Modern Humans in Arabia 125,000 years ago?

Stone tools have been recovered from a site in the United Arab Emirates. The tools are reported to be 125,000 years old and it is claimed by British archaeologist Simon Armitage in the journal Science that they were made by modern humans. This date is 40,000 to 60,000 years before modern humans are generally thought to have reached the Arabian Peninsula.

The tools were found at a rock shelter on Jebel Faya, a 350m (1,200ft) mountain equidistant from the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf and lying due south of the Straits of Hormuz. The rock shelter itself is 180m (600ft) above sea level. It contains archaeological layers dating from the Iron and Bronze Ages all the way back to the Palaeolithic. Artefacts from the latter have been found in three layers, the oldest of which, Layer C, has been dated by optical stimulated luminescence methods to the Eemian Interglacial, 125,000 years ago. The artefacts were manufactured using a number of different reduction strategies including Levallois, volumetric blade, and simple parallel methods. The tools include small handaxes, foliates, end scrapers, side scrapers, and denticulates. It has been suggested that they have more in common with contemporary artefacts from North and Northeast Africa than with those known from other Arabian sites. Since the African artefacts were made by modern humans, it is proposed that the Eemian Jebel Faya artefacts were too.

The Eemian Interglacial was warm period between the last and penultimate ice ages during which “humid corridors” opened up in the Sahara Desert. Modern humans reached the Levant, probably via the “humid corridors”, but they are not generally thought to have reached further into Asia. The general view is at that time, the Levant was effectively a north-eastern extension of Africa. After conditions worsened 91,000 years ago, modern humans disappeared from the Levant, which was subsequently re-occupied by Neanderthals.

Armitage believes that humans crossed the Bab Al Mandab Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea at the onset of the Eemian, when sea-levels were fairly low and it could readily be crossed. Once in Arabia, the colonists benefitted from reduced competition for resources and exploit both the coast and interior for food. Groups occupied the southern coast and pushed inland, taking advantage of the warm wet conditions. Armitage suggests that it is these rather than technological innovation that provided the stimulus for the expansion. The more recent Palaeolithic artefacts suggests that the colony survived the harsher conditions that set in at the end of the Eemian, although it was probably cut off from groups living further south.

It cannot be ruled out that the tools were of Neanderthal origin, although co-author Anthony Marks rejects this view and in an article in Science claimed that Neanderthals did not use this combination of tools. Archaeologist Michael Petraglia noted that the site was out of the Neanderthal habitat range. But archaeologist Sir Paul Mellars was quoted as being “totally unpersuaded”. He does not believe that there is any evidence that the tools were made by modern humans and does not see the tool style as African.

I will personally admit to being sceptical and think it is far more likely that these tools were made by Neanderthals. Petraglia’s comments notwithstanding, it was reported last year that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals soon after leaving Africa. Assuming they left via the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, as is widely believed, they must have encountered Neanderthals in Arabia.

Armitage, S., Jasim, S., Marks, A., Parker, A., Usik, V., & Uerpmann, H. (2011). The Southern Route “Out of Africa”: Evidence for an Early Expansion of Modern Humans into Arabia. Science , 331, 453-456.


Paradigm shift

The concept that there is such a thing as prehistory, an era undocumented by written records, is actually quite recent. In 1650 James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, famously calculated from Biblical texts that the Earth had been created in 4004 BC. In 18th Century Europe, when Carl Linnaeus coined the term Homo sapiens, this date was still widely accepted. Most believed that the earliest part of human history was fully recorded in the texts of ancient Greek and Roman historians and in the Old Testament itself. The Abrahamic religions held that Earth and time were created simultaneously and that it was therefore meaningless to speak of earlier times, because time itself did not exist. Even to ask what God had been doing before He created the world was considered poor form and the religious reformer John Calvin said that the answer should have been “making Hell for the curious” (the remark is often erroneously attributed to St. Augustine).

In astronomy, the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton eventually relegated the Earth from the centre of the Universe to the 3rd rock from the Sun; humanity’s demotion from somewhere “a little lower than the angels” to what the American biologist and author Jared Diamond has described as “just another species of big mammal” required a paradigm shift of equal proportions.

