So far, I’ve drawn a rough layman’s sketch of prehistorical southeastern Europe. We have now a basic storyline for the linguistic and perhaps cultural roots. But before moving on, I need to acknowledge that some disagree with David Anthony regarding the origins of IE languages; and also that I still have unanswered questions in this regard.
An alternative hypothesis about IE origins
I sought out Anthony’s narrative because of a recommendation from J.P. Mallory. But I chose it for my principle story line because it holds together well and seems the most comprehensive. That said, I should mention a competing theory.
The Anatolian Hypothesis is a proposal by respected archaeologist Colin Renfrew. It originally posited a Proto-Indo-European origin in Anatolia, i.e. roughly modern Turkey, not on the Pontic Caspian steppe. The original PIE speakers were agriculturalists. Origin and expansion of IE languages occurred about 2,000 years earlier than is commonly believed. It spread along with the spread of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution. Renfrew subsequently revised the hypothesis in response to criticism, and now argues that a very early IE ancestor, pre-Proto-Indo-European, arose in Anatolia. Anatolian split away and remained in Turkey, while speakers of PIE moved into the Balkans, i.e., “Old Europe.” The formative development of IE occurred there, southeast of the steppe, rather than on it.
The latest hypothesis for the origin of IE languages is as recent as this year, and seems to support Renfrew. In August, 2012, University of Auckland’s Dr. Quentin Atkinson published another argument for Anatolian origins. Atkinson, a psychologist and evolutionary biologist, used computer modeling similar to that used to reconstruct the evolutionary development of animals. The model worked from estimated origins of selected vocabulary forms within various IE language families. His placement and timing, like Renfrew’s, corresponds with the expansion of agriculture out of Anatolia and across Europe. Other experts question his conclusions, however, suggesting his model does not integrate the full breadth of linguistic evidence. Popular accounts of this study appeared in the New York Times and Science News.
And finally, these are some things that still bother me, in no particular order:
(1) How and where did the original linguistic basis for Proto-Indo-European come into being? How does any organized language system—with its standardized sounds and usage around infinite possibilities—come into being? How do rules of syntax and grammar form?
(2) I am still amazed at the virtual annihilation of hundreds, even thousands, of pre-existing tongues by the IE language family. It just feels like the explanations, including Dr. Anthony’s “franchising” concept, are too simplistic.
(3) Did steppe culture annihilate alternative cultures as well? And if so, to what extent has that influenced the modern West’s political, social and religion systems? Despite the comment of Dr. Mallory in the last post, aggression in particular still interests me.
(4) Would a genetic analysis of Eurasian peoples tell us if steppe populations physically displaced those they encountered? This would promote a more informed discussion of culture and character. I’m sure such studies exist, but I’ve not had time to explore them.
(5) Do today’s predominant Western religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) reflect steppe spiritual practices? In some respects they seem to–they are male-oriented, patriarchal and focused on “sky-gods.” But the parent is Judaism, whose origins predate proto-Indo-European. Also, Judaism arose among speakers of Semitic languages, Indo-European.
(6) There is irony in the Neolithic adoption of farming and pastoralism, a true “progress trap” per Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress. I can only assume that, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Because the longer consequences are indisputable: nutritional imbalance, altered social hierarchies, population instability, and degraded ecologies. Others might argue that agriculture contributed to our phenomenal success as a species. It makes for quite the philosophical discussion, but for insights, see John Bodley’s Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems.
Some final good reads and follow-up on “Origins:”
1) Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems, by John H. Bodley, 2012. This is the sixth edition. It was first published in the late 80’s, which is when I read it. I can’t speak for the current edition, but the one I read was excellent and relevant, and I’ve referred to it often since. Anyone with a background in ecology can readily relate to the narrative.
2) A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright, 2005. Indispensable, this is my new favorite book to recommend to my ecologist colleagues. In a sense it carries the same message as Jared Diamond’s Collapse, but shorter and much more readable. Wright coins the term “progress trap,” for innovations like agriculture and the automobile that have unexpected consequences.
3) The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth, by Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, 1999. I’ve not read it, but I’m curious. Here’s an excerpted Amazon blurb: “…a new theory of the origins of human language…an original account of the early evolution of language…explains why humans are the only language-using animals, challenges the assumption that language is a consequence of intelligence…a new perspective on human uniqueness…draws on archaeology, linguistics, cognitive science and evolutionary biology.”
5) A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, by Karen Armstrong, 1994. I haven’t read this, but it’s near the top my list. Even if these dominant religions have no origins in steppe culture, they have impacted Western thought for perhaps three thousand years.
Next Post: Crete, at last!