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Early Cultures IndexIndo-Europeans

Scholars first noticed similarities between Sanskrit and Latin and Greek in the sixteenth century, as Europeans came into contact with India. But it was the British Asiatic Society in eighteenth century India under Sir William Jones that compared words across the three languages and found remarkable similarities. From this it was deduced that a common 'Proto-Indo-European' (PIE) root lay at the heart of all three languages and their peoples. This linked them back to an ancestral homeland that was probably located in the sweeping expanse of the steppes of Central Asia, to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Scholars disagree about the precise location of this homeland even today, with a variety of others being proposed that include Anatolia and post-glacial Europe itself. Even so, the aforementioned steppes are still the favoured location, providing as they did a home to many later, similar groups of nomads such as the Huns and Turks.

FeatureHow these people got there is unknown, but India was one of the first places to be colonised by early humans after they left Africa around 90-70,000 years ago (see the Hominid Chronology feature). Some of these people stayed where they were and others continued to follow the coastline to populate China and South East Asia. It seems likely that, after migrating inland, others further migrated northwards and in time formed communities around the steppes. Whether these communities existed in an unbroken line down to their developing into proto-Indo-Europeans can never be known. But however they developed, the proto-Indo-Europeans were in existence by the sixth millennium BC, in a homeland that seems to have been located somewhere between the Caucuses Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and the northern shores of those same seas. Their subsequent migration is a hugely complex and contentious subject.

FeatureWhatever unknown level of unity these early Indo-Europeans may have had, they began to divide in the third millennium BC. Various groups migrated out of Central Asia from then onwards, pushed westwards and southwards by a combination of climate change, population movements, and perhaps pressure from other peoples further east. Their once-single language gradually altered into various dialects that can be divided into twelve branches, ten of which contain surviving languages. Very briefly, these are the Anatolians (the Hittites, Luwians, Lydians, and Pala), the Balts (such as the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Old Prussians on the eastern Baltic Sea coast), Celts (who once dominated Central and Western Europe), the Germanic peoples (who originate from Old Norse and Saxon peoples), the Greeks (most notably the Mycenaeans and Athenians), the Illyrians (of the northern and eastern Adriatic coast, surviving in Albania and with a level of heritage in southern Italy), the Indians (the disputed Indo-Aryan peoples as opposed to the pre-existing Dravidic groups who were generally pushed southwards), the Iranians (in the form of the Alans, Mannaeans, Medians, Persians, Scythians, and others), the Latins (embodied by the Romans), the Slavs (who emerged to dominate Eastern Europe by the medieval period), the Thracians (of northern Greece and the Balkans which also includes Armenian), and finally the Tocharians (in north-western China, who were closely related to the Anatolian, Celtic, and Latin branches).

Indo-Europeans account for some of the world's most notable ancient languages, including Greek, Latin, Pali, Persian, and Sanskrit. Many of the most important modern languages in the world are Indo-European, such as Bengali, English, French, German, Hindi, Russian, and Spanish. More than half of the world's population speak one or more of these languages, either as a mother tongue or a business language.

(Information co-authored by Edward Dawson and additional information by Jo Amdahl, and from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, and the BBC Radio 3 programme with Bettany Hughes, Tracking the Aryans, 2011, and from External Links: Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe, Nature.com, and Peering at the Tocharians through Language, and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and also Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny.)

c.6000 BC

MapIt is approximately around this time that separation occurs between archaic pre-proto-Indo-European and its parent Nostratic tongue. When speculating about the reason for this, isolation in a mountainous region has to be a key factor. This event would be prior to the 'Kurgan Hypothesis' homeland, the dominant theory to explain the migrations of Indo-Europeans and the early cultures that they form.

However, results in 2015 from DNA tests on human remains from two burials in the Caucuses - one 13,000 years ago and the other 10,000 years ago - suggests that the separation could be far longer and older than this, perhaps as much as 25,000 years. Separated by the Glacial Maximum, they could have been cut off from outside DNA contact until as recently as 3,000 BC. The Yamnaya horizon which covers Indo-European expansion reveals the research results in more detail.

