Indo-European Expansion

The Consistently Incorrect Mapping of Language Differentiation in Bouckaert et al.

As mentioned in previous GeoCurrents posts, the animated map that accompanies the Science article of Bouckaert et al. depicts their model in action, showing the expansion and differentiation of the Indo-European languages in time and space. Earlier posts criticized the map’s contour shadings, which indicate high probabilities of IE languages being spoken in given areas at given times. Today’s post takes on a related issue, that of the branching lines that spread across the map as the presentation unfolds, indicating both linguistic relationship and the general directions of language-group expansion. Here we can clearly see that the model generates a nearly continuous stream of misleading information and outright error.

Analyzing the ramifying lines on animated map is challenging. Nothing is labeled, colors are often hard to differentiate, and no key is provided. The companion website does promise a “legend for movie S1,” but provides only a brief caption: “Movie showing the expansion of the Indo-European languages through time. Contours on the map represent the 95% highest posterior density distribution of the range of Indo-European.” One must thus infer what the lines represent based on the supplementary text and on the manner in which different segments lengthen and divide in particular places as time proceeds.

Each line represents a branch of the Indo-European language family. Those that appear early in the animation indicate the deepest divisions, while those that emerge later represent the shallower splits of linguistic “sub-sub-families” and so on. In some cases, minor instances of linguistic differentiation are marked, extending down to the dialectal level. The North Germanic line, for example, begins to bifurcate on the Sweden-Norway border in the late 1700s, showing the divergence of Norwegian and Swedish, and then splits again in central Sweden in the mid 1800s, indicating differentiation that, according to the authors, produced three separate Swedish languages (see the maps below). Over most of the map, however, splits at the level of individual languages, let alone that of dialects, are not noted: if they were, the map would be so cluttered by the end as to be undecipherable. Yet again, consistency does not seem to be a priority.

The lines are not of uniform appearance. Older language stems are clearly depicted in a darker shade than more recent branches. As elsewhere, differentiating the hues employed is difficult, especially after the background color used to denote IE languages in general abruptly changes from yellowish-greens to shades of blue-green. (As a result of this problem, in some of the maps that follow I have changed the green lines under investigation to shades of red.) Interpreting differences in line shape and thickness is another challenge. Almost all lines are equally thick and even, extending uninterrupted across the map. In some instances, however, thin, irregularly shaped spurs emerge from the main stems, some of which eventually thicken and spread into new areas. Certain lines are interrupted, with unexplained gaps appearing on the map. Some of these gaps seem to indicate language divergence without diffusion, but other remain mysterious, as is the case with the differently shaped and colored line fragments that appear in what is now western Germany (see map detail to the left). By the end of the animation, Italy is covered by a jumble of oddly uneven and discontinuous lines that are almost impossible to parse out, as can also be seen on the map posted here.

The spatial extension of the lines over time seemingly indicates the pace of expansion of the various IE subgroups into new territories, while the shaded contours depict the expansion of Indo-European as a whole. The two methods of showing expansion, however, do not always correspond. While the 95 percent probability contour for IE as a whole never reaches Russia (except for a tiny zone in near Pskov), the East Slavic line pushes well into what is now western Russia, although it does not do so until the early 1600s. Such a depiction is of course absurd on face value, as East Slavic languages had been spoken in this area and well beyond it for many hundreds of years; it must be recalled, however, that the animated map is designed to show only the latest possible time of expansion, not the actual period in which it occurred.

The major significance of the lines, however, is not their depiction of language group expansion but rather of linguistic divergence. The authors emphasize repeatedly that their animated map depicts the locations at which linguistic differentiation occurred, which in turn generated the branching patterns of the Indo-European tree. Although they formally model such divergence as occurring at precise points, they admit that it cannot be pinpointed in such a manner:

Our phylogeographic model allows us to infer the location of ancestral langauge (sic) divergence events corresponding to the root and internal nodes of the Indo-European family tree. Since we model internal node locations as points in space, our posterior estimate for the location of divergence events can be interpreted as a composite of the range over which the ancestral language was spoken and stochastic uncertainty inherent in the model.

