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 the 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/green eyes.

Somehow, Kalash people still remain just a mere curiosity on scientific maps. Most of the modern authors only recycle a few well-known facts over and over again, especially when it comes to their origins.

The two versions of 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 directly from the Kalash oral tradition and states that they are offsprings of Alexander the Great’s soldiers.

Apparently, some of Alexander’s soldiers decided not to come back home and voila – some two and a half millennia later we have the Kalash. Another, less popular version, traces their origins to the Middle East.

Are Kalash related to Macedonians?

So let us analyze some implications of the first theory. First of all, Kalash people 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. For now, let us imagine that their different look comes from their Macedonian roots.

So… here is a simple question. Who were these women that Alexander’s soldiers married? They certainly didn’t come from the Ancient Macedonian army, as there were no women there.

On the other hand, if these women were local, would Kalash genetics really endure for almost 2,500 years? Correct me if I am wrong, but this theory just doesn’t make much sense.

Kalash in written records

Oral tradition aside, it would be really interesting to see what the ancient historians had to say about Kalash people, but there are no records at all. Or is this really the case? On the website kalashpeople.com we read that etymology of their name comes from their specific traditional black clothing:

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

Black clothing? Surprisingly enough, it seems that nobody else had noticed that we do have numerous ancient texts describing people with the same name (although in Greek translation). These people were Melanchlaeni. 

Melanchlaeni or Alans

For Melanchaeni, Wikipedia states the following:

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

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

Alans! Finally the name of the actual people. Unfortunately, the identity of the first and the second black-cloaks tribe is lost to history. Unless they were all one and the same tribe all along. In fact, Alans were really a restless group. In the historical period, their migrations from North Caucasus have covered almost the whole of the known world.

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

The map above illustrates the Alani migrations of the 4-5th century AD. We see that they left their homeland on North Caucasus (pictured on the right in yellow). Next, they moved across the North of the Black sea (where we know the second tribe of black-cloaks). From there they went North towards Russia and Finland (the first tribe of black-cloaks). So geographically, it is pretty much a perfect match.

However, the timeline is not matching. These Alani migrations had happened almost 1,000 years after Herodotus. But how can we be sure that this was the first time? When Alani appeared on the historical scene, it happened simultaneously in the texts from a wide region, including the Mediterranean, China, and the Middle East. Surely they had to have some previous knowledge of these routes?

This is where we get back to Kalash. An eastward Alani migration is not on this map. But we do know that Alans reached as far as China. Could it be that some of them had decided to settle in the Hindu Kush?

Before we get back to this question let us see some other possible connections between the Alans and Kalash. A simple similarity of the names would surely not be enough.

A common language and culture of Alans and Kalash

Wikipedia article on Kalash states that their language belongs to an Indo-Aryan group.

and a bit further:

Kalash religion is similar to that of Rigvedic Aryans. The Hindukush area shares many aspects of Ṛigvedic, but hardly of post-Ṛigvedic religion.

Now, who were the Alans? Again, according to Wikipedia:

The Alans (or Alani) were an Iranian nomadic pastoral people. The name Alan is an Iranian dialectical form of Aryan, a common self-designation of the Indo-Iranians. Possibly related to the Massagetae

The western Eurasian genetics of Kalash

So, it seems that the Aryan connection is certainly there, both in terms of language and religion. What about genetics?

From Wikipedia on Kalash:

Genetic analysis of Mitochondrial DNA stated that “the western Eurasian presence in the Kalash population reaches a frequency of 100%”. No East or South Asian lineages were detected.

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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, related to a narrow area around the 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):

Therefore, it is obvious that Kalash had a genetic heritage that originates from the Caucasus, not ancient Macedonia. But when this migration could have had happened?

The Aryans of Hindu Kush

Kalash people belong to a wider group of people known as Dards. And according to linguists such as Parpola, their language is a direct descendant of the Rigvedic culture of 1,700 BC. In other words, the language of Kalash is a descendant of Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans.

This is interesting, as most scholars assume that the homeland of Aryans was in Iran and Caucasus. And Kalash people live in the Hindu Kush, or Caucasus Indicus (the Caucasus of the Indus river) as Alexandar the Great called it. Was there some physical resemblance between these two mountain chains or there is something more to it?

