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Why the Indo-European Debate Matters—And Matters Deeply

Submitted by on September 13, 2012 – 2:37 pm 41 Comments |  
As expected, we have received a few complaints from friends, acquaintances, and Facebook-followers in regard to the current Indo-European series. “Why get so exercised over a single article,” some ask, reminding us that science is a self-correcting endeavor that will eventually winnow away the chaff. Others question the entire enterprise, wondering why we would care so much about such an obscure topic.

We agree that science is, in the long run, a self-correcting undertaking, which gives it vast power. But self-correction does not come automatically; it takes work, which we are happy to provide. And in the short-term, counterfeit research can do great harm, as the Lysenko Affair in the Soviet Union so well demonstrated. We also find it deeply troubling that a nonsensical article would not only be accepted for publication in one of the world’s premier scientific journals, but would immediately be trumpeted in the mass media for “solving” one of the key mysteries of human pre-history. The episode uncovers a whiff of corruption in the scientific-journalist establishment that needs a blast of fresh air.

In regard to the second set of complaints, we must reject them outright. The Indo-European issue is not obscure, trivial, or unrelated to pressing issues of our day. In fact, it is difficult to locate a single topic of historical debate that has been more ideologically fraught and politically laden over the past 150 years than that of Indo-European origin and expansion.

Indo-European studies took on a heavy ideological burden in the late 1800s, a development that would indirectly lead to the most hideous examples of genocide and mass-murder that the world has ever witnessed. The supposedly superior “Aryans” of Nazi mythology were none other than the speakers of Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Nazi propagandists conjured their own wildly off-base theories about I-E origins, but their fantasies had roots in the scholarly endeavors of German philologists. And while Nazism was militarily crushed and its ideological foundations pulverized, the movement refuses to die. Indeed, it seems to be experiencing something of a revival in eastern Germany, Hungary, and—of all places—Russia. On numerous occasions, I have found myself directed by Google to the odious “Stormfront” website while searching for images and ethnographic descriptions of various Eurasian ethnic groups. The Aryan myth also continues to feed racially troubling ideologies outside of Europe, particularly in Iran and northern India.

Even scholars who have sought to undermine the noxious notion of the Aryan Herrenvolk have occasionally generated their own benign but still fantasy-laden counter-narratives. The key figure here is the late Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas, noted for placing the I-E homeland in the Pontic Steppes. Gimbutas’s scientific research was solid, and we suspect that she was largely correct in locating the PIE homeland. But in seeking to turn the Nazi view on its head, she went too far—and some of her lay followers went much too far. In the feminist retelling of the tale that she inspired, the Aryans become the Kurgans, a uniquely violent, male-dominated people who destroyed the peaceful, gender-equitable if not matriarchal civilization of “Old Europe.” In Riane Eisler’s 1988 treatise, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, the Kurgan conquests are seen as ushering in a global age of male domination and mass violence. The work was a bestseller, blurbed by noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu as the “most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.”

Eisler’s global vision failed from the onset: as male domination characterized almost all historically known human societies, it cannot be attributed to a single ancient people located in one particular part of the Earth. Recent research has also tended to undermine many of her more specific claims. The Old Europeans were probably not as peaceful and female-centered as they had been portrayed, and the PIE speakers and their immediate descendents were probably not so insistently androcentric. Certainly the early Indo-European speakers were no strangers to violence and domination, but how do we account for the female Scythian skeletons from the Kurgan homeland tricked out in military gear? Perhaps Herodotus was on to something when he wrote of Amazon tribes in the area. More to the point, we now understand that the early Indo-European-speakers could not have simply invaded Old Europe and subjugated its inhabitants, as they lacked the state-level forms of military organization necessary for wide conquests. As Anthony shows so well in The Horse, the Wheel and Language, the process was almost certainly one of gradual incursions, marked by both social predation and mutualism, that allowed the militarily advantaged, semi-pastoral, equestrian I-E speakers to slowly spread their forms of speech. And while their languages did indeed expand over vast areas, they did not simply replace pre-existing tongues. Almost everywhere, older linguistic elements survived. Major non-I-E substrates characterize such I-E subfamilies as Germanic and Greek. A huge problem for both Nazi ideology and the Gimbutas/Eisler thesis is the fact that most of the Germanic root words pertaining to war are non-Indo-European. The mysteries here remain deep.

