Tag Archives: language history

“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.


Clovis and before

13.8-13.1 thousand years ago

For a long time the Clovis culture, associated with these spear points found across North America, looked like the earliest evidence of human occupation of the Americas. Clovis people are often thought to have entered the continent through an ice-free corridor that opened up between glaciers in Western Canada (although there are other possibilities).


But we now know that there were people in the Americas before Clovis. The Monte Verde site in Chile, dating more than a thousand years earlier (tweeted yesterday) is the best evidence. And just in the past few years, we’ve learned something about the genetics involved. Modern Amerindians are overwhelmingly a mixture of East Asian and Ancestral North Eurasian ancestry. But a small fraction of their ancestry is something else: it connects them with some relict populations in Southeast Asia and Melanesia. (In current Southeast Asia these populations have been pushed aside by later arrivals.) The best current explanation for this pattern is that an early population traveled along the Pacific Coast all the way from Southeast Asia to Chile by 15 thousand years ago, when the inland route was still blocked by ice. When Clovis and related peoples made their way to the New World, these early migrants were largely replaced, but left behind a trace of their ancestry.

There’s actually some linguistic work that’s consistent with the genetics. Johanna Nichols is a linguist who has identified various linguistic strata in the New World. These are not the same as language families. Think of it this way: the Khoi-San languages of Africa are famous for their click sounds. These languages, spoken by Bushmen and other isolated hunting and gathering groups, may be extinct before the century is out. But click sounds have been borrowed by some of the Bantu neighbors of these groups. While these non-Khoi-San click speakers do not constitute a language family, they do tell us something about pre-Bantu language history.

Nichols finds a far-flung linguistic stratum distinguished by a large number of otherwise rare features, in both Melanesia and southern South America. We might compare Nichols work on linguistic strata with Greenberg’s work on Eurasiatic. The two use different methods. Both are intensely controversial within linguistics. But in both cases, it looks like distant geographical affinities proposed by linguists get support from the latest genetic research. (We’ll be getting to more generally accepted language families later this month on Logarithmic History.)


14.6-13.8 thousand years ago.

The last glacial phase looks like it’s coming to an end, and people in the Natufian culture of the Levant look like they’re gearing up to invent agriculture. They’ve settled in villages, and are harvesting and storing grain, but not yet sowing it. Possibly they’re brewing beer for feasts. This turns out to be a false start though. In a thousand years or so the glaciers will come back for a final hurrah (the Younger Dryas event), and only after this will farming actually get going.

If you plug different frequencies of different genes from a bunch of populations into a computer and ask it to generate a tree where genetically similar populations share closer branches, you get something like this:

cavalli-sforza tree

This is from the pioneering synthesis of genetics by Cavali-Sforza and co-workers, back in 1994. This looks like a nice diagram of humans spreading out of Africa, maybe some taking a southern route (the Southeast Asian branch), and others a northern route (North Eurasian), and I used to teach it this way in anthropology classes. But as we look at ancient DNA, we’re finding that things are more complicated. Even 14,000 years ago, the structure of populations is different from what we’re used to today. We’ve already mentioned the Ancestral North Eurasians earlier, who just maybe could have spoken a language ancestral to Greenberg’s Eurasiatic family.

In the Near East, too, things were complicated. A paper out just last year shows that there were three very different hunting and gathering populations in Anatolia, Western Iran, and the Levant. Folks in Iran and the Levant were as genetically distinct as modern Europeans and Chinese! Either the Near East during this period had just been settled by migrants from widely separated places, or there had been strong barriers to gene flow in place for some time. Since then people in the area have mixed a lot.

Each of these populations of hunters and gatherers will give rise to its own set of farmers. The Natufians will contribute a lot to the ancestry of later farmers in the Levant. And apparently each set of farmers will send migrants off in a different direction: the Anatolians to Europe, the Iranians (or some Caucasian relatives) to the Eurasian steppe, and the Levantines to East Africa. It’s possible that the Natufians were speakers of a language ancestral to the Afro-Asiatic family, one of the oldest widely accepted language families, including Arabic and Hebrew, Somali and Oromo.

And here’s Razib Khan on our new understanding of how different ancient population structure was.


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 .



Toward the year 1000, the Scandinavians, under Leif Eriksson, reached the coast of America. No one bothered them, but one morning (as Erik the Red’s Saga tells it) many men disembarked from canoes made of leather and stared at them in a kind of stupor. “They were dark and very ill-looking, and the hair on their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Scandinavians gave them the name of skraelingar, inferior people. Neither the Scandinavians nor the Eskimos [sic; probably Beothuk Indians] knew that the moment was historic; America and Europe looked on each other in all innocence. A century later, disease and the inferior people had done away with the colonists. The annals of Iceland say: “In 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, departed in search of Vinland.” We know nothing of his fate; both the bishop and Vinland (America) were lost.

