When I was eight years old I saw a map which genuinely confused me. I had opened up deluxe dictionary at my elementary school and saw a map of the world’s language families, and noticed that there were a group of dialects which spanned the Bay of Bengal to the North Sea. In fact, according to this map the language I had first learned to speak, Bengali, was in the same language family as English.
This was hard to wrap my mind around, but there it was in front of me. Further research at the public library confirmed this fact. And, upon further reflection it was obvious to me there were similarities…I had been learning French at school, and English, Bengali, and French, all exhibited similarities in the first ten numbers. English and French I understood in terms of a natural relationship, but Bengali?
My personal and professional interests have never been in domains where I would explore the topic first hand, but the origins of Indo-European languages have always been a hobby. I read books such as The Horse, the Wheel, and Language and In Search of the Indo-Europeans when I could. When taking in excellent works such as Empires of the Silk Road the Indo-European thread was always something I kept in mind.
But the above works take a more old-fashioned Eurasian heartland “marauders from the steppe” viewpoint. Starting about 15 years ago I began to look into a different framework: Indo-Europeans as farmers. For me begins with the 2002 paper, Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family, which finds that “the inferred timing and root location of the Indo-European language trees fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8000 to 9500 years ago” (this is the last paper I can remember reading in paper format). The model is elaborated by Peter Bellwood in works such as First Farmers, though he applies it to most language families.
But its origins go back decades, with the archaeologist Colin Renfrew. Rather than dramatic explosions from the steppe, Renfrew and colleagues suggest that the demographic expansion enabled by agriculture as a mode of production allowed for groups like Indo-Europeans to rapidly swamp their neighbors and enter into a process known as a wave of advance. There wasn’t a organized movement. Rather, farming enables the growth of population to such an extent that it was almost an undirected thermodynamic law that the original farmers would radiate outward, away from zones at the Malthusian carrying capacity and out toward virgin land.
It was a parsimonious theory, and phylogenetic techniques seem to have supported it. But then came ancient DNA to overturn the apple-cart. I won’t reshash what you probably already know, but will point to the two most relevant papers, Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe and Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia. Basically there was massive population turnover during the early Bronze Age. The genetic data aligned well with predictions you’d make from the old “marauders from the steppe” model, not the demic diffusion of farmers who were subject to high endogenous population growth over time.
Of course the Anatolian model proponents have an answer. There is a thesis whereby the steppe pastoralists derive from Anatolians, and so the European population turnover was of one Indo-European group by another. This is possible, but to my knowledge this model was never foregrounded by Anatolianists before. Rather, it strikes me as a way to “save” their framework.
So far much of the battle has been between archaeologists, who tend to favor gradualism, and often even cultural diffusion as opposed to migration, and historical linguists and arriviste geneticists, who tend toward a more classical migration-from-the-steppe perspective.
A new paper in Antiquity takes the sledgehammer to the Anatolian hypothesis with an archaeology first tack. Re-theorising mobility and the formation of culture and language among the Corded Ware Culture in Europe. They don’t pull punches:
…the Anatolian hypothesis must be considered largely falsified. Those Indo-European languages that later came to dominate in western Eurasia were those originating in the migrations from the Russian steppe during the third millennium BC.
Why would they say this? There is a major paper coming out:
These local processes of social integration between intruding Yamnaya/Corded Ware populations and remnant Neolithic populations can be applied to language dispersal. We should expect that the transformation from Proto-Indo-European to Pre-Proto Germanic would reveal the same kind of hybridisation between an earlier Neolithic language of the Funnel Beaker Culture, and the incoming Proto-Indo-European language. This is precisely what recent linguistic research has been able to demonstrate (Kroonen & Iversen in press). In their study on the formation of Proto-Germanic in Northern Europe, Kroonen and Iversen document a bundle of linguistic terms of non-Indo-European origin linked to agriculture that were adopted by Indo-European-speaking groups who were not fully fledged farmers.
They also contend that the Neolithic language was roughly the same throughout the zone of Indo-European expansion. From what those who would know about these sorts of things have told me this is plausible, because the Neolithic farmers spread so rapidly from a small founder culture, and exhibited broad Europe-wide similarities for a thousand years. Curiously, the chart shows that Germanic languages may have been influenced by a hunter-gatherer language, which the others were not. I suspect this may have to do with the relatively late persistence of hunter-gatherers in some maritime environments facing the Baltic and North Sea.
The paper, which is open access, needs to be read in full. Here are some important points:
- Burial type seems to be a more robust form of indicator of dominant cultural identity
- Corded Ware males practiced exogamy
- Corded Ware males traveled long distances
- Corded Ware culture was initially exclusively pastoralist
- There is a great deal of circumstantial, and some genetic, evidence that Corded Ware communities were characterized by having women who were clearly from the Neolithic farming population
- There was intergroup violence as a function of culture
- The Corded Ware and Neolithic populations persisted near each other geographically, though the Neolithic groups seem to have retreated to uplands
- The Corded War engaged in a wholesale pattern of landscape sculpting, burning down forests to produce pasture
Neolithic Y lineages, such as G2, are far rarer in Northern Europea today that R1a and R1b (in contrast, the hunter-gatherer I seems to have gone through an expansion just like R1a and R1b). We already have a model for what went on here, the Iberian settlement of the New World. Among mestizo populations there are huge skews of mtDNA and Y, with the former almost all Amerindian (with some African) and the latter almost all European (with some African).
The Corded War are the ancestors of the German peoples who we see emerge into the light of history during antiquity. What these data are telling is that the Germans are the product of a massive period of biological and cultural amalgamation and synthesis between indigenous groups and intrusive populations from the steppe. The archaeological data indicate that the intrusion was male mediated. The “battle axe” culture probably lived up to its name. And they weren’t likely exceptional….