Does the new ancient genetic data put the homeland of Proto-Indo-European languages in the Black and Caspian Sea steppe or doesn’t it? Mostly, although the ancient Armenians are not entirely playing ball, and may mean that the steppe still isn’t the homeland.

Map of western Eurasia, showing the general view of the spread of Indo-European language familes from a homeland in the steppe north of the Caucasus and Black Sea.

The steppe homeland for Indo-European languages, as argued by David Anthony for example. Is this model now proved right?

So… time to throw away my copy of ‘Archaeology & Language’ by Colin Renfrew and, probably, anything written about Indo-European by Bouckaert, Atkinson or Gray (I think most people did this long ago).

What has the European ancient autosomal DNA data coming out over the last three years shown me? It’s that I was spectacularly wrong about Proto-Indo-European (PIE). This is probably good for me. The linguists are certainly happy, having been proven basically right, and many archaeologists, notably David Anthony, are pretty happy too, although some are just deeply confused.

It makes you realise that although you think you’re thinking for yourself, actually what you’re doing is fitting into a mainstream view of archaeology which has prevailed since the 1970s – that people don’t move much and, at best, that they ‘culturally interact’.

So what we’re left with is one theory really, Marija Gimbutas’ Kurgan Hypothesis, which is that early IE languages were spoken in the southern steppes north of the Caucasus and Caspian Sea (aka the ‘Pontic-Caspian Steppe’), and that huge migrations of actual people smeared them across much of Eurasia between 3000 and 1000 BC. So far so good.

But there are still some things which are not resolved about the origins of Indo-European languages. The most obvious one is the result of this same genetic analysis and shows that IE migrants from the steppe were the descendants of two sets of people, hunter gatherers of the Russian steppe and farmers from somewhere around the Caucasus. Which of these supplied the language base for PIE is unknown. It may seem a technical point, seeing as the rest appears to be sewn up. However, it may mean that some modern IE languages didn’t originate in the steppe at all.

First, though, we should probably do a quick rerun of the main events now showing up from the genetic data.

The genetic prehistory of Europe in maps

Map of Europe/western Eurasia for 7000 BC, showing four main genetic groupings, WHG in west, EHG in northern Europe and the steppe, Anatolian and Levant Neolithic in the Middle East, and CHG/Iran Neolithic between the Black and Caspian Seas

Map of currently identified genetic groupings in western Eurasia/Europe around 7000 BC, before the commencement of farming across Europe. based on data listed in the references.

The relevant genetic populations in western Eurasia at the beginning of this story (around 7000 BC) are five. We’ll start with the first two:

  • Western Hunter-Gatherers or WHG*: this genetic population cluster occupied much of southern and western Europe at this time. In the north and east they abutted…
  • Eastern Hunter-Gatherers or EHG*: this genetic population are a kind of hybrid between WHG and a population from the steppe known as Ancestral North Eurasians (ANE, currently represented by one much older ancient DNA sample known as Ma’lta from the Lake Baikal Area).

*These labels are those used by researchers in ancient genetics for the genetic clusters which they’ve identified.

The boundary between WHG and EHG passed west to east through the Baltic region, dividing the Baltic states in the east before taking a southward turn to join the Black Sea at its western end. Populations either side of the boundary appear to be hybrids between WHG and EHG (e.g. Scandinavian Hunter-Gatherers or SHG and Ukraine_Mesolithic), although there may be other minor components in the Balkans.

In the south-east, there are three other populations:

  • Anatolian_Neolithic: this population, located in Anatolia, is important in spreading farming to all of the Balkans, western Europe and parts of the Ukraine between 7000 and 4000 BC. Unfortunately, the predecessors of AN in Anatolia have not yet been reported on. It is possible that it’s made up of a mix of earlier populations from the Balkans, Levant and Iran (due to their genetic similarity, on the diagram I’ve just lumped Anatolia and the Levant together in blue).
  • Iran_Neolithic: this population, found in NW Iran, shows some possible connection with modern south Asian populations.
  • Caucasus Hunter Gatherers or CHG: this population, found in the Caucasus of course, could be a mixture of Iran_Neolithic and mixed EHG/WHG populations, perhaps from the steppe, but also needs to include another, unknown population (NB I’ve lumped these last two related populations together as yellow as it was just becoming too messy with them separate).

These three populations appear to have interacted and mixed to some extent in the middle east in the period between 7000 BC and 4000 BC.

 Western Eurasia/Europe around 4000 BC, with Early European farmers (largely descended from Anatolian Neolithic peoples) dominating much of Europe and mixing of EHG, CHG and Near Eastern neolithic populations between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Western Eurasian/European genetics around 4000 BC, the probable time that PIE was spoken, showing the changed populations in Europe after the introduction of farming, as well as the mixing of populations near the Black and Caspian seas.

