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The Proto-Indo-Europeans are a hypothetical group of people whose existence from around 4000 BC is inferred from their language, Proto-Indo-European.
Some things about their culture can be determined with confidence, based on the words reconstructed for their language:
- they used a kinship system based on relationships between men
- the chief of their pantheon was *dyeus ph2tēr (lit. "sky father"; > Gr. Ζευς (πατηρ) / Zeus (patēr); *dieu-ph2tēr > Lat. Jupiter), and an earth god
- they composed and recited heroic poetry or song lyrics, that used stock phrases like undying fame
- the climate they lived in had snow
- they were both pastoral and nomadic, domesticating cattle and horses
- they had carts, with solid wheels, but not yet chariots, with spoked wheels
 Culture and Religion
What we know about the Proto-Indo-Europeans with any certainty is the result of comparative linguistics, partly seconded by archaeology. The following traits are widely agreed-upon, but it should be understood that they are hypothetical by their reconstructed nature.
The Proto-Indo-Europeans were a patrilineal society, probably semi-nomadic, relying on animal husbandry (notably cattle and sheep). They had domesticated the horse (eḱwos). The cow (gwous) played a central role, in religion and mythology as well as in daily life. A man's wealth would have been measured by the number of his animals (peḱus, the word for small livestock, acquired a meaning of "value" in both English fee and in Latin pecunia).
They practiced a polytheistic religion centered on sacrificial rites, probably administered by a priestly caste. The Kurgan hypothesis suggests burials in barrows or tomb chambers. Important leaders would have been buried with their belongings, and possibly also with members of their household or wives (human sacrifice, suttee).
There is evidence for sacral kingship, suggesting the tribal king at the same time assumed the role of high priest (cf. Germanic king). Many Indo-European societies know a threefold division of a clerical class, a warrior class and a class of peasants or husbandmen. Such a division was suggested for the Proto-Indo-European society by Georges Dumézil.
If there had been a separate class of warriors, then it would probably have consisted of single young men. They would have followed a separate warrior code unacceptable in the society outside their peer-group. Traces of initiation rites in several Indo-European societies suggest that this group identified itself with wolves or dogs (see also Berserker, werewolf).
Technologically, reconstruction suggests a culture of the early Bronze Age: Bronze was used to make tools and weapons. Silver and gold were known. Sheep were kept for wool, and weaving was practiced for textile production. The wheel was known, certainly for ox-drawn carts, and late Proto-Indo European warfare may also have made use of horse-drawn chariots.
The native name of this people cannot be reconstructed with certainty. Aryo-, sometimes upheld as a self-identification of the Indo-Europeans (see Aryan), is attested as an ethnic designation only in the Indo-Iranian subfamily.
The scholars of the 19th century that originally tackled the question of the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans (also called Urheimat after the German term), were essentially confined to linguistic evidence. A rough localization was attempted by reconstructing the names of plants and animals (importantly the beech and the salmon) as well as the culture and technology (a Bronze Age culture centered on animal husbandry and having domesticated the horse). The scholarly opinions became basically divided between a European hypothesis, positing migration from Europe to Asia, and an Asian hypothesis, holding that the migration took place in the opposite direction.
However, from its early days, the controversy was tainted by romantic, nationalistic notions of heroic invaders at best and by imperialist and racist agendas at worst. It was often naturally assumed that the spread of the language was due to the invasions by some superior Aryan race. Such hypotheses suffered a particularly severe distortion for purposes of political propaganda by the Nazis. The question is still the source of much contention. Typically, nationalistic schools of thought either claim their respective territories for the original homeland, or maintain that their own culture and language have always been present in their area, dismissing the concept of Proto-Indo-Europeans altogether (see Aryan race, Aryan invasion theory, Eurocentrism, Hindutva, Out of India theory, Paleolithic Continuity Theory, Racism, Rus').
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).
In the twentieth century Marija Gimbutas 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 views 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 a point of formulating essentially feminist archaeology.
Her theory has found genetic support in remains from the Neolithic culture of Scandinavia, where 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 evidence of remaining matrilineal traditions among the Picts. A modified form of this theory by JP Mallory, dating the migrations earlier to around 4000 BC and putting less insistence on their violent or quasi-military nature, is still widely held.
Colin Renfrew is the leading propagator the "Anatolian hypothesis", according to which the Indo-European languages spread peacefully into Europe from Asia Minor from around 7000 BC with the advance of farming (wave of advance).
