The nature of the prehistoric languages of the British Isles is particularly difficult to address: because of the lack of ancient data from certain territories; because of the traditional interpretation of Old European names simply as “Celtic”; and because Vennemann’s re-labelling of the Old European hydrotoponymy as non-Indo-European has helped distract the focus away from the real non-Indo-European substrate on the islands.
Alteuropäisch and Celtic
An interesting summary of hydronymy in the British Isles was already offered long ago, in British and European River-Names, by Kitson, Transactions of the Philological Society (1996) 94(2):73-118. In it, he discusses, among others:
- Non-serial hydronyms: Drua-/Drav-/Dru-, from drew- sometimes reshaped as derw-; ab-; ag-; al-; alb-; alm-; am-; antjā-; arg-; aw-; dan-; eis-; el-/ol-; er-/or-; kar(r)a-, ker-; nebh-; ned-; n(e)id-; sal-; wig-; weis-/wis-; ur-, wer-; etc.
- Serial elements: -went-, -m(e)no-, -nt-o-, -n-; -nā-, -tā-; -st-, -r-; etc.
Probably non-Celtic suffixes are found e.g. in Tamesis, paralelled in the Spey Tuesis, and also in Tweed (<*Twesetā?); or -no-/-nā- is also particularly frequent in Scottish river-names, but not in English ones. Another interesting case is the reverse suffix relative order into -r-st- instead of -st-r-.
Most if not all of them can be explained as of Old European nature. I will leave aside the discussion of particular formations – most of which may be found repeated, complemented, and updated in more modern texts.
Bell Beakers as Old Europeans
(…) Bell-beakers are in fact the only archaeological phenomenon of any period of prehistory with a comparably wide spread to that of river-names in the western half of Europe. The presumption must I think be that Beaker Folk were the vector of alteuropäisch river-names to most of western Europe. Rivers in the base Arg-, which we have seen there is cause to think was not already in use at the earliest stage of the river-naming system, and which therefore should be associated with such a vector if one existed, fit their distribution exceptionally well.
That they were a single-speech community can be asserted more confidently of the Beaker Folk than of most archaeologically identified groups for the very reasons that have caused archaeologists difficulty in interpreting them. As McEvedy (1967:28) put it, ‘the bell-beaker folk march convincingly in every prehistorian’s text, but they do so from Spain to Germany in some and from Germany to Spain in others, while lately there has been a tendency to make them go from Spain to Germany and back again (primary and reflux movements)’. One ‘firm datum seems to be that the British beaker folk came from the Rhine-Elbe region.’
This confirms what the long chronology now indicated for Common Indo-European would suggest anyway, and what to me, as remarked above, the rareness of non-Indo-European names in England suggests, that the old dissenting minority of Celticists were right to see the arrival in Britain of Indo-Europeans, as evinced in river-names whether or not in ethnic proto-Celts, as early as the third millennium. McEvedy’s map of Beaker Folk identifies them linguistically with Celto-Ligurians, but in that his admirably tidy mind was, typically, a degree too tidy. Considerations of phonology indicate that more than one linguistic group was involved.
It is normal in reconstructed Indo-European for groups of related words not all to have the same vowel in the root syllable. The commonest vowel gradation is between e, o, and zero; (…) Language-groups that level short a and o include Germanic and Baltic, Slavonic, Illyrian, Hittite and Indo-Iranian; but Celtic and Italic like Greek and Armenian preserve the original distinction. It follows that Celts speaking normal Celtic sounds cannot have been wholly responsible for bringing alteuropäisch river-names to any area. It would seem to follow, as Professor Nicolaisen has consistently urged, that in Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Italy, where the only historically known early Indo-Europeans were speakers of non-levelling languages, they were preceded by speakers of levelling languages not historically known. This hypothesis, pretty well required by the linguistic evidence, finds so good an archaeological correlate in the Beaker People that I think it would now be flying in the face of the evidence not to accept those as bearers of the river-names to these countries.
The funny note is the rejection of the steppe homeland by Kitson in favour of Central European Neolithic cultures, due in part to the ‘impossibility’ of proto-Finnic loans from East Indo-European, if Proto-Indo-European was spoken in the steppe. As I said recently, the lack of knowledge of Uralic languages and Indo-European – Uralic contacts has clearly conditioned the Urheimat question for both, Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Uralic researchers.
On the other hand, the identification of Bell Beakers with Old Europeans was not something new. Already in the 1950s Hugh Hencken talked about this, and J.P. Mallory (who described Bell Beakers more exactly in 2013 as North-West Indo-Europeans) is sure that this idea had been used even before the 1950s.
The question is, though, to what extent the reasoning of those researchers was as detailed so as to consider it a modern approach to the question, because Krahe in the 1940s seems to offer the first reliable data to make that assumption. In any case, Gimbutas’ idea of Kurgan warriors imposing Indo-European languages everywhere, so over-represented in Encyclopedia-like texts since the end of the 1990s, was not the only, and probably never the main hypothesis among many Indo-Europeanists.