By 4000 BC, the Chalcolithic period and the beginning of the PIE window, the following changes seem to have happened to Western Eurasia:

  1.  As a result of the spread of farming and people from Anatolia between 7000 and 4000 BC, most of Europe’s population has become a new, but relatively homogeneous group, known as EEF (Early European Farmers), which shows descent largely from  AN, but with a considerable WHG component, perhaps varying between 10 and 30% (greater the further west). This includes Western Ukraine, where populations contain only perhaps 20% of the previous WHG/EHG mixed genetics.
  2. The eastern Baltic states show an increase in EHG ancestry at the expense of WHG, perhaps resulting from hunter gather population replacement or movement from the northeast.
  3. The area to the north of the Caspian Sea, including Russia and the Eastern Ukraine, shows major genetic influx from the south, as Iran Chalcolithic type genes now dilute the previous EHG genes by between 40 to 50%, forming a new population which I’ve (now) labelled Iran/EHG hybrid, but is called Samara_Eneolithic by geneticists. This hybridisation appears to have started around the middle of the 5th millennium BC and is possibly represented by David Anthony’s ‘late Khvalynsk’ culture.
  4. NE Anatolia/Southern Caucasus and NW Iran appear to have experienced a considerable influx of genes (perhaps 30%) from Anatolian (or even EEF) and Levantine populations coming from the south and east. This is offset slightly by a minor influx of Iranian and Anatolian genes to the Levant, and suggests continued mixing throughout the Near East.
Europe/Western Eurasia 3000 BC. This map is similar to that for 4000 BC, except that CHG/EHG hybrids (here called Yamnaya) have now expanded westward to reach the eastern Balkans and the edge of the Baltic.

Europe/Western Eurasia around 3000 BC, showing the expansion of Iran/EHG hybrid populations (now given the name ‘Yamnaya’) westward, and the expansion of CHG or Iranian populations further into Anatolia.

A thousand years later (3000 BC), now within the PIE (‘wheels and wool’) period, the following changes have happened:

  1. Influx of East Anatolian/Caucasian populations into the rest of Anatolia and to Greece (more than 10%).
  2. Influx (maybe 20%) of Pontic-Caspian steppe populations into the northern Balkans. This can be equated with Kurgans appearing in the Balkans.
  3. Massive influx or even replacement of Ukrainian and northern Baltic populations by the hybrid Iran/EHG population (now called Yamnaya by geneticists) from north of the Caspian Sea. This can be equated with the Yamna (aka Pit-Grave) archaeological horizon. The archaeology suggests that this expansion was quite rapid, sometime around 3300 BC, and many cultural changes occur across the Ukrainian steppe at this time.
Europe/Western Eurasia 2000 BC as before but Yamnaya populations have spread across northern Europe, with some admixture of EEF farmers, and further spread of CHG type populations into Anatolia.

Western Eurasia/Europe at about 2000 BC, showing the expansion (and slight dilution) of Yamnaya-type populations into northern Europe. Note the subtle, greeny-orange of apparent ‘backflow’ of Corded Ware people from Europe to the Urals and beyond.

During the next a thousand years, up to 2000 BC, the following movements are seen:

  1. Around 2800 BC a massive influx (70% or more) of Yamnaya genes into the North European plain to produce Corded Ware populations (pots, not clothing) in East and Central Europe. This can be equated, funnily enough, with the ‘Corded Ware Horizon’. Further west, further expansions result in other population replacements by hybrid Central European populations (associated, to some degree, with the ‘Bell Beaker phenomenon’). This process is associated with the introduction of R1a and R1b1a1a Y-haplogroups to western Europe. Notably, Yamnaya-type genetics are also found in the Afanasievo population, far to the East in the Altai mountains, around 2700 BC, and this seems to be part of the same expansion.
  2. Bizarrely, at the end of the millennium there is a possible ‘back migration’ of the new, ‘Corded Ware’ type (hybrid Yamnaya and EEF) populations into the southern Urals in the Sintashta population. In the next couple of hundred year this population-type also spread further east, with the Andronovo population of 2nd millennium BC Altai mountains showing the same genetics and possibly representing a swamping or replacement of previous Afanasievo populations here.
  3. Continued influx of NE Anatolian/Caucasian populations into Anatolia and Greece (finally between perhaps 20 and 50% depending on whether it originates in the Caucasus or NE Anatolia – this is probably associated with the introduction of J2a1 Y-haplogroups to the Aegean).

After this restless period, the genetic data for the next thousand years is more limited and I haven’t drawn further maps. However, the following things are noticeable:

In Europe, north European populations are relatively genetically stable, but showing interbreeding, convergence and a slight increase in EHG/WHG type ancestry, suggesting either evolutionary advantage of these genes or, more likely, hidden populations at the margins of society which then intermix.

In the Mediterranean and the Balkans (including Greece), populations show gradual increases in ancestry related to the new ‘Corded Ware’ type (EHG/Iran/EEF mixed) populations of the North European plain and western steppe, presumably resulting from a steady influx people from here. This is quite noticeable in Greece by about 1000 BC.

