Where To Start? The Indo-European Connection

Table of Contents:

  1. Choosing a Point in Time
  2. The Indo-European Languages
  3. The Discovery of the Language Family
  4. The Proto-Indo-European Homeland

To delve into the topic which is the Indo-European peoples and their languages a bit of context may be necessary. First of all one has to consider where to start, as explained previously, many peoples today can be regarded as Indo-European. But this doesn’t really help in explaining where they come from. In order to find out a point of time to start this investigation will have to be chosen prior to it.

Choosing a Point in Time

This point in time couldn’t be within the last millennium, as this was a time when most European nations, or at least peoples already existed in one familiar form or another. The centuries before were a time of turmoil in Europe, where different predominantly Germanic tribes scrambled over the remains of the Roman Empire, establishing mostly short-lived kingdoms of their own on the ruins of the Empire, some of which should lead to the establishment of some of the modern European countries centuries later. But before this we, of course, had the almighty Roman Empire and the peoples living within and outside of its borders, many of which we’ve at least heard of before, and that we can still connect to modern European peoples, such as the Celts with the Celtic-Speaking peoples of North-Western Europe, the Germans with the Germanic Tribes or the Italians with the Romans. Of course, it is not as easy as that, but a connection is still observable. But if there’s at least still some continuity between modern Europeans and the peoples of antiquity, the question that imposes itself on us is: If Europe’s nations and peoples descend from the ones at the time of the Roman Empire or are at least related to them, where in turn did these peoples come from or have they just always been here?

In order for us to answer this question, we have to go back about 6000 years to steppe herders north of the Black and Caspian seas, which shall connect much of Eurasia for the following millennia up until the present, including most of the people groups of Europe. But first, let me explain why these people important to us.

As early as the 19th-century scientists discovered the similarities of languages dispersed all over Eurasia, from Iceland and Portugal in the west, all the way to India in the east. With having named these three regions, we’ve have introduced three supposedly unrelated languages from three different language families: Icelandic, of the Germanic branch, Portuguese, of the Romance branch and the various languages of the Indian subcontinent, belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch.

Now, before we establish what the connection between these languages is and where they originally came from let’s quickly clarify what the names of the language families themselves mean, as they’re easily misunderstood.

The Indo-European Languages

Germanic doesn’t refer to German, as both terms are exonyms, given to the language family and the people by someone else. In this case, the man who gave the “Germans” their name was Gaius Iulius Caesar during his conquest of Gaul. He justified the beginning of this war by coming to the aid of allied Gaulish tribes against a bunch of peoples from across the Rhine, which had settled in Gaul. These people were culturally and linguistically different enough from the Celtic Gauls that Caesar could brand them as an entirely different ethnicity and thus the Germans were born. The fact, that only one tribe in modern-day Belgium ever really bore this name, and that they possibly weren’t even “Germanic” themselves didn’t bother Caesar too much.

As a result of this all the tribes east of the river Rhine and north of the river Danube were called Germans, up to southern Scandinavia, where the majority of the ancestors of modern-day Iceland would eventually come from, hence why Icelandic, along with the other Scandinavian languages (with the exception of Finnish), Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Low German, Frisian, Yiddish, English and Scots are considered Germanic languages, as there is a common ancestor to these languages somewhere in northern Germany or southern Scandinavia.

Romance, on the other hand, might be a bit easier to explain, as it has nothing to do with Romance in the sense of romantic languages, but with the ancient Romans. As most people are probably aware, the Romans controlled much of Europe, northern Africa and the near East during early and late Antiquity and spread their language even to the farthest corners of their empire, as loan words even in the modern Celtic languages of the British Isles stand testimony for. Whilst in the Balkans the romance languages were largely displaced by southern Slavic languages during the Age of Migration, except for Romanian, in continental western Europe it remained the predominant language and gave rise to the modern national languages of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

And lastly, perhaps the most unexpected example, the Indo-Aryan language family of northern India, compromising some of the most widely spoken languages in modern India, including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Punjabi. The word Aryan in this context has nothing to do with Hitlers’ Arians, as some people might suspect. The word derives from an ancient Indo-European source, meaning “noble”, and it was the name the Indo-European of India and the Iran gave themselves.

Distribution of Indo-European languages in the first millennium BC.
Distribution of Indo-European languages in the first millennium BC.

With this background knowledge let’s look at the supposed connection between the three.

The Discovery of the Language Family

Because of the linguistic similarities of languages all over Eurasia linguists pretty quickly concluded, that some sort of connection had to have existed, possibly even some sort of proto-language, connecting all of them. And whilst we know a language like this probably has existed we didn’t quite know where to place the speakers of this language, as they are no written records of the previously mentioned Indo-European languages and their direct ancestors up until about 2000 to 3000 years ago.

