The renewed ‘Kurgan model’ of Kristian Kristiansen and the Danish school: “The Indo-European Corded Ware Theory”

Allentoft Corded Ware

A popular science article on Indo-European migrations has appeared at Science News, entitled How Asian nomadic herders built new Bronze Age cultures, signed by Bruce Bower. While the article is well-balanced and introduces new readers to the current status quo of the controversy on Indo-European migrations – including the opposing theories led by Kristiansen/Anthony vs. Heyd – , it reverberates yet again the conclusions of the 2015 Nature articles on the subject, especially with its featured image.

I have argued many times why the recent ‘Yamnaya -> Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker’ migration model is wrong, mainly within my essay Indo-European demic diffusion model, but also in articles of this blog, most recently in the post Correlation does not mean causation: the damage of the ‘Yamnaya ancestral component’, and the ‘Future America’ hypothesis). It is known that Nature is a bit of a ‘tabloid’ in the publishing industry, and these 2015 articles offered simplistic conclusions based on a wrong assessment of archaeological and linguistic data, in search for groundbreaking conclusions.

An excerpt from Bower’s article:

Corded Ware culture emerged as a hybrid way of life that included crop cultivation, breeding of farm animals and some hunting and gathering, Kristiansen argues. Communal living structures and group graves of earlier European farmers were replaced by smaller structures suitable for families and single graves covered by earthen mounds. Yamnaya families had lived out of their wagons even before trekking to Europe. A shared emphasis on family life and burying the dead individually indicates that members of the Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures kept possessions among close relatives, in Kristiansen’s view.

“The Yamnaya and the Corded Ware culture were unified by a new idea of transmitting property between related individuals and families,” Kristiansen says.

Yamnaya migrants must have spoken a fledgling version of Indo-European languages that later spread across Europe and parts of Asia, Kristiansen’s group contends. Anthony, a longtime Kristiansen collaborator, agrees. Reconstructed vocabularies for people of the Corded Ware culture include words related to wagons, wheels and horse breeding that could have come only from the Yamnaya, Anthony says.

I have already talked about Kristiansen’s continuation of Gimbutas’ outdated ideas: we are seeing a renewed effort by some Scandinavian (mainly Danish) scholars to boost (and somehow capitalise) the revitalised concept of the “Kurgan people”, although now the fundamental issue has been more clearly shifted to the language spoken by Corded Ware migrants.

As far as I can tell, this renewed interest began two years ago, with the simultaneous publication of genetic studies by Haak et al. (2015), and Allentoft et al. (2015), and the misuse of the cursed concept of ‘Yamnaya ancestry‘ to derive far-fetched conclusions.

On the other hand, genetic research is not solely responsible for this: David Anthony – who was apparently consulted by Haak et al. (2015) for their paper, where he appears as co-author – has kept a low (or lower) profile, and only recently has he merely suggested potential links between Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures in Lesser Poland, that might explain what (some geneticists have told him) appeared as a potential Yamna -> Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker migration in the first ancient samples studied.

Anthony’s migration model remains otherwise strongly based on Archaeology, offering a careful interpretation of potential contacts and migrations in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, and only marginally offers some views on Linguistics (based on Ringe’s controversial ‘glottochronological model’ of 2006), to the extent that he is compelled to explain the potential adoption of Indo-European by Corded Ware culture (CWC) peoples as multiple cultural diffusion events, since no migration is observed from the steppe to CWC territories.

I think he is thus showing a great deal of restraint, not jumping on the bandwagon of this recent trend based on scarce genetic finds – and therefore losing also the opportunity to publish articles in journals of high impact factor….

This newly created Danish school, on the other hand, seems to be swimming with the tide. Kristiansen, known for his controversial ‘universal’ interpretations of European Prehistory – which are nevertheless more readable and interesting than most specialised literature on Archaeology, at least for us non-archaeologists – , has apparently seized the opportunity to give a strong impulse to his theories.

Not that there is nothing wrong with that, of course, but sometimes it might seem that a lot of papers (or even researchers) support something, when in fact there are only a few of them, working closely together

I see therefore three main “branches” of this support (two of them, Genetics and Linguistics, only recently giving some limited air to this dying hypothesis), with a closely related group of people involved in this model, and they are lending continuous support to each other, by repeating the same theory – and repeating the same misleading map images (like the one shown in the article) – , so that the circular reasoning they represent is concealed behind seemingly independent works.

The theory and its development

The main theory is officially rooted then in Kristiansen’s hypothesis, whose first article on the subject seems to be Prehistoric Migrations – the Case of the Single Grave and Corded Ware Cultures (1989), supporting the Kurgan model applied to the Corded Ware migrations. It was probably a kind of a breakthrough in Archaeology, bringing migration to mainstream Archaeology again (followed closely by Anthony), and he deserves merit for this.

