Indo-Europeans Family of Languages

Indo-Europeans are representatives of a language family now widely distributed all over the world, with primary concentration in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Asia. Sir William Jones, who emphasized the similarity of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Celtic, and the German language, introduced the term Indo-European in 1786.

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Primarily this term was used to mark the similarity detected in the languages of a major part of the population of Europe, Iran, and India. From the 18th to 19th centuries the focus of such studies was shifted to the detection of similarities in German and other languages, which is why in 1823 I. Kapport introduced the term Indo-German. This was quickly replaced by the term proposed by Max Muller, Arian (Aryan). Since the second half of the 20th century the term Indo-European has replaced other versions.

Contemporary Indo-Europeans


The Indo-European family of languages in its contemporary understanding was designed in 1863 by August Schleicher as a peculiar genealogical tree, which reflects its wide distribution and its process of inner development and disintegration into dialects and new languages. This scheme is based on the assumption that common Indo-European pre-language was distributed first only in a restricted area, and in the course of time its transmitters settled all over Eurasia (in modern times also in America, Africa, and Australia) disseminating their language and culture.

Many contemporary linguists distinguish 10 branches in the Indo-European family of languages: Indo-Iranian, Slavonic and Baltic, Armenian, Anatolian, Albanian, Tokharian, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, and Hellenic. Every one of the aforementioned branches unites modern as well as “dead,” or extinct, languages used in the remote past by collectives known only by remnants of their artifacts and/or written sources, such as Sanskrit, Latin, Old Greek, Venetic, Old Persian, Lydian, and Mycenaean. Main branches of Indo-European languages are distributed unevenly in the contemporary world and sometimes could be subdivided into groups and subgroups with different numbers of languages.

Indo-European Homeland Identification

Searches for the place and time of origin of Indo-Europeans have been based on the assumption that linguistic and cultural similarity of the Indo-European family of languages is provoked by their connection with a common ancestor that lived in the remote past. Contemporary archaeology, cultural and physical anthropology, linguistics, and other neighboring sciences provide a wide variety of ideas and hypotheses, which can be divided into two groups: One tends to see common Indo-European ancestors as early agriculturists living mainly by land cultivation, while the second searches for the earliest Indo-Europeans among the nomadic population economy and mode of life based on cattle breeding and the exploration of domestic horses and wheeled vehicles.


Since the late 1960s new insights into the Indo-Europeans’ ancient homeland imply the convergent development of a series of neighboring language transmitters, which practiced mutual borrowing of terminology connected with the main field of their livelihood and subsistence (the so-called surge model). Another contemporary tendency of Indo-European homeland research tries to integrate a genealogical tree model with a theory of regional development of Indo-European languages. The latest developments are based on archaeological data.

Indo-Europeans As Nomads

V. G. Childe put forward the North Black Sea hypothesis of an Indo-European homeland in the mid-20th century. In spite of an apparent difference of backgrounds and arguments, this hypothesis was illustrated with data from Neolithic settlements of the region, implying identification of early Indo-Europeans as the first nomads. This may be the only reasonable explanation of the rapidity and scale of pre-Indo- Europeans’ dissemination over the Eurasian steppe and forest steppe region.

Valentin Danilenko also regarded nomadic impact (connected with the Seredniy Stig culture of the Lower Dniper region) as a crucial factor for Indo-Europeans’ spread to inner territories of Europe and the diversification of Indo-Europeans into several branches. In Ukraine Yuriy Rassamakin has also studied this, localizing a probable homeland for Indo-Europeans in the steppe zone between the Don and Danube Rivers. He identifies creators of Seredniy Stig culture as early Indo-Europeans, who conducted progressive forms of a cattle-breeding economy of pastoralist genre and lived in a neighborhood with non-Indo-Europeans. Many representatives of Soviet archaeology (Alexander Bryusov, Biktor Gening, Dmitry Telegin) regarded the Caucasus and the steppe landscapes of the northern Black Sea region as the most probable homeland of early Indo-European pastoralists.