Considering the misuses to which the issue of I-E origins has been put, it is understandable that some people would want to reject the idea that the original speakers were war-like horse-riders from some remote, northern homeland. All such troublesome interpretations would vanish if I-E expansion could instead be linked to the gradual movement of simple farmers from the Near Eastern agricultural heartland into the sparsely settled lands of Mesolithic Europe. But if the evidence indicates otherwise, as it most assuredly does, the result is merely another myth. Scientific responsibility demands the search for truth, even if the truth leads into uncomfortable areas.

Regardless of the complications introduced by ideological distortions, investigations of I-E origins and expansion have a huge bearing of the study of human prehistory. Indo-European, after all, is by far the world’s largest language family when counted by the number of speakers. Linguistic evidence about the family’s spread tells us much of significance about the historical development of a vast section of the Earth’s surface over many centuries, even millennia. Studies of human prehistory depend crucially on three lines of evidence: those derived from archeological digs; from genetic studies; and from linguistics. Over the past decade, much progress has been made in bridging linguistic and archeological evidence, as demonstrated by David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language. To the extent that the burgeoning genetic investigations of Y- and mitochondrial DNA lineages can be incorporated into this linguistic-archeological nexus, a much richer understanding of the prehistoric human past awaits. For a path-breaking interdisciplinary foray into this territory, see Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present.

Such developments, however, risk being cut short if the field of historical linguistics continues to languish. Further progress will depend not only on linguists carrying out their own research, but also on their passing down of their knowledge and techniques to future generations of students. Such lines of intellectual transmission, however, are threatened by cutbacks in linguistic departments, as well as by the assaults on the field mounted by interlopers who have somehow managed to convince many scientists that linguistic evidence is of little account when it comes to studying the history of languages. To the extent that the Anatolian hypothesis gains ground among archeologists and geneticists on the basis of the recent Science article, our collective knowledge of the past will take a sharp step backwards.

The most troubling aspect of the affair, however, is not the threats that it poses but rather the revelations that it makes about the integrity of the scientific and journalistic establishments. A scholarly journal such as Science is duty-bound to vet any potential contribution through established experts. Yet I have a difficult time imagining that the article in question was subjected to proper peer-review through any qualified specialist in the field in which it sits: Indo-European historical linguistics. Either the article was never sent to a competent linguistics reviewer, or the resulting review was irresponsibly ignored. And yet this is not the first time that a preposterous article on historical linguistics has appeared in Science (and also in Nature), as we shall see in future posts. Have the editors of this august journal decided that the discipline of linguists has somehow failed, and that its field of historical inquiry should therefore be handed over to epidemiologists and computational modelers? If so, on what possible grounds was this decision reached? Unless such questions can be answered, I have a difficult time avoiding the conclusion that the editors of Science have betrayed the basic canons of academic responsibility.

While contemplating these issues, I am continually reminded of the Sokal Hoax, an episode that revealed the vacuity of postmodernist literary theory and “science studies” in the mid-1990s. This affair came to my attention when I was participating in the conference on “The Flight from Science and Reason” organized by the New York Academy of Sciences. A rumor began to circulate among the attendees that a noted physicist and mathematician with solid leftist political credentials was perpetrating a prank that would debunk Social Text, perhaps the leading journal of poststructuralist theory, and in so doing deflate the pretension of those who sought to undermine science in the name of human liberation. Sokal’s article, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” argues that since science is merely a social construct, quantum gravity, especially as interpreted through the new-age lens of “morphogenetic fields,” can have progressive implications for political action. The paper was accepted and duly published, despite the fact that it was, as its author soon admitted, “a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.” Sokal designed the hoax as a kind of test of the allegations made by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. As he discovered, even the most palpable nonsense imaginable could be published in Social Text so long as it sounded good and flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