In the Middle East, there is continued mixeing of populations across Anatolia, Iran and the Caucasus. However, this mixing is biased toward the genetics of populations of the Southern Caucasus/NE Anatolia (and, perhaps even East Asia?).

In the steppe, populations end up becoming more like the European ‘Corded Ware’ in the next millennium or so, with the disappearance of purely Yamnaya-type populations. However, these populations also show increases in East Asian genetic components by the Iron Age, these effects being more extreme further East.

It would be a fair guess that the Eurasian steppe, allowing movements of people between Northern Europe and the East, is a major factor in these later changes.


As discussed elsewhere, the evidence above effectively shows that the Yamnaya and Corded Ware horizons are very likely to be associated with the migration from the east to Europe of IE speakers. The Bell Beaker phenomenon is a little more complicated, but must have been associated with IE speakers in the NW of Europe at least.

The question is whether the earlier migrations out of the Caucasus and/or southern Caspian region, both into the steppe to the north and into Anatolia and Greece to the south, could also have included IE speakers. Here, I’ll discuss individual aspects that might help pin this down.

1: Timing and wheels

The wheel is generally considered not to have been invented until around 4000 BC (some say 3500 BC, but that seems a bit late from what I can tell). As most IE language families apart from Anatolian (e.g. Hittite) have essentially the same word for wheel, it’s generally taken that Anatolian must have split from the other IE language families  around 4000 BC or a bit earlier, perhaps before the invention of the wheel. Other IE language families are thought to have separated after the invention of the wheel.

This is easy to accommodate if the homeland of PIE was in the steppe somewhere north of the Caucasus, as is the most common view. In this case, Anatolian split off first and went south (perhaps via the Balkans) sometime around 4000 BC, and the other languages split apart after the middle of the 4th millennium BC.

However if, alternatively, the Caucasus, NE Anatolia or NW Iran were argued to be a PIE homeland, is there evidence of the wheel before the movement of Caucasian/Iranian people north into the steppe. Frankly, it’s marginal, with a tendency toward ‘no’. The wheel would be being invented at about the same time or a little later than the Caucasus/Caspian migration into the Steppe.

If such a migration involved a movement of IE people north into the steppe and their isolation from their former IE neighbours to the south then, realistically, the Anatolian family would be the only IE family that could have been left behind in the south. All other IE language families would need to derive from the northern steppe IE peoples.

However, if the migration north took place after the separation of Anatolian, and simply involved a spread, (e.g. a connected network of people around the Caspian Sea) then no separation need be involved. The Anatolian family, having split earlier than the rest (which could have happened south of the Caspian Sea or wherever), would have no related word for wheel. The remaining circum-Caspian (say) linguistic community could share in the introduction of the wheel and wheel words around 4000 BC or a little later, albeit with dialect variations (e.g. *kwékwlos, *kwukwlos, *kwokwlos variants in the PIE word for ‘wheel’ – see this for example).

Maybe this seems a stretch. However, it is not impossible (such an idea has been discussed for the extended Yamnaya steppe homeland before, e.g. by Benjamin Fortson). The reason why I mention all this is…

2: What about Ukraine circa 4000 BC?

The arrival of kurgans (steppe-type burials) in the Balkans has long been seen as a sign of a major incursion of steppe ‘Ukrainians’ into the region, perhaps bringing in Indo-European languages, around 4000 BC. Some archaeologists, notably David Anthony, have argued that this was the time when the Anatolian branch of PIE split off from the rest of PIE.

Genetics tells a little of this story, with a minor influx of steppe populations to the NE Balkans. IE language introduction would, on this basis, require ‘elite domination’ to change the languages of the Balkans to those of the Ukrainian steppe, a process which is difficult but not impossible.

However, the much bigger shift appears to happen in the other direction, from the Balkans into western Ukraine around this time, with a major influx of Balkan EEF-type populations into western Ukraine (presumably as a result of immigration by Tripolye farmers). Steppe migrants into the Balkans would very likely have become linguistically isolated, as predicted by David Anthony.

As for the Ukraine, whatever language the steppe peoples spoke here before 3300 BC is probably irrelevant. Ukraine’s population appears to have been largely replaced at about this time by people of the Yamnaya culture from the region north of the Caspian Sea (the hybrid Iran/EHG population). There is little or no evidence of continuity in the genetic data for Ukraine. These Yamnaya people, who brought kurgans to the Balkans, are very likely to have brought IE languages to the Balkans too.

This means that if people of the Ukranian steppe were speaking some a very early PIE language before 4000 BC, that language had only one slim chance to be preserved, and that is in the minor 4000BC migrations of people into the Balkans and southward. Let’s see what that language’s chances were…

2: What about the Anatolian languages?

