Reconstructing the history of the Indo-Europeans

In Search of the Indo EuropeansAbout two centuries ago linguists became increasingly aware of the similarities between the European and South Asian languages. They concluded that these languages must have had a common ancestor. The question who the speakers of this proto-language were, from which Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and many others were descended, has concerned scholars ever since.  Unfortunately, the search for these proto-Indo-Europeans has had some destructive side effects in modern history, including the racial doctrines of the nazi’s. Nevertheless, despite all the pseudo-scientific and racialist ideas that this subject has inspired, there has been a lot of quality research on the proto-Indo-Europeans as well in recent decades. One of the most distinguished post-WWII scholars of Indo-European studies is James Patrick Mallory, who has spent most of his career trying to find the proto-Indo-European homeland and to reconstruct the migration patterns of their descendants. The conclusions of his investigations have been published in his monograph In Search of the Indo-Europeans (1989).

In search of the Indo-Europeans
Mallory’s book is a great starting point for anyone who is interested in learning more about the history of the Indo-Europeans. Although it is a serious academic publication, Mallory has a very accessible writing style that will make his work fun to read for anyone. The book doesn’t require any previous knowledge on the topic and should be understandable to any high school student. Not only does Mallory write well, he also makes the effort of explaining his methods. Mallory is known for approaching the proto-Indo-European question from multiple angles, including linguistic, archaeological and literary. He describes the process by which he arrives at his conclusions in a way that anyone could follow. This makes his book even more exciting to read, since Mallory basically takes you by the hand in his quest for the proto-Indo-Europeans. In order to illustrate this, let me give some examples below.

The linguistic approach
Now how do we know who these proto-Indo-Europeans were if we do not have any written sources about them and if their migrations are not well documented? The most common and most reliable way of finding out is through linguistics. You would be surprised how much you can find out about a culture just by reconstructing its language. By comparing different languages belonging to the same family and looking for related words, one may find out which words were already present in the proto-language. For example, most Indo-European languages have common words for cattle, dairy products and grains, along with other agricultural concepts like fields, yokes and wheels and other domestic animals like horses and dogs. This all indicates that the proto-European people were an agricultural people who domesticated cattle and had access to both wheeled vehicles and horses. They also had similar words for giving and taking, indicating that they made no distiction between the two concepts and thus might have had an economy based on barter. Their words for family members indicate that they lived in nuclear families led by the father. By comparing different Indo-European civilizations we might even postulate that the proto-Indo-Europeans had at least three classes: the priests, the warriors and the commoners. Finally, the Indo-Europeans have similar words for certain animals and plants, like wolf, bear, deer, salmon, oak, birch, willow and hazel, which can tell us a lot about the climate of their original homeland.

The archaeological approach
It is only after reconstructing the proto-language that one can start looking for archaeological evidence. We saw in the last paragraph that the proto-Indo-Europeans must have been an agricultural and pastoralist people with access to horses and wagons. They were most likely a sedentary people with a stratified society and they lived in a temperate to cold climate. This already rules out a lot of possibilities. The Indo-Europeans could not have originated in South Asia, as the climate there is too hot, or in Western Europe, as the people living ther did not have horses or a stratified society originally. The most popular hypothesis up to this day is the Kurgan hypothesis, which postulates that proto-Indo-European was spoken around 4500 BC in the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas, in agricultural communities along the Don and Volga rivers and on the steppes in between. These proto-Indo-Europeans had a stratified society led by warrior Kurgan_mapchiefs who fought on horseback and had bronze armor, giving them an edge over their enemies. The warrior class has left clear traces in the archaeological record. They were buried in prestigious burial mounds, also known as kurgans, along with their horses, their bronze armor and a lot of luxuries. This new Indo-European way of life turned out to be huge succes and  around 4000 BC this culture had spread all across Southern Russia and the Ukraine. Between 4000-2000 BC this culture spread even further, towards Anatolia, the Balkans, the Danube valley, the coasts of the Baltic Sea, and Central Asia, as far as Northwestern China. This expansion should not be seen as a series of military conquests, but as the spread of a new kind of society, along with its elite and its language. Throughout Europe the simple, more or less egalitarian agricultural communities were replaced by warlike chiefdoms. The characteristic burial mounds, the kurgans, appeared throughout Europe, along with the custom to bury people in individual graves with burial gifts.

The literary approach
We already came a long way using only linguistic and archaeological evidence. In order to fully reconstruct the Indo-European migrations, however, we must make use of literary sources as well. This is where linguistics overlaps with the field of history. Wherever we find written sources in an Indo-European language, or written sources that mention an Indo-European people, we have hard evidence for the spread of that Indo-European language. The first documented Indo-European languages are Hittite (attested around 1600 BC in Anatolia), Mycenaean (attested around 1450 BC in Greece), and Sanskrit (attested around 1400 BC in India). This indicates that the Anatolian, Greek and Indo-Aryan branches of the Indo-European family must have spread to their respective regions before these dates. Other branches of Indo-Europeans are attested at a much later date, but other languages that are attested relatively early on are Latin (attested around 600 BC in Italy) and Old Persian (attested 521 BC in Iran). In order to reconstruct the Indo-European migrations we must bridge the gap between the Kurgan culture around 4000 BC and the time and place where certain Indo-European languages are first attested. This is the hardest and most controversial part of Indo-European studies.

Back to Mallory
If you were inspired by the information above, you will love Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans. Mallory reconstructs various aspects of proto-Indo-European culture, as well as the migration patterns of all individual braches of Indo-European, based on solid evidence and easy-to-understand arguments. Although Mallory’s reconstructions may not be beyond criticism, he sure makes them look very plausible. Moreover, the information offered in his book is a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about this fascinating topic.