While the Sokal Affair was a purposive hoax, the members of the Boukaert team evidently believe that their article constitutes a contribution to knowledge. But what the authors think about their own work is of no significance, as the arguments they make must stand on their own. Had Alan Sokal actually believed that the “construction” of quantum gravity could be a politically progressive act, would his article have been any less nonsensical? The current authors have thus perpetrated an unwitting hoax, but the end results should be no less embarrassing for the editors of Science than the Sokal Affair was for those of Social Text. Boukaert et al. begin by improperly framing the problem, and then go on to err at every turn. It is not so much that the article’s conclusions are incorrect, but rather that every assumption it makes, every technique it employs, and virtually every “fact” that it marshals is either incorrect, inappropriate, or misleading. Yet this work was published in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Something here smells rather fishy.

But if the mere publication of the article in Science raises questions about intellectual integrity, its immediate celebration in the pages of the New York Times points to a deeper mire. Science publishes hundreds of articles each year, a tiny fraction of which are ever mentioned in the New York Times, let alone showcased in the newspaper’s main section. Yet the Times has gone out of its way on more than one occasion to trumpet “contributions” to linguistic history from members of the Bouckaert team, specifically Quentin Atkinson. Evidently, the editors of the supposed newspaper-of-record in the United States have concluded that the work of these scholars constitutes one of the most important scientific stories of the past decade. On what possible basis could such an assessment have been rationally made?

Journalists, like academics, are expected to adhere to certain standards of professional behavior. Unless they are writing for the editorial pages or are explicitly employed in “advocacy journalism,” reporters are expected to remain as objective as possible, not letting their own interests, political predilections, or friendship and kin networks direct their work. Such guidelines are impossible to follow to the letter, and as a result complete objectivity is a mere ideal. But such an ideal is still supposed to influence behavior in self-respecting media outlets, eliminating the excesses of partisanship. In the present case, however, all such ethical fetters seem to have been removed. Nicholas Wade’s reporting on this issue has been non-objective in the extreme. One can only speculate as to why Wade has been determined to act as Quentin Atkinson’s pocket journalist, ever ready to proclaim his latest clumsy foray into linguistics as a scientific breakthrough on par with plate tectonics.

To appreciate the level of corruption revealed by the Bouckaert Affair, imagine that a parallel series of events occurred in a different walk of life, such as business. Imagine, for example, that an established financial firm with a reasonably good reputation decided to apply its mathematical models to an unrelated business, one in which both the leaders and employees of the company had no experience. Being ignorant of their new field, they made a number of naïve and ultimately untenable assumptions about how it operates, and thus when they applied their favored methods, unexpected breakdowns occurred. Soon the firm began to hemorrhage money. But rather than admit to their failure, the managers instead crowed about their success, hiding their mounting losses in misleading accounting sheets and obscurely written reports. But even as the company began to collapse, its reputation strengthened and its stock-market valuation rose. Such gains, it turns out, stemmed from glowing reports on its new venture in the business media, most notably the New York Times. The most substantive Times’ piece on the venture appeared not in the paper’s business pages, but in its main news section, gaining it a particularly wide readership. The fact that it was written by the former editor of its business section, a person widely regarded as one of the country’s leading economic journalists, helped propel the story. For a while, it appeared as if the firm could do no wrong. And then …

In the world of commerce, such a story would end with the quick death of the firm, as well as that of its business model. To the extent that any company making consistent losses will eventually fail, business—like science—is a self-correcting enterprise. Failure in business, however, is generally more pressing than it is in science, as rather more money and power is typically at stake. Intrinsic error can linger in science for decades, as demonstrated by the prolonged resistance of geologists to the ever-mounting evidence for continental drift. In a field as marginal as Indo-European studies, well-funded pseudo-scientific works could withstand invalidation by under-funded scholars for many years. In the popular imagination, moreover, erroneous ideas can escape correction altogether, lodging so firmly as to be all but irremovable by evidence. Examples include the widely known non-facts that the Eskimo languages have a multitude of words for snow, and that Europeans before Columbus thought that the world was flat. The Indo-European Affair, in short, matters, and matters deeply. I find it cause for deep concern, and as a result I will continue to write about it.

