Those Elusive PIEs

Another Iris Einstein Theory

I admit it. I am obsessed. It seems everything I read comes around to this. But I’ve finally sussed it and so I must share it. It’s that perennial question: Where was the homeland of the Proto-Indo-European speakers? And how and when did it spread to cover most of Eurasia?

And since this isn’t an academic paper I shan’t start, as I ought, with a review of existing theories. Instead I’ll refer you to Wikipedia (Proto-Indo-European Urheimat Hypotheses); you’ll find everything there.

Right. Technicalities out of the way, let’s get down to it. First I’ll answer the spread of the supposed linguistic ‘daughters’ of the PIE speakers (Albanian, Armenian, Anatolian/Hittite, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Hindi, Iranian, Italic, Slavic, Tocharian etc). It wasn’t by migration as is usually argued. Not of any kind or size.

Client-ship. A Contemporary Analogy

Since the latter half of the C20th America (USA) has seemed to pursue an almost evangelising foreign policy—though the preached ideology is more democracy than straight Christianity. (Okay, I’m looking at this from an outside view so don’t shoot me if I get the facts wrong.)

The technique used might usefully be termed ‘client-ship’, which of course implies patronage (not to be taken in its derogatory sense). It’s more a ‘we’ll take you under our protective wing, show you the way and help you along’ kind of thing. The technique has honourable forebears; the Romans were particularly good at it. It’s how they got the ‘in’ into Britain.

But patron-client relationship is a two-way affair, a win-win we might say. So, what does the patron gain from it? The answer for Rome was simple. It got its hands on yet more grain-producing land (not to mention the gold mines, the copper, the lead, the silver, the tin . . . . and a few bloody rebellions which they bloodily put down). The USA gets . . .? Without delving too deeply I’d say, if nothing else, the kudos, the satisfaction of a job well done, the satisfaction of converting yet another developing, war-torn country to the advantage of peaceful democracy. Though I’m sure there are other, financial, rewards. Preferential trading rates perhaps? An open market for Coca Cola, McDonalds and jeans? I could be totally wrong in this but to an outsider that seems to be the picture.

And, of course, along with the fast-foods, the jeans, the diabetes, the obesity and the other Western health problems, the client country also adopts the (American-English) language.

Okay, so at first the lingo might be a surface trait. After all, it’s not been happening for long. But certainly amongst those an anthropologist would call the ‘elite’, the adoption of the ‘partner’s’ (note the change in wording) language would be deemed essential—not only as means of faithful communication (how much deceit can be hidden in mis-translation?) and to facilitate trade, but also as a form of kudos that ratchets yet higher the elite’s position. And of course, if you want to rub shoulders with the newly empowered elite, you need speak the same lingo. And so spreads the acquisition of the foreign language.

The Ambassadorial Hypothesis
for the Spread of the Indo-European Languages

Now, to return to the PIE speakers. There was no break-away groups migrating out of the homeland to found new dynasties elsewhere. There were no split-off daughter languages evolving from these. Instead there were perhaps at most a handful of—let’s call them ambassadors. And these ambassadors—with wife, children and worldly goods packed onto their ox-drawn wagons, themselves possibly mounted upon newly-tamed horses, their ideology jammed into their hearts and heads and eagerly over-spilling—for reasons known only to them, left their ancestral land.

As they made their way into all parts Europe and appreciable chunks of Western Asia, they encountered the Old Religion of the early farmers, an outspread from Anatolia and the Levant. That Old Religion was bowed beneath an Almighty Mother. The society was egalitarian—which does not mean it was non-warring; neither that it lacked community chiefs.

Encountering such, the PIE ambassador said, “Look what I have. See, it has wheels. And I have a horse.”

Bronocice Pot

The earliest known image of a wheeled vehicle. Found in Poland.

In Switzerland the farmers used sleds for haulage, sleds built upon runners. When they saw the wheeled wagons they thought the wheels were a new form of runner.

How do we know this? Because it was from that area the Celtic and Italic languages evolved, and in both the word for ‘wheel’ is formed on that for a ‘runner’. Elsewhere it’s formed on the word ‘to turn’.

