Tag Archives: Indo-European


Like the traditional poetry of other peoples, the traditional poetry of the Greeks celebrated the Heroic Age. This was the time when men were bigger and stronger, and they performed marvelous feats of prowess. Their weapons were made of bronze and not of iron, and they were ruled by kings. … The Heroic Age came to an end in two great wars – the Theban and the Trojan. … This was how the Mycenaean Greek civilization of the second millennium BC was remembered in historic Greece.

Margalit Finkelberg. Greeks and Pre-Greeks

Classical Greek poetry concerned with the Heroic Age includes a lot of genealogy, with an emphasis on descent in the male line, much like the begats in the Bible. Modern readers familiar with the Iliad and Odyssey find this stuff pretty boring, but it mattered a lot to the Greeks, who would try to link their existing patrilineal clans to the legendary family lines of the Heroic Age.

An emphasis on patrilineal descent is a general feature of early Indo-European society and its later offshoots, including the Greeks; the Indo-European expansion is one phase of the Patriarchal Age, leaving its imprint particularly on the distribution of Y chromosome variants. But given this patrilineal focus, there is something odd about the legends of the Heroic Age. In virtually none of the surviving legends do we find kingship passing from father to son, even when there is a son around. Instead, the normal pattern is that the king’s successor is the guy who marries his daughter – in other words his son-in-law, not his son. Meanwhile, the king’s son has to marry elsewhere. (Although the legends seem to present some cases of rotating succession, where multiple patrilineages took turns marrying into a matrilineage. In these cases, a king’s grandson might marry back into the kingdom, marrying his father’s sister’s daughter.) The implication is that the line of succession to the throne ran from mother to daughter, although it was the husbands of these women who actually exercised power: kingship by marriage. The most notable case of a son succeeding to his father’s throne is the exception that proves the rule: Oedipus got to be king of Thebes because he married Queen Jocasta, not because he was King Laius’ son. (Spoiler alert: see below*)

In Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition, Margalit Finkelberg argues that legends of the Heroic Age are memories of a time when the patrilineal traditions of the Greeks coexisted with earlier matrilineal traditions. More specifically, she argues that matrilineal Pre-Greek cultures were associated with the Anatolian language family, the first branch off the Indo-European tree, which also includes Hittite. On her account, Greece looks like ancestral Polynesia, a society flipped from matrilineal to patrilineal by invaders.

Finkelberg is not the first person to notice possible survivals of matrilineal descent from before the coming of the Indo-Europeans and other folk. Such survivals led some nineteenth century scholars to theorize that matrilineality – tracing descent and succession through the female line – was a stage of social evolution that all societies passed through. Some scholars also believed that matrilineal societies were matriarchal – ruled by women. Neither of these theories has held up very well. And yet …

… based on reconstructions of cultural phylogeny and/or ancestral vocabulary a number of the great demic expansions that covered the world seem to have started out matrilineal and/or matrilocal. The list (labelled by associated language families) includes:

So although matrilineal/matrilocal organization is not a stage that every society passes through, it is seems to be a phase in many demic expansions. This is actually not too surprising. One solid finding in the anthropology of kinship is that matrilocal societies, in which a man goes to live with his wife’s kin when he marries, tend to be internally peaceful, without a lot of feuding between neighboring villages in the same tribe. This makes sense, since the men are no more related to the men in their own village than they are to men in neighboring villages. At the same time, matrilocal societies are often quite war-like with respect folks outside the larger tribe (just ask the neighbors of the Iroquois or the Navajo). Since matrilocality and matrilineality (which tend to go together) are associated with internal peace and external aggression, this social organization is well-suited to life along an ethnic frontier. Matrilocality (which is strongly associated with matrilineality) is one way tribal societies generate the social solidarity that enables demic expansion.

