On the Indo-European homeland

Apr 26, 2011 by

Lately, I have been posting on the study by Dr. Atkinson from the University of Auckland, New Zealand on the origins on human language. He has also published recently another article (with Russell D. Gray) on the origins of the Indo-European language family.

As with the study on the origins of human language, Atkinson’s research published in Nature applies computational methods derived from evolutionary biology, this time to one of “the most intensively studied, yet still most recalcitrant, problem of historical linguistics”, the problem of the Indo-European homeland. As J. P. Mallory once put it:

“One does not ask ‘where is the Indo-European homeland?’ but rather ‘where do they put it now?'”

Although there is no consensus on where exactly the speakers of Proto-Indo-European lived, the most commonly accepted theory since the 1970s remain the Kurgan Hypothesis, proposed in 1956 by a Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. She was one of the first scholars to combine evidence from archeology and linguistics. Specifically, she proposed that the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European were a nomadic tribe in Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia associated with what archaeologists identify as the “Kurgan culture”, so named after the distinctive Kurgan burial mounds in the Pontic steppe (flatland). According to this theory, speakers of Proto-Indo-European spread on horseback throughout the Pontic-Caspian steppe around 5,000 BCE and into Eastern Europe by the early 3rd millennium BCE.

One strong argument in favor of the Kurgan hypothesis is the fact that Proto-Uralic is the only non-Indo-European language whose lexicon appears to contain loanwords from Proto-Indo-European, such as the words *śata ‘hundred’ and *porćas ‘pig’. For such borrowing from Proto-Indo-European into Proto-Uralic, to be possible Proto-Indo-European must have been spoken in reasonable proximity to Proto-Uralic, which at least some scholars associate with the Pit-Comb Ware culture to the north of the Kurgan culture in the fifth millennium BCE.

But despite its mainstream status, the Kurgan Hypothesis has been challenged by various scholars throughout the years. Even a brief review of all (or most) competing theories will take us too far afield, so I will focus here on the main competitor of the Kurgan hypothesis, the Anatolian theory, advanced by Colin Renfrew, a British archaeologist and archeogeneticist.

Renfrew’s answers to both the “where” and “when” questions are different from Gimbutas’s. According to the Anatolian theory, the speakers of Proto-Indo-European lived before the people of the Kurgan culture, about 7,000 BCE, and their homeland was not in the Pontic steppes but further south, in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), from where they later diffused into Greece, Italy, Sicily, Corsica, the Mediterranean coast of France, Spain, and Portugal, while another group migrated along the fertile river valleys of the Danube and Rhine into Central and North Europe. This course of diffusion is correlated with the spread of agriculture, which can be traced through archaeological remains. One of the main problems facing this theory is the fact that ancient Asia Minor is known to have been inhabited by non-Indo-European people, such as Hattians (later replaced by speakers of Hittite, also an extinct language) and others.

The contribution of Gray and Atkinson’s study is in the additional evidence they provide for the Anatolian hypothesis based on their analysis of a matrix of 87 languages with 2,449 lexical items that produced an estimated age range for the initial Indo-European divergence of between 7,800 and 9,800 years ago (or about 5,800-7,800 BCE).

Yet the two theories, the Kurgan theory and the Anatolian theory, may prove not to be as mutually exclusive as they seem. This becomes especially true as genetic studies are bringing new elements (and new solutions!) to the puzzle. For example, Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Alberto Piazza have suggested that Colin Renfrew’s Anatolian Hypothesis and Marija Gimbutas’s Kurgan Hypothesis need not contradict each other: after all, it is possible -– and genetic studies seem to support this -– that the same people who originated in Asia Minor had first migrated to the area of the Pontic steppes and from there expanded into Central and Northern Europe. A 3,500-year period would have elapsed between the time of the Proto-Indo-European speakers’ sojourn in Anatolia and their appearance in the area of the Kurgans. While Colin Renfrew maintains that the Proto-Indo-Europeans in Anatolia were agriculturalists, it is possible that they could have reverted to a pastoral culture as an adaptation to the environment. Here is how Piazza & Cavalli-Sforza (2006) explain this:

“…if the expansions began at 9,500 years ago from Anatolia and at 6,000 years ago from the Yamnaya culture region, then a 3,500-year period elapsed during their migration to the Volga-Don region from Anatolia, probably through the Balkans. There a completely new, mostly pastoral culture developed under the stimulus of an environment unfavorable to standard agriculture, but offering new attractive possibilities. Our hypothesis is, therefore, that Indo-European languages derived from a secondary expansion from the Yamnaya culture region after the Neolithic farmers, possibly coming from Anatolia and settled there, developing pastoral nomadism.”

Overall, the genetic findings to date provide the strongest support to Gimbutas’s model of Indo-European spread from the southern Russian steppe, and there is little evidence for a similarly massive migration of agriculturalists directly from the Asia Minor.


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  • Andrew Oh-Willeke

    I think that the population genetic mainstream is to see the Kurgan people as predominantly descended from Neolithic people as opposed to pre-Neolithic forager-hunter populations of Europe, particularly on the male side. But, the doesn't take one very far on the matter of Indo-European ethnogenesis.

    The basic assumption arguing from archaeology as the Kurgan hypothesis does, is that cultural continuity in excavations corresponds to linguistic continuity, while cultural shift and linguistic shifts are bedfellows.

    Gimbutas' model sees big cultural break as that between Neolithic Old Europe and the Kurgan culture. Moreover, there is some evidence of Kurgan culture as itself being a fusion of Uralic Pit-Comb Ware people particularly on the maternal side, with Neolithic peoples (possibly Daunbians) particularly on the paternal side. Thus, Indo-European would be a creole-like event, which explains why Indo-European is quite distinct from its neighboring language families.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thanks for a very insightful comment, Andrew! I agree with you that there is no necessary implication between language and culture, so that the same culture may continue when a language of its people changes and vice versa. As for the idea that Proto-Indo-European may have been a creole based in part on Proto-Uralic, one problem I see with that idea is that Proto-Uralic and Proto-Indo-European were likely contemporaneous…

  • The hypotheses handled here are all based on the the unspoken assumption that the Black Sea was a hinderance for communication. It is however possible that IE was a large dialectical continuum spoken in a wide area all around the Black Sea and that the Black Sea and Danube facilitated communication in this area, rather than hindered it, because people used boats.

    • Thanks for your comment, Knut! Indeed, there’s the assumption that the Black Sea was a hinderance for movement of populations and for communication. There is a theory that Black Sea area was dry land, but that was much earlier than PIE would have been spoken. And the “wet” Black Sea was indeed a major obstruction as has been shown by research modelling people migrations, such as Davison et al. (if you are interested, I can find the actual reference, but I don’t have it handy). Only coastal navigation was possible in pre-history. Danube is different as it likely promoted movement of people along its course.