Blogging Our Troth, part 4: The Indo-Europeans, Part 2

Once again, I'm blogging excerpts from the upcoming third edition of Our Troth. This week we continue with the mostly new chapter on the Indo-Europeans. The first edition of this chapter, back in 1993, was mostly written by Sunwynn Ravenswood. Recent discoveries—especially the ability to sequence and analyze DNA from ancient human remains, as well as some new syntheses of the past century of archaeological fieldwork—mean that I'm pretty much having to rebuild this chapter almost from the foundations. This is certainly not the fault of the original authors, but 26 years after the first edition came out, there's a lot more that we know now, and while I'm not trying to be long-winded, there's a lot that needs to be included to make this chapter clear and up-to-date.

As always, drop me a line or leave a comment if you have any questions, suggestions, comments, etc.—that's half the reason why I've started blogging these excerpts. Thanks to everyone who's commented so far!

The Indo-European Homeland

Areas from the North Pole to Siberia have been seriously proposed at one time or another as the homeland of the Proto-Indo-European speakers. Today, there is widespread agreement that the “Kurgan” peoples (from Russian kurgan, a burial mound), living on the steppes and steppe-forests north of the Black Sea and west of the Ural Mountains between six and four thousand years ago, were speaking early Indo-European languages. The steppe cultures, as reconstructed by archaeologists, closely match what can be reconstructed of the Proto-Indo-European language. For example, as will be discussed further, PIE has many words for parts of wagons—and wagons were used by the later steppe cultures, and in fact sometimes turn up in their graves. (See Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, and Anthony, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, for overviews.) A competing hypothesis, that the PIE speakers were identical with the Near Eastern farmers who introduced agriculture into Europe, has been heavily criticized on several grounds (e.g. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, pp. 177-181; Haak et al., “Massive Migration,” p. 211; Anthony and Ringe, “The Indo-European Homeland,” pp. 202-210). The Kurgan hypothesis is still being revised, but as of this writing it seems to give the best explanation of the available facts.

Clues to where the Proto-Indo-European speakers lived come from the words that can be reconstructed from their variants in the Indo-European languages. We know that these early forebears lived where there were birch and willow trees, and probably also ash, elm, and oak. Among the animals they knew were wolves, bears, lynx, salmon, elk, red deer, hares, otters, beavers, hedgehogs, mice, and perhaps roe deer; they seem to have known eagles, geese, cranes, and ducks, as well. As far as their landscape was concerned, they had both mountains (or at least big hills) and large bodies of water. They knew winter, spring and summer, and had snow and rain in their homeland. This is consistent with the ecology of the steppes and steppe-forest zones, including the valleys of the Don, the Volga, and other rivers which drained into the Black Sea. 

Proto-Indo-European terms for agriculture (such as *se-“to sow”, *peis-“to thresh,” and *egro- “field”); agricultural tools (such as *er- “plough,” *ek- “rake,” *srpo- “sickle,” and *gwern- “quern”); crops (*dhone- “harvested grain,” *ieuos- and *grnom- “grain”; *rughis- “rye”); and domesticated pigs (*su-), which cannot be herded by nomads, all suggest that the speakers were familiar with settled agriculture, at least for stockbreeding and growing cereal crops. (Mallory and Adams, Oxford Introduction, pp. 163-169, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, pp. 7-8) Archaeology confirms that the steppe cultures practiced agriculture—although global climate shifts tended to affect the steppes strongly, and the steppe peoples’ ways of life shifted accordingly, so agriculture’s importance varied through time. Pig bones, querns for grinding grain, and remains of grains have been excavated from steppe sites, although some steppe peoples gathered wild grains as well (which could be what some of the PIE words for “grain” originally referred to). Archaeology also confirms that people hunted, fished, and gathered freshwater clams and wild plants, at times and places on the steppes where game or fish could be had. (Shishlina, Reconstruction of the Bronze Age, pp. 222-236) 

