History Files


European Kingdoms






Uralic is a broad language family which covers wide areas of modern Northern Europe and Siberia. Daughters of Uralic languages are still spoken in Estonia and Finland, by many smaller groups that are located across Russia, and with one southern offshoot, Magyar, in Hungary. In more detail, its spread includes the northern forests of Eurasia, from the Pacific shores of north-eastern Siberia (Nganasan, which is spoken by tundra reindeer herders), to the Atlantic and Baltic coasts (the aforementioned Estonians and Finns, plus Sámi - usually shown in English text as Sami or Saami, Karelian, Vespian, and Votian).

Most linguists use the tree model to divide the family at the root into two super-branches: Finno-Ugric (the western branch), and Samoyedic (the eastern branch). A counter-argument states that this division is based more on tradition than solid linguistic evidence, but the alternative 'flat' division of the language leaves nine branches in place of the two, otherwise known as the wave model. The latter school of thought also sees Finno-Permic languages having a much more distant relationship (if any) to Uralic (Tapani Salminen argues intelligibly for this school). The tree model works best when people speaking a language become isolated from each other. So geographic or cultural isolation or a sessile lifestyle works best for tree models. The wave model works best for societies that intermingle constantly and have heavy social contact, so that trends in speech get copied across a large range. Therefore the wave model would be best applied to steppe dwellers (such as Indo-Europeans), and the tree model to forest dwellers (such as Uralics). That said, both models can be applied to any language that is breaking down into dialects and separating. It's merely a question of degree.

More pertinent was finding a proto-Uralic homeland, a subject that has been fraught with problems. Thankfully a general consensus does seem to have been reached amongst most scholars. In fact, much of the work of locating the proto-Uralics has been done by pinpointing the homeland of the proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs), a question that in the past has been equally problematical but which also seems to have achieved a general level of consensus in recent decades. The early speakers both of PIE and proto-Uralic lived in a world of tribal politics and social groups which were united through kinship and marriage. However, unlike the PIEs, the proto-Uralics did not accept the arrival of animal domestication in the late sixth millennium BC. It took them at least three thousand years longer to begin to domesticate animals.

If the proto-Indo-European homeland can be accepted as having been located on the Pontic-Caspian steppe (the broad swathe of territory to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea), then it's easier to pinpoint the proto-Uralics as well. The one question of any serious merit that remains is whether the core Uralic homeland was on the eastern or western side of the Ural Mountains. Either seems possible, and trying to track back through various Uralic dialectal splits does not help. The only reason for preferring the western side of the Urals here is due to interaction with the PIEs, who most definitely were located on the western side. The proto-Uralic speakers have been identified as being neighbours of the PIEs through words and morphologies borrowed between PIE and other language families. It's a little risky to discuss borrowing between two proto-languages, especially when neither has survived in any written form, but once a phonological system has been constructed for each language (and experts have been working on this for the past couple of centuries) then it does become possible to identify roots which are of similar form and meaning. By far the strongest language linkages can be seen between PIE and Uralic.

Although the evidence is almost invisible in the surviving daughter languages, there is the possibility that both languages - PIE and proto-Uralic - originated in a very distant and broad set of primitive language stocks which could be termed 'Eurasiatic' (a term coined by Joseph Greenberg). Some common words are still very similar today, such as mama/ema (English/Estonian). The PIE version of this word also exists in proposed proto-Celtic as *mammā-, while the Estonian form descends from the proposed proto-Uralic *emä. Proto-Uralic could also have existed in a late post-Eurasiatic form, known as pre-proto-Uralic, on both sides of the Urals. This is argued on the basis of early contacts with the Yukaghir languages which are now spoken only in two small corners of the Russian far north-east, in the River Kolyma basin.

The homeland of proto-Uralic was therefore probably in the forest zone which was centred on the southern flanks of the Ural Mountains. The arguments for a western or eastern side of the mountains can largely be laid aside because almost all Uralic linguists and Ural-region archaeologists seem to agree that proto-Uralic was spoken somewhere in the birch-pine forests between the River Oka on the west (around modern Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky), which river feeds into the Volga) and the River Irtysh on the east (around modern Omsk). As foragers, the proto-Uralics would have drifted into the eastern side of the mountains too - after all, they were not tied down by herds or farms. Today, the Uralic languages spoken in this core region include, from east to west, Mordvin, Mari, Udmurt, Komi, and Mansi, of which two (Udmurt and Komi) are stems on the same branch (Permian).

