The Coming of the Indo Europeans

The Indo-European languages provide a leading test case for whether warfare or agriculture has been the dominant generator of new spread zones. The spread zone of Indo-European stretches from western Europe to the Indian subcontinent. The family includes extinct languages such as Latin, ancient Greek, Hittite and Tokharian, once spoken in northwestern China. The living descendants of proto-Indo-European include, besides English, the other Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian), the Slavic languages (Russian, Serbo-Croat, Czechoslovak, Polish), the Baltic languages (Latvian, Lithuanian), the Italic languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese) and the Celtic languages (Breton, Welsh, Irish).

Where was the homeland of the speakers of proto-Indo-European? When did they live? How did they and their language spread? On these questions there exist two main schools of thought, one of which asserts that Indo-European spread by the sword, the other by the plough. In a series of papers written between 1956 and 1979, the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas identified the Indo-Europeans with the people who built the characteristic burial mounds, called kurgan in Russian, in the steppe area to the north of the Black Sea and the Caspian. The Kurgan people, benefiting from the domestication of the horse, started expanding from their homeland sometime after 4000 BC. By 2500 BC, in Gimbutas's estimation, these warrior-pastoralists had reached the extremities of Britain and Scandinavia, and their language developed into its many descendant tongues that are spoken from Europe to India today. This view is supported on linguistic grounds by Ehret, who argues that if the Indo-Europeans had been peaceful farmers, many words to do with cereals should trace back to them. But Indo-European literatures are full of allusions to fighting. "We find preserved in early myths and legends almost everywhere among Indo-Europeans a glorification of battle, and particularly of death in battle, not entirely unknown elsewhere in the world, but of an intensity not often matched. We also find widely in these stories a division of society that singles out warriors as an elite group," Ehret says.

A rival hypothesis was proposed in 1987 by the archaeologist Colin Renfrew.261 He argued that the Indo-Europeans must have been the first farmers, and that they spread out from their homeland because the new agricultural techniques allowed the population to grow and therefore expand. Looking to the archaeological evidence bearing on the spread of agriculture, Renfrew placed the homeland of the first Indo-European speakers in Anatolia, now Turkey, the region where some of the earliest Neolithic settlements have been found. Because the Neolithic revolution started expanding through Europe around 9,500 years ago, Renfrew's hypothesis required the Indo-European languages to have arrived several thousand years earlier than implied by Gimbutas's Kurgan warrior theory and indeed than the date favored by most historical linguists. It seemed for a time that genetics might decide the issue. The first genetic insight into the peopling of Europe came from Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford University. Working just with the protein products of genes, since DNA sequencing was not then available, he showed there was a genetic gradient, based on 95 genetic markers, that spread across Europe in a southeast to northwest direction. He and the archaeologist Albert Ammerman suggested the gradient was caused by Neolithic farmers moving across Europe in a slow wave of advance. Although the farmers were assumed to intermarry with the existing foragers, giving rise to the observed genetic gradient, the basic engine behind the wave of advance was assumed to be the population growth of the more numerous 262


This idea lent serious but not conclusive weight to Renfrew's theory. Cavalli-Sforza noted that several other genetic gradients emerged from his data besides the one possibly associated with farmers from the Near East. Another gradient suggested a flow of genes westward from the steppe area above the Black Sea. This gradient "supports Gimbutas' hypothesis," he and his coauthors said, just as the first gradient supported


New assessments of population numbers have undercut Renfrew's original idea that population growth was the engine of Indo-European expansion. The archaeologist Marek Zvelebil, of the University of Sheffield in England, writes that "Demographically, there is no evidence for population pressure sufficient to encourage first farmers to migrate, nor is there evidence for rapid population growth. Archaeological evidence does not record rapid saturation of areas colonized by Neolithic farmers, or demographic expansion [with one possible exception!."264 But Renfrew's theory could still be correct even if Indo-European-speaking farmers did not overwhelm the indigenous population of Europe. The farmers' language could have been adopted by the European hunter-gatherers along with the new agricultural technology. In terms of population numbers, relatively few farmers entering Europe from the Near East could have had a catalytic effect in spreading both their language and their farming techniques. Perhaps they bought or captured extra wives from the Paleolithic inhabitants, and the next generation moved a few miles farther into Europe, also adding wives from the existing forager population. The farther this wave of farmers advanced into Europe, the more its Neolithic genes would get diluted with Paleolithic genes. But regardless of the shifting composition of the genetic pool, each generation of farmers would speak the language of its parents' community, presumably Indo-European. In this way, the new farming techniques would have triggered a language change throughout the area to which they were applied, but with only a small number of Anatolian immigrants relative to the indigenous forager population. This could explain how it is that Europeans speak Indo-European languages yet carry only 20% or less of the genes of those assumed to have introduced the languages.

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