Like Galileo, many of the early workers in the field were flying in the face of religious orthodoxy, though this was not always the case and indeed Linnaeus, who was responsible for formally assigning humans a place in the animal kingdom alongside apes and monkeys, went out of his way to fit his work into God’s scheme of things. In fact the study and classification of the natural world was always considered a perfectly respectable pursuit, one that went back to Classical times. Such studies, with a view to achieving a better understanding of the works of God, were known as natural theology.

The first attempt at a systematic classification of the natural world was made by Aristotle, who believed that everything in the universe had its place in a Great Chain of Being or Scala Naturae (“Ladder of Nature”), being ranked from the lowest to the highest. The hierarchy began with God at the top, followed by angels, then kings, princes, and so on through to ordinary people, animals, plants, minerals etc.

Within this chain, Aristotle divided the various species of living organisms into two groups – animals and plants. Animals were further divided into three categories – those living on land, those living in the water and those living in the air, and were in addition categorised by whether or not they had blood (broadly speaking, those “without blood” would now be classed as invertebrates, or animals without a backbone). Plants were categorised by differences in their stems.

Aristotle’s system remained in use for hundreds of years but by the 16th Century, knowledge of the natural world had reached a point where it was becoming inadequate. Many attempts were made to devise a better system, but it was not until 1735 that the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus published the first edition of Systema Natura (“System of Nature”), in which he proposed a hierarchical classification of the natural world, dividing it into the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms. Each kingdom was further subdivided by class, order, genus and finally species. Species were arranged within the higher groupings on the basis of physical similarities, each grouping being named on the basis of a defining feature. In addition, Linnaeus adopted the system of binomial nomenclature first proposed over a century earlier by Gaspard Bauhin, under which a species is assigned a generic name and a specific name. The generic name refers to the genus and the specific name represents the species itself.

Within the Linnaean system, the Mammalia (mammals) are the class of animals that suckle their young. It is said that Linnaeus adopted this aspect as the defining feature of the group because of his strongly-held view that all mothers should breast feed their babies. He was strongly opposed to the then-common practice of “wet nursing” and in this respect he was considerably ahead of his time.

The mammals were divided into eight orders, including the Primates; these in turn were divided into two genera: the Simia (monkeys, apes, etc) and Homo (man), the latter containing a single species, sapiens – hence Homo sapiens, meaning (some would say ironically) “wise man”.

As originally conceived, the Linnaean system did not accord equal status to apparently equal divisions; thus the Mineral Kingdom was ranked below the Plant Kingdom; which in turn sat below the Animal Kingdom. Similarly the classes were assigned ranks with mammals ranking the highest and Insecta (insects) and Vermes (worms) the lowest. Within the mammals the Primates received top billing, with Homo sapiens assigned to pole position therein.

This hierarchy within a hierarchy reflected Linnaeus’ belief that his system reflected Aristotle’s Chain of Being, with Mankind at the top. Indeed the term “primate” survives to this day as a legacy of that view. Never the most modest of men, Linnaeus claimed that “God creates, Linnaeus arranges”.

Linnaeus’ classification system, as set out in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, published in 1758, is still is considered the foundation of modern taxonomy and it has been modified only slightly in that we now regard all equivalent divisions as being equal.

The Linnean Taxonomy shows us where humans fit into the grand scheme of things, but it has nothing to tell us about how we got there. Linnaeus did not believe that species changed. His thinking was still firmly rooted in that of Plato, who believed that every type of object in the universe was represented by an immutable Form, from which all instances of that object were derived; thus for example all cats were derived from the Form of a Cat. Plato’s Theory of Forms explicitly rejected evolution: the Form of one species of animal could never evolve into that of another.

Others, though, were already beginning to question this view. The existence of extinct organisms in the fossil record represented a serious problem for creationism. Fossils had been known for centuries and it was becoming clear that they represented in many cases life forms that no longer existed. The English canal engineer William Smith and French naturalist Georges Cuvier were among those who recognised that rocks of different ages preserved different assemblages of fossils, implying a sequence of events more complex than could be accounted for by the Biblical account of a single great flood.

In 1796 Cuvier put forward a possible solution known as catastrophism, which was a modified form of creationism. He proposed that extinctions had been caused by periodic catastrophes, of which Noah’s flood was the most recent and the only one where humans had been present. New species replaced those that had been wiped out, created ex nihil by God. No species contemporary with humans had ever become extinct, as breeding populations of all of these had been taken aboard the Ark.