The Mathieson et al. (in review as of 2017) paper currently circulating in various forms, refutes one particular argument of David Anthony 2007 and others, which is that there was much migration from the steppe into Anatolia between 4000-2000 BC. This has been further backed up by Lazaridis et al. 2017.

This means that any migration to the Balkans around 4000 BC is unlikely to have affected Anatolia and, therefore, that Anatolian IE languages are unlikely to have got to Anatolia via the Balkan route. Any potential early PIE languages coming southwest from the Ukraine are therefore likely to have got stuck in the Balkans. We have no evidence for any such language as all well attested IE languages of the Balkans appear to be from the later migrations (Yamnaya or even later).

Instead, the evidence of an increase in genetic contribution from the Caucasus (or, less likely, Iran) suggests migration from the East into Anatolia during this period.

What this tells us about Anatolian languages is difficult to say. As Mathieson et al. state, the sampling in Anatolia is not extensive, and maybe they’ve just been unlucky in not sampling the right ancient people in Anatolia. However, there is generally quite a lot of consistency in their samples for different areas, so this seems questionable.

This leaves two theories for the Anatolian languages. The first is that they are home grown, as Colin Renfrew argued. Realistically, the likelihood of this is low, based on linguistic evidence of language replacement by Anatolian languages (oh how blind I was). The other is that Anatolian languages originated somewhere near or in the Caucasus (or Iran).

3: What about Armenian?

The Armenian language is a similar problem. The genetics of Armenia is non-steppe and appears to have been so since at least the 5th millennium BC, being basically a mix of CHG and Anatolians/EEF. Since then genetic change in the area has been gently toward Iran, Anatolia and the Middle East. In fact, unlike northern Europeans, Armenians have not changed that much genetically in the last 6000 years. There is no particular evidence for a major immigration event during this time.

I should mention the presence of ancient Y-haplogroup R1b1a1 in Armenia in an individual of the 3rd millennium BC, and of R1b1a1a and sub-clades from the 2nd millennium BC and 1st millennium BC. The first is ambiguous and could be due to male intrusion into the area of modern Armenia from the west or the steppe (more likely the steppe). The others are clearly due to steppe intrusion. What numbers of male individuals are implicated and on how many occasions is difficult to say, but it could not have been large.

Whilst the language of Armenian is not recorded in ancient texts (it’s earliest record is the 5th century AD) it appears to have been knocking around in its present area since at least the 1st millennium BC based on the evidence of loanwords into neighbouring Iron Age languages. Coupled with the genetic info, this means that either the precursors of Armenian have been in NE Anatolia since the 5th millennium BC or a small elite managed to change the language of this region before the 1st millennium BC, something which, as with the Anatolian languages, is quite hard to do.

In combination this makes a steppe origin for the Armenian language, arriving perhaps in 3rd millennium BC, possible but not very easy.

4: What about Greek?

Greece’s prehistory can be read in two ways. Greek as a language is clearly present in the Peloponnese by the middle of the 2nd millennium BC (as evidenced by Linear  B tablets). However, the genetics of Greece before around 3500 BC appear to be very much like other EEF populations or Anatolians, which may mean that it wasn’t an IE language that they were speaking then. This is backed up by the evidence of a ‘language substrate’, sometimes called Pre-Greek, in Greek language and geography. Therefore Greek was probably introduced at sometime between about 3500 and 1500 BC.

Greece’s genetic drift between 3500 and 1500 BC seems to fall in a varying path between initially moving toward the Caucasus/NE Anatolia, and later toward the new steppe populations of Europe. It’s a reasonable guess that Proto-Greek languages could have come to Greece after 3500 BC either from the Caucasus/NE Anatolia or from Yamnaya/Corded-Ware migrants in the Balkans.

However, Greek for various reasons is generally bundled by linguists with Armenian (and to a lesser extent Indo-Iranian). If the ancestors of Armenian really have been stuck in NW Anatolia since the 5th millennium BC and there is a connection between Greek and Armenian, doesn’t that suggest that the precursors of Greek might have been there with them? This would favour a Caucasus/NW Anatolian origin for Greek.

Whatever, there’s still that Yamnaya/Corded Ware component in Greek mainland populations of the second millennium BC. Notably, this is not seen in the populations of Crete (the ‘Minoans’) who appear to have spoken a language unknown but not Greek.

What about Indo-Iranian?

I’m simply not sure that we have enough data to say much at present.

Linguistic evidence first comes from Indo-Iranian (particularly Old Indic) loanwords and names in northern Syria and Anatolia from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. These seem to be the result of minor intrusion of elite groups perhaps from the east or north. However, as is often the case, these elites had adopted local languages within a few hundred years. Secondly, by the first millennium BC people in the Pontic-Caspian steppe were speaking a form of Iranian language. Such a language was also being spoken in Iran by the middle of the millennium.