Proto-Indo-European spiral city
Professor Gennady Zdanovich has recently (2010) made fresh discoveries on the modern Kazakhstan steppe of Bronze Age 'spiral' cities which exhibit many signs of having been built and used by Indo-Europeans, having been built around 2000 BC

c.5800 - 5000 BC

Folk migrations by pioneer Middle Eastern farmers reach the lower Danube valley and the edge of the Pontic-Caspian steppe by about 5800 BC. After several centuries of resistance and low-scale cultural influence from the farmers - principally members of the Bug-Dniester culture - their new herding economy is adopted by a few key forager groups on the River Dnieper. It then diffuses very rapidly across most of the Pontic-Caspian steppe as far east as the Volga and Ural rivers. This revolutionary event transforms the economy, rituals, and politics of the steppe-dwellers. A new set of dialects and words spreads across the steppes with the arrival of the new economic and ritual-political system - the ancestors of proto-Indo-European. Chiefs begin to emerge, along with religious leaders and ministers.

c.4000 BC

FeatureMapBy this period, if not from the very beginning, the newly-emergent proto-Indo-Europeans in Central Asia form an homogenous people who all speak the same general language. Their expansion sees the beginning of areal dialects (a common language that is spread over a division of areas and spaces with regional differences emerging). Through a study of these dialects and their progression some idea of movement can be built up. Perhaps first established as part of the Suvorovo culture of this period, the Anatolian dialect moves south (perhaps even earlier than this date - 4400 BC seems a fair approximation), while most of the others appear to expand north into the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

Is the horse domesticated and the horse-drawn wagon adopted at this time? The Sumerian invention of the wheel seems to take place no later than 3500 BC and its use explodes across the ancient world, even reaching the comparatively isolated proto-Indo-Europeans within a century or so. This horse-drawn wagon/wheel culture forms the basis of the 'Kurgan Hypothesis' homeland period (the most popular theory surrounding Indo-European migration), with most Indo-Europeans in the steppe. Suddenly the vast steppe is open to them rather than their being limited to its edges so that they can return to semi-permanent dwellings in the fertile river valleys. Instead, domesticated animal herds can increase massively in size, populations can also expand, and the Neolithic family clan group now begins to break up as smaller kin groups become more mobile.

c.4000 - 3500 BC

This is the early proto-Indo-European phase in the Indo-European homeland. It is during this phase that the Tocharian branch breaks away and migrates eastwards. The exact details are theoretical but, due to elements of the Tocharian language that preserve early elements of proto-Indo-European, it has been proposed that the Tocharian group starts to migrate or expand in a westwards direction to begin with, in union with the many other groups that eventually enter central and western Europe but, at an early stage of this expansion they turn back. Instead, the Tocharians heads towards the east, following the Central Asian steppes towards Mongolia and western China.

c.3500 BC

The Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language has already separated entirely from the other groups, first becoming pre-Anatolian, and then evolving into proto-Anatolian. It retains many archaic features which are later lost from the other branches of the Indo-European language. However, it forms the ancestor of the Hittite language, plus Luwian (with many sub-branches - see c.1600 BC, below, for details of these), Lydian, and Palaic, all of which have been part of the Anatolian movement from the Indo-European homeland, heading south through the mountains of the Caucuses, eventually to reach the highlands of Anatolia. From there, the Hittites manage to form an empire that encompasses most of Anatolia, although they are later arrivals and it takes them longer to settle than it does the Luwian-speakers. Pala speakers are later overrun by the non-Indo-European Kaskans and their dialect dies out following absorption by the Phrygians.

c.3500 - 3300 BC

Other groups have already begun to migrate westwards, and also southwards away from the Anatolian and Tocharian branches. All of these westwards groups often use four-wheeled wagons to transport their people, and possess wagon/wheel vocabulary that is wholly original to themselves, but which is not shared by the Anatolian group and is only partially shared by the Tocharian group, demonstrating an arrival of the wheel some time around the point at which the Tocharians had been beginning to lose touch with their kinsfolk.