But after one more post, the current series on Indo-European origins will go on hiatus for a few weeks. Both Asya and I must travel for a short period, so blogging in general will be light for the next week or so.


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  • Maxim Maximov

    First you wary of anti-semitism in Poland, though all jews were killed by their neighbours there 70 years ago. Now you expose some lame web-site as a proof that Russia has “biggest nazi revival of all states”.
    You really are blind to see real not virtual ukranian/estonian/lithuanian nazis marching in the streets all over half of Europe for last 20 years who receive full support and respect from “democratic goverment” back home. Russians are the only ones who always protested and asked to stop and prosecute this atrocities.
    And everytime Brussels and US State Department condemned Russia “for not respecting free will of our border states”.
    If you want real fascism try Baltic states apartheid system that became everyday reality for 500.000 russian non-citizens, who are restricted from all basic human rights including elections and education.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig


      Nowhere in the post did we say that Russia has “biggest nazi revival of all states”, let alone provide proof of that. “Of all places” means in English “surprisingly”, which given the Soviet Union’s role in fighting fascism (militarily) is justified, wouldn’t you say?

      Perhaps what you remain blind to is the fact that the way that Russia’s neighbors, including the Baltic countries, Ukraine, etc. treat Russia and Russians has something to do with decades (and in some cases, centuries) of the treatment that Russia gave those countries/peoples. While in some cases groups within those neighboring countries cross the line into true hatred, I don’t think that such extremist movements and attacks receive government support. The line does remain subtle, however, and it is difficult to say what actions by the government may incite extremist actions on the part of others. The same can be said about Russian government inciting hatred towards neighboring countries and their citizens. One example of that was government-promoted anti-Sakashvili propaganda during the war with Georgia in 2008.

      It would also do you good to see the difference between murdering innocent people just because they are Jews, Gypsies, etc. by tens of thousand a day (whether done by Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, or Russians), on the one hand, and not allowing people to vote in elections without passing a citizenship exam, on the other hand. Elections or even education are not “basic rights” the same way that a right to live is!

      While we at GeoCurrents have discussed the language/ethnicity issues in Latvia, Ukraine etc., we will also remain worried about anti-Semitism and other elements of Nazi ideology as well as scientific, quasi-scientific, and pseudo-scientific debates that may contribute to such distasteful ideologies.

      • Maxim Maximov

        No. they attack russian victims exactly with government support:

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Even if true, how does that excuse or negate the rise of neo-Nazi in Russia?

          • Maxim Maximov

            Perhaps what you remain blind to is the fact that the way that Russia’s peoples, all of them: russians, tatars, yakuts etc. treat jews and caucasians has something to do with decades (and in some cases,
            centuries) of the treatment that NKVD, oligarchs, chechen slave-traders and terrorists, tadjik drug-dealers, georgian thief-in-law murderers gave those peoples.

          • Maxim Maximov

            During the 19th and early 20th centuries the Jewish trade in White
            slaves from these lands expanded enormously. It has been described by
            the Jewish historian Edward Bristow in his 1982 book Prostitution
            and Prejudice, published by Oxford University Press and Schocken
            Books in New York. Although Bristow’s book is written from the viewpoint
            of one opposed to this Jewish trade in women, it is nevertheless
            enormously revealing. The Jews recruited peasant girls in Polish and
            Russian villages, usually under false pretenses, and transported them to
            brothels in Turkey, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East; to
            Vienna, Budapest, and other major cities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire;
            and as far away as New York, New Orleans, and Buenos Aires. This Jewish
            trade in Slavic women naturally caused a great deal of hatred against
            the Jews by the Slavs, and this hatred broke out in pogroms and other
            popular actions against the Jews over and over again
            You can compare it to modern slave-traders who are almost only jewish.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Yep, and Jews drink the blood of Christian babies as part of the Passover ritual — heard that one?!

            In any case, you did answer my question of how this justifies neo-Nazism in Russia, including murders of people of various nationalities (of the former USSR as well as foreigners). Here’s an interesting and revealing link:


            I think I know your answer: everybody mistreated the Russians for centuries. Russians expanded their empire continuously (and often violently) to Central Asia, the Caucasus, Finno-Ugric speaking lands, Siberia, etc., but it’s the fault of the peoples who lived there, isn’t it?!