Regardless of the uncertainty that the model encompasses, language divergence cannot realistically be modeled as occurring through discrete events that happen in restricted places. The differentiation of languages is rather a process that often occurs over an extended period through an expansive area of related dialects (see the earlier GeoCurrents post on the “wave model”). Leaving such objections aside, however, it must still be asked whether the model of Bouckaert et al. accurately depicts the generalized locations and timings of the divergence “events” that gave rise to the different branches of the Indo-European family, allowing that they did not occur at the precise points indicated on the map, but rather merely in the general vicinity of those places. Here the answer is—yet again—an emphatic “no.” As it turns out, virtually every depiction of linguistic differentiation that can be traced by historical sources is incorrect. Considering as well the erroneous mapping of linguistic expansion given by both the extending lines and the spreading contours, the animated map can only be regarded as a vast compendium of error. It is not that it fails to get everything right, but rather that it gets virtually nothing right.

To illustrate the level of error generated by the model, I will examine in detail the depictions of the expansion and differentiation of several branches of the Indo-European family. One could do the same for all IE sub-families, but such an exercise would be unnecessarily tedious. Before beginning the exercise, a few stipulations are necessary. To begin with, the following analysis is based strictly on the animated map, ignoring material found elsewhere in the article or website, which often runs against the cartographic depiction. While the authors note in their textual supplements, for example, that West Germanic speakers arrived in Britain around 400 CE, the map delays the event for several hundred years. Yet as we have previously seen, what such a cartographic portrayal actually means is that the diffusion of Germanic languages to Britain could have occurred no later than the date indicated by the map, within the general parameters of uncertainty allowed. My point, however, is that we know from historical sources that Germanic languages definitely arrived in Britain at a much earlier period, as the authors themselves acknowledge. If the cartographic depiction of the linguistic “Germanification” of Britain is thus not simply “wrong,” it is both misleading and exceptionally trite.

The Greek and Albanian subfamilies make good starting point, as their cartographic depiction is particularly telling. Bouckaert et al. idiosyncratically regard Greek and Albanian as together constituting a distinct IE sub-family. (Most linguists regard Albanian as an IE isolate that shares certain affinities with Balto-Slavic, Germanic, and Greek; the Science authors classify it with Greek most likely on the basis of borrowed words, as the two languages have been in intimate contact for millennia). Their animated map depicts the ancestral Albano-Hellenic group as arriving on the eastern shores of the Greek Peninsula circa 3000 BCE, and then differentiating into the Greek and Albanian branches around 1500 BCE. Greek then pushes southward into Attica (the Athens area), while Albanian moves to the west into Thessaly in what is now central-eastern Greece. Subsequently, virtual stasis ensues for a few thousand years, with no significant movement of either branch and no further linguistic differentiation. Motion finally kicks in during the thirteenth century CE, when Albanian experiences a “divergence event” in central Greece and begins expanding to the west and north. By the 1500s, the northern Albanian branch finally reaches what is now Albania. At about the same time, the southern Albanian line begins a several-hundred-year maritime phase during which it diffuses across the waters of the Adriatic, finally reaching southern Italy in the 1800s.

The actual geo-histories of the Greek and Albanian languages are completely unlike the fantasy version advanced by the model. As it would again be wearisome to recount all of the many errors involved, I will focus instead on explaining why their depiction is so spectacularly wrong. As is generally true, the erroneous portrayals of these two language groups was predetermined by the error-pocked initial map of language distribution, ancient and modern, that informs the mathematic model. As was discussed in earlier posts, Illyrian, the likely progenitor of Albanian, is ignored, Ancient Greek is absurdly shown as limited to Attica, Albanian is unreasonably divided into four languages, and the areas occupied by Albanian-speaking communities in southern Greece are grotesquely exaggerated while those of Albania itself are absurdly reduced. As garbage is fed into the equations, garbage not surprisingly comes out.

