The Paleolithic Indo-Europeans


In the early years of the 20th century, German archaologists in Anatolia unearthed a store of tablets written in familiar Babylonian cuneiform characters, but in a previously unknown language.  The young Czech scholar who was given an opportunity to work on these inscriptions gradually came to suspect that they represented a new member of the Indo-European family.  By 1915 he was able to announce his decipherment of the Hittite language.

Exciting as this discovery was, it also posed certain problems.  For one thing, Hittite was a centum language, not a satem language, and did not share the changes in pronunciation typical of other eastern Indo-European languages.  This, together with certain highly archaic features, suggested that it must have separated from proto-Indo-European at a very early date, even before the development of the centum/satem split.

Although this conclusion made sense of the linguistic evidence, it meant that the separation of Hittite could not be accounted for by the scenario of chariot-warrior conquest which was assumed to explain the dispersal of the other Indo-European lanugages.  The Hittites must have set out on their own prior to that more general migration and for very different reasons.  But what those reasons might have been, in what way the Hittites made their way around the Black Sea to Anatolia, and how they established themselves in an area that was already filled with advanced Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age cultures all continued to be insoluble mysteries.

The Neolithic hypothesis of Indo-European that arose in the 1980's was in part a response to the seventy year old problem of Hittite.  The Anatolian version of the hypothesis -- which suggested that the Hittites were simply the people who stayed behind when their cousins brought agriculture to Europe -- seemed particularly tidy.  Unfortunately, the idea of an Anatolian homeland has proved to create far more problems than it solves.  It remains as true now as it was ninety years ago that any adequate theory of Indo-European origins is going to have to provide a plausible mechanism to bring the ancestors of the Hittites around to the southern side of the Black Sea.

Bosphorus land bridgeAs it happens, a journey of that sort would have been far easier in the Paleolithic than at any later period.  During much of the Ice Age, the lowering of sea levels closed off the Bosphorus and created a land connection between the Balkans and Anatolia.  (The areas in black on the map were dry land at the height of the glaciation.)  There would have been nothing to prevent the Gravettians from continuing on into Anatolia when they first spread across Europe between 29,000 and 26,000 BP -- and there is a fair amount of evidence that they did just that.

For example, DNA studies show that two Y chromosome haplotypes which definitely originated in Europe during the Paleolithic are found in about 35% of present-day Turkish men.  According to Stephen Oppenheimer in The Real Eve, at least one of these haplotypes displays distinctive Anatolian subtypes which indicate that it must have left Europe before 26,000 BP.

There is also evidence from Anatolia and other parts of the Middle East for Gravettian influence in certain areas of technology and art.  However, the Gravettian culture as a whole never took root in those areas, which suggests that any early migrants must have quickly been absorbed into the local cultural sphere and lost touch with their kin back in Europe.  This is precisely the sort of situation which would explain the high degree of difference between Hittite and its European relatives.

But there's a lot more to the story, because Hittite is not the only member of the Indo-European family which appears to have reached Anatolia at a very early date.

The present-day nation of Armenia is located south of the Caucasus Mountains, roughly halfway between the Black Sea and the Caspian.  The genetic makeup of the Armenians is similar to that of the people of Turkey, including those two distinctive European Y haplotypes.  And the language of the Armenians is an eccentric but recognizable form of Indo-European.  No one doubts that the Armenians' ancestors came to their present location from Europe -- the only question is just when and how.

Because Armenian has undergone a satem-style shift from "c" to "s," it was once assumed to be closely related to Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian.  However, this assumption has proved untenable for a variety of reasons.  Both genetics and archaology indicate that the Armenians could not have arrived in their present location from either the north or the northeast.  Linguistically also, Armenian is not especially close to the satem languages.  In fact, it is extremely remote from all other Indo-European languages, including Hittite.

These various considerations suggest that the proto-Armenians might have reached Anatolia from the Balkans at the same time as the proto-Hittites, but separated from them almost immediately.  Perhaps the proto-Hittites turned south and then east along the Mediterranean coast while the proto-Armenians went due east along the southern shore of the Black Sea.  If so, they would probably have lingered there throughout the Glacial Maximum, moving further to the east around 15,000 BP, when the area south of the Caucasus became moist and fertile.

However, the Armenians are not the end of the story either.  There is yet another Indo-European language, spoken much further to the east, which appears to have originated in the same general area as Hittite and Armenian.  Tocharian, like Hittite, was discovered about a century ago, when thousand year old Buddhist texts in an unknown language were brought back to Europe from the Tarim Basin of western China.  A large number of these texts included a few Sanskrit words and  proved to be translations of well-known religious works.  Some were even bilingual, making the decipherment of the new language and its identification as Indo-European a relatively straightforward task.