In fact, there might be an etymological connection between the words “Kush” and “Caucasus”. But some scholars would not agree on that. There are some bizarre explanations out there, to say at least. For example, a popular theory claims that the word “Kush” comes from Persian “kоštan”, to kill. Therefore, the “Hindu Kush” would mean “kills the Hindu”. (?) Another, more plausible explanation, relates it to the word “koh”, or “kuh”, meaning “mountain”.

The Kushans, Jats, and Masagetae

Kushan Empire
Kushan Empire, Wikipedia Commons

Whatever the etymology is, the fact is that this mountain range once marked the border of the Kushan empire. The Kushans were Indo-Europeans of Iranian or Tocharian origin, a part of the great Yuezhi confederation.

But bear in mind that we are talking about the first century AD here. We are still quite far from 1,700 BC. However, it seems that this region was quite interesting to Iranic people even long before this period. The Jat people of North India still claim Indo-Scythian heritage. There are quite a few scholars who support this theory and relate Jats to Getae, or Massagetae (the great Getae). For example, Syed Muhammad Latif writes:

“A considerable portion of the routed army of the Scythians settled in Punjab. A race of them, called Nomardy, inhabited the country on the west bank of the Indus river. They were a nomadic tribe, living in wooden houses. A portion of these settlers, the descendants of Massagetae, were called Getes, from whom sprung the modern Jats.”

Now the name of Jats really dates back to the Vedic period. But what is even more interesting is their connection to Massagetae. As we previously saw, the same is true of Alani.

The Kambojas connection

As we saw, there clear connections between Alans and the Hindu Kush region, the homeland of the Kalash. There was an Indo-Aryan presence in this region since the iron age at least. 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 the Kambojas. Kambojas (who gave Cambodia its name) was an Indo-Iranian tribe of Iron Age India, frequently mentioned in Sanskrit and Pali literature including Mahabharata, which dates to the third millennium BC. Some texts connect them to the royal clan of the Sakas. (Scythians) Wikipedia states:

…Some Kambojas crossed the Hindu Kush and two Kamboja settlements on either side of the Hindu Kush are in Ptolemy’s Geography… Some scholars believe that the Trans-Caucasian hydronyms and toponyms Cyrus, Cambyses, and Cambysene were due to tribal extension of the Iranian Kurus and Kambojas. Chandra Chakraberty also theorizes that the Kambojas — the Kambohs of NW Panjab, was a branch of the Scythian Cambysene from ancient Armenia.

And there are also some scholars who believe that their homeland was in the Asian Steppe, not in Iran and Armenia:

Kurus and Kambojas were Eurasian Nomads from the Central Asian Steppe. As a composite horde, they had entered Iran, Armenia, Anatolia, as well as Indian Sub-continent through the passage between the Pamir mountains and the Caspian sea, around 9-8th century BCE (or even earlier)

Kalash and The Siah-Posh Kafirs

Today, a scattered minority of Kambojas offsprings still lives in the Hindu Kush. The local Muslim population calls them Siah-Posh Kafirs or “black-robe infidels” The last quote is about them:

The Siah-posh Kafirs of the Hindukush ranges, Kamoges or Kamojis (Sanskrit Kambojis or Kambojas) are what remains of a considerable ancient people. They include 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…

As for their physical appearance, they “fair skin, light hair, oval faces, well-arched brows and nose, and gray eyes, and a mouth that is more refined than that of Greeks”. They are the ancestors of both Persians and Goths.

Conclusions

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. They have been there since times immemorial. This means that their ancestors have probably witnessed the arrival of Alexander’s army. Some of these soldiers may have really decided to settle. They mixed with the local population and gave rise to the oral tradition of Macedonian origins. There are in fact plenty of records of local Scythian tribes joining Alexander’s ranks.

It would be interesting to see further genetic, cultural and linguistical research of this enigmatic tribe. A tribe that is unfortunately on 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 first)

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article! The Kalash and the Nuristani are the direct descendants of the Ancient Indo-Iranians who gave rise to the Iranians and to the Indo-Aryans!

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