History of the Nuristani people

By Barbara Millucci - Kabul - Orphanage Allahoddin, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3535613Some 1000 years ago all of Afghanistan was under muslim control. All of Afghanistan? No! One region resisted the conquerors…

To the troops of sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030), who invaded the region in 1014, the area was known as Kafiristan (land of the infidels). The inhabitants of Kafiristan, known as ‘Kafirs’, followed a polytheistic religion and had a remarkable European look. The Kafirs lived in remote parts of the Hindu Kush mountain range, which had allowed them to maintain their original language and culture for centuries. According to local legend the Kafirs were descended from the troops of Alexander the Great, but the true story of their origins is even more interesting.

More about the Kafirs
The Kafirs were first mentioned when sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided Kafiristan in 1014. Mahmud of Ghazni was known for his religious fanaticism. He violently subjugated the Hindu and Buddhist populations of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India and destroyed many pagan temples along the way. Mahmud paved the way for the muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent, but despite the fact that he destroyed one of their temples he failed to convert the Kafirs to Islam. The Kafirs preserved their pagan lifestyle throughout the centuries, surviving the onslaught of Genghis Khan and Timur Lenk. It wasn’t until the Afghan emir Abdurrahman Khan conquered the region in the 1890s that the Kafirs were forcibly converted to Islam and the land was renamed ‘Nuristan’, or ‘land of light’. The Nuristani’s have been pious muslims ever since. In 1978 the Nuristani’s, keeping in line with their tradition of resisting foreign invaders, were the first to revolt against the Soviet occupation. As of now, some 125.000 to 300.000 Nuristani’s still live in a relatively small and isolated area in Northeast Afghanistan.

Origins of the Nuristani people
Now that modernity has reached the remote highlands of Nuristan, the Nuristani people can be studied in a more systematic way. Genetic and especially linguistic research sheds new light on the ancient origins of these isolated tribes. Linguistically, the Nuristani dialects belong to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. Because the dialects are hard to classify as either Iranian or Indo-Aryan, most scholars assume that they form a separate subgroup. Genetically some 60% of the Nuristani’s belong to the Y-DNA Haplogroup R1a, which is considered to be a marker of the Indo-Iranian migrations. The marker appears in high frequencies in both Eastern Europe and Afghanistan and is also present in Iranian and Indian populations. Many Nuristani’s also have light hair and eye colors that are clearly not native to the region.

Depicted in red: The Sintashta culture associated with the proto-Indo-Iranians. Depicted in Orange: The Andronovo culture associated with the Indo-Iranian expansion. Depicted in Green: The Bactria Margiana Archaeological complex, associated with the proto-Indo-Aryans. Author: Dbachmann: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andronovo_culture.png
Depicted in red: The Sintashta culture associated with the proto-Indo-Iranians.
Depicted in Orange: The Andronovo culture associated with the Indo-Iranian expansion.
Depicted in Green: The Bactria Margiana Archaeological complex, associated with the proto-Indo-Aryans.
Author: Dbachmann: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andronovo_culture.png

The Indo-Iranian migrations
In order to understand the origins of the Nuristani, one needs to understand the question of the Indo-Iranian migrations. The majority view is that the proto-Indo-Iranian speakers are represented by the Sintashta culture, that flourished in Western Kazakhstan around 2000 BC. After 2000 BC the Indo-Iranian speakers began to spread all across Central Asia and the proto-language began to diversify. The Indo-Iranian expansion is represented by the Andronovo horizon. Between 2000 and 1000 BC the Indo-Iranian family probably consisted of dozens of branches. However, only two of them would become really successful: the Iranian branch and the Indo-Aryan branch. The Indo-Aryan branch may have originated in the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), an urbanized civilization located in modern Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. The Indo-Aryans spread all across Southwest Asia, from Northern Syria (Mitanni) to Northern India (the Vedic Aryans). Later the Iranian branch followed and came to dominate most of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, supplanting the Indo-Aryan languages spoken in those regions. Indo-Aryan only survived in India and the other branches eventually died out, except of course for the Nuristani group. The Nuristani group must have migrated to Afghanistan separately from the Indo-Aryans, who migrated there between 2000 and 1700 BC, and the Iranians, who migrated there between 1400 and 1200 BC. It is safe to assume that these Nuristani’s migrated to the region before the Indo-Aryans and Iranians came to dominate the region and that they may have occupied a much larger territory in Antiquity.

The Nuristani’s in Antiquity
Despite the fact that the Nuristani language managed to survive for such a long time, the Nuristani people never developed their own script. Because we only have sources on the ancient history of Afghanistan in Iranian or Indo-Aryan languages, it is easy to overlook the possibility that Nuristani speakers dominated the region for centuries before the Indo-Aryan and Iranian speakers supplanted them. Nuristani tribes may have been among the kingdoms that opposed the Vedic Aryans in the Battle of the Ten Kings, a supposedly historical event reflected in the Rigveda. Alexander the Great allegedly fought against people who were culturally and religiously very different from their neighbors while passing through this region. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the kingdom of Kapisa, that was located right in the modern Nuristan region, may have been Nuristani speakers. The name Kapisa may have changed to Kapira over the course of centuries, which was later bastardized to ‘Kafirah’ by muslim polemists. Whichever role the ancestors of the Nuristani’s played in history, they did manage to survive the migrations of the Vedic Aryans, the Avestic Iranians, the Achaemenid Persians, the Graeco-Bactrians, the Saka, the Kushans, the Chionites, the Arabs and the Oghuz Turks. Nevertheless, their territory must have shrunk with each invasion, until they could only hold on to a few remote enclaves on the Hindu Kush mountains.

Nuristani’s in modern research
The Nuristani people are a treasure for historians, linguists, archaeologists and anthropologists. Because they preserve many of the cultural, linguistic, religious and even physical traits of the proto-Indo-Iranians, they form an important piece of the puzzle that is Indo-European studies. Furthermore, their distinct culture sheds light on the cultural diversity that must have existed among the various Indo-Iranian peoples. Although most people tend to focus on the more successful Iranian and Indo-Aryan groups, the Nuristani group provides some valuable comparative material that cannot be ignored.

Further reading
The main authority on Nuristani studies is Richard Strand, who has been so kind to publish much of his research, including some unpublished works, on his personal website. The layout of the website looks a little chaotic at first sight and many articles require academic knowledge of linguistics, but the information is excellent and very thorough.