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A debate over the PIE homeland

In 1668, Andreas Jager of Wittenberg proposed that there was an ancient language spoken in the Caucasus mountains which then spread throughout Europe and Asia through waves of migration. Mr. Jager did not know about Sanskrit or the similarities between Sanskrit and European languages when he wrote that. A century later,  Sir William Jones discovered that similarity, thus creating the field of historical linguistics. The mother language was postulated to be proto-Indo-European and now there are differing theories on the location of that homeland. One of those theories claims that proto-Indo-European speakers were chariot driving pastoralists from above the Black Sea, who left their homeland around 4000 years back. Another theory claims that, they were from the land below the Black Sea (Anatolia) and were farmers. Along with the spread of agriculture from 9000 years back, the language also spread.

Recently a paper claimed that they had solved the homeland mystery forever.

We used Bayesian phylogeographic approaches, together with basic vocabulary data from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages, to explicitly model the expansion of the family and test these hypotheses. We found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin. Both the inferred timing and root location of the Indo-European language trees fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8000 to 9500 years ago. These results highlight the critical role that phylogeographic inference can play in resolving debates about human prehistory.[Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family]

Based on this paper, The New York Times had a graphic which showed the timeline for the evolution of each language tree. If you note the time for Vedic Sanskrit, it falls to around 4000 BCE, which is much earlier than the Mature Harappan Period. This violates many sacred academic lakshmana rekhas. But if you note the time frame for Romani, it is around 1500 BCE, which actually does not agree with the known history of the Romani people, who left North India much later.

Here is a video (via GeoCurrents) where a two Stanford historical linguists   syntactician and historical geographer take the authors of the paper, who are computational linguists, among whom one is a computational linguist, to task calling them “creationists” but thinks this does not rise to the level of Creationism.


Another point they make is that PIE cannot be older than 3500 BCE because that was the time the wheel was invented and PIE contains words for the wheel.  Obviously the language cannot contain words for things which did not exist. Now if PIE cannot be older than 3500 BCE, then Vedic Sanskrit cannot be older than that. This is an important point for dating the presence of Vedic speakers in India based on historical linguistics (and not computational linguistics)


  1. Bouckaert, Remco, Philippe Lemey, Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Alexei J. Drummond, Russell D. Gray, Marc A. Suchard, and Quentin D. Atkinson. “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family.” Science 337, no. 6097 (August 24, 2012): 957–960. doi:10.1126/science.1219669.
  2. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.

7 Responses to A debate over the PIE homeland

  1. Amit January 5, 2013 at 8:28 am #

    “Obviously the language cannot contain words for things which did not exist.”

    Science fiction has come up with words for objects/ideas which did not exist/were not present at that time, and some were subsequently invented.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig January 6, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

      Good point, Amit. Yet such scifi “inventions” typically predate actual inventions by a few decades (and that’s now when technology is developing, arguably, faster than in ancient times), whereas in the case of the IE debate we are talking about 3,000 years. Have scifi authors of 3,000 years ago invented something that only now became possible (under the same name)? I don’t know of such cases.

  2. Asya Pereltsvaig January 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    Thank you for posting a link to our site and the video! Just a couple of corrections: we are not historical linguists: I am a linguist, but a syntactician rather than a historical linguist, and Martin Lewis is a historical geographer. Nor are the authors of the Science paper “computational linguists”: most of them are computational “something”, but only one is a linguist. Nor do we call them “creationists” (they are not).
    #Asya (on behalf of GeoCurrents)

  3. jk January 6, 2013 at 8:59 pm #


    Thanks for the comments. Apologies for the mistakes. I have edited the text.

  4. who January 11, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    @Asya Pereltsvaig
    What you have said feels ambiguous, could you be more clearer?

  5. Mike January 21, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    not to weigh in on whether the word for wheel existed prior to its invention, but consider that sci-fi and the ultra fast pace of tech research of present age is not the only way that words or concepts have been created prior to their existence. Even though sci-fi may a newly birthed genre, fantasy is not and an example are mythic animals and motifs. The key here is imagination and not available technological lexicon.

    Language is itself a slippery beast, and words and meanings can be adapted and not necessarily invented for every new phenomenon or item. Here i would like to use the examples of the words “Shrapnel and Boycott” which words existed prior to the invention of the item or procedure that these words now denote.

    – Mike.

  6. Param Vyas January 30, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    Precisely why history is constructed on the basis of facts and evidence. Language and linguistics can corroborate the archaeological findings, perhaps. But they can not be taken as the findings themselves. It is all an educated guess-work, but is not presented as such, by both the sides i may add. Are they not scientists? For in science, we are taught to present all the factors that may support a certain claim and the factors that may go against it, however damning.

    To denounce something just because it doesn’t fit the existing “theory” is unscientific and hinders the quest for truth. Theories are meant to be revised and revised again, until they become as akin to truth as humans may ever ascertain ( much like the concepts of god, atom and the creation of our universe that have been in the process of constant evolution over much of the recorded human history ). They are after all, not facts.

    Then there is the matter of the language of Harappan civilization. Perhaps, when the rosetta-stone for it is found, many answers may come from it. Here is hoping precisely that.

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