The Quest Begins
In 1786, a 40 year old English judge by the name of Sir William Jones made a remarkable observation suggesting far-reaching events many millennia previously; events that had left an eerie footprint in languages spoken by diverse people living thousands of miles apart, between which absolutely no link now existed in the historic record.
The son of a mathematician, Jones was a linguistic prodigy who had learning Greek, Latin, Persian and Arabic at an early age. Despite the death of his father when he was aged three, he went to school at Harrow and then on to Oxford. However, he was forced to work as a tutor in order to make ends meet and in 1770 he took up the legal profession, doubtless at least to some extent attracted by the prospect of financial security. After working as a circuit judge in Wales, he went out to India in 1783 to serve at the High Court in Calcutta. There he became interested in Sanskrit, the classical language of India, a language holding a position analogous to Latin in South and Southeast Asian culture. It dates to around 1500 BC and possibly earlier, and although it has not been spoken for many centuries, it is still used in religious texts and remains to this day as one of India’s 23 official languages.
Jones noted Sanskrit shared many similarities of both grammatical structure and vocabulary with Ancient Greek and Latin – all of which are “dead” languages that were current at roughly the same time. In a famous address to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, he claimed that these similarities could not be dismissed as chance and suggested all might have arisen from the same source. Jones also speculated that Gothic (the precursor of German), Celtic and Old Persian might also share the same common origin.
The idea that languages spoken in places as far apart as Iceland and India might be linked was startling to say the least, but the connection seemed real. Furthermore the language group – which was soon dubbed Indo-European – grew rapidly. In many cases, relationships among language groups were readily discernable and during the first half of the 19th Century, no fewer than nine major language groups were recognised as members. Thereafter progress was slower and it was not until the late 19th and early 20th Century that the last two major language groups were admitted to the fold. The Tocharian languages – once spoken in the Tarim Basin in Central Asia – were uncovered from a fifth century AD manuscript procured from a Buddhist monastery by the Hungarian-born archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein. Hittite – another lost language – was deciphered by Bedrich Hrozny in 1917 from cuniform tablets excavated in Anatolia some years earlier, and it and other related languages in the region are now recognised as making up the so-called Anatolian group.
Today, no fewer than eleven major Indo-European groups are recognised:
1) Celtic. Includes Welsh, Cornish, Manx; spoken Britain, Ireland, across Europe, from the Bay of Biscay and the North Sea to the Black Sea and the Upper Balkan Peninsula; first attested 1000-500 BC.
2) Italic. Includes Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, spoken in Italy; first attested 1000-500 BC.
3) Germanic. Includes Danish, German, Dutch and English, spoken in Germany and Scandinavia; first attested AD 1-500.
4) Baltic. Includes Latvian and Lithuanian, spoken east and south-east of the Baltic.
5) Slavic. Includes Russia, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, spoken in Eastern Europe and the Balkans; first attested AD 500-1000.
6) Albanian. Spoken in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia; First attested AD 1500.
7) Greek. First attested 1500-1000 BC.
8) Anatolian. Includes Hittite, spoken Asia Minor; first attested 1500-2000 BC.
9) Armenian. First attested AD 1-500.
10) Indo-Aryan. Includes Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi, Iranian, spoken in India and Iran, first attested 1500-1000 BC.
11) Tocharian. Spoken Tarim Basin, Central Asia; first attested AD 1-500.
In addition, ten minor groups are recognised: Lusitanian, Rhaetic, Venetic, South Picene, Messapic, Illyrian, Dacian, Thracian, Macedonian and Phrygian.
What does all this mean? During the course of his 1786 lectures, Sir William Jones also put forward the idea that the various ancient languages could all be traced back to “some central country” which he argued was Iran. He set in motion a debate that has continued ever since, during which the “central country” has been located at just about every point on Earth, leading the American scholar JP Mallory to comment “One does not ask ‘where is the Indo-European homeland?’ but rather ‘where do they put it now?’”.
That a group of languages – a so-called “language family” – can arise from a common origin was already accepted in Sir William Jones’ day. It had long been realised that French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, etc had all diverged from Latin and from each other after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD. Following the same chain of reasoning, it was therefore logical for the early Indo-European scholars to assume that Sir William Jones was right and that similarities between the Indo-European languages could be explained by divergence from a single ancestral language; and that its original speakers had arisen from one region. This hypothetical language was termed Ursprache by German scholars, or Proto-Indo-European (often abbreviated to PIE). Its’ supposed speakers became known as the Urvolk and their original homeland the Urheimat.
But who were the inhabitants of this homeland, when did they live and how did languages descended from their ancestral tongue come to be spoken across such an enormous area, far greater in extent than the Roman Empire? It really is the ultimate “whodunit”.
On the face of it, given the absence of anything in the historic record, the task facing Indo-European scholars in trying to answer any of these questions might seem impossible. In fact in the rather more than two centuries since Jones’ discovery, three main lines of enquiry have opened up – linguistics, archaeology and population genetics. The linguists moved into action almost immediately but prehistoric archaeology did not really develop as a discipline until the mid-19th Century; and not for another fifty years was archaeological evidence systematically called upon in attempts to solve the problem. Population genetics is a far more recent discipline and not enter the fray until the latter part of the 20th Century. Only now – with these three very different disciplines supported by statistics and modern computational methods – is a clear picture at last beginning to emerge.