Maria Gimbutas localized the Indo-European homeland in the Ural-Don steppes and tended to reference them with the so-called mound-grave culture circle, which includes different peoples with the only common feature in their funeral rites. She regarded Indo- Europeans as aggressive invaders whose attacks during the fifth millennium b.c.e. caused the destruction of prosperous agricultural centers in the Balkans, Asia Minor, central Europe, and Transcaucasia and, later, in the Aegean and Adriatic region. John Mallory proposed recently an original interpretation of the creators of the Pit-Grave (Yamnaya) culture as the earliest proto-Indo-Europeans. On the rich and extensive empirical (archaeological and linguistic) database he has illustrated movements of the Pit-Grave population to Siberia; the Near East; southeastern, central, and northern Europe; and other regions of Eurasia.

Most of the versions of nomadic interpretation of early Indo-Europeans are based on the assumption that dispersal of this population was relatively rapid and covered huge territories during a restricted period of time (fifth–third millenniums b.c.e.). It implies the development of effective transportation (such as horseback riding with the use of wheel carts for heavy items and belongings) and sparse settlement, with the highly developed funeral monuments that reflected complicated rites and customs. That is why traces of horse domestication, the origin of the wheel, and the construction of mound graves usually are regarded as the most reliable archaeological evidences of Indo-Europeans as nomadic.

Indo-Europeans As Early Agriculturists

Most of advocates of early Indo-Europeans as early agriculturists believe that the process of their formation should be viewed in a broad chronological frame beginning from the Mesolithic Period and transitioning to a productive economy. The spread is usually connected with the dispersion of farming skills, which implies the drawing of terminology and rites and customs, the sharing of the “oasis,” or monocentric, theory
of a transition to land cultivation and cattle breeding, and searches for the time and place of Indo-European origin in the origin of agriculture.

One of the most widespread in contemporary prehistory and archaeology understanding of pre-Indo-Europeans as early agriculturists was proposed in the late 1980s by Colin Renfrew. Localizing Indo- Europeans in central and eastern Anatolia as early as the middle of the eighth millennium b.c.e., he distinguishes 10 diffusions of Indo-Europeans to adjacent and relatively remote territories (including the Black Sea steppe region). Such diffusions were caused by the necessity to ensure facilities for an agricultural mode of life (first of all, land suitable for farming), which did not imply widespread human migrations: In Refrew’s understanding it was rather a gradual movement of individuals or their small family groups (approximately 1.6 miles per year), which caused a series of local hunter-gatherers to adapt to an agricultural mode of life. Soviet researcher Igor Diakonov, who localized the Indo-Europeans’ homeland in the Balkan and Carpathian regions, also indicated that their ancestors could have come from Asia Minor with their domesticated animals and plants. He dated this process at 5000–4000 b.c.e.

Russian archaeologist Gerald Matyushin believed that the only common Indo-European traits that could be traced and proved archaeologically are microlithic industry and the origin of a productive economy (land cultivation and cattle breeding). The earliest displays of both of these traits he localized in the Zagros Mountains and southern Caspian region, suggesting that agriculture distribution in Europe should be connected with the expansion and migration of Middle Eastern inhabitants to the north. European hunter-gatherers adopted agriculture together with appropriate rituals, rites, and spells, which were pronounced using the language of pioneers of land cultivation, ensuring the linguistic similarity of Indo-European peoples. His hypothesis is based on the mapping of microlithic technology, and the temporal and spatial distribution was later proved by the linguistic studies of T. Gamkrelidze and Vyacheslav the Ivanov. They suggest that the ancestral home of Indo-Europeans was located in the region of Lake Van and Lake Urmia, from whence they moved to Middle Asia, the northern Caspian region, and the southern Urals.

One more version of the agriculturist interpretation of early Indo-Europeans is the hypothesis that their origin lay in central Europe on the territory between the Rein, Visla, and Upper Danube. It was based on the correlation of Indo-European hydronimy with the distribution of the population connected with linear pottery culture, funnel beaker culture, globular amphora culture, and corded ware culture. G. Kossina, E. Mayer, P. Bosch-Gimpera, and G. Devoto shared this idea, which was actively discussed during the first half of the 20th century, especially by the Nazis. This discussion resulted in identification of pre-Germans (or pre-Indo-Germans) with Aryans who were regarded as transmitters of the highest cultural achievements in ancient civilization. This conclusion was broadly used by fascist propagandists as a justification for the genocide of the non-Aryan population practiced in Europe during World War II.

Synthetic, Or Compromise, Ideas

One of the earliest versions of a compromise was proposed in 1969 by Soviet archaeologist Vladimir Danilenko. He assumed that the roots of Indo-Europeans could be traced as early as 10,000–7000 b.c.e. on the border of Europe and Asia. By 5000 b.c.e., pre-Indo-Europeans (the population of Bug-Dnister, Sursko-Dniper, and linear pottery cultures) moved to the northwestern Black Sea region. He supposes the presence of at least two dialect zones in the pre-Indo-European homeland at that time: the western agricultural and eastern nomadic. Higher activity of the latter during the Neolithic had caused further disintegration of this dialectic unity and the relatively rapid spread of Indo-Europeans into the inner territories of Europe under the influence of the nomadic culture of Seredniy Stig. According to Danilenko, several branches of Indo-Europeans could already be traced at that time, among them the Tokharians (pit-grave culture), Indo-Iranians (Usatovo, Kemi-Oba, Lowe Mykhailivka cultures), proto-Thrakians, and proto-Daco-Mezians (representatives of the agricultural zone, including the Trypillie phenomenon).

Russian researcher Viktor Safonov proposed an original version of the history of the Indo-Europeans, which he divided into four periods, each with a particular homeland: 1) boreal period (pre-9000 b.c.e.) with no apparent traces of Indo-European separation from other languages; 2) period of early Indo-European language (8000–6000 b.c.e.) with the homeland in the western and central part of southern Anatolia (Chatal-Hujuk culture); 3) period of middle Indo-European language (6000–5000 b.c.e.) with the homeland Danubian region (Vincha culture); and 4) period of late Indo-European language (5000–3000 b.c.e.) during seven stages of which the final version of Indo-European homeland was shaped in the course of Lengyel and funnel beaker cultures dispersion. During the first half of the third millennium b.c.e. he tracked disintegration of Indo- European language unity into different language branches with relatively independent and self-sufficient histories.

Mikhail Andreev, who used “linguistic paleontology” based on studies of F. de Saussure, proposed a similar version of Indo-European language development. In his version three global stages of Indo-European language formation are distinguished: boreal, in the Late Paleolithic; early Indo-European, in the Mesolithic; and late Indo-European. He traces the primary homeland of Indo-Europeans to the vast spaces of Eurasia along the 50th parallel from the Rein River on the west to Altay on the east.

Other trends in the conceptualization of the Indo-Europeans’ homeland are connected with further development of needs to abandon the search for a narrow and strictly outlined territory where the earliest displays of Indo-European language and culture could be traced. Many linguists (Oleg Trubachev, Lev Gindin) as well as many archaeologists (Nikolay Merpert, Evgeniy Chernykh) believe in the possibility of the divergent and convergent development of languages, which does not necessarily imply the existence of any Indo-European pre-language.

Following the ideas of Nikolay Trubetskoy, Pizani, and others, the roots of contemporary Indo- European languages should be found in the environment of deeply interconnected dialects of the Neolithic—the Bronze Age, which gave birth to the primary Indo- European languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, and Celtic. In this sense all attempts to identify fi rst Indo-Europeans with any archaeological data are regarded as useless and contradicting with the basic principles of historical reconstruction.

Contemporary studies in the fi eld of Indo- Europeans’ homeland are concerned mainly with the Neolithic population of the European steppe region and imply that the homogeneity of the early pre-Indo-European family of languages was destroyed during the fourth millennium b.c.e.

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