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Indo-European origins

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Indo-European origins

The Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses are tentative identifications of the Urheimat, or primary homeland, of the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European language. Such identifications attempt to be consistent with the glottochronology of the language tree over given eras, and with the implied culture with the archaeological cultures located at those places over those times. Identifications are made on the basis of how well, if at all, the projected migration routes and times of migration fit the distribution of Indo-European languages, and how closely the sociological model of the original society reconstructed from Proto-Indo-European lexical items fits the archaeological profile.

Beginning in the 1970s, the mainstream consensus among Indo-Europeanists favors the "Kurgan hypothesis", placing the Indo-European homeland in the Pontic steppe of the Chalcolithic period (4th to 5th millennia BCE). The Pontic steppe is a large area of grasslands in far Eastern Europe, located north of the Black Sea, Caucasus Mountains and Caspian Sea and including parts of eastern Ukraine, southern Russia and northwest Kazakhstan. This is the time and place of the earliest domestication of the horse, which according to this hypothesis was the work of early Indo-Europeans, allowing them to expand outwards and assimilate or conquer many other cultures.

The primary competitor is the Anatolian hypothesis advanced by Colin Renfrew. It states that the Indo-European languages began to spread peacefully into Europe from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) from around 7000 BCE with the Neolithic advance of farming (wave of advance).

All hypotheses assume a significant period (at least 1500–2000 years) between the time of the Proto-Indo-European language and the earliest attested texts, at Kültepe, ca 19th century BCE.


There are four competing basic models (with variations) that have academic credibility (Mallory (1997:106)):

  1. the Kurgan hypothesis (Pontic-Caspian area): Chalcolithic (5th to 4th millennia BCE)
  2. the Anatolian hypothesis (Anatolia in Asia Minor): Early Neolithic (7th to 5th millennia BCE)
  3. the Baltic hypothesis: Mesolithic to Neolithic (Ertebølle to Corded Ware horizon, 6th to 3rd millennia BCE)
  4. the Balkan hypothesis, excluding the Anatolian languages (a variant of the Anatolian hypothesis): Neolithic (5th millennium BCE)

As mentioned above, the Kurgan hypothesis is currently dominant in Indo-European studies. The Anatolian hypothesis is the primary competitor. This hypothesis is primarily associated with Colin Renfrew, although it has also been supported by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson, based on Bayesian analysis studies.[1][2]

A number of fringe hypotheses also exist, e.g.:


There have been many attempts to claim that particular prehistorical cultures can be identified with the PIE-speaking peoples, but all have been speculative. All attempts to identify an actual people with an unattested language depend on a sound reconstruction of that language that allows identification of cultural concepts and environmental factors which may be associated with particular cultures (such as the use of metals, agriculture vs. pastoralism, geographically distinctive plants and animals, etc.).

In the 1970s, a mainstream consensus had emerged among Indo-Europeanists in favour of the "Kurgan hypothesis" placing the Indo-European homeland in the Pontic steppe of the Chalcolithic period. This was not least due to the influence of the Journal of Indo-European Studies, edited by J. P. Mallory, that focused on the ideas of Marija Gimbutas, and offered some improvements. She had created a modern variation on the traditional invasion theory (the Kurgan hypothesis, after the kurgans (burial mounds) of the Eurasian steppes) in which the Indo-Europeans were a nomadic tribe in Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia and expanded on horseback in several waves during the 3rd millennium BCE. Their expansion coincided with the taming of the horse. Leaving archaeological signs of their presence (see battle-axe people), they subjugated the peaceful European Neolithic farmers of Gimbutas's Old Europe. As Gimbutas's beliefs evolved, she put increasing emphasis on the patriarchal, patrilinear nature of the invading culture, sharply contrasting it with the supposedly egalitarian, if not matrilinear culture of the invaded, to the point of formulating essentially a feminist archaeology.

Her interpretation of Indo-European culture found genetic support in remains from the Neolithic culture of Scandinavia, where DNA from 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 the women. Likewise, there is a tradition of remaining matrilineal traditions among the Picts. J.P. Mallory, dating the migrations earlier, to around 4000 BCE, and putting less insistence on their violent or quasi-military nature, essentially modified Gimbutas' theory.

The Gimbutas-Mallory Kurgan hypothesis seeks to explain the Indo-European language expansion by a succession of migrations from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, or, more specifically and according to the revised version, to the area encompassed by the Sredny Stog culture (ca. 4500 BCE). This hypothesis is compatible with the argument that the PIE homeland must have been larger,[5] because the "Neolithic creolisation hypothesis" allows the Pontic-Caspian region to have been part of PIE territory.