          • Maxim Maximov

            It’s strange that you see single mafia accidents in Russia but pay no attention to anti-russian genocide in former soviet republics supported by governments of these “new democracies”. Their favorite slogan was “Don’t let russians escape – we gonna keep them as slaves.” First they killed all russians back home, now they dare to travel to Russia and even emigrate to Russia. It’s same absurd like nazi germans would move to Israel and complain that nobody likes them there.
            As for neo-Nazism answer is simple: we don’t keep anyone in camps like palestinians or forced reservations like native americans.

          • Maxim Maximov

            It was fault of Mongol empire. All Central Asia, Ugorian, Siberia were parts of Golden Horde which attacked russians and stole them to sell as slaves till year 1600. Caucasus also was part of Turkish slave-trading empire.
            In such countries like Kuwait slavery is still legal and one deputy offered a law: “Since all our men own russian slaves let’s make sex with these slaves legal since they reach 15 years old”.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Sorry if my use of the idiom “of all places” was confusing (as Asya notes below). I used that term because the original Nazis excluded all Slavs from the Aryan category, and viewed Russians and Poles especially as fit only to be slaves.

  • Careful now

    Great series, but do you really want to play the “Nazi card”? After all, it’s really doubtful that screwing up the IE homeland is going to raise the spectre of Nazism in the 21st century. Ironically, I doubt that even today’s Nazis care about historical linguistics the way they used to – yet another (in this case salutory) consequence of the fading of the field’s prestige.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      You are absolutely correct that the Stormfront guys hardly care about historical linguistics. But I doubt that Waffen SS troops did either. Still, the neo-Nazi ideology, like the Nazi ideology earlier, is fed by some contorted form of the Indo-European myth. The fact that any scientific IE scenario can be reduced to an ugly ideological platform does not mean that the search for IE origins should be abandoned or that certain theories on the matter should be taboo, but it does mean that the issue has more importance for lay people that may appear — exactly the point that Martin Lewis is making in the post.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      I agree that “playing the Nazi card” is often a problem. I don’t mean to associate anyone currently involved in this debate with the Nazis. I only want to emphasize fact that the issue of I-E origins has been misused by Nazis, which increases its significance.

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  • A.F

    to geocurrents: How much certainty do you really have that this paper is more than just incompetence, arrogance and idiocy, but amounts to * corruption *? This sounds to me like a very strong claim.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      The corruption claim concerns not only (and not so much) the article itself, but the fact that it was published, in its current form, in Science, as well as the surrounding media brouhaha. The claim is indeed strong, but we have provided some evidence to substantiate it and will provide more as this series restarts in a week or so.

      • Martin W. Lewis

        Yes, I agree with Asya. The corruption problem concern the peer review process at Science, and the immediate trumpeting of the article in the NY Times

  • Peter

    God lol, I’m also fed up with running into Stormfront crap when google image searching anthropology stuff.

    • Alfia Wallace

      Why does this stuff show up so often in searches about IE? Do you think some people are European supremacists? Yikes.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        I don’t think they would call themselves that, but in some twisted sense they are, yes.

  • Alfia Wallace

    That Gimbutas theory always seemed absurdly reaching and overstated to me too. Honestly. What about Tacitus’s description of the Celtic warrior queen Bodicca, and the Germanic women who fought alongside their men in seemingly ritual battles? Humans can change their lifestyles and social roles to fit new circumstances in a matter of generations.

    Regarding PIE coming out of Anatolia – Just because Hittite, Luwian, and Palaic are the earliest attested IE we have, that doesn’t mean these were more close to PIE than other, preliterate forms. Just because you use statistical methods appropriate for evaluating the spread of phenomena which are well-documented (such as the rate of the spread of a virus or of mutations in various contexts), that doesn’t mean they are appropriate for fields where an unacceptable degree of misinformed presumption shepherds outcomes.

