The research project The Homeland: In the footprints of the early Indo-Europeans (1 September 2015 – 31 August 2018), was financed by the Carlsberg Foundation .
A new epoch in prehistory was ushered in when Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the reconstructed language from which all Indo-European (IE) languages descend, began to disintegrate at some point before 4,000 BCE. During the following millennia, the IE daughter languages spread to an area extending from Iceland in the west to India in the east, slowly differentiating from each other in the process. The Homeland addresses this decisive phase in the shaping of the linguistic landscape of the world as we know it: modern IE languages are today spoken by almost half of the world’s population. The main aim of the project is to determine when and where Proto-Indo-European was spoken , by combining the findings of historical-comparative linguistics with archaeological and genetic evidence.
Among the numerous hypotheses on the date and place of the IE homeland – “the most intensively studied, yet still the most recalcitrant, problem of historical linguistics” (Diamond & Bellwood 2003: 601) – two scenarios are more widely supported than the others. In the first scenario the spread of the IE languages is thought to be intimately connected to the spread of agriculture from Anatolia into Europe around 6,500 BCE . This hypothesis, originally put forward by the archaeologist Colin Renfrew (1987), has recently received support from an unexpected side: the results of studies published in Nature (Gray & Atkinson 2003) and Science (Bouckaert et al. 2012) on the basis of a quantitative approach (glottochronology, i.e. the determination of absolute time-depths of proto-languages established on the basis of the degree of coincidence of lexical items among related languages) are largely consistent with the date and location postulated for PIE by adherents of the Anatolian hypothesis.
The second scenario ties the spread of Indo-European to the invention of the wheel and the domestication of the horse in the Pontic–Caspian steppe around 4,000 BCE . This scenario, favoured by most historical linguists, is based on a qualitative approach referred to as linguistic palaeontology, which analyses select lexical items in detail. For instance, almost all IE language branches testify to a word designating ‘wool’. Since archaeological evidence suggests that wool sheep did not exist until the beginning of the fourth millennium BCE, the existence of the word in PIE would indicate that the disintegration of the proto-language could not have taken place before this date. Similarly, words for concepts such as ‘wheel’, ‘yoke’, ‘honey bee’ and ‘horse’ may be correlated directly with concrete, datable archaeological evidence.
Linguistic palaeontology is based on the comparative method , which enables historical linguists to reconstruct the sounds, grammar and lexicon of languages that are not documented, such as PIE. While the development of sounds over time follows an almost algebraic scheme (this is why Old English mūs , hūs , lūs have systematically yielded Modern English mouse , house , louse ), the development of meanings is much less systematic and requires individual explanations which are almost impossible to quantify.
What sets out this project from other works dealing with the same problem is its fundamentally cross-disciplinary design : while the IE homeland problem is by definition both a linguistic and an archaeological problem, it is usually treated separately by linguists (e.g. Gamkrelidze & Ivanov 1995) or by archaeologists (e.g. Renfrew 1987, Anthony 2007); the only notable exceptions are the joint publications of James P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams (1997, 2006). Similarly, several recent large-scale archaeological and genetic projects on the prehistory of Europe, quite surprisingly, hardly mention the linguistic dimension (e.g. The cultural evolution of Neolithic Europe , UCL; The times of their lives: Towards precise narratives of change for the European Neolithic through formal chronological modelling , Cardiff University).
Moreover, the huge advances made in recent years in the study of ancient DNA from human remains herald a paradigm shift in our understanding of prehistory. While it has often been underlined that languages and genes do not necessarily go together, it is also clear that spread of languages is very often correlated with migrations and thus with spread of cultures and of genes. In this context it is intriguing to note that recent research in ancient DNA reveals an “ancient north Eurasian” genetic component which may have entered Central Europe in the third millennium BCE (Lazaridis et al. 2014). It is tempting to hypothesise that this genetic component, appearing in archaeological cultures usually regarded as Indo-European, is the genetic companion of the spread of IE languages into Europe from the Pontic–Caspian steppe .
Since the origin of the IE languages is immediately relevant to the general public (some of the podcast lectures from the 2012 conference Tracing the Indo-Europeans , co-organised by the PI of this project, have been watched around 5,000 times on YouTube), a popularising website will be created with short articles on relevant subjects, e.g. ‘the wheel’, ‘the IE homeland’, ‘the IE languages’. The website will include an interactive map showing the geographical locations of key concepts. The proposed project will be launched at a time when the supporters of the Anatolian hypothesis have gained the upper hand, at least in mass media: the above-mentioned articles by Gray & Atkinson and Bouckaert et al. have been widely reported in prominent media like The New York Times and The Washington Post , whereas competing views are hardly visible in the public debate. It seems the general public deserves a more qualified discussion of the problem.
The principal investigator of the project, Thomas Olander , PhD (University of Copenhagen), is a specialist in early IE languages with special focus on the Slavic branch. With his employment at the Roots of Europe project since 2006 he has a large international network and experience in research management. His sub-project, The linguistic evidence , collects and analyses the linguistic evidence, making it accessible also to non-specialists through a database containing all relevant lexical items together with their attestations in the individual daughter languages, thus making explicit their potential for qualifying as concepts pertaining to PIE. Moreover, he is responsible for the main project, constituting a synthesis of the three sub-projects and resulting in a coauthored monograph.
The other team members are James Alan Johnson , a postdoctoral researcher with an expertise in Steppe archaeology, and Tobias Mosbæk Søborg , a PhD student specialised in the Anatolian languages.
Anthony, D. W. 2007. The horse, the wheel, and language: How Bronze-Age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Bouckaert, R. et al. 2012. Mapping the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family. Science 337. 957–960.
Diamond, J. & P. Bellwood. 2003. Farmers and their languages: The first expansions. Science 300. 597–603.
Gamkrelidze, T. V. & V. V. Ivanov. 1995. Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Gray, R. D. & Q. D. Atkinson. 2003. Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature 426. 435–439.
Lazaridis, I. et al. 2014. Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans. Nature 513. 409–413.
Mallory, J. P. & D. Q. Adams (eds.). 1997. Encyclopedia of Indo-European culture. London & Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.
Mallory, J. P. & D. Q. Adams. 2006. The Oxford introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European world. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
Renfrew, C. 1987. Archaeology and language: The puzzle of Indo-European origins. London: Pimlico.