How Languages spread and change
As linguistics was the first line of attack upon the Indo-European question, it makes sense to start with a review of the various linguistic and related methodologies that have been brought to bear on the problem since the 18th Century. Before tackling the Indo-European question in detail, however, we should first ask how a particular language comes to be spoken in a particular region?
Obviously when settlers move into a previously uninhabited region for the first time, they will bring their language with them. But the languages spoken by, for example, the people who moved into Britain and Northern Europe at the end of the last ice age have long since vanished. What happened to them? There are two things that can happen to a language once it has been introduced to a region – firstly it can be replaced by another language; secondly it can itself evolve.
Language replacement happens when the language spoken in a particular region is replaced by another brought in by people from a different region. There are a number of ways this can happen.
Subsistence/Demography occurs when large numbers of people move into a territory, bringing their language with them. The newcomers don’t have to be conquerors – the process usually refers to subsistence farmers moving into a territory previously inhabited only by hunter-gatherers. This is a process we shall return to in greater detail.
On the other hand elite dominance occurs when invaders conquer a territory and impose their language on native peoples. It will clearly be to the advantage of the subjugated people to learn the language of their conquerors when doing business, pursuing legal and religious matters, etc, though initially they will continue to converse in their native language when with friends and family. Although the first generation will only speak the new language as a second language, the next is likely to be fully bilingual, having been exposed to the both languages from birth, and the one after that will probably regard the old language as a second language, used mainly for conversing with their grandparents. Within a few generations the old language will die out altogether.
The classic example of elite dominance is the spread of Latin, which was originally confined to a small area around Rome. At that time, one would have had to have travelled no more than 40km north of Rome to find people speaking a different, albeit closely related language – Faliscan. Only a little further to the north, people were speaking Etruscan, a completely unrelated language. But as Rome’s power grew, Latin came to be spoken throughout the whole of Italy and eventually across large areas of Europe.
Another model of language replacement is system collapse, which occurs when an organised society collapses or at least retreats from the peripheries of its zone of influence and other groups move in to exploit the resulting power vacuum. This happened in Britain after the Romans left and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes moved in, bringing with them the West Germanic language from which in time English arose.
Finally there is lingua franca, where a trading language (pidgin) develops in a region as a result of trading or other activity by outsiders. Usually the pidgin is a simplified version of the outsider language. In time a creole – which is a brand-new language – may arise from the pidgin.
Language development as opposed to language replacement occurs over time because languages themselves are not static. There is nothing strange about this – in fact it would be strange if languages did not change with time. For this to be so, people would have to reproduce exactly the same sounds and idiom from one generation to the next, something contrary to human nature even if we isolated a population from social change, contact with other cultures, etc.
For a written language, change can easily be demonstrated by studying texts over a period of many centuries. English has undergone considerable change over the last millennium, as illustrated by these four versions of the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
In meadows of green grass he lets me lie.
To waters of repose he leads me.
Early Modern English
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
Our Lord gouerneth me, and nothyng shal defailen to me.
In sted of pasture he sett me ther.
He norissed me upon water of fyllyng.
Drihten me raet, ne byth me nanes godes wan.
And he me geset on swyth good feohland.
And fedde me be waetera stathum.
Most of us will, if anything, be most familiar with the second version, which has a “biblical” feel to it but is in reality the way people spoke in Shakespeare’s day. But the third version is decidedly strange and the fourth might as well be written in a foreign language. Unlike Modern English, Old English was a fully-inflected language, and it also predates the enormous influx of so-called “loanwords” from French that occurred after 1066. It should be noted that the change is continuous – “Modern English”, “Early Modern English”, “Middle English” and “Old English” are no more than arbitrary points in the evolution of the English language. But how do these changes come about?
One way is by the “morphing” of words as one generation’s sloppy speech becomes the received version. As noted above, English was once an inflected language and nouns had case endings, but in time these fell into disuse – for example the plurals of “fox”, “tongue” and “book” were once “foxas”, “tungan” and “bec”. Some of these archaic forms do survive – for example ox/oxen, sheep/sheep, man/men, woman/women, and child/children.
Pronunciations also change with time – for example the silent “k” in words such as “knife”, “knee” and “knight” was once pronounced; the Old English forms of these words were “cnif”, “cne” and “cniht”. Similarly the “ch-“in words such as “chicken” and “cheese” was once pronounced as a hard “c-”, i.e. “cycen” and “cese”. A recent (trivial) example of pronunciation change is the planet Uranus, which before the advent of popular science broadcasting was usually pronounced with the stress on the second syllable – then about thirty years ago, somebody in authority must have become embarrassed and insisted on a change.
Another way a word can morph is by conflation with the indefinite article – for example “nickname” was once “eka name” – the now-archaic word “eka” meant “also”. But in time, people began to pronounce “an eka name” as “a neka name” from which the progress to “a nickname” was fairly straightforward. The reverse can also happen – oranges were once known as “noranges” (from Hindi) – but “a norange” eventually became “an orange”.
Not only do words morph, they can also acquire additional meanings, or change their meaning entirely. This process is known as semantic change. An obvious example is the word “gay”, which originally meant “carefree”. During the 20th Century the word gradually came to mean homosexual; but by the turn of the century it had acquired an additional pejorative meaning – to describe something as “gay” is to decry it. Other examples include “silly” (original meaning “glorious”), “villain” (a peasant farmer in feudal times) and “husband” (which originally meant manager of a house). The process continues – a future age might recall that “wicked” once meant “bad” and that “cool” meant the opposite of “warm”.