The depiction of the Balto-Slavic languages is risible as well. This language sub-family is portrayed as branching off the main western IE stem circa 3000 BCE in the northern Danubian basin, and then as heading northward over the Carpathian Mountains into what is now central Poland. A small gap emerges on this line circa 950 BCE roughly along the Carpathian crest, which might indicate the Slavic languages differentiating from the Baltic ones. The Baltic line then continues to move northward, although it does not reach Lithuania until the fifth century of the Common Era. A Slavic spur, meanwhile, clearly emerges at roughly 300 BCE, again in the Carpathian Mountains, and begins to slowly creep southward in the early centuries of the Common Era. Diffusing back across the Danubian Basin, it reaches what is now Croatia in the 600s CE. By 900, it has extended as far south as Macedonia, at which point it breaks into several segments. East Slavic emerges out of the same Carpathian hub in the mid 900s CE, and then heads in a northeasterly direction; a hundred years later, West Slavic makes its appearance, branching off from roughly the same location. By the early 1600s, West Slavic has moved westward along the modern Czech-Poland border, approaching what is now eastern Germany. Over a hundred years later, it finally reaches the area now occupied by the Lusatian (Sorbian) speakers. Meanwhile, the East Slavic branch generates three smaller branches circa 1600 in the area where modern Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus converge; these twigs presumably represent Ukrainian, Polish, and Belarusian, which Bouckaert et al.—and no one else—regard as forming a minor Slavic sub-family.

Everything that we know about the historical evolution and distribution of the Slavic languages directly contradicts the mapping of Bouckaert et al., as we should now come to expect. As it would again be tiresome to specify all of these errors, I will note only a few of the more glaring examples. First, it has long been established that the Slavic languages had expanded westward all the way to the Elbe River in what is now central northern Germany in the immediate post-Roman period, entering the lands that had been essentially abandoned by the Germanic tribes that invaded the dying Western Roman Empire. It is also understood that the process of Drang nach Osten in the high medieval period resulted in the re-Germanization of the far western Slavic lands, extending as far east as Silesia and Pomerania. The Lusatian-speaking areas, however, resisted this tide, and thus long remained as Slavic enclaves in a Germanic sea. Silesia and Pomerania, however, were in turn “re-Slavicized” after the post-WWII expulsions of German-speakers. The modeled spread of the South Slavic languages is equally off base. It is also well known that Slavic languages pushed southward into Greece beginning in the 500s and especially during the chaotic aftermath of the Byzantine coup of 602, reaching the central Peloponnesus by the end of the century. As Byzantine power collapsed though most of the peninsula, the Greek language retreated to coastal enclaves. The re-Hellenization of the Greek Peninsula did not begin until the reign of the Empress Irene in the late 700s, and was never fully completed. In regard to the East Slavic branch, numerous absurdities have been discussed in previous posts, and hence will not be recounted here.

Perhaps the most amusing depictions concern the expansion of Insular North Germanic, a minor branch that today includes only Icelandic and Faroese. Recall that Bouckaert et al. model the spread of languages over water the same way that they model it over land, only at a much slower pace (with the exception of their “sailor [sub-] model,” which postulates equal rates of expansion over water and land.) But they always take expansion over any surface as a gradual, diffusional process; recall that instances of “rapid” expansion are purposively ignored, although the pace required for such a designation is never specified. The expansion of North Germanic languages to the islands of the North Atlantic is thus modeled as an example conventional diffusion across isotropic space. The animated map thus show the language group spreading out of northern Denmark in the 700s and heading into the North Sea. Some two hundred years later, these languages are portrayed as reaching the Faroe Islands, and by the mid 1000s they are shown as having finally landed on Iceland.

The only way to make sense out of such mapping is to imagine the speakers of these languages as living at sea on boats that remained relatively stationary over the course of many years, gradually diffusing to the north as the decades passed. The authors, I am almost certain, would object to this characterization, noting that their mapping of Insular North Germanic expansion is not actually meant to depict what it actually does depict (“the language could have arrived any time earlier than the date at which our model shows it as arriving”).  The fact remains, however, that the ancestral language of Icelandic—Old Norse—arrived in Iceland by way of a few voyages that lasted weeks, not month or years, let alone centuries.  This relatively well-attested process was intentional, can be dated relatively precisely to the late 800s, and is known to have been initiated largely by men from what is now Norway, although most of their wives/female-slaves were Irish (see, e.g., Bryan Sykes’ Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland). By the explicit criteria specified by the authors, such a “rapid expansion of a single language” should have been ignored. But regardless of how such particular instances are handled, it is clear that if one insists on modeling the spread of languages to distant islands by a process of diffusion, nonsense necessarily results.

