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Indo-European languages were spoken from the shores of the Atlantic to eastern India and the westernmost province of China even before the first centuries BCE; today more than half the people of the world speak languages that belong to that same family. But scholars have debated the origins and earliest migration patterns of Indo-European languages, and the possibility of whether they derived from a common homeland.
The majority of the peoples of Europe and a substantial portion of the present and ancient peoples of western Asia speak closely related languages that all belong to the Indo-European language family. European colonial expansions and the spread of Euro-American culture have been so successful that nearly half the population of the planet now speaks an Indo-European language. Yet the place where this language family originated and the course of its earliest migrations have been topics of heated and inconclusive debate for more than two centuries.
The Early Indo-Europeans
The Indo-European language family can be divided into thirteen groups that may be briefly summarized, moving broadly from west to east.
During the period from about 500 BCE to about 1 BCE the Celts occupied much of western and central Europe and undertook raids into Italy and as far east as Greece and Anatolia (present-day peninsular Turkey). Today the Celtic languages survive only on the periphery of Atlantic Europe as Gaelic (both Irish and Scots), Welsh, and Breton.
In ancient Italy, Latin was by far the most successful of a group of closely related languages. Latin became the sole language of the Italian peninsula sometime around 100 CE and was then carried by Roman expansions over much of Europe. The Italic branch survives today in the form of modern Romance languages of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian, among others such as Catalan and Provencal.
Speakers of these northern and central European languages, such as the Goths, expanded from the north during the first millennium CE to occupy lands previously held by the Celts and other groups. The modern Germanic languages include English, Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages.
The Balts once occupied a vast territory from the Baltic Sea across northern Russia, but the expansion of Germanic speakers from the west and Slavic speakers from the south has left only the two modern Baltic languages of Lithuanian and Latvian.
During the first millennium CE the Slavs began their historical expansions in central and southeastern Europe. The major Slavic languages include Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian.
The Indo-European languages of the ancient Balkan region are very poorly attested in inscriptions and in place and personal names recorded in neighboring classical languages. The major groups were the Dacians and Thracians, occupying roughly the areas of the modern states of Romania and Bulgaria respectively, and the Illyrians in the west Balkan region. The only Balkan language that survives is Albanian, which many suggest may have derived from the earlier Illyrian language.
The language of the ancient Greeks is attested from at least the thirteenth century BCE in the Linear B inscriptions of Late Bronze Age Greece and Crete. During the first millennium BCE the Greeks undertook extensive programs of colonization that carried them as far as Spain in the west and to the northern shores of the Black Sea in the east.
By about 1900 BCE documents from Anatolia indicate the existence of Indo-Europeans speaking languages of the Anatolian branch. The most notable and best studied of the early languages is Hittite. Some Anatolian languages survived to the beginning of the first millennium CE, but all are now long extinct.
With the collapse of Hittite power (c. 1380 BCE), the Phrygians established themselves in central Anatolia, and their language, attested almost entirely in inscriptions, survived into the first millennium CE.
The Armenian language emerged in eastern Anatolia during the first millennium BCE after the collapse of earlier non-Indo-European states such as those of the Hurrians and the related Urartians. Although much of its vocabulary has been borrowed from its neighbors, Armenian still has a core vocabulary inherited directly from its Indo-European ancestors.
The Iranian languages formed a vast chain of speakers from 700 BCE onwards that extended from the Scythians on the Black Sea to the Saka in western China. Most Central Asian languages (Bactrian, for example) are from the Iranian language family. The most abundant evidence of the presence of speakers of Iranian languages derives from ancient Persia (Persian), and Iranian languages predominate in modern Iran and Afghanistan.
Closely related to Iranian is Indo-Aryan, the vast language group of the northern two-thirds of India from which many of the modern Indic languages, such as Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati, derive. This group is abundantly attested in Sanskrit literature, which emerges by at least the end of the second millennium BCE. India also includes two non-Indo-European language families, Dravidian and Munda.
