I’ve had a strong amateur interest in historical linguistics since my teens in the early 1970s.
Then, as today, a lot of the energy in that field was focused in the origins and taxonomy of the Indo-European family – the one that includes English and the Latin-derived and Germanic languages and Greek and also a large group of languages in northern India and Persia. This is not only because most linguists are Europeans, it’s because there’s a massively larger volume of ancient literature in this family than can be found anywhere else in the world – there’s more to go on.
People have been trying to pin down the origin of the Indo-European language family and identify the people who spoke its root language for literally centuries. Speculations that turn out not to have been far wrong go back to the 1600s(!) and serious work on the problem, some of which is still considered relevant, began in the late 1700s.
However, until very recently theory about Indo-European origins really had to be classed as plausible guesses rather than anything one could call well-confirmed. There were actually several contending theories, because linguistic reconstruction of the root PIE (Proto-Indo-European) language was sort of floating in midair without solid enough connections to archaeological and genetic evidence to be grounded.
This has changed – dramatically – in the last five years. But there isn’t yet any one place you can go to read about all the lines of evidence yet; nobody has written that book as of mid-2018. This post is intended to point readers at a couple of sources for the new science, simply because I find it fascinating and I think my audience will too.
Why hasn’t the one big book of IE origins been written yet? Basically because the science needed to pull it together is paleogenetics – the study of fossil human DNA – but the linguists and the archaeologists and the paleogeneticists don’t talk to each other very well.
Until the end of the Cold War a lot of very relevant work done by archaeologists in Russia could not become available in English. Now, at least, we have one source that draws together the linguistics and that archaeology – The Horse, The Wheel, and Language by David Anthony (2010).
This is a really, really excellent book. You can read it free on-line. Among other virtues, it includes the best explanation for non-specialists I’ve ever seen of just how you go about reconstructing a language for which, like PIE, there are no written sources. The exhaustive parsing of the archeological evidence in the second half can be heavy going, but persevere; there are interesting insights shot all through it and rewards at the end.
But there’s a piece missing. Anthony knew nothing of paleogenetics, because that field was just barely getting off the ground when he was writing. But it turns out that comparative analysis of human fossil DNA (and the DNA of living humans, too!) can reveal a surprising amount about population movements and expansions before recorded history.
The paleogenetic record largely confirms the story Anthony extracts from his evidence. Where it doesn’t, well, that gets interesting too. The best discussion of this stuff I’ve found is on a blog called West Hunter by a brilliant and ornery population geneticist named Greg Cochran. He and a deceased partner wrote a really thought-provoking book, The Ten Thousand Year Explosion (2008) showing that (contrary to a popular assumption) human evolution didn’t stop with the rise of civilization but has actually sped up during the last 10,000 years.
In particular, after Anthony’s book you need to read Who We Are: #9 Europe, Cochran’s gloss on part of a book called Who We Are by David Reich that is a tour through the evidence from current paleogenetics. Reich’s book is almost certainly worth reading in itself (I haven’t yet) but for the PIE-origins question Cochran’s discussion of it is good enough.
Cochran is sometimes acidulously funny about Reich and Anthony and their critics, as one should well be when a significant barrier to understanding is various peoples’ political and ideological hobbyhorses. Cochran also has the great virtue that he corrects himself in public on the infrequent occasions he turns out to have been wrong. Quite separately from the PIE-origins thing, his extended review of Jared Diamond’s brilliant but flawed Guns, Germs, and Steel is worth seeking out.
OK, I’ve pointed you at the sources. Go read them. To whet your appetite, there follows a summary with some observations about how various people got the Indo-Europeans wrong. The history of this field is nearly as interesting, in some ways, as the question it examines.
What we can now say pretty much for sure: Proto-Indo-European was first spoken on the Pontic Steppes around 4000 BCE. That’s the grasslands north of the Black Sea and west of the Urals; today, it’s the Ukraine and parts of European Russia. The original PIE speakers (which we can now confidently identify with what archaeologists call the Yamnaya culture) were the first humans to domesticate horses.