However, assigning Tocharian its proper place in the Indo-European family has turned out to be anything but straightforward.  For one thing, it is a centum language and shows no particular similarity to its Indo-Iranian neighbors. An alternative possibility has been suggested on the basis of the magnificant mummies of Urumchi, which are found in the same area as the Tocharian writings but date back as far as 2000 BC.  The people whose bodies were preserved by the dry desert sands were clearly European in origin, as shown by their physical appearance, by their DNA, and even by the textiles they wore.  Because of their fair hair and their fondness for plaids, it is thought by some that they were closely related to the Celts of Europe.

But despite its romantic appeal, this idea of a Celtic connection fades on closer scrutiny.  For one thing, it is dependent on the outdated notion of a relatively recent Celtic homeland in east-central Europe.  For another, the specific nature of the European component in the DNA of the Uighurs -- a people of mixed origin who currently inhabit the Tarim Basin -- seems to hint that their western ancestors followed a route from Anatolia to northern Iran and then across the deserts of Central Asia by way of the ancient Silk Route (dashed line).

Tocharian migrationA journey of this sort would have first become possible about 15,000 BP, when the mountains of Iran became well-watered and fertile (green on the map) and the Tarim Basin (pink) was freed from the grip of the Ice Age.  It is also unlikely to have occurred much later than that, since once the proto-Iranians (grey arrow) started settling down along the Amy Darya and developing the arts of agriculture, they would have formed a barrier to any later migrants.

It has recently been suggested that Tocharian has certain features in common with Hittite.  It that is correct, it would suggest that the proto-Tocharians might have moved from southeastern Anatolia into northern Iran as the Ice Age waned and then continued fairly rapidly on to the east.  But the reasons for their plunge into the unknown remain mysterious

One other oddity is those fabrics of uniquely European weave that were produced by the prehistoric inhabitants of Urumchi.  Since we know that the Gravettians had mastered weaving by 27,000 BP, it is possible that the proto-Tocharians could have brought their taste in patterns all the way from Europe.  But in that case, we are forced to imagine the interesting spectacle of Gravettian mammoth-hunters setting forth after their prey dressed in brightly-colored plaids.  It is, to say the least, an intriguing image.

And finally, there are the Greeks.

We tend to take the Greeks for granted as the very epitome of European civilization.  And yet the Greek language in many ways does not appear to be a European language at all.  It is every bit as remote from other Indo-European languages as Armenian, Tocharian, or Hittite.  It shows no obvious similarity to Thracian and Illyrian, its closest neighbors in classical times, or to present-day Albanian.  If it has any affinities at all, they are with Phrygian (an ancient language of western Anatolia) and more distantly with Armenian.

Bosphorus land bridgeGenetically as well, the Greeks are closer to the people of Anatolia than to those of the northern Balkans.  Greece was extremely sparsely populated during the late Ice Age, and the population did not increase until the arrival of large numbers of agriculturalists around 9000 BP.  Prior to that time, the Aegean islands, even those located right off the Greek coast, had a culture whose affinities were not with Greece but with southern Anatolia.  Looking again at the map, it seems entirely possible that the original Greek homeland might have consisted of the eastern shore of the Aegean together with the larger islands, and that the less hospitable Greek mainland was settled only subsequent to the flooding of those coastal areas at the end of the Ice Age.

Although it seems strange to think of the Greeks as relative late-comers to Europe, I know of no other way to explain the extreme isolation of their language.  And once the idea of the Greeks as outsiders is accepted, the many "Asian" aspects of their later culture and mythology fall into place as well.


In summary, here is the timeline that emerges from an attempt to find the best fit among archaeology, genetics, climate, and linguistics:

33,000-26,000 -- proto-Indo-European serves as the language of the Gravettian culture that develops on the Don and then spreads across Europe

26,000 -- the Indo-European speakers who enter Anatolia quickly become separated from those of Europe and then split up further, giving rise to proto-Hittite, proto-Tocharian, proto-Armenian, and proto-Greco-Phrygian

25,000-22,000 -- minor dialectical differences develop between eastern and western Europe

21,000-17,000 -- the Glacial Maximum forces Europeans into half a dozen isolated refuges, giving rise to the Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Balkan, Balto-Slavic, and Indo-Iranian families of Indo-European

16,000-14,000 -- Germanic speakers migrate from southern France to England, Germany, and southern Scandinavia

