Indo-Europeans!


For some pieces on my Substack I’ve been re-reading a lot of the stuff on the ancient genetics and archaeology of Eurasia as they relate to Indo-Europeans. This means I get a different view from usual…as it’s more synoptic. I’m not entirely clear on the dates or archaeology, but here is what I’ve concluded: the Indo-European expansions can be partitioned into “waves.” That is, they weren’t a simple “demic diffusion” where disease (against their rivals) and reproductive excess generated a continuous expansion across their range.

So here’s what I get

1 – An “early phase” where Yamna people push west (Kurgan) and become Corded Ware, and east (far) and become Afanasievo. Date this to right before 3,000 BC, but pretty much “completes” in Europe by 2900-2800 BC, as the broad zone of Central and Northeast Europe is dominated by these people (there are still debates on whether Afanasievo became the “Tocharians”; I think they did)

2 – ~2500 BC, 400-500 years after the initial push west, Indo-European populations push beyond their limits on the Rhine, and breakthrough past the mountains ringing the Southern European peninsulas. The dates are often vague in the south, but it looks to be around 2500 to 2000 BC. For example, the Neolithic farmer descended Remedello Culture in northern Italy ends about 2400 BC. The Bell Beaker Indo-Europeans seem to have arrived in Ireland and England at just about this time, perhaps a century after they came to dominate France.

Though there were obviously islands of exception (often quite literally as in Sardinia and Crete), Europe by 2000 BC was Indo-European.

3 – The third wave dates to after 2000 BC, and it is the “Asia reflux.” Populations used the forest-steppe zone as a stepping stone out to the east. Derived from the same synthesis between Yamna and European farmer as Corded Ware, these populations seem ancestral to the Indo-Iranians. Slavic-speaking people (or the ancestors of those people) occupied the western fringe of this expansion zone, and by the Iron Age had begun to move east, marginalizing Indo-Iranians across much of their core European territory.

It seems that Indo-Iranians had pushed into the margins of northeast Iran, Khorasan, by ~2000 BC. In the period between 2000-1500 BC they clearly began to occupy their historical core zones in Iran and India. Obviously, Indo-European Iranians are present in western Iran by 1000 BC in the historical record, though Indo-European Mitanni are present by 1540 BC at the latest in Syria and northern Iraq.

The Iranians also moved into the Tarim basin, so the cities of the west and southern edge were Iranian-speaking (the cities of the north and east were Tocharian).

What explains these pulses? I don’t know totally, but we know a few things:

– There are star phylogenies on the Y chromosomal associated with these migrations. R1b, R1a, and I1. I think the last is due to the assimilation of non-Indo-European men in Europe, but the first two are clearly primal. The Indo-Europeans were clearly very patrilineal.

– The last, Asian, migration clearly has something to do with chariots and horses. The coincidence in timing seems too much. But the earlier migrations were before chariots (I believe). But, the horse does seem to have come with Indo-Europeans, so there was a level of mobility involved.

– The “Bell Beaker” motif seems to have emerged among non-Indo-Europeans in Iberia, and spread to Indo-Europeans, who expanded outward. I think we’re seeing something related to religion.

Unfortunately for I suspect that the Indo-European advantage was “social technology”, not material technology. Social technology is hard to infer in a preliterate society.

Question for readers: Can you nail down the chronology better? Those who know archaeology?

The brotherhoods of the plains

One of my favorite concepts is “evoked culture.” This is basically pointing to the fact that some human cultural forms and practices aren’t contingent and arbitrary, but naturally emerge due to the canalization imposed by our cognitive biases and the physical and social world around us. An example Spencer Wells likes to use to illustrate this is that indigenous hunters on the Andaman Islanders immediately took to dogs as helpmates when they were introduced to them. The coadaptation between domestic dogs and humans is clearly intense and natural.

Horses are another example. The Plains Indians of the New World became some of the most fearsome mounted warriors in history after the Spaniards introduced domestic horses. By the 18th century some tribes, such as the Comanche, were fully mounted and mobile. This occurred over 200 years.

As documented in 2010’s Empire of the Summer Moon the Comanche recaptiulated some of the patterns of steppe pastoralists of the past: they integrated women of other people into their nation while committing acts of brutal violence against those other people. The last great chief of the Comanche, Quanah Parker, was the son of a white Texan woman.

I think of the Comanche when I wonder what the early steppe peoples were like. The Scythians, Sarmatians, the Sintashtas and Turks. The impact of the horse on their lifestyles, and the centrality of the horse, still echoes down to the present. The Central Asian Turks still drink mare’s milk. Indian grooms still ride on a white mare at their wedding.

But one of the major themes in pastoralist communities seems to be patrilineality and integration of local women. This seems to be illustrated in a new paper, Corded Ware cultural complexity uncovered using genomic and isotopic analysis from south-eastern Poland:

During the Final Eneolithic the Corded Ware Complex (CWC) emerges, chiefly identified by its specific burial rites. This complex spanned most of central Europe and exhibits demographic and cultural associations to the Yamnaya culture. To study the genetic structure and kin relations in CWC communities, we sequenced the genomes of 19 individuals located in the heartland of the CWC complex region, south-eastern Poland. Whole genome sequence and strontium isotope data allowed us to investigate genetic ancestry, admixture, kinship and mobility. The analysis showed a unique pattern, not detected in other parts of Poland; maternally the individuals are linked to earlier Neolithic lineages, whereas on the paternal side a Steppe ancestry is clearly visible. We identified three cases of kinship. Of these two were between individuals buried in double graves. Interestingly, we identified kinship between a local and a non-local individual thus discovering a novel, previously unknown burial custom.

This seems a consistent pattern: “steppe” ancestry seems to be mediated through male migrations. There are likely differences between agro-pastoralists (like the early Germans who moved into the Roman Empire), and full-blown nomads like the Huns, Turks, and Mongols. But overall the trend seems to be the rise of a particular patriarchal culture with the horse people, along with the spread of gods of the sky and lacking attachment to a particular place.

Near Prehistory in Northern Europe was an Indo-European world

The Picts were the topic of discussion on this week on In Our Time. They are a mysterious yet intriguing people because we don’t know much about them in their own words, but, they are one of the roots of modern Scottish identity. When I first encountered the Picts decades ago there was some debate as to whether they were a pre-Indo-European people or not. Today that seems to not be a hypothesis people entertain. Rather, the Picts were simply the least Romanized of the Brythonic Celtic people of Britain.

Today because of the genetic data I think we can be rather confident that by the time of the Roman Empire there were no non-Indo-Europeans left in Northern Europe. The Beaker people in Britain and Ireland seem to have overwhelmingly replaced the native population of farmers, whose ancestors had predominantly arrived from the eastern Mediterranean thousands of years ago (via the Atlantic littoral or Central Europe). Across Northern Europe, in general, the replacement of the previous populations was substantial, though not total.

In Southern Europe, the arrival of Indo-Europeans was more fitful, and persistence of Basque attests to the fact that non-Indo-European languages were spoken down to historical times (if Etruscan is considered native to the Italian peninsula, that’s another example, though this is hotly debated and I lean toward the exogenous model). The pre-Latin language of Sardinia was almost certainly not Indo-European, while Greek has a high proportion of non-Indo-European words in its lexicon.