Finally, the portrayal of the Romance languages is equally ludicrous. This history of this group is particularly well known, as the spread and differentiation of the various Romance languages, all descended from Latin, occurred in relatively recent times and have been thoroughly documented in written sources, many of which Bouckaert et al. reference in their supplementary materials. Latin spread rapidly with the armies and administrative hierarchies of the Roman Empire, and is hence discounted by the model. As Latin expanded, it began to differentiate, a process that began well before the establishment of the Empire; as noted in a previous GeoCurrents post, a non-IE substrate on Sardinia evidently resulted in significant divergences from standard Latin on the island during the Republican period. Elsewhere, various vernacular forms of speech began to diverge under Roman rule, a process that accelerated after the fall of the Western Empire in the fifth century. The result was the establishment of a widespread Romance dialect continuum that eventually gave way, although never completely, to the standardized national languages of the modern era.

Now consider the manner in which Bouckaert et al. model the spread of the Romance languages. As they do no consider the initial expansion of Latin, they keep the Romance branch confined to central Italy until the fall of the Western Empire. As the empire weakens in the third century, new branches seem to emerge and begin to diffuse in this Italian heartland, although the color scheme leaves some doubt about this process (see the map call-outs). Romance languages clearly emerge in the following century, and by the early 600s one branch finally makes its way to what is now southern France, whereas another has extended to the middle of the Adriatic Sea. Three hundred years later, the western branch reaches the Pyrenees. In the twelfth century, another “divergence event” produces the group that encompasses French and Walloon; beginning along the Mediterranean coast, this division does not reach central France until the 1600s. The Iberian branch, however, is even more delayed, not reaching Portugal until the late 1800s. At about the same time, another Romance sub-family finally makes its landfall in Sardinia.

I anticipate that if the authors were to respond to such criticisms, they would charge me with engaging in a naively literal reading of their animated map. Language divergence “events” along a branching patterns of linguistic differentiation, they might insist, have to be mapped as if they took place at a single location, when in actuality the model supposes only that they took place somewhere within the much larger areas in which the given parent languages were spoken. Such an objection would be fair enough, but it still does not hold water if the actual differentiation processes took place hundreds of miles away from the areas indicated on their maps. In actuality, French emerged out of the Germanic-influenced “Vulgar” Latin dialect(s) of the Paris Basin, and subsequently spread outward, due in large part to the power and prestige of Paris and the French state. Significantly, it did not diffuse outward in an even manner, but rather spread to cities and town well before it penetrated the countryside. French also expanded more slowly where it encountered markedly different dialects/languages, and where other Romance dialects had already established their own prestige registers. Yet again, the issue is not that Bouckaert et al. make few mistakes and that we are unwilling to tolerate error, as has been charged. The issue is rather that their model gets just about everything wrong, often spectacularly so.



Sykes, Bryan (2007) Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. W. W. Norton & Company.

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Quentin Atkinson’s Nonsensical Maps of Indo-European Expansion

The website that accompanies “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family” (August 24 Science), maintained by co-author Quentin D. Atkinson, proudly features several maps that allow the easy visualization of the patterns generated by the model. One is a conventional map that purports to show “language expansion in time and space,” depicting and dating the spread of Indo-European languages through a red-to-blue color scheme. The other cartographic product is a sequence of numerous map-frames that ostensibly shows Indo-European (I-E) expansion from the seventh millennium BCE to 1974 CE. This Google-Earth-based animated map, or “movie,” as Atkinson calls it, is explained in terms that are at once simplistic and cryptic:

Watch the Indo-European expansion unfold. This movie shows how our model reconstructs the expansion of the Indo-European languages through time. Contours on the map represent the 95% highest posterior density distribution for the range of Indo-European.

The analysis that I provide below takes these maps on their own terms, as advertised: as if, in other words, they indicate what Atkinson and his colleagues believe to be the “unfolding” of the Indo-European language family in “time and space” as substantiated by their mathematical model. But if one reads the fine print found elsewhere, one discovers that the maps are not actually what they purport to be. The authors admit up front that these figures deliver incorrect information, owing to the fact that crucial pieces of data were excluded from the model:

This figure needs to be interpreted with the caveat that we can only represent the geographic extent corresponding to language divergence events, and only between those languages that are in our 
sample. The rapid expansion of a single language and nodes associated with branches not represented in our sample will not be reflected in this figure. For example, the lack of Continental Celtic variants in our sample means we miss the Celtic incursion into Iberia and instead infer a later arrival into the Iberian Peninsula associated with the break-up of the Romance languages (and not the initial rapid expansion 
of Latin). The timing represented here therefore offers a minimum age for expansion into a given area.