After this proposal, there are mostly just his publications supporting this model. Nevertheless, Kristiansen’s model, I gather, did not involve the sudden Yamnaya -> Corded Ware migrations discussed in recent genetic articles, but long-lasting contacts between peoples and cultures from the North Pontic steppe, Trypillian, and Globular Amphora, that formed a new mixed one, the Corded Ware people and culture. Also, in Gimbutas’ original model of migration (1963), waves of Kurgan migrants are also described into Vučedol and Bell Beaker, which have been apparently forgotten in recent models*.
* The most recent model by Anthony describes such migrations into Early Bronze Age Balkan cultures – as do most archaeological publications today – , but he is unable to recognize migration waves from Yamna into the Corded Ware culture, and because of that describes mere potential routes (or modes) of cultural diffusion including language change.

Proposal for the origin and spread of the Corded Ware/ Battle Axe cultural complex: 1) Distribution of CWC groups; 2) Yamna culture; 3) presumed area of origin; 4) presumed main directions of the primary distribution. Also numbered are other individual CW cultures. From Kristiansen (1989).

Then – skipping the years of simplistic phylogeography based on modern haplogroup distribution – we have to jump directly to Allentoft (of the Natural History Museum of Denmark) and cols. and their article on population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia (2015), with which Kristiansen collaborated, and which offers the first direct association of Corded Ware as the vector of expansion of Indo-European peoples and languages from Yamna. An interesting take on the Yamna -> Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker question is represented by their very ‘kurgan-like’ Corded Ware-centric map:

Detail of Fig. 1 from Allentoft et al. (2015): “Distribution of Early Bronze Age cultures Yamnaya, Corded Ware, and Afanasievo with arrows showing the Yamnaya expansions”.

And suddenly, we are now seeing more works that support the central thesis of the group – that Corded Ware must have brought Indo-European languages to Europe:

Recent publications by K-G Sjögren – from the same department as Kristiansen, at the University of Gothenburg – seem to imply that there was a direct connection Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker in central Europe.

Guus Kroonen‘s recent hypothesis of a potential (Proto-Semitic-like) Germanic substrate (2012) has been added recently to the cause, in supporting with Iversen (also from the University of Copenhaguen) a link with the Battle Axe/Funnelbeaker culture interaction. However, in the archaeological-linguistic model it seems that Germanic must predominate over the rest of Indo-European languages in terms of age, representing the first wave of Indo-Europeanization in Europe (wat?!), whereas Balto-Slavic is much younger and unrelated…? But didn’t they share the same substrate (as did partially Greek) in Kroonen (2012)? I think Kroonen’s hypothesis might be better explained through an earlier contact in the North Pontic steppe

Modified from Kristiansen et al. (2017). “Schematic representation of how different Indo-European branches have absorbed words (circles) from a lost Neolithic language or language group (dark fill) in the reconstructed European linguistic setting of the third millennium BC, possibly involving one or more hunter gatherer languages (light fill) (after Kroonen & Iversen 2017)”.


This recently created Danish pressure group is not something bad per se. I don’t agree with their hypothesis (or rather evolving hypotheses, since they change with new genetic results and linguistic proposals, as is shown in Kristiansen et al. 2017), but I understand that the group continues a recent tradition:

Publications are always great to advance in knowledge, and if they bring some deal of publicity, and more publications (with the always craved impact factor), and maybe more investment in the departments (with more local jobs and prestige)… why not?

However, this model of workgroup research system is reminiscent of the Anatolian homeland group loosely created around Renfrew; the Palaeolithic Continuity workgroup around Cavalli-Sforza; or (more recently) the Celtic from the West group around Cunliffe and Koch. The difference between Kristiansen’s workgroup and supporters of all those other models, in my opinion, is that (at least for the moment) their collaboration is not obvious to many.

Therefore, to be fair with any outsider, I think this group should clearly state their end model: I propose the general term “Indo-European Corded Ware Theory” (IECWT) workgroup, because ‘Danish’ is too narrow, and ‘Scandinavian’ too broad to represent the whole group. But any name will do.

My opinion on the IECWT

As you can see, no single strong proof exists in support of the IECWT:

  • Not for a solid model of PIE expansion from Corded Ware, not even within the IECWT group, where there is no support (to date) for a Balto-Slavic expansion associated with the Corded Ware culture… Or any other dialect, for that matter;
  • Not for a Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker connection – that is, before the publication of Allentoft et al. (2015) and articles reverberating their conclusions;
  • Not for a unified Pre-Germanic community before the Dagger Period, and still less linked with the expansion of the Corded Ware culture from the steppe – that connection is found only in Anthony (2007), where he links it with a cultural diffusion into Usatovo, which seems too late for a linguistic expansion with Corded Ware peoples, with the current genetic data.