Celts part of Bell Beakers?
Regarding Koch and Cunliffe’s revival of the autochthonous Celts idea, one can find a similar traditional view among British researchers of the early and mid-20th century – and a proper rejection based on hydrotoponymy. It seems that many fringe theories in Indo-European studies, from Nordic or Baltic homelands to autochthonous Celts to the Europa Vasconica, can be traced back to revivalist waves of romantic views of the 19th c.:
What the late Professor C. F. C. Hawkes called in British archaeology ‘cumulative Celticity’, built up by successions of comparatively small tribal migrations, will then have operated on the linguistic side as well. That the predecessors of the Celts proper for so long had in most of Britain been people of similar Indo-European speech explains why there is not a significant survival of recognizably non-Indo-European river-names, and why the few serious candidates for non-Indo-European among recorded place-names all seem to be in Scotland. That the river-names kept their north European non-Celtic phonology will be because the Celts proper took them over as names, with denotative not fully lexical meaning. (…)
(…) I think non-Celtic Indo-European-speakers are likely to have been involved in fact, whether or not they are the whole story, both because that it is the hypothesis which makes best sense of the archaeological evidence (…)
(…) because it is widely accepted that placenames in the Low Countries imply the existence of at least one group of not historically attested Indo-European-speakers, not the same as the ones we are concerned with. So do names in Spain, another country where the only historically attested early Indo-Europeans were Celtic. Comparing Spanish alteuropäisch names with British ones gives a glimpse of the dialectal range that must have characterized the Beaker phenomenon. Either group shares one feature with historical Celtic that the other lacks. The Spanish names like Celtic proper mostly keep Inda-European o. There the diagnostic feature is initial p (Schmoll 1959:93, 78-80; Rodriguez 1980), lost from Celtic and the alteuropäisch of Britain.
Interesting is also the early reaction against Vennemann’s much publicized interpretation of Krahe’s Old European as ‘Vasconic’. This is a useful comment which is still applicable to the same non-existent ‘problem’ found by some Indo-Europeanists, depending on their ideas about Indo-European dialectalization:
It is again naughty of Vennemann (1994:244) to call his laryngealist explanation ‘the only kind of explanation that I know’. At least he does not quite go so far in his laryngealism as to posit a proto-Indo-European in which the vowel a never existed, as Kuiper does.
NOTE. It is difficult to understand why the work of so many Indo-Europeanists is usually not known, while Vennemann’s far-fetched theory has been endlessly repeated. I reckon it must be the same phenomenon of personal and professional contacts, involvement in editorial decisions, and simplification in mass media which makes Kristiansen and his theories frequently published and cited nowadays.
Based on these data, I entertained the idea of arguing for a Pre-Celtic Indo-European language in A Storm of Words, called Pre-Pritenic, with a tentative fable based on the data described below for the Insular Celtic substrate, but eventually deleted the whole text, because (unlike other tentative fables, like the Lusitanian or Venetic ones) it was pure speculation with not even fragmentary data to rely on. Here is a fragment of the discussion:
Among the main reasons adduced to reject the non-Celtic nature of Pritenic is Orkney, a region where Pictish carved stones have been found (indicator of a centralised Pictish power and identity). The name was attested first as Gk. Orkas / Orkádos (secondary source, from Pytheas of Massilia, ca. 322-285 BC, or possibly much later) and Lat. Orchades / Orcades (by Latin sources in the 1st century AD), and it was used to describe the northernmost promontory in Scotland, commonly identified as Dunnet Head in Caithness. It is supposed to derive its name from Cel. *φorko- ‘pig’, because speakers of Old Irish interpreted the name for the island later as Insi Orc ‘island of the pigs’. Therefore, Pritenic would have undergone the prototypical Common Celtic evolution of NWIE *p- → Ø- (see above).
This argument is flawed, in so far as it could have happened (with the interpretation of the name from a Celtic point of view) what happened later with Norwegian settlers, who reinterpreted the name according to Old Norse orkn ‘seal’, to identify it as ‘island of the seals’. In fact, texts published in the 19th and 20th century looked for an even closer etymology to the interpreter, who usually saw it as ‘island of the orcas’.
The region name orc- could be speculatively linked to NWIE *ork-i- ‘cut off, divide’, cf. Ita. *erk-i- (vowel analogically changed), Hitt. ārk- (<*hork-ei-), in Latin found with the meaning ‘divide (an inheritance)’, hence noun Lat. erctum ‘inheritance, inherited part’.