Looking at each respective location on the continent it seemed logical to place the people, which spoke this proto-language, somewhere in between the areas, where the languages introduced above, were being spoken. At this point, it is important to note, that the Romance, Germanic and Indo-Aryan languages weren’t and aren’t the only Indo-European languages spoken, but that they’re many other living and extinct languages of Indo-European origin. One of these languages was ancient Hittite, spoken on the Anatolian Peninsula, modern-day Turkey, which had become extinct a long time ago, but which had been attested in several written forms. Because of its location and it’s age (possibly up to 4000 years) linguistics thought Anatolia to be the homeland of the Indo-Europeans and explained the morphological differences between the Hittite language and the by now reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language with sound shifts over time. This theory, however, couldn’t sustain itself for long, as other Indo-European languages were more complex than Hittite, and a parent language tends to be more complex than its descendants. Interestingly enough, nowadays Hittite is even speculated to be a daughter language of a “Pre-Proto-Indo-European” language and not Indo-European itself.

Hittite Statues.
Hittite Statues. By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37808498

Now that the Anatolian Hypothesis was off the table, a new approach with different methods had to be considered. Because of the reconstructed vocabulary of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) scientists had an idea of what this peoples life was like, what their environment looked like and what technology was available to them. By conducting this research they found out about the importance of horses, their nomadic lifestyle, their pantheon, burial rites, family structure and many other things. One of the most important pieces of vocabulary was the word for “wheel”, which they actually had two for. So archaeologists needed to look for a pre-historical culture somewhere between Asia and Europe that already had invented or at least adopted the wheel by about 6000 years ago at the latest. This was the time when the Indo-European dispersal over Eurasia began. And they found it.

The Proto-Indo-European Homeland

Around 6000 years ago a people of nomadic pastoralists lived in the Eurasian steppe, north of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. They rode horses, built wheeled wagons and chariots and buried their people in burial mounds, so-called “Kurgans” in modern Russian. The name of this culture was Yamnaya, after the type-site, and to this day they are the best contenders to our Indo-European ancestors. The theory of their homeland and their dispersal across Eurasia is called the “Kurgan-Hypothesis” after the previously mentioned burial mounds. In multiple waves, they’ve swept out of their homeland and emmigrated west and east, for reasons largely unknown to us, possibly climate change or overpopulation but that is mere speculation. Recent genetic research supports this theory as well, showing that the paternal Haplogroups R1b and R1a, which are common throughout Europe and South Asia, had been carried by the Yamnaya. At the time of its proposal, the Kurgan Hypothesis faced some criticism but established itself as the most plausible explanation. The previously mentioned modern genetic evidence furthermore shows that the spread of the Yamnaya culture and language was not just a dispersal of ideas, but a real movement of peoples, which gave rise to most European and many Asian cultures existing to this day.

The Indo-European Migrations.
The Indo-European Migrations. By Dbachmann (talk ยท contribs) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=352915

But obviously, they didn’t just walk into empty unoccupied land. People had lived here before the arrival of the PIE-people and in some areas, they do not seem to have had as big of an impact than in others. Sardinia is a good example of this, as the inhabitants of the island only show very little genetic similarities in their autosomal DNA as well as in Haplogroups. Just to clarify these two terms, a Haplogroup is a group of very similar to almost identical Y-chromosomes passed down from father to son almost unchanged. Other, then the other chromosomes, the Y doesn’t shuffle and thus doesn’t change other than through inherent mutations. Because of this we can trace the Y-Chromosome back through the millennia and reconstruct migration routes of peoples through time. Autosomal DNA makes up the rest of your genome, and you inherit 50% of this DNA from your mother, and 50% from your father, reshuffling their chromosomes into 22 new pairs plus your sex chromosome pair, making you.

One of the biggest reasons why the Proto-Indo-Europeans were so successful was their mastery of horse riding. They probably weren’t the first ones to domesticate the horse, but no other people at the time was so skilled at horse riding or had the abundance of horses the Yamnaya had. And so they’ve had a huge advantage in terms of speed, transportation and fighting power, as any rider is superior to a man on foot.

And thus these pastoralists from the steppe spread their language across Eurasia, changed its face and its inhabitants forever.

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3 thoughts on “Where To Start? The Indo-European Connection

  1. Hi there! Thanks for visiting my blog and for the ‘like’. I am particularly interested in prehistory/where we all came from and the story of language is particularly interesting…I will have a read!

    Liked by 1 person

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