Not only do words morph and change their meaning; new words can be “borrowed” from other languages. As previously mentioned, English has borrowed heavily from French and such “loanwords” include “ability”, “finance”, “rendezvous” and “theatre”. But English also contains loanwords from other languages including “hinterland” (German); “bazaar” and “bungalow” (from Hindi); “alcohol”, “algebra” and “arsenal” (from Arabic).
Language change is as inevitable as death and taxation – only in a society of telepathically interconnected beings such as Star Trek’s Borg could things be any different.
But how can a group of languages can arise from a common origin? As already noted, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, etc all diverged from Latin, but how does this happen? Why are the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and Romanians not still speaking Latin, albeit a version that has changed since Roman times? The answer is that in a sense they are.
Just as a language is not fixed in time, so it also varies across regions. In reality there is no such a thing as a language, only dialects. Old English, in fact, had differing dialects from Day One as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain all spoke various dialects of West Germanic, all with their own peculiarities, resulting in at least three dialects of Old English – West Saxon, Northumbrian and Mercian. This state of affairs persisted over the centuries and what became known as “Standard” English was no more than the mixture of Essex and Middlesex dialects that happened to be spoken in London. But by the 1400s London had become the hub of the newly-established manuscript printing industry – so written English was more likely to be this version, which combined with London’s influence resulted in it becoming accepted as the “standard” version, although the other dialects were equally valid language systems. Similarly in France the Paris dialect came to predominate, with others being dismissed as “patois”.
Even in Roman times, different dialects of Latin were being spoken in different parts of the Empire. After the fall of Rome contacts between the various peoples reduced and the differences began to become more marked. Eventually the Latin dialects spoken in Italy, France, Spain, etc diverged to such an extent that they became distinct languages.
We are now in a position to consider what the linguistic evidence has to tell us about the Indo-European question. For over a century, scholars attempted to locate the Proto-Indo-European homeland on the basis of linguistic arguments alone, without being able to call upon supporting evidence from any other source. The picture that emerged was blurred and often contradictory, but bearing in mind that Proto-Indo-European was never written down, what has been achieved is remarkable.
By examining cognates – words in different languages with shared roots – it proved possible to reconstruct much of the lost Proto-Indo-European language and build up its proto-lexicon or vocabulary. This task really got underway after around 1850, but important groundwork was done earlier.
In the early 19th Century, linguists discovered a powerful principle: sound shift, where phonetic features in one language differ from those of another in a consistent way. For example in Latin the f sound in many words corresponds to the b sound in Teutonic languages, thus frater in Latin becomes brother in English and Bruder in German. This principle was first noticed by Rasmus Christian Rask in 1818. It was later extended by Jakob Grimm, elder of the Brothers Grimm and is (perhaps a little unfairly) usually known as Grimm’s Law. However, some scholars insist on referring to it as Rask’s-Grimm’s Rule. Also around this time it was noticed that there are structural similarities between the languages, with words displaying similar grammatical case endings.
However before reconstruction of PIE could properly begin, it was necessary to form a better understanding of the relationships between the various daughter languages. Two models were put forward. The first, by August Schliecher in 1862 was the genealogical or “family tree” model of languages, which was influenced by Charles Darwin’s then recently-proposed Theory of Evolution. Languages with strong similarities languages such as French and Italian were grouped together; these groups were in turn linked to produce larger groups. It is assumed languages give rise to daughter languages; thus for example Italo-Celtic split to give Celtic and Italic, Italic then split to give Oscan, Umbrian and Latin. The model has a number of weaknesses. It assumes the different daughter languages remain isolated, whereas in practice this is not the case. For example English (a Germanic language) was heavily influenced by Medieval French and Latin (Italic). It also fails to explain similarities which cut across different language branches. These similarities are known as isoglosses. The best-known example of an isogloss is the so-called centum/satem division, named for the words for one hundred – centum in Latin and satem in Avestan (a liturgical Old Iranian language used to compose the sacred hymns and texts of the Zoroastrian Avesta).
A more realistic model was proposed by Johannes Schmidt in 1872. This was known as the wave hypothesis. On this picture, language changes spread out over a speech area like ripples on a pond. The main weakness of this model is that it assumes all the languages under consideration are all being spoken at the same time, whereas some may be separated from others by thousands of years. Despite their drawbacks, no universally-accepted alternative to these two models has ever been proposed.
Nevertheless linguists were in a position to commence the task of reconstructing PIE. For example the word “sheep” is avis (Lithuanian), ovis (Latin), ois (Greek), oveja (Spanish) and ewe (English). The PIE word is believed to have been *owis, the asterisk denoting a reconstructed word. Other reconstructed words include:
*mehter mother, *phator father, *swesor sister, *bhrater brother, *dhughater daughter, *suhnus son.
*owis sheep, *tauros bull, *gwous cow, *uksen ox, *porkos pig, *ekwos horse, *kapros goat, *mus mouse, *kwon dog.
*oinos one, *dwo two, *treyes three.
One thing that stands out about these words is their familiarity – even if their meaning isn’t immediately obvious it doesn’t take much working out. For example, ewe from *owis and hound from *kwon.
Much of the work of reconstruction was completed in the 19th Century, though refinement has continued ever since. New information has been incorporated as lost languages such as Hittite and Tocharian have come to light. Not all reconstructed words are regarded as equally secure. Ideally a reconstructed word should have a shared correspondence between a European language and a non-adjacent Asian one, but this is not always possible.