However the creationists were by now on increasingly shaky ground. In 1797 a man named John Frere presented evidence suggesting that humans had been contemporary with now-extinct animals. He had been contemplating the problem of what we now recognise as tools from the Stone Age. These artefacts had been known for centuries but – in the absence of any concept of prehistory – they were not thought to be of human origin and were thought to be thunderbolts or the work of elves.

Frere wrote to the Society of Antiquaries of London submitting some flint artefacts found at Hoxne, Suffolk. These had been found twelve feet below the ground and were associated with bones of extinct animals. Frere suggested that the artefacts were “weapons of war, fabricated and used by a people who had not the use of metals. The situation in which these weapons were found may tempt us to refer them to a very remote period indeed, even beyond that of the present world.”

Even before Curvier published his theory, the Scottish geologist James Hutton was formulating the principles of what later became known as uniformitarianism. Hutton’s Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge was published in 1794 and The Theory of the Earth the following year. Hutton argued that geological principles do not change with time and have remained the same throughout Earth’s history. Changes in the Earth’s geology occurred gradually and were driven by volcanic action rather than floods and other biblical catastrophes. It was clear that the Earth must be much older than 6,000 years for these changes to have occurred.

Unfortunately, Hutton’s writing style was so obscure that his books attracted little attention in his lifetime. Not until the 1830s did his theories did not gain widespread acceptance, when they were popularised by fellow Scot Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell, who also coined the word “Uniformitarianism”, published Principles of Geology between 1830 and 1833.

In the meantime, the evidence for the antiquity of mankind was growing. In 1813 the Danish historian Vedel Simonsen suggested that the weapons and implements of the earliest inhabitants of Scandinavia had first been made of stone, then of bronze and finally of iron. Then, in 1816 Christian Jürgensen Thomsen became the first curator of the Danish National Museum of Antiquities in 1816. His first task was to classify artefacts in the collection and to put them in some semblance of order.

Thomsen hit on the idea of classifying them on the basis of the material from which they were made and followed Simonsen’s suggestion that the iron artefacts must be more recent than those made from bronze, which in turn must be more recent than those of stone. Thus was born the Three Age System, whereby the pre-literate past was divided into the now familiar Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. A guidebook to the museum was translated into English in 1846, after which the Three Age system was widely adopted.

A year later, a French customs official named Jacques Boucher de Perthes published his conclusions regarding the stone implements that he had collected some years earlier from gravel pits in the Somme valley. The implements were clearly of human manufacture and associated with the remains of extinct animals, again suggesting that humans and now-extinct animals had once co-existed.

In 1859 the geologist Sir Joseph Prestwich and archaeologist John Evans visited Boucher de Perthes in France. They were convinced by his findings and on returning to Britain gave a series of presentations to the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Institution in London. What they termed the Antiquity of Man was widely accepted, finally confirming that the human past extended back way beyond the reach of the earliest written records. This was a landmark moment in the acceptance of prehistory as a valid concept, but it was largely overshadowed by another pivotal event in our understanding of humanity’s origins: 1859 also saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (usually simply referred to as The Origin of Species).

The son of a wealthy doctor, Darwin was born in 1809. An unwilling medical student, he studied at Edinburgh and Cambridge before being appointed Naturalist and gentleman companion to Captain Robert Fitzroy of the barque HMS Beagle, joining the ship on her second voyage. Darwin sailed round the world in the Beagle between 1831 and 1836. He studied finches and turtles on the Galapagos Islands – he found different turtles had originated from one type, but had adapted to life on different islands in different ways.

Darwin developed the theory of natural selection between 1844 and 1858. The theory was as the same time being independently developed by Alfred Russel Wallace and in 1858 Darwin presented The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection to the Linnaean Society of London, jointly with Wallace’s paper. Wallace’s independent endorsement of Darwin’s work leant much weight to it. Happily, there were none of the unseemly squabbles over priority that has bedevilled so many joint discoveries down the centuries. The Origin of Species was published the following year and promptly sold out.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is based on four assumptions. Firstly, all organisms reproduce; secondly there has to be a mode of inheritance whereby parents transmit characteristics to offspring; thirdly, there has to be variation in a population, i.e. the individuals in it will all differ slightly from each other; and fourthly there must be competition for limited resources.