However, the basis of steppe culture was cattle raising. Cattle (*gwou-) could turn the tough steppe grasses into nutritious milk and meat, and useful leather, bones, and horns. Cattle also provided the muscle power to pull wagons. Thus, cattle were immensely important to PIE speakers; *peku- meant both “cattle” and “wealth.”The basic lifestyle of the PIE speakers seems to have been transhumance: moving herds of livestock in a seasonal cycle to places with good forage. They would have pastured their livestock on the lower river terraces in winter. In the summer, some hunting, fishing, and agriculture might be carried out in the river valleys, while the herds grazed on the vast expanses of the open steppe, watched over by groups of young menthe *koryos (cognate with Old Norse herr, Old English here, OHG heri, “raiding party”, as well as Modern English to harry; it is also found in Old Norse einherjar, “best of the war-band”, and Odin’s name Herjan, “master of the war-band”). Some insight into what these *koryos-bands got up to may be gained by the fact that a Sanskrit word for “war,” gavisthi, literally means “desire for cows”. (Some insight into what the sisters of these young warriors had to do may perhaps be gained by the fact that the PIE word for “daughter” may be related to a root meaning “to milk.”) Cattle-rustling features prominently in the myths and tales of most Indo-European peoples. The *koryos was made up of young warriors who were not yet initiated as men, living on the margins of society, with a certain license to raid and plunder. These bands were identified totemically as “wolves”; not only did they engage in scouting, raiding, and low-intensity guerrilla warfare, but they took part in ecstatic masked processions, incarnating the dead ancestors, at certain times of the year. These *koryos bands were the cultural root of the warrior-societies known to the various Indo-European peoples. (Kershaw, The One-Eyed God, provides thorough documentation of these customs, which are paralleled in a wide range of societies.)

Besides cows, the PIE speakers kept domesticated sheep (*owi-), horses (*ekwos), pigs (*su-; also *porko-, “piglet”), and dogs (*kwon-). Sheep, cows, and goats provided milk, hides, meat, and horn, and sheep and goats aso gave wool (*wln-). Horses may have been originally raised for meat and hides, but were used for transportation very early: at Botai in present-day Kazakhstan, dated to around 3700 BCE, horse teeth show distinctive signs of wear from a bit in the mouth. The settlement at Botai also preserved layers of horse dung dumped in a pit, evidently shoveled out of a stable. (Anthony, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, pp. 195-224) Pieces of horse harness are also found in steppe burials from about the same time (Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans,p. 200) and bridled horses are depicted in steppe culture art. Horses made it possible to hunt from horseback and carry large animals home. They also allowed the steppe dwellers to keep much larger herds; as any cowboy knows, you can herd far more cattle on horseback than on foot.

The PIE speakers had a technical vocabulary for wheeled vehicles: words for “wheel” (*kwekwlo-, *roto-) can be reconstructed, as well as words for “axle”, “wheel hub”, “wagon-pole”, “linchpin”, “yoke”, “reins,” and “to carry by wheeled vehicle”. They knew boats (*nau-) with oars (*ertrom-), but no words for “sail”, “rudder”, or other nautical technology have survived. Archaeology shows that the steppe people made baskets and pots, decorating their pottery with geometric patterns of lines and dots. They knew how to spin and dye fibers and how to weave and sew cloth, and they wove reeds or sedges into tough mats and carpets. They also knew gold (*auso-), silver (*arg-), and copper or bronze (*aios-), and were sometimes buried with orgnaments made of these metals, bone, or shell. The fact that no word for iron can be reconstructed is consistent with the lack of archaeological evidence for iron smelting among the Kurgan cultures. 

 Proto-Indo-European societies were probably organized into extended families (*dems-). The rite of naming a child was important; the phrases “to place a name” and “to bear a name,” *nomen-dhe and *nomen-bher, have cognates in several languages. Indo-European society is usually considered to be patrilineal (descent and clan membership were traced through the male line), patrilocal (a wife came to live with her husband’s family) and patriarchal (men held the larger share of power). After all, the PIE word for “marriage”, *wedh-, literally meant “to lead [a bride] home.” PIE expressions such as “master of the household” (*dems-potis—cognate to our word “despot”) are grammatically masculine; and we can reconstruct several specific words for a husband’s or father’s relatives (such as *swekru-, “husband’s mother”, *daiwer-, “husband’s brother”, and even *ienəter-, “husband’s brother’s wife”) but fewer for a wife’s or mother’s relatives. But there is one major exception: PIE used the same word for “grandfather” and “mother’s brother” (*awos or *awyos), and the same word for “grandson” and “nephew” (*nepots). This suggests a close relationship between maternal uncles and nephews, a relationship found in several later Indo-European cultures, including the Germanic. The mother’s brother is the closest male relative whose status cannot be questioned—without DNA testing, it’s impossible to be certain of who one’s father is, but there’s never any doubt about one’s mother. Furthermore, in patrilineal societies, the father is usually an authoritarian figure; since one’s mother’s brother is the closest male relative who is outside the patrilineage, he can afford to be a kinder, friendlier figure. (In matrilineal societies, in which one’s descent and family membership is reckoned through the maternal line, the situation is usually reversed: the maternal uncle is the disciplinarian, and relations with the father are more relaxed.) Anthropologists call this the “Omaha kinship system,” after a Native American tribe that used it. Although the PIE data doesn’t fit the Omaha pattern perfectly, and some scholars have expressed skepticism, Omaha kinship seems to be closest to what we can reconstruct for PIE speakers. (Mallory and Adams, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, pp. 332-335)