Having built up a picture of how the various Indo-European languages are related to each other and reconstructed some of the original language itself, can we make any inferences about the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their homeland? In fact a number of methodologies have been used with varying degrees of success to try and tease clues out of the linguistic data.
When was PIE spoken?
The most obvious question to tackle first is when was PIE spoken? Up until now we have assumed that it is prehistoric language, purely on basis of having no historic record of when and where it was spoken. We can set an upper limit by looking at when the various written Indo-European languages are first attested, and must therefore by that time have diverged from PIE. Just as Latin fell out of everyday use as French, Spanish, Italian, etc diverged from it, so we can assume that by the time the earliest Indo-European languages had diverged from PIE, PIE itself was no longer being spoken.
The three earliest are Anatolian, at c.2000 BC; Indo-Aryan, inferred from a treaty between the Mittani of Northern Mesopotamia and the Hittites dating to around 1400 BC; and Greek, which goes back to at least 1300 BC and probably rather earlier. Mycenaean Greek is attested by the Bronze Age Linear B tablets excavated in 1900 by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete, and deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952. These three groups are sufficiently different from each other to suggest that they had all been going their separate ways well before 2000 BC – but how much earlier?
In the mid-19th Century an approach was set out known as linguistic palaeontology, named from an analogy with palaeontology – the study of the development of life of Earth based on the fossil record.
The basic assumption is that if a PIE word exists for something, then the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been familiar with it, and inferences can therefore be made about their material culture, social organisation and the geography of their homeland.
PIE contains many words for domestic animals such as sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and horses (though it uncertain whether these were domesticated or wild); but there are fewer words pertaining to agriculture. Words exist for wheels, axles and wheeled vehicles.
This led some to suppose that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were pastors (tending flocks of animals) rather than agriculturalists. On the basis of this argument many homelands were proposed during the 19th Century, with Central Asia and Northern Europe among the favourites. In 1890 Otto Schrader proposed the South Russian steppe, from the Carpathians to Central Asia. Nomad pastoralism has been practiced in this region since the time of the Scythians, who were a nation of nomadic pastors described by Herodotus around 440 BC. There was certainly no reason for Schrader not to suppose that the region had supported nomadic pastors since prehistoric times.
We now know that animal domestication and agriculture first appeared at around 8000 BC in the Near East, spreading gradually to southern Europe before moving both north and west and reaching the northern and western peripheries of Europe by around 4000 BC; the horse was first domesticated at around 4000 BC. The wheel was invented no earlier than 4000 BC.
So – if we accept these conclusions – we get a date for PIE that is no earlier than 4000 BC. But how safe is it to do so? Can we be sure that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had wheeled vehicles? The answer is “no”. In 1969 Calvert Watkins suggested that terms pertaining to wheeled vehicles were chiefly metaphorical extensions of older IE words with different meaning. For example *nobh- (wheel-hub) meant “navel” and the word for wheel itself, *kwekwlo- is derived from the root *kwel- “turn, revolve”. Another possibility is widespread borrowing of the word for wheel. Because the wheel was such a useful invention, the words pertaining to wheeled vehicles spread along with the things themselves. Subsequent sound-shifts in the borrowing languages would create the illusion that borrowed words were part of the proto-lexicon. Only if we reject these possibilities can we trust a date arrived at through linguistic palaeontology.
Reconstructed words for kin are a fertile ground for inferences about the social systems of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The systems by which people organize their kin vary across the world and a number of kinship systems are recognised by anthropologists, typically named for the ethnic groups among which they were first studied. A loose correlation has been found between kinship terminology and social and family organization.
The system with which most English-speaking people are familiar has separate words for each member of the nuclear family – “father”, “mother”, “brother”, “sister” – none of which are used for anybody who isn’t a member, with different terms being used for “aunt”, “uncle” and “cousin”. (I am ignoring here the colloquial use of the terms “aunt” and “uncle” within a family to refer to unrelated family friends.) We tend to take this system – which is actually termed the Eskimo system – so for granted that we don’t really think of it as a “system” at all, much less that other systems are possible.
In fact it is just one of many kinship systems. Some lump together fathers and uncles, and mothers and aunts. Others extend the definition of brothers and sisters to include male and female cousins. The Omaha system, practiced by the Native American Omaha tribe (and also the Dani tribe of Papua New Guinea and the Igbu of Nigeria) combines nephews and grandsons. The Omaha system is also associated with a strong patrilineal social organization, i.e. descent through the father’s line.
The PIE word *nepots actually means “grandson”. Less secure is that it also means “nephew” (which might have been a later meaning) but if so, it is possible that the Proto-Indo-European kinship system was of the Omaha type.
There is a cognate word for “king” in many Indo-European languages – e.g. Sanskrit raj, Latin rex and Old Irish ri. Some have taken this to imply that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were ruled by a king, implying a complex stratified society. (It has even been suggested that the absence of a word for “king” in some Indo-European languages is evidence for some kind of prehistoric revolution in which the king was driven out and the word was forgotten!)
In fact we need look no further than English to see that the whole notion of Proto-Indo-European kingship is highly suspect. The word “king” comes from the Old English cyning – the true cognate in English is “ruler”. The verb “to rule” can indeed mean to reign, but it also possible to rule on other matters – a point of law, or even whether or not a goal scored in a football match is offside. Finally it is possible to rule a straight line. The correspondence between straight lines and rules can be seen in the expression “to keep on the straight and narrow” and this correspondence is also found in other Indo-European languages. Rather than a king, the reconstructed word *reg might have referred to a tribal head, or simply an arbiter of right and wrong.