The differences between individuals in a population mean that some might be able to compete more effectively than others. These ones are more likely to go on to reproduce and transmit their advantageous traits to their offspring, which in turn would be more likely to reproduce themselves. Adaptive or advantageous traits are characteristics that help an individual survive, e.g. an elephant’s trunk, which enables it to forage in trees, eat grass, etc; colour vision helps animals to identify particular fruits, etc; bright distinctive colour schemes are plants’ adaptations to help them to be located. Eventually, a species might become so changed by the accumulation of adaptive traits within its ranks that it could be considered to have evolved into a new species.

The mechanism by which these traits are transmitted was unknown in Darwin’s time; not for another century would the role of DNA as the “molecule of inheritance” be confirmed.

Darwin hinted that his theory might throw light on human origins, but it was not until his second work The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, that he proposed that humans had evolved from apes. This was a number of years after his friend and advocate Thomas Henry Huxley had put forward the idea in Evidence as to Man’s place in Nature, published in 1863. Darwin was characterised as “the monkey man” and caricatured as having a monkey’s body. But after his death in 1882, he was given a state funeral and is buried in Westminster Abbey near Sir Isaac Newton. An admittedly-dubious BBC poll ranked Charles Darwin as the 4th greatest Briton of all time, behind Sir Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and (inevitably) Princess Diana, but ahead of Shakespeare, Newton and David Beckham.

The transformation of mankind’s view of itself was complete: from chosen beings created in 4004 BC in God’s image, to a primate species which had evolved from apes at some unknown time in the distant past. The questions, of course, had barely begun.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Klasies River Caves

The Klasies River Caves are a complex of five caves located to the east of the Klasies River mouth in Eastern Cape Province, on the Tsitsikama coast of South Africa. The caves show evidence of occupation by anatomically modern humans dating from 125,000 years ago. They share a common stratigraphic sequence up to 16m deep which reveals further occupations around 110,000 years ago; 90,000 years ago and 60,000 years ago. These dates have been obtained by Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) and luminescence dating methods.

The caves have been excavated since the 1960s. They form an important source of information about the African Middle Stone Age (MSA) (250,000-40,000 years ago). Quantities of hearth ash, shell, animal bones and human remains have been recovered in association with MSA industries. From the base upwards, these have been associated with sub-phases MSA I, MSA II, Howison’s Poort and MSA III.

The Howieson’s Poort lithics were apparently used as hafted elements in a composite toolkit. They were made from non-local raw materials either obtained by people ranging far afield or long-distance trade. All of these things are suggestive of modern human behaviour, once believed to have only emerged much later.

The animal assemblages include small terrestrial vertebrates, larger herbivores, fish and shellfish. The latter are present in deep accumulations, suggesting extensive exploitation. Some of the human remains show cutmarks suggestive of cannibalism.

In 1998, the South African Provincial Heritage Committee proposed the caves as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The caves were inscribed on the Heritage List in December 1999.


Conroy G (1997): “Reconstructing Human Origins: A Modern Synthesis”, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc, New York, NY & London.

Scarre C (2005) (Ed): “The human past”, Thames & Hudson.

© Christopher Seddon 2009


The Wiltshire village of Avebury is setting for one of Europe’s largest Neolithic monuments. The 5,000 year old stone circle is slighly older than Stonehenge and comprises a large ditch and external bank henge 421 metres (1,381 ft) in diameter and 1.35 kilometres (0.84 mi) in circumference. This is four times the diameter of Stonehenge. Within this is the Outer Circle with a diameter of 335 metres (1,099 ft). This originally comprised 98 sarsen standing stones, some of which weighed over 40 tonnes. They vary in height from 3.6 to 4.2 metres.

Closer to the centre of the monument are two separate stone circles. The Northern inner ring measures 98 metres (322 ft) in diameter, though only two of its standing stones remain, plus two fallen ones. A cove of three stones stood in the middle, its entrance pointing northeast. The Southern inner ring was 108 metres (354 ft) in diameter but has now largely disappeared, with much of its arc lying beneath the village buildings.

