The Indo-European Migrations – How We’re Connected

  1. The Indo-European Homeland
  2. Proto-Indo-European Expansion into Europe and Asia
  3. The Migrations in Mythology
  4. Genetic Studies
  5. The Militarization of Europe

Today, Indo-European languages are spoken all over the world, as a consequence of colonization by European powers like the British, the French, the Portuguese and the Spanish in the Age of Discovery. But even before Christopher Columbus had sailed to the Americas, Indo-European languages were spoken across Eurasia, from Western Europe to India and even China. 

This article aims to examine why the Proto-Indo-Europeans were so successful in the dispersal of their language, culture, and genes, where exactly they migrated to, and what caused these migrations.

By Hayden120 – For the names of the branches, see citations in legend (based on “Indo-European Languages”. The College of Liberal Arts. UT Austin. 2008.) and “Indo-European languages” from Britannica.com.The distribution is essentially and approximately based on the map “Indo-European languages – Approximate locations of Indo-European languages in contemporary Eurasia” from Britannica.com, although with the following minor modifications:The two articles “Balto-Slavic languages” and “Indo-Iranian languages” from Britannica.com stress the lack of scholarly consensus on these branches. That is, for the former, whether Baltic and Slavic developed from a common ancestral language, or that the similarities are the result of parallel development and of mutual influence during a long period of contact. To cater for both scholarly viewpoints, this map shows Baltic and Slavic with two distinct shades of green under “Balto-Slavic”. For the latter, the dispute is whether the Indo-Iranian languages include just the Iranian and Indo-Aryan (or, Indic) language groups, or Nūristānī and Bangani too. To prevent disagreement (and also because this map only represents the primary branches of Indo-European), all of Indo-Iranian is represented with one shade.The article “Romance languages” from Britannica.com states that the Romance languages form “a subgroup of the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family”.It should be noted that this map is only approximative and simplified, and glosses over some multilingual areas (particularly in eastern Russia, which is difficult to represent accurately). For some areas, more regional maps have been used as sources for greater accuracy, namely “Languages of Switzerland” from Ethnologue.com, “Russia ethnic plurality” from Freelang.net, “Major ethnic groups in Central Asia” from Globalsecurity.org, and “South Asian Language Families” from “Language families and branches, languages and dialects in A Historical Atlas of South Asia”. Oxford University Press. New York 1992., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18055885

The Indo-European Homeland

The Proto-Indo-European homeland or Urheimat is most likely to lie in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, north of the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, as first proposed in Marija Gimbutas Kurgan hypothesis and recently confirmed by genetic evidence (Allentoft et al. 2015 and Haak et al. 2015). According to Haarmann in his 2012 book “Die Indo-Europaeer” the PIE-people expanded into Europe first around 4000 BC, into Central Asia around 2500 BC and into China and Anatolia around 2000 BC. The cause for these migrations isn’t easy to determine if there even is a single cause. It is more likely that a combination of different circumstances led to the expansion of the Indo-Europeans. Haarmann states in the same book, that nomadic societies like the Proto-Indo-Europeans are especially vulnerable to climate change. This is due to the fact that their herds can only survive under very specific climatic circumstances; even small changes in temperature and precipitation can lead to the demise of large proportions of the sheep and cattle herds of nomadic peoples. Thus he concludes, that one of the major motivations of the Indo-European migrations was climactic changes after the end of the Ice Age.

Proto-Indo-European Expansion into Europe and Asia

When the PIE-people left their homeland they didn’t just expand into desolated lands but encountered different peoples, even civilizations, on their migrations. In the case of Europe, farmers from Anatolia had colonized the continent millennia before and mostly replaced the indigenous hunter-gatherers, although some prevailed in the more isolated areas in the north and in the Carpathian mountains. These Near Eastern farmers built civilizations of their own, such as the Danube-Civilization (cf. Reich: “WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE”, p.98. And Haarmann: “Das Raetsel der Donauzivilisation”). It seems like there was contact and perhaps even trade between the newcomers from the steppe and the indigenous farmers, but eventually, the latter’s language and culture vanished, and the Indo-Europeans became the dominant ethnic group in most of Europe.

