I know that quite a few ASF readers share my interest in the historical origins of the Indo-European peoples but this recent article from Science Mag is a fair introduction to the subject, as well as highlighting some potentially exciting new studies:
“What do you call a male sibling? If you speak English, he is your “brother.” Greek? Call him “phrater.” Sanskrit, Latin, Old Irish? “Bhrater,” “frater,” or “brathir,” respectively. Ever since the mid-17th century, scholars have noted such similarities among the so-called Indo-European languages, which span the world and number more than 400 if dialects are included. Researchers agree that they can probably all be traced back to one ancestral language, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). But for nearly 20 years, scholars have debated vehemently when and where PIE arose.
Two long-awaited studies, one described online this week in a preprint and another scheduled for publication later this month, have now used different methods to support one leading hypothesis: that PIE was first spoken by pastoral herders who lived in the vast steppe lands north of the Black Sea beginning about 6000 years ago. One study points out that these steppe land herders have left their genetic mark on most Europeans living today.
The studies’ conclusions emerge from state-of-the-art ancient DNA and linguistic analyses, but the debate over PIE’s origins is likely to continue. A rival hypothesis—that early farmers living in Anatolia (modern Turkey) about 8000 years ago were the original PIE speakers—is not ruled out by the new analyses, most agree.
The second new paper to address PIE’s origin, in press at Language and due to be published online during the last week of February, uses linguistic data to focus on when PIE arose. A team led by University of California, Berkeley, linguists Andrew Garrett and Will Chang employed the language database and evolutionary methods previously used by Gray to create a family tree of the Indo-European languages from their first origins in PIE. But in certain cases, Garrett and Chang’s group declared that one language was directly ancestral to another and put that into their tree as a certainty. For example, they assumed that Latin was directly ancestral to Romance languages such as Spanish, French, and Italian—something that many but not all linguists agree on—and that Vedic Sanskrit was directly ancestral to the Indo-Aryan languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent.
These constraints transformed the results from what Gray’s team has published: Garrett, Chang, and their colleagues found that the origins of PIE were about 6000 years ago, consistent with the steppe hypothesis but not the Anatolian, because the farming migration out of the Middle East was 8000 years ago. Once the original PIE speakers began to sweep out of the steppes about 4500 years ago, their languages spread and diversified, Garrett’s team says.
But many supporters of the Anatolian hypothesis remain staunchly unconvinced.
…they challenge what they see as its speculative link to language. The movement out of the steppes, Renfrew says, “may be a secondary migration into central Europe 3000 to 4000 years later than the spread of farmers, which first brought Indo-European speech to Europe.””
I’d recommend reading the whole piece if it sparks your interest as well as this Wikipedia entry, “Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses”. However if you think that scholarly debates over the “Homeland” of the Indo-European-speaking cultures is a dry academic affair think again. Drop down into the Comments beneath the original article to discover how such controversies can resonate with contemporary political and territorial concerns. As well as attracting more than their fair share of partisans and ethno-religious fundamentalists.