As if to contradict the above, recent genetic testing of living peoples, and ancient remains, are pointing in a slightly different direction from the standing Caucasian Mountains origin for Indo-Europeans, and this impinges on the origins of the Uralics. Males carry and transmit via their Y chromosome the history of male migration, critical for tracing the movements of warrior societies. Indo-European Y chromosomes carry two primary 'flavours', called R1a and R1b by geneticists. R1a is found strongly in Slavs, Balts, and Indo-Iranians, and is mixed with R1b in Germanic-speaking peoples. The geographic distribution in ancient times for R1a is European Russia just west of the Ural Mountains. What we have is an origin in the Russian forest and forest-steppes for half the Indo-Europeans (those linguistically matching the satum branch of Indo-European languages, and occupying half the territory previously assigned to Uralics). It remains to be seen whether this DNA-based theory will supersede the established linguistics theory.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, and from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Early Contacts between Uralic and Yukaghir, Jaakko Häkkinen (2012), from the Proto-Celtic English Wordlist, from Uralic Evidence for the Indo-European Homeland, Jaakko Häkkinen (2012), from the Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, J P Mallory & D Q Adams (Eds, 1997), from On the Edge of the World, Nikolaĭ Semenovich Leskov, and from External Link: Problems in the taxonomy of the Uralic languages in light of modern comparative studies, Tapani Salminen (2002).)

c.5000 BC?

The reconstructed proto-Uralic vocabulary suggests that its speakers live far from the sea, in a forest environment. They are foragers (another way of saying hunter-gatherer) who hunt and fish but who possess no domesticated plants or animals except the dog. This correlates well with archaeological evidence that is bracketed into the Lyalovo culture of the same period, a centre of cultural influences and interchanges amongst forest-zone forager cultures.

River Belaia in the southern Urals
The ancient forest at the foot of the southern Ural Mountains would have emerged after the end of the most recent Ice Age - the River Belaia in the southern Urals is shown here - and soon provided a home to the foraging humans who became the proto-Uralics

The proto-Uralic language (or group of languages) shows a division that later emerges as proto-Samoyedic and proto-Finno-Ugric. Reconstructed proto-Finno-Ugric contains few differences from proto-Uralic, and proto-Uralic after this period gains several loan words from proto-Indo-European (PIE). General opinion has the proto-Samoyedic-speakers dividing first, and later Samoyedic languages do not contain the PIE loan words that Uralic languages contain. So it seems the proto-Samoyedics soon begin a migration northwards and eastwards, into Siberia, leaving the remaining proto-Uralics where they are.

Only about two hundred words of proto-Uralic can be reconstructed for the period prior to this split, and it may be the case that there isn't a split at all. One theory opposed to a shared origin is that the two groups could neighbour one another close to the Ural Mountains rather than being components of a single group. This theory has proto-Samoyedic speakers borrowing proto-Uralic words prior to the migration and comparative isolation thereafter (to produce the grammatically-conservative Samoyed vocabulary). The issue is still very much up in the air, despite previous certainties.

c.4500 BC

In this period Uralic languages show the aforementioned very early contact with Indo-European languages (PIE), which can be interpreted in three main ways. Shared words include the ancestors of 'water' (in English) and 'vesi' (in Estonian) which have been reconstructed as *wete in proto-Uralic, from *wed-er/en' in PIE ('water, river'). Another is the word 'name' and 'nimi' in the same languages, originating in a reconstructed *nime in proto-Uralic from PIE *h3neh3mn'. The first way of interpreting these very fundamental words - the Indo-Uralic hypothesis - is to state that they must be inherited at a very early stage, probably before the appearance of the proto languages in the fifth millennium. Instead they can be ascribed to a 'grandmother' tongue.

The second way - the 'early loan' hypothesis - is to argue that the shared roots must be later or they would exhibit greater degrees of sound shift across the centuries. Instead they can be explained as loan words from one language to the other. In this case the loan words would have been from PIE to proto-Uralic, because forager groups do not loan words to farming groups. It is always the other way around (give or take the odd surviving forager relic word). The third theory - the 'late loan' hypothesis - argues for a much later loan date which post-dates the Indo-European migrations and the formation of its daughter languages. This theory is easily dismissed.

3300 - 3100 BC

To the immediate south of the forest domain of the proto-Uralics lies the Pontic-Caspian steppe. At this time the proto-Indo-European people there are undergoing great social changes. The relatively new sight of horse-drawn wagons creaking and swaying across the grasslands of the steppes amid herds of woolly sheep changes during this period from one of weird fascination to a normal part of steppe life. At about the same time the climate in the steppes becomes significantly drier and generally cooler than it had been during the Eneolithic. The shift to drier conditions is dated between 3500-3000 BC in pollen cores in the lower Don, the middle Volga, and across the northern Kazakh steppes.

