The Proto-Indo-Europeans are considered to be the speakers of a language ancestral to all living and dead Indo-European languages. If they – and, for that matter, the language that they spoke – existed in the first place remains controversial, as the vast majority of our knowledge about this prehistoric people is reconstructed by using the linguistic comparative method, substituted by archaeological finds and archaeogenetic studies.
The Urheimat (a German term used in historical linguistics, describing the place of origin of a language) of this mysterious people has been located in various different places in the past, yet the generally most widely accepted theory today is Marija Gimbutas Kurgan Hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, the Proto-Indo-Europeans originated in the Pontic-Caspian Steppes in modern-day Russia and spread throughout Eurasia in different migration events over several millennia.
In recent years the PIE-people have been linked to the Bronze Age Yamnaya culture, which was located in Gimbutas’ proposed homeland. By comparing ancient DNA found in graves of the Yamnaya to the genomes of people living across Eurasia today, it has been shown that most modern populations on the continent share a considerable amount of genes (up to ~30-35%) with these steppe pastoralists, although the proportion of this ancestry varies to an appreciable extent from region to region.
Daily Life in the Ancient Eurasian Steppe
We’ve got evidence, that the PIE lived a nomadic life, as hunter-gatherers at first, but that with the introduction of animal husbandry they became steppe herders, similar to some modern populations of central Asia.
Whilst it isn’t proven that they were the first to tame the horse, they certainly were one of the earliest people to adopt horse riding 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.
Aspects of the society in which the Yamnaya lived can be reconstructed using the aforementioned comparative method. Because of this, we know that their families were centered around a male leader, possibly comparable to the head of a clan, which in turn was subject to some sort of “priest-king”. These patriarchs seem to have been at the top of the social and religious hierarchy, conducting rituals to appease the gods and possibly functioning as judges in disputes between families as well.
One of the few things which survived the eons in relative abundance is myths and legends, albeit not by the PIE-people themselves, but by their descendants. Most in the western world are familiar with at least some of the great stories of Greek, Roman, Norse, or Hindi mythology. But these aren’t the only sources of the spiritual beliefs of our ancestors; many folktales and customs can be traced back thousands of years to the Eurasian steppe, one of the more popular ones being “Beauty & the Beast”.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, that the Proto-Indo-Europeans worshiped not one, but multiple gods and thus had a pantheon comparable to those of succeeding cultures, such as the aforementioned ones. By comparing them we can paint a pretty clear picture of these prehistoric deities, with *dywes pater, the Sky father, reminiscent of Zeus, Iupiter and Thor, at its head.
So how is it that we find descendants of this proto-language on every continent today, despite the fact that its speakers have long since disappeared?
There are two parts to the answer to this question:
Firstly, many of the original speakers of PIE have gradually left their Urheimat between 4000 and 2000 BC, moving northwestward towards East-Central Europe and dispersing throughout the continent from there, and southeastward towards Central Asia, moving east to China and south to the Indian subcontinent in succeeding migrations. On the way they encountering different peoples and cultures and intermixed with them, giving rise to the different branches of the language family today.
And secondly, the Age of Colonization has brought the comparatively “new” descendant languages of PIE to America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, making Indo-European the most widely spoken language family in the world.