The Paleolithic Indo-Europeans


We don't know a lot about those Upper Paleolithic hunters who first ventured out across the northern steppes, but it is clear that they were great pioneers, boldly going where no modern human had ever gone before.  The steppes were full of game and represented a great opportunity, but they were also cold and treacherous, and the people who settled there must have had to innovate like mad to keep pace with their risky new lifestyle.

One of their innovations may have been a mutually advantageous partnership with the gray wolf.  DNA studies suggest that the domestic dog first separated from the wolf somewhere in East Asia and although the calculated dates vary widely, a figure of 40,000 BP is considered quite plausible.  The discovery of the footprints of what appear to be a boy and his wolf-dog in a recently excavated French cave suggest that dogs had arrived in Europe by 26,000 BP.  Dogs also accompanied the first people to reach the New World, probably at about the same time.

Another fruitful innovation may have been shamanism.  Although that word is used rather loosely these days to describe almost any magical practices involving trances and healing, shamanism in the strictest sense is exclusive to northern Eurasia and the Americas.  True shamanism -- with its focus on wilderness spirits, highly individualistic practitioners, weather magic, and control of game animals -- seems naturally rooted in the vast empty spaces of the steppes.  Out on the leading edge of Paleolithic exploration, a canny shaman would have been every bit as crucial to the survival of the band as its pack of faithful wolf-dogs.

A third innovation, perhaps coming along a bit later than the other two, may have been nothing less than the heroic ideal.  Whether they picked it up from their wolves or from their shamans, the hunting peoples of the north have long had a tendency to view themselves as noble warriors, engaged in mutually respectful battle with their prey -- a self-image which is missing from the more pragmatic attitudes and philosophies of the south.

There were many purely technological innovations as well, especially in the west.  Around 33,000 BP, the big game hunters of the Don developed what is known as the Gravettian culture, characterized by a host of brilliant new devices for survival in the chilly north.  Highly sophisticated stoneworking techniques and the use of spearthrowers for improved distance and accuracy were among their advances, and they are also known for their large skin tents, which were constructed over frameworks of mammoth bones as a substitute for wood on the treeless steppes.

However, their greatest achievement was in their use of more humble materials.  They had invented animal traps and fish traps, which were the source of a large part of their diet, and may also have used darts to kill birds and small mammals.  They were trapping hares and foxes for their skins, which they sewed into warm clothing by means of ivory needles with precisely drilled eyes.  By 27,000 BP, or perhaps earlier, they were making nets and baskets and even weaving cloth on some form of loom.  This more intensive use of resources led to a rapid increase in the average lifespan and a dramatic growth in population.  It also created the potential for larger numbers of people to live together on an extended basis, and by shortly after 30,000 BP, some of the Gravettians were dwelling in semi-permanent villages.

If the hunters who first settled on the Don about 40,000 BP were the original speakers of Eurasiatic, then it is likely that this linguistic unity had broken up before the rise of Gravettian culture.  Some Eurasiatic speakers may have moved south into the Caucasus Mountains, where the people of former Soviet Georgia (shown on the map in tan) speak a language that appears to have distant Eurasiatic affinities.  Others may have gone east, to the area stretching from the Volga River to the Ural Mountains, where they remained part of the Gravettian cultural and artistic sphere.  They would have been the speakers of proto-Uralic and proto-Altaic.  Finally, those who remained on the Don and then turned towards the west would have been the speakers of proto-Indo-European.

When the Gravettian cultural explosion began, Europe was still dominated by the Aurignacian culture, which had arrived from the Middle East some five thousand years earlier.  Around this time, the Aurignacians of central Europe were undergoing an artistic flowering of their own, and it is tempting to speculate that there may have been mutually beneficial interaction between the two peoples.  However, after 30,000 BP, the climate began falling back into extreme Ice Age conditions which the Aurignacians were not prepared to withstand.  The last of the Neanderthals died off at this time, and it has recently been suggested that the Aurignacians would have perished as well if the Gravettians had not come to their rescue.

Gravettian culture, with its many specialized adaptations to steppe conditions, extended its range into central Europe around 29,000 BP and was well established throughout the continent by 26,000 BP.  The fact that Gravettian lineages provide well over half the genetic endowment of present-day Europeans, while the Aurignacian lines account for only about 10%, may give some indication of the survival advantages of the Gravettian way of life.