Linguistic palaeontology has also been used in attempts to locate the Proto-Indo-European homeland itself, this time by considering words for geographical features. PIE words exist for hills, mountains and swift-running rivers, leading some to suppose that the homeland was mountainous – Armenia has been suggested. But one need not actually live in mountainous terrain to be familiar with mountains. Few candidate homelands are so far away from any mountainous terrain that their inhabitants could dispense with words to describe it, and such inferences are questionable. PIE words for hot, cold, snow and ice, suggest a seasonally-varying (i.e. temperate) climate, but this really only rules out a homeland in the tropics.
Similarly attempts have been made to equate words for flora and fauna to the distributions of these. For example much effort has focussed on the beach tree and the salmon. Unfortunately we cannot be sure that the reconstructed word for the beach tree actually referred to it and not something else, such as the elder, oak or elm. Similarly with the salmon – did the PIE word refer to the Atlantic salmon or the salmon trout? The distributions of these species differ.
Later Linguistic approaches
Other linguistic methods have been brought into play in the quest for the Urheimat but they tend to produce results that can – to be candid – support more or less any conclusion desired. One such method is to consider the relationship between the Indo-European languages and those of other language families on the basis that the one showing the strongest affinities might serve as a pointer to the location of the Urheimat. In fact loanwords and grammatical loans have been discerned between Indo-European and all its neighbours – Uralic, Afro-Asiatic and Kartvelian; these have been used to support homelands set respectively in the Eurasian steppes, Anatolia and central Asia.
Even approaches that produce a definite conclusion are frequently contradicted by methods producing another. Cladistic correlation assumes that the family tree of the Indo-European languages corresponds to the geographical relationships between the various languages and that the first group to diverge from PIE will have a geographic seat in or close to the homeland. It is generally accepted that the earliest known split is that of Anatolian, suggesting a location for the homeland in or close to Anatolia.
The conservation principle makes the assumption that if a language has not moved it will have undergone less change than one that has due to the impact of what are known as substrate languages. A substrate language is one that is supplanted by a second one, but exerts an influence on the new language, e.g. through loanwords, with the consequence that the latter undergoes change. In the case of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, it is assumed that Indo-European languages spoken further away from the homeland will have experienced more change than those close to it, and those spoken in or near the homeland will be the least changed of all.
The Baltic languages, particularly Lithuanian, turn out to be strongly conservative. Lithuanian is a language that was once far more widespread than present-day Lithuania, extending into Russia. So either a Baltic or Russian homeland is suggested – rather at odds with the result obtained from cladistic correlation.
But neither approach is without its faults. The assumption family tree relationships can be equated to geographical locations is dubious. For example Indo-Iranian appears close to Greek and Armenian, but no obvious geographical relationship can be discerned. The conservation principle is also flawed in that the various languages entered the historical record at different times and were current at different times and a comparison across the full range of Indo-European languages cannot be done on a level playing field.
Returning now to the matter of when PIE was spoken, another method that has been used to seek a time-depth for it is glottochronology. First proposed by the American linguist Morris Swadesh in the mid-20th Century, it assumes that the core vocabulary of any language is lost at a consistent rate and can so be used as a “linguistic clock”. Swadesh used a core vocabulary of 200 words, later reduced to 100. By determining what fraction of the core vocabulary is cognate between two languages, an estimate can be made as to when they diverged from a common ancestor. Before the technique could be used, it was first necessary to determine the speed at which the “clock” runs – a figure for the rate of word loss. This was achieved by comparing pairs of languages where the date of divergence was known, and a figure of 14% per thousand years was obtained.
Critics of glottochronology point out that there is no reason to suppose that languages do lose words at a consistent rate; indeed every reason to suppose that the reverse is true as social factors change. Nevertheless when applied to various European languages glottochronology gives results that are in reasonable agreement with accepted dates; and when applied to PIE, the technique has tended to give time-depths of no earlier than 4000 BC – consistent with the findings of linguistic palaeontology. Does this mean that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had the wheel after all?
Not necessarily. In 2003 a study by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson using Bayesian inference gave a rather earlier date of 7000 BC, though with a secondary burst of linguistic expansion around 4000 BC. Bayesian inference – named for the 18th Century mathematician Rev. Thomas Bayes – is a powerful but computational-intensive statistical method that has been brought to the fore by the increased “number-crunching” abilities of modern computers.
We shall return to this interesting conclusion later.
Religion and Mythology
Another field of study that has long attracted Indo-European scholars is the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Linguistic reconstructions do not produce many correspondences, although the word for “god” is widely attested: devas (Sanskrit), deus (Latin), dievas (Lithuanian) and dia (Old Irish). The reconstructed word is *deiwos. Rather more striking is the word *dyeus phater (sky father), better known to anybody familiar with Greek or Roman mythology as Zeus (Greek) or Jupiter (Roman). While there is an obvious temptation to assume, therefore, that the chief deity of the Proto-Indo-European pantheon was a brash thunderbolt-hurling alpha male, we cannot be certain that this was the case, as he seems less prominent in other religions and it has been suggested that his pre-eminence in Mediterranean religions was a later phenomenon involving his conflation with local weather deities.
