Is “massive migration from the steppe … a source for Indo-European languages in Europe”?

Feb 18, 2015 by

[I am deeply grateful to Martin W. Lewis for the inspiring discussions of, and extensive collaboration on, the issues examined here, as well as for editing the draft of this post.]

The Biorxiv online has recently published an article titled “Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe”, which of course caught my attention. (The entire article can be read here.) The 39-member research team (first author: Wolfgang Haak) includes David Anthony, whose views on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) homeland debate are quite well-known (see his 2007 book The Horse, The Wheel and Language), so predictably the title of the article is an unequivocal assertion rather than a question. Yet the abstract, with its abrupt transition from genetic and archeological discussion to a linguistic conclusion, did not seem promising at first. The article itself, however, articulates the argument much better. While the abstract states that “these results provide support for the theory of a steppe origin of at least some of the Indo-European languages of Europe”, the article itself is less categorical in tone: “our results provide new data relevant to debates on the origin and expansion of Indo-European languages in Europe”. Here, I will not comment on the methodology or the conclusions concerning genetics (the reader is referred to blog posts by Razib Khan, see here and here). Instead, I will take the genetic results for granted and examine what conclusions regarding the PIE urheimat can be drawn from this study.

978110705453001The authors of the study sensibly admit that “ancient DNA is silent on the question of the languages spoken by preliterate populations”. Therefore, no amount of DNA data or computational analysis, however sophisticate, can offer direct evidence of PIE homeland. However, ancient (and to some degree, modern) DNA, coupled with archeological record, can provide “evidence about processes of migration” of preliterate populations. As Martin W. Lewis and I discuss in detail in chapter 9 of our forthcoming book The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, any theory of Indo-European language dispersal must be compatible with such migration history. Let’s now consider what that migration history may be and which of the two leading competitors, the Steppe or the Anatolian theory, accords better with it.

According to Haak et al. (2015), their study “document[…] a massive migration ~4,500 years ago associated with the Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures”. Coming out of the southern Russian steppes, this population flow “replaced ~3/4 of the ancestry of central Europeans”. Thus, proponents of the Anatolian theory, which postulates that Indo-European languages arrived in Europe from present-day Turkey via the Balkans several millennia prior to the arrival of the Yamnaya migrants (cf. Bouckaert et al. 2012) must explain why such a massive influx of later migrants did not produce a language shift—nor even affect the pre-existing Indo-European language(s) in any serious way. Although numbers alone do not decide the outcome of language encounters, as evidenced by the shift in favor of the language of a relatively small group of Magyar migrants in what is now Hungary, a language of a minority group may “win” over that of a majority group only if the minority has social prestige, military superiority, and/or political control. There are numerous cases where a relatively small group of invaders subjugates a large group of locals—the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invasions of the British Isles come to mind. But it is hard to imagine that a large wave of Yamnaya migrants was absorbed without the new arrivals exerting some such form of social dominance. That they brought with them powerful horse-riding technology makes it even likelier that the Yamnaya migrants had not only numbers but also social dominance on their side as well. It is therefore much more likely that Yamnaya migrants served as “vectors for the spread of Indo-European languages into Europe” rather than that they adopted the Indo-European language of the pre-Yamnaya indigenes.

Figure 4The Yamnaya culture, however, postdates the Anatolian split separating Anatolian languages such as Hittite and Luvian from the rest of the Indo-European family, under both the Steppe and the Anatolian theories. Consequently, it cannot be associated with speakers of PIE itself, but rather with its descendant, so-called “Proto-Nuclear-Indo-European” (or PNIE), which is the ancestor of all Indo-European languages except the Anatolian ones. Haak et al. (2015) seem to acknowledge this point by stating that their “results provide support for the theory of a steppe origin of at least some of the Indo-European languages of Europe” (highlight mine). However, technically, if they are correct in associating PNIE with the Yamnaya culture, then all of the Indo-European languages of Europe descend from PNIE. Anatolian languages, which are the only ones that do not descend from PNIE, were spoken in the Asian part of present-day Turkey, not in Europe.

In principle, the results of Haak et al.’s study are compatible with a possibility that the Yamnaya culture is associated with a later descendant of PIE, such as the ancestor of all the surviving (or currently existing) branches of Indo-European, which Martin Lewis and I dubbed “Proto-Surviving-Indo-European” (PSIE). In other words, PSIE is the result of the second split in the Indo-European family, a split that separated Tocharian languages from the rest of the Indo-European “clan”. However, such association of the Yamnaya culture with PSIE is unlikely in light of the probable link between the Yamnaya culture and its offshoot further east—the intrusive Afanasievo culture in the western Altai Mountains (Anthony 2011, 2013). According to Anthony (2013: 10), the Afanasievo culture is quite distinct from that of the “ceramic-making mountain foragers” who occupied the region earlier. Moreover, Afanasievo material culture exhibits traits characteristics of the Yamnaya culture: Yamnaya kurgan grave types, a typical Yamnaya burial pose, Yamnaya ceramic types and decoration, and sleeved axes and daggers of specific Yamnaya types are all found in Afanasievo sites in the western Altai (Kubarev 1988; Chernykh, Kuz’minykh, and Orlovskaya 2004). According to Mallory and Mair (2000), the Afanasievo culture is linked to the linguistic ancestors of the Tocharians.