The wrong interpretation of scarce initial ancient samples has been another feeble stone put over the ruins of Gimbutas’ theory. While her simple theory of Kurgan invaders was certainly a breakthrough in her time – when speaking about migrating Indo-European peoples was taboo -, it has since been overcome by more detailed archaeological and linguistic accounts of what happened in east and central Europe during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age.

However, a lot of people are willing to consume post-truth genetic-based citebait like crazy, in a time when Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. seem to shape the general knowledge, while dozens of new, carefully prepared papers on Archaeology and Linguistics related to Indo-European peoples get published weekly and don’t attract any attention, just because they do not support these simplistic claims, or precisely because they fully reject them.

An older connection of Germanic to Scandinavia – and thus an ancestral Indo-European cultural diffusion from north to south – seems to better fit the traditional idea of an autochthonous Germanic homeland in Scandinavia, instead of a bunch of southern Bell Beaker invaders bringing the language that could only later develop as a common Nordic language during the Bronze Age, in a genetically-diverse community…

One is left to wonder whether the support of Corded Ware + haplogroup R1a representing Pre-Germanic is also in line with the most natural human Kossinnian trends, whereby the older your paternal line and your ancestral language are connected to your historical territory, the better. The lack of researchers from Norway – where R1b subclades brought by Bell Beakers peak – in the workgroup is revealing.

Just as we are seeing strong popular pressure e.g. to support the Out of India Theory by Hindu nationalists, or some Slavic people supporting to recreate a ‘Northern IE group’ with a Germano-Balto-Slavic Corded Ware culture – and a renewed interest in skin, hair and eye colour by amateur geneticists – , it is only natural to expect similar autochtonous-first trends in certain regions of the Germanic-speaking community.

NOTE: I feel a bit like an anti-IECWT hooligan here, and once again fulfilling Godwin’s Law. Judging by previous reactions in this blog to criticism of the Out of India Theory, and to criticism of R1a as the vector of expansion of Indo-European languages, this post is likely to cause some people to feel bad.

It is not intended to be against these researchers individually, though. All of them have certainly contributed in great ways to their fields, indeed more than I have to any field: Kristiansen is well-known for his careful, global interpretations of European prehistory (and has been supporting his model for quite a long time). I do like Kroonen’s ideas of a Pre-Germanic substratum. And people involved in the group do so probably because they collaborate closely with each other, and because of the huge pressure to publish in journals of high impact factor, so to mix their disparate research within a common model seems only natural.

But their collaboration is boosting certain wrong ideas, and is giving way to certain misconceptions in Linguistics, and also sadly renewed past ethnocentric views of language in Northern Europe – that will be luckily demonstrated, again, wrong. After all, publications (like ideas in general) are subjected to criticism, as mine are. Researchers who publish know their work is subjected to criticism, and not only before publication, but also – and probably more so – after it. That a paper can be incorrect, biased, or even completely absurd, does not mean the person who wrote it is a fool. That’s the difference between criticising ideas and insulting. If criticism offends you, you shouldn’t be publishing. Period.


Featured image: From Allentoft et al. (2015)“>Allentoft et al. (2015). See here for full caption.

Evolutionary forces in language change depend on selective pressure, but also on random chance


A new interesting paper from Nature: Detecting evolutionary forces in language change, by Newberry, Ahern, Clark, and Plotkin (2017). Discovered via Science Daily.

The following are excerpts of materials related to the publication (written by Katherine Unger Baillie), from The University of Pennsylvania:

Examining substantial collections of annotated texts dating from the 12th to the 21st centuries, the researchers found that certain linguistic changes were guided by pressures analogous to natural selection — social, cognitive and other factors — while others seem to have occurred purely by happenstance.

“Linguists usually assume that when a change occurs in a language, there must have been a directional force that caused it,” said Joshua Plotkin, professor of biology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences and senior author on the paper. “Whereas we propose that languages can also change through random chance alone. An individual happens to hear one variant of a word as opposed to another and then is more likely to use it herself. Chance events like this can accumulate to produce substantial change over generations. Before we debate what psychological or social forces have caused a language to change, we must first ask whether there was any force at all.”

“One of the great early American linguists, Leonard Bloomfield, said that you can never see a language change, that the change is invisible,” said Robin Clark, a coauthor and professor of linguistics in Penn Arts and Sciences. “But now, because of the availability of these large corpora of texts, we can actually see it, in microscopic detail, and begin to understand the details of how change happened.”