The wagons, the wheels, the horses, were for the PIE speakers what Cocoa-Cola, McDonalds and jeans have been for America—or what wine and bathhouses were for the Romans. An the eye-opener. The carrot. Though I don’t mean to imply a planned and calculated first encounter.

The Sun Wagon

Alongside the ambassador’s wife, his children and worldly goods, packed into his wagon was something other:—an intimate part of his people’s ideology, an essential element of their religion, an integral part of its rites. For as the Egyptian pharaohs were borne away on the sun’s barque to the celestial Land of the Dead, so too the PIE speakers’ elite dead were carried to the celestial Land of their Ancestors upon the wagon’s bed.

Trundholm sun chariot

 From Wikimedia Commons: Solvogn.

The wagon’s wheels—which must rate amongst the world’s top-ten far-reaching inventions—were not merely an aid to transport. They were in themselves religious symbols embodying the notion of a celestial domain. In fact, it’s possible the wheeled wagon existed at first as a cultic object, perhaps simply sculpted in clay.

Cultic Clay Wagon

From Getty Images

With a wheel at each corner—to symbolise the four seasons?—the wagon becomes the world itself. The axles that connect the wheels are seen as the axis mundi, upon which both the Earth and the Sky revolve.

Lchashen Wagon


The earliest wheels, as on this burial wagon found beneath a kurgan in Armenia, were solid; these are made from three solid planks of oak

Sumarian War Cart

From Wikimedia Commons

As with the Armenian burial wagon, this Sumerian war cart shows wheels made from solid planks of wood. They soon were to change . . . 

Orastie Celtic Cauldron on Wagon

From Wikimedia Commons (by Boldwin)

The cauldron has dual imagery. It’s from this the funeral beer was served. But it also has connotations of renewal as seen on the Gundestrup cauldron

Gundestrup Cauldron

From Wikimedia Commons by Malene Thysson

It is believed the scene shows a god dipping slain warriors into a cauldron (far left) to give them new life.

Bronze Wheels Zurich

From Wikimedia Commons, by Dbachmann

Cart-wheels . . . or sun-wheels?
The spoked wheel symbolises both the turning of the year (or the sun’s orbit which amounts to the same) AND the year’s internal divisions (the seasons or feast-stations).

Kivik Chariot

From Wikimedia Commons, by Dbachmann

And along with the invention of the (light-weight) spoked wheel came that of the war and/or hunting chariot.

Hochdorf Celtic Burial Wagon

From Wikimedia Commons by NobbiP

But with wheels spoked or solid, the 4-wheeled wagon was the vehicle par excellence for transporting the dead to the Land of Heroes.

Strettweg Cult Wagon

Wikimedia Commons by Thilo Parg

It was also the preferred transport for the war-cum-fertility goddess.

The Horse

And, of course, there was the horse. The horse isn’t just a beast for riding, nor an alternative to oxen for yoking and hauling. The horse is a sacred beast, and not only in the Celtic myths: for the Greeks, too, the horse was sacred, the ultimate sacrifice. The stallion’s hooves striking the sky produces lightning, its running causes thunder. What better beast for Zeus (despite we tend to associate the horse with Posiedon, the sea-god). As to the mare, she is fertility itself, as seen in the many Indo-European myths.

But my purpose here is not to raid the myths to support the thesis (okay, yea I know it’s only an hypothesis). Were I to do that this post soon would rack up a prohibitive word-count!

The Ideology

The PIE-speaking ambassador’s ideology extended beyond the religious rim of his newly-invented transport. As reconstructed by historical linguists, the PIE vocabulary comprises words that suggest [?] . . . imply [?] . . . certainly gives us cause to believe that the PIE speakers’ culture was based on the patron-client relationship.

So it would be second nature to him, the ambassador, to offer to the newly-met farmer some version of this seemingly innate relationship. I can almost hear the conversion as he offers to instruct the farmers in this ‘new-to-them’ religion, to raise up the worthy, to help him on his way to the Celestial Otherworld in his four-wheeled wagon. That the farmer might have something the PIE ambassador wants doesn’t come into it—though I’m sure his copper ore, his amber, his furs, perhaps his grain, would not be refused (at preferential rates, of course).

