The new science of Indo-European origins

The new science of Indo-European origins, by Eric Raymond.

People have been trying to pin down the origin of the Indo-European language family and identify the people who spoke its root language for literally centuries. … However, until very recently theory about Indo-European origins really had to be classed as plausible guesses rather than anything one could call well-confirmed. …

This has changed — dramatically — in the last five years. …

The best discussion of this stuff I’ve found is on a blog called West Hunter by a brilliant and ornery population geneticist named Greg Cochran. He and a [now] deceased partner wrote a really thought-provoking book, The Ten Thousand Year Explosion (2008) showing that (contrary to a popular assumption) human evolution didn’t stop with the rise of civilization but has actually sped up during the last 10,000 years. …

The story emerges:

What we can now say pretty much for sure: Proto-Indo-European was first spoken on the Pontic Steppes around 4000 BCE. That’s the grasslands north of the Black Sea and west of the Urals; today, it’s the Ukraine and parts of European Russia. The original PIE speakers (which we can now confidently identify with what archaeologists call the Yamnaya culture) were the first humans to domesticate horses.

And — well, basically, they were the first and most successful horse barbarians. They invaded Europe via the Danube Valley and contributed about half the genetic ancestry of modern Europeans — a bit more in the north, where they almost wiped out the indigenes; a bit less in the south where they mixed more with a population of farmers who had previously migrated in on foot from somewhere in Anatolia.

The first version of the “modern” steppe-origin hypothesis — warlike bronze-age PIE speakers domesticate the horse and overrun Europe at sword- and spear-point — goes back to 1926.

But since then various flavors of nationalist and nutty racial theorist have tried to relocate the PIE urheimat all over the map — usually in the nut’s home country. The Nazis wanted to believe it was somewhere in their Greater Germany, of course. …

The genetic evidence is merciless … There’s a particular pattern of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA variation that you only get in descendant population C when it’s a mix produced because aggressor population A killed most or all of population B’s men and took their women. Modern Europeans (C) have that pattern, the maternal line stuff (B) is EEF [Eastern European Farmers, who walked into Europe from Anatolia along with farming technology], and the paternal-line stuff (A) is straight outta steppe-land; the Yamnaya invaders were not gentle.

How un-gentle were they? Well … While Europeans still have EEF genes, almost nothing of EEF culture survived in later Europe beyond the plants they domesticated, the names of some rivers, and (possibly) a murky substratum in some European mythologies. …

Part of the surprise is how unsurprising it is. The PIE way of life is not strange to us; strong traces of it have transmitted through Greco-Roman, Norse, and Celtic mythology, flavoring our folklore and our fantasies and the oldest poetic epics of our languages. They truly were our cultural as well as our genetic ancestors.

They even looked like us –- that is, like modern Europeans. We couldn’t actually know this until the new paleogenetic evidence came in. Yes, ancient historians had described the Pontic Greeks as light-skinned, even blond, which should have been a clue; but in the 20th century there was an understandable reaction against Nazi “Aryan” theorizing and everybody speculating about what early PIE-speakers looked like ran hard in the other direction.