The Indo-European Homeland and Way of Life

  1. The Proto-Indo-European Urheimat
    1. The Kurgan Hypothesis
  2. The Indo-European Expansion
  3. Proto-Indo-European Daily Life

In the last article, we were taking a look at how many different peoples of Eurasia are connected on a linguistic, (pre-)historic and genetic level, although we did not get into too much detail yet. This connection can be traced back to a people we call the Proto-Indo-Europeans, which dwelled in the vast Eurasian steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas and the Caucasus mountains. Now we’re going to take a closer look at what their lives were like and where they had come from and perhaps we will already be able to recognize a few similarities between them and us.

The Proto-Indo-European Urheimat

To start things off let’s examine where the Indo-Europeans came from. As we’ve already established the most likely theory about the homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs) is Marija Gimbutas Kurgan Hypothesis, which is the one we’re going to assume to be true for the sake of this article, as taking the alternatives into consideration as well would paint an entirely different and conflicting picture of the lives of this ancient people. A population living on the Anatolian Peninsula would have led a completely different life compared to a population in the Eurasian Steppes, especially within the era we’re going to discuss in this article. This era can be considered the Early Neolithic – the time when agriculture and animal-husbandry was invented in multiple places at roughly the same time and spread across the globe – in some areas and the late Paleolithic -the time of Hunter-Gatherers – in others, as pre-historical classifications not only depend on the time but also on the area and the technologies available to the individuals inhabiting this certain area at a specific time. So whilst the Neolithic began in the Near East around 12,000 years ago, it took several millennia more to spread to more isolated places like Scandinavia or the British Isles.

The Kurgan Hypothesis

Gimbutas Kurgan Hypothesis places the homeland of the PIEs north of the Black and Caspian Seas and the Caucasus Mountains, as already mentioned in the introduction, Kurgan referring to a word stemming from the Tartar language and borrowed into modern Russian, meaning burial mound, referring to the practice of many different archaeological cultures in this area to bury their dead in burial mounds. Wikipedia defines archaeological cultures as “[…] a recurring assemblage of artefacts from a specific time and place that may constitute the material culture remains of a particular past human society. The connection between the artefacts is based on archaeologists’ understanding and interpretation and does not necessarily relate to real groups of humans in the past.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeological_culture, last checked on the 20/08/2019, 20:18). In essence, this means, that archaeological finds from the same period and in the same or a close location, that show strong similarities and therefore can be associated with each other, are being grouped in a “culture” and given a name. Kurgan, in our hypothesis, doesn’t compromise of just one such culture but multiple over several millennia. Instead of getting into too much detail about these cultures themselves I want to take a closer look at how they lived through the ages and what caused them to disperse all over the Eurasian continent.

Marija Gimbutas
By No machine-readable author provided. Evertype assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=504661

The Indo-European Expansion

In Harald Haarmans book “Die Indo-Europäer” (German for “The Indo-Europeans”) he describes the life of the Indo-Europeans and their language in a beautifully detailed way and way better than I ever could. I’m not aware whether the book is available in English as well, which is why I will try my best to translate or paraphrase the relevant parts here. Although some of the aspects of his theories about the spread of the Indo-Europeans have been proven wrong, for example, the theory that the spread of the PIE languages was mostly a dispersal of ideas and not of people, he still paints an interesting picture in regards to the life of these people. Archaeological records are rare and it’s even harder to tell if a certain find is related to a certain ethnolinguistic group. So taking a linguistic approach can help in such cases to find out more about the life of these ancient peoples. This is based on the idea, that if you’re familiar with something, you must have a word for it or made it up at one point. One of the most famous examples of this idea is that Eskimo languages are supposed to have way more words for snow than other languages (which is actually being debated, as it turns out even languages such as English have multiple snow-related words, such as ice, glacier, hail, sleet, etc. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskimo_words_for_snow, article last checked on the 26/08/2019, at 20:40)).

No matter if the Eskimo-Snow-Words case is true or not isn’t too important at this point. More significant for us is the fact, that if something new is introduced into an ethnic group, which they didn’t have before, it is more likely that they will adopt a new name for it. The modern German words “Fenster” and “Mauer” come from Latin “fenestra” and “mura”, meaning window and (stone-)wall respectively. They were introduced in the Proto-Germanic language at a point, where the Germanic tribes neither had windows, nor stone-walls, hence why they were introduced into at least some of the Germanic dialects. This never happened in English, where they just changed the meaning of the word “wind-hole” to its modern definition, as a transparent piece of glass, usually located in some sort of wall to look outside or inside, “window”.

So two things can happen to new things in a linguistic group: They either get a whole new word, borrowed from a different language, or the meaning of an old word changes/becomes synonymous to the new thing. In our case, we will focus on the first example.

By comparing the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language to other languages spoken at the time, such as Proto-Uralic, the precursor to many northern Eurasian languages, such as Finnish and Estonian, many languages in northern Russia and Siberia as well as Hungarian, we can make predictions about which words were introduced into Proto-Indo-European at what time and which words are inherent to the language. If they’re inherent, the chances are quite high that the things they describe weren’t introduced by other cultures, thus giving us an idea of what life was like for these people.

Indo-European peoples around 500 AD.
Indo-European peoples around 500 AD. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71474

Proto-Indo-European Daily Life

For the Proto-Indo-Europeans, a few categories stand out, of which pastoralism and with that animal husbandry, technology and kinship are just a few. But these categories, in particular, can tell us a lot about what life for the ancient Indo-Europeans was like. They were organized in patriarchal family systems, led by the father, who might’ve been something like a chieftain and high priest of the extended family as well. There are many words for relations, which do not exist in modern English anymore, like an in-law, which shows how important family connections were for the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Interestingly, there are more words for male relatives than for females, showing again the strong patriarchal family system of our ancestors. These families were probably organized in tribal groups, each with slightly different customs and possibly, at least at later stages, different dialects which would eventually lead to the incredible variation among IE-languages we see today. We’ve got evidence, that these different tribal groups we’re nomads, hunter-gatherers at first, and became pastoralists later. Whilst it isn’t proven that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were the first to tame the horse, they certainly were one of the earliest people to adopt horse raiding as a technique of herding other domesticated animals, which would be a major factor for their dispersal over Eurasia throughout the next millennia. With the domestication of the horse, another crucial invention was possible: animal-drawn wagons. The wheel first appeared in the region inhabited by the PIEs and enabled them to move their possessions as well as the sick and elderly along with them, thus enabling the migration of entire populations.

To sum things up the Proto-Indo-Europeans originated in the Ponto-Caspian-Steppe, most likely not as one people but as slightly different, though highly related tribal groups scattered over a relatively large area. They spoke the same language or at least dialects of the same language, which probably were mutually intelligible to a large degree over centuries, if not millennia. Whilst in the beginning hunter-gatherers, just as most populations on the planet at this time, they became masters of the horse after it’s domestication, which enabled them to build bigger, stronger wagons, drawn by either horses or oxen, instead of humans themselves. This enabled them to an even more nomadic lifestyle and to spread over large distances, leaving their mark all over the Eurasian continent. One thing we haven’t talked about yet, and which was essential to all humans at the time, are their beliefs. This is because I would like to dedicate a full article to the topic of Indo-European Mythology and how it influenced the world over millennia and even today.

Featured image by Alexandr frolov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77292946


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