Maybe more interesting is a connection to *or-, as found in British rivers or streams Arrow, Oare Water (Som), Ayre , Armet Water, Arnot Burn, Ernan Water etc. for which cognates Skt. arvan(t)- ‘running, swift’, árṇa- ‘surging’, Gmc. *arnia- ‘lively, energetic’ have been proposed (Forster 1941; Nicolaisen 1976; Kitson 1996). Similar to these derivatives in -n-, -m-, one could argue for a denominative suffixation in *-ko-, not uncommon in Old European toponyms (Villar Liébana 2007), which could be interpreted originally as ‘(region) pertaining to the Or (river, stream)’. The a-vocalism of Old European does not need further explanation, being fairly common in the British Isles (Kitson 1996).
I tried to look for rivers and streams in Caithness that fit a potential border for an ancestral tribe, but after reading many (and I really mean too many) texts on Scotland’s hydronymy, which is a quite well-researched area, I didn’t like the idea of plunging into such a speculative task; not when I have this blog for that… I deleted the text from the book, seeing how it doesn’t really add anything of value and may have distracted from its real aim. If any reader wants to post potential candidates for this delimiting river ‘Or’ in Caithness, feel free to post that below.
Weak (if any) support of a non-Celtic nature of the names might also be found in the late description of Ptolemy’s Geographia (originally ca. 150 AD), Tauroedoúnou tēs kai Orkádos kaloumenēs, translated in Latin as Tarved(r)um, quod et Orcas promontorium dicitur. The original name seems to be formed from *tau-r-, as is common in Indo-European *taur-o- (compare also river Taum), whereas the commonly used Latin translation seems to rely on a Celtic *tarw-o-.
As with other Pictish material, these questions are unlikely to be settled without unequivocal sources pointing to the original names and their meaning. The autochthonous trend is set lately by Guto Rhys, whose work is thorough and methodologically sound, although his reviews tend to dismiss all evidence of a non-Celtic (or even non-Brittonic) layer in Pictland as described in previous works, mostly because of the lack of direct sources or uncontroverted data:
Where a supposed divergence is found in certain names, a lack of proper reading or interpretation of materials (or lack of enough cases to generalize them), combined with similar names in other (neighbouring or distant) Celtic languages, is adduced.
However, the same arguments can indeed be used to reject his proposal of a Celtic nature of many names which cannot be simply explained with other clearly Celtic examples: namely, that all similarities are due to later influences, re-analysis and modifications of Old European terms according to Celtic phonemic (or etymological) patterns, or that the Brittonic nature of many names are due to convergence of the attested Pritenic naming conventions with neighbouring dialects.
In the end, the only conclusion is that there is a clear impasse in hydrotoponymic research in the British Isles, particularly in Scotland, with an impossibility of describing non-Celtic or non-Indo-European Pre-Pritenic layers, due in great part – in my opinion – to the trend among many British Celticists to consider Celtic as autochthonous to the Atlantic. This hinders the proper investigation of the question, just like the trend among Basque studies to consider the western Pyrenees as the eternal Vasconic homeland hinders a fair investigation of the actual Vasconic proto-history.
Non-Indo-Europeans in Northern Europe
Insular Celtic substrate
Matasović, a specialist in Celtic languages and author of the famous Eytmological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic (IEED 2009), writes in The substratum in Insular Celtic (2009):
The syntactic parallels between Insular Celtic and Afro-Asiatic languages (which used to be called Hamito-Semitic) were noted more than a century ago by Morris-Jones (1899), and subsequently discussed by a number of scholars. These parallels include the following.
- The VSO order, attested both in OIr. and in Brythonic from the earliest documents (…).
- The existence of special relative forms of the verb, (…).
- The existence of prepositions inflected for person (or prepositional pronouns), (…).
- Prepositional progressive verbal forms, (…).
- The existence of the opposition between the “absolute” and “conjunct” verbal forms. (…)
The aforementioned features of Old Irish and Insular Celtic syntax (and a few others) are all found in Afro-Asiatic languages, often in several branches of that family, but usually in Berber and Ancient Egyptian (see e.g. Isaac 2001, 2007a).
Orin Gensler, in his unpublished dissertation (1993) applied refined statistical methods showing that the syntactic parallels between Insular Celtic and Afro-Asiatic cannot be attributed to chance. The crucial point is that these parallels include features that are otherwise rare cross-linguistically, but co-occur precisely in those two groups of languages. This more or less amounts to a proof that there was some connection between Insular Celtic and Afro-Asiatic at some stage in prehistory, but the exact nature of that connection is still open to speculation.
Insular Celtic also shares a number of areal isoglosses with languages of Western Africa, sometimes also with Basque, which shows that the Insular Celtic — Afroasiatic parallels should be viewed in light of the larger framework of prehistoric areal convergences in Western Europe and NW Africa.
The text goes on with typologically rare features found in West Europe and West Africa, such as the inter-dental fricative /þ/ (also in English, Icelandic, Castillian Spanish); initial consonant mutations/regular alterations of initial consonants caused by the grammatical category of the preceding word; the common order demonstrative-noun (within the NP) reversed; the vigesimal counting system; or use of demonstrative articles.
