Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses

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Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses are attempts to identify the Urheimat, or primary homeland, of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language. Such hypotheses often consider glottochronology and how cultural, biological, and geographical items reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European fit the archaeological record.

The mainstream consensus among Indo-Europeanists favors the "Kurgan hypothesis", which places the Indo-European homeland in the Pontic steppe of the Chalcolithic period (4th to 5th millennia BC). The Pontic steppe is a large area of grasslands in far Eastern Europe, located north of the Black Sea, Caucasus Mountains and Caspian Sea and including parts of eastern Ukraine, southern Russia and northwest Kazakhstan. This is the time and place of the earliest domestication of the horse, which according to this hypothesis was the work of early Indo-Europeans, allowing them to expand outwards and assimilate or conquer many other cultures.

The Kurgan hypothesis was formulated by Marija Gimbutas in the 1950s, and gained mainstream currency beginning in the 1970s. The primary competitor is the Anatolian hypothesis, which proposes that the dispersal of Indo-Europeans originated in Neolithic Anatolia, as part of the expansion during the Neolithic revolution in the seventh and sixth millennia BC. First advanced in 1987 by Colin Renfrew, the Anatolian hypothesis has been popular among archaeologists[1] but linguists have by and large preferred the Kurgan pastoralist model.[2]

All hypotheses assume a significant period (at least 1500–2000 years) between the time of the Proto-Indo-European language and the earliest attested texts, at Kültepe, c. 19th century BC.


There are three main competing basic models (with variations) that have academic credibility (Mallory (1997:106)):

  1. the Kurgan hypothesis (Pontic-Caspian area): Chalcolithic (5th to 4th millennia BC)
  2. the Anatolian hypothesis (Anatolia in Asia Minor): Early Neolithic (7th to 5th millennia BC)
  3. the Balkan hypothesis, excluding the Anatolian languages (a variant of the Anatolian hypothesis): Neolithic (5th millennium BC)

As mentioned above, the Kurgan hypothesis is currently dominant in Indo-European studies. The Anatolian hypothesis, primarily associated with Colin Renfrew, is the main competitor.

A number of other opposing hypotheses also exist, for example:


Scheme of Indo-European migrations from ca. 4000 to 1000 BC according to the Kurgan hypothesis. The magenta area corresponds to the assumed Urheimat (Samara culture, Sredny Stog culture). The red area corresponds to the area which may have been settled by Indo-European-speaking peoples up to ca. 2500 BC; the orange area to 1000 BC.
Historical spread of the chariot. Dates given in image are approximate BC years.
Centum–satem compared to other general isoglosses in Indo-European daughter languages at about 500 BC.
Blue: Centum languages
Red-orange: Satem languages
Orange: Languages exhibiting augment
Green: Languages exhibiting PIE *-tt- > -ss-
Tan: Languages exhibiting PIE *-tt- > -st-
Pink: Languages in which the instrumental, dative, and ablative plurals, as well as certain singulars and duals, exhibit endings beginning in -m-, rather than the usual *-bh-.

There have been many attempts to claim that particular prehistorical cultures can be identified with the PIE-speaking peoples, but all have been speculative. All attempts to identify an actual people with an unattested language depend on a sound reconstruction of that language that allows identification of cultural concepts and environmental factors which may be associated with particular cultures (such as the use of metals, agriculture vs. pastoralism, geographically distinctive plants and animals, etc.).

Kurgan hypothesis

In the 1970s, a mainstream consensus had emerged among Indo-Europeanists in favour of the "Kurgan hypothesis" placing the Indo-European homeland in the Pontic steppe of the Chalcolithic period. This was not least due to the influence of the Journal of Indo-European Studies, edited by J. P. Mallory, that focused on the ideas of Marija Gimbutas, and offered some improvements. She had created a modern variation on the traditional invasion theory (the Kurgan hypothesis, after the kurgans, burial mounds, of the Eurasian steppes) in which the Indo-Europeans were a nomadic tribe in Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia and expanded on horseback in several waves during the 3rd millennium BC. Their expansion coincided with the taming of the horse. Leaving archaeological signs of their presence (see battle-axe people), they subjugated the peaceful European Neolithic farmers of Gimbutas's Old Europe. As Gimbutas's beliefs evolved, she put increasing emphasis on the patriarchal, patrilinear nature of the invading culture, sharply contrasting it with the supposedly egalitarian, if not matrilinear culture of the invaded, to the point of formulating essentially a feminist archaeology.