The process of migration begins a fragmentation that sees these late proto-Indo-Europeans enter large swathes of Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. One of the first groups to arrive in Europe forms the Corded Ware culture (from about 2900 BC) which initially (and in part) settles around the Baltic coast to become the later Belarussians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Prussians. The Slavic group is closely related to the Balts but appears to separate from it before the latter reaches the Baltic coastline.

According to David Anthony, the 'Yamnaya Horizon' explodes across the Pontic-Caspian steppes around 3300 BC, this group being the primary vector through which proto-Indo-Europeans spread westwards. The various interrelated cultural expressions that form the basis of this 'horizon' are created by early proto-Indo-Europeans who belong to semi-nomadic, pastoral tribes which can, more or less, understand each other. Beginning their migration, these people reach the Carpathian Mountains and the River Danube near modern Budapest, where this folk migration appears to halt.

Nature.com (2015) supports the 'Yamnaya Horizon' theory. By around 4000-3000 BC, farmers throughout much of Europe have more hunter-gatherer (forager) ancestry than their predecessors (showing a gradual blending of earlier hunter-gatherers and the farmers who had arrived between about 6000-5000 BC). In Russia, the Yamnaya steppe herders of this time are descended not only from the preceding Pontic-Caspian hunter-gatherers, but also from a population of 'Near Eastern' ancestry. Neolithic farmers had expanded around the western coast of the Black Sea to interact with the hunter-gatherers in the sixth millennium BC, and it seems that, eventually, the two groups had intermingled, producing a population that was mixed with a greater degree of farmers than in Western Europe.

Northern Mesopotamian chariot petroglyphs
The Yamnaya Horizon theory saw many semi-nomadic pastoral tribes migrate huge distances over many generations, helped by their use of four-wheeled wagons and chariots, and the petroglyphs shown here (from northern Mesopotamia) form one of history's earliest recordings of these chariots

c.3300 BC

Very recently, in far south-eastern Europe, in the North Caucasus Mountains, spectacularly ostentatious chiefs had suddenly appeared amongst what had previously been very ordinary small-scale farmers. They display gold-covered clothing, gold and silver staffs, and great quantities of bronze weapons obtained from the newly formed cities of Middle Uruk Mesopotamia, through Anatolian middlemen. This is probably the first true contact between southern urban civilisations and the people of the steppe margins, taking place about 3700-3500 BC, and it forms the basis of the creation of Maikop culture.

Something less obvious to many is that cannabis may be travelling in the opposite direction to the gold and silver that is coming from the south - this time travelling from the Pontic-Caspian steppes to Mesopotamia and the early city states of Sumer. Greek kdnnabis and proto-Germanic *baniptx seem to be related to the Sumerian kuriibu. Sumerian dies out as a widely spoken language after around 2000 BC, so the connection must be a very ancient one. The international trade of the Late Uruk period (circa 3300-3100 BC) provides a suitable context for this trade.

The link between the early, proto-Indo-European form of the word cannabis (and therefore its probable Sumerian origin of kuriibu) to the proto-Germanic form requires a few steps. In the late Bronze Age, proto-Germanic groups are pretty isolated in southern Scandinavia and along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, but are theorised to be in contact with the proto-Celts (and possibly even dominated by them). In support of this is the realisation that 'cannabis' would need to pass through Celtic to reach its Germanic form: the initial 'k' would be a 'kw' in Q-Celtic (of the First Wave), transformed to a 'p' in P-Celtic (of the Second Wave), and then transformed into a 'b' in Belgic (northern Celtic), and finally adopted into Germanic. This appears to fit in with the idea that Belgic Celts dominate northern Europe prior to the rise of the Germanic tribes around the fifth century BC.

c.3300 - 2600 BC

Possibly offshoots of the Yamnaya cultural horizon which had formed after westwards migration had halted at the River Danube around Budapest, groups of Indo-Europeans now first begin to arrive in Greece. They blend with the indigenous populations to later form Mycenaean, Minoan, Cypriot and (southern) Italian cultures. Similar groups also begin to arrive in north-western Europe, settling amongst earlier populations of Neolithic farmers and Palaeolithic hunters.