Finally there is an avenue of paired stones, the West Kennet Avenue, leading from the south eastern entrance of the henge and traces of a second, the Beckhampton Avenue lead out from the western one.

This monument is run by the National Trust and is a World Heritage Site.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Cave Art, by Dr Jean Clottes

The jet-set image of the contemporary art scene has now become so powerful that there is a real need to look beyond it and realise that art is not just about money and glamour.

Art is a fundamental part of the human condition. The capacity for art arises from what anthropologists refer to as symbolic thought: the representation of the real world through symbols such as words, drawings and objects. Just how and when these and other modern behavioural attributes arose is still hotly debated, but the oldest work of art so far discovered is a haematite stone decorated with abstract designs, found in the Blombos Cave near Capetown and believed to be 75,000 years old.

Though not the oldest prehistoric art, that of Upper Palaeolithic Europe is undoubtedly the best known. The earliest-known cave paintings, those at Chauvet Cave in southern France, are 32,000 years old. From that time up until the end of the last Ice Age roughly 11,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon cave artists consistently achieved a standard best summed up by Picasso who, on visiting the Lascaux Caves in the Dordogne, is said to have remarked “We have invented nothing”. Not without good reason have these caves, now thought to have been painted 18-19,000 years ago, been described as “The Sistine Chapel of prehistory”.

Born in the French Pyrenees in 1933, Dr. Jean Clottes is one of France’s most eminent prehistorians. Although now formally retired he remains active in the field. In the 1990s he played a leading role in the study of the newly-discovered Chauvet Cave and also the 27,000 year old Cosquer cave near Marseille.

Clottes is however best known for his controversial but highly-plausible theory that prehistoric cave art was associated with shamanic practices, whereby shamans can move between the living and spirit worlds with the aid of spirit helpers and act as mediators between the living and spirit worlds, obtaining supernatural assistance in such matters as healing, hunting and weather.

According to Clottes Cro-Magnon people regarded caves as access points to the spirit world. While the cave art would have reflected mythologies that would almost certainly have shown regional and temporal variation, Clottes’ view is that the overall belief system persisted with little change for over twenty millennia, ending only when the Ice Age finally drew to a close.

CAVE ART is an accessible and well-organised introduction to prehistoric art, featuring over 300 items. Clottes describes his book as “a kind of museum, a collection of prehistoric imagery” and admits that in common with all museums, it cannot exhibit everything. Accordingly the focus is on the cave art of Ice Age Europe, with less emphasis on figurines, engraved bones and other portable works of art. Some will feel that these, and post-Ice Age cave art from other parts of the world, might have been better covered, but Clottes admits that his “museum” is personal.

In keeping with the book’s concept, explanatory texts take second place to the “exhibits” themselves. They are styled after the texts one might find in an actual museum, with each work accompanied by a caption header providing key facts followed by a brief but generally very informative text, often including Clottes’ personal views and interpretations.

This book will be welcomed by anybody with an interest in either art or prehistory, or indeed anybody who wants to know more about the people of Ice Age Europe, whose society endured five times longer than the whole of our recorded history.

(A slightly different version of this book review appeared in Art World Magazine Issue 6 August/September 2008 and is my first published work as a professional writer.)

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The quest for the Proto-Indo-European homeland.

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:

Modern English
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.

Middle English
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.

Old English
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.

Reconstructing PIE
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?

Linguistic Palaeontology
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.

Gimbutas, M 1997: The Kurgan Culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe, edited by Dexter, M. R. and Jones-Bley, K, Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph No. 18.

Gray, R.D. & Atkinson, Q.D. 2003: Language-tree divergence times support Anatolian theory of Indo-European origins, Nature vol. 426 pp 435-439.

Mallory, J.P. 1989: In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

Mallory, J.P. & Adams, D.Q.: 2006 The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University Press.

McWhorter, J. 2002: The Power of Babel: a Natural History of Language, William Heinemann, London.

Renfrew, C. 1987: Archaeology and Language: the Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, Jonathon Cape, London.

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.

Sykes, B. 2001: The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bantam Press, London.

Watkins, C. 1969: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston MA, USA.