But there are several limits to matrilocal solidarity. First, the introduction of stock herding tends to undermine matrilocality and matrilineality. (My late colleague Henry Harpending worked with a group, the Herero in southern Africa, who had taken up cattle herding, and were probably in the early stages of transition from matri- to patrilineal.) Also matrilocal/matrilineal societies rarely exceed a few tens of thousands of people. Beyond that size their internal unity tends to break down, and parents start insisting that married sons stick around to defend the homestead. So a lot of the later, better known population expansions, including Indo-European, Semitic, Turkic, and Han Chinese are heavily patrilineal. But even today, traces of earlier matrilineal social organization still survive in some places – in the matrilineal belt of Central Africa, and in some of South East Asia, where patrilineality, and mate guarding to secure the male line, mostly don’t reach the same intensity as in much of Asia.

* Oedipus didn’t know it, but Jocasta was his mom.


Weaving history

834-678 BCE.

The association of particular plaid patterns (tartans) with particular Scottish highland clans is a phenomenon of the last several centuries. But the Celt-plaid connection goes back a lot farther than that.


This picture shows a scrap of fabric associated with the Iron Age Hallstatt culture of central Europe. The culture lasted from 800-500 BCE, and is ancestral to later historic Celtic cultures. In fact, traditions of plaid weaving seem to go back a lot further. We find similar plaids being woven at roughly the same time, but thousands of miles away, in what is now Xinjiang province in western China. Linguistic evidence (from later writing) and genetic evidence (from mummies) suggest that the inhabitants of Xinjiang at this point were speakers of Tocharian languages, a branch of Indo-European, deriving from the western steppes. (Both Tocharian and Celtic probably branched off the Indo-European tree long before Indo-European-speaking chariot riders rode south to Iran and India.) We know that Proto-Indo-European had words for weaving. The Celtic and Tocharian plaids are similar enough (according to those who know such things) that it seems likely that IE speakers were also weaving plaids from early on.

The Mediterranean developed its own culture of weaving. In Mycenaean Greece, slave women worked under factory-like conditions to produce cloth for ordinary wear, some of it exported. Aristocratic women too were weavers. They might work with spindles of bronze, silver, or gold, weaving story cloths – tapestries that illustrated family histories. The shroud that Penelope wove by day and unwove by night was presumably one such.

Mycenaeans used writing for bureaucratic record keeping, not story-telling. Remembering the past was the business of female weavers and male bards. When literacy disappeared during the Greek Dark Age, historic memory, such as it was, was kept going by weavers, and by bards – often called weavers of words.

“The Aryans”

2995-2721 BCE

For more than two centuries scholars have known that most of the languages of Europe, Iran and Northern India, and assorted other places, are sprung from a common source, from an extinct language, never written down, that came to be dubbed Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It’s been a matter of speculation where and when PIE was spoken. Now, just in the last few years, it looks like the major questions about Indo-European origins are being answered. Research on ancient DNA has overturned an earlier view (which seemed viable to many researchers even a few years ago) that there were just two major waves of migration into Europe: hunter-gatherers 40 thousand years ago, and farmers from Anatolia starting 7000 years ago. But it turns out that there was also a later massive wave of immigration, coming from the grasslands north of the Black Sea, about 2800 BCE. This migration replaced much of the population of northern Europe, and contributed substantially to southern Europe as well. (See here and here for Logarithmic History blog posts on the possible pre-Indo-European roots of Indo-Europeans.) The migration is a perfect fit for what historical linguists have been saying for a long time. For example, the newcomers brought ox-drawn wagons and wheels with them, matching vocabulary in PIE. (Hereand here are some news reports, and here’s one of the best books on the subject, by archeologist David Anthony, written even before the latest DNA evidence came in. If you want to delve deeply into the latest DNA news, on Indo-European origins and related topics, here’s a blog for you.)

The intellectual history of the Indo-European question has not just been about pure and objective scholarship; it’s been bound up with the bloody history of the twentieth century.

