History Files

European Kingdoms



West Indo-Europeans

The pre-history of Europe is a long and largely uncertain period in which small windows of opportunity to view events can be gained through archaeology. Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory. However, recent advances in DNA research have uncovered a fresh way of examining populations. This has proved vital in understanding the influence played by the great migrations of Indo-European folk during the Yamnaya Horizon of the fourth and third millennia BC.

The biggest two groups of Indo-Europeans to arrive in southern Central Europe during the Yamnaya Horizon were the proto-Italic peoples and the proto-Celtic peoples. They originated from a population which had not long before occupied the Pontic steppe. That population was part of a group of languages and cultures which appear to be related, originating from a single source. As migrants in Central Europe, Indo-Europeans formed the origin of the proto-Italics - not just tribes which later entered Italy but seemingly all of the initial Indo-European arrivals in Central Europe, even those which never ventured further west than Budapest and those which eventually migrated south from the Danube to form the Balkans tribes of South-West Indo-Europeans. These were people of the centum branch of Indo-Europeans (a West Indo-European-speaking branch), all of whom initially spoke the same approximate language but who later divided into two main language groups, these being Italic and the later-arriving Celtic (see below). A date for the split is conjectural, but 3100-2600 BC seems likely (see the Indo-European page for a more detailed discussion).

It was these West Indo-Europeans who, upon their arrival in Central Europe, picked up the influence of the originally-Iberian Bell Beaker horizon. They did so enthusiastically, turning it into a true culture, and many of them continued their migration westwards into France while others of their number remained in northern Italy and around the Alps and southern Germany, also practitioners of Bell Beaker culture. The remainers were eventually joined by a second migratory group of Indo-Europeans - possibly not as a clear-cut second wave but more as a continual stream of later arrivals - who settled to their north to become the proto-Celts. An exact date for further proto-Italic migration into Italy proper is not known precisely, but is estimated to fall between the twelfth to eighth centuries BC. It may have been sparked - as were many other migrations - by the shift to a drier climate at the end of the thirteenth century BC. The proto-Celts remained largely were they where and eventually developed a dominant regional culture.

However, these two large arrivals were not the only West Indo-Europeans. The migration was probably a gradual process - and certainly did not happen in one (or two) great wave of arrivals. Many small groups, tribes, and even warrior troupes probably followed what became a well-trodden path into Central Europe. Many settled in the Alpine region between southern Germany and northern Italy, where they thrived until much later when they were subsumed first by Celtic culture and language, and then by the Romans. Where they are concerned, DNA research is as much as a hindrance as a help in divining identity.

FeatureOne notable problem with DNA research is working out which historically-named tribes and groups belonged to which DNA type. When it comes to the Alpine tribes and their associated neighbours for instance - such as Euganei, Ligurians, Raeti, and Vindelici - it would seem to be impossible to find a clear dividing line between Indo-European arrivals and the previous Neolithic and Palaeolithic inhabitants (although in all likelihood the Raeti were not Indo-Europeans while the Vindelici were). The closest it may be possible to get is in terms of referencing Y-DNA types. Essentially the groups and tribes covered are a mix of three ethnic identities in various proportions: Indo-Europeans; Old Europeans (Neolithic Middle-Eastern migrant farmers whose European journey originated in the Sesklo culture); and the Palaeolithic descendants of the first groups of modern humans to arrive in Europe. These three are, in order, of the following Y-DNA haplogroups: R1b (IEs), G2a (Oetzi, 'the Iceman' - see feature link), and I1 (Palaeolithics).

(Information by Edward Dawson and Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and from External Links: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature), and Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe (Nature.com).)

c.3500 - 3300 BC

The Yamnaya Horizon explodes across the Pontic-Caspian steppe around 3300 BC, this 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.

Caucuses archaeological find
DNA was extracted from the molars of this skeleton, dating from almost 10,000 years ago, which had been discovered by archaeologists in the Kotias Klde rock shelter in western Georgia as one of the earliest examples of a proto-Indo-European

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.

c.3300 - 2600 BC

Possibly offshoots of the Yamnaya cultural horizon during the halt 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.

At this point in time, it appears that the direct ancestors of later Italic and Celtic tribes have left the steppe to settle temporary in the northern Balkans, principally perhaps around what is now Romania. It would be reasonable to expect that they develop their distinct cultural and linguistic characteristics whilst there. From Romania it appears that they begin to head west along the Danube valley, with some turning south to become the proto-Italics, others turning north to become the Q-Celtic speakers, and others diffusing into the Apline hills and mountains to infuse existing peoples such as the Euganei, Ligurians, Raeti, and Vindelici.

Source of the Ticino
The mountainous Alpine country of the Raeti would have supplied a relatively tough tribal life during which it would seem that they never particularly thrived or expanded and which led to their easy absorption into Celtic and Latin cultures

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.2500 BC

It would seem to be around this time that a process begins in which the so-called West Indo-European tribes, most of whom speak dialects that are intelligible to the other tribes, start a long process of fracturing and dividing. The northern group becomes isolated from direct contact with the Mediterranean civilisations and these people become the proto-Celts of the Urnfield culture.

The southern group of West Indo-Europeans appear to migrate westwards and southwards into the western Balkans and Italian piedmont, and through Illyria and northern Italy. Due to terrain, they divide further into semi-isolated tribes. There is also an unrelated tribe which is not as closely related to this group which follows a path along the northern reaches of Europe at some unknown point in time, and which becomes the Germanic-speaking people.

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 or tap on map to view full sized)

From this point onwards the story divides along with the people, into separate groups and tribes. The southern group becomes more civilised in habits and technologies due to contact with southern Greeks and Etruscans. Those in the Balkans in part cross by sea into the Italian peninsula, and settle mostly along the south-eastern coast. Those groups that have filtered down from the north Italian piedmont occupy swathes of central Italy, with two tribes, Latins and Faliscans, crossing over the Apennines to the west coast. Because of their semi-isolation to the west of Italy their language does not undergo the 'qu/kw' to 'p' shift that occurs across most of the West Indo-European dialects.