Yet another theory is connected with the Black Sea deluge theory, suggesting that PIE originated as the language of trade between early neolithic Black Sea tribes. Under this hypothesis University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Fredrik T. Hiebert hypothesizes that the transition from PIE to IE dispersion occurred during an inundation of the Black Sea in the mid 6th millennium BC.
The rise of Archaeogenetic evidence which uses genetic analysis to trace migration patterns also added new elements to the puzzle. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, one of the first in this field, in the 1990s used genetic evidence to combine, in some ways, Gimbutas's and Colin Renfrew's theories together. Here Renfrew's agricultural settlers, moving north and west, partially split off eventually to become Gimbutas's Kurgan culture which moves into Europe.
In any case, developments in genetics take away much of the edge of the sometimes heated controversies about invasions. They indicate a strong genetic continuity in Europe; specifically, studies by Brian Sykes show that some 80% of the genetic stock of Europeans goes back to the Paleolithic, suggesting that languages tend to spread geographically by cultural contact rather than by invasion and extermination, i.e. much more peacefully than was described in some invasion scenarios, and thus the genetic record does not rule out the historically much more common type of invasions where a new group assimilates the earlier inhabitants (e.g. Romans in Southern Europe, Britons in Brittany, Arabs in North Africa, Slavs in Russia, Chinese in Southern China, Spanish in Mexico and Turks in Anatolia, etc.). This very common scenario of successive small scale invasions where a ruling nation imposed its language and culture on a larger indigenous population was what Gimbutas had in mind:
- The Process of Indo-Europeanization was a cultural, not a physical transformation. It must be understood as a military victory in terms of imposing a new administrative system, language and religion upon the indigenous groups.
On the other hand, such results also gave rise to a new incarnation of the "European hypothesis" suggesting the Indo-European languages to have existed in Europe since the Paleolithic (see Paleolithic Continuity Theory).
A component of some 28% may be attributed to the Neolithic revolution, deriving from Anatolia about 10,000 BC. A third component of some 11% derives from Pontic steppe. While these findings confirm that there were population movements both related to the beginning Neolithic and the beginning Bronze Age, corresponding to Renfrew's and Gimbutas's Indo-Europeans, respectively, the genetic record obviously cannot yield any information as to the language spoken by these groups.
The spread of Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup R1a1 is possibly associated with the spread of the Indo-European languages. Its defining mutation (M17) occurred some 10,000 years ago, probably well before the PIE stage, so that its presence cannot be taken as a certain sign of Indo-European admixture.
Even more recently, a study of the presence/absence of different words across Indo-European using stochastic models of word evolution (Gray and Atkinson, 2003) suggests that the origin of Indo-European goes back about 8500 years, the first split being that of Hittite from the rest (Indo-Hittite hypothesis). Gray and Atkinson go to great lengths to avoid the problems associated with traditional approaches to glottochronology. However, it must be noted that the calculations of Gray and Atkinson rely entirely on Swadesh lists, and while the results are quite robust for well attested branches, their calculation of the age of Hittite, which is crucial for the Anatolian claim, rests on a 200 word Swadesh list of one single language and are regarded as contentious. Interestingly, a more recent paper (Atkinson et al, 2005) of 24 mostly ancient languages, including three Anatolian languages, produced the same time estimates and early Anatolian split.
 See also
- Proto-Indo-European language
- Comparative linguistics
- List of Indo-European roots
- Aryan invasion
- Paleolithic Continuity Theory
 External links
- Indo-European Roots Index, from The American Heritage® Dictionary
- Kurgan culture
- Indo-European Origins in Southeast Europe
- Russell D. Gray and Quentin D. Atkinson, Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin, Nature 426 (27 November 2003) 435-439
 Further reading
- J. P Mallory, In Search of Indo-Europeans (London 1989).
- C. Renfrew, Archaeology and language, the puzzle of Indo-European origins (London, Penguin 1987).
- Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages (translated by Mark Seielstad) (New York, Penguin 2000).
- Brian Sykes, The seven daughters of Eve (London, Corgi Books 2001)
- Atkinson, Q. D., Nicholls, G., Welch, D. and Gray, R. D. (2005). From Words to Dates: Water into wine, mathemagic or phylogenetic inference? Transactions of the Philological Society, 103(2), 193-219.
- Watkins, Calvert. (1995) How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. New York: Oxford University Press.de:Proto-Indoeuropäer