In 1926, V. Gordon Childe, in his day probably the preeminent prehistoric archeologist in the English-speaking world, wrote a book addressing the topic of Indo-European origins. Synthesizing linguistic and archeological evidence, he named a likely place – the steppes of Ukraine and Southern Russia – and a time – the late Neolithic or Copper age, well after the advent of agriculture, but before the Bronze Age. (The corresponding archeological culture is now called the Yamnaya. However the very earliest split in the IE tree, bringing Hittite ancestors to Anatolia, comes earlier.) He argued that Indo-European speakers had migrated west to conquer big swathes of territory in Europe (Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures), and, later, east and south into Iran and India. In other words, he defended what now looks like the correct theory. This wasn’t just a luck guess. He got it right mostly because he took historical linguistics seriously, as a hard science in its own right.

Childe’s book was entitled “The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins,” and this suggests a problem. Childe acknowledged that the title was a misnomer. Strictly speaking “Aryan” applies only to speakers of Indo-European languages in Iran and India; Childe called PIE speakers “Aryans” simply because it made a better book title. But the title alone was not really the problem. Childe knew that Indo-European prehistory, and the Aryan label, were popular with the nationalist German Right. Childe had no sympathy for German nationalism. He was an Australian who lived most of his life in England. He was also a lifelong socialist and a man of the Left. In fact his book aimed at deflating nationalist claims. He located the Indo-European homeland in Eastern Europe, not Germany or Scandinavia, as some claimed. And he denied that the “Aryans” had any special racial genius. He did think that Indo-European languages (not a racial character) were “exceptionally delicate and flexible instruments of thought” that facilitated later intellectual developments. (This one probably won’t fly. Linguists nowadays mostly don’t think grammar has that much effect on cognition.) And he speculated that “Aryans” might have had an advantage over other folk simply by virtue of being large and well-fed. (This one isn’t totally crazy. Indo-Europeans were apparently big guys, like the Nilotic cattle herders of East Africa to whom they show some interesting convergent cultural similarities.) Nonetheless, the whole subject grew increasingly uncomfortable as the 1920s moved into the 30s. Childe let the book go out of print, and scarcely referred to it in the course of a long productive career.

Beyond killing tens of millions of people, Nazism also had a long lasting deforming effect on intellectual life. For most of the later twentieth century Anglo-American archeologists went out of their way to avoid topics like migration, barbarian invasions, and population replacements. These were, in today’s jargon, problematic. For example, it was clear that something dramatic happened over a huge stretch of Europe, from Poland to the Netherlands, in the early third millennium BCE: settled life gave way to nomadism, farming to cattle raising. But this was written off as a technological shift, the Secondary Products Revolution. (To be fair, there were some exceptions among archeologists, like David Anthony and Marija Gimbutas, and many exceptions among linguists. Jared Diamond also got it right.) In some ways, then, we’re just beginning to recover, intellectually, from the Second World War.

Little deuce coupe, a prehistory


Wheels probably started being used by copper miners in southeastern Europe, in the Carpathians, in the 4th millennium BC. The early wheels were wheelsets, with the wheel fixed solidly to an axle, and the axle rotating. For miners, any alternative to carrying loads of ore on their backs must have been welcome. Miners can smooth a path for their carts, so the problem of moving wheels on uneven terrain is reduced.

Several centuries later, somewhere between the Carpathians and the steppe country north of the Black Sea, another kind of wheel was developed, with the wheel rotating freely around a fixed axle. The new wheel was perfectly suited to a new way of life that developed on the steppes, where nomads followed herds of livestock. Horses might have been the flashiest part of the new lifestyle, but oxcarts, carrying family belongings from one grazing site to another, may have been just as important.

Judging by their reconstructed vocabulary, speakers of Proto-Indo-European – the ancestor of most of the languages of Europe and Northern India – were among those adopting the new technology.


(Actually, looking at the reconstructions, it looks like the adoption of the wheel may have come after Proto-Anatolian – ancestor to Hittite – had branched off from other Indo-European languages.)

Some cultures got into wheels more than others. Sub-Saharan African societies, even including cattle nomads, never adopted the wheel. In the Middle East, wheeled vehicles gave way pack camels sometime between Roman times and the Islamic period. As a result, Islamic states didn’t have to put as much effort into road building as earlier states, and the narrow streets of Islamic cities were made for camels, not carts, to traverse. Wheeled transportation was limited in Japan. And in the New World, wheels are known only from children’s toys.