This admission is extraordinary, as it amounts to saying that “even though our data set is too incomplete to produce accurate results, our model should nonetheless be regarded as powerful enough to settle the most highly debated topic in historical linguistics,” and that “even though we make no claims as to the earliest dates in which Indo-European languages were established in any given area, our approach still shows that the language family originated in Anatolia.” I do not think that I have ever encountered a more flagrant example of “having one’s cake and eating it too” in an academic work. In fact, as is demonstrated in a previous discussion thread that is reproduced below, the “caveat” itself errs at virtually every turn.*

In a comment on the previous post, co-author Alexei Drummond framed the study’s limitations in more direct language:

Our geographical reconstructions are only for the language lineages that are direct ancestors of the particular sample of IE languages we analyzed. Our inferred geographic distributions don’t say anything about the full extent of IE languages at any time past or present.

If the geographic patterns depicted on the maps say nothing about the “full extent” of I-E languages “at any time,” why are viewers of the animation invited to “watch the Indo-European expansion unfold”? The claim is evidently inherently misleading. But as we shall see below, the problems run much deeper, as in numerous instances the maps fail to accurately show the partial extent of I-E languages. But before delving into such specificities, a few words about the mapping project in general are in order.

Many problems plague the authors’ cartographic depictions. The two maps, static and animated, fail to correspond in their details, often in a glaring manner. The animated map, moreover, lacks anything approaching a key, and hence is difficult to interpret. The temporal framing of the two maps is oddly displaced, as the “movie” purports to take the story up to 1974 CE, whereas the static map terminates at roughly 1800 CE. Potentially confusing is the fact that the static map gives dates in “BP,” or “before present” (which by conventions means prior to 1950 CE), whereas the animated map uses the historically Christian calendar. Both maps, it is essential to note, show only the expansion and not the contraction of Indo-European, although this essential feature also goes unmentioned. Areas that ceased to be Indo-European speaking centuries ago, such as the supposed Anatolian heartland, continue to be shaded as I-E throughout the animation.

Although the contours mentioned in the “explanation” of the animated map are visible in the greenish shading, the overall coloration scheme remains vague. As the animation unfolds, the hypothesized I-E homeland circa 6500 BC—Anatolia, the Caucasus, the northern Middle East, and the greater Aegean—is washed in yellow, whereas later geographical addition to the realm appear in shades of green. Yet at approximately 2225 BCE, most of the heartland abruptly turns green as well, with the exception of a swath extending from Cyprus through what is now Lebanon to central Iraq and two areas on either side of the Black Sea. Another such abrupt color switch occurs later in the animation.

Also unspecified are the thick green lines, which begin as a several-pixel splotch at roughly 6200 BCE that gyrates in place for about 1,500 years before spreading across the map to form a web. An unwary reader might assume that such lines indicate pathways of migration, but he or she would be mistaken, as movement along specific corridors defies the underlying diffusional model, which postulates gradual expansion along broad fronts with scattered outliers pushing into new territories. The lines actually indicate supposed examples of family-level linguistic divergence. Such relational links often extend into areas that are not shaded as I-E; note, for example, the green lines pushing into unmarked western Russia and northern Sweden on the first map. A naïve reader might wrongly assume that such extensions signal relatively recent movement, with little actual settlement to date.

As mentioned above, the static map and its animated companion do not correspond well. Unlike the animated version, the conventional map shows Corsica, the Balearic Islands, Crete, and Cyprus, for example, as never having been occupied by Indo-European speakers. The animation, to the contrary, puts Cyprus in the initial I-E homeland in the seventh millennium BCE. (Both depictions of the island are incorrect; the first known language of Cyprus, non-I-E Eteocypriot, was supplanted by the Greek (I-E) dialect of Arcadocypriot in the late Bronze Age.) Also notable is the static map’s depiction of Indo-European occupation in areas unmarked on the animated map, including western Norway and western Russia. (Neither map manages to show northern Norway as ever having been occupied by Indo-European-speakers.)