Further to the 'Yamnaya Horizon' theory (see previous entry, above), David Anthony adds that the split between the Italic and closely allied Celtic language groups appears to occur between 3100 and 2600 BC. Then Bell Beaker decorated cup styles, domestic pot types, and grave and dagger types from the middle Danube are adopted around 2600 BC in Moravia and southern Germany, possibly as a result of trade rather than immediate migration. However, this material network could be the bridge through which pre-Celtic dialects spread into Germany. The southernmost areas of this, Austria, and Bavaria, seemingly become the location in which proto-Celtic originally develops - in other words the language's homeland.

According to Ellis (1998), The large number of Celtic place-names still surviving in Switzerland and south-western Germany are therefore an indication that when the Celtic peoples appear in the historical record they are already well-settled in this area. He also echoes Hubert's views that the survival to this day of so many Celtic names for important geographical features (such as the rivers Rhine and Danube) in what are now German-speaking regions points to the names being of indigenous form and of long usage.

c.3000 BC

Whether David Anthony's proposed timescale is accepted or not, a date of around 3000 BC is still used as the probable point at which the remaining Indo-Europeans (excepting the Anatolian branch) begin to separate into definite proto languages which are not intelligible to each other. A western group will evolve into Celtic, Italic, Venetic, Illyrian, Ligurian, Vindelician/Liburnian and Raetic branches. Early in this western group's expansion, one tribe apparently makes the aforementioned U-turn and heads east (which is easy enough to do when you are a steppe nomad!) to evolve into the Tocharian branch of Indo-Europeans (see 2200 BC, below).

A north-western branch begins the Germanic ethnic group (which apparently splits away from the western edge of late proto-Indo-European dialects around 3300 BC). A northern branch evolves into what will become the aforementioned Baltic peoples (principally Latvians, Lithuanians and Old Prussians) and also the Slavic peoples (with division between the two occurring around 2500 BC). Proto-Greeks form a south-western branch that emerges as the Mycenaeans (around 2500 BC), probably along with Thracians, Dacians, and Phrygians, all of whom seem to be related to the Armenians.

An eastern branch - or perhaps a branch that stays in the steppe homeland for another millennium or so and which therefore becomes an eastern branch by default because the rest have headed off west - apparently calling themselves Arya or something similar form the ancestors of much of India's modern population (except for the southernmost parts - see 2200 BC, below), plus Kurds, Persians, Mannaeans, Medians, and related peoples (see 1200 BC, below), possibly also including the Indo-Scythians.

Central Asia Indo-European map 3000 BC
By around 3000 BC the Indo-Europeans had begun their mass migration away from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, with the bulk of them heading westwards towards the heartland of Europe (click on image to see full sized)

c.2500 BC

Nature.com (2015) has this as the approximate time at which the Yamnaya steppe people come into contact with Western Europe's population of farmers and increasingly farming-orientated hunter-gatherers. The Late Neolithic Corded Ware culture is one of the first results of this arrival (having already made its earliest appearance around 2900 BC). Corded Ware people from Germany trace around seventy-five per cent of their ancestry to the Yamnaya, documenting a massive migration into the heartland of Europe from its eastern periphery. This steppe ancestry persists in all sampled Central Europeans until at least 1000 BC, and is ubiquitous in present-day Europeans.

c.2500 - 2000 BC

Linguists have pinpointed this period for the development of a pastoral code amongst the early Indo-Europeans who are busy driving their herds of cattle across the vast plains of the steppes. The theory behind such a code of behaviour is that, one group of people happen to see a dot on the horizon that turns out to be another approaching group, then they have two choices for how they will react: attempt to destroy them or deal with them peaceably. The pastoralists go with the latter - presume friendship until the evidence disproves it - and this concept generates the word *ghos-ti-, meaning 'stranger, guest', but also 'host'. Both 'guest' and 'host' are direct descendants of this word. The same concept is passed down to the Classical Greek world.

c.2350 -2300 BC

The Gutians, possible Indo-European tribes in the Zagros Mountains, are first mentioned, and go on to dominate southern Mesopotamia for a century. In the same period, Indo-European tribes in the form of the Luwian peoples settle across southern Anatolia. It seems more than coincidental that 'barbarians from the north' are causing problems in cities within Syria such as Ebla at the same time. Without any written evidence to support such a claim, it does seem likely that one of these groups is responsible for probing expeditions farther south.