Ancient wagon
This primitive wagon was unearthed at Lchashen, on the western shore of Lake Sevan in modern Armenia in the South Caucuses, but the style would have been very similar in the North Caucases and on the steppe

Bigger pastures and a mobile home amongst the emerging Yamnaya groups lead to bigger herds. Amid the ensuing disputes over borders, pastures, and seasonal movements, new rules are needed to define what counts as an acceptable move. People begin to manage local migratory behaviour. Those who do not participate in these agreements or recognise the new rules become cultural outsiders (mostly foragers to the north of the steppes which includes the proto-Uralics). The proto-Uralics themselves may be stimulated by this cultural explosion, or forced further afield by it, outwards from their ancestral forest homeland into new territories to the north and north-west.

c.3000 BC

The spoken range of proto-Uralic language begins to expand. With the proto-Samoyedic speakers already long having shifted away from them, groups of proto-Uralics now begin a drift northwards and westwards, towards the Barents Sea and the Baltic coastline. Others remain largely where they are as the ancestors of,  from east to west, the Mordvin, Mari, Udmurt, Komi, and Mansi groups.

It is also around this time that the Finno-Permic group of languages divides from Finno-Ugric. Despite the validity of Finno-Permic being questioned in recent times, it is still highly useful as a definition. Ugric itself (named after Yugra, a region in northern-central Asia), remains consolidated until the early centuries of the first millennium BC, before developing into Khanty, Magyar, and Mansi. Khanty and Mansi are largely considered to be one language with distinct dialectal divisions. During this time Ugric populations occupy territory between western Siberia and the Ural Mountains.

Moving in the opposite direction, the Comb Ceramic culture reaches Prussia, Estonia and Finland as new peoples arrive here from the east, almost certainly the Finno-Ugric tribes who form the later core of Finland and Estonia. This includes Estonians, Finns, Livonians, Karelians, Wots, Weps, and Ingrians, whilst leaving behind a large swathe of Finno-Ugric tribes across northern Russia.

Comb Ceramic pottery
The pottery of the Comb Ceramic culture (also known as Pit-Comb Ware) - a widespread cultural expression of far north-eastern Europe's foragers between the Baltic Sea and the Ural Mountains - shows the typical comb imprints that gave the its name

This Neolithic culture seems to form on the basis of the previous Mesolithic cultures, but uses a greater variety of bone, antler and stone implements, and employs boring, drilling, and abrading skills. Proto-Lapponoid skeletons from this period have been found by archaeologists, showing that the Mesolithic blended Mongoloid/Europeans live alongside the new arrivals and bear a certain similarity to Siberian Finno-Ugric peoples (of the Samoyed division of Ugric-speakers). It has been suggested that they originate around the region of Lake Ladoga and disperse over a wide area.

Comb Ceramic culture brings with it pottery but no farming, which is unusual by this stage of European history. Most migratory people have picked up at least the basics of farming and animal husbandry, the latter now primarily focussed around the horse (for mobility) and sheep (for wool). In large areas of Europe pottery had come with farming via its Anatolian/Greek feeder route, the Sesklo culture, but the people of the Comb Ceramic exhibit older influences from farther east, with farming not yet having been adopted at all.

after c.2500 BC

Proto-Uralic people begin to domesticate animals. As this is well after the core migration of proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) and the formation of its daughter languages - therefore rendering proto-Indo-European itself a dead language - no loan words for farming can be borrowed from PIE. However, the proto-Uralics have already borrowed an odd assortment of words prior to the PIE migration, including 'to wash, price' and 'to give, to sell', probably through a trade jargon used by the two groups in former times. They may also be influenced by proto-Indo-Iranian through the still extant Poltavka Bronze Age culture of the middle Volga.

c.2000 BC

Around this time the Finno-Permic group of languages further divides into the Finno-Volgaic and Permic languages. Proto-Uralic languages between the Ural Mountains and western Siberia now experience some expansion (this date being considerably later than previous views of proto-Uralic expansion). Speakers of the many various groups of proto-Uralic daughter languages still follow a largely peaceful existence. In general they remain untroubled by conquerors and invaders for the next three thousand years, and only briefly intrude upon written history in that time.

AD 565

The Hephthalites are defeated in Kushanshah South Asia (now within Afghanistan) by an alliance of the Western Göktürks and the Sassanids. The Western Göktürks set up rival states in Bamiyan, Kabul, and Kapisa, strengthening their hold on the Silk Road. However, their empire barely infringes upon the vast northern territories of the Finno-Ugrics and Samoyedic-speakers.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
As was often the case with Central Asian states that had been created by horse-borne warriors on the sweeping steppelands, the Göktürk khaganate swiftly incorporated a vast stretch of territory in its westwards expansion, whilst being hemmed in by the powerful Chinese dynasties to the south-east and Siberia's uninviting tundra to the north (click on map to show full sized)

Great Khagan Mukhan himself is responsible for securing the khaganate's borders against the last of the Rouran, and defeating the Khitan (founders of the later Qara-Khitaï empire) and the Kyrgyz people. In the far west the empire now counts amongst its vassals the Khazars and the Magyars. The latter are (or now become) horsemen who are based in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, seemingly serving as auxiliaries of the Khazars.