Moreover, the hypothesis that the Afanasievo culture resulted from a Yamnaya migration, which crossed an astonishingly long distance of approximately 1,200 miles, accords very well with Don Ringe’s conclusion (see Ringe 2006, inter alia) that the Tocharian branch split off “cleanly”, meaning that once the division occurred, the speakers of Proto-Tocharian lost contact with the other Indo-Europeans. Consequently, their languages shared no common innovations with other Indo-European languages, nor did they borrow from or provide loanwords to them, as discussed by Ringe.

All in all, the migration history that emerges from genetic and archeological studies, including Haak et al., accords well with the Steppe hypothesis. An early migration took speakers of Proto-Anatolian from the Pontic Steppes to what is now Turkey, leaving its sister branch, PNIE, to be spoken in the steppe zone by the people archeologists associate with the Yamnaya culture. A second major migration took a subset of the Yamnaya folk on a long journey across Eurasia, creating the Afanasievo culture and a rift between the Tocharian and PSIE branches of PNIE. Further splits took some Yamnaya people to Europe, where they effectively overrun the existing non-Indo-European-speaking populations (as documented by Haak et al.) and effect a language shift, while the rest of the Yamnaya PSIE speakers become the ancestors of Indo-Iranian and some other branches of Indo-European.

The double link between the Yamnaya people in the steppes and Europeans, on the one hand, and between the Yamnaya culture and that of the Afanasievo sites in western Altai, on the other hand, is much harder to account for under the Anatolian hypothesis. The only sensible scenario under the Anatolian theory is the one explored in Colin Renfrew’s later work (Renfrew 1999) and dubbed by Mallory (2013) “Anatolian Neolithic Plan B”. Under this scenario, Proto-Anatolian speakers remained within the Anatolian homeland while the speakers of PNIE relocated to the Pontic Steppe area, with the subsequent events proceeding as described above. But this scenario runs into its own problems: specifically, it is incompatible with the only feasible account of the relationship between Anatolian speakers and the indigenous non-Indo-European peoples of Asia Minor, such as the Hattians. Everything we know of these groups from the historical and archeological record points in the direction of the Hittite speakers arriving to the area inhabited by the Hattians, whom they eventually came to dominate, rather than a non-Indo-European-speaking Hattian peasantry “diffusing” into the Anatolian land from elsewhere. In other words, the “Anatolian Neolithic Plan B” scenario requires yet another instance of a mass settlement by a group that ends up constituting a demographic majority without social power—as pointed out above, a virtually impossible turn of events.

The only solution to this problem within the Anatolian theory, proposed by Grigoriev (2002: 354-357, 412-415), is to assume that the speakers of Proto-Anatolian first migrated away from the Anatolian homeland, leaving at least some of the area vacant for the Hattians to move in, while speakers of what was to become “the rest of the Indo-European family” (i.e. PNIE) remained in (eastern) Anatolia, and that subsequently speakers of Anatolian languages returned to the region where they were attested. As Martin Lewis and I argue in our book, however, such a scenario is geographically ridiculous, unduly complicated, and fits poorly with the archeological record.

As Mark Baker once wrote: “The best theory is not the one that brings everything into line with its one favorite fact, but the one that finds the greatest degree of harmony and convergence among all the facts” (Baker 2001: 31). All in all, the Steppe theory rather than its Anatolian competitor increasingly appears to be that “best theory”. And Haak et al.’s chief contribution to the Indo-European debate is in bringing to the table yet another set of facts that the winning theory must be able to account for.





Anthony, David W. (2007) The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Anthony, David W. (2011) Horseback Riding and Bronze Age Pastoralism in the Eurasian Steppes. Lecture delivered at Secrets of the Silk Road Symposium at University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, March 2011.

Baker, Mark (2001) Phrase structure as representation of “primitive” grammatical relations. In: William Davies and Stan Dubinsky (eds.) Objects and other subjects: Grammatical functions, functional categories, and configurationality. Dordrecht: Kluwer. Pp. 21-51.

Bouckaert, Remco; Philippe Lemey; Michael Dunn; Simon J. Greenhill; Alexander V. Alekseyenko; Alexei J. Drummond; Russell D. Gray; Marc A. Suchard; and Quentin D. Atkinson (2012) Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family. Science 337: 957-960.

Chernykh, Evgenii, Evgenii V. Kuz’minykh, and L.B. Orlovskaya (2004) Ancient metallurgy in northeast Asia: from the Urals to the Saiano-Altai. In: Katheryn M. Linduff (ed.) Metallurgy in Ancient Eastern Eurasia from the Urals to the Yellow River. Chinese Studies 31. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press. Pp. 15-36.

Grigoriev, Stanislav A. (2002) Ancient Indo-Europeans. Chelyabinsk: Rifei.

Haak, Wolfgang et al. (2015) Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. biorxiv online.

Kubarev, Vladimir D. (1988) Drevnie Rospisi Karakola. Novosibirsk: Nauka.

Mallory, James P. (2013) Twenty-first century clouds over Indo-European homelands. Journal of Language Relationship 9: 145-154.

Mallory, James P. and Victor H. Mair (2000) The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples From the West. London: Thames and Hudson.

Renfrew, Colin (1999) Time depth, convergence theory, and innovation in Proto-Indo-European: ‘Old Europe’ as a PIE linguistic area. Journal of Indo-European Studies 27: 257-293.

Ringe, Don (2006) Proto-Indo-European wheeled vehicle terminology. Unpublished Ms., University of Pennsylvania.


Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: