For a long time, the only evidence we had of an ancient, proto-Indo-European culture was the fact that many European and Asian languages evidently belonged to the same family, sharing a basic grammatical structure and etymology.
By the method of comparative linguistics, scholars since the 19th century have been working on comparing languages in order to establish how they relate to each other historically. Languages that share many root words and which follow a similar grammatical structure may share common historical origins.
By way of comparison and cutting languages down to commonly shared roots words, scholars have been able to reconstruct what they believe may have been the original, Proto-Indo-European language.
Ethnicity Does Not Equal Language
A shared language family does not necessarily mean that all the speakers are ethnically or genetically related. Sometimes, a new language is introduced into a geographical area or a tribe of people due to invasion or else significant foreign influence on trade, economy, and the culture of the ruling classes.
- The Romans, for example, added to, but did not replace the older, Celtic-speaking populations of Gaul (France) and Iberia (Spain & Portugal), but their Italic (Latin) language held so much influence for hundreds of years that the residents in these lands have been speaking Italic languages ever after.
- The Anglo-Saxons who arrived from Jutland in Britannia as soon as the Romans had packed up and left some time before the 5th century AD, likewise added to, but did not replace, the older Celto-Roman populations, they just held such prominent positions in society for such a long time that most people began to speak their language, “Old English”.
- People in Turkey carry the same genetic ancestry as people in Greece and other parts of southeastern Europe, and were once very much a part of the Classical world and the Roman Empire. Yet, because of a Turkic invasion from the east happening only a thousand years ago, they now speak Turkish, a Turkic language.
If the upper classes promote a particular language, this is the language that is going to dominate eventually.
- 15th century Scandinavia experienced a surge of foreign economic investments from German and Dutch-speaking countries. These rich foreigners held such a dominant position for such a long time that, eventually, speaking medieval German and Dutch was for a long time deemed more classy and fashionable than speaking the native language, “Old Norse”. This attitude changed the Scandinavian languages from the original “Old Norse” to the languages spoken today – the change took less than a century to be completed. Only Iceland and the Faroe Islands were able to maintain their original Norse language.
The language of the upper classes is the language in which documents are written, and is always the language that is deemed the most fashionable, classy and cultivated one. This in itself is enough to change the language of a nation, and does not mean that the people themselves have been replaced.
If we look at the populations of Finland compared to the populations of Scandinavia, we see that they speak completely different languages.
- Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family.
- Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) belong to the Indo-European language family.
And yet, if we look at the archaeological as well as genetic lineages of the populations of Finland and Scandinavia, it is clear that we mostly share the same ancestors. Finland knew exactly the same Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures as did Scandinavia, cultures that have now been recognized as basically Indo-European, but, like the Hungarians and the Basque peoples, they maintained their older language forms. Evidently, the Indo-European speakers did not always manage to complete their linguistic domination in all European lands.
For this reason, we cannot assume that the spread of the Indo-European language family always meant invasions and massive migrations, even if these evidently also happened. It could just as easily mean that one particular culture held so much economic and cultural influence in an area that their language became the official language spoken by all, a bit like the position of English in so many other countries than just England.
The “universal” language does not mean that the other languages are wiped out, but history has shown that the existence of one dominant, universal language may, after centuries of dominance, influence other languages to such a degree as to change them forever.
However, as show the examples of Finnish, Hungarian and Basque, some groups may retain their original languages despite massive cultural influence from abroad.
In recent years, archaeological and genetic evidence has shown a pattern that is so consistent with the spread of the Indo-European language family that it is now widely regarded as connected. As such, it is pretty safe to say that there was indeed a proto-Indo-European tribe existing 6000 years ago on the Pontic Caspian Steppe.
A steppe people, they shared similar lifestyles to their eastern steppe neighbors, among them Proto-Turks and Proto-Mongols; although they knew agriculture, they were primarily pastoral (shepherding) and nomadic people whose wealth depended on the size of their flocks, a trait they also shared with numerous Afro-Asiatic (including Semitic) pastoral mountain tribes to their south. As such, they had, culturally and economically speaking, more in common with these diverse groups of nomadic shepherds than they had with the hunter-gatherers to the north or the European agricultural village peoples of the southwest or the civilizations of the southeast.
The Yamna Culture
One of the earliest cultures known to archaeology that is associated with the Indo-European language family is the Yamna. This culture is now regarded as the most likely candidate for a Proto-Indo-European culture which existed between 6.000 and 4.300 years ago (4.000-2.300 BCE). The name of this culture is Ukrainian for “Pit Grave” culture, a name given by archaeologists based on their burial customs. It is also associated with (identical to) the Kurgans.
The Yamna descended partially from the Ice Age Mal`ta Buret culture that existed on the western side of lake Baikal 15.000 years ago. Genome studies of skeletons from this culture show that these Baikal people of East Central Asia were also among the ancestors to Siberian and Native American peoples. Some 15.000 years ago, some of these East Asians moved further east and north and entered the American continent, others moved north and became Siberians, while others still moved west and roamed the Pontic Caspian steppes until they reached the area to the north of the Caucasus, where they mingled with descendants of Ice Age Europeans and Ice Age Middle Eastern peoples. By 6.000 years ago, this mix of three different geographical and ethnic origins, all Ice Age hunter-gatherers, had become a culture in their own right, the shepherding Yamna, and the first speakers of an Indo-European language.
Because of the study of ancient and modern genomes, we know that about 50 % of father-to-son (Y-DNA) lineages in Scandinavia derive directly from the Yamna, lineages that are also shared by most men who live in the areas of Khazakstahn and Russia. The other 50 % of male Scandinavians, as well as a majority of mother lineages (MtDNA) descend from the earlier Scandinavian populations. This means that, counting both genders, about 25-40 % of Scandinavian genomes derive directly from the Yamna, and the rest is, strictly speaking, from European prehistory before the Indo-European migration.
In other parts of Europe, the percentage of Yamna DNA is lower, sometimes considerably so, and one of the reasons for this is that there were a lot more people living in the rest of Europe compared to the northernmost parts, so that the Yamna could not dominate in numbers and therefore added less to the gene pools than they did in the far north. Another reason may be because most of them came to the northern lands first – through the Combed Ware Culture – and by the time they started spreading out into the rest of Europe they had already blended in with original European populations.
Many myths regarding the origins of Nordic-looking people (blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin and relative tallness) have been associated with the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and most of these have long since been proven wrong.
- The genetic marker for blue eyes developed somewhere in Europe during the last Ice Age, a long time before there were any Indo-Europeans, and while their ancestors dwelled in at least three different regions of the world – East Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The genetic marker for blue eyes cannot be pinpointed to any one particular group, but appears to have originally spread from one individual who happened to have a lot of descendants, whose descendants again branched out, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, where blue eyes are common to this very day. The blue eye genetic marker is not automatically connected to blondeness, tallness or fair skin.
- Genetic markers for pale skin have occurred whenever people anywhere have been living in the northern hemispheres of the world for countless generations as a way of adapting to low levels of sun radiation. This is even true of the Neanderthals. When people moved into the northern lands, such as Finland and Scandinavia, a move that happened from about 12.000 years ago, they gradually developed even paler complexions than before.
- Blondeness appears to have developed particularly in Finland and Scandinavia, while the rest of Europe mostly maintained the default setting for browner hair types.
- Genetic markers for tallness have also existed in several places, but were indeed common to the Yamna – they were often taller than most of their neighbors. It is widely believed that the “typical” Nordic tallness was indeed inherited by the Indo-Europeans who entered northern Europe from about 4.000 years ago.
It appears that the original Proto-Indo-Europeans were relatively light-skinned, but were dark of hair and mostly of eyes too, however, genetic markers for tallness was very common among them and may account for the fact that many descendants are taller than the average height for humans, exempting several African peoples who also carry genetic markers for tallness (the first hominid that carried a genome for tallness was the Homo Erectus – only modern humans have ever since grown as tall as they did).
Extreme paleness, blondeness and blue eyes, however, did not come from them but developed separately, as different genetic markers (one marker for the blue eye color, many different markers for paleness, other markers for blondeness, yet other markers for height, although all of these markers together became common in the northern hemispheres after people began living where the ice caps had once covered everything.