Although the discrepancies between the two maps are never explained, a few of them might be deduced. Consider, for example, the different treatments of western Russia in the maps posted here. In the animated depiction of 1974, only a small portion of this region is shaded as ever having been I-E speaking, yet the static map shows a sizable area as having become largely Indo-European over the past 500 to 1,000 years. This map depicts the distribution of I-E languages in western Russia with discontinuous blotches, seemingly placed at random, which would apparently indicate that the language family spread into this area in a spatially sporadic manner and never managed to fill in the gaps. On the basis of this particular disparity, one might assume that only areas of (supposedly) continuous I-E occupation receive shading on the animated map frames. But if this is indeed the case, the guideline is apparently reversed elsewhere. Note that sizable portions of Central Asia are similarly splotched on the static map, yet are shaded on the animated map. The area that now constitutes Kyrgyzstan is fully shaded on one map, yet remains almost entirely blank on the other. A swath across what are now Syria and Iraq is blobbed red on the static map, apparently indicating partial I-E expansion in the Neolithic, yet is blanketed with yellow on the animated map from the earliest frames. Cartographic consistency is evidently not high on the authors’ agenda.

Far more troubling than disparities between the two maps, however, are inconsistencies between both of them and the historical record. Overall, the fit between the modeled spread of I-E languages and what we know of its actual expansion is poor. In pointing out some of the more flagrant errors, I will begin at the end of the “movie,” which shows the accumulated spread of I-E languages to 1974 CE, contrasting it with the depictions on the static map. I will subsequently work backward in time on the “historically unfolding” movie, pointing out crucial errors for several particular periods. To reiterate, I will consider what the maps literally show, ignoring for the most part their hidden meanings.

As mentioned in the previous post, the most obvious blunder in the 1974 depiction is the omission of Russia and Eastern Ukraine from the Indo-European-speaking realm. On the final map frame, the only parts of Russia that are shaded are the Pskov district, the far southern Crimea, and the largely non-I-E-speaking northern Caucasus. The same map also fails to mark other areas long characterized by I-E speech, such as southern Iberia, Balochistan, southern Sri Lanka, and Orissa in eastern India. The static map, however, does successfully mark most of these places as I-E speaking, yet conversely errs in placing several non- (and never-) I-E-speaking areas in the Indo-European zone, such as northeastern Sri Lanka as well as Manipur and environs in northeastern India. Unlike the animation, this map does show I-E in Western Russia, but only in the past 1,000 to 1,500 years, as discontinuous as late as 1800 CE, and as disappearing entirely in far western Siberia. Such depictions, needless to say, are erroneous; although pockets of Uralic languages persist to the present in eastern European Russia and Western Siberia, the bulk of the region was solidly Russian speaking well before the termination date of 1974. Compounding such errors is the sprinkling of bluish dots in southern Tibet, northern Nepal, and northwestern Burma. Some of the most inhospitable parts of the central Sahara are also vaguely marked with blue to show I-E expansion over the past millennium.

The static map is, in a word, preposterous. What possible Indo-European language could ever have been spoken in the Kachin uplands of Burma over the past 1,000 years, much less in essentially uninhabited areas of the Tibetan Plateau and the Sahara Desert? Note as well that northern Tunisia and northeastern Algeria are clearly marked as having been substantially I-E speaking in recent centuries. On first glance, I wondered whether the authors were trying to show the spread of Latin in this region under the Roman Empire; if so, the coloration is wrong, as blue indicates I-E expansion in the past 1,000 years. But as we have seen, Latin does not count in Atkinson’s scheme, as it supposedly spread too quickly as an individual language (it actually spread quite slowly here; non-I-E Punic continued to be spoken in the region as a minority language up to Augustine’s time). But as it so happens, the blue splotches around Tunis do not indicate anything nearly so specific. Rather, like the light red blobs in central Arabia, they merely show that the model occasionally spits out randomly (and incorrectly) placed outliers at some remove from main areas of Indo-European speech.

Other inaccuracies abound on the static map, including incomplete I-E occupation at the termination date (1974) in western France, Andalucía (but not in Spain’s Basque Country!), and northeastern Scotland, as well as a complete absence of the language family from Gotland in the Baltic along with the previously mentioned Mediterranean islands. The map seems to show that Indo-European languages have never quite yet reached the Atlantic, although of course the authors would likely counter that the map does not actually depict what it claims to depict. Or consider the model’s portrayal of non-I-E-speaking areas in Fennoscandia with that of an actual language map of the region, as can be seen to the left. The fit is poor.

