Indo-Iranian language from the steppe it seems

by Edward Pegler on 1 April, 2018

Backing the wrong (or no) horse again!

Just for anyone who hasn’t found it, there’s a preprint of a paper called, rather uglily, ‘The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia’ on bioarxv. It’s all about the ancient DNA of Central Asia, Iran and northern Pakistan from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

This is a quick comment just to say it seems to suggest that Indo-European languages, probably in the form of Indo-Iranian, were introduced to India from the steppe via the Altai Mountains and Hindu-Kush around 1500 BC (Middle to Late Bronze Age). This is what most people have thought for a long time. Well, most people but me. Once one concede’s that Indo-Iranian languages come from the steppe, then Greek and Armenian coming from the steppe is highly likely. Why not throw in Anatolian while you’re there.

The only thing I find a shame is that this new paper from the Reich team is not as unequivocal as it should be. I’m guessing that Indian academics were not willing to release data from India at this stage, or that no ancient DNA was forthcoming from Indian (or even southern Pakistan) samples. What’s missing, more than this, from the paper, is data from Pakistan before the arrival of people from the steppe. Sadly, this makes it still possible for someone more stubborn than me to hold out hope for Indo-European associated with Harappa, etc, but I think that’s probably desperate.

At least it means that I can return to what I started this blog on, which was ancient economics. What a relief all round.

Addendum – not criticizing content but this paper looks rushed. I’m sure it’s going to get cleaned up before publication (Nature?) but it needs an interpreter to read the diagrams at the moment.


Narasimhan, V. M. et al. (bioarxv preprint March 2018) The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Kerr April 1, 2018 at 8:30 pm

Having just read Anthony’s ‘The Horse, the Wheel and Language’, I’d say there are definitely no grounds for saying Anatolian is descended from languages spoken on the central Asian steppe. The various Indo-European and Indo-Iranian branches of early steppe language started to split around the 4th millenium; Greek and Armenian were among them. The languages of Anatolian origin were supplanted by them, though remnants remain as individual words. The origins of Indo-European were in the Pontic steppes, north of the Black Sea, as opposed to the more easterly distant Indo-Iranian dialects. The cultural/religious link to these intrusive horse mounted invaders in Iran and subsequently India, is shown in the Vedas.


Edward Pegler April 1, 2018 at 9:23 pm

Well, it looks like he’s basically right… well apart from his efforts to explain language shift, as he didn’t realise just how massive the migrations were.


ProudPagan April 14, 2018 at 5:55 pm

“The cultural/religious link to these intrusive horse mounted invaders in Iran and subsequently India, is shown in the Vedas.”

There might have been “intrusive horse mounted invaders in Iran and subsequently India”, but there’s no trace of it in the Vedas.

BTW, very little Steppe DNA in ancient and modern Iran samples. The Swat samples from Northern Pakistan show more Steppe DNA. Could lactose tolerance among Northern Indians and Pakistanis be possible as a result? More lactose intolerance in Iran, I suppose.


Edward Pegler April 14, 2018 at 8:26 pm

Yes. You know the more I think about it the less I know about Iran.

I’m looking forward to some older data for South Asia and some younger data for Iran. If people are able to argue about it still then I guess we don’t have enough data. The most interesting thing to come from all of this is that people’s assumptions about Y chromosomes look kind of wrong, both in terms of mutation rates (which appear to be slower) and perhaps where these chromosomes came from… after all, that was the basis of much of the steppe story. More data please, lovely Prof Reich.


Harriet Vered April 1, 2018 at 5:33 pm

Saturday’s Guardian has a review of Reich describing his book as ‘a truer history’, so not perhaps entirely convinced. Reich and his team focussed on the genetics but how genetic research is linked to the spread of languages seems a bit forced. As usual no explanation for mass migrations across continents is forthcoming, they just happened (conveniently for language spread but otherwise bizarre).


Bob Kerr April 1, 2018 at 8:37 pm

Trade and exploitation of new resources by the pastoral tribes from the steppes, who introduced the horse and the chariot from central Asia and became dominant as a result, since the asses and onagers of Mesopotamia and Elam were no match. Anthony David’s ‘Horse, Wheel and Language’ a stimulating read on the subject.


Edward Pegler April 1, 2018 at 9:22 pm

It’s not the migrations I have a problem with as why there was no resistance to them.

Epidemics? That’s a reasonable guess. Basic collapse of trading systems leaving a vacuum as people go elsewhere? Always popular.


Bob Kerr April 1, 2018 at 11:06 pm

From what Anthony is arguing, in Europe the Yamnya pastoralists established a dominant, horse-borne trading relationship wherever they went, in which their language and dominant status resulted in their early, proto-Indo-European becoming the favoured language and earlier languages fading into obscurity. A more recent example would be the Celtic languages. A similar pattern would have occurred in south-west Asia, with the added impetus of the great bronze making skills of the Indo-Iranian speaking tribes (who called themselves Aryans..). Presumably the spread would have been accompanied by violence but it was a relatively slow, change in which trade in horses and a measurably improved dairy based diet also led to a change in the established order.


