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Indo-European studies

The Proto-Indo-Europeans are the hypothetical speakers of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language, a prehistoric people of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age.


Culture and Religion

See also Proto-Indo-European society, Proto-Indo-European religion.

What we know about the Proto-Indo-Europeans with any certainty is the result of comparative linguistics, partly seconded by archaeology. The following traits are widely agreed-upon, but it should be understood that they are by their nature as reconstruction hypothetical.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans were a patrilineal society, probably semi-nomadic, relying on animal husbandry (notably cattle and sheep). They had domesticated the horse (ek'wos). The cow (gwous) played a central role, in religion and mythology as well as in daily life. A man's wealth would have been measured by the number of his animals (pek'us, the word for small livestock, acquired a meaning of "value" in both English fee and in Latin pecunia).

They practiced a polytheistic religion centered on sacrificial rites, probably administered by a priestly caste. The Kurgan hypothesis suggests burials in barrows or tomb chambers. Important leaders would have been buried with their belongings, and possibly also with members of their household or wives (human sacrifice, suttee).

There is evidence for sacral kingship, suggesting the tribal king at the same time assumed the role of high priest (cf. Germanic king). Many Indo-European societies know a threefold division of a clerical class, a warrior class and a class of peasants or husbandmen. Such a division was suggested for the Proto-Indo-European society by Georges Dumézil.

There was probably a separate class of warriors, consisting of young men that were yet unwed. They would have followed a separate warrior code unacceptable in the society outside their peer-group. Traces of initiation rites in several Indo-European societies suggest that this group identified itself with wolves or dogs (see also Berserker (viking), werewolf).

Technologically, reconstruction suggests a culture of the early Bronze Age: Bronze was used to make tools and weapons. Silver and Gold were known. Sheep were kept for wool, and weaving was practiced for textile production. The wheel was known, certainly for ox-drawn carts, and late Proto-Indo European warfare may also have made use of horse-drawn chariots.

The native name of this people can not be reconstructed with certainty. It may have been aryo- (see also Aryan).


The scholars of the 19th century that originally tackled the question of the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans (also called Urheimat after the German term), were essentially confined to linguistic evidence. A rough localization was attempted by reconstructing the names of plants and animals (importantly the beech and the salmon) as well as the culture and technology (a Bronze Age culture centered on animal husbandry and having domesticated the horse). The scholarly opinions became basically divided between a European hypothesis, positing migration from Europe to Asia, and an Asian hypothesis, holding that the migration took place in the opposite direction.

However, from its early days, the controversy was tainted by romantic, nationalistic notions of heroic invaders at best and by imperialist and racist agendas at worst. It was often naturally assumed that the spread of the language was due to the invasions by some superior Aryan race. Such hypotheses suffered a particularly severe distortion for purposes of political propaganda by the Nazi Party. The question is still the source of much contention. Typically, nationalistic schools of thought either claim their respective territories for the original homeland, or maintain that their own culture and language have always been present in their area, dismissing the concept of Proto-Indo-Europeans altogether. (see Indus valley civilisation, Aryan race, Aryan invasion theory, Hindutva, Rus' (people), Paleolithic Continuity Theory).


Missing image
the Yamna culture is a candidate for late PIE

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 twentieth century Marija Gimbutas created a modern variation on the traditional invasion theory (the Kurgan hypothesis, see Kurgan) in which the Indo-Europeans were a nomadic tribe in southern Russia and expanded on horseback in several waves during the 3rd millennium BC. Their expansion coincided with the taming of the horse. Leaving archaelogical signs of their presence (see battle-axe people), they subjugated the peaceful European Neolithic farmers of Gimbutas's Old Europe. As Gimbutas' views 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 a point of formulating essentially feminist archaeology.

Her theory has found genetic support in remains from the Neolithic culture of Scandinavia, where 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 evidence of remaining matrilineal traditions among the Picts.

The Kurgan scenario is well known as a theory of Indo-European origins, but its status remains speculative.

A modified form of this theory by JP Mallory, dating the migrations earlier to around 4000 BC and putting less insistence on their violent or quasi-military nature, is still widely held.

Colin Renfrew is the main propagator for a newer theory dating from 1987 according to which the Indo-Europeans were farmers in Asia Minor who expanded peacefully in South east europe from around 7000 BC (wave of advance).


The rise of Archaeogenetic evidence which uses genetic analysis to trace migration patterns also added new elements to the puzzle. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, one of the first in this field, recently used genetic evidence to in some ways combine Gimbutas' and Colin Renfrew's theories together. Here Renfrew's agricultural settlers, moving north and west, partially split off eventually to become Gimbutas' Kurgan culture which moves into Europe.

In any case, developments in genetics take away much of the edge of the sometimes heated controversies about invasions. They indicate a strong genetic continuity in Europe (Specifically, studies by Brian Sykes show that some 80% of the genetic stock of Europeans goes back to the Paleolithic), suggesting that languages tend to spread geographically by cultural contact rather than by invasion and extermination, i. e. much more peacefully than was described in some invasion scenarios, and thus the genetic record does not rule out the historically much more common type of invasions where a new group assimilates the earlier inhabitants (e.g. Romans in Southern Europe, Britons in Britanny, Arabs in North Africa, Slavs in Russia, Chinese in Southern China, Spanish in Mexico and Turks in Asia Minor, etc.). This very common scenario of successive small scale invasions where a ruling nation imposed its language and culture on a larger indigenous population was what Gimbutas had in mind:

The Process of Indo-Europeanization was a cultural, not a physical transformation. It must be understood as a military victory in terms of imposing a new administrative system, language and religion upon the indigenous groups.

On the other hand, such results also gave rise a new incarnation of the "European hypothesis" suggesting the Indo-European languages to have existed in Europe since the Paleolithic (see Paleolithic Continuity Theory).


Even more recently, a glottochronological study on Bayesian principles (Gray and Atkinson, 2003) suggests that the origin of Indo-European goes back about 9000 years, the first split being that of Hittite from the rest (Indo-Hittite hypothesis). It must be noted that the calculations of Gray and Atkinson rely entirely on Swadesh lists, and while the results are quite robust for well attested branches, their calculation of the age of Hittite which is crucial for the Anatolian claim, rests on a 200 word Swadesh list of one single language and must be regarded as spurious.

A scenario that could reconcile Renfrew's views with the Kurgan hypothesis suggests that Indo-European migrations are somehow related to the submersion of the northeastern part of the Black Sea around 5600 BC: While a splinter group who became the proto-Hittite speakers moved into northeastern Anatolia around 7000 BC, the remaining population would have gone northward, evolving into the Kurgan culture, while others may have escaped far to the northeast (Tocharians) and the southeast (Indo-Iranians). While the time-frame of this scenario is consistent with Renfrew, it is incompatible with his core assumption that Indo-European spread with the advance of agriculture.

See also

External Links

Further Reading

  • J. P Mallory, In Search of Indo-Europeans (London 1989).
  • C. Renfrew, Archaeology and language, the puzzle of Indo-European origins (London, Penguin 1987).
  • Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages (translated by Mark Seielstad) (New York, Penguin 2000).
  • Brian Sykes, The seven daughters of Eve (London, Corgi Books 2001)
  • Russell D. Gray and Quentin D. Atkinson, Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin, Nature 426 (27 Nov 2003) 435-439de:Indogermanen



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