One change is the regularization of past-tense verbs. Using the Corpus of Historical American English, comprised of more than 100,000 texts ranging from 1810 to 2009 that have been parsed and digitized — a database that includes more than 400 million words — the team searched for verbs where both regular and irregular past-tense forms were present, for example, “dived” and “dove” or “wed” and “wedded.”

“There is a vast literature and a lot of mythology on verb regularization and irregularization,” Clark said, “and a lot of people have claimed that the tendency is toward regularization. But what we found was quite different.”

Indeed, the analysis pointed to particular instances where it seems selective forces are driving irregularization. For example, while a swimmer 200 years ago might have “dived”, today we would say they “dove.” The shift towards using this irregular form coincided with the invention of cars and concomitant increase in use of the rhyming irregular verb “drive”/“drove.”

Despite finding selection acting on some verbs, “the vast majority of verbs we analyzed show no evidence of selection whatsoever,” Plotkin said.

The team recognized a pattern: random chance affects rare words more than common ones. When rarely-used verbs changed, that replacement was more likely to be due to chance. But when more common verbs switched forms, selection was more likely to be a factor driving the replacement.

The grammar of negating a sentence has changed from “Ic ne secge” (Beowulf, c. 900) to “Ic ne sege noht” (the Ormulum, c. 1100) to “I seye not” (Chaucer, c. 1400) to “I doe not say” (Shakespeare, c. 1600) before returning to the familiar “I don’t say” (Virginia Woolf, c. 1900). A team from Penn used massive digital libraries along with inference techniques from population genetics to quantify the forces responsible for language evolution, such as in Jespersen’s cycle of negation, depicted here. (c) Cherissa Dukelow, 2017, license information below

The authors also observed a role of random chance in grammatical change. The periphrastic “do,” as used in, “Do they say?” or “They do not say,” did not exist 800 years ago. Back in the 1400s, these sentiments would have been expressed as, “Say they?” or “They say not.”

Using the Penn Parsed Corpora of Historical English, which includes 7 million syntactically parsed words from 1,220 British English texts, the researchers found that the use of the periphrastic “do” emerged in two stages, first in questions (“Don’t they say?”) around the 1500s, and then roughly 200 years later in imperative and declarative statements (“They don’t say.”).

These manuscripts show changes from Old English (Beowulf) through Middle English (Trinity Homilies, Chaucer) to Early Modern English (Shakespeare’s First Folio). Penn researchers used large collections of digitized texts spanning the 12th to the 21st centuries to show that many language changes can be attributed to random chance alone. (c) Mitchell Newberry, 2017, license information below

While most linguists have assumed that such a distinctive grammatical feature must have been driven to dominance by some selective pressure, the Penn team’s analysis questions that assumption. They found that the first stage of the rising periphrastic “do” use is consistent with random chance. Only the second stage appears to have been driven by a selective pressure.

“It seems that, once ‘do’ was introduced in interrogative phrases, it randomly drifted to higher and higher frequency over time,” said Plotkin. “Then, once it became dominant in the question context, it was selected for in other contexts, the imperative and declarative, probably for reasons of grammatical consistency or cognitive ease.”

As the authors see it, it’s only natural that social-science fields like linguistics increasingly exchange knowledge and techniques with fields like statistics and biology.

“To an evolutionary biologist,” said Newberry, “it’s important that language is maintained through a process of copying language; people learn language by copying other people. That copying introduces minute variation, and those variants get propagated. Each change is an opportunity for a different copying rate, which is the basis for evolution as we know it.”

Featured image: copyrighted, modified from the Supplementary information of the article.

Image (c) Cherissa Dukelow, 2017, licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0
Image (c) Mitchell Newberry, 2017,, licensed under CC-BY-NC 4.0 (see materials at University of Pennsylvania for further sources).


Correlation does not mean causation: the damage of the ‘Yamnaya ancestral component’, and the ‘Future American’ hypothesis


Human ancestry can only help solve anthropological questions by using all anthropological disciplines involved. I have said that many times in this blog.

Correlation does not mean causation

Really, it does not.

You might think the tenet ‘correlation does not mean causation‘ must be evident at this point in Statistics, and it must also be for all those using statistical methods in their research. But it is sadly not so. A lot of researchers just look for correlation, and derive conclusions – without even an initial sound hypothesis to be contrasted… You can judge for yourself, e.g. reading the many instances of this complaint in recent publications of Biomedical and Social Sciences, on the interesting blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

In anthropological questions regarding Indo-European studies there is an added handicap: not taking correlation to mean causation does also mean – to avoid at least the most obvious confounders – taking into account the multiple linguistic and archaeological data that are available right now, to explain the expansion of Indo-European languages.