Edward Pegler April 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm



Bob Kerr April 2, 2018 at 10:36 pm

What the Reich et al paper also says, among other things, is that the Indus civilisation was not a product of Indo-European language speakers from the steppes; they arrived as that civilisation was fading and intermarried with the locals, creating a stratified society. The DNA suggests the Brahmin caste are the main inheritors of the Indo-European (or better, Indo-Iranian) influx of horse borne invaders. The Vedas tell the religious/historical background, in saga form.

Edward Pegler April 3, 2018 at 7:01 pm

Actually, I will pick you up on this Bob. Just to play Devil’s advocate, the Brahmin caste could, potentially be the result of Mauriya or Gupta age stratification, where fair skin was seen as a good thing, and Sanskrit was combined with this. This is probably rubbish, but it’s not impossible. A German sect could, if it so chose, make Arthurian Legend their central text. Don’t read too much confidence in the paper as the paper doesn’t have it, although the likelihood is that you’re right.

Edward Pegler April 3, 2018 at 11:59 am

Dear Bob

In truth I’m still trying to understand what the Narasimhan paper says. What appears to come out from the none-too-well-labelled PCA plot is the affiliation of Iron Age northern Pakistan both with Iran and with heavily Siberianised steppe peoples. However, where Onge fits on this map is anybody’s guess. I would have liked some modern populations put on here too to help locate me.

I think that the crucial lines in the paper are, frankly, not that new in conclusion – that traditional Indo-European speakers of modern southern India show elevated steppe ancestry. It’s the fact that the people who wrote the paper think that this is significant which sways me, not the data. I’m prepared to trust the academics who study this stuff. Either way, there is much to be done with South Asian data to prove the linguistic argument.



Bob Kerr April 3, 2018 at 8:59 pm

Not sure what you mean by ‘heavily Siberianised’ steppe people. Sounds like they hadn’t originated there. Nor was what is now north Pakistan in the Iron Age when the influx occurred – still Bronze Age. Re the Vedas, the steppe origin is evidenced by the numerous references to cultural aspects of the horse borne invaders that were not in evidence in the Indian sub-continent prior to their arrival. I’m no expert but the argument is persuasive, genetically, liguistically and culturally.


Edward Pegler April 4, 2018 at 10:12 am

Dear Bob

Don’t worry about the ‘heavily Siberianised’. The PCA plot in the Narasimhan paper is missing the AASI ancient population, which I guess would plot somewhere over to the right of the diagram. If that population could be added to the PCA plot then the Pakistan Iron Age populations of the Swat Valley would plot between steppe, Iran and AASI, so Siberian is not particularly needed. However, it is notable that the steppe populations of the Altai corridor are heavily SIberianised according to the PCA diagram.

Yes, I know that Pakistan wasn’t called Pakistan then. However, it is now so provides a useful indicator of where we’re talking about. The populations of the region are also Bronze to Iron Age but postdate the preferred date of influx, which is the mid to late second millennium BC.

As for the David Anthony book, I bought it when it came out. I think most people interested in this subject have read it (me twice). There is not much that has so far proved David Anthony wrong except for the following: (1) Anthony argued that the Globular Amphora culture of eastern Europe was a hybrid culture of steppe and existing European. Globular Amphora are now shown to be entirely European (a mix of EEF and WHG). (2) Anthony looked for a cultural dominance model to explain language change (what you alluded to), as he, like many archaeologists (and me), was reluctant to see a massive migration into Europe from the steppe. It is now known that massive migration from the steppe occurred, so a cultural dominance model is no longer needed.



Bob Kerr April 4, 2018 at 3:48 pm

I would have thought the ‘cultural dominance’ model would still hold water: using the Norman invasion as a a comparative model, the Anglo-Saxon society was subjugated by a relatively small number of Norman/French. There again, superior weaponry, tactics and weaponry, as well as the economically advantageous position I’ve mentioned plus the increasing numbers you refer to cannot have failed to feed into the Yamnya’s dominance.


ryan April 5, 2018 at 4:49 am


What has happened to the cultural dominance model is that in a number of places, genetic evidence of near total replacement has come forward. Thus, in Britain, it seems that the neolithic wave of farmers largely replaced the people’s the British mesolithic, with only about a 5% contribution from the mesolithic. Then, a millennium later, a new set of invaders replaced 95% of the neolithic people.

Further, through most of Europe, there is now evidence of transition out of the neolithic that involved a large scale replacement of people, and in particular, a “Y chromosome mediated” replacement — basically meaning the guys from before didn’t get to reproduce any more, though some of the girls did. Genocide seems closer to the truth than trade or cultural dominance.

