The controversial hypothesis of the Kurgans and the origin of the Proto-Indo-European languages

Although the “Indo-European” concept is strictly linguistic, not ethnic, it is usually applied by extension to the peoples who originally spoke those languages ​​and to everything that characterized them in the historical, social, cultural and religious fields. But, as we have already seen in the article dedicated to the philologist William Jones, there was a Proto-Indo-European language that in the 19th century was assigned unitarily to the primitive Aryans, although today it is believed that it was only one of several evolutions of another earlier language known as pre -Proto-Indo-European. In any case, what interests us here is trying to reveal the most accepted proposal -not exempt from controversy- to identify the origin of that Proto-Indo-European language and which is known as the Kurgan hypothesis.

Kurgan is a Russian word of Turkish origin used to describe a tumulus burial. This type of tomb, in which an underground burial chamber with several rooms houses the deceased with his or her trousseau, covers a very long period from the Bronze Age (4th millennium BC), when it was used by the peoples of the steppes. Eurasian, until the sixth century AD, which records its use by Huns and nomadic Magyars. In this first period, the users were the Kurgans, a name that alludes to a series of communities in the middle and lower Volga grouped under the heading of Yamna culture.

Although the later and successive Andrónovo and Srubna cultures could also be considered (the former being Siberia and the latter the northern Black Sea environment), to which should be added Scythians, Sarmatians, Cumans, Huns, Kipchaks and pazyryk , which would constitute an extension, the important ones for what we are dealing with are the yamnay (or yamnayas), since they were assimilated with the last Proto-Indo-Europeans by the Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, at the time the author of the aforementioned hypothesis of the kurgans (and already deceased, in 1994).

Scheme of a kurgan burial mound from the steppes, by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It did not start from scratch. Other previous nineteenth-century researchers had already proposed the identification of the Proto-Indo-Europeans with steppe nomads from the Ponto-Caspian region, in the case of Theodor Benfey, Victor Hehn, Otto Schrader and Theodor Poesche, who were later joined by Gordon Childe and Ernst Wahle, although there was no lack of dissenting opinions such as that of Karl Penka, who advocated a non-European origin instead of a Pontic one. Marija Gimbutas, who was born in Vilnius in 1921 and received her doctorate in archeology-anthropology in 1946 (already in Vienna; shortly after she settled in the US) had studied with Jonas Puzinas, a disciple of the aforementioned Wahle.

It was she who introduced the expression «kurgan culture«, replacing that of the Mounds. He did so in 1956 to group the similar characteristics of the Sredny Stog II, Corded Pottery and the aforementioned Yamna cultures, expanding his chronology from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age, over two millennia between the sixth and the end of the fourth. According to Gimbutas, other cultures that fit in with that of the Kurgans would be the Bug-Dniester, the Samara, the Jvalynsk, the Dnieper-Donets, the Maikov-Dereivka and the Usatovo. The nomadic movements of each and every one of them, in a development parallel to that of the expansion of the horse, caused the culture of the Kurgans to broaden its horizons in four stages, although other publications establish three waves.

Yamna culture area in 3500 BC/Image: Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

The result is a periodization that begins in Early Proto-Indo-European (4500-3500 BC), continues in Middle Proto-Indo-European (3500-3000 BC), and ends in Late Proto-Indo-European (3000-2500 BC), with an epilogue reaching up to 500 BC. BC and in which the proto-languages ​​branch out into multiple dialects (proto-Greek, proto-Iranian…), while the Bell Beaker, Urn Fields and Hallstatt cultures in northern Europe, as well as the Vedic in Asia and the Mycenaean and proto-Italic cultures are emerging. in southern Europe; the Iranian and Indo-Aryan languages ​​spread, and later the Celtic ones; etc.

Thus the hypothesis of the Kurgans, which attributes to them the origin of the Indo-European peoples, assumes a gradual expansion from the lower Volga to the Dnieper and affecting the Balkans and the Danube. It was possible thanks to the mobility provided by the domestication of the horse and its application to the two-wheeled cart, which surely meant the destruction, by shock, of the Cucuteni culture (which we talked about in another article). In the next wave there was a hybridization with cultures of northern Europe (Corded Pottery, Baden and Globular Amphoras) at the same time that the first Indo-European languages ​​entered. And in the last, the Kurgans reached Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, leaving the steppes behind.

Given that it was in the Volga where the oldest remains of horse riding were found -specifically associated with the Samara culture-, that area and its steppes would constitute for Gimbutas the urheimat (Germanic word meaning “original home”) Indo-European. However, a complementary hypothesis to that of the Kurgans proposes that there was a urheimat secondary in the area occupied by the Globular Amphora culture (inheritor of the Funnel Beakers culture), located between the Baltic Sea to the north, the Elbe river basin to the west, the Vistula to the east and the middle Dnieper basin In the south; Celtic, Italic and Germanic Indo-European languages ​​would come from there along with, perhaps, the extinct Paleobalkans and the Proto-Mycenaean.