Her interpretation of Indo-European culture found genetic support in remains from the Neolithic culture of Scandinavia, where DNA from bone remains in Neolithic graves indicated that the megalith culture was either matrilocal or matrilineal, as the people buried in the same grave were related through the women. Likewise, there is a tradition of remaining matrilineal traditions among the Picts. J. P. Mallory, dating the migrations earlier, to around 4000 BC, and putting less insistence on their violent or quasi-military nature, essentially modified Gimbutas' theory.

The Gimbutas-Mallory Kurgan hypothesis seeks to explain the Indo-European language expansion by a succession of migrations from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, or, more specifically and according to the revised version, to the area encompassed by the Sredny Stog culture (ca. 4500 BC). This hypothesis is compatible with the argument that the PIE homeland must have been larger,[5] because the "Neolithic creolisation hypothesis" allows the Pontic-Caspian region to have been part of PIE territory.

A variant of the Kurgan hypothesis is the "Sogdiana hypothesis" of Johanna Nichols, placing the homeland in the 4th or 5th millennium BC to the east of the Caspian Sea, in the area of ancient Bactria-Sogdiana.[6][7]

Anatolian hypothesis

Map showing the Neolithic expansion from the seventh to fifth millennium BC.

The main competitor to the Kurgan hypothesis is the Anatolian hypothesis advanced by Colin Renfrew in 1987. It states that the Indo-European languages began to spread peacefully into Europe from Asia Minor from around 7000 BC with the Neolithic advance of farming (wave of advance). The expansion of agriculture from the Middle East would have diffused three language families: Indo-European toward Europe, Dravidian toward Pakistan and India, and Afro Asiatic toward Arabia and North Africa. Reacting to criticism, Renfrew revised his proposal to the effect of taking a pronounced Indo-Hittite position. Renfrew's revised views place only Pre-Proto-Indo-European in 7th millennium BC Anatolia, proposing as the homeland of Proto-Indo-European proper the Balkans around 5000 BC, explicitly identified as the "Old European culture" proposed by Marija Gimbutas. He thus still situates the original source of the Indo-European language family in Anatolia around 7000 BC. Reconstructions of a Bronze Age PIE society based on vocabulary items like "wheel" do not necessarily hold for the Anatolian branch, which appears to have separated from PIE at an early stage, prior to the invention of wheeled vehicles.[8]

According to Renfrew (2004), the spread of Indo-European proceeded in the following steps:

  • Around 6500 BC: Pre-Proto-Indo-European, located in Anatolia, splits into Anatolian and Archaic Proto-Indo-European, the language of those Pre-Proto-Indo-European farmers who migrate to Europe in the initial farming dispersal. Archaic Proto-Indo-European languages occur in the Balkans (Starčevo-Körös-Cris culture), in the Danube valley (Linear Pottery culture), and possibly in the Bug-Dniestr area (Eastern Linear pottery culture).
  • Around 5000 BC: Archaic Proto-Indo-European splits into Northwestern Indo-European (the ancestor of Italic, Celtic, and Germanic), located in the Danube valley, Balkan Proto-Indo-European (corresponding to Gimbutas' Old European culture), and Early Steppe Proto-Indo-European (the ancestor of Tocharian).

The main objection to this theory is that it requires an unrealistically early date. According to linguistic analysis, the Proto-Indo-European lexicon seems to include words for a range of inventions and practices related to the Secondary Products Revolution, which post-dates the early spread of farming. On lexico-cultural dating, Proto-Indo-European cannot be earlier than 4000 BC.[9]

Other difficulties with the theory could be:

  1. The idea that farming was spread from Anatolia in a single wave has been revised. Instead it appears to have spread in several waves by several routes, primarily from the Levant.[10] The trail of plant domesticates indicates an initial foray from the Levant by sea.[11] The overland route via Anatolia seems to have been most significant in spreading farming into south-east Europe.[12]
  2. Non-Indo-European languages appear to be associated with the spread of farming from the Near East into North Africa and the Caucasus.[citation needed]

Using stochastic models to evaluate the presence or absence of different words across Indo-European, Gray & Atkinson (2003) concluded that the origin of Indo-European goes back about 8500 years, the first split being that of Hittite from the rest (Indo-Hittite hypothesis). However, inferring the lifespan of a language from that of some of its words is a procedure that remains at least questionable. Moreover, the idiosyncratic outcome of, for example, the Albanian language must raise severe doubts about both the method and the data. Besides, there have been a number of lexicostatistical (and some glottochronological) attempts both before and after G&A with quite other results.[13] The method promoted by the Gray School is at the moment far too unreliable to give decisive support for any homeland.[14] However, most recently, linguist Paul Heggarty from Max Planck Institute writes: "Bayesian analysis has come to be widely used in archaeological chronologies... Its application to linguistic prehistory, however, has proved controversial, in particular on the issue of Indo-European origins. Dating and mapping language distributions back into prehistory has an inevitable fascination, but has remained fraught with difficulty. This review of recent studies highlights the potential of increasingly sophisticated Bayesian phylogenetic models, while also identifying areas of concern, and ways in which the models might be refined to address them. Notwithstanding these remaining limitations, in the Indo-European case the results from Bayesian phylogenetics continue to reinforce the argument for an Anatolian rather than a Steppe origin".[15]