(…) only 38 words shared by Brythonic and Goidelic without any plausible IE etymology. These words belong to the semantic fields that are usually prone to borrowing, including words referring to animals (…), plants (…), and elements of the physical world (…). Note that cognates of these words may be unattested in Gaulish and Celtiberian because these languages are poorly attested, so that the actual number of exclusive loanwords from substratum language(s) in Insular Celtic is probably even lower. In my opinion it is not higher than 1% of the vocabulary. The large majority of substratum words in Irish and Welsh (and, generally, in Goidelic and Brythonic) is not shared by these two languages, which probably means that the sources were different substrates of, respectively, Ireland and Britain; (…)
The thesis that Insular Celtic languages were subject to strong influences from an unknown, presumably non-Indo-European substratum, hardly needs to be argued for. However, the available evidence is consistent with several different hypotheses regarding the areal and genetic affiliation of this substratum, or, more probably, substrata. The syntactic parallels between the Insular Celtic and Afro-Asiatic languages are probably not accidental, but they should not be taken to mean that the pre-Celtic substratum of Britain and Ireland belonged to the Afro-Asiatic stock. It is also possible that it was a language, or a group of languages (not necessarily related), that belonged to the same macro-area as the Afro-Asiatic languages of North Africa. The parallels between Insular Celtic, Basque, and the Atlantic languages of the Niger-Congo family, presented in the second part of this paper, are consistent with the hypothesis that there was a large linguistic macro-area, encompassing parts of NW Africa, as well as large parts of Western Europe, before the arrival of the speakers of Indo-European, including Celtic.
Language of the geminates
Further evidence of the potential presence of non-Indo-European speakers at the arrival of Insular Celtic may be found in Schrijver’s Non-Indo-European surviving in Ireland in the first millennium AD (2000), and his less enthusiastic revision More on Non-Indo-European surviving in Ireland in the first millennium AD (2005). Both are referred and enough summarized by Matasović (2009).
Even more interesting than the discussion of potential non-Indo-Europeans still lingering in Ireland until well into the Common Era, is the discussion on his paper Lost Languages in Northern Europe (2001). Apart from other non-Indo-European borrowings in northern Europe, most of which must clearly be included within the European agricultural substrate, Schrijver tries to interpret the relative chronology of a substratum language of northern Europe, described by Kuiper (1995) as A2, and by Schrijver as “language of geminates“.
This substrate language is heavily present in Germanic (see e.g. Boutkan 1998), but also in Celtic and Balto-Slavic:
A highly characteristic feature of words deriving from this language is the variation of the final root consonant, which may be single or double, voiced or voiceless, and prenasalized. (…)
Incidentally, the language of geminates cannot be Uralic, as another of its characteristics is the frequent occurrence of word-initial *kn- and *kl-, and Uralic languages do not allow consonant clusters at the beginning of the word. On the other hand, and at the risk of explaining obscura per obscuriora, one might consider the possibility that the consonant gradation of Lappish and Baltic Finnic is somehow connected with the alternation of consonants at the end of the first syllable in the “language of geminates”.
The idea that the Northern European language of geminates could play an intermediary role in loan contacts between Northern and Western Indo-European on the one hand and Finno-Ugric on the other may also account for the fact that Finno-Ugric words could end up as far away as Celtic, which as far as we know was never in direct contact with a branch of Uralic.
Schrijver later changed his view about certain aspects of this substrate, from a “language of geminates” influencing Balto-Finnic which in turn influenced Germanic, to Pre-Balto-Finnic speakers being the substrate of Germanic, and both evolving at the same time in contact in Scandinavia. In fact, we know that Pre-Proto-Germanic evolved in southern Scandinavia, with a core in Jutland that shifted to the south, so the location must have been close to the North European Plain.
Also fitting this model is the substrate behind Balto-Slavic (spoken in the West Baltic), which must have also been (Para-)Balto-Finnic. However, the frequent word-initial *kn- and *kl- and the loanwords appearing in the Celtic homeland (also including Early Balto-Finnic) must place this Uralic(± non-Indo-European) language contact also well into Central European Corded Ware groups.
Similarly, one of the shared features between Finnic and Mordvinic is precisely the presence of certain geminated consonants. A revision of the data in combination with these facts should shift of evidence to a (Para-)Balto-Finnic-speaking Baltic area during the Early Bronze Age, certainly encompassing the Battle Axe culture.
Afroasiatic-like substrate and Vasconic
The only archaeological culture that could fit most of these data, in the currently known relative chronological time frame, would be the Megalithic expansion in Western Europe, or potentially (maybe in addition to this early layer) the expansion of the Proto-Beaker package, which could have spread a Basque-Iberian language (see e.g. my take on Basque-Iberians).
Whether the language behind the Insular Celtic substrate (or, rather, some of its dialects) had true Afroasiatic syntactic features or it was just a language with features which happened to be similar to Afroasiatic is irrelevant. It’s impossible to reconstruct with confidence a Pre-Proto-Basque language with the currently available information.