Dispersal of Indo-European languages ​​according to the Kurgan hypothesis/Image: DEMIS Mapserver on Wikimedia Commons

This would divide the Indo-European languages ​​into two large groups. On the one hand, those of satem, which changed their phonetization somewhat and are still spoken in the region of origin: the Indo-Iranians, some ancient (Vedic Sanskrit, Old Persian and Avestan) and others modern (Nepali, Bengali, Neo-Indian and various dialects of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan ); Armenian, ancient and modern; Old Slavonic and its modern derivations (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, and Slovakian); and the old and modern Baltic (Latvian and Lithuanian).

On the other hand are those of centum, which did not palatalize the Proto-Indo-European phonemes of the previous ones. They would be ancient and modern Greek; the ancient Italic group (Latin, Osco, Faliscan and Umbrian) and modern (Romance languages ​​such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, etc.); ancient (Gothic) and modern (German, English, Swedish, Danish…) Germanic; ancient and modern Celtic (Irish, Gaelic, Breton…); the Anatolian (Hittite); and the Central Asian tocharian. In reality, this binary division is rejected today in favor of a phylogenetic tree with seven branches, but each author makes his own according to the parameters and criteria he uses.

Northern and Eastern European cultures between 3200 BC and 2300 BC/Image: Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

For Gimbutas, it all came about as a consequence of a series of war invasions in which the aggressive patriarchal raiding societies, thanks to their technical superiority of chariots and bronze, displaced the local matriarchal cultures that came from the Neolithic, having the cult of the goddess Mother to give her place to the warlike god of thunder. Although this imposition of one culture on another is something accepted by historians in general, not all agree that it was always a violent process; it is possible that it was often a slow assimilation without rupture, the result of the emigrations of many less homogeneous peoples than the Lithuanian archaeologist supposed.

This is what the American James Patrick Mallory, another seeker of the urheimat Proto-Indo-European, although many find it significant that the reverse was never the case:

At first, one might imagine that the economy of argument involved with the Kurgan solution should force us to accept it outright. But the critics do exist, and their objections can be summed up quite simply: almost all the arguments in favor of invasion and cultural transformations are much better explained without reference to the Kurgan expansions, and most of the evidence presented so far are totally contradicted by other evidence, or are the result of a serious misinterpretation of the cultural history of Eastern, Central and Northern Europe.”

The truth is that the critics go beyond the conquest-assimilation dichotomy and question even the very concept of culture of the Kurgans, considering it too imprecise. This is what Alexander Häusler and David Anthony believe, for example. For his part, the British Colin Renfrew proposed the alternative hypothesis of a urheimat Anatolian, in which the expansion of Proto-Indo-European languages ​​was due to the spread of agriculture; that forced an increase in antiquity to the ninth millennium, which is why there are few defenders who support Renfrew, whom Mallory also rejected, although Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson also advanced the chronology of Proto-Indo-European, in their case to the seventh millennium.

Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Tamaz V. Gamkrelidze, Russian and Georgian philologists respectively, joined the theoretical spectrum championing the Armenian hypothesis, which located the urheimat between the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia between the fourth and third millennium. Finally, the Italians Alberto Piazza and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza tried to combine the steppe and Anatolian hypotheses using genetics (the Yamna culture would come from Neolithic farmers in the Middle East, emigrated to the steppe and adapted to livestock nomadism), but without achieve harmonization on the linguistic level.

It is precisely genetics that, in recent times, has been imposed as a research tool. It appears to be insufficient on its own, as we have seen, even though studies have shown that populations with Y-DNA haplogroups and a distinctive blood signature did indeed spread to Europe and South Asia from the Ponto-Caspian steppe. during the third and second millennium BC. These migrations provide a plausible explanation for the spread of some of the Indo-European languages ​​and suggest that the Anatolian hypothesis – which, let us remember, goes back urheimat to the Neolithic – is unlikely.

There are markers such as SNP M17, of the R1a1 haplogroup (frequent in West Asia and the Indian subcontinent), which are associated with the Kurgans and have been found in populations from Eastern Europe, as well as in considerable percentages of Scandinavia, resulting instead scarce in the western part of the continent, where R1b is more abundant; it would have spread from the Iberian Peninsula between 18,000 and 11,000 BC, which leads one to wonder how it got there.

Origins of haplogroup R1a/Image: Joshua Jonathan on Wikimedia Commons

The answer was provided by a study by David Reich, from Harvard University, carried out with a hundred and a half Iberian individuals who underwent DNA analysis, discovering that descendants of the Yamnayas arrived in what is now Spain. Apparently, they left such an important genetic impact that after a few generations the Y chromosome of the newcomers completely replaced that of the locals, which is why in certain sensationalist media there was talk of a genocide.


Marija Gimbutas, Bronze Age cultures in Central and Eastern Europe | Pierre Leveque, The first civilizations | Raquel Lopez Melero, Brief history of the Ancient world | Francisco Villar, Languages, genes and cultures in the prehistory of Europe and southwestern Asia | Asya Pereltsvaig Y Martin W Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy | J.P. Mallory Y Douglas Q Adams (eds.), Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture | VVAA, Introduction to Prehistory | Wikipedia