Other theories

Gamkrelidze and Ivanov[16] held that the Urheimat was south of the Caucasus, specifically, “within eastern Anatolia, the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia …. In the fifth to fourth millennia BC.” Their evidence was: PIE words for mountain, plant and animal names appropriate to the area, material culture implying contact with more advanced peoples to the south, Semitic loan-words in PIE, Kartvelian (Georgian) borrowings from PIE, some contact with Sumerian, Elamite and others. They have the Greeks moving west across Anatolia to their present location, a northward movement of some IE speakers that brought them into contact with the Finno-Ugric languages and suggest that the kurgan area, or better “Black Sea and Volga steppe” was a secondary homeland from which the western IE languages emerged.

Robert Drews[17] attacked the theory that the IE languages were spread by mounted warriors. He claimed that horses were first domesticated for meat and were only ridden by a few daredevils. The earliest depictions of horseback-riding date from about 2000 BC and show the rider sitting clumsily on the horse’s rump and controlling the animal with a rope and nose ring. There are also strange statuettes showing the rider sitting forward with his arms around the horse’s neck. Images of riding become rare with the invention of the chariot. It took a long time to develop proper horse gear. Drews emphasizes the jointed bronze snaffle bit. He claims that the first mounted warriors were probably the Cimmerians about 700 BC. He suggests that these raiders came not from the steppe but from northeast Iran and were later incorporated into the Median army, becoming perhaps the first organized cavalry.


The accumulation since the 1990s of archaeogenetic evidence, which uses genetic analysis to trace migration patterns, has also added new elements to the puzzle. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Alberto Piazza argue that Renfrew and Gimbutas reinforce rather than contradict each other. In discussing the pre-Kurgan origin of the Kurgan people, Cavalli-Sforza (2000) states, "It is clear that, genetically speaking, peoples of the Kurgan steppe descended at least in part from people of the Middle Eastern Neolithic who immigrated there from Turkey." In support of the Kurgan hypothesis, Piazza & Cavalli-Sforza (2006) state that:

if the expansions began at 9,500 years ago from Anatolia and at 6,000 years ago from the Yamnaya culture region, then a 3,500-year period elapsed during their migration to the Volga-Don region from Anatolia, probably through the Balkans. There a completely new, mostly pastoral culture developed under the stimulus of an environment unfavorable to standard agriculture, but offering new attractive possibilities. Our hypothesis is, therefore, that Indo-European languages derived from a secondary expansion from the Yamnaya culture region after the Neolithic farmers, possibly coming from Anatolia and settled there, developing pastoral nomadism.

Wells (2002) also argues that the evidence is strong for Gimbutas' model:

while we see substantial genetic and archaeological evidence for an Indo-European migration originating in the southern Russian steppes, there is little evidence for a similarly massive Indo-European migration from the Middle East to Europe. One possibility is that, as a much earlier migration (8,000 years old, as opposed to 4,000), the genetic signals carried by Indo-European-speaking farmers may simply have dispersed over the years. There is clearly some genetic evidence for migration from the Middle East, as Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues showed, but the signal is not strong enough for us to trace the distribution of Neolithic languages throughout the entirety of Indo-European-speaking Europe.

Haplogroup R1a1 is associated with the Kurgan culture. R1a1 shows a strong correlation with Indo-European languages of western Asia and eastern Europe, being most prevalent in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine and also observed in Pakistan, India and central Asia. The connection between Y-DNA R-M17 and the spread of Indo-European languages was first noted by T. Zerjal and colleagues in 1999.[18] Ornella Semino and colleagues proposed a postglacial spread of the R1a1 gene during the Late Glacial Maximum, subsequently magnified by the expansion of the Kurgan culture into Europe and eastward.[19] Spencer Wells suggests that the distribution and age of R1a1 points to an ancient migration corresponding to the spread by the Kurgan people in their expansion from the Eurasian steppe.[20]

Ancient DNA has confirmed the connection with Kurgan burials directly. Out of ten human male remains assigned to the Andronovo horizon from the Krasnoyarsk region, nine possessed the R1a Y-chromosome haplogroup and one C haplogroup (xC3). Mitochrondrial DNA haplogroups of nine individuals assigned to the same Andronovo horizon and region were as follows: U4 (2 individuals), U2e, U5a1, Z, T1, T4, H, and K2b. 90% of the Bronze Age period mtDNA haplogroups were of west Eurasian origin, and the study determined that at least 60% of the individuals overall (out of the 26 samples of the study's Bronze and Iron Age human remains that could be tested) had light hair and blue or green eyes. Significantly, R1a also appeared in later Kurgan steppe burials through a series of related cultures up to the Scythians, known to speak an Indo-European language.[21]