Extreme outliers, the two Tocharian languages were spoken in oasis towns along the Silk Roads in present- day Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China. They became extinct by about 1000 CE.
Europe also houses several non-Indo-European families. These include Basque, spoken in northern Spain and southern France, and the Uralic languages, which occupy a broad area of Europe’s northeastern forest zone. Among the more notable modern Uralic languages are Finnish, Saami (Lapp), Estonian, and Hungarian.
Membership in a language family presupposes an ancestral language spoken somewhere at some time in the past that expanded to such an extent that its speakers came to speak regional variants that grew increasingly different from one another, though those variants were still related. The fragmentation of the late Latin of the Roman Empire into a series of increasingly different Romance languages is a familiar example of how one language diverges into a number of different languages. A comparison of the grammars and vocabularies of the various Indo- European languages provides the evidence that they were once genetically related; that is, that they all derive from a common source. For example, the words mother, father, brother, and sister are rendered in Latin as mater, pater, frater, and soror, and in Sanskrit as matar, pitar, bhatar, and svasar.
These correspondences reflect the fact that there was once a common language, which we term Proto- Indo-European, from which all of the daughter languages are derived. A comparison of the common vocabulary of the Indo-European languages permits linguists to reconstruct something on the order of 1,200–1,800 items of Proto-Indo-European vocabulary. (There were obviously many more words in the proto-language but we can only securely reconstruct a portion of these.)
The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary provides all the semantic classes of words that we would find in any language, including parts of the body, verbal actions, pronouns, and numerals, for example. Of greatest cultural interest are those words pertaining to the natural world and to the economy, material culture, kinship, social structure, and religious beliefs of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. We know that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European had domestic animals (linguists have reconstructed Proto- Indo-European words for cattle, sheep, goat, pig, and dog; Proto-Indo-Europeans also knew the horse, but whether wild or domesticated is hotly disputed). They engaged in cereal agriculture (there are Proto-Indo- European words for grain, barley, yoke, plow, harvest, winnow, and grinding stone); stored and cooked their food in ceramic vessels; hunted and fought with the knife, spear, and bow; had some acquaintance with metals (there are words for copper, gold, and silver); and utilized wheeled transport (wheel, wagon, pole). In addition we can recover the names of at least some of the wild plants and animals known to the Proto-Indo-European speakers. In general, the arboreal evidence suggests a temperate climate (tree words include Proto-Indo-European equivalents of oak, birch, willow, and ash) and forest and riverine animals (judging from words for bear, wolf, fox, red deer, otter, and beaver).
In general, linguists have estimated that Proto-Indo- European was spoken from about 4000 to about 2500 BCE, but this is largely an informed guess. Nevertheless, those dates do broadly conform with the dates indicated by analysis of their vocabulary for material culture, as such items as wheeled vehicles do not appear anywhere in the world before approximately 4000 BCE.
The Homeland Problem
For two centuries linguists and archaeologists have sought to determine the location or homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their subsequent migrations. In a vast literature that comprises both the brightest and the weirdest of would-be scholarship, the homeland has been located in space anywhere from the North Pole to the South Pole and from the Atlantic to the Pacific; in time the Proto-Indo- Europeans have been sought from the time of the Neanderthals (before 100,000 BCE) until the spread of use of the chariot (after 2000 BCE). The (Proto-)Indo- Europeans have been presented as everything from the bringers of a high culture who civilized Europe to the destroyers of European (proto)civilization; from peaceful farmers to warlike barbarian horsemen, depending on how scholars, sometimes acting under various national or ideological agendas, choose to interpret the limited data.