Comparative mythology is another area of interest. The French scholar Georges Dumezil has been particularly active in this field, developing the notion of a ranked tripartite caste system underlying many Indo-European societies: priests at the top, then warriors and finally herder-cultivators. Thus in Vedic India there are the brahmanas (priests), ksatriyas (warriors) and vaisyas (herder-cultivators); in ancient Gaul these three were druids, equites (horsemen) and plebes. Each caste has its own gods – in Roman mythology there was the ruling god (Jupiter), the god of war (Mars) and the god of the people (Quirinus).
Does this tripartite structure suggest a common origin in an earlier proto-Indo-European institution? It is very plausible that the same phenomenon that spread Indo-European languages could also have spread institutions, customs, beliefs and legends – but only if a certain level of social complexity for Proto-Indo-European society is assumed.
Archaeology joins in
The above considerations have given us tantalizing but tentative insights into the possible worlds of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The picture is very blurred and most methodologies come with health warnings. More is needed to bring things into sharper focus, and clearly linguistic inferences can only be taken so far. If a convincing solution to the Proto-Indo-European problem is to be found, then evidence from other sources must also be considered.
The need for such an approach was recognised by the end of the 19th Century and first use of a methodology that included archaeological considerations was made by Gustaf Kossinna in 1902. He identified the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the Corded Ware culture, a wide-spread culture that flourished across northern Europe between the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages, developing in various areas from 3200 BC to 2300 BC and who were named for the characteristic decoration of their pottery by means of impressions of fibre cord. Kossinna placed the homeland in North Germany and envisaged the Proto-Indo-Europeans expanding towards Iran and India, carrying their language eastwards. Kossinna was the first to equate pottery styles to specific peoples and their movements, a methodology that is still current.
Kossinna’s work was followed up by Sydney-born Vere Gordon Childe, a philologist by training, who rejected a career in politics because of his interest in archaeology. Childe coined the term “Neolithic Revolution” to describe the coming of agriculture and “Urban Revolution” to describe the subsequent transformation of agricultural villages into complex societies and he is considered to be one of the most influential figures of 20th Century archaeology.
In 1926 Childe published The Aryans: a study of Indo-European origins in which he surveyed the various archaeological cases for the homeland being located in Asia, Central Europe, North Europe and the South Russia steppe and, following Schrader, came down in favour of the latter. Childe equated the Proto-Indo-Europeans to the Kurgan culture, which embraces a series of cultures that occupied the steppe and forest-steppe of southern Ukraine and southern Russia, possibly originating in the Volga-Ural region. The word kurgan comes from the Russian word for their trademark barrows or burial mounds. Childe reversed the direction of Kossinna’s migrations, and had Corded Ware people moving westwards from the steppes of Russia rather than eastwards as Kossinna had proposed.
The word Aryan came to be applied to the Proto-Indo-European people during the 19th Century, though there is no evidence to suppose they applied the term to themselves. The word comes from the Sanskrit word arya, which means “noble”, “free”, “spiritual” or “skilful”. The name Iran literally means “Land of the Aryans”. Unfortunately the word Aryan is now so indelibly associated with the Nazis that post-war scholars have tended to avoid the term, and Childe – who was a committed socialist – later repudiated his work.
In the second half of the last century what are now regarded as the two main competing theories were both put forward. These are the Kurgan hypothesis, proposed by Lithuanian émigré Marija Gimbutas in a series of papers between 1956 and 1979; and the Anatolian hypothesis, set forward in detail by Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, in 1987.
The Kurgan hypothesis
Marija Gimbutas’ Kurgan hypothesis followed Childe in locating the homeland on the South Russian/Pontic-Caspian steppe and like him identified the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the Kurgan tradition. Drawing on both linguistic and archaeological evidence, Gimbutas envisaged the Kurgan people as a warlike male-dominated society, worshipping masculine sky-gods. They were a highly mobile society of nomad pastors, who used ox-drawn wagons and horses for transport. Only a few permanent settlements have been found – as could be expected for mobile people – and they are known mainly from their mortuary practices whereby the dead were interred in earthen or stone chambers, above which a burial mound was frequently erected.
By contrast the people of Neolithic Europe – or “Old Europe” to use Gimbutas’ term – were settled farmers, living in small family-based communities. Gimbutas characterised them as peaceful, matriarchal and possessing a mother goddess-centred religion.
Between 4000 and 2500 BC the Kurgan people expanded from the steppes in a series of hostile invasions, moving into Europe, the Caucasus and Anatolia and onwards towards India; and eastwards along the steppe into Central Asia. The archaeological record shows that Old Europe’s female-centric culture disappears and is replaced by that of Kurgan warriors. Fine ceramics and painted wares give way to cruder Kurgan material. Kurgan burials appear, generally confined to males and accompanied by arrows, spears, knives, horse-headed sceptres. There is evidence of suttee – an atrocious practice whereby women were killed on the deaths of their husbands – clear evidence of a male-dominated society. Stone stelae are seen in the Alpine region depicting horses, wagons, axes, spears and daggers – all of which are valued by a warlike society.
Thus Gimbutas claimed the Kurgan people brought about the collapse of the south-eastern European Neolithic culture and absorbed it into hybrid Kurgan societies. These “kurganised” societies then move north and westwards, eventually leading to the Corded Ware culture in northern Europe. Similar evidence is seen in the south Caucasus and Anatolia; and to the east in southern Siberia, from which the Iranians are derived.
Although widely accepted, the Kurgan Hypothesis has its critics. Many reject the exclusively military nature of the expansion and believe more complex factors were involved. One of these is the so-called “secondary products revolution”. In 1981 the late Andrew Sherratt noted that late in the European Neolithic there was an increased exploitation of such products as milk, cheese, wool and the use of animals for traction. Many of these new features – such as plough agriculture and increased stockbreeding would have enhanced the male role in productive economy. This may have brought about the social changes that Gimbutas attributed to invaders.