Things were different in Europe and its cultural offshoots, where wheeled vehicles have exercised a hold on the imagination – especially the male imagination – right up to the present. This is from Richard Bulliet’s recent book, The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions (p. 33):

Not only is the world racing fraternity composed almost entirely of men, but it has historically recruited very few drivers from East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. …[T]he five-thousand-year history of wheels in Indo-European societies – specifically in Europe, including its former colonies, and North America – testifies to an affinity between vehicle driving and male identity in cultures that descend from the Proto-Indo-European linguistic tradition. Since the earliest days of wagon nomads and chariots, through the carriage revolution of the sixteenth century, and down to the automobile era, men brought up in European (and Euro-American) societies have repeatedly linked their manhood to their vehicles.

Horse clans

3917-3593 BCE

The Botai culture (3700 – 3100 BCE), in present-day Kazakhstan, represents an uncommon mode of subsistence: equestrian hunting. The fact that the Botai folk have domesticated horses makes them different from most hunters and gatherers, while the fact that they depend heavily on hunting makes them different from later herders in the region.

The most famous equestrian hunters are the American Plains Indians of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. These were a varied assortment of tribes, with origins among more settled Indian groups, who took up riding after Spaniards reintroduced the horse (which had gone extinct in North America, along with other megafauna, twelve thousand years earlier). Plains Indians depended on hunting bison for most of their diet. The Botai folk were not hunting bison of course, but wild horses. Horses supplied the overwhelming part of their diet; 90% of animal bones in their settlements come from horses. There was an argument for a while about whether the Botai folk really had domesticated horses. However, this has been settled by the discovery of pottery containing residues of mare’s milk; obviously no one is arguing that they were milking wild horses. So unlike American Indians, Botai folk milked their horses.  It is also likely that they were riding horses and using them for traction. There is evidence for bit wear on the teeth of some of their horses, and it’s hard to see how they could have gotten whole wild horse carcasses back home (as they did) without having tame horses to pull the carcasses, probably on sledges.

The fact that the Botai folk had horse milk in their diet, along with lots of horse meat, is interesting. Horse milk is sweet (6.3% lactose vs. 1.3% fat, close to human milk), sweeter than cow’s milk (4.6% lactose vs. 3.4% fat). Any Botai individual who carried the lactase persistence allele, which allows carriers to digest lactose (milk sugar) past infancy and into adulthood, would presumably have had a strong fitness advantage. The ability to digest lactose might have been particularly important for kids making the transition from mother’s milk to horse meat. However, it took a long time – millennia – for the lactase gene to get really frequent.

Horses and horse riding and horse traction play an enormous role in Eurasian history. They are probably a major factor in the expansion of speakers of Indo-European languages. The Botai folk were almost certainly not the original Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers – the PIE vocabulary doesn’t fit – but they or people like them might have played some role in Indo-European origins, even if their language didn’t prevail.


17.2-16.3 thousand years ago

Only in the last half century or so, with the discovery of the Big Bang, has it been possible to do something like Logarithmic History. But human beings have been speculating for far longer than that on the origins of the universe, and we’ll have plenty of occasions here to pay tribute to earlier prescientific cosmologies. (The early chapters of the book of Genesis are probably most familiar to modern readers, but there are lots of others.)

Strikingly, it may be possible to reconstruct a very early interconnected set of myths concerning the world’s origin, which date back to long before the invention of writing (or farming, for that matter). This is the argument of Michael Witzel and some of his associates, set forth at length in Witzel’s ambitious recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Witzel is an expert on the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts)* who has grown interested in wider comparisons. He argues that there are striking parallels in myths told in traditional societies across a wide expanse of the Earth. These parallels are not the product ancient archetypes welling out of the collective unconscious, but are survivals of a coherent narrative of the origins and destiny of the universe, the gods, and humans, which was told tens of thousands of years ago. This mythological narrative includes the following:

In the beginning: primordial waters / darkness / chaos / ‘nonbeing’

A primordial egg / giant

A primordial hill / island / floating earth

Father Sky and Mother Earth and their children, for four generations, defining Four Ages of creation

The Sky is raised up and severed from the Earth

The Sky and his daughter commit incest, and the hidden sun’s light is revealed

The current generation of gods defeat or kill their predecessors.