Similar to the events in the west, the Proto-Indo-Europeans encountered different cultures on their eastward expansion as well, such as the people of the famous Indus Valley Civilization. As was the case in Europe, it remains uncertain whether this Civilization collapsed due to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans or if other circumstances played a more significant role. (Reich, “WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE”, p.123) .

The Migrations in Mythology

Interestingly, stories in the Vedas as well as in Norse, Greek and Irish mythology tell of a struggle between old and new peoples, giants versus gods, or old gods against new gods.

Gebrochen war der Burgwall den Asen, Schlachtkundge Wanen stampften das Feld. Odhin schleuderte über das Volk den Spieß: Da wurde Mord in der Welt zuerst. Broken was the castlewall of the Aesir, Battle-hardenend Vanir treaded the field. Odin threw the spear over the people: There was murder brought into the world. Simrock, Karl. Die Edda (German Edition) . Kindle Edition. Translated by the author.
In gratitude his siblings joined forces with Zeus against their father. This set up a simmering rivalry between the Olympian gods led by Zeus and the Titans led by Cronus. The resulting conflict is known as the Titanomachy, which lasted ten years. Eventually Zeus prevailed and the defeated Titans were banished to Tartarus with but a few exceptions. History, Hourly. Greek Mythology: A Concise Guide to Ancient Gods, Heroes, Beliefs and Myths of Greek Mythology (Greek Mythology – Norse Mythology – Egyptian Mythology – Celtic Mythology Book 1) (p. 15). Kindle Edition.

Interestingly, these new gods seem to be present in many Indo-European pantheons, indicating that they had also been present in the original Proto-Indo-European pantheon. This would mean that the other party, the old gods or titans had been present before the Proto-Indo-Europeans arrived in Europe or Central and Southern Asia. These stories of a struggle between the new and the old also tell of a non-deadly solution between the two factions, which resulted in the newly formed Vedic, Greek, Germanic or Celtic Pantheons:

Er ward in Wanaheim erzogen, und die Wanen gaben ihn den Göttern zum Geisel und nahmen dafür von den Asen zum Geisel den Hönir: so verglichen sich durch ihn die Götter mit den Wanen. He was raised in Vanaheim, and the Vanir gave him to the gods as a hostage and took from the Aesir as hostage Hoenir: so the gods made themselves equal to the Vanir. Simrock, Karl. Die Edda (German Edition) . Kindle Edition. Translation by the author.

Genetic Studies

According to ancient DNA, something similar had happened with the populations of these areas: The Proto-Indo-Europeans didn’t just wipe the original inhabitants out but intermixed with them, giving rise to the ancient people groups we know (Reich, WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE, p.109 ff.). Thus, these nomads from the steppe had a huge impact not only on our language and culture but also on our genes. Whilst they didn’t seem to be the dominant part of society by numbers it was their language that was spoken after their arrival, indicating that they made up the elite of society, which also makes sense considering that their gods usually became more important than the native deities. The social classes in pre-modern Europeans societies as well as the caste system in India might as well be a consequence of Indo-European influence.

The Militarization of Europe

The reason for their elite status in these new mixed societies may lie in their military prowess, at least according to Robert Drews 2017 book “Militarism and the Indo-Europeanizing of Europe”. According to Christopher Prescott review of the book “Indo-Europeanization was a result of a military takeover made possible by innovations in militarism and military technologies”. With their mastery of horse-riding and the use of chariots, they will have had an advantage over the natives of both Europe and Asia.


References:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_migrations, last checked 29/09/2019, 21:41
  • Anthony: “The Horse, The Wheel and The Language.”
  • Haarmann: “Die Indo-Europaeer”.
  • Reich: “WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE” .
  • Haarmann: “Das Raetsel der Donauzivilisation” .
  • Simrock, Karl. Die Edda (German Edition) . Kindle Edition.
  • History, Hourly. Greek Mythology: A Concise Guide to Ancient Gods, Heroes, Beliefs and Myths of Greek Mythology (Greek Mythology – Norse Mythology – Egyptian Mythology – Celtic Mythology Book 1) Kindle Edition.
  • Robert Drews, 2017: “Militarism and the Indo-Europeanizing of Europe”.
  • Prescott, 2019: “Militarism and the Indo-Europeanizing of Europe”, American Journal of Archaeology.

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