The Fennoscandia map detail also presents evidence that contemporary geopolitical boundaries anachronistically mold the hypothesized language-family distribution in the Science model. As can be seen on the actual language map, linguistic and political boundaries do not correspond particularly well in this area; Estonia and Finland may be non-I-E-speaking countries, but not over their entire expanses. On Atkinson’s map, however, I-E coloring abruptly and transhistorically ends exactly at the modern Estonian border, a most suspicious situation. The general lack of I-E shading for Moldova also makes me wary—and is completely bizarre. A clear example of contemporary geopolitical contamination is found in the portrayal of Central Asia. Note the salient of solid I-E coloration extending northward into Tajikistan’s portion of the Fergana Valley, avoiding the core of the valley held by Uzbekistan. Such a portrayal would be understandable if the map depicted merely present-day conditions, as Tajikistan is mostly I-E-speaking whereas Uzbekistan is not. But the sorting of “Sarts” into Uzbeks and Tajiks, along with the forced “Uzbekization” of many previously Persian speakers, in this historically heavily bilingual area is largely the product of Soviet geo-ethnic machinations. If one delves back to the first millennium CE and earlier, the entire region was heavily I-E-speaking (Sogdian and other Iranian languages).


As one dials back the animated map to earlier periods, the mire only deepens. As it would be too tedious to recount all of the map’s many miscues, I will focus on a few particular time slices.






Consider, for example, the depiction of western Europe circa 1000 CE. At this time, western France, Sicily, and the entire Iberian Peninsula are shown as non-I-E-speaking, although a line of I-E linguistic relationship has been etched across southern France roughly to the Spanish border at the crest of the Pyrenees. The false implications conveyed here—which are fully admitted as erroneous by the authors—are that Roman Hispania and Aquitania were never Latinized, and that the preexisting Celtiberian and Gaulish tongues were not I-E. The same 1000 CE map frame also incorrectly excludes from the I-E realm the South Asian areas that now constitute southern Gujarat, southern Balochistan, most of Maharashtra, and southern Sri Lanka. Note as well that most Norse areas are not given an I-E shading, nor is northern Scotland. Yet at the same time, southern Tibet is placed within the I-E zone! Even the essentially uninhabited and uninhabitable region of Aksai Chin is depicted as Indo-European-speaking at this time; I can’t help but imagine proto-Dardic speaking yetis.

Turn back to the portrayal of the year 18 BCE, and the errors compound. The most conspicuous I-E omission here is the Scythian/Sarmatian realm, which by itself is enough to discredit the model; it almost seems as if the authors intentionally manipulated their data to exclude the linguistically hypothesized steppe homeland of the I-E family. The northeastern salient of I-E languages depicted for the time, which denotes the Tocharian languages, oddly excludes a significant portion of the Tocharian homeland in the Tarim Basin to focus instead on the lofty Tien Shan Mountains. Tellingly, the diffusional front hypothesized here has the ancestors of the Tocharians advancing along ridges well in excess of 20,000 feet in elevation.






Several nice examples of demonstrably false information are found on the depiction of the Mediterranean Basin circa 700 BCE. Here we see the greater Aegean along with the Italian Peninsula clearly colored as I-E, but with little else falling in the same category; Sicily, most of Sardinia, and most of the littoral zone of southern France and eastern Iberia are excluded. Yet we have incontrovertible knowledge that Greek-speaking colonies had been firmly planted in western Sicily, Cyrenaica in North Africa, and over a large expanse of the northwestern Mediterranean coastlands. The spread of the Greek language to Crete, moreover, occurred much earlier, as attested by the Bronze Age Linear B script.  The model fails here in part because it does not count the “rapid” spread of individual languages; Greek colonization, however, took place over hundreds of years, and some of the dialects of ancient Greek were differentiated enough to be classifiable as separate languages.