On the other hand, many others, notably Elena Kuz’mina, associate Indo-Iranians with the Sintashta culture of the 2000 BC southern Urals and, by extension, with the Andronovo phenomenon further east. As these cultures appear to have genetics more similar to those of the European Corded Ware than to the Yamnaya, this would mean that Indo-Iranian comes from northern Europe (oh, how those old German philologists would laugh).

For an IE language to come from Europe at this time is quite possible, as IE languages probably dominated the Corded Ware culture. However, it needs to be pointed out that the association of Indo-Iranians with any of this is not confirmed, being based on ritual similarities of the Andronovo with those mentioned in the Indian Rig Veda. Such similarities could be cultural and not linguistic.

Frankly, we’ll need more data to come from Indian and Iranian ancient DNA to answer whether there is a connection. Personally, I can’t help noticing the lack of a dominant Iran/EHG hybrid signal in modern north Indians, Iranians and Afghans (i.e. people who speak Indo-Iranian languages) but plenty of evidence for a CHG or Iranian/Anatolian-type signal. This suggests more Middle Eastern than steppe input is now present here. But of course, populations change gradually over time so this may mean nothing.

As for NW Iran, the genetic data we have here currently suggest that the region was genetically converging with Anatolia up until around 4000 BC, after which date the ancient genetic evidence is missing. Between this time and the present Iran appears to show evidence of mild genetic influx from the steppe and, perhaps, the Caucasus. However, the details are sketchy. Whether this influx is enough to change the language to one from the steppe is open to debate.

What about Tocharian?

Tocharian is associated in many people’s minds with the Xiaohe mummies of the 2nd and 1st millennia BC Tarim Basin, China. It is also often associated with the Afanasievo culture of the Altai/Yenisei region of Russia, dated to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Afanasievo is found about seven hundred miles north of the Tarim basin so a migration from the Altai to the Tarim during the 3rd or 2nd millennium BC is envisaged. It should be mentioned that neither of these associations is necessarily true. In fact, one of its main advocates, James Mallory, is starting to have doubts.

When David Anthony wrote ‘The Horse, Wheel and Language’, his estimated dates for the separation of the Afanasievo culture from other Pontic-Caspian cultures were around the middle of the fourth millennium BC. As Tocharian is often considered (e.g. by Don Ringe) to be the second earliest IE family to separate (after Anatolian), this fitted nicely with Tocharian being the Afanasievo culture.

This is now more complicated, as the Afanasievo culture dates to much the same time as the Corded Ware expansion, around 2800 BC, and appears to be its eastern arm. If Tocharian was part of this spread then it would show  linguistic traits that are no older than other IE languages (such as, say, Celtic). In fact not everyone agrees that Tocharian is so early in branching, and some linguists associate it with the Germanic family (for an excellent review of all this see Mallory 2015, e.g. p33). Alternatively, the linguists Gamkrelizde & Ivanov (who I’ll mention again in a moment), associate it with Italic and Celtic.

These last ideas make possible an alternative which I don’t think will be popular with Elena Kuz’mina or, probably, anyone.

What if Tocharian is not associated with the Afanasievo culture at all, but should instead be associated with its successor, the Andronovo phenomenon (and hence the Sintashta culture of the Urals)? This culture, essentially from the early second millennium BC, is generally accepted to be Indo-Iranian, so I won’t push this. However, it would at least explain Tocharian’s possible association with Germanic or Italo-Celtic, as Sintashta appears to be the result of back-migration of people from Corded Ware Europe, and Italo-Celtic at least is generally thought to have gone west with the Corded Ware migrations.

This also has the advantage of removing a difficult time-gap between the Afanasievo culture and the arrival of European-looking mummies (well, arrival before they were mummies, obviously) in the Tarim Basin. If the Andronovo spread carried Tocharian to the Hindu Kush, say, in the early 2nd millennium BC, then the Tarim Mummies could be the immediate, Tocharian successors of this spread.

This is all wild speculation and probably wrong. The only test I can suggest for this is that since Afanasievo people, like Yamnaya, were a Iran/EHG hybrid, whereas Andronovo showed the presence of EEF genes, looking for an EEF signature in the Tarim mummies may therefore help in narrowing the field, at least between these two cultures.

Don’t forget Gamkrelizde & Ivanov

Gamkrelizde & Ivanov's version of PIE spread, showing Italic, Celtic, Germanic and Balto-Slavic (the western IE group) and Tocharian spreading from the Pontic Caspian steppe (IE's secondary homeland), whereas Anatolian, Greek, Armenian and Indo-Iranian spread from south of the Caucasus.

Something approximating Gamkrelizde & Ivanov’s model of PIE homelands and spread.

Back in the 1980s two linguists, a Georgian, Tamaz Gamkrelidze, and a Russian, Vyacheslav Ivanov, made the case that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was in eastern Anatolia or NW Iran. Their model has the western dialects of Indo-European (Celtic, Italic, Balto-Slavic and Germanic) and Tocharian, what I’ll call North Caspian IE, coming from the steppe. However the precursors of North Caspian IE are argued to have come from a homeland south of the Caucasus.