    • Alfia Wallace

      Also, we’re talking about the spread of agriculture at 8,000 – 9,000 BCE and the oldest IE texts we have are from around the 1600s BCE? Here is a much more measured article from 2005 about studying the spread of agriculture in Europe, which, unlike the Bouckaert et al., fairly summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of earlier studies, admits where uncertainties and ambiguities exist, and points out what still needs to be determined in order to make solid claims. It is not cited in the reference of Bouckaert et al., and only one of its authors is cited at all, Ron Pinhasi, for a craniometric study..

      There are some interesting reactions to a recent Daily Mail article on similar research, which focuses on “Europeans” as a monolithic culture (similar to a conception of PIE being monolithic). Here’s a quote from the article,

      “Recent advances in paleogenetics are providing never before seen glimpses into the complex evolution of humans in Europe, helping researchers piece together the events that ultimately created what is now known as modern man.”

      Apparently the evolution of humans in Europe, in particular, has a lot to do with the evolution of “modern man.” While I might agree with that to some degree culturally – genetically? Also, a lot of Europeans seem to resent being lumped together as one culture.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Thanks for your fascinating comments, Alfia!

        The spread of agriculture/Anatolian origins of IE are dated at 8,000-9,000 Before Present (or about 6000-7000 BCE) — the two types of dates are really confusing, aren’t they?

        The Daily Mail’s caption under the picture is hilarious: “Early Europeans were thought to fall into two main groups, farmers and hunter fatherers.” — FATHERERS indeed! (Okay, it’s a known type of speech error, with the “f” of “farmers” spreading to “f/gatherers”, but still funny!)

        As far as I understand the “modern man” arrived to Europe some 30,000 years ago, so way too early even for the Bouckaert et al.’s dates. And when it comes to culture, yeah, Europeans don’t like to be lumped together, understandably in some cases, but how exactly does one measure the “sameness” of culture? Are the British and the Italians “the same” culturally? The Dutch and the Belgians (I’m writing this from the Netherlands)? And what about, say, modern Brits and their Victorian ancestors — same or different? I don’t know the answers and not even a way to start figuring out the answers…

        • Andrew Zolnai

          see my blog post showing the data Alfia pointed to here

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Very interesting post and lovely map, Andrew! However, my problem with the Bouckaert et al.’s article is not because of badly drawn maps, but because what they represent is garbage. A beautifully drawn map is a great thing, but all the beauty cannot compensate for the bad information…

          • Andrew Zolnai

            exactly, that is the flipside of my point – a badly drawn map from bad data would would show them up and cut thru the obfuscation

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            In general yes. But how would a beautifully drawn map of the spread of agriculture (and it is beautifully drawn!) show them wrong, assuming we are correct in arguing that the spread of agriculture has nothing to do with the spread of IE languages?

          • Andrew Zolnai

            Sorry there are two conversations going on here. One one hand I took a dataset linked by Alfia just to show a free and easy way to post geodata.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Glad we cleared that up!

      • Martin W. Lewis

        Thanks, Alfia, for your excellent points. I would be wary, however, about such views on the evolution of “modern man.” Homo sapiens sapiens does seem to have evolved in eastern and southern Africa. Once out of Africa, they acquired genes from Neanderthals and Denisovans, archaic members of our species. All non-African humans seem to have some genes from these non-modern humans.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig


  • Quentin Atkinson

    We were disappointed to see discussions on GeoCurrents descending into accusations of fraud, ignorance of the literature and distasteful ideological agendas. Testing hypotheses about deep cultural ancestry is difficult and we feel it is important to consider all of the available tools and data. We have been developing phylogenetic methods and comparative vocabulary data for over 10 years, listening to the advice of expert linguists and incorporating this into methodology and data improvements. We aren’t particularly attached to one theory of Indo-European origin.

    In the current paper, we fitted the best available models of language evolution using the best available phylogenetic methods to the best available lexical data and published the result in the best journal we could. The farming theory is often dismissed as being incompatible with the amount of linguistic divergence in Indo-European (the dates are apparently too old) and incompatible with population movements in the archaeological record assumed to represent Indo-European migrations. Our findings suggest that, based on the current distribution of languages and the phylogenetic relationships between them, an Anatolian origin is in fact much more likely than a steppe origin. This evidence may not change the views of those who are totally convinced by the linguistic palaeontology case, but we think there are good reasons to be skeptical of the evidence from linguistic palaeontology.