Wells, S. 2002: The Journey of Man: a Genetic Odyssey, Penguin Books, London.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The Ages of Man

The familiar terms “Stone Age”, “Bronze Age” and “Iron Age” are part of the so-called Three Age system, introduced by the Danish archaeologist Christian Jurgensen Thomsen in 1819 when he was curator of the collection of antiquities that subsequently became the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Thomsen was looking for a simple and logical system by which to arrange the collection which in common with those of other museums was in a chaotic state, overrun with prehistoric artefacts from all over the world. Thomsen was not the first to think of applying tool-making materials as a basis for classifying prehistoric cultures, although he was the first to actually do so. Thomsen lacked any means of dating his artefacts, but correctly guessed that stone had preceded bronze, which in turn had preceded iron. At the time – forty years before Darwin’s Origin of the Species – few suspected the true antiquity of mankind, with many still believing that the Earth was just 6,000 years old. Although the Scottish geologist Charles Hutton and others had begun to call this figure into question, in the early 19th Century it was still widely accepted.

As far back as 1860s, Thomsen’s original scheme was beginning to look lopsided and in 1865 the archaeologist Sir John Lubbock, a friend of Charles Darwin, published Pre-historic Times, which was probably the most influential archaeological textbook of the 19th Century. In it he introduced the terms “Palaeolithic” (Old Stone Age) and “Neolithic” (New Stone Age). We now know that the Palaeolithic encompasses all but a tiny fraction of human prehistory, beginning approximately 2.5 million years ago with the emergence of the first members of Genus Homo – i.e. the first human beings. Accordingly the Palaeolithic is in turn divided into Lower, Middle and Upper. The Lower/Middle transition is taken to be the point at which Mode 3 industries enter the archaeological record such as the predominantly Neanderthal Mousterian culture, at very roughly 300,000 years ago. The Middle/Upper transition, approximately 40,000 years ago, is the point at which unequivocal evidence for modern human behaviour is found.

In Africa the terms Early, Middle and Late Stone Age, or ESA, MSA and LSA respectively, are preferred, but the LSA also encompasses the Neolithic and Bronze Age as neither metallurgy nor agriculture reached sub-Saharan Africa until Iron Age times. To avoid confusion, I shall use only the term “Palaeolithic”, with its sub-divisions occurring at different times in different parts of the world. Such a scheme is generally used for later prehistory and I see no reason not to use it here also.

The division between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic is now taken to be the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary, that is to say the end of the last ice age, at around 11,550 years ago. This is somewhat illogical division, equating a purely geological change to a system based on technology. Agriculture was independently adopted in several parts of the world and spread outwards from these nuclear zones, taking many millennia to reach some places, and necessitating the introduction of another division, the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) for regions where hunter gathering persisted. Conversely in parts of the world where proto-agriculture was practiced in late Pleistocene times, such as the Levant, the term Epipalaeolithic is used.

The transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age is equally ill-defined – there is generally a transitional period where stone and native copper tools are in mixed use; this transitional period is referred to variously as Chalcolithic, Eneolithic or simply Copper Age. This transition began at different times in different parts of the world, and was of different duration – the Copper Age began earlier in the Middle East, but in Europe the transition to the fully-fledged Bronze Age was more rapid.

The working of iron begins around 1200 BC in India, the Middle East and Greece, but again took time to spread to other parts of the world. The Iron Age continues on into historical times, not ending in Northern Europe until the Middle Ages.

This does to all intents and purposes give us a nine-age system:

Table 1.0: The career of Mankind (YA = Years Ago)


Geological Time period


Miocene (26m – 5m YA)

Proconsul (27m-17m YA)

Pliocene (5.0m – 1.64m YA)

Ardipithecus ramidus (5m – 4.2m YA)

Australopithecus anamensis (4.2m – 3.9m YA)

A. afarensis (4.0m 3.0m YA)

A. africanus (3.3m – 2.5m YA)

A. Garhi ()

Paranthropus aethiopicus (2.5m – 2.4m YA)

P. robustus (2.4m – 1.2m YA)

P. boisei (2.3m – 1.2m YA)

Lower Palaeolithic

(2.4m – 200,000 YA)

2.4m YA. Earliest true humans appear in Africa, though apparently sympatric with later “robust” australopithecines (Paranthropus). Now believed that early fossil hominids represent at least two synchronous (though not sympatric) human species, Homo habilis (brain size 590-690 cc) and Homo rudolfensis (750 cc). It is not known which if either was ancestral to later types.