Excluding Anatolian, which had already split off at an earlier date, the South Caspian IE languages, which remained south of the Caucasus, were argued to have spread west (in the case of Greek), stayed put (in the case of Armenian), or spread east below the Caspian Sea, through Iran into India and north into the steppe (in the case of Indo-Iranian).

(NB Albanian was argued to be a hybrid between a South Caspian language and a North Caspian one, formed around 1200 BC).

Gamkrelizde & Ivanov’s case is based on many small points of linguistic detail, and has been easy to refute based on timing, notably by Bill Darden. Much of this depends on the separation of North Caspian IE from South Caspian IE after the invention of the wheel sometime around 4000-3500 BC. If wheels were invented after the split, how come they have the same basic word for wheel? Is an extended circum-Caspian late PIE, including both North Caspian and South Caspian IE dialects, possible? It only has to be until the early fourth millennium, when the wheel was invented, so for a few hundred years at most.

Either way, based on the genetics it looks to me like such a model is possible, if not wholly probable. Say it turns out that, of all things, the heartland of PIE lay south of the Caucasus near the Caspian Sea, then conservative Anatolian languages could have spread slightly westward from here at some time in the 5th millennium as a result of population movements. A bit later or even at the same time, expansion around or via the Caspian sea north into the Caspian steppe could have allowed IE languages to be extended into the steppe as part of a circum-Caspian late PIE connected with the late Khvalynsk culture.

In this scenario much of the story in the north is not dissimilar to that made by David Anthony. North Caspian IE, in the form of Yamnaya, would still expand west into the Ukraine and edge into the eastern Balkans in the late 4th millennium BC. The great explosion west would be with the Corded Ware culture of the early 3rd millennium BC, where some Yamnaya peoples, perhaps based in the northeastern Balkans would spread rapidly across Northern Europe, introducing North Caspian IE languages. The story of the spread of Tocharian, whether with Afanasievo around 2700 BC or with Andronovo around 1900 BC, would have to be revised of course.

However, a related South Caspian IE would be the ancestor of Greek, Phrygian and Armenian. In this scenario Greek and Phrygian would spread west in the 3rd or 2nd millennia BC, perhaps carried by sailors from the lugubrious waters of the Black Sea into the Aegean. Whether South Caspian IE would also be the origin of Indo-Iranian, as opposed to Sintashta cultures, is even more speculative but possible.

Is this crazy. Probably. But at least one set of linguists seemed to have the same kind of idea… which is, sadly, more than can be said for Colin Renfrew’s ‘Archaeology & Language’.


Mallory, J.P. 2015 The Problem of Tocharian Origins: An Archaeological Perspective, Sino-Platonic Papers 259, 2-63.

A fine paper where a man is honest enough to have doubts about one of his arguments. There’s much that I haven’t dealt with here, not least the agriculture part of the debate on Tocharian origins. However, I think an equal case can be made for Afanasievo or Andronovo on this basis, especially as China has wheat by the 3rd millennium BC, suggesting a possible Afanasievo-type source for wheat.

Anthony, D.W. 2007 The Horse, the Wheel and Language. Princeton, pp553

A book that just keeps on giving, although you do have to read through the layers of certainty which are a feature of Prof Anthony’s style.

Anthony, D.W. & Brown, D.R. 2017 Molecular archaeology and Indo-European linguistics: impressions from new data, In: ‘Usque ad Radices: Indo-European Studies in Honour of Birgit Anette Olsen’ (Eds. Hansen, B.S.S. et al.), Copenhagen Studies in Indo-European 8, p25-54.

An update of David Anthony’s thoughts in the wake of the genetic revolution.

Allentoft, M.E. et al. 2015 Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia, Nature 522, 167-174.

Amongst other things, this deals with the genetics of the Afanasievo and Andronovo cultures as well as the Yamnaya-type expansions into Europe.

Darden, W.J. 2001 On the Question of the Anatolian Origin of Indo-Hittite, In: Greater Anatolia and the Indo-Hittite Language Family (ed R. Drews), J. European Studies Monograph 38, 134-228.

Sadly, this article only mentions Gamkrelizde and Ivanov (critically) in passing, and refers to a talk called ‘Proto-Indo-Hittite and the Caucasus’ given by Bill Darden in Chicago on 6th May 1999 as filling out the details. I can’t find any evidence that the write-up of this talk was ever published, although it was supposed to come out as an article called ‘Indo-Hittite and the Caucasus’ in the ‘Procedings of the (First!) Chicago conference on Caucasia’.

Fregel, R. (in review) Neolithization of North Africa involved the migration of people from both the Levant and Europe (review copy posted on bioarxiv 17 September 2017).

Filled out the maps for north Africa.