A variant of the Kurgan hypothesis is the "Sogdiana hypothesis" of Johanna Nichols, placing the homeland in the 4th or 5th millennium BCE to the east of the Caspian Sea, in the area of ancient Bactria-Sogdiana.[6][7]

The main competitor of the Kurgan hypothesis is the Anatolian hypothesis advanced by Colin Renfrew. It states that the Indo-European languages began to spread peacefully into Europe from Asia Minor from around 7000 BCE with the Neolithic advance of farming (wave of advance). The expansion of agriculture from the Middle East would have diffused three language families: Indo-European toward Europe, Dravidian toward Pakistan and India, and Afro Asiatic toward Arabia and North Africa. Essentially the same hypothesis was suggested, based on genetic haplogroup distribution, by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.[8]

The main objections to this theory are:

  1. It requires an unrealistically early date. The Proto-Indo-European lexicon includes words for a range of inventions and practices related to the Secondary Products Revolution, which post-dates the early spread of farming. On lexico-cultural dating, Proto-Indo-European cannot be earlier than 4000 BC.[9]
  2. The idea that farming was spread from Anatolia in a single wave has been revised. Instead it appears to have spread in several waves by several routes, primarily from the Levant.[10] The trail of plant domesticates indicates an initial foray from the Levant by sea.[11] The overland route via Anatolia seems to have been most significant in spreading farming into south-east Europe.[12]
  3. Non-Indo-European languages appear to be associated with the spread of farming from the Near East into North Africa and the Caucasus.
  4. Anatolia was inhabited by non-Indo-European speakers, including the Hattians, who appear to pre-date the arrival there of the Indo-European speakers of the Anatolian branch, since the latter borrowed words from the former.

Using stochastic models to evaluate the presence/absence of different words across Indo-European, Gray & Atkinson (2003) yielded that the origin of Indo-European goes back about 8500 years, the first split being that of Hittite from the rest (Indo-Hittite hypothesis). However, the procedure to infer from the lifespan of some words upon the lifespan of a language remains at least questionable. Moreover, the idiosyncratic outcome of e.g. the Albanian language must raise severe doubts about both the method and the data. Besides, there are a lot of lexicostatistical (and some glottochronological) attempts before and after G&A with quite other results.[13] The method promoted by the Gray School is at the moment far too unreliable to give decisive support for any homeland.[14]


The accumulation of Archaeogenetic evidence which uses genetic analysis to trace migration patterns since the 1990s has also added new elements to the puzzle. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Alberto Piazza argue that Renfrew and Gimbutas reinforce rather than contradict each other. Cavalli-Sforza (2000) states that "It is clear that, genetically speaking, peoples of the Kurgan steppe descended at least in part from people of the Middle Eastern Neolithic who immigrated there from Turkey." Piazza & Cavalli-Sforza (2006) state that:

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.

Wells (2002) states that "there is nothing to contradict this model, although the genetic patterns do not provide clear support either," and instead argues that the evidence is much stronger for Gimbutas' model:

while we see substantial genetic and archaeological evidence for an Indo-European migration originating in the southern Russian steppes, there is little evidence for a similarly massive Indo-European migration from the Middle East to Europe. One possibility is that, as a much earlier migration (8,000 years old, as opposed to 4,000), the genetic signals carried by Indo-European-speaking farmers may simply have dispersed over the years. There is clearly some genetic evidence for migration from the Middle East, as Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues showed, but the signal is not strong enough for us to trace the distribution of Neolithic languages throughout the entirety of Indo-European-speaking Europe.

Haplogroup R1a1 is associated with the Kurgan culture. R1a1 shows a strong correlation with Indo-European languages of western Asia and eastern Europe, being most prevalent in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine and also observed in Pakistan, India and central Asia. The connection between Y-DNA R-M17 and the spread of Indo-European languages was first noted by T. Zerjal and colleagues in 1999.[15] Ornella Semino and colleagues proposed a postglacial spread of the R1a1 gene during the Late Glacial Maximum, subsequently magnified by the expansion of the Kurgan culture into Europe and eastward.[16] Spencer Wells suggests that the distribution and age of R1a1 points to an ancient migration corresponding to the spread by the Kurgan people in their expansion from the Eurasian steppe.[17]

Ancient DNA has confirmed the connection with kurgan burials directly. Out of ten human male remains assigned to the Andronovo horizon from the Krasnoyarsk region, nine possessed the R1a Y-chromosome haplogroup and one C haplogroup (xC3). Mitochrondrial DNA haplogroups of nine individuals assigned to the same Andronovo horizon and region were as follows: U4 (2 individuals), U2e, U5a1, Z, T1, T4, H, and K2b. 90% of the Bronze Age period mtDNA haplogroups were of west Eurasian origin and the study determined that at least 60% of the individuals overall (out of the 26 Bronze and Iron Age human remains' samples of the study that could be tested) had light hair and blue or green eyes. Significantly R1a also appeared in later kurgan steppe burials through a series of related cultures up to the Scythians, known to speak an Indo-European language.[18]

See also



  • Linguistics and Ideology in the Study of Language by E. F. K. Koerner, University of Ottawa On linguistics and the search for the original Indo-European homeland
  • .
  • .
  • Atkinson, Quentin; Geoff Nicholls, David Welch, Russell Gray (2005) From words to dates: water into wine, mathemagic or phylogenetic inference? Transactions of the Philological Society, 103 (2):193–219.

External links

  • Indo-European family tree, showing Indo-European languages and sub branches
  • Image of Indo-European migrations from the Armenian Highlands
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