15,000-13,000 -- Indo-Iranians migrate from the Caspian and Aral Seas along the Amu Darya to northern Afghanistan and the Indus Valley -- at the same time, Tocharians move east from Anatolia to northern Iran and then to the Tarim Basin

13,000-10,000 -- Baltic speakers mimgrate north from the Ukraine

10,000 -- Celts migrate from western Iberia to the lands around the Irish Sea

9000 BP -- Greeks bring agriculture from southwestern Anatolia and the islands of the Aegean to the Greek mainland

As stated above, I deliberately developed this scenario for the separation of Indo-European into its various daughter languages solely on the basis of identifying plausible correlations among the several kinds of evidence and without regard for dates.  And yet the question of dating does have to be acknowledged and addressed -- particularly when the results are so greatly at variance with conventional wisdom.

The first point I would like to emphasize is that there is no such thing as a scientific method for determining the age of different languages families.  There is nothing equivalent to C-14 dating in archaeology or even to the somewhat fuzzier biological clocks of the geneticists.  Instead, there are various pseudo-scientific techniques, based on the unproven assumptions that languages, like DNA, mutate at a fixed rate, or that they lose basic vocabulary in a way comparable to the half-life of carbon 14.

These techniques normally start with a known quantity, such as the amount of divergence among the Romance languages since their common origin in the Latin of two thousand years ago, and extrapolate that same rate of change back into prehistory.  This is the procedure that has led to the conclusion that the common ancestor of all the Indo-European languages existed no more than 10,000 years ago -- a declaration that conforms very reassuringly to the current Neolithic hypothesis.

However, this conclusion I believe to be flat wrong.

When I was a linguistics major in college -- before what was then called glotto-chronology became the reigning orthodoxy -- I was taught that not all languages change at the same rate.  For example, the Baltic languages are extraordinarily conservative and have retained many features of proto-Indo-European, while the closely related Slavic languages have changed far more over the same period of time.  Even a single language may change very rapidly at certain phases in its history and barely at all at others.

The operative factor seems to be that languages which are spoken by a stable community and have little outside contact change very slowly, while languages whose speakers migrate and encounter other languages change a great deal more quickly.  The most extreme changes occur when two different language communities merge entirely, producing what is called a creole -- a simplified form of one of the two languages, modified by a significant infusion of vocabulary and even some elements of grammar and pronunciation from the other.

The history of English can serve to illustrate these points.  English has changed to only a limited degree over the past four hundred years, so that we are able to read the Early Modern English of Shakespeare and the King James translation of the Bible with relative ease.  The Middle English of six hundred years ago is somewhat stranger to our eyes but can still be made out with a modest effort.  For example, here is the beginning of Chaucer's "Squire's Tale":

At Sarray, in the land of Tartarye,
Ther dwelte a kyng that werreyed Russye,
Thurgh which ther dyde many a doughty man,
This noble kyng was cleped Cambyuskan,
Which in his tyme was of so greet renoun
That ther was nowher in no regioun
So excellent a lord in alle thyng.
Hym lakked noght that longeth to a king.
In these lines, the word order, the basic grammar, and most of the vocabulary are entirely familiar.  With the aid of a few footnotes to inform us that "werreyed" means "made war on," "cleped" means "named," and "longeth" means "belongs," the passage becomes fully intelligible.  (It also helps, though it is not essential, to know that Sarai, located on the Volga River, was the capital of the Khanate of the Golden Horde and a center of science and literature.  In other words, Chaucer's fairy-tale king Cambyuskan was actually a Mongol khan.)

Now contrast that with a similar description of an ideal ruler from the opening of "Beowulf," which was composed about 800 AD:

oft Scyld Scefing   sceaena reatum
monegum mgum   meodosetla ofteah
egsode eorlas   syan rest wear
feasceaft funden   he aes frofre gebad
weox under wolcnum   weormyndum ah
o t him ghwylc   ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade   hyran scolde
gomban gyldan   t ws god cyning
Suddenly, we are dealing with an almost completely foreign language, presenting only a tiny number of familiar words -- "he," "him," "under" -- plus a few more that may seem almost-familiar.  The very rhythms of the poetry have grown strange and alien.  This extreme dislocation is not merely the result of going back a further six centuries.  Even Chaucer would have found Old English incomprehensible, although it was as close in time to him as he is to us.

The critical event that altered the Old English of "Beowulf" into the Middle English of "The Canterbury Tales" was, of course, the Norman Conquest.  The imposition of a new, French-speaking aristocracy upon the English countryside did not permanently displace the English language, but it did have a profound effect on it.  A great deal of novel vocabulary was introduced, case endings were knocked off, the word order became less Germanic (so that verbs were no longer allowed to dangle at the ends of sentences), and the spelling was reconfigured to remove all the special symbols for sounds which occurred (and actually still occur) in English but not in French.

