The idea that most European languages are related and possibly originate from a common ancestral tongue known as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) has been well accepted by scholars of various disciplines. The so called Indo-European language family includes most European but also some languages of the Fertile Crescent, the Caucasus, West and South Asia. With over 400 languages (including dialects) it is by far the world’s largest language family and is spoken by almost 3 billion native speakers world wide. Armenian language is considered by some to be one of the oldest surviving members of this family, with some estimates going as far as 5000 BC.
The hypothesized homeland of the Proto-Indo-European speakers however has been subject to much debate. There are largely four competing hypotheses which place the origin of the Indo-European language family either in the Pontic Steppe, Anatolia, Balkans or the Armenian Plateau. The conventional view places the homeland in the Pontic steppes about 6000 years ago. An alternative hypothesis claims that the languages spread from Anatolia with the expansion of farming 8000 to 9500 years ago. Yet another hypothesis places the PIE homeland in the Balkans from where Indo-European farmers supposedly spread the language throughout Europe. And the final hypothesis names the Armenian Plateau as the most likely candidate for the Proto-Indo-European homeland.
A long awaited study into ancient DNA recently posted on the bioRxiv preprint site has shed more light on the issue with quite interesting and maybe more so enigmatic results for the role of early Armenians in the spread of the Indo-European language and genes. The work was done by a large team led by geneticists David Reich and Iosif Lazaridis of Harvard Medical School in Boston and Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide in Australia. The study used state-of-the-art DNA techniques to analyse ancient DNA from 69 Europeans who lived between 8000 and 3000 years ago to genetically track ancient population movements.
The Yamnaya culture
Among the team’s samples were nine ancient individuals—six males, two females, and a child of undetermined sex—from the Yamnaya culture north of the Black Sea in today’s Russia. Beginning about 6000 years ago, these steppe people herded cattle and other animals, buried their dead in earthen mounds known as kurgans, and may have created some of the first wheeled vehicles. The study found a striking similarity between the Yamnaya DNA and that of the Corded Ware people of the central and northern Europe. The comparison of the two cultures’ DNA showed that Corded Ware people could trace an astonishing three-quarters of their ancestry to the Yamnaya suggesting a massive migration of Yamnaya people from their steppe homeland into central Europe about 4500 years ago. The Corded Ware culture soon spread across north and central Europe, extending as far as today’s Scandinavia. So the “steppe ancestry,” as the authors of the study call it, is found in most present-day Europeans, who can trace their ancestry back to both the Corded Ware people and the earlier Yamnaya. All of the males from the study belonged to haplogroup R1b1a and were marked by the absence of R1a.
The Armenian connection
The study also revealed an interesting Armenian connection with the Yamnaya people. As Dienekes describes in his analysis of the study, it seems that the: “Yamnaya (a Bronze Age Kurgan culture) were a mixture of the EHG (East European Hunter-Gatherers) and something akin to Armenians.“ The researchers found that:
The Yamnaya differ from the EHG (East European Hunter-Gatherers) by sharing fewer alleles with MA1 (|Z|=6.7) suggesting a dilution of ANE ancestry between 5,000-3,000 BCE on the European steppe. This was likely due to admixture of EHG with a population related to present-day Near Easterners, as the most negative f3-statistic in the Yamnaya (giving unambiguous evidence of admixture) is observed when we model them as a mixture of EHG and present-day Near Eastern populations like Armenians (Z = -6.3; SI7).
Testing of the Yamnaya DNA has revealed a pattern of negative correlation when using Karelia Hunter-Gatherers and Armenian as references. Evidently: “The Yamnaya can be modeled as a mixture of Armenians and Karelian Hunter-Gatherers.” The authors further describe:
Ancient genomes from the Caucasus, the Near East, and Central Asia might reveal the existence of Neolithic populations there that may be involved in the ancestry of ancient steppe populations and central Europeans.
It is evident that the Yamnaya pastoralists from the Samara district are not descended only from European Hunter Gatherers that preceded them in eastern Europe, but also posses an interesting Near Eastern component to their genetics of which modern Armenians are a reasonable surrogate.
How the Armenian plateau hypothesis gains in plausibility
The study discusses 4 main hypotheses of Indo-European language dispersals and the effects of the new findings on these hypotheses. While the results do not settle the debate about the location of the proto-Indo European homeland, they do increase the plausibility of some hypotheses and decrease the plausibility of others.
- The Steppe hypothesis has increased plausibility because of the overwhelming evidence for the connection between the Yamnaya steppe people and the Corded ware people of central and northern Europe.
- The Anatolian hypothesis becomes less plausible as an explanation for the origin of all Indo European languages in Europe, because it can no longer claim to correspond to the only major population transformation in European prehistory. While the study does not contradict early Neolithic migration of farmers from Anatolia, they now provide us with evidence of at least another wave of migration from the Pontic steppe into north and central Europe, which could explain the spread of Indo-European languages.
- The Balkan hypothesis also loses credibility on the grounds that it does not account for the steppe migration and their overwhelming influence on the genetic makeup of the Corded ware culture.
- And finally the Armenian plateau hypothesis just as the steppe hypothesis gains in plausibility. The Armenian plateau hypothesis somewhat resembles the Steppe hypothesis in postulating a
role for the steppe in the dispersal of languages into Europe, but places the homeland of Proto-Indo-European speakers south of the Caucasus. Which is supported by the Near Eastern component discovered with the ancient DNA of the Yamnaya people. The authors elaborate:
The Armenian plateau hypothesis gains in plausibility by the fact that we have discovered evidence of admixture in the ancestry of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists, including gene flow from a population of Near Eastern ancestry for which Armenians today appear to be a reasonable surrogate.
In conclusion it must be said that the debate about the Indo-European homeland is far from over. Nonetheless this study provides us with more insight into the migration patterns of people who populated Europe. The study confirms an early migration of farmers from the Near East and the Armenian Highlands into Europe, but it also provides new evidence for a later migration of Pontic steppe people with a Near Eastern (Armenian) component into central and later northern Europe and thus increasing the plausibility of both the steppe and the Armenian Plateau hypotheses.