Spread of the Indo-Europeans

With the advent of DNA testing we’ve been seeing lot more discussion about the origin of the Indo-Europeans. That’s because the solution to the mystery seems to be within our grasp.

First, let’s refresh our terms. Indo-European is a language group, not an ethnic classification, although it’s sometimes used as a proxy for race. There are 445 modern languages that are all descendants of a prehistoric language we call Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The Indo-European languages including most European languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish, as well as non-European languages such as Bengali, Hindustani, Persian, and Punjabi. Almost half the world’s population — about 46 percent — speak an Indo-European language.

There are two main theories about where the PIE homeland was located, and there is an extraordinarily vigorous debate between the two sides.

One side believes the PIE homeland was on the steppes of Asia, while the other believes it was in Anatolia (Turkey).

I’ve been partial to the Anatolian hypothesis, but mostly in the way I cheer for the Denver Broncos. The Hauris belong to yDNA haplogroup G2a, which means our very distant paternal ancestor came to Europe with the Anatolian farmers in the Neolithic period. It would be fun if we were part of the spread of Indo-Europeans. Even so, there’s a bit of a contradiction in my approach. I argue, much more seriously, that G2a is linked to the Etruscans. They spoke a non-Indo-European language so I should be arguing for the steppe hypothesis.

Nevertheless, the steppe hypothesis seems to be winning.

Two long-awaited studies, one described online this week in a preprint and another scheduled for publication later this month, have now used different methods to support one leading hypothesis: that PIE was first spoken by pastoral herders who lived in the vast steppe lands north of the Black Sea beginning about 6000 years ago. One study points out that these steppe land herders have left their genetic mark on most Europeans living today.

The studies’ conclusions emerge from state-of-the-art ancient DNA and linguistic analyses, but the debate over PIE’s origins is likely to continue. A rival hypothesis—that early farmers living in Anatolia (modern Turkey) about 8000 years ago were the original PIE speakers—is not ruled out by the new analyses, most agree. Although the steppe hypothesis has now received a major boost, “I would not say the Anatolian hypothesis has been killed,” says Carles Lalueza-Fox, a geneticist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, who participated in neither of the new studies.

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