c.2200 - 1700 BC

An indigenous Bronze Age culture emerges in Central Asia between modern Turkmenistan and down towards the Oxus (otherwise known as the Amu Darya), the somewhat nebulous region called Transoxiana. It is known as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, or Oxus Civilisation, and Indo-European tribes who have not taken part in the exodus to the west or south soon integrate themselves into it. In fact, these Indo-Europeans seem to have remained in the old homeland to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea longer than other Indo-European group, at least partially generating the Sintashta and Andronovo cultures to the east.

It may also be this Oxus culture, or a neighbouring Indo-European group which feeds off its progressive nature, that forms the 'spiral cities' of the Kazakhstan steppe (see the first photo on the page, above). Items that have so far been recovered from recent exploration in this region include make-up equipment, a chariot, and numerous pieces of pottery. The artefacts are daubed in swastikas (symbols of the sun and of eternal life). Evidence of ritual horse burials are also found, which ties in with ancient Indo-Aryan texts that describe the animals being sliced up and buried with their masters.

Given the fact that they appear in Anatolia around the same time, the Andronovo people and other Indo-Europeans who integrate into the Oxus may be related to the Anatolian branch of Indo-European languages which had begun to divide from the other branches around 3500 BC (see above). Alternatively, they may be related to the comparatively late migration of the Indo-Iranians and Indo-Aryans who become the Alans, Mannaeans, Medians, Persians, Scythians, and Indians, and possibly also the Indo-Scythians. The latter seems most likely.

The Karakum burial with a valuable horse sacrifice added
This king's tomb in the Indo-European settlement in the Karakum (modern Turkmenistan) contains a valuable horse to accompany him into the afterlife

Climate change from around 2000 BC onwards greatly affects the Oxus Civilisation, denuding it of water as the rains decline. The people are forced to migrate southwards, with some groups penetrating into central Anatolia as the Hittites, who conquer the indigenous peoples over the course of a century. Other groups cross the Afghan rivers and the Hindu Kush mountains and enter India between 1700-1500 BC. They eventually form their own kingdoms there such as Magadha, plus Kalinga and Kauravas. The most easterly group are the Tocharians, who are later identified as the Yeuh Chi in Chinese writings. They eventually migrate into Afghanistan and India as the Kushans, and into China where they are absorbed by local populations.

c.2000 BC

DNA analysis in 2015 of three males from this period backs up the theory that Ireland is populated via waves of immigration. The males are from Rathlin Island and live very soon after metallurgy is introduced into Ireland. They show a different DNA pattern from earlier populations, with a third of their ancestry coming from the Pontic Steppe (now covering much of Ukraine and a large swathe of southern Russia), which links them directly to the Indo-Europeans. They show a close genetic affinity with the modern Irish, Scots, and Welsh, but not so close a connection with the English, who have been diluted by the Anglo-Saxon admixture.

While these arrivals are not necessarily Celts as such, they can seemingly be counted as proto-Celts, springing as they do from the same stock that settles in Central Europe and later forms the basis of Celtic culture. Indo-Europeans are nomadic, moving quickly in four-wheeled carts or chariots. While many of them may indeed be expanding and migrating slowly, generation by generation, it wouldn't take much for a small group (less than 100,000) to leave the others behind. When they reach water they may learn to make boats from the Mediterranean types already occupying the coastal areas. This rapid movement can be compared favourably with how quickly the later Cimbri travel from Jutland to Italy, and the journey could be completed in well under a decade of travel.

c.1600 BC

Following the beginnings of their migration into Anatolia of around 3500 BC and settlement around 2300 BC onwards (see above), the Luwian peoples now begin to emerge into history divided into two groups; the Arzawans to the west and the Kizzuwatnans in the east. The poorly-attested peoples of Ishuwa, Karkissa, and Lukka are probably also Indo-Europeans. The Mycenaeans also emerge into history at this time, having been located in Greece (and later Cyprus) since at least 2400-2200 BC. Around the same time, an Indo-Aryan group, perhaps part of the migration towards India, arrives in northern Mesopotamia to rule the Hurrians as a warrior class called the Mitanni.