Interestingly, it is possible to argue for an Afroasiatic branch surviving among hunter-gatherers adopting Neolithic traits in northern Europe. This has been proposed many times in the past, and one could argue in palaeogenomics for indirect supporting data, such as the expansion of WHG ancestry from south-east Europe (close to Anatolia, forming a cline with AME), and in particular of hg. R1b-V88 from the steppe – potentially associated with the Afroasiatic expansion into Africa from a Nostratic community.
NOTE. I will not resort here to typologically-based arguments similar to the “Hamito-Semit(id)ic” and “Vasconic-Uralic” Europe that were commonly in use in the 1990s, because they are in great part based on the mere re-labelling of Old European layers as “Vasconic” and flawed mass lexical/grammatical comparisons. For linguists favourable to this kind of reasoning, the theory set forth here is probably easier, though, as will be for those supporting a Neolithic expansion of Indo-European from the Mediterranean. This, however, has its own set of problems, as I have already discussed.
Single Grave culture
The non-Indo-European substrate of Insular Celtic, in combination with the oldest hydrotoponymic layers – almost exclusively of Old European nature – of Britain and likely all of Ireland, can more easily be explained as a first layer of North-West Indo-European speakers heavily influenced by an Afroasiatic(-like) substrate reaching the British Isles, possibly with a slightly richer set of non-Indo-European loanwords at the time. Their language would have been later replaced by the closely related Celtic dialects imposed by elites in the Early Iron Age, which could have then easily absorbed this (mainly syntactic) substrate.
There is little space to argue for a hypothetic non-Indo-European expansion from another region, or for an in situ substrate, due to:
- the radical population replacement (and Y-chromosome bottleneck) in Britain and northern Ireland stemming from the Lower Rhine;
- the lack of meaningful population movements during the Bronze Age (at least from out of the islands);
- the final east-west movements of Celtic languages;
- the presence of the same (mainly syntactic) substrate in both Goidelic and Brittonic; and
- the minimal non-Indo-European lexical borrowings and hydrotoponymy, different in each island;
Based on archaeological and palaeogenomic data, the only reasonable direct connection of north-western Bell Beakers and this substrate language would be then the Corded Ware groups from north-western Europe – i.e. the traditionally named Single Grave culture from northern Germany and Denmark, and the Protruding Foot Beaker culture from the Netherlands.
The main reasons for this are as follows:
1. Early Corded Ware wave
The earliest Corded Ware burials from northern Europe (ca. 2900-2800 BC) show important differences, so no strict funerary norms existed at first (Furholt 2014):
- In southern Sweden the prevailing orientation is north-east–south-west, and south–north; contrary to the supposed rule, male individuals are regularly deposite on their left and females on their right side
- In the Danish Isles and north-eastern Germany, the Final Neolithic / Single Grave Period is characterized by a majority of megalithic graves, with only some single graves from typical barrows.
- In south Germany, west–east and collective burials prevail, while in Switzerland no graves are found.
- In Kuyavia (south-eastern Poland), Hesse (Germany), or the Baltic, west–east orientation and gender differentiation cannot be proven statistically.
In genetics, the area that would become the ‘core Corded Ware province’ only after ca. 2700 BC also shows a surprising variability in the oldest samples in terms of haplogroups (which may indicate a recent departure of migrants from a mixed homeland); in terms of admixture, at least one sample clusters close to EEF groups, while later ones from Esperstedt – of hg. R1a-M417 (possibly xZ645) – show a likely admixture with Yamna vanguard groups expanding from the Carpathian Basin.
On the contrary, the slightly later eastern expansions as Battle Axe and Abashevo show long-lasting genetic continuity and a marked bottleneck under R1a-Z645 subclades, as well as a clear cultural connection through the Fatyanovo culture. The role of local populations, particularly females, in preserving local customs in the Single Grave culture (see Bourgeois and Kroon 2017) is also quite relevant to the continuity of the regionl culture in spite of migrations.
2. Single Grave culture in Denmark
The Corded Ware culture in Denmark was particularly weak in its human impact compared to previous farmers (see e.g. Feeser et al. 2019), and also in its cultural traits, adopting Funnel Beaker culture traits up to a point where even the Copenhagen group describes cultural continuity, likely entailing an important substrate language impact (see e.g. Iversen and Kroonen 2017).
It’s not difficult to realize that this same argument used for Semitic-like terms in Germanic by Kroonen (2012) – e.g. words for ‘lentil’, ‘pea’, and ‘turnip’ – and supported by the Copenhagen group may be used to support the adoption of non-Uralic substrate in a Uralic-speaking Corded Ware area (as Schrijver does), which later influenced incoming Bell Beakers that developed into the Pre-Proto-Germanic speakers.