The difficulty of the whole enterprise, from a scholarly perspective, rests with the nature of searching for prehistoric linguistic entities: while the object being sought is strictly linguistic—a protolanguage—there is no purely linguistic technique that yields a convincing solution. That is not to say that there is not an arsenal of techniques that have been employed, but they just do not give convincing results when applied to the world’s largest language family. One technique, for example, applies the notion of the “center of gravity” in the search for a language family’s place of origin. The logic is that where we find the greatest amount of differentiation (in other words, the greatest concentration of different languages, dialects, and so forth) is where the place of origin should lie, because it is in that area that the language family has existed longest and had the greatest amount of time to change. While languages invariably change over time, time is not the only factor of linguistic change. Topography, social structure, and contact with various foreign substrates, which are more diverse and inclusive than any single language, are also likely to influence language divergence.
Recognizing this, some linguists have sought to locate the homeland where they either find the greatest amount of conservation of the Proto-Indo- European vocabulary (presuming preservation to indicate the absence of foreign substrates and therefore the least movement from the homeland) or the least evidence for non-Indo-European loanwords. But neither of these techniques is satisfying. Because the various Indo-European languages have been attested at widely different times (with Sanskrit attested earlier than 1000 BCE and evidence for Lithuanian appearing two and a half thousand years later), it is hard to know how one can make a fair test of which has the most archaic vocabulary or the greatest number of loanwords. In fact, every Indo- European language possesses a sizeable vocabulary that cannot be demonstrated to derive from Proto- Indo-European. There is no evidence that any Indo- European language has sat in blissful purity over the past four or five thousand years. A measure of the inadequacy of these purely linguistic methods can be seen in the fact that the center-of-gravity principle has generally favored southeastern Europe (Greece and the Balkans) as the homeland, while the conservation principle has been adduced most often to support a homeland in either India or on the shores of the Baltic Sea (because of the conservative nature of Lithuanian).
No matter where one places the homeland, there is an expectation that its location should at least be congruent with the evidence of the archaeological record; that is, there should be some form of concrete evidence of the expansion of a language. A homeland at the North Pole obviously fails the test because there was no one there to speak any language. Other solutions have localized the Proto-Indo-Europeans in regions where there is simply no archaeological evidence that might suggest a movement consistent with the historical distribution of the Indo-Europeans, such as Scandinavia and the Baltic region, Britain and Ireland, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Iran, India, and Xinjiang. All of these areas are not only peripheral to the overall distribution of Indo-European groups, they also lack any evidence whatsoever for a major out-migration that might be equated with Indo-European expansions.
It is all the more ironic, then, that although the arrival of each Indo-European group in its historical seat (the Celts in Ireland, Latin speakers in Italy, Indo- Aryans in India) might appear to be a good starting place for backtracking to the Indo-European homeland, no dates for any of those arrivals have yet been determined. Instead, archaeologists are confronted with a series of windows of possible intrusions that may span up to four thousand years, as every new horizon of ceramic type, tools, or burial is (generally unconvincingly) associated with a potential invasion of Indo-European speakers. There is simply no region where there is an archaeological smoking gun—evidence for an invasion so massive that it must be associated with the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. The appearance of the Celts in Ireland has been set at anytime between 4000 and 250 BCE, while the evidence for the arrival of the Indo-Aryans in India is so ambiguous that many Indian scholars have argued that the Indo-Europeans have always been there (though these scholars do not explain how they could have spread elsewhere from India). A retrospective approach to Indo-European migrations (that is, one that starts from current locations and tries to wind the clock backwards) throws up too many dead ends; in the current state of play most prefer to start with a proposed homeland and trace putative outmigrations. There are two popular models for Indo- European origins that differ with respect to location, time, and means of expansion.