You might also believe that international researchers in Human Evolutionary Biology – after all, this is essentially a biomedical discipline – are acquainted with statistical methods and their problems when applied to their field. And that scientific journals – and especially those with the highest impact factors, like Nature, Science, or PNAS – have professional, careful reviewers who would never accept papers that equal correlation with causation, especially when Social Sciences are involved (because this alone might make errors grow exponentially…). Sadly, this is obviously not so, either.

The ‘Yamnaya component’ concept and its damage

From Allentoft et al. (2015), emphasis is mine:

Both studies [Haak et al. (2015) and this one] found a genetic affinity between samples from a central European culture known as Corded Ware, which existed from around 2500 bc, and samples from the earlier Yamnaya steppe culture. This similarity between distant populations is best explained by a substantial westward expansion of the Yamnaya or their close relatives into central Europe (Fig. 1b). Such an expansion is consistent with the steppe hypothesis, which argues that Corded Ware cultures were a conduit for the dispersal of Indo-European languages into Europe.

More interesting than these vague words – and the short, almost invisible suggestion that Yamna may not be exactly the population behind Corded Ware peoples – are the maps that illustrated in Nature their risky hypothesis: they called it “steppe hypothesis“, like that (in general terms), as if everyone defending a steppe origin for Proto-Indo-European would support such a model, when they actually referred to the specific hypothesis of one of their authors (Kristiansen), one of the few archaeologists who keep Gimbutas’ concept of the ‘Kurgan peoples’ alive, based on the Corded Ware culture:

Allentoft Corded Ware
Allentoft et al. (2015): “They conclude that the Corded Ware culture of central Europe had ancestry from the Yamnaya. Allentoft et al. also show that the Afanasievo culture to the east is related to the Yamnaya, and that the Sintashta and Andronovo cultures had ancestry from the Corded Ware. Arrows indicate migrations — those from the Corded Ware reflect the evidence that people of this archaeological culture (or their relatives) were responsible for the spreading of Indo-European languages. All coloured boundaries are approximate.”

In many publications that followed, the trend has been to reproduce this graphical model, by asserting (or implying) that Bell Beaker peoples were the result of subsequent Corded Ware migrations, and indeed that Corded Ware peoples migrated from the Yamna culture, and were thus the vector of expansion for Indo-European languages in Europe.

All of this is being proven wrong, as I predicted: see Mathieson et al. (2017) and Olalde et al. (2017) for recently studied samples with ‘steppe component’, older than (and unrelated to) the Yamna culture. However, no retraction (or correction, whatever) has been published to date about the concept of the ‘Yamnaya ancestry expansion’, and its consequences.

We shall see then just a rather surreptitious shift in terminology from ‘Yamnaya’ to ‘steppe’ component, to adapt to the new data – i.e. some damage control while the ship of ‘Yamnaya ancestry’ capsizes – but little else. “Earlier ‘Yamnaya ancestry’, you say? Just, you know, let’s call it ‘steppe ancestry’ and shift the expansion of Indo-European languages to one or two thousand years earlier, and done!”

The damage of this post-truth genetics is already done: we will see the unending distribution on the Internet in general, and on social networks in particular, of these grandiose conclusions, of far-fetched Indo-European migration models that include the Corded Ware culture, of simplistic maps with apparently harmless ‘arrows of migration’ (like the above) representing fictional population movements suggesting nonexistent dialectal branches.

You might be one of those sceptics wary of so many boring statistical rules: “But it’s a safe reasoning: Yamanaya samples have an ‘ancestral component’ that is found elevated in Corded Ware samples, and less so in Bell Beaker samples, and PCA showed a similar result…so the migration model Yamnaya -> Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker is a priori correct, right?”

The ‘Future American’ hypothesis

Let me illustrate this attractive “Correlation = Causation” argument, using it to solve the problem of Future American languages.

Suppose we live in a future post-apocalyptic world ca. 3500 AD, with no surviving historical records before 3000 AD. None. Just investigation of cultures and their relationship by Archaeology, proto-languages reconstructed and language families identified by Linguistics, etc.

We have thus Future Germanic and Future Romance as the only language families spoken in Future Western Europe and in the Future Americas, in a distribution similar to the present day*, and we have certain somehow related archaeologically-defined cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, like Briton, Iberian, Norman, or Lowlandish, although their distribution remains partly undefined in time and space.

* If you are really curious about this scenario, you can read about the potential evolution of a Future North-American language.

But what languages did the ancestors of Future Americans speak, and who spread them? That question remains far from being settled by our future researchers, in spite of the solidest linguistic and migration models (talking mainly about Briton and Iberian cultures): too many authorities out there questioning them, fighting to impose their own pet theories.