c.1450 BC

The Indo-European Phrygians begin to infiltrate from the Balkans into Bithynia in western Anatolia. Within about two and-a-half centuries they create their own kingdom in western Anatolia. Various other Indo-European peoples also populate the area, such as the Thracians.

c.1200 - 900 BC

Social collapse and a dark age engulf the Middle East. During this period, various tribal groups found new cities and kingdoms, among them the Medians and Persians on the Iranian Plateau. Indo-European groups in Europe filter into Italy, where they form the two main groups of Italic peoples, the Oscan-Umbrians (including the Umbri) and Latino-Faliscans (including the Latins).

In Greece, Mycenaean power is gradually eroded by the invading Dorians from the north, with domination coming by 1140 BC. The surviving Ionic-speaking Mycenaeans gather and flourish in Athens, or in conquered Levantine territories which probably include Phillistia, or in new colonies founded well away from the Dorians, such as Epirus.

One of the earliest proto-Celtic cultures has already started to appear in Central Europe, this being the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture. Proto-Celtic groups also migrate outwards, some ending up in Britain, where they eventually push back or integrate with the indigenous population and settle in the fertile south and east. They also later infiltrate into Ireland (although see c.2000 BC, above).

Zagros Mountains
The Zagros Mountain range provided the Medes with their home, but it was also the Assyrian gateway into Iran, one that was used in later attacks on the Indo-European Persians and Medes

1000s BC?

FeatureNorse legend mentions gods who are described as members of two groups: the Aesir and the Vanir. This latter is very suggestive of early contact between Germanics in Scandinavia and the seagoing Veneti living along the Gulf of Gdansk and the Vistula. However, the exact origins of the Vanir and the war between them and the Aesir are open to intense speculation.

There is strong evidence among the various peoples of the Indo-European diaspora that two distinct groups of deities are honoured. This appears to be best preserved among the Hindus, who talk about them as Devas (suras) and Asuras (not-suras). Some cultures later preserve worship of both; others choose one or the other and indicate some sort of conflict between them. The Aesir appear to be Asuras. Two Hindu Asuras, known as Thor and Ermin among Germanics, appear in the Norse pantheon.

One thing that can be said with some certainly is that the Vanir do not seem to be Suras/Devas. That leaves the possibility that the Aesir/Vanir war is a legendary account of a human war, but whether between Germanics against Celts, or against the Kvens whom they are steadily displacing in southern Scandinavia is unclear, A war involving Germanics is a certainty; in fact, two wars. It is already known that the Indo-European tribes who have evolved into Germanics have entered Scandinavia and have displaced someone, almost certainly Finno-Ugric speakers. There's also evidence that Celts enter Jutland. So which of these interactions with the Germans is the cause of war? That's a very good question. Both have names that could evolve over time into 'Vanir'. 'Veneti' could lose its 't' due to softening, while the 'k' of Kven would easily soften to 'ch', leaving 'ven'. So who are the wanes/vanir? Anything further would be speculation.

8th century BC

An Indo-European people known as the Armenians first enter Anatolia from northern Mesopotamia, migrating into the region around Lake Van which will be their homeland for the next 2300 years. In Europe, while the Indo-European Celts are beginning to expand from their traditional territory in southern Germany, the early Germanic peoples still seem to be occupying a homeland in southern Sweden and the Jutland peninsula.

Gold and amber jewellery
Celtic gold and amber jewellery unearthed from a burial show that this group of Indo-Europeans had achieved very high levels of skill in their creations by the first millennium BC

6th century BC

The Indo-European Bactrians are conquered by their cousins, the Persians. By this stage all of the various Indo-European branches have fully splintered, and have developed into groups that have their own individual histories and daughter languages. The proto-Indo-European language itself will have died out around 2500 BC, when its daughter languages began to appear, but its core language remains a part of all its descended forms, even today. A large proportion of the ancestral steppe homeland of the proto-Indo-Europeans is today within the borders of Kazakhstan.