Gamkrelizde, T.V. & Ivanov, V.V. 1984 Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans (translated by Joanna Nicholls 1995), New York, Mouton de Gruyter, p1128.

This is a beast of a source, and I will never understand half of it. I have found a pdf of this online somewhere but I can’t remember where I got it.

Günther, T. et al. (in review) Genomics of Mesolithic Scandinavia reveal colonization routes and high latitude adaptation, (review copy posted on bioarxiv 17 July 2017, revised 30 July)

Haak W, et al. 2015 Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe, Nature 522, 207-11.

Discusses the origin of Sintashta briefly but not enough.

Kuz’mina, E.E. 2007 The Origin of the Indo-Iranians, Brill, pp784 (text here).

The bible reference for Andronovo phenomenon cultures, which argues strongly for Indo-Iranian as their language family.

Lazaridis I. et al. 2016 Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East, Nature 536, 419-424.

Very important paper for detailing Anatolia, Armenia and NW Iran genetics. This shows the strange continuity of Armenia during the period under study.

Lazaridis I. et al. 2017 Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, Nature 548. 214-8.

Adds nicely to the picture of Greek and Anatolian genetics during the Late Bronze Age.

Lipson, M. et al. (in press) Parallel ancient genomic transects reveal complex population history of early European farmers, (review copy posted on bioarxiv 6 Mar 2017)

Mathieson, I. et al. (in press) The Genomic History of Southeastern Europe, (review copy posted on bioarxiv 9 May 2017, revised 19 September)

This contains a very good summary of the genetic data for Europe, largely in diagramatic form, within the supplements.

Mittnik, A. et al. (in press) The Genetic History of Northern Europe, (review copy posted on bioarxiv 3 Mar 2017).

Olalde, I. et al. (in press) The Beaker Phenomenon and the Genomic Transformation of Northwest Europe, (review copy posted on bioarxiv 9 May 2017)

This paper could do with a considerably improved supplement, especially individual PCA locations of different nations.

Saag, L. et al. (in press) Extensive farming in Estonia started through a sex-biased migration from the Steppe, (review copy posted on bioarxiv 2 Mar 2017)

Svyatko, S.V. 2015 New Radiocarbon Dates and a Review of the Chronology of Prehistoric Populations from the Minusinsk Basin, Southern Siberia, Russia, Radiocarbon, 51, 243–273.

Source of revised dates for the Afanasievo culture.

Unterländer M. et al. 2017 Ancestry and demography and descendants of Iron Age nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, Nature Communications 8, 14615.

As well as detailing the eastern influence on Iron Age steppe culture, there’s a nice admixture plot of many ancient and modern populations in the supplement (the massive page 20) which is worth perusing.




No South American DNA in ancient Easter Island – and…?

by Edward Pegler on 4 November, 2017

Map of the southwest Pacific, showing a possible (or impossible?) connection between Easter Island and South America.

Regardless of whether Rapanui ever made contact with South America, is the lack of ancient DNA evidence of South American contact in Easter Island that surprising?

A very recent paper by Lars Fehren-Schmitz, Pontus Skoglund, and others, based on the ancient DNA (mitochondrial and nuclear) of five Easter Island / Rapanui individuals dated before 1700 AD, shows the complete lack of genetic input of South Americans into the Easter Island population before contact with westerners.

Such ancient mitochondrial and nuclear DNA recovered from Easter Island bones is pretty good evidence and I don’t doubt its validity. But in a way I’d be surprised if there were much chance of South American DNA getting to Easter Island.

South Americans to Easter Island or vice versa?

South Americans, who had balsa boats, didn’t really travel the open oceans much. They may well have reached the Galapagos Islands, but a journey of several thousand miles to reach Easter Island would have been beyond them.

Ancient Polynesians, on the other hand, had good ocean-going boats and tended to explore eastward (against the prevailing wind). As long as they had sufficient provisions, its quite probable that Easter Islanders could have made footfall in South America.

But why bother?

Polynesian explorers

The normal pattern for Polynesians would, at a guess, have involved initial exploration by an outrigger full of mostly young, single men. There would be supplies to get them so far and back again, but nothing else would be carried. As an exploration mission, this would have been pared down like the Apollo landings on the Moon.

As Polynesian’s experience of the Pacific would have shown, they wouldn’t be expecting to meet anyone when they found land. What they would expect was the usual weird bird-life on a thickly forested island. There would be no expectation of anyone to trade with.

If the island was inhospitable, it may at least have interesting things to take home (generally birds or their feathers). Better still, if the island seemed suitable for colonisation, the explorers would return home anyway. With their new found fame and the virgin land on offer, they might have made attractive husbands. A second journey of more boats would carry all the things needed (plants, pigs, their new wives, rats etc) for beginning the settlement of the newly discovered island.