A dragon is slain by a culture hero

The Sun becomes the father of humans (later on, of chieftains), and establishes their rituals

The first humans, whose evil deeds lead to the origin of death and the great Flood

A generation of heroes and the bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero

The spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins

In the future: final destruction of humans, the world, the gods

A new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss

Some elements of the myth seem to have an astronomical significance. The revelation of the sun seems to be especially associated with the winter solstice, and the slaying of a dragon, bringing rain, with the summer solstice. The Greek version of the Four Ages (and its Near Eastern antecedents) is clearly related to the movements of stars and planets.

Witzel labels the resulting mythic narrative “Laurasian mythology,” because its major elements are found mostly in Eurasia, the Pacific, and the New World. It contrasts with a Gondwanan mythology found Africa, New Guinea and Australia. (These two mythologies happen, by chance, to correspond roughly to the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana.) Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology overlap to some extent. Stories of a great Flood sent to punish unruly or sinful mankind, leaving only scattered mountaintop survivors to repopulate the world, are found in both.**

Witzel proposes that Laurasian mythology dates all the way back to an Out Of Africa expansion 40 thousand years ago. I have chosen fairly arbitrarily to introduce it instead at a later date. But it can’t date any later than the main settlement of the Americas by the ancestors of Amerindians.

* Witzel’s work on the Vedas has led to his being dogged by a lot of Hindu nationalists who are outraged that he thinks Indo-European languages came from outside India: an occupational hazard for the Indo-Europeanist scholar.

** When I did fieldwork several decades ago among the Ache Indians in Paraguay, they were curious about the way the story of Noah seemed to fit with their own flood story.

What language the Mal’ta boy spoke

What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.

Thomas Browne. Urn burial

24 kya. In the mid-twentieth century, Soviet archeologists excavated a site at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal that included the remains of of a 3-4 year old boy. Recent ancient DNA tests on the boy are one piece of evidence that is shaking up our understanding of how populations differentiated once Homo sapiens left Africa. (News story here.) It now looks like, back in the day, there was a widespread ancient population – people have been calling them Ancestral North Eurasians or ANE – that was already clearly differentiated from East Asians, and from populations in Southwest Asia. This population would eventually make a significant contribution to the ancestry of both American Indians and Europeans. American Indians seem to get most of their ancestry from a population ancestral to modern East Asians, but a large minority (about 25%) from ANE. And we’ll see when we get to Indo-European origins and the Indo-European expansion that ANE is a significant factor there as well.

These genetic findings dovetail neatly with work on historical linguistics by Joseph Greenberg. In Indo-European and its closest relatives: The Eurasiatic language family, Greenberg argued for a Eurasiatic language family, ancestral to more generally accepted families including Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Japanese-Korean-Ainu, Gilyak, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, and Eskimo-Aleut. He argued that the closest relative of this macrofamily was another macrofamily, dubbed “Amerind,” embracing most American Indian languages.

Greenberg’s proposal has not met with universal acceptance. One linguist (Don Ringe, a heavyweight in Indo-European studies) wrote “One is seldom asked to review a book that contains nothing of value, but that is unfortunately true of this volume.” The gold standard for historical linguists is being able to reconstruct an ancestral language, and the systematic sound changes leading to its descendants. Instead of this, Greenberg could only offer a mass of suggestive similarities. But the close correspondence between Greenberg’s farflung Eurasiatic family (and its Amerind sister) and the recent genetic results suggest that he was onto something. Either that, or he made a surprisingly lucky guess.

We’ll see another remarkable fit between alleged distant language affinities (Melanesia and southern South America) and recent genetic results on September 7, when we get to the earliest human settlement of the Americas .