    On our website, we argue that the inferences based on linguistic palaeontology have thus far failed to satisfy the following three requirements: -

    1. In order to reconstruct a term to Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages, it must be present in those languages that are first to branch off from the base of the tree. It is not enough to point to similar terms in some sub-groups of the family. Thus, in the case of Indo-European, if a word is not present in the Anatolian languages at the base of the tree, there is no reason to think it was present in Proto-Indo-European.

    2. The putative shared forms across the family cannot be the result of more recent borrowing. However, terms for new technologies are highly likely to be borrowed along with the technology itself, and wheeled vehicles appear to be a prime example. It is true that linguists can sometimes identify borrowed words (particularly more recent borrowings) on the basis of the presence or absence of certain systematic sound correspondences. However, not all borrowings can be identified in this way. In the case of wheeled vehicles, borrowed terms are unlikely to be identifiable as such – if terms associated with wheeled transport were borrowed 5000-6000 years ago, as we would expect, then the terms in each of the major Indo-European lineages will have undergone all of the sound changes that characterize each lineage. This would make the words appear native to the lineage and thus inherited from Proto-Indo-European when in fact they were early borrowings.

    3. Whilst linguists can reconstruct the sound of words in proto-languages with some degree of certainty (the above caveats aside), reconstructed meanings are much less certain. Arguments for linguistic palaeontology also need to rule out the possiblity of independent semantic innovations from a common root, which can produce apparently related words with meanings that were not present in the common ancestral language. For example, upon the development of wheeled transport, words derived from the Proto- Indo-European (PIE) term *kwel- (meaning ‘to turn, rotate’) may have been independently co-opted to describe the wheel “*kwekwlo-”.

    We have not yet seen any compelling evidence that meets these requirements.

    The historical linguist, Larry Trask, captures most of the above arguments more succinctly: -
    “There is a PIE word *ekwo- ‘horse’, as well as *wegh- ‘convey, go in a vehicle’, *kwekwlo- ‘wheel’, *aks- ‘axle’, and *nobh- ‘hub of a wheel’. This has led some scholars to conclude that the PIE-speakers not only rode horses but had wagons and chariots as well. This is debateable, however, since everyone places PIE at least 6000 years in the past, while hard evidence for wheeled vehicles is perhaps no earlier than 5000 years ago. Watkins (1969) considers that these terms pertaining to wheeled vehicles were chiefly metaphorical extensions of older IE words with different senses (*nobh-, for example, meant ‘navel’). The word *kwekwlo- ‘wheel’ itself is derived from the root *kwel- ‘turn, revolve’. Nevertheless, the vision of fierce IE warriors, riding horses and driving chariots, sweeping down on their neighbours brandishing bloody swords, has proven to be an enduring one, and scholars have found it difficult to dislodge from the popular consciousness the idea of the PIE-speakers as warlike conquerors in chariots.” (Trask, 1996).

    The method and results we present therefore represent an important new line of inquiry. They might have supported the linguistic palaeontology case, bolstering support for that theory. As it turns out, our results support the alternative, Anatolian farming theory. More information about the paper is available here –

    • Porfiry Petrovich

      It would be nice to see you reply to the charges that this blog has actually made against your work, which was the basis for the strong language: maps that don’t match the data, predicting that Russian does not exist (but not calling this to the attention of your readers), and so on. You should strongly protest their charges if they are false, but then you have to respond to their evidence, not just restate your “position”.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks you for taking time to make these comments. We will respond in detail next week.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig
  • Mark Irwin

    Excellent post. Your criticism of Science should have appeared in an earlier post – to me its publication there is a far more disturbing issue than the quack-linguistics the paper contains.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your comment, Mark! But don’t you think that the publication of this paper in Science is disturbing exactly because it contains all that “quack-linguistics” (as you call it)?