Culture shock in South America

The shock of a Polynesian arriving in South America would be huge. After an exceptionally arduous journey, rather than finding a lush, uninhabited island, these tired voyagers would find a barren-looking continent with people fishing the waters and settled on the coast. This would not be a place to settle their own kind. On the other hand, it could potentially be a place to trade with and collect foods from.

So I think that if these explorers chose to return to Easter Island, it would be with the intention of finding trade items, such as bird feathers, to exchange with the South Americans. Future missions to the ‘Big Dry Island’ of South America would be rare (perhaps a few dozen at most) but potentially lucrative for men in bringing back status items (feathers, gold, I don’t know) with which they could wow the ladies and men back home on Easter Island. I don’t believe that they would be taking wives on these long journeys at all.

And their dealings with the local population of South America would be very circumscribed and controlled. The Polynesians, being a small group from a boat or two, would have little power here and would be essentially at the mercy of the locals. There would be no returning with slave women and possibly no option to take daughters away in marriage either. If they were lucky (or foolhardy) they might get a chance to dance a horizontal fandango with a local girl or two while they were there.

In all this, their would be no gene flow to Easter Island.


All of the above is, of course, speculative. I suspect that it’s obvious to any rare reader out there that I think the two cultures might have connected once (see ‘Easter Island – was it really so isolated?‘ for all my sweet potato and feather-related opinions) otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this (‘convince a man against his will…’).

So maybe Easter Islanders never reached South America, preventing any gene flow. Alternatively maybe they did and, given several hundred more years and a change in boat technology, perhaps they might have eventually taken women back and forth from continent to island, revealing a strong genetic connection between the two. But if there were contact, a lack of genetic input from South America in a brief, imagined time of contact unfettered by westerners (say 1300-1600 AD) is not that surprising.

On the other hand, whether any evidence might still be found (and it would be tiny) for some genetic input from Polynesians into coastal South Americans would be probably the only realistic way of genetically testing for a connection of these two fascinating, lost cultures.


Fehren-Schmitz, L. et al. 2017 Genetic Ancestry of Rapanui before and after European Contact, Current Biology 27, 3209–3215.

only abstract seen

Ancient DNA evidence finds no trace of early contact between Easter Islanders and South Americans, University of Bristol News Report, 17 Oct 2017.

summary of paper’s conclusions with comment.


European ancient DNA – the movie

October 1, 2017

We have learned loads from the autosomal DNA analyses of Europe’s ancient populations which have poured out of Harvard and other universities in the last two years. Europe was a restless place, changing people more than some of us would have guessed. Here’s the movie adaptation. I put together the video above for my own […]

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What type of grass are you on, Jared?

July 5, 2017

Does agriculture start with lucky grass, as Jared Diamond says, or does lucky grass start with agriculture. I’ve been sitting enjoying the weather in my garden in Swindon, England. It’s a mess, full of random weeds and overgrown grass. But who cares? The Sun’s out. And there is a particularly fine, architectural grass growing just […]

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Violence in the Near East at the dawn of agriculture: conflict vs co-operation

December 22, 2016

Small population size and little need for competition is an excellent explanation for the lack of conflict during the transition to agriculture. However, there’s also another possible explanation – co-operation. In my previous post I tried to gather together the evidence for violence in the transition from foraging to farming across the Near East. Much […]

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Violence in the Near East at the dawn of agriculture: the evidence

December 10, 2016

Does farming lead to violence, violence lead to farming, or was the period during and after the invention of farming in the Near East as peaceful as it gets? You’ll find many opinions on the role of farming on the origins of violence and of violence on the origins of farming in human history. I’m […]

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Fatal Epidemics of the Bronze Age

October 25, 2016

Fatal epidemics in the Eastern Mediterranean have been going on since at least the start of the Bronze Age. However, the best evidence for big outbreaks is in 18th century and 14th century BC. After about 500 BC historians occasionally took the trouble to chronicle the fatal epidemics they experienced. However, due to a lack of historians […]

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Third Century Rome’s inflation crisis: ‘bad’ leaders or plague?

October 12, 2016

Is the massive inflation seen in the third century Roman Empire a result of reckless spending by megalomaniac emperors, plague or loss of faith? Take your pick. Is late Rome like the modern US? Probably not. There has been a general (though not universal) assumption in studies of the later Roman Empire that increasing militarisation […]

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The Late Bronze age: A ‘pleasant’ collapse?

June 25, 2016

I listened to ‘In Our Time’ the other day, as they discussed the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was nice to hear about something so dear to my heart as they rambled through the usual stuff and some stuff I didn’t know. It was a shame that they didn’t spend a […]

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The Greek Early Neolithic: following the ophiolite trail west?

November 2, 2015

Does the peculiar tendency of the first farmers in Greece to settle near certain bands of ophiolitic rocks hint at the strange fascination Early Neolithic farmers had for copper. Farming first appeared in Greece in the first half of the seventh millennium BC, around the time of the discovery of pottery in Western Eurasia. Although […]

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