From Iversen (2016):
As it appears from the analysis above, the situation in East Denmark during the 3rd millennium BC is culturally rather complex. The continued use of megalithic entombments and the almost total rejection of the Single Grave burial custom show a strong affiliation with old Funnel Beaker traditions even after the end of the Funnel Beaker culture. (…) With an almost total lack of the two defining elements of the Single Grave culture – interments in single graves and the prominent position of stone battle axes – one can hardly talk about a Single Grave culture in East Denmark. What we see is rather the adoption of various Single Grave, Battle Axe and Pitted Ware cultural traits into a setting that was basically a continuation of Funnel Beaker norms and traditions (Iversen 2015).
The reason why East Denmark so conservatively upheld the Funnel Beaker traditions must be found in the area’s old position as a ‘megalithic heartland’, which reaches back to the early 4th millennium BC when dolmens and passage graves were constructed in very large numbers. (…) The result was a cultural blend governed by old Funnel Beaker norms and the use of Pitted Ware, Single Grave and Battle Axe material culture. This situation continued until the beginning of the Late Neolithic (ca. 2350 BC) when cultural and social development took a new course and flint daggers and metal objects appeared/ re-appeared in South Scandinavia.
3. Single Grave culture in the Netherlands
The Corded Ware culture in the Netherlands is particularly disconnected culturally from its eastern core areas, which is reflected in the likely survival of a non-Indo-European language around the Low Countries, in the so-called Nordwestblock area. From Kroon et al. (2019):
The connections between changes in ceramic production techniques and social changes (see Fig. 2) allow for the formulation of hypotheses about the technological impact of the scenarios that archaeologists have proposed for the introduction of the CWC. If migration (i.e. an influx of new communities that bring new material culture) causes the spread of the CWC, then CWC vessels should differ from the vessels of previous communities in all respects: resilient, group-related, and salient techniques. However, if the introduction of the CWC is the result of diffusion of stylistic traits and moving objects, both these imported objects (different raw materials and production sequences) and changes in salient techniques should be observed when comparing CWC vessels to VLC vessels. Network interactions should yield the same changes as diffusion, as the combined movement of people, objects and styles within existing networks leads to the introduction of CWC. However, network interactions should yield one additional characteristic. Given that new people are integrated into extant communities, the occurrence of vessels with different resilient techniques, but group-related techniques that are stable relative to previous communities, is to be expected.
The over-arching transitional process in the Western coastal area of the Netherlands is local continuity with diffusion and network interaction traits. Interestingly, the supra-regional networks of the VLC communities in this region, as well as some of the defining technological practices within these networks, remain intact throughout the CWC transition.
In the absence of detailed genetic and isotopic data from Late Neolithic individuals from the western coastal areas of the Netherlands, direct conclusions on the relations between the migrations demonstrated by genetic analyses in other regions and the outcomes of this study remain speculative. However, if a similar shift in the late Neolithic gene pool from this area can be detected, this raises questions on the impact of such migrations on knowledge transmission and local traditions. If such a change cannot be attested, questions should be raised about the nature of the CWC in this particular area. Questions that will ultimately boil down to what we define as CWC.
In other words, the introduction of Corded Ware in the Netherlands, which we can assume were driven by migrations – evidenced by the arrival of “Steppe ancestry” (see below) – would need to be interpreted in light of the adoption of a different set of cultural traits in this region. Combining linguistic and archaeological data, there is strong evidence that the Corded Ware ideology and its internal coherence might have been broken in the westernmost territories, hence the likely survival of the local culture and language(s).
Further reasons for this independence from the Uralic homeland, supporting the advantages of a cultural and linguistic integration among regional groups, include:
- the gradual shift of the core Corded Ware territory to the east in the centuries leading to the mid-3rd millennium BC;
- the similar weakened grip in Jutland (see above);
- the development of an isolated “classical” package in western Europe disconnected from eastern groups; and
- the cultural and genetic impact of expanding vanguard Yamna settlers.
4. Old Europeans in Britain
This predominant non-Indo-European language would later be the substrate language of Bell Beakers from the Lower Rhine and the British Isles.
Culturally, the same process as in the previous Single Grave culture period may have happened in the Low Countries, due to the culturally favorable situation there. This might be inferred from the continuity of Protruding Foot Beaker into All-Over Ornamented Beaker, most likely an imitation of the expanding Proto-Beaker package by locals of the Single Grave culture.
Arguably, though, the same situation should have happened in all other Proto-Beaker regions favourable to cultural change and witnessing admixture with locals, such as Iberia, and the social relevance of this imitation is far from being accepted by almost anyone except for archaeologists working around the Rhine… From Heise (2014):
While in 1955 the Maritime Beaker was considered to be intrusive, the 1976 work seemed to prove that in the Netherlands a continuous development from Protruding Foot Beaker (PFB) to All-Over Ornamented (AOO) Beaker to Maritime Beaker occurred. Nevertheless, the authors stressed that it was not possible to identify ‘the’ origin of the ‘Bell Beaker Culture’ in the Lower Rhine Area since typical artefacts (wristguards, daggers) were not known to be associated with the early AOO and Maritime pottery. Furthermore they argued against the “misleading simplification” of a single point of origin (Lanting & van der Waals 1976, 2). However, this last observation was not appreciated or was simply ignored by large parts of the research community and the theory was subsequently applied as a universal solution in many parts of Europe.
