Indo-European Pursuits: Scientific Paths Diverge in the Quest for Ancient Eurasians

Article excerpt

For more than 200 years, scholars have noted striking similarities in nearly all the languages of Europe, many of those in India and Pakistan, and some in other parts of Asia. These far-flung tongues make up Indo-European, a family of languages that still kindles scientific curiosity about the prehistoric folks who gave rise to so many allied forms of speech.

In an ironic twist, Indo-European's close family ties have triggered an estrangement in the last decade between archaeologists and linguists, the two groups of scientists most involved in answering questions about the origins of modern Eurasians.

Archaeologists examine material remains at sites where people lived thousands of years ago, including a burgeoning number in central Eurasia that have opened up to Western researchers since the Cold War ended. Linguists use corresponding features of various languages to reconstruct words as the first Indo-Europeans may have spoken them.

Many archaeologists have come to view this linguistic exercise as potentially misleading and, at best, secondary to excavations of ancient human settlements. Linguists, in contrast, argue that their analyses reveal far more about the culture and thinking of the first Indo-Europeans than sculptures, pottery, and other mute remnants dug out of the ground.

Two new theories of Indo-European roots, both presented last December at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Atlanta, have now entered the fray. One attempts to unite the prehistoric Indo-European vocabulary pieced together by linguists with the latest archaeological evidence; the other looks at the spread of Indo-European tongues as a function of Eurasia's geography.

Comparative linguistics first arose in the 1860s. Its practitioners assumed that languages featuring comparable forms of many essential words -- which differ slightly because of systematic rules for changing speech sounds in various languages -- descended from a common proto-language. (In much the same vein, Darwin argued shortly thereafter that shared anatomical traits of modern animal species derived from a common biological ancestor.)

Linguists have since taken correspondences between known Indo-European languages and reconstructed a core of vocabulary, grammatical conventions, and pronunciation rules for what they call proto-Indo-European.

In 1926, British historian V. Gordon Childe published a theory of the origins of Indo-European speakers, based on what linguists knew about their speech and available archaeological evidence.

Childe held that the original Indo-Europeans, whom he called Aryans, were nomads who herded animals in the steppes north of the Black Sea, in what is now the Ukraine. Between 6,000 and 5,000 years ago, the Aryans migrated into Europe on horseback and conquered a series of cultures, spreading their language in the process.

The late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas drew on more recent excavations over the last 20 years to support Childe's scenario. She described several waves of expansion and conquest by mounted nomads who rode west from a homeland north of the Black Sea beginning about 6,400 years ago. Their male-dominated, warrior society replaced the relatively peaceful, female-centered civilization that had long existed in Europe.

A growing number of archaeologists now envision a kinder, gentler origin of Indo-European speakers. In their scenario, farmers from ancient Turkey and nearby regions began to move into Europe around 9,000 years ago, as their growing population spurred the acquisition of more land.

After agriculturists settled in a new territory, they incorporated nearby hunter-gatherer groups into their economy. Indo-European farmers peacefully swallowed up one tract of land after another, and versions of their speech eventually enveloped much of Eurasia, according to this alternative proposal.

Colin Renfrew, an archaeologist at Cambridge University in England, first described this view in his 1987 book Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins (Jonathan Cape, London). …