But these Magyars are far from typical Turkic mounted warriors (the Turks themselves have partially Indo-European roots). It is generally accepted that this name, 'magyar', is a compound that is made up of the indigenous denomination of the Voguls and Ostiaks and a Turkish word meaning 'man'. The Magyar tribal confederation seems to comprise eight tribes, of which at least six have names of Turkish origin. They speak a Uralic language which is ultimately related to Finno-Ugric. By the end of the ninth century, they migrate into Hungary, probably after having lived for some centuries amongst Turkic-speaking tribes.


The Finnic-speaking tribes of the Baltic coast are beginning to change. They have recently begun to enjoy a period of relative wealth and prosperity earned through strong trading contacts with the heart of Europe, notably with the court of the Ostrogothic king of Italy, Theodoric the Great. This extends equally to their neighbours, the tribes of the Balts (such as Lats and Lithuanians). Around this time, the Ungenois people of southern Estonia erect a fortress by the name of Tarbatu on the east side of the Dome Hill (Toomemägi - approximately where the Astronomical Observatory now stands). Presumably this is in response to an external threat, probably to their newly-acquired wealth.

Map of Norway
This map shows a host of the many petty Norwegian kingdoms in eighth and ninth century Scandinavia, most of them arranged along the coastline, although penetration into the interior is clearly beginning (click on map to view full sized)

Farther north, the Sámi group of Finno-Ugric speakers is still pursuing its traditional hunter-gather mode of living, although now these tribes are coming into contact with Norse traders along the coast of Norway. Trading posts crop up, usually during the summer, but in time these turn into permanent posts and then minor kingdoms, such as that of Finnmark in the northernmost reaches of Norway.


The Danes are busy securing their hold over North Estonia while the rest of the Baltics is undergoing the same process from the south. What is now Estonia and Latvia quickly come to be governed by German prince-bishops in Courland, Dorpat, Ösel-Wiek and, governing the heart of later Latvia, the prince-bishop of Riga. The Livonian Order of Knights conquers the rest of what is now Latvia and central Estonia. The captured territory between Danish Estonia and Lithuania becomes known as Livonia.

During this period, important ethnic changes are taking place among the peoples of the Baltics. Within the confines of Livonia, the fusion of the local Balts into one people begins their development into today's Latvians. The assimilation of the Finno-Ugric Livs or Livonians also begins, although they manage to leave their mark on Latvian language and culture.


Uralic-speaking groups still exist and can be readily identified. Over time, mainly through migration and external circumstances, the main body of Uralic speakers has split into two divisions - the Finno-Ugric peoples who are located largely, but not completely, to the west of the Urals, and the Samoyedic peoples who are largely, but not completely, located to the east of the Urals.

Of those two divisions, the western one is itself divided into two main branches. The first, the Finnic group, has four sub-divisions of its own, these being the Sámi, the highly fragmented Baltic Finns, the Volga Finns, and the Permians (who are located on both sides of the northern Ural Mountains). The second main branch is the Ugric one. This consists of the Ob-Ugric peoples (the Khanty and Mansi), and the Magyars.

Udmurt people of the Permian group of Finno-Ugrics
Finno-Ugric Permian speakers initially occupied the upper and middle River Kama before dividing into two branches at some point in the 700s-900s AD and expanding eastwards from there - today's Udmurt branch still live in their ancient homelands (and contain a surprising number of redheads)

The Sámi cover northern Scandinavia - originally a pre-Uralic indigenous people who have absorbed and adopted a Finnic tongue. The Baltic Finns include Estonians, Finns, Ingrians (between Modern Estonia's River Narva and Russia's Lake Ladoga), Karelians (mostly in the Russian republic of Karelia, between the Baltic Sea and the White Sea, bordering the Finns to their west), Livonians (southern Estonia and northern Latvia), Vepsians (generally south of the Karelians and east of the Ingrians, with the Permians lying to their east), and Votians (immediately east of Estonia). The Volga Finns include the Mari (largely located along the Kama and Volga rivers and in the Mari El republic, all in modern Russia), and also the Mordvins (partially of Russia's republic of Mordovia), who themselves are subdivided into the Erzya (eastern branch) and Moksha (western branch), and many smaller groups. The Permians (formerly known as Bjarmians) include the Komis (once known as Zyrians) and Udmurts.

The eastern division is the Samoyed group. This exists largely in Siberia and is made up of the Northern Samoyed (the Enets, Nenets, and Nganasan, all in wide swathes of territory along the coast of the Kara Sea), and the Southern Samoyed (the Selkup - the most easterly group of Ugrics), plus the Sayan Samoyed who no longer exist).