Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Indo-European homeland, found: Not!

While Mr. V is pondering challenges about phonological theory, I've now actually read David Anthony's book, The horse, the wheel and language, which Mr. Verb mentioned earlier here. The book is, I have to say, stunningly bold. Anthony claims flatly:
it is now possible to solve the central puzzle surrounding Proto-Indo-European, namely, who spoke it, where was it [sic] spoken, and when (2007:5).
In fact, Anthony is mostly taking over the old Kurgan hypothesis — that the early Indo-Europeans were associated with the 'kurgan' burial mounds (pic from wikipedia) and came from the area north of the Black Sea — as developed by J.P. Mallory and others. Recent works on IE and historical linguistics have come to treat this as the most likely homeland, but that's far more conjecture than secure conclusion.

The alternative is more promising than Anthony makes it out to be, surely, namely that these people started out in Anatolia more like 9,000 year before the present and spread out with farming. This view is associated with Colin Renfrew, who has recently summed his view up this way: “Everybody agrees that farming came to Europe from Anatolia. So Anatolia must be the point of departure [for languages too]” (Balter 2004:1324, in Science).

Both views actually share key features, like a reliance on more nuanced ‘vectors’ of cultural spread rather than large-scale invasions or migrations. On both views powerful new technology promoted the spread of Indo-European languages, involving food production and/or transportation.

As Mallory & Adams (2006: 461-463) conclude, “The dispute here is one of degree, both temporal and spatial.” The two views are close enough now that some are asking whether they might be fundamentally compatible. Balter’s report ends with this, in the context of work by Gray & Atkinson's proposal for an early date for IE:
Because this date matches the first evidence for Kurgan occupation of the Black Sea steppes, Gray and Atkinson say, both camps could be partly right: The farmers spread PIE initially, but the Kurgans spurred the later burst of languages. “There is no need to set up the Kurgan and farming hypotheses at variance with one another,” says April McMahon, a linguist at the University of Sheffield, U.K. “But sadly, this is something that [people] have a tendency to do.”
I can post more details if readers want, but this book is not a solution to the homeland issue. Language really plays no big role in it, certainly not in any original contributions to the topic.


Anonymous said...

I am a third year English Language Student at the University of Wales, Swansea and I am currently writing an essay on this very topic. I found your summary of the book to be very concise and informing, and believe the proposal of a hybrid theory by Atkinson and Gray to be promising.

Joe said...

Thanks. There's now been a lot of reaction to the book of course and work on this question, but I don't know if anybody is particularly working on hybrid approaches.

Anonymous said...

Previous comment by Rebecca Allsebrook, 21, UK.

Anonymous said...

To what extent do you agree with the statement made by Gray and Atkinson that it might have been possible for both major theories to coexist?

Joe said...

Well, part of the point of my original post was I guess that this seems likely.

Our evidence is so limited and so shaky that it's extremely difficult to exclude many details, and so the range of possible accounts that would be consistent with all available evidence is pretty broad.

A lot of people seem to be thinking along these lines, but not really developing a grand synthesis yet.

Anonymous said...

There is an obvious problem here which has existed virtually since the beginning of the Homeland quest. The origin of the IE group is very, very far away from Europe. This is extremely obvious if you take a simple scientific approach which, needless to say, virtually no-one has done.
When I was at university in the Eighties, I was taught the homeland was in Germany or somewhere in Central Europe, without any credible basis whatsoever. Virtually all respected subsequent work, including Mallory and Renfrew, suffer from the same essentially dishonest and corrupt intellect.
That the origin of the people is in Eastern Asia, not in Eastern Europe and its vicinity, is abundantly clear.
Why can so many people not see this very evident truth?