The Neolithic Model
Some associate the expansion of the Indo-Europeans with the spread of agriculture, a mechanism of language spread that has also been argued for the dispersal of other major language families, including Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan, Afroasiatic, and the Bantu languages. Farming entered Europe from Anatolia about 7000 BCE and passed through Greece and the Balkans both to the north and west across Europe, arriving at the Atlantic and Baltic by about 4000 BCE. This model supports the notion of demic diffusion, that is, the massive although gradual movement of people with a more productive economy into areas earlier occupied by people with a less productive economy (namely, hunter-gatherers), whom the newcomers absorb culturally and linguistically. Some argue that enormous language families can only be explained by such massive cultural change. The process is seen to have taken many generations and the emphasis, at least for southeastern and central Europe, has been on population replacement, generally by peaceful farmers. The attraction of this model is that it introduces a very powerful mechanism to explain how a language family could spread over such a vast area and extinguish all previous languages.
But the model also has its critics. Many do not believe population movement is responsible for the arrival of agriculture in northern and western Europe; they postulate a process of acculturation, the local hunter-gatherers adopting agriculture from their neighbors, and so the mechanism for language dispersal is not so compelling for the periphery of Europe. And when it comes to explaining the Indo-Europeans of Asia (who occupied an area at least equal to that of Europe), the earlier presence of agriculture there, which appears to be unassociated with the origins of agriculture in Anatolia, forces the proponents of the Neolithic hypothesis to abandon their demic model and adopt a segment of the second model: Bronze Age migrations (around 2000 BCE) of horseusing warriors from the steppe lands of Eurasia. The Neolithic model also seems to require migrations that are still several thousand years earlier than the most recent technological items associated with the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary; in other words, it places Indo-Europeans in Greece and Italy several thousand years before archaeologists believe that they could have become acquainted with either the horse or wheeled vehicles, items that are reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European and whose names are inherited in the vocabularies of these regions. Finally, the suggested path of Neolithic expansions in Europe does not correlate very well with the linguistic relationships between the different Indo-European groups.
The Steppe Model
The second model suggests that the Indo-Europeans originated in the steppe and forest-steppe of Eastern Europe (south Russia and Ukraine). Proponents of this model argue that expansions began about 4500 BCE and continued in a series of waves both west into Europe and east into Asia. The farmers of the Neolithic model are here regarded as non-Indo- Europeans who occupied much of Europe before the expansion of the Indo-European languages. Rather than population replacement, the steppe model requires massive language shift among the indigenous population brought about by a minority of intrusive Indo-Europeans whose possession of the domesticated horse and ox-drawn wagon provided far greater mobility, and whose economy (pastoralism, with some agriculture) and social system were far more aggressive than those of the farmers of Europe. The mechanism for language shift lies here in either the political dominance of the intrusive Indo-European elites or the spread of Indo-European social institutions, which the local populations adopted along with the language associated with the new order. The key here—as with the spread of any language—is establishing what causes people to become initially bilingual and then to abandon their native language. Once the process was initiated, with minimal population movement the Indo-European languages could have spread from one region to another, arriving in the north and west of Europe by around 3000 BCE or more recently. The steppe model explains the Indo-Europeans of Asia as further expansions of Bronze Age mobile warriors. The problem with the steppe model is that while evidence for migration can be found from the steppe lands into the lower Danube region, especially in characteristic burials under a mound (in Russian kurgan; the term gives the model its alternative name, Kurgan model), it is much more difficult to trace such movements beyond Hungary and the Balkans. Similarly, while there is clear evidence of expansions from Europe into the Asiatic steppe and partially into Central Asia, there is minimal evidence of any migrations further south into what would become the major civilizations of ancient Iran and India. Moreover, the presence in an area of many of the alleged traits of the steppe expansions, such as greater mobility, increased weaponry, and development of status burial, has been attributed to internal social processes rather than the impact of intruding Indo-Europeans.
The problem of Indo-European origins and migrations has been a major challenge to prehistorians, and the failure to develop a single fully convincing model is a salutary caution to anyone interested in tracing the path of migrations in the archaeological record. If increased doubt is the result of the type of intense discussion that tracing the roots of the Indo- Europeans has occasioned, then this does not bode well for many other hypothesized migrations that have seen far less scrutiny.
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