Tools: Mode 1 Oldowan (2.4m – 1.5 m YA) flakes and choppers.

Mode 2 Acheulian (1.4m – 100,000 YA) handaxes and cleavers.

Lower Pleistocene (1.64m – 900,000 YA)

Middle Pleistocene (900,000 – 127,000 YA)

1.9m YA. Homo ergaster (brain size 700-850 cc) appears in Africa; migrates to Far East; migrants now widely regarded as becoming a separate species, Homo erectus (orig. both classed as erectus).

500,000 YA (poss. as early as 1.0m YA). Use of fire.

800,000 YA. Homo Antecessor. Controversial taxon known only from Atapuerca in Northern Spain, believed by some to be the common ancestor of both modern man and the Neanderthals.

500,000 YA. Larger-brained (1,200 cc) and bigger-boned hominids are found in the fossil record in Africa, Asia and Europe. Traditionally referred to as “archaic Homo sapiens” but Homo heidelbergensis now favoured. Other types have been proposed such as Homo rhodesiensis and H. helmei. It’s all very confusing!

250,000 YA. Homo neanderthalensis “the Neanderthals” appear in Europe, possibly descended from Homo heidelbergensis. They later spread to the Middle East.

250,000 – 35,000 YA. Mousterian culture in Europe.

Middle Palaeolithic (200,000 – 45,000 YA)

Late Pleistocene (127,000 – 11,600 YA)

Tools: Mode 3. (from 200,000 YA) flaking of prepared cores. Increasing use of the Levallois method to prepare cores, though this method was also used in late Acheulian times.

160,000 YA. Earliest near-anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens idaltu, Herto, Ethiopia.

150,000 YA. Birth of putative “mitochondrial Eve” in East Africa.

100,000 YA. Homo sapiens in Israel (Skhul and Qafzeh).

50-60,000 YA. H. sapiens in Australia (Lake Mungo).

Upper Palaeolithic (45,000 – 11,600 YA)

43,000 YA. H. sapiens reach Europe.

Tools: Mode 4 (narrow blades struck from prepared cores).

35-29,000 YA. Châtelperronian culture, central and south-western France, final phase of Neanderthal industry.

34-23,000 YA. Aurignacian culture in Europe and south-west Asia.

32,000 YA. Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave paintings, southern France.

28,000 YA. Last Neanderthals die out.

28-22,000 YA. Gravettian culture, Dordogne, France. “Venus” figurines.

21-17,000 YA. Solutrean culture, France and Spain.

20-18,000 YA. Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), maximum glacier extent of last Ice Age.

16,500 YA. Lascaux cave paintings, Dordogne, France.

15-11,600 YA. Magdelanian culture in western Europe, final European Palaeolithic culture.

15,000-12,900 YA. Bølling-Allerød interstadial.

12,900 YA. Beginning of the Younger Dryas stadial.

12,000 YA. Jōmon culture in Japan, first use of pottery.

Epipalaeolithic (20,000 – 11,600 YA)

Ohalo II (20-19,000 YA)

Natufian culture (14,000-11,600 YA) in the Levant.


Mesolithic (11,600 YA until adoption of agriculture)

11,600 YA. Last Ice Age ends.

11.6-6,000 YA. Hunter-gathering persists in many parts of the world.

Neolithic (11,600 – 6,500 YA and later in various parts of the world)

11,600 YA. Rapid transition to agriculture in Middle East and Anatolia.

Tools: Mode 5 (microliths).

9,200 YA Catalhoyuk – very large Neolithic settlement in Anatolia.

9,000 YA. Beginning of the “Wave of Advance” – expansion of proto Indo-European farmers from Anatolia.

9,500 YA. Çatal Höyük, Anatolia, apparently no more than a very large village.

8,500 YA. As sea levels rise, Britain becomes an island.

Chalcolithic (6,500 – 4,000 YA in various parts of the world)

Copper and stone tools in mixed use.

6,500 – 3,500 YA. The age of the great megaliths in Europe.

5,100 – 4,000 YA. Construction of Stonehenge.

Bronze Age (5,300 – 2,700 YA in various parts of the world)

4,500 YA. Construction of the pyramids in Egypt.