In fact, most archaeologists have unequivocally rejected a Single Grave – Classical Bell Beaker continuity, and Heyd’s model has been recently confirmed in paleogenomics, which shows an evident expansion of East Bell Beakers from Yamna settlers in the Carpathian Basin (see here). We may nevertheless still save the following assertion, as particularly relevant for the continuity of non-Indo-European languages among the Single Grave groups of the Lower Rhine:
Marc Vander Linden argued that the “local validity of the Dutch sequence cannot […] be questioned” (2012, 76).
Olalde et al. (2019) showed how British, Dutch, and French Beakers have excess “Steppe ancestry” relative to Central European Beakers from Germany, who are in turn closest to the origin of Old Europeans in Iberia (i.e. Galaico-Lusitanian, “Ligurian”), the Lower Danube (i.e. Celtic), Italy (i.e. Italic, Venetic, Messapic), Sicily, and even Denmark (i.e. Germanic). This excess “Steppe ancestry” probably implies admixture with local Single Grave populations of the Lower Rhine, which is further supported by the position of these Lower Rhine Beakers in the PCA (using British Beakers and Netherlands BA as proxies), clustering – among Bell Beakers – closest to Corded Ware samples.
Futhermore, the emergence of Bell Beakers in the British Isles represents a radical replacement, with a population turnover of ca. 90% of the local population, and Yamna lineages representing more than 90% of the haplogroups of individuals in Chalcolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland, apart from an evident Y-chromosome bottleneck under hg. R1b-S461 (and its subclade R1b-L21), maintained during the whole Bronze Age. The scarce non-Indo-European hydrotoponymy attests to the lack of integration of local populations or their languages into the new society. All this suggests an initial swift and massive intrusion marking the linguistic evolution of the British Isles until the Iron Age.
The arrival of Insular Celtic in the British Isles will be likely defined by an increase in ancestry related to Central Europe (and probably haplogroups, too). Since the Afroasiatic-like substrate is unrelated to Common Celtic, the non-Indo-European substrate must be associated with preceding Bronze Age populations of western Europe, most likely with Bronze Age Britons, who are in turn derived from Bell Beakers from the Lower Rhine admixed with Single Grave peoples. The latter, therefore, must have passed on their Afroasiatic-like language as the substrate of Lower Rhine Beakers.
5. Vasconic from the north
Another indirect proof to the survival of non-Indo-Europeans in northern Europe is offered by Basques. Vasconic speakers came originally from some place beyond Aquitaine, and very recently before the Roman conquests, because place- and river-names show an overwhelming Old European substratum to the north of the Pyrenees, and exclusively Old European to the south.
Their origin is potentially quite far away, since Modern Basques show a similar cluster to that found in Iron Age Celtiberians of the Basque country. This could essentially mean that Basques were peoples of north/central European ancestry (see below fitting models of origin populations), because they must have arrived to Aquitaine after the arrival of Celtiberians, and with a similar ancestry.
In words of Olalde et al. (2019):
(…) increases in Steppe ancestry were not always accompanied by switches to Indo-European languages. This is consistent with the genetic profile of present-day Basques who speak the only non-Indo-European language in Western Europe but overlap genetically with Iron Age populations showing substantial levels of Steppe ancestry.
The Tollense Valley near Rügen in the West Baltic shows LBA people clustering with Modern Basques (see here). This is compatible with the arrival (or displacement) of Vasconic-speaking Northern/Central Europeans close to the Rhine, possibly originally from northern France, very likely close to the Atlantic area during the Final Bronze Age / Early Iron Age based on cultural interactions.
Pre-Steppe languages in Europe?
An alternative to Old Europeans of the British Isles would be to support some kind of non-Indo-European/Vasconic continuity in the Atlantic façade close to the English Channel and the North Sea, given the current lack of palaeogenomic data on Bell Beakers and later groups in the area, and the potential Vasconic nature of Megalithic/Proto-Beaker groups that might have survived there.
The main problems with this approach are the lack of such an Afroasiatic-like substrate in Gaulish, which should have shown the same substrate as Insular Celtic, and the impossibility of associating this Afroasiatic-like substrate with Vasconic, both potentially representing completely different languages. A counterargument would be that we don’t have that much information on Gaulish and its dialects – or on the syntax of Vasconic, for that matter – to reject this hypothesis straight away…
In any case, the survival of pockets of non-Indo-European, non-Uralic speakers in northern Europe, even after Steppe-related expansions, should not shock anyone:
- In areas where we are certain that Old Europeans imposed their languages there is at least a likely Iberian language surviving in El Argar and post-Argaric cultures; a Sicanian substrate in Sicily; the evident survival of Vasconic speakers somewhere well to the north of the Pyrenees; (Para-)West Uralic pockets influencing Proto-Germanic, Proto-Balto-Slavic (and later Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic), and even Proto-Celtic; and a much less likely potential survival of Tyrsenian in the eastern Alps / western Balkans.