(See this article The Peopling of Europe for an account of the possible demographics of Neolithic Europe.)
The Anatolian Hypothesis
In 1987 Colin Renfrew put forward an entirely different model. According to Renfrew, the Indo-European languages were spread by Neolithic farmers, who originated in Anatolia at around 7000 BC, a date far earlier than that proposed for the Kurgan Hypothesis. In Archaeology and Language Renfrew summarised and then rejected all attempts to date to solve the Proto-Indo-European problem. He made three major criticisms of the Kurgan Hypothesis.
Renfrew’s first target was linguistic palaeontology and “the lure of the proto-lexicon”. We have already seen that this approach has its pitfalls. In addition to some of the points already noted above, Renfrew criticised the inference that the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been nomadic pastors on the basis that the proto-lexicon contains more words for animal species than it does for plants. He pointed out that pastoralists are in fact dependent upon their co-existence with farmers. If the Proto-Indo-Europeans were familiar with domesticated sheep, goats or cattle, they must have also been familiar with wheat, barley and peas regardless of whether we have been able to reconstruct words for these species. The argument that the absence of these words implies the Proto-Indo-Europeans were pastoralists therefore collapses.
Renfrew then went on to challenge the assumption that of the appearance in a region of a new pottery style such as Corded Ware or Bell Beakers, or of new mortuary practices such as the kurgans, are evidence of migrations by corresponding groups of people. Kossinna, Childe, Gimbutas and others sought to explain cultural changes in terms of repeated waves of invasions, a viewpoint that was widely held by archaeologists during the first half of the last century. Thus the Beaker culture, an archaeological culture current in Western Europe between c.2800-1900 BC, was seen by Childe as “warlike invaders imbued with domineering habits and an appreciation of metal weapons and ornaments which inspired them to impose sufficient political unity on their new domain for some economic unification to follow”.
In fact, by the 1980s this “migrationist” view was becoming unfashionable. Renfrew saw the appearance of these objects as the result of cultural diffusion whereby ideas, cultural traits, material objects etc were spread from one local community to another independently of mass migrations, a model known as “peer polity interaction”. On this model, the characteristic pottery styles were simply spread either by trade or the development of the appropriate manufacturing skills rather than by hostile invaders.
Renfrew’s final criticism of the Kurgan hypothesis was that insufficient attention had been paid to the dynamics of the supposed expansion. Why would it take place at all? He questioned the whole notion of the homeland people as pastoral nomads. He argued that nomad pastoralism normally develops from mixed farming and herding, which would have been practiced in Central and Western Europe. Transhumance – where cattle are moved from the village to summer pastures – probably developed during the “secondary products revolution” mentioned earlier. Nomadic pastoralism in southern Russia was probably an adaptation to the steppes of older European transhumance. The western steppes must have been colonised from the west, their language must have also have been the language of farmers living to the west and not vice-versa as suggested by the Kurgan hypothesis.
Having rejected the Kurgan Hypothesis, Renfrew drew on the studies by Italian geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and his collaborator, American archaeologist Albert Ammerman. In papers published in 1973 and 1984, Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza claimed that Neolithic farmers had expanded across Europe in a slow continuous “wave of advance”, with farmers spreading out into previously-unfarmed regions as population pressures grew; with further expansion occurring as these regions in turn filled up, and so on. In support of this claim they put forward evidence based on the protein products of genes that showed a genetic gradient that spread across Europe in a south-east to north-west direction.
Renfrew proposed that the Proto-Indo-European expansion had begun 9,500 years ago in Anatolia, far earlier than had been proposed up until now. From Anatolia, the expansion had moved into Greece and from there in a north-westerly direction across Europe. He also offered a choice of two hypotheses as to the spread of the Indo-Iranian languages, which he referred to as Hypotheses A and B. Hypothesis A proposed a wave of advance similar to that proposed for Europe. Hypothesis B on the other hand invoked the steppe-invader model. Once the wave of advance reached the steppe and nomadic pastoralism developed, the pastors moved swiftly east across the steppes and into Iran and northern India, possibly taking advantage of (though not bringing about) the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization which flourished between 3000-1800 BC.
Renfrew’s theory attracted a lot of interest, but it was also criticized, largely because it seemed at times to fly in the face of linguistic evidence. But as we have seen much of this evidence is suspect. Archaeology can identify pottery styles and mortuary traditions – but again, some of the inferences that have in the past been drawn from these are questionable.
Linguistics and archaeology have led us to a choice of two theories, but which – if either – is correct?
The emerging synthesis
Colin Renfrew coined the term Archaeogenetics, which refers to the application of population genetics to the study of the human past. Techniques include the analysis of ancient DNA recovered from archaeological remains; the analysis of DNA from modern humans and domestic animals and plants in order to study migrations and the spread of farming practices; and the application of statistical methods to this data.
It is now necessary to give a very brief introduction to the science of genetics. The human body is comprised of cells, most of which contain a nucleus which holds two copies of what is known as the human genome. The human genome is a collection of genes and it is basically a set of instructions for making a complete human being, though the various types of cells generally implement only a few of those instructions depending on their function. One of our two genome copies comes from our mother and the other from our father.
