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.
[…] The Armenian Plateau Hypothesis Gains In Plausibility […]
Thank you for the article, your postulations and illustrations, and especially the inclusion of the hyperlinks at the end. What or who is the source for the map?
You’re welcome. I’m the source of the map. I included the Armenian Plateau to the original map to illustrate the Armenian plateau hypothesis. Naturally with a question mark at the migration path as the study makes no conclusions of certainty but simply states the increase of plausibility. You can find more illustrations (including one for the Anatolian hypothesis) in the original publication on page 32 http://biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2015/02/10/013433.full.pdf
I’m very grateful for that source, thank you. Over on Facebook, I noted this People of Ar piece. A friend then queried if these latest research postulations were to oral or written languages. I replied written; and then did some gathering of thoughts to firm up my own understanding of the short framework. The framework is a little off-topic to the People of Ar post, but below is my comment on Facebook nonetheless as a side note or backgrounder. Since People of Ar has clearly a much, much deeper understanding of the literature, any feedback on the note below would… Read more »
Dear Noric, Linguists, anthropologists, historians and now geneticists are concerned with the question of where and when the world’s largest language family was developed and how it spread to cover most of the world. In that regard, written records serve merely as clues to unravel the bigger picture (the entire language). Therefor the study isn’t necessarily concerned with the written language, it is concerned with the emergence of the language itself, which naturally had to be oral until the development of writing. For example the attested Anatolian branch of Indo-European allows us to formulate hypotheses and understand that Indo-European was… Read more »
Thank you for your very informative response. I need to know much more to have any sensible following up question.
This is such impressive and powerful post – I a m unable to re-blog it!!!
This is not a wordpress.com blog anymore, re-blogging only works with wordpress.com blogs. So re-blogging doesn’t work here unfortunately. But you are free to share the url link to this post and/or text on your personal blog.
http://www.amazon.com/Toponyms-Armenian-Highlands-Surrounding-Territory/dp/1508997268 By Vramshapuh Jihanyan (Author), Jos Weitenberg (Editor) The Armenian Highlands toponyms hold historico-linguistic traces of a 4000-year-old history and ethnic groups sojourning in space and time. This Reverse Dictionary is unique in that it contains approximately 9,000 toponyms supported by accurate geographic localization. It was compiled on the basis of secret Soviet military (Genshtab) maps represented by Cyrillic transcription. The collected material is organized in a reverse order due to suffixes and endings in ancient languages playing a considerably larger role in word-formation. The completion of the dictionary in 1980 laid a foundation for a series of linguistic-etymological research.… Read more »
wow! much appreciated.
[…] That Armenians are no migrants but constitute an indigenous population of the Armenian Highlands has already been established by countless previous genetic studies (read for example HERE, HERE, HERE or HERE). […]
As we strive to reserch andfind our origins, the origins of the Hay people, we seem to ignore the origin of the last and greatest population and genetic migration; that of the Armeno phyrigians. They seem to have overwhelmed the hitites and the Hayassa and the Azzi-Hayassa(?) about the same time, 1250BC. We hear Decebal, the king of the Tracian tribe, the Dacians in the first century BC, lament their migration from the Carpatians to the Pontian shores. The capital of the Dacia was Sarminsegetusa. A hungarian ethymologist translated the “Sarminsegetuza” into “Sar minch se ked usa” which sounds remotely… Read more »
Phyrgian was closer to Greek than Armenian. There isn’t even any evidence that the Phyrgians came from the Balkans. Bryges (the supposed Balkanic forefathers of the Phrygians) just means “mountaineer” (forms of this word may exist in Armenian, Germanic, Celtic, and even Urartian and Arabic, etc)–so it could have been a general term for any highlander. Alternately, it could be “wealthy” or “noble.” If Armenians have a connection to the Thracians, it is because both are Indo-European and there have been western migrations of Armenians throughout history. Armenian is equidistant linguistically to Indo-Iranian as it is to Greek/Phrygian. The evidence–linguistic,… Read more »
[…] The researchers were interested to study this part of the world because of its position as a cultural crossroads since ancient times. It’s also known as an important area for the potential origin and spread of Indo-European languages. […]
[…] language places its homeland in the Armenian Highlands. A prominent genetics study into the Indo-European homeland (Haak et. al, 2015) confirmed the possibility for such a […]
When Reich says, “Armenians or Iranians”,.. he can only mean North Iranians, Caspian shore people, who are not Iranian. Who are Armenians and their close kin, not 4th-cousin Iranians. Reich seems to confuse nationalism, empires and culture with DNA. wtf! It was over 30 years ago when I first saw indo-european language families. Greek was always oldest and grouped with Armenian. I wondered why Armenian was not considered as oldest and it was explained away as, “there is as much divergence between Greek and Armenian as there is between Greek and all the other indo-european languages”. We have no idea… Read more »