The Human Journey
The Evolution of Language

The Evolution of Language

The Indo-Europeans

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The quest for the origins of the Indo-Europeans has all the fascination of an electric light in the open air on a summer night: it attracts every species of scholar or would-be savant who can take pen to hand. For over 200 years, theories have been put forward advocating ages ranging from 4000 to 23,000 years, with hypothesized homelands including Central Europe, the Balkans, and even India. Unfortunately, archaeological, genetic and linguistic research on Indo-European origins has so far proved inconclusive.

In early historical times, Indo-European languages were present in central and northern Europe, southeastern Europe, and much of southern and southwest Asia. Scholars have long theorized about what pre-historic events might have caused this group to become so widespread.

In the late 1700s, William Jones an English judge serving in India, discovered something startling; that Sanskrit possesses striking similarities to Greek, Latin, and Celtic. He theorized that they all sprang from a common source, an even more ancient language that had since become extinct.

Since Jones’ time, linguists have verified and greatly expanded on his discovery. Languages that fall into this Indo-European classification include Romance languages, Germanic languages, including of course English, Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian and Celtic, plus extinct languages such as Tocharian, spoken in parts of China, and Hittite, spoken in Asia Minor. It’s a huge and incredibly diverse group that derives from the speech of one ancient and forgotten people. The questions remain of who they were, when they lived, and where they came from.

Present day spread of the Indo-European language group

Classification of Indo-European languages


The Kurgan Hypothesis

The most popular current theory is the ‘Pontic steppe’ or ‘Kurgan’ hypothesis, whose chief proponent was the late Lithuanian-born American archaeologist Maria Gimbutas. The early Indo-Europeans are identified with warrior pastoralists who built kurgan (i.e. burial mounds) in the steppes to the north of the Black and Caspian Seas in what is now southern Russia and the Ukraine.

Commencing about 6,000 years ago, and coinciding with the taming of the horse, these Copper Age people expanded from their homeland in a number of waves, overwhelming the Neolithic farmers of Europe, then conquering Central Asia, India and later the Balkans and Anatolia.

The Kurgan people took their language with them, giving rise to a secondary homeland of the Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Greek and other European branches, while conquests in the south and east produced the various Indo-European languages of India, Persia and Asia Minor. By 5,000 years ago, most pre-existing languages were erased and various independent Indo-European language groups and cultures had started to develop. This process continued over the ensuing millennia.

The Kurgan expansion
The Kurgan expansion

Map of Indo European (left) migrations from ca. 4000 to 1000 BC according to the Kurgan model. The Anatolian migration (indicated with a dotted arrow) could have taken place either across the Caucasus or across the Balkans. The purple area corresponds to the assumed Urheimat (Samara culture, Sredny Stog culture). The red area corresponds to the area which may have been settled by Indo-European-speaking peoples up to ca. 2500 BC, and the orange area by 1000 BC.

Before the coming of the Kurgan riders, it is theorized that Europe was inhabited by matriarchal agrarian tribes, worshippers of Mother Earth. The patriarchal Indo-Europeans introduced their own pantheon of nature gods, the chief of whom was Father Sky. This theory has found genetic support in remains from the Neolithic culture of Scandinavia. There, bone remains in Neolithic graves indicated that the megalith culture was either matrilocal or matrilineal, as the people buried in the same grave were related through their female lineage. Likewise, there is evidence of matrilineal traditions among the Picts.

The Kurgan hypothesis has largely been formulated by linguists. In contrast, the evidence collected by archaeologists in the last thirty years indicates the absence of any large-scale invasion in Europe at the times in question. Most Copper and Bronze Age cultures of Europe from the final Paleolithic to the Neolithic era appear in uninterrupted continuity. Archaeologists usually do not address linguistic issues.

This is perhaps why, although evidence of the absence of invasions and of a cultural continuity for the time in question began to appear in the archaeological literature of the 1970s, historical linguists have continued to assume the Kurgan theory as an undisputed truth.

The Anatolian Hypothesis

This theory, proposed by archaeologist Colin Renfrew at Cambridge University, holds that the Indo-European languages were spread not by marauding horsemen from the Caucuses but with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia between 8000 and 9500 years ago. Radiocarbon analysis of the earliest Neolithic sites across Europe provides a fairly detailed chronology of agricultural dispersal. This archaeological evidence indicates that agriculture spread from Anatolia, arriving in Greece at some time during the seventh millennium BC and reaching as far as the British Isles by 5500 years ago.

Map showing the Neolithic expansion from the seventh to fifth millennium BC

Renfrew maintains that the linguistic argument for the Kurgan theory is based on only limited evidence for a few enigmatic early Indo-European word forms. He points out that parallel semantic shifts or widespread borrowing can produce similar word forms across different languages without requiring that an ancestral term was present in a proto-language. Renfrew also challenges the idea that Kurgan social structure and technology was sufficiently advanced to allow them to conquer whole continents in a time when even small cities did not exist. Far more credible, he argues, is that Proto-Indo-European spread with the spread of agriculture – a scenario that is also thought to have occurred across the Pacific, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Support for the Anatolian hypothesis has come from an unlikely source. New Zealand biologists Atkinson and Gray have applied computer modelling techniques to the problem, the same kind of programs that evolutionary biologists use to infer the best evolutionary trees based on DNA sequences. Atkinson and Gray used a similar model to determine the most probable set of language trees, together with estimated dates for branching.

Their database was the vocabulary of 87 Indo-European languages. Atkinson and Gray looked at what linguists call cognates: words that are so similar in form and meaning, and so systematic in sound correspondences, that they must have a common origin. For example, a cognate that might be ‘quattro’ in Italian is a cognate with ‘quatre’ in French; or ‘brother’ in English is cognate with ‘brata’ in Polish. These are words that must have a common origin.

The tree and the date estimates are consistent with the times predicted by a spread of language with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia. The branching pattern is broadly consistent with archaeological evidence indicating that between the eighth and fourth millennia BC a culture based on cereal cultivation and animal husbandry spread from Anatolia into Greece and the Balkans and then out across Europe.

Hittite appears to have diverged from the main early Indo-European stock around 8700 years ago, perhaps reflecting the initial migration out of Anatolia. Indeed, this date exactly matches estimates for the age of Europe’s first agricultural settlements in southern Greece. Following the initial split, the language tree shows the formation of separate Tocharian, Greek, and then Armenian lineages, all before 6000 years ago, with all of the remaining language families formed by 4000 years ago. Interestingly, the dates hypothesized for the Kurgan expansion correspond to a period of rapid spread on the computer model. According to computer time estimates, many of the major Indo-European sub-families – Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Italic and Celtic – diverged between six and seven thousand years ago. This is intriguingly close to the proposed time of the Kurgan expansion. Thus it seems possible that there were two distinct phases in the spread of Indo-European: an initial phase, involving the movement of Indo-European with agriculture, out of Anatolia into Greece and the Balkans some 8500 years ago; and a second phase (perhaps the Kurgan expansion) which saw the subsequent spread of Indo-European languages across the rest of Europe and east into Persia and Central Asia.

Linguists generally remain unconvinced, pointing to the failure of the Anatolian hypothesis on at least two major counts. In the first place, if the Europeans, on the one hand, and the Indo-Iranians, on the other, had once lived together as agriculturists in Anatolia, they ought to have a common vocabulary for agricultural items, which unfortunately is not the case. Secondly, the Hittite language of Anatolia, which is the hypothetical linguistic source, was a minority language probably spoken by the elites, whereas the common language was non-Indo-European. This is hardly tenable with the concept of the Indo-Europeans having originated from this area.

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