As human societies grow in size, they invariably develop new forms of organization to enable greater numbers of people to live together peacefully and arrange their affairs in an orderly manner.  In the case of the Gravettians, the shift from small family units of a couple of dozen individuals to far more extended social groupings seems likely to have been accompanied by the development of the social structure known as the patrilocal band.  As described by Peter Farb in Man's Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America, the patrilocal band has several distinctive features, all of which correlate well with the archaeological, genetic, and linguistic evidence for the Gravettian culture:

1. The patrilocal band normally appears where a culture is primarily dependent on male hunting for food and other resources and women's plant-gathering makes a far more limited contribution.  Such cultures tend to be patriarchal (with men wielding most of the power), patrilocal (with men remaining in their father's hunting territory after they grow up and women leaving their own families to join those of their husbands), and patrilineal (with descent reckoned solely from father to son.)

This patrilocal structure is an exact match for the model of society deduced from the most ancient Indo-European kinship terms   For example, there were specialized words meaning "son's wife," "husband's father," "husband's mother," "husband's brother," "husband's sister," and even "husband's brother's wife."  But there were no equivalent terms for "daughter's husband" or "wife's father" or the rest.  They were simply not needed.

2.  In the patrilocal band system, each hunting band has a distinct territory.  The men of a particular band consider themselves to be descended from a common male ancestor, and even if the actual lines of descent cannot be traced, they still maintain this belief as a mythological truth.  All the men relate to one another equally as brothers.  There may be a headman, whose role is primarily religious and advisory, but there are no kings and no nobility.  This simple egalitarianism is in line with both Gravettian archaeology -- which shows occasional elaborate burials but no signs of a fixed class system -- and Indo-European vocabulary.

3.  In the absence of rulers or legal codes, the patrilocal band system maintains peaceful relationships among the members of different groups through the custom of marrying-out, where the wife is required to come from a different band than her husband.  As Farb says of the tribes of southern California which provide his main example, "If a stranger arrives in another band's territory, he is usually greeted with elaborate politeness while he sits on the outskirts of the camp and talks with the old men about possible family relationships.  If the stranger can trace any kind of relationship to someone in the group, then he is accepted into it; it is known just where he fits into the society and how to behave toward him.  Otherwise, he would represent a danger."

Such a system of marital alliances tends to promote social unity over great distances, even among groups which speak different languages and have different local customs.  That sort of wide-reaching unity would explain very well how the Gravettians were able to maintain artistic and technological cohesion over the entire area of Europe for almost ten thousand years.  The capacity of the network to absorb culturally distinct groups would also explain how Aurignacian peoples like the Basques could have been accepted peacefully as part of the Gravettian system.

4.  One awkward result of marrying-out is that sons are always of mixed ancestry and have to be initiated into their father's people at puberty in order to maintain the clear identity of the band.  These adolescent initiation rites tend to be prolonged, elaborate, and frequently painful.  Farb says of one tribe, "The effects of the drug lasted from two to four days.  During that time the initiates experienced visions of spirits, which they believed gave them supernatural powers.  Later the initiates had to descend into a pit dug in the ground, symbolic of death, and then climb out again, supposedly indicating rebirth."

It has often been suggested that the great cave art of Europe formed part of just such a system of initiation, where youths were escorted down to be introduced to the spirit realm, communed for a time with the powerful spirit beings dimly visible through the surface of the cave walls, and were then reborn to the light of day.

But adolescent initiation alone is not sufficient to maintain the identity of the patrilocal band, with its somewhat fragile bases in male bonding and in the myth of shared paternal lineage.  Distinctive rituals, art, and fashions in personal adornment are also essential to hold a band together and set it apart from the neighboring bands.  That necessity may explain why art of all kinds flowered among the steppe hunters of Ice Age Europe, far beyond anything that has found from the same period in the plant-based matrilineal cultures of the south.


In writing this essay, I have deliberately ignored almost everything I learned in college about linguistic change in favor of applying a few basic assumptions.  One of these is that human beings tend to be culturally conservative.  Once they settle down into a comfortable rut, they resist further change except in the face of crisis.  They also don't like to move around very much, especially not into territory that is already inhabited.

A second is that human society has always been as fad-driven as it is today, and that people will eagerly pick up on any novel fashions or cool gadgets that come along -- together with the accompanying jargon -- as long as they can fit them into their existing way of life.

The third assumption, which follows from the first two, is that the traditional inclination of archaeologists to interpret every artistic or technological innovation as evidence of either population replacement or major cultural upheaval is fundamentally misguided.  Although there were many changes of style in prehistory, I believe that there were only a handful of major cultural transformations, most of them sparked by changes in climate.

My fourth assumption is that those few major events were so world-altering that traces of them will still be visible today in any area we might happen to look -- in archaeology, in genetics, and in linguistics, as well as in the physical environment.  Linguistic change, in particular, does not happen in a vacuum, but goes hand in hand with cultural change in general.