Suddenly, the newly developed field of Human Ancestry comes to save the day. So let’s say we have this map of ancient samples recovered (dated from, say, the 6th to the 18th century AD), and our study is centered on the newly described “Western European” component (a precise combination of, say, WHG+steppe), which peaks in early samples from the Low Lands – hence we call it, quite daringly, “Lowlandic component“.

Our group is keen to demonstrate that the ancient Lowlandic culture described in Archaeology (marked especially by the worldwide distribution of tulips among other traits) is the origin of Western European and American languages… Now, let’s reach conclusions about migrations in the Middle Ages!

‘Future American’ hypothesis. Migration routes in Western Europe and the Americas during the Middle Ages, based on the ‘Lowlandic component’ (Click to open higher quality version).

PCA shows that South-West European samples cluster closely to some North-West European samples, and that some late South American samples available cluster at some distance from North American samples – nearer to a native component represented by two individuals with 0% Lowlandic ancestry and a different cluster in PCA. And some North-American samples cluster quite closely to North-West European samples.

Based on the decrease in ‘Lowlandic component’ in the different samples and on PCA, we conclude that Lowlandic peoples (“or their close relatives”) must have migrated at the same time to North America, South America (or potentially from North America to South America?) as well as western, central, and northern Europe. Both migration events must have happened roughly at the same time, in part because both distinct language families appear in a north-south distribution, and Proto-Lowlandic must be (according to Genetics) the ancestor of both, Proto-Future-Germanic and Proto-Future-Romance.

That makes a lot of sense! A huge Lowlandic pressure for migration, you see. Push-pull mechanisms and stuff. A Lowlandic Empire probably (scattered remains are found everywhere)! And, judging by the presence of the ‘Lowlandic component’ in Future East Europe from the Elbe to the Vistula, maybe Lowlandic peoples spread Proto-Slavic, too! We can even date the common Lowlandic-Slavic proto-language this way! So many groundbreaking conclusions!

Future scholars supporting the Lowlandic homeland are on fire; they can’t get enough of publishing papers on the subject. “Two different Future American language families with cultural origins in Britain and Iberia, my ass! Because genetics.”

And don’t forget the future people of haplogroup R1b-U106 and high Lowlandic component: Wow, they are the heirs of those who expanded Future Germanic and Future Romance languages everywhere, aren’t they? How proud they must be. And who wouldn’t want to have these tall, blond, blue-eyed Lowlanders as their forefathers? Personalised genetic analysis is selling like crazy: “let’s know our Lowlandic percentage!”. Everyone is happy, colourful maps with lots of arrows and shit…

But – your future you might ask in awe, seeing that this doesn’t sound quite right, based on your basic archaeological and linguistic knowledge:

  • What about specific models of migration proposed to date? The solidest ones, not just anyone that seems to fit?
  • What about the dialectal classification of languages? The mainstream ones, not those that are compatible with this interpretation?
  • What about archaeological cultures to which individual samples belonged?
  • What about the actual dates of each sample? And how this date relates to the state of the culture to which it belongs?
  • What about the haplogroups, and the actual subclade of each haplogroup?
  • What about the territories, cultures, and dates not sampled, could they change this interpretation in light of known archaeological models?
  • And what about the actual origin of that ancestral component they so frivolously named? Dit it really appear ex nihilo in the Low Lands, and expanded from it?

“Who cares! This new data is sooo coool… And it proves what we wanted, what a coincidence! And it’s numbers, mate! Numbers don’t lie.”

No, numbers don’t lie. But people do.

Correlation is fun, isn’t it?



C.C. Uhlenbeck on the Proto-Indo-European homeland in the 19th century


Michiel de Vaan, from the University of Lausanne, has recently uploaded three of his papers published in recent years in the JIES on the works of Dutch linguist C.C. Uhlenbeck:

1. The Early C. C. Uhlenbeck on Indo-European, JIES 44/1-2, 2016, p. 73-80

Christianus Cornelius Uhlenbeck (1866–1951) was one of the leading Dutch linguists between the 1880s and the 1940s. He made his mark on a number of disciplines in descriptive and comparative linguistics, such as Basque, the indigenous languages of North America, Old Germanic and Sanskrit. In 2008, a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies (Genee & Hinrichs 2008) was devoted to his memory, the contents of which can be read online.