During the six centuries since Chaucer, English has been relatively stable again -- but only relatively.  By historical standards, those six centuries have still been a time of constant cultural and political upheaval.  In fact, the entire last three thousand years, since the rise of kingship and the introduction of the horse-chariot first made elite conquest possible, have witnessed an almost uninterrupted succession of wars and invasions throughout Europe.

By comparison, the Paleolithic and most of the Neolithic were periods of extreme stability, during which wars of conquest were unknown and cultural development was positively glacial by contemporary standards.  It seems likely that under those conditions languages would have followed something similar to the biological model known as punctuated equilibrium, with brief periods of rapid change separated by far more extended phases of almost no change at all.

One of those periods of rapid change may have occurred during the initial settlement of the steppes, about 40,000 to 35,000 BP, giving rise to the major language families of northern Eurasia and the Americas.  There may have been a second when the Gravettian culture first entered Europe and absorbed the Aurignacian.  And the isolation of the Last Glacial Maximum would have allowed the ancestors of the present families to begin diverging -- although not so far as to prevent them from communicating and borrowing vocabulary back and forth when they came into contact again.

In short, it seems entirely possible that there might have been no further splits among the language families of Europe between the end of the Ice Age and about 2000 BC.  In that sense, the Indo-Europeanists of a century ago, who saw the developmental clock as beginning to tick only at about that time, may not have been all that misguided.


My underlying motivation in writing this piece was to scratch several personal itches.

My first intention was to satisfy the seven year old in me who fell in love with ancient myths and fairy tales and was thrilled by the wonderful sense of freedom and possibility that the long-ago people who first told those stories had expressed.  As I grew older, I looked back ever further into history for the source of that sense of the marvellous, but without finding it -- not in the city-states and empires of ancient Greece and Rome, not in the bureaucratic kingdoms of the Bronze Age, and not in the peasant villages of the Neolithic.  I finally concluded that if that fairy-tale anticipation of wonders lying just over the next hill ever really existed, it can only have been among the wanderers and seafarers of the late Paleolithic.

But I had always been told that it was impossible to discover what the people of the Paleolithic actually thought and believed.  My professors and textbooks in college had seen history as a sequence of cultural substitutions so radical and complete as to leave no intelligible trace of what had come before.  In their eyes, the culture of the Neolithic must have wiped out that of the Paleolithic in much the same way that the Europeans did their best to eradicate the cultures of the Native Americans.  Everything we saw around us today -- the technology, the languages, and the mythologies -- could date back no more than a few thousand years, even in the most seemingly primitive of present-day societies.

Over the last few decades, this assumption of total cultural replacement has been challenged in a variety of disciplines.  Linguistics alone has remained confined to its post-Ice Age box.  So on one level, this essay represents an attempt to break open the box and recapture the ultimate magical roots of our own fragmented and disillusioned modern society.

My second intention was to satisfy the seventeen year old in me who loved both physics and history and wanted the social sciences to make the same kind of sense as the natural sciences.  I have found it increasingly troubling to see Indo-European linguistics, which originally appealed to me as a unique key to the mysteries of the past, becoming disengaged from actual history, archaeology, and genetics to the point where it seemed doomed to irrelevance.  So on a second level, this essay has been an attempt to show that linguistics can be as firmly rooted in historical fact as any other means of studying the past.

Finally, my third intention was to satisfy the grown-up me who knows that we are what we dream outselves to be -- and that this has great implications for how we conduct ourselves in the world.

Western civilization over the last few centuries has been oddly schizoid.  We often claim that we value freedom and creativity above everything else, and yet we trace our cultural pedigree back to the hierarchic despotisms and state-mandated religions of the ancient Near East.  Today, with the contest between freedom and repression once again coming to a head, it seems more important than ever to locate our historical roots not in despotism, but in the most radically innovative and imaginative cultures of the past.

I believe that most of our cultural heritage as Westerners -- including the ultimate foundations of science and democracy -- can be traced back to the self-reliant, inventive folk who tested themselves against the rigors of the Ice Age steppes and found they could thrive even in the harshest of circumstances.  If we can reconceive of the proto-Indo-Europeans not as conquering warriors and empire-builders, not as earthbound tillers of the soil, and not as uncouth barbarians needing to be civilized by outside impositions of regularity and discipline, but rather as imaginative, creative, magical thinkers, we may find a fitting model by which to renew ourselves and our society.

August-December 2004


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Background courtesy of Eos Development