In 2015 researchers reported on a DNA analysis of 94 ancient skeletons mostly 8,000–3,000 years old from Central Europe and Russia. They found that there was a major migration of Yamna culture people who entered Central Europe from the North Pontic-Caspian steppe about 4,500 years ago and whose DNA spread widely throughout Europe. They concluded that this massive influx of Yamnaya herders provides support for the origin of at least some of the Indo-European languages in Europe.[22][23]

See also


  1. David Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 138.
  2. Paul Kiparsky. "New perspectives in historical linguistics". To appear in Claire Bowern (ed.) Handbook of Historical Linguistics.
  3. Zvelebil, "Indo-European origins and the agricultural transition in Europe," Whither Archaeology?: papers in honour of Evžen Neustupný, 1995.
  4. The Non-Invasionist Model
  5. Mallory 1989, p.185
  6. Johanna Nichols (1997), "The Epicenter of the Indo-European Linguistic Spread", Archaeology and Language I: Theoretical and Methodological Orientations, ed. Roger Blench and Matthew Spriggs, London: Routledge
  7. Johanna Nichols (1999), "The Eurasian Spread Zone and the Indo-European Dispersal", Archaeology and Language II: Correlating archaeological and Linguistic Hypotheses, ed. Roger Blench and Matthew Spriggs, London: Routledge
  8. Renfrew, Colin (2003). "Time Depth, Convergence Theory, and Innovation in Proto-Indo-European: 'Old Europe' as a PIE Linguistic Area". In Bammesberger, Alfred; Vennemann, Theo. Languages in Prehistoric Europe. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter GmBH. pp. 17–48. ISBN 978-3-82-531449-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World (Oxford 2006), pp. 101-2.
  10. R. Pinhasi, J. Fort and A. J. Ammerman, Tracing the origin and spread of agriculture in Europe, PLoS Biology, 3, no. 12 (2005), e436.
  11. F. Coward et al., The spread of Neolithic plant economies from the Near East to Northwest Europe: a phylogenetic analysis, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 35, no. 1 (2008), pp. 42-56.
  12. M. Özdogan, Archaeological evidence on the westward expansion of farming communities from eastern Anatolia to the Aegean and the Balkans, Current Anthropology, vol. 52, no. S4 (2011), S415-S430.
  13. Hans J. Holm (2007): The new Arboretum of Indo-European "Trees"; Can new Algorithms Reveal the Phylogeny and even Prehistory of IE? In: Journal of Quantitative Linguistics 14-2, S. 167-214.
  14. Häkkinen, Jaakko (23 September 2012). "Problems in the method and interpretations of the computational phylogenetics based on linguistic data. An example of wishful thinking: Bouckaert et al. 2012" (PDF).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Heggarty, Paul(2014). "Prehistory by Bayesian phylogenetics? The state of the art on Indo-European origins" in Antiquity Volume 88, Number 340, pp. 566–577
  16. T. V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov, Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, 1995, Chapters Eleven and Twelve
  17. Robert Drews, Early Riders, 2004.
  18. T. Zerjal et al, The use of Y-chromosomal DNA variation to investigate population history: recent male spread in Asia and Europe, in S.S. Papiha, R. Deka and R. Chakraborty (eds.), Genomic diversity: applications in human population genetics (1999), pp. 91–101.
  19. Ornella Semino, Giuseppe Passarino, Peter J. Oefner, Alice A. Lin, Svetlana Arbuzova, Lars E. Beckman, Giovanna De Benedictis, Paolo Francalacci, Anastasia Kouvatsi, Svetlana Limborska, Mladen Marciki, Anna Mika, Barbara Mika, Dragan Primorac, A. Silvana Santachiara-Benerecetti, L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Peter A. Underhill, The Genetic Legacy of Paleolithic Homo sapiens sapiens in Extant Europeans: A Y Chromosome Perspective, Science, vol. 290 (10 November 2000), pp. 1155-1159.
  20. R.S. Wells et al, The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol. 98 no.18 (2001), pp. 10244-10249.
  21. [1] C. Keyser et al. 2009. Ancient DNA provides new insights into the history of south Siberian Kurgan people, Human Genetics.
  22. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  23. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (4 March 2015) Genetic study revives debate on origin and expansion of Indo-European languages in Europe Science Daily, Retrieved 19 April 2015


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