Uhlenbeck’s work and thinking on the Indo-European language family, and, in particular, on the original habitat of its speakers, have been discussed by Kortlandt 2010, who concluded that Uhlenbeck had remarkably advanced views for his time. The first two journal articles in which Uhlenbeck (1895, 1897) sets forth his views were published in Dutch. During the academic year 2013/14, I had the opportunity to read a number of articles on the question of the Indo-European homeland problem with my students at Leiden University. I provided Uhlenbeck’s Dutch articles from 1895 and 1897 with an English translation which I hereby submit to all colleagues

On Anthony and Haarman:

Anthony focuses on the socioeconomic changes that took place in the fifth and fourth millennium BC, when the Indo-European steppe peoples entered into contact with the sedentary, agricultural population of Southeast-Europe, also termed Old European or Palaeo-European. Importantly, Anthony dismantles the monolithic view of a single “steppe pastoralism”, and instead stresses that the steppe economy itself went through various developmental phases, which might be linked to different periods of expansion of Indo-European into Europe. Haarmann zooms in on the sociocultural effects of the Indo-European expansion(s). Since language contact will often heavily influence the languages which are in contact, he sets out to look for traces of the language of the Old Europeans in the surviving Indo-European languages, first of all, in Ancient Greek. As many scholars before him have also realized, there is a thick layer of non-Indo-European words in Greek in fields such as agriculture, wine production, weaving, metallurgy, religion and mythology, building techniques, and local flora and fauna. Even the Greeks themselves acknowledged the presence of a “Pelasgian” substratum in their own language. Haarmann concludes (2012: 119): “Despite the fact that Indo-Europeans exercised political power and promoted their language as the common vehicle, they were nevertheless impressed by the achievements of the Old Europeans to the extent that the dominant language of the élite absorbed manifold influences from the local language(s).”

2. Where was the Indo-European proto-language spoken?, by C.C. Uhlenbeck (1895), translation by Michiel de Vaan, JIES 44/1-2, 2016, p. 181-185.

It cannot be objected that the eastern and the western Iranians differed much in their dialects, for the PIE language itself must have been split in a number of fairly different dialects. There has never been in the world a language without dialect differences, larger or smaller, depending on the geographic distance. That is why, in the beginning of this piece, I spoke not of one original language, but of a group of closely cognate dialects. Since the linguistic area of PIE was probably very large, it is certainly possible that part of it lay in the steppes, another part in the mountains, and yet another part in the fertile plains. If so, the fauna and the flora of the homeland cannot have been the same in different areas. And this is an argument, which the linguistic prehistorician must not lose sight of!

On the necessary natural (geographic and stage) division of PIE, he made apparently a dialectal division into a European group (including Greek?), a Balkan-Balto-Slavic group, and Indo-Iranian.

3. The prehistory of the Indo-European peoples, by C.C. Uhlenbeck (1897), translation by Michiel de Vaan, JIES 44/1-2, 2016, 186-212.

The following excerpt is probably not the most interesting one (check out the different aspect of prehistoric life described through linguistics), but it is fun to be able to support the same arguments today:

Does linguistics provide us with the means to indicate a smaller region as the center of expansion of the Indo-European languages and peoples? Hardly. After all, it is far from certain that the people who speak Indo-European languages are also ethnologically more closely related to each other than to peoples with languages very different from ours. If the homeland of the Indo-European languages does not coincide with that of the Indo-European peoples, it becomes impossible to determine either one. In reality, if the Indo-European speaking peoples do not form an ethnological unity, we have not the slightest reason to suppose that they all hail from a single region. The use of a common language can just as well be explained by a powerful, prehistoric cultural influence, as by common ancestry. The unknown, unknowable origin of that cultural force is then, in a certain sense, the homeland of our language family. Searching a homeland of the Indo-Europeans or of the Indo-European dialects is like taking a wild stab, something which all who understand history must abhor. If Schrader regards as the homeland the Pontic steppes, if Hirt regards the coasts of Lithuania as such, this is based on insufficient and partially judged data. Still, the large agreement in vocabulary between Indo-European and Egypto-Semitic remains a remarkable fact, which Friedrich Delitzsch first illustrated in a truly scientific way.


If we stick to the facts, and refrain from bottomless speculations, we will find no other homeland than the area indicated above, which encompasses half of Europe and a part of Asia.

Genetic origins of Minoans and Mycenaeans and their continuity into modern Greeks


A new article has appeared in Nature, Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, by Lazaridis et al. (2017), referenced by Science.


The origins of the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean cultures have puzzled archaeologists for more than a century. We have assembled genome-wide data from 19 ancient individuals, including Minoans from Crete, Mycenaeans from mainland Greece, and their eastern neighbours from southwestern Anatolia. Here we show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar, having at least three-quarters of their ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean, and most of the remainder from ancient populations related to those of the Caucasus3 and Iran. However, the Mycenaeans differed from Minoans in deriving additional ancestry from an ultimate source related to the hunter–gatherers of eastern Europe and Siberia, introduced via a proximal source related to the inhabitants of either the Eurasian steppe or Armenia. Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans, but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry. Our results support the idea of continuity but not isolation in the history of populations of the Aegean, before and after the time of its earliest civilizations.