Because of the studies of ancient genomes, we know for certain that the Yamna people began moving westwards into Europe some 5.000 years ago. Descendants of these people, along with descendants of the people that they met with and mingled and married into wherever they came, spread out into several different cultures speaking branches of Indo-European – languages sharing a common origin with the Yamna people as well as with other, unknown ancient languages of Europe and Asia. This spreading of branches is called the Indo-European Migration. It happened over a period of 2.000 years and was often a matter of migration, although it sometimes also took the form of invasion. In any case, in many of these places, these newcomers held such prominent positions that their language came to influence the old cultures or the new cultures resulting from this merging, to the point of leaving an Indo-European linguistic and – or – cultural legacy in large parts of Europe and southwestern Asia. In Europe, only Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian may brag an older linguistic ancestry native to Europe prior to the Yamna expansion.
The Danube River Valley Culture
One of the earliest branches of Proto-Indo-European spread from the Yamna through the Danube River Valley into Europe and eventually ended up in Anatolia, where the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family was spoken by several tribes, some of whom became powerful nations, such as the Hittites. Other branches spread into Greece and other surrounding areas, speaking Thracian and Hellenic languages.
On their way, they encountered many different native European peoples whom they appear to have easily dominated, such as the Tripillya- Cucuteni in Ukraine and the Neolithic Egeian cultures of Greece and those of Anatolia, and finally, as late as the Bronze Ages, Indo-Europeans called the Mycenians coquered the last Egeian outpost; the Minoans.
The Corded Ware Culture
Between 4.900 and 4.350 BP (years before present), a period of less than 500 years, a distinct culture evolved in northern Europe; the Corded Ware Culture. This culture existed from the river Volga in the east to the river Rhine in the west, and covered the southernmost parts of Scandinavia and Finland as well.
The People They Met
It is believed that the Corded Ware Culture, descended from the Jamna, was the culture that introduced the Indo-European language forms here, particularly disseminating into the Germanic and the Balto-Slavic branches. The reason why such very different branches arose from the same culture during the same time is because the Corded Ware people, who spoke Yamna/Proto-Indo-European, met with different tribes who spoke different languages, from Volga in the east to the Rhine in the west, and they blended with these.
While dominating the realm between Volga and the Rhine, the Indo-European Corded Ware Culture replaced, culturally speaking, the earlier, native, agricultural Funnelbeaker Culture, but existed side by side with the older, native, hunter gatherer Pitted Ware Culture of Northern Europe. They also replaced, culturally speaking, the Pit Comb Ware culture of Finland and the Baltic regions and the Dnieper-Donets Culture and Samara Culture of Russia. As such, there were at least five different cultures of the northern lands that were affected by, and that changed radically because of, the Indo-European speaking Corded Ware Culture.
If we are to take a guess, the Germanic branch evolved from the fusion of the Yamna with the Megalithic/Neolithic Funnelbeaker culture, perhaps with some input from the Pitted Ware hunters. The Balto-Slavic branch may be the result of a fusion betweenthe Yamna and the Dnieper-Donets and the Samara peoples. The cultural fusion of Yamna and Pit Comb Ware people unusually enough led to the latter, original population retaining their Finnic language.
In Finland and surrounding areas, however, the older Finnic language remained dominant despite strong cultural influence from the Indo-European speaking populations. In Scandinavia, the Sámi peoples also maintained their Finnic languages. The Corded Ware Culture has also been known as the Battle-Axe Culture.
Sintashta & Bell Beaker Culture
Out of the Corded Ware Culture several different groupings of Indo-European origin spread from between 4.900 and 3.800 years ago:
- To the east, a culture developed, known as the Sintashta. The Sintashta people were the ancestors of the Aryan branches of the Indo-European family; the Skythians (Iranian), the Persians (Iranian-Avestan) and the Vedic (Indo-Aryan) culture that finally claimed the older Indus Valley civilization.
- To the west, alongside the evolution of Germanic and Slavic branches, yet another culture developed out of the Corded Ware culture; the Beaker Bell. It is considered the most important ancestor to the Celtic and Italic language families and spread into the Western and South-Western parts of Europe-
- In Scandinavia and parts of southwest Finland, a Battle Axe culture evolved independently from the merging of the older tribes and the new. This led directly to the Nordic Bronze Age from which the Norse culture arose. Although covering parts of Finland and influencing the cultures there, Finnic peoples maintained their language completely.