Words for “head of the household; family leader” (*dems-potis) and “village or clan leader” (*wik-potis) can be reconstructed with high probability. Olmsted (“Archaeology and Social Evolution”) has argued, based on comparisons of social structures in early IE societies, that Proto-Indo-European society was based on clientship, in which groups of free farmers and producers were governed by a relatively small elite. The highest-ranking leaders bore the title *regs, which seems to be derived from a root meaning “to straighten, to set right”, or possibly from a root meaning “to have power”. The tribes they ruled (*teuto-) were presumably made up of several clans which had allied with each other for mutual benefit. We can reconstruct legal terms such as *oitos- “oath”, *bhendh- and *leig- “to bond together”, *mei- “to tie; to make a contract”, *uadh- “to pledge”, and *kwei- “to pay compensation”, as evidence for how PIE alliances were maintained. Gift-giving was important in maintaining social bonds; words for gifts (*de-), rewards (*misdhos-), and exchange (*mei-) can be reconstructed: The same PIE root *ghos-ti-, gave rise to our word “guest” and to the Latin word for both “guest” (hospes) and “stranger, enemy” (hostis), from which English later borrowed both “hospitable” and “hostile”. This suggests an ambivalent attitutde towards strangers; Proto-Indo-European speakers may have had a tradition of ritualized hospitality as a sacred obligation, similar to the ancient Greek custom of xenia(which is also derived from *ghos-ti-).When hospitality went wrong, words for “fortified high place” (*pele-, *dhuno- and *bhergh-); “war-band” (*lawa-); “battle” (*katu-); “fight” (*weik-); and “throwing spear” (*gaiso-), show that warfare among clans and tribes was not unknown.

Burial customs varied somewhat in space and time. In general, the steppe peoples buried their dead in rectangular pits with wooden floors, sometimes with wooden ceilings and posts. Woven mats of reeds or grasses were laid on the floors and sometimes hung on the walls, and folded animal skins, or pillows stuffed with dried grasses were placed under the head of the deceased. The dead were placed in these graves individually, or sometimes in small groups; in Yamnaya culture burials most were buried with their knees flexed and their heads to the east. The living raised a circle of stones and a low mound (now referred to by the Russian name kurgan) over the grave; kurgans were built in long rows, probably marking out seasonal travel routes. Yamnaya kurgans were topped with a stone stela carved with a humanlike figure, possibly a representation of the deceased. The dead were provided with grave goods, including weapons, pottery (including small wide bowls that are thought to be incense burners), jewelry for women (including ornamented headdresses and distinctive hammer-headed bone pins), and in a few cases entire wagons. There’s also evidence of animal sacrifice associated with burials, notably of sheep, cows and horses. In a few cases, the dead were buried with other humans who appear to have been slain (or committed suicide) as part of the funeral rites. Red ochre, a mineral pigment, is common in steppe graves, often found powdered and sprinkled on the body. (Shishlina, Reconstruction, pp. 43-82) Practices like these persisted for millennia among many branches of the Indo-European people.

Incidentally, analysis of ancient DNA shows that the steppe people who probably spoke Proto-Indo-European languages had a range of skin tones, but were generally darker than most Europeans today. Sorry, bigots. (Wilde et al., “Direct Evidence for Positive Selection”)

Anthony, David W. The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Anthony, David W. and Don Ringe. “The Indo-European Homeland from Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives.” Annual Review of Linguistics, vol. 1 (2015), pp. 199-219.

Haak, Wolfgang, and 38 others. “Massive Migration from the Steppe was a Source for Indo-European Languages in Europe.” Nature, vol. 522 (11 June 2015), pp. 207-211.

Kershaw, Kris. The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Ger­manic Männerbünde. Journal of Indo-European Studies, Monograph 36. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man, 2000.

Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1989.

Mallory, J. P. and D. Q. Adams. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.

Mallory, J. P. and D. Q. Adams. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Olmsted, Garrett. “Archaeology, Social Evolution, and the Spread of Indo-European Languages and Cultures.” Edgar C. Polomé, ed. Miscellanea Indo-Europea. Journal of Indo-European Studies, Monograph 33. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man, 1999. Pp. 75-116.

Shishlina, Natalia. Reconstruction of the Bronze Age of the Caspian Steppes: Life Styles and Life Ways of Pastoral Nomads.BAR International Series, no. 1876. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2008.

Wilde, Sandra, and 10 others. “Direct Evidence for Positive Selection of Skin, Hair, and Eye Pigmentation in Europeans During the Last 5,000 y.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol. 111, no. 13 (1 April 2014), pp. 4832-4837.