Viking epitaphs are scattered across the face of the earth on runic stones. … Conversely, Greek and Arab coins and gold chains and old jewels brought from the Orient are often discovered in Norway.

After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language, and were speaking French.

[Before 1200] the Icelanders had written the first sagas, which are realism in its most perfect form. … William Paton Ker wrote: “The great achievement of the older world in its final days was in the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change the whole world, if they had only been known and understood.”

These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of the Scandinavians are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel – the art of Flaubert, the Norman – and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Jorge Luis Borges The Scandinavian Destiny 1953

More prosaically, Scandinavian adventurers traveled by ship. Their ships could cover great distances, but they were expensive, and not very large. They carried warriors and merchants, not large masses of peasant settlers. So the far-flung Scandinavian expansion would not leave the same footprint as, say, the earlier Slavic migrations to eastern and southeastern Europe. (See, again, Empires and Barbarians.)

Regarding language: Danish colonists in England introduced some vocabulary – skin and skill come from them; compare Anglo-Saxon hide and craft. But their main contribution to the language may have been negative. Anglo-Saxons and Danes learning each others’ languages dropped a lot of incompatible grammar (sort of like how my German vocabulary is OK, but I forget genders and cases and so on). So English ended up with a simpler grammar than other Germanic languages. (At least that’s one theory.)

And here’s the Hemingwayesque passage that Borges uses to illustrate the realism of the Icelandic sagas (from Grettir’s Saga)

Days before St. John’s Eve, Thorbjörn rode his horse to Bjarg. He had a helmet on his head, a sword in his belt, and a lance in his hand, with a very wide blade. At daybreak it rained. Among Atli’s serfs, some were reaping hay; others had gone fishing to the North, to Hornstrandir. Atli was in his house with a few other people. Thorbjörn arrived around midday. Alone, he rode to the door. It was closed and there was no one outside. Thorbjörn knocked and hid behind the house so as not to be seen from the door. The servants heard the knock and a woman went to open the door. Thorbjörn saw her but did not let himself be seen, because he had another purpose. The woman returned to the chamber. Atli asked who was outside. She said she had seen no one and as they were speaking of it, Thorbjörn pounded forcefully.

Then Atli said: “Someone is looking for me and bringing a message that must be very urgent.” He opened the door and looked out: there was no one. By now it was raining very hard, so Atli did not go out; with a hand on the doorframe, he looked all around. At that moment, Thorbjörn jumped out and with both hands thrust the lance into the middle of his body.

As he took the blow, Atli said: “The blades they use now are so wide.” Then he fell face down on the threshold. The women came out and found him dead. From his horse, Thorbjörn shouted that he was the killer and returned home.

The world at 1000 BCE

Logarithmic History today covers 1137-964 BCE. Here’s a quick look at the world around 1000 BCE

The world population is about 50 million.

The Bantu expansion is just beginning, from a homeland on the present Nigeria/Cameroon border. It will eventually cover most of Africa south of the equator. The expansion is sometimes told as a story of first farmers replacing hunter-gatherers. But, as with the Indo-European expansion, this now looks to be too simple. Other farmers and herders reached east Africa before the Bantu; traces of their languages survive as eastern Bantu substrates. So the Bantu had something extra – social organization? malaria resistance? – going for them.

Seafarers with roots in the Lapita culture have already reached Western Polynesian – Samoa and Tonga, previously uninhabited.

The Olmec are flourishing in Meso-America. A controversial find (the Cascajal block) suggests they are just taking up writing.

In China, the Mandate of Heaven has passed from the Shang Dynasty to the Zhou.

In the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, the Late Bronze Age collapse has opened up space for smaller states. Tyre and other Phoenician city-states are sailing the Mediterranean. Phoenicians using an alphabet that Greeks will eventually adapt. Further south, Philistines and Israelites have been duking it out, with Israelites gaining the upper hand under David* (king from 1010 to 970 BCE). The Iron Age conventionally begins now, with the widespread use of iron – more abundant and cheaper than bronze.

On the steppe, horses have long been domesticated, but people are now learning to make effective use of cavalry – fighting in formation and firing volleys from horseback. This is the beginning of 2500 years in which the division between Steppe and Sown will be central to Eurasian history.

* Everybody knows that David killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17). However, according to 2 Samuel 21:19, Goliath was killed by Elhanan of Bethlehem. Probably the Elhanan story is the original one, and the whole David-and-Goliath story amounts to later resume-padding at the expense of a subordinate. See The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero for this and other demonstrations of how we can recover likely truths from historical texts.