genetic markers correlated with Indo-European languages in west Asia identified in 2001?
The human genome is made up of 23 pairs of chromosomes. On 22 of these, a person’s genes can recombine, so that they contain both maternal and paternal genes.
A man’s twenty-third pair of chromosome, however, are different. It contains the Y chromosome which, for the vast majority of its length does not recombine and is passed on essentially unchanged from father to son.
The Y chromosome is often used in population studies because (in anthropologist’s jargon) patrilocality is more common than matrilocality. In other words, women tend to move to their husband’s village, rather than the reverse.
A chart of many of the various genetic markers on the Y chromosome that can be tested is shown opposite.
Over time, at a rate of about .2% every generation, random mutations creep in caused by errors in copying the DNA as it is passed on between generations. This mutation rate gives the Y chromosome two characteristics of interest to modern geneticists: first, it means that populations isolated from one another will slowly evolve different Y chromosomes; and, second, that the mutation rate acts as a biological clock enabling geneticists to estimate when related populations divided.
The Centre for Genetic Anthropology in the department of biology at University College London (UCL) is one of the world leaders in using genetic variation to study population history. This lab will process the DNA samples collected by the Expedition and has recently performed experiments on two populations which have used these two characteristics of the Y chromosome to establish some extraordinarily interesting conclusions which provide an suggestive background to the hypothesis being tested by the Expedition.
The Jewish priesthood is said to be descended from Moses’ brother Aaron. The Hebrew word for priest is kahen and Jewish tradition claims that the priestly caste is preserved in men surnamed Cohen. The laboratory tested a large group of male Jews called Cohen and found that 50% have a genetic signature signifying a common male ancestor who, if a constant mutation is assumed rate, lived in 2,100 to 3,250 BP (Before Present).
The oral traditions
of the Lemba
The Lemba are a black, Bantu speaking group in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Their oral tradition claims Jewish descent. This is not uncommon. The myth of the ‘lost ten tribes’ exiled from Samaria in 722 BC is a powerful one, and as a legitimating myth of origins may be compared to royal houses claiming descent from Alexander. Indeed, the nineteenth century saw the establishment of a sect of ‘British Israelites’.
However, genetic testing of the Y chromosome showed the existence of the genetic signature of Cohen and a high level of genetic types typical of Jewish populations. Therefore, the Lemba’s oral tradition has gained considerable support as reflecting a genuine historical event.
In the light of this, it would appear not unlikely that genetic traces of Alexander’s settlers remain in modern Afghans.
DNA sampling may be done with simple mouth swabs to remove cheek cells, which are then preserved in chemicals in a test tube.
We will collect DNA samples from modern populations in locations around Herat, Kandahar, Ghazni, Kabul, Nuristan and mountain valleys likely to have been sheltered from the murderous Mongol invasions.
To ensure a statistically reliable conclusion, a separate field trip was made in 2002 to northern Greece to collect 200 samples from the modern population to provide a further control for part b of the hypothesis outlined above.
It is also possible to extract DNA from ancient remains, and a further control sample can be derived from the teeth of ancient Macedonian skeletons. The body of Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon, was excavated ten years ago.
Laboratory work and
Some months of laboratory work will be needed to process the samples, followed by statistical analysis of the results.
If genetic traces of Alexander’s settlers remain in the modern population they will be fairly obvious. Asian DNA is quite different from European.
However, by having a wide sample, including DNA from modern Europe already gathered, the conclusions reached will be final. We will have settled a question that has preoccupied European travellers since Marco Polo.
To download the Alexander in Afghanistan Prospectus 2003 in pdf format click here