Europeans share more language and genes with Asia than previously thought
Scholars have long tried to ascertain the birthplace of the mother tongue of the Indo-European languages of parts of Europe, the Mideast and western and central Asia. This family of modern languages is believed to derive from what linguists call Proto-Indo-European, an original language that diversified across much of Europe and Asia and later North and South America (English, Spanish, French and Portuguese) and Australia and New Zealand (English). Indo-European languages are spoken by about half the world’s population.
Researchers are saying European peoples and languages descended in part from the Yamnaya Culture people of what is now Russia and western Asia about 4,500 years ago.
A new study says Proto-Indo-European spread from the steppes of what are now the Ukraine, southern Russia and western Asia into Europe.
Some linguists believe humans spoke one original language , which diversified and changed and evolved into the 5,000 to 6,500 languages of today (estimates of the number vary). Other linguists and scholars believe human groups separated before language arose and developed separate, unique languages.
Proto-Indo-European came relatively late in the history of human languages, possibly 6,000 to 9,000 years ago. The original human language or languages may date back tens of thousands of years. Estimates vary, but some scholars say language developed around the time humans left Africa , around 50,000 years ago. Or it could have been earlier, as long ago as 100,000 years.
A new study shows ancient people in Europe (and subsequently their languages) were descended in part from people of the Yamnaya Culture of 4,500 years in the steppes north of the Black Sea. The pastoral herders of the Yamnaya people are thought to have migrated to Europe and mingled with what archaeologists called Corded Ware Culture people.
Artifacts of the ancient Yamnaya Culture ( Wikipedia)
This theory contrasts with other theories that say Proto-Indo-European, of which there are no written records, only hypotheses, was first spoken 8,000 years ago in what is now Turkey (Anatolia) or possibly in the Fertile Crescent of the eastern Mediterranean Sea region.
The new paper says research that includes genetics supports the theory that Proto-Indo-European was introduced from the steppes. The researchers say these herders intermarried with people living in Europe, and their genetic heritage is evident in analysis of ancient Europeans’ DNA.
The colored parts of this map show the post-1945 distribution of Indo-European branches in Europe and Asia. Areas in gray speak languages other than Indo-European. (Hayden120 map/ Wikimedia Commons )
To test the theory of migration of people of the steppes into Europe, scholars examined the DNA of the bones of 69 Europeans who lived 8,000 to 3,000 years ago. The DNA of nine people of the Yamnaya Culture of present-day Russia north of the Black Sea was among those tested.
An article in Science magazine about the new research describes somewhat about these peoples:
Beginning about 6,000 years ago, these steppe people herded cattle and other animals, buried their dead in earthen mounds called kurgans, and may have created some of the first wheeled vehicles. (Many linguists think PIE already had a word for wheel.) The team also retrieved ancient DNA from four skeletons from the later Corded Ware culture of central Europe, known for the distinctive pottery for which they are named as well as their dairy farming skills. Archaeologists had noted similarities among these cultures, especially in their emphasis on cattle herding.
Interior of a Kurgan from 4th century B.C. Wikimedia Commons
“The comparison of the two cultures’ DNA showed that the four Corded Ware people could trace an astonishing three-quarters of their ancestry to the Yamnaya,” Balter wrote. The researchers concluded there was a big migration of Yamnaya people into central Europe. The research links, for the first time, specific genetic signatures to two far-flung cultures and suggests the two peoples spoke a form of Indo-European.
Corded Ware culture disseminated across central Europe and as far north as Scandinavia. “So the ‘steppe ancestry,’ as the authors of the preprint call it, is found in most present-day Europeans, who can trace their ancestry back to both the Corded Ware people and the earlier Yamnaya,” Balter wrote. One researcher called the results a ‘smoking gun’ that people from the steppe migrated to Europe long ago. Whether this Yamnava language was the Proto-Indo-European that gave rise to the languages of so much of the world is still the subject of speculation and study.
Corded ware culture stone axe heads from 2,500 B.C. in Austria (Wolfgang Sauber photo/ Wikimedia Commons )
Scholars have attempted to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European by working backward through related modern languages and through related ancient languages. Because there was no written form of PIE, scholars have had to speculate about how it sounded and have tried to represent phonetically it in modern languages.
To hear what Proto-Indo-European may have sounded like, listen to the sound files here .
People who speak Indo-European languages also share cultural and religious features. Gods and stories from ancient Scandinavia have been compared to gods and stories from ancient India, for example. An article about 40 goddesses shared by people speaking Indo-European languages can be found here . Many of these pantheons are now considered mythical, but some of these gods are still worshiped.
Featured image: A traditional yurt in the Eurasian Steppe. The Yamnaya culture used yurts as their temporary dwellings as they moved across the steppe. Credit: Amickman / Dreamstime
By Mark Miller