Only in Spain and Greece (and to some degree Italy) is there much evidence that the neolithic farmers were able to hold on at all. Even there, the genetics suggests significant incursions of new people, as well as y-chromosome mediated change.

Because the neolithic did linger in Spain, some are now positing that proto-Celtic developed there as an Indo-European language with a strong substrate of some sort of neolithic language, perhaps related to Vasconic (early or proto-Basque).


Edward Pegler April 5, 2018 at 9:27 am

Dear Bob

You may love ‘HWL’ and Prof Anthony but not everything in it or by him is going to be right, as he himself admits. As I’ve said, some things are already shown to be wrong. Read Mathieson et al 2018 (The genomic history of southeastern Europe) either here or here, for example, discussing the movement of migrants into Anatolia or the Globular Amphora Culture.

By the way, Norman French not the example you’re looking for, as it’s classic case of cultural dominance failing to change a language. Much was adopted from Anglo-Norman (words, morphemes, even some syntax) but English is in most of its grammar and in the common words, linguistically still the same as Anglo-Saxon and is classed as a Germanic language. Try German in the Teutonic States taking the place of Prussian if you’re looking for a potential example.


Edward Pegler April 5, 2018 at 9:48 am

Dear Ryan

Thanks for the comment. The genocide conclusion seems to be subject to debate. Reich and his co-workers have so far argued, contra Goldberg, against genocide (see here), saying that they see no particular sex bias in the data for Europe (bear in mind that this was a reply to a previous article which was then replied to). David Reich’s prefered option, at least a year or two ago, was related to pandemic, although this was speculation related to the recovery of Yersinia Pestis in steppe skeletons of the Bronze Age.


Bob Kerr April 5, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Fair point. The initial observation was about the early intrusions of Yamnya people into the Danube basin in the latter half of the 5th millenium BC. I’ll quote Anthony: ‘Were steppe people present in these Tripolye B1 towns? It seems likely. The integration of steppe pottery and symbols of power into Cucuteni-Tripolye material culture suggests some kind of social integration, but the maintenance of differences in economy, house form, fine pottery, metallurgy, mortuary rituals and domestic rituals indicates it was limited to a narrow social sector.’ In other words the steppe people were coming in at the top of the hierarchy principally but the change was not immediate or completely destructive.


Bob Kerr April 5, 2018 at 1:16 pm

Afternoon Ryan,
Treating Proto-Celtic as a descendent of a neolithic language, linked to Proto-Basque, would seem to ignore its linguistic links to other Indo-European languages, particularly Latin.


Edward Pegler April 6, 2018 at 1:27 pm

Again, if you want to know about Tripolye demographics then have a look at the genetic evidence in Mathieson et al 2018. Perhaps most interestingly, the pattern shown there is currently the opposite to what Anthony suggested, that of an influence on earlier (pre 3300 BC) Ukrainian steppe peoples from Tripolye (themselves related to Balkan farmers) than the other way round. There are some steppe genetic influences on the Balkans from the copper age (e.g. in Varna cemetery 4500 BC) but they are sporadic and not general. Only around 3300 BC does the first notable intrusion of steppe influence affect the Balkans, and that is the same time as Ukrainian genetics is also change to something far more obviously Pit Grave culture (Yamnaya) related. To re-make this point, the Pit Grave culture is not notably descended from the western Ukrainian steppe but from further East, near the Caspian Sea.

But read the paper, it’s a corker.



Bob Kerr April 7, 2018 at 12:30 am

Actually Anthony makes it plain there was a constant to-ing and fro-ing of influence between the steppe people, local hunter-gatherers and the Tripolye culture. In fact the steppe people were still hunting horses (and other four legged prey), not riding them when the Tripolye culture moved gradually into the lands lying on the north-western shores and valleys of the Black Sea. The pastoralism which later enabled a change in lifestyle actually appeared first among former hunter-gatherers in the Dnieper/Donets basin, spreading east into the steppes by 4,600/700 BC. So the later, westward, migration of Yamnaya was essentially a reversal of the process. One problem I have is the argument that the pastoral economy boosted their living standards (noticeably taller, no dental caries due to absence of cereals in diet) when lactose tolerance is supposed not to have appeared for another two thousand years or so.


Edward Pegler April 6, 2018 at 1:19 pm

Dear Bob

I don’t think that Ryan was implying a lack of link to Italic languages, only that there may be a morphosyntactic (grammar and stuff) influence from a different language.


Bob Kerr April 7, 2018 at 12:31 am

I got the impression he meant more than just an influence.


Bob Kerr April 5, 2018 at 1:09 pm

Re language change you’re right of course. I was thinking more of social structure and law, even though it did take a couple of centuries for English to reassert itself.


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