And – well, basically, they were the first and most successful horse barbarians. They invaded Europe via the Danube Valley and contributed about half the genetic ancestry of modern Europeans – a bit more in the north, where they almost wiped out the indigenes; a bit less in the south where they mixed more with a population of farmers who had previously migrated in on foot from somewhere in Anatolia.
The broad outline isn’t a new idea. 400 years ago the very first speculations about a possible IE root language fingered the Scythians, Pontic-Steppe descendants in historical times of the original PIE speakers – with a similar horse-barbarian lifestyle. It was actually a remarkably good guess, considering. The first version of the “modern” steppe-origin hypothesis – warlike bronze-age PIE speakers domesticate the horse and overrun Europe at sword- and spear-point – goes back to 1926.
But since then various flavors of nationalist and nutty racial theorist have tried to relocate the PIE urheimat all over the map – usually in the nut’s home country. The Nazis wanted to believe it was somewhere in their Greater Germany, of course. There’s still a crew of fringe scientists trying to pin it to northern India, but the paleogenetic evidence craps all over that theory (as Cochran explains rather gleefully – he does enjoy calling bullshit on bullshit).
Then there have been the non-nutty proposals. There was a scientist named Colin Renfrew who for many years (quite respectably) pushed the theory that IE speakers walked into Europe from Anatolia along with farming technology, instead of storming in off the steppes on horses, brandishing weapons like some badass tribe in a Robert E. Howard novel.
Alas, Renfrew was wrong. It now looks like there was such a migration, but those people spoke a non-IE language (most likely something archaically Semitic) and got overrun by the PIE speakers a few thousand years later. Cochran calls these people “EEF” (Eastern European Farmers) and they’re most of the non-IE half of modern European ancestry. Basque is the only living language that survives from EEF times; Otzi the Iceman was EEF, and you can still find people with genes a lot like his in the remotest hills of Sardinia.
Even David Anthony, good as he is about much else, seems rather embarrassed and denialist about the fire-and-sword stuff. Late in his book he spins a lot of hopeful guff about IE speakers expanding up the Danube peacefully by recruiting the locals into their culture.
Um, nope. The genetic evidence is merciless (though, to be fair, Anthony can’t have known this). There’s a particular pattern of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA variation that you only get in descendant population C when it’s a mix produced because aggressor population A killed most or all of population B’s men and took their women. Modern Europeans (C) have that pattern, the maternal line stuff (B) is EEF, and the paternal-line stuff (A) is straight outta steppe-land; the Yamnaya invaders were not gentle.
How un-gentle were they? Well…this paragraph is me filling in from some sources that aren’t Anthony or Cochran, now. While Europeans still have EEF genes, almost nothing of EEF culture survived in later Europe beyond the plants they domesticated, the names of some rivers, and (possibly) a murky substratum in some European mythologies.
The PIE speakers themselves seem to have formed, genetically, when an earlier population called the Ancient Northern Eurasians did a fire-and-sword number (entirely on foot, that time) on a group of early farmers from the Fertile Crescent. Cochran sometimes calls the ANEs “Hyperboreans” or “Cimmerians”, which is pretty funny if you’ve read your Howard.
For the rest, go read the book and the blog. There’s lots more, including the remarkably detailed picture of IE culture (Anthony is at his best there) that you can get from indexing the reconstructed vocabulary against the archaeology.
Part of the surprise is how unsurprising it is. The PIE way of life is not strange to us; strong traces of it have transmitted through Greco-Roman, Norse, and Celtic mythology, flavoring our folklore and our fantasies and the oldest poetic epics of our languages. They truly were our cultural as well as our genetic ancestors.
They even looked like us – that is, like modern Europeans. We couldn’t actually know this until the new paleogenetic evidence came in. Yes, ancient historians had described the Pontic Greeks as light-skinned, even blond, which should have been a clue; but in the 20th century there was an understandable reaction against Nazi “Aryan” theorizing and everybody speculating about what early PIE-speakers looked like ran hard in the other direction.
This isn’t in Cochran or Anthony, either…but the pale and distinctly non-Asian complexion of the people who left the earliest Tarim Basin mummies around 1800 BCE isn’t a mystery any more. Their ancestors migrated east from the Pontic Steppes rather than west; they were Indo-Europeans, too, and looked it.