5,300-2,700 YA. Indus Valley civilization, India.

4,700-3,450 YA. Minoan civilization, Crete.

3,600-2,100 YA. Mycenaean civilization, Greece.

2,200 YA. Mediterranean Bronze Age collapse.

Iron Age (1800 BC into historical times)

1800 BC. First working of iron, in India.

800-450 BC. Hallstatt culture,

Central Europe.

450 BC. La Tene culture.

AD 43. Romans invade and conquer Britain.


Within Class Mammalia (the mammals) humans are grouped with apes, monkeys and prosimians (lemurs, lorises, etc) within the order Primates. The term is due to Linnaeus, representing his view that humanity sat firmly at the top of creation’s tree (the self-styled Prince of Botany was also responsible for the term “mammal”, reflecting his now quite fashionable views about breast-feeding).

The majority of the 200 or so living species of primate are tropical or subtropical, living in rainforests. Most are arboreal (tree-dwelling) or at least spending much of their time in the trees. Even those that have forsaken this habit show arboreal adaptations in their ancestry. These include manipulative hands and often feet, with opposable thumbs and big toes; replacement of claws with nails; a reduced sense of smell and enhanced sight including colour and stereoscopic vision; locomotion based heavily on hind limbs and a common adoption of an upright posture; and finally a tendency for larger brains than comparably-sized mammals of other orders.

The anthropoids or simians (Suborder Anthropoidea) basically comprise the more human-like primates and include Old World monkeys, New World monkeys (including marmosets and tamarins), apes and finally humans. Other primates are traditionally lumped together as prosimians.

Historically, membership of Family Hominidae was restricted to humans and australopithecines, with the Great Apes being banished to a separate family, Pongidae. Both families were grouped with the gibbons, etc. in Superfamily Hominoidea (the Hominoids).

However this scheme is now known to be incorrect as chimps and gorillas are more closely related to humans than they are to orang-utans. Accordingly Pongidae is now “sunk” into Hominidae (it would also be incorrect to give the orang-utans their own family). The term “hominin” (from Tribe Hominini) is now gaining popularity, because it comprises humans and australopithecines, i.e. the “traditional” hominids. The term “hominine” (from Subfamily Homininae) is also sometimes encountered; this grouping adds gorillas and chimps, but not orang-utans. To get back to the original meaning of “hominid” and subtract the chimps we have to go down to the level of Subtribe Hominina. To my mind this is very confusing and pushing the envelope of what we can reasonably ask from Linnaean taxonomy, which is after all firmly rooted in Platonic Realism (Linnaeus was a creationist), rather than Darwinian principles. I see nothing wrong with the use of the term “hominid” so long as we are aware that it includes our cousins, the Great Apes.

Table 2.0 Family Hominidae (The Hominids)


Av. Brain size/cc

Dates known/years ago


Pongo pygmaeus(Orang-utan)


Present day

Sumatra, Borneo

Gorilla gorilla (Gorilla)


Present day

central and west Africa

Pan trogladytes (Chimpanzee)


Present day

central and west Africa

Pan paniscus (Bonobo)


Present day

DR Congo

Ardipithecus ramidus

400 – 500

5.8m – 4.4m

Australopithecus anamensis

400 – 500

5.0m – 4.2m

A. afarensis

400 – 500

4.0m – 3.0m

A. africanus

400 – 500

3.3m – 2.5m

A. garhi

400 – 500

3.0m – 2.0m

Parantropus aethiopicus

400 – 500

2.5m – 2.4m

P. robustus

410 – 530

2.4m – 1.2m

P. boisei

410 – 530

2.3m – 1.2m

Homo habilis

500 – 650

2.4m – 1.6m

H. rudolfensis

600 – 800

2.0m – 1.6m

H. ergaster

750 – 1,250

1.9m – 1.5m

H. erectus

750 – 1,250

1.8m – 400,000 (poss. later)

H. antecessor



Atapuerca, Spain

H. heidelbergensis

1,100 – 1,400

500,000 – 250,000

H. neanderthalensis

1,200 – 1,750

250,000 – 30,000

Europe, Middle East

H. sapiens idaltu

1,200 – 1,700


Herto, Ethiopia

H. sapiens sapiens

1,200 – 1,700

From 115,000


© Christopher Seddon 2008