- In territories where Corded Ware managed to impose Uralic languages, non-Uralic substrates are found in Fennoscandia, including Palaeo-Lakelandic, associated with Comb Ware ceramics; Palaeo-Laplandic, associated with Lovozero Ware, probably linked to the expansion of hg. N1c-Z1934 and “Siberian ancestry” among Finns; and in northern Russia possibly associated with some N1c subclades and “Siberian ancestry” among Ananyino and Akozino.
If the survival of non-Indo-European-speaking groups happened despite the swift expansion and radical population replacement brought about by the Bell Beaker folk – so called traditionally because of its unitary culture suggesting a unitary language community -, and non-Uralic-speaking groups in areas dominated by Corded Ware peoples, it could certainly have happened, and even more so, with Corded Ware and Bell Beaker groups at the western and northern edges of their expansions, due to the early loss of contact with their respective core cultural regions.
Even obscure components of place or river names, like those from northern Europe, the Nordwestblock area, and the British Isles, might be better explained as Old European exceptions than any other alternative, i.e. either as an Indo-European layer over a non-Indo-European one or vice versa, or both in different periods, before the eventual unifying Celtic, Roman, and (later) Germanic expansions.
All in all, one could say about substrates and hydrotoponymy in the British Isles, the Lower Rhine, and in northern Europe as a whole, that the potentially interesting non-Indo-European forms are precisely those which do not interest either scholarly ‘faction’:
- those supporting a non-Indo-European Western Europe, because it doesn’t represent the whole substrate, and can’t be used to argue for a Europa Vasconica or Europa Afroasiatica;
- those supporting a Palaeo-Indo-European Western Europe, because their limited presence concentrated in isolated pockets doesn’t deny the Indo-Europeanness of the Old European layer anywhere.
However, these are the details that should be studied and that could define what happened exactly after steppe-related migrations, e.g. in the Single Grave cultural area before and after North-West Indo-Europeans admixed with its population, and thus what happened in the British Isles, too.
Ignoring the (mostly useless) typological comparisons, my bet would be for an ancient Uralic layer heavily admixed with local non-Uralic peoples, especially intense in the Single Grave culture. This Proto-Uralic layer would be of a dialect or dialects (assuming succeeding CWC waves and later local expansions) different from the known Late Proto-Uralic – which expanded with eastern Corded Ware groups.
Describing the phonetic features of this layer could improve our knowledge of Early Proto-Uralic, as well as some specifics of the evolution of Germanic, Balto-Slavic, and potentially Celtic and Balto-Finnic.
This would be similar to the relevance of Aquitanian toponyms for Proto-Basque reconstruction, or of the alteuropäische substratum when it conflicts with the Proto-Indo-European dialectal reconstruction of some linguists (e.g. the laryngeal Pre-Indo-Slavonic of Kortlandt) which, like Kitson implies, should question the dialectal reconstruction of this minority of Indo-Europeanists, and not the Indo-European nature of the substratum.
- European hydrotoponymy (I): Old European substrate and its relative chronology
- European hydrotoponymy (II): European hydrotoponymy (II): Basques and Iberians after Lusitanians and “Ligurians”
- European hydrotoponymy (III): from Old European to Palaeo-Germanic and the Nordwestblock
- European hydrotoponymy (IV): tug of war between Balto-Slavic and West Uralic
- Genetic continuity among Uralic-speaking cultures in north-eastern Europe
- Volosovo hunter-gatherers started to disappear earlier than previously believed
- Balto-Slavic accentual mobility: an innovation in contact with Balto-Finnic
- Pre-Germanic and Pre-Balto-Finnic shared vocabulary from Pitted Ware seal hunters
- The significance of the Tollense Valley in Bronze Age North-East Germany
- Aquitanians and Iberians of haplogroup R1b are exactly like Indo-Iranians and Balto-Slavs of haplogroup R1a
- Common Slavs from the Lower Danube, expanding with haplogroup E1b-V13?
- “Dinaric I2a” and the expansion of Common Slavs from East-Central Europe
- The cradle of Russians, an obvious Finno-Volgaic genetic hotspot
- Kortlandt: West Indo-Europeans along the Danube, Germanic and Balto-Slavic share a Corded Ware substrate
- Pre-Germanic born out of a Proto-Finnic substrate in Scandinavia
- On Proto-Finnic language guesstimates, and its western homeland
- Minimal Corded Ware culture impact in Scandinavia – Bell Beakers the unifying maritime elite
- On the origin and spread of haplogroup R1a-Z645 from eastern Europe