While the 700 BCE map frame unduly restricts the spread of I-E over much of the Mediterranean, it also improperly extends it in other parts of the basin. Several relatively well-known non-I-E languages persisted in the map’s “green zone” well beyond 700 BCE. On the island of Lemnos, the non-I-E Lemnian language vanished only with the Athenian conquest in the fifth century BCE, while Etruscan and Raetic survived into the first millennium CE. Together, Lemnian, Etruscan, and Raetic seem to have constituted the extinct Tyrsenian language family, which might have included Minoan (Eteocretan) and Eteocypriot as well. The scattered distribution of this family in antiquity probably signals that Tyrsenian languages had blanketed a much broader area before the incursion of I-E speakers. In the Science model, however, the entire Aegean region is mapped as I-E speaking as early as 6500 BCE.  Are we to imagine a post-I-E migration of Tyrsenian speakers into the Aegean from Etruscan- or Raetic-speaking areas further to the west? Yet historians who have viewed the Tyrsenian Etruscans as non-indigenous have instead tended to locate their homeland in Anatolia, the hearth of I-E in the Science model! Today, however, a near consensus has emerged that the Tyrsenian languages represent a pre-I-E substrate that likely extended across much of the northeastern Mediterranean in the fifth millennium BCE, if not significantly later as well.

Finally, consider the depiction of supposedly I-E-speaking “greater Anatolia”—including what is now Syria and northern Iraq as well the Caucasus—in the Bronze Age, circa 1500 BCE. Yet we have unassailable historical evidence of widely spread non-IE languages over much of the region at this time, including Hurrian, Hattic, and, for a somewhat later period, Urartian. Much evidence suggests, moreover, that the three (or perhaps four) extant Caucasian language families covered much broader swaths of land in ancient times than they do today; modern Azerbaijan, for example, was a largely NE-Caucasian-speaking area, as attested by both historical sources and the extant language of Udi. For the Science model to make sense, later migrations of several different non-I-E groups would have had to have pushed through long-inhabited I-E lowlands to settle in inhospitable areas of mountainous terrain. Such a scenario, to say the least, strains credulity.

*. Let us consider here the various elements of the authors’ “caveat”:

1. “we can only represent the geographic extent corresponding to language divergence events.” Do languages really diverge in discrete events? Does not language divergence happen continually? Whenever one segment of a language community adopts a new word, a new sound, or a new grammatical feature, some degree of divergence has occurred. It is always an open question as to when diverging dialects become separate language; in the modern world, the issue is more political than linguistic (cf Serbo-Croatian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin).

2. “only between those languages that are in our sample.” That is interesting, seeing as Atkinson claims in an interview (to be cited later) that “all” I-E languages were included (an impossibility, as there are no hard and fast divisions between languages and dialects). But more to the point, if one can simply exclude languages at will from the sample, then one can then mold the results. Drop a few more languages, and the maps will differ. In such a manner, one can get the results that one wants.

3  “nodes associated with branches not represented in our sample will not be reflected in this figure.” Yes indeed, which is one reason why the figures are so spectacularly wrong.

4. “the lack of Continental Celtic variants in our sample means we miss the Celtic incursion into Iberia and instead infer a later arrival into the Iberian peninsular…” I am glad that the authors begin to acknowledge their own errors here, but they still do not go far enough; they do make an inference, and that inference is simply incorrect. They also miss not just Celtiberian and Latin, but also Mozarabic, Ladino, and several other I-E languages of the Iberian Peninsula (the map frame for 1000 CE still shows only partial I-E coverage).

5. “associated with the break-up of the Romance languages.”  The model assumes that Latin began to “break-up” with the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  That is incorrect, as divergence began much earlier. The “vulgar” Latin of the distant provinces was not the language of Cicero.

6. “not the initial rapid expansion of Latin.” Latin did indeed expand rapidly as a language of administration, but not necessarily as a language of everyday use. Basque remained in use throughout, although the maps produced by the study indicate otherwise.

7. “The timing represented here therefore offers a minimum age

for expansion into a given area.” This proviso is particularly rich, as it alone undermines the approach. In other words, I-E languages could have been found in any part of the study area at much earlier times than indicated? If so, how can one pinpoint Anatolia as the place of origin? If one claims to “find” a location of origin, then one is automatically making an argument for “maximum ages” in areas that fall outside that supposed birthplace.

Quentin Atkinson’s Nonsensical Maps of Indo-European Expansion Read More »