The patron-client relationship established, the carrot being ‘a glorious life after death’, the newly raised elite would naturally adopt at least some of the PIE-speaking ambassador’s language. Actually, he’s more likely to want to learn it properly. There would be kudos—and thus greater status—in speaking the lingo like a native. And it may have been needed to perfectly execute the rites of this newly-adopted religion. (I think here of the Vedas.)

The client’s family, too, would learn the lingo—and anyone who wanted to rub shoulders with him. And gradually (there is ample time) the PIE lingo spread through the population, along with the clay-crafted 4-wheeled celestial wagon (for I’m sure not many wanted the real thing—after all, they’d been using perfectly serviceable alternatives till then).

But, though the elite-of-first-contact might have persisted to speak without accent (at least to his own ears), the further from the first speaker, the less the speaker would care. Outside of the family, beyond the first generation, by the time PIE-speaking ambassador was only a story, the former first farmers of Europe and Western Asia were speaking what they thought was perfect PIE—if heavily accented by their native tongue. And it’s this, their native tongue, that changed the original PIE into its supposed linguistic daughters (Albanian, Armenian, Anatolian/Hittite, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Hindi, Iranian, Italic, Slavic, Tocharian, etc).

The Substrates

I hear the linguists yelling at me: ‘But that’s a ‘creole’ language, and it’s been proven the IE daughters are not that’. But it is not.  In this hypothesis the language was learned—as I might learn French, or Mandarin Chinese. And it was learned from what linguists have labelled as Proto-Indo-European speakers. It thence evolved exactly as proposed in the usual models. What makes the twelve main branches different is that they each were spoken by speakers of a different language—the substrate language. And perhaps each was ‘adopted’ at a different evolutionary stage of the proposed PIE-language, or from a different dialect of the same.

The Homeland

So there you have it: The spread explained with no more movement out of a homeland than an ambassador or two (actually a minimum of ten).

But where was that homeland? That, of course, is the persistent question.

In answer, I’d say: Wherever the wheeled wagon first was invented; where there was a belief in a Celestial Land of the Dead, where the patron-client relationship was sufficiently developed—where horses were found in plenty that the mares might be seen as a symbol of fertility, and the stampede of stallions mistaken for thunder.

I guess that means the North Pontic steppes, as put forward by David Anthony in his book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language–though I wish I could say ‘Anatolia’, for I am inordinately fond of backing the ‘also-rans’.

A recent study of the DNA of 69 ancient individuals showed a massive migration of Yamnaya herders from the steppes north of the Black Sea about 4500 years ago—who may have brought the Indo-European languages. These were the kurgan-builders (I refer you again to wiki’s Proto-Indo-European Urheimat Hypotheses).

My answer to that is that movement of people does not, per se, imply movement of language. Besides, if the language trekked out of its homeland upon a ‘never-before-seen’ wagon with ‘wow-look-at-those-wheels’, 2500 BCE would be far too late. For both the wheel and the wagon had arrived in Poland at least 1,000 years earlier, ca.3500 BCE.

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
This entry was posted in History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Those Elusive PIEs

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    Well, where to being?

    1) Like the new header. 🙂

    2) The U.S.’s real domestic religion is a combination of capitalism/consumerism, patriotism, and Christianity, in order of decreasing importance (or increasing adulteration). And you’re right, that perspective is one of our exports.

    3) A plausible hypothesis. I’ve both read accounts of the spread of new Christian denominations in the U.S. and seen fundamentalists explain their faith in terms that would support this type of hypothesis.

    4) But I imagine proving this type of hypothesis is tricky, since we’re talking about a non-material method of propagation, which may leave traces behind in a minority of cases. And how to test it against other hypotheses? This is a bit outside of my field, so I leave you to say a few words to this point, keeping in mind I am NOT asking you to write another entire essay in reply!


    • crimsonprose says:

      1) Header? The graphic? WP wanted to use a different one, but once I saw it I specified which to us. Or did you mean the ‘Iris Einstein theory’: it’s a title I assume when I’m not going to supply loads of links and citations. 2) I did say this was an outsider’s view. And regardless of their domestic religion, it’s the client-patron theme I was hammering. 3) Thank you. 4) If this, or any other, hypothesis was capable of being proven–or disproven–then there would be no question of the PIE homeland & spread. Yet a century on, the question still rolls on, no closer to being settled, with notable linguists and archaeologists in every camp.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.