Although the basic structure of the genome is identical for all human beings, the actual genes themselves can differ because a particular gene can exist in a number of different forms. Such genes are said to be polymorphic and each “version” is known as an allele. Different alleles are responsible for differences in such characteristics as blood groups, hair colour and eye colour.
It is these genetic polymorphisms that are the basis of population genetics, which dates back to World War I. Studies of blood groups carried out on soldiers and POWs showed that the proportions of individuals belonging to various blood groups depended on ethnicity. At that time only the classic ABO blood group polymorphism was known, though many others soon followed. O is the commonest type, but its frequency varies considerably from 61% in East Asia and 65% among Europeans to 98% among Native Americans.
In the 1960s Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and the British statistician Anthony Edwards began applying a statistical method known as principal component analysis to raw data compiled over several decades. Cavalli-Sforza later collaborated with Albert Ammerman to back up his “wave of advance” model with genetic data. He did in fact make his data available to Colin Renfrew but Renfrew felt at that time that genetic data based on blood groups could lead to misleading interpretations and chose not to use it.
At that time the study of DNA itself as opposed to its products (such as blood proteins) was still in its infancy. However in 1995 Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University presented the results of his studies on mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are structures that exist in every cell and help cells to produce energy by production of a high-energy molecule known as ATP. Mitochondria contain their own DNA, a rather surprising state of affairs that suggests they were once free-living bacteria that took up residence in more advanced cells, initially as parasites but later in a mutually-beneficial relationship that has endured to the present day. In human sperm cells the mitochondria are located in the whiplash tail that is shed when the sperm penetrates and fertilizes an egg cell. The latter however retains its mitochondria; thus all mitochondrial DNA is passed through the maternal line and is said to be non-recombining, unlike nuclear DNA which is as we have seen an admixture of maternal and paternal components.
Sykes’ results appeared to show that only around twenty percent of modern Europeans could trace their ancestry back to the early Neolithic farmers. The immediate assumption was therefore that Renfrew was wrong. Nobody disputed that farming had spread gradually across Europe: the archaeological evidence was incontrovertible. But had farmers spread? Or had the idea of farming simply spread as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers gradually took up agriculture? In which case Renfrew’s theory was seriously flawed as it while it seemed highly plausible that hunter-gatherers could learn a new way of life from the farmers, it hardly seemed likely that they would choose to speak the farmers’ language in preference to their own.
In fact it is only a problem if one assumes that there was no intermarriage between the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the incoming Neolithic farmers. Even a small number of such “mixed marriages” would gradually dilute the Neolithic genes with those of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. On this picture the observed “genetic gradient” is exactly what one would expect. But while the Neolithic genetic signal would gradually weaken, the linguistic signal would not. Anybody marrying into the farming community would have to learn the farmers’ language and their children would certainly come to speak it as their first language. It is easy for somebody to be of mixed-race; rather less so to speak half a language.
Does this mean that Renfrew is right and Gimbutas is wrong? Or could they both be right? Cavalli-Sforza thinks so. He believes that the original Anatolian farmers spoke and early form of Proto-Indo-European, which he describes Pre-PIE. The expansion occurred as Renfrew describes, eventually reaching the South Russian steppe. So Gimbutas’ Kurgan people were speaking a later version of Proto-Indo-European when they began their series of expansions from the steppe, which was if you like a “secondary urheimat”. This is in fact entirely consistent with the second of the two hypotheses presented by Renfrew to explain the spread of the Indo-Iranian languages.
Further support for this view comes from the Gray and Atkinson study which dated PIE (or Pre-PIE) to 7000 BC (when the Neolithic expansion began) with a secondary burst at 4000 BC (when the Kurgan expansion begun).
Is this the solution to the Indo-European problem; is the 220-year quest for the urheimat finally at an end? And if so, why did it take so long to come up with the answer?
Obviously the technology to investigate DNA and archaeological techniques such as radiocarbon dating did not exist in 1786, but that is not the whole picture. Part of the problem may have been tendency to look for a monocausal explanation analogous to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In fact it was obvious even in Sir William Jones’ lifetime that this was not so because the Indo-European expansion was continuing, having begun a new phase after 1492. Christopher Columbus and his crew were certainly not the first Indo-European speakers to reach the Americas but they set in motion a process which eventually resulted in the linguistic domination of the New World by three Indo-European languages – Spanish, Portuguese and English. The relatively short time since the voyages of Columbus has seen the completion of a process that began shortly after the end of the last Ice Age.
If Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is correct then the Indo-European expansion actually happened in three phases, millennia apart, in which technology and social conditions were totally different. Under such circumstances, seeking one all-encompassing explanation is clearly futile.
But it’s a big “if”. There have been many twists and turns in the lengthy quest for the Proto-Indo-European homeland, and it would be premature to suggest that the saga is definitely at an end.
Bellwood, P & Renfrew, C. (eds.) 2002: Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis, McDonald Institute, Cambridge.
Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. 1996: The spread of agriculture and nomadic pastoralism: insights from genetics, linguistics and archaeology in The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia, edited by Harris, D.R., UCL Press, London.
Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. 2000: Genes, Peoples and Languages, North Point Press, USA.
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Gray, R.D. & Atkinson, Q.D. 2003: Language-tree divergence times support Anatolian theory of Indo-European origins, Nature vol. 426 pp 435-439.
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Renfrew, C. 1999: Time Depth, Convergence Theory, and Innovation in Proto-Indo-European: ‘Old Europe’ as a PIE Linguistic Area, Journal of Indo-European Studies 27, 257-93.
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© Christopher Seddon 2008