  • Florian Almagest

    While I agree in a deep and heartfelt manner with almost all of the points made in this post, there is a single claim that I must object to: I have personally investigated the etymologies of several war-related Germanic lexemes claimed in an essay by Vennemann to be of non-Indo-European origin, and have found no confirmation for this claim. There are reasonable Indo-European explanations for all of them, and in any case, clear and compelling indications of foreign origin is completely absent. This also concerns etyma from other semantic fields listed in the essay – several words listed by Vennemann even have long-accepted Indo-European etymologies, and for many others, sensible proposals exist, often for a long time. Virtually none of them strike one as plausibly borrowed from a substratum or superstratum. Vennemann’s essay is symptomatic, as many of these words are also cited by others as evidence for a substratum or superstratum having affected Germanic. Germanic etymology is still a surprisingly neglected field, and not as developped as you might expect it to (the 20th century has seen much stagnation in historical linguistics, especially the second half), and many etymological proposals are only found in obscure technical books, journals and theses. Therefore, the fact that an etymological explanation of a particular lexeme is not listed in the (often severely outdated) standard dictionaries should not be attached too much importance to. This argument is much too dependent on the unnervingly slow progress of the field, much of which seems to be due to a lack of communication and the small number of scholars devoted to it.

  • Florian Blaschke

    While I agree in a deep and heartfelt manner with almost all of the points made in this post, there is a single claim that I must object to: I have personally investigated the etymologies of several war-related Germanic lexemes claimed in an essay by Vennemann to be of non-Indo-European origin, and have found no confirmation for this claim. There are reasonable Indo-European explanations for all of them, and in any case, clear and compelling indications of foreign origin are completely absent. This also concerns etyma from other semantic fields listed in the essay – several words listed by Vennemann even have long-accepted Indo-European etymologies, and for many others, sensible proposals exist, and often have often for a long time. Virtually none of them strike one as plausibly borrowed from a substratum or superstratum. Vennemann’s essay is symptomatic, as many of these words are also cited by others as evidence for a substratum or superstratum having affected Germanic. Germanic etymology is still a surprisingly neglected field, and not as developped as you might expect it to be (the 20th century has seen much stagnation in historical linguistics, especially the second half), and many etymological proposals are only found in obscure technical books, journals and theses. Therefore, the fact that an etymological explanation of a particular lexeme is not listed in the (often severely outdated) standard dictionaries should not be attached too much importance to. This argument is much too dependent on the unnervingly slow progress of the field, which seems to be hampered mainly due to a lack of communication and the small number of scholars devoted to it.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing these thought-provoking comments, Florian! And yes, historical linguistics has not been making as much process recently as it should have, for a number of reasons. Let’s hope the situation will change for the better.

  • David Marjanović

    Have the editors of this august journal decided that the discipline of
    linguists has somehow failed, and that its field of historical inquiry
    should therefore be handed over to epidemiologists and computational

    Impact factor.

    On the one side, Nature is The Scientific Journal Number One and determined to stay number one, and Science is The Scientific Journal Number Two and determined to become number one. On the other, the worth of a scientist today is measured by their impact factor – how bad this is varies among countries and probably disciplines, but in general it is bad. People’s careers, their very employment, depend on their impact factor. As a consequence, 1) Nature and Science are completely flooded by submissions, as nearly everybody aims as high as possible, and 2) they pick the most groundbreaking manuscripts that survive peer review, not the ones with the best-supported conclusions! Science in particular has published real crap before, like attempts to explain fossil feathers as decaying collagen.

    Finally, different journals and different editors pick different reviewers. This is a real problem for interdisciplinary manuscripts, including this one which basically applies molecular phylogenetics and molecular dating to lexical data.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I agree with you, David, that impact factor is important. However, it’s not the whole story. In linguistics, Nature and Science don’t count for much (I would know, as I have a publication in Science, a reply to a paper by Atkinson). If these guys claim to have solved a long-standing problem in (historical) linguistics, you’d expect them to publish in journals that linguists actually read. Or review for. Because there aren’t many linguists who would review for Science/Nature (why bother?!). Thus, we have a bigger problem: real linguists are not involved with Science/Nature: they don’t publish there, don’t read it, and don’t review for it. No wonder that such nonsense can pass their review process. There are some efforts to change that, so hopefully in the future things will get better.