And my fifth and most heretical assumption, which grows out of the other four, is that if we spot what looks very much like the same concatenation of events cropping up across multiple areas of study, it probably really is the same  Even if the dates we have calculated don't immediately line up, it is more likely that our calculations are wrong than that the same script was played out twice, in the same locations but with different actors.

For example, if archaeology, genetics, and linguistics all indicate just two major movements of modern humans from Asia into Europe, then the most logical conclusion is that each of these disciplines is describing the same two events.  Unless we want to claim that language is a sort of ghostly presence which can flit from place to place without leaving physical evidence of its passage, we are forced to conclude that Indo-European must have reached Europe along with the Gravettians.

The same logic suggests that the second major event in the Indo-European story -- its breakup into a cluster of daughter languages -- would have also left obvious signs in the archaeological and genetic records.  And as it happens, we do have evidence of one and only one such radical fragmentation.  It took place at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, some 20,000 years ago, which was an event of unparalleled disruption for the human population of Europe.

Let us look back for a moment to 29,000 BP.  At that time, Europe had already begun returning to full Ice Age conditions, but the newly-arrived Gravettians were accustomed to life on the steppes and took the changes in stride.  They continued to flourish even after 25,000 BP, despite the climate becoming increasingly cold and dry.  The majority of the famous "Venus" statuettes were produced between about 24,000 and 22,000 BP, mainly in an area of central and eastern Europe stretching from the Danube to the Volga.

However, from 21,000 to 17,000 BP, glacial conditions grew so extreme that much of Europe was uninhabitable.  Ice fields spread south from Scandinavia and north from the Alps, and the narrow corridor between them became a bleak polar desert.  This created an impassable barrier between eastern and western Europe which destroyed the cultural unity that had endured for thousands of years.

At the absolute peak of the cold, human habitation was reduced to a few relatively temperate refuges, and even in those the harshest of steppe conditions seem to have prevailed.  There was one such refuge in southern France and northwestern Spain and a second in Italy.  A third was in the northern Balkans, and a fourth in the Ukraine.

Eastern Europe held onto much of its Gravettian heritage during this period, so the culture there is described as epi-Gravettian.  However, in the extreme west, two new cultures developed -- the Solutrean, about 20,000 BP, which produced the finest tools of the Late Paleolithic, and the Magdalenian, after 18,000 BP, in which the art of the deep caves reached its peak.

Reduced though their numbers may have been, it would be a mistake to regard the people who lived through the great cold as a pitiful remnant barely clinging to survival.  The Solutreans, in particular, are likely to have turned to harvesting the resources of the sea as the land became barren, probably venturing out in curraghs of sewn-together animal hides like those traditionally used in Ireland.  There is even serious speculation that they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, working their way along the edge of the ice cap, and introducing the Clovis culture -- whose stoneworking techniques closely resemble those of the Solutrean -- to North America.

Late Ice Age migrationsWhen the ice started retreating after 16,000 BP, people gradually moved north.  The first to repopulate the northern European plains were Magdalenian reindeer hunters from southern France (blue arrows).  By 14,000 BP, they had reached England (which was then attached to the continent, due to lowered sea levels), the Netherlands, and Germany.  A thousand years later, they had also pushed north into Denmark and southern Sweden and east as far as Poland and southern Lithuania.

By that time, a second wave of expansion had begun spreading northwest from the Dniepr River in the Ukraine (red arrows), carrying an offshoot of the epi-Gravettian culture of eastern Europe to Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.  From Poland, this culture expanded further into Germany and Scandinavia, ultimately reaching northern Norway and Finland as the Ice Age came to a close about 10,000 BP.

Recent DNA studies have confirmed this ancient split between the peoples of eastern and western Europe, with the most common haplotypes in both male and female lines showing distinct subvariants at either end of the continent.  In southern Europe, there is a particularly sharp divide between Italy and the Balkans, but in northern Europe there a smooth gradient from east to west, reflecting the repopulation of this area from both directions.  The midpoint, where a majority of western haplotypes gives way to a majority of eastern haplotypes, corresponds roughly with the present border between Germany and Poland.

According to the DNA, there was just one other significant event in the repopulation of northern Europe, and that was the settlement of Ireland at the very end of the Ice Age by seafarerers from northwestern Spain or Portugal (green arrows).  These bold sailors might have been making regular stops at the unglaciated southern tip of Ireland for many thousands of years -- it would have been the natural jumping-off place if they really did cross the Atlantic to establish the Clovis culture.  But it was only after the ice retreated fully and the land became green and inviting that they were able to put down roots and take up permanent residence around the shores of the Irish Sea.

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Background courtesy of Eos Development