Samples are scarce, and there is only one Y-DNA haplogroup of Mycenaeans, J2a1 (in Galatas Apatheia, ca. 1700-1200), which shows continuity of haplogroups from Minoan samples, so it does not clarify the potential demic diffusion of Proto-Greeks marked by R1b subclades.

Regarding admixture analyses, it is explicitly or implicitly (according to the press release) stated that:

  • There is continuity between Mycenaeans and living people, so that the major components of the Greeks’ ancestry was in place already in the Bronze Age, after the migration of the earliest farmers from Anatolia.
  • Anatolians may have been the source of “eastern” Caucasian ancestry in Mycenaeans, and maybe of early Indo-European languages (i.e. earlier than Proto-Greek) in the region.
  • The “northern” steppe population (speaking a Late Indo-European dialect, then) had arrived only in mainland Greece, with a 13-18% admixture, by the time studied.
  • Samples before the Final Neolithic (ca. 4100 BC) do not possess either type of ancestry, suggesting that the admixture detected occurred during the fourth to second millennium BC.
  • Admixture from Levantine or African influence (i.e. Egyptian or Phoenician colonists) cannot be supported with admixture.

All in all, there is some new interesting information, and among them the possibility of obtaining ancient DNA from arid regions, which is promising for future developments in the field.

EDIT (20/8/2017): The article received widespread media attention, and two blog posts were linked to by the main author in his Twitter account: Who are you calling Mycenaean?, and On genetics and the Aegean Bronze Age. Apart from the obviously wrong reductio ad Hitlerum that pops up in any discussion on Indo-Europeans or genetics (even I do it regarding fans of admixture analysis), I don’t know why these created so much fuss (and hate) among geneticists. There seems to be a war brewing between Archaeology and Genetics.

Razib Khan writes The Revolution Which Came To Archaeology Without Archaeologists?, and I guess this is how many people feel in the field, but if they had studied some minimal archaeology of the samples they are studying they would know that their conclusions would come as no surprise, in any case. They can solve old archaeological questions, and they can help create new hypothesis. That’s it. Regarding the study Mr. Khan believes did come as a surprise to archaeologists, that on Bell Beakers, I would like to remind him of the predictions Volker Heyd did about genetics already in 2007, based only on Archaeology.


Featured map: samples studied, from the article.

Something is very wrong with models based on the so-called ‘steppe admixture’ – and archaeologists are catching up


Russian archaeologist Leo Klejn has published an article Discussion: Are the Origins of Indo-European Languages Explained by the Migration of the Yamnaya Culture to the West?, which includes the criticism received from Wolfgang Haak, Iosif Lazaridis, Nick Patterson, and David Reich (mainly on the genetic aspect), and from Kristian Kristiansen, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Morten Allentoft, Martin Sikora, and Eske Willerslev (mainly on the archaeological aspect).

I will not post details of Klejn’s model of North-South Proto-Indo-European expansion – which is explained in the article, and relies on the north-south cline of ‘steppe admixture’ in the modern European population -, since it is based on marginal anthropological methods and theories, including glottochronological dates, and archaeological theories from the Russian school (mainly Zalyzniak), which are obviously not mainstream in the field of Indo-European Studies, and (paradoxically) on the modern distribution of ‘steppe admixture’…

The most interesting aspects of the article are the reactions to the criticism, some of which can be used from the point of view of the Indo-European demic diffusion model, too. It is sad, however, that they didn’t choose to answer earlier to Heyd’s criticism (or to Heyd’s model, which is essentially also that of Mallory and Anthony), instead of just waiting for proponents of the least interesting models to react…

The answer by Haak et al.:

Klejn mischaracterizes our paper as claiming that practitioners of the Corded Ware culture spoke a language ancestral to all European Indo-European languages, including Greek and Celtic. This is incorrect: we never claim that the ancestor of Greek is the language spoken by people of the Corded Ware culture. In fact, we explicitly state that the expansion of steppe ancestry might account for only a subset of Indo-European languages in Europe. Klejn asserts that ‘a source in the north’ is a better candidate for the new ancestry manifested in the Corded Ware than the Yamnaya. While it is indeed the case that the present-day people with the greatest affinity to the Corded Ware are distributed in north-eastern Europe, a major part of the new ancestry of the Corded Ware derives from a population most closely related to Armenians (Haak et al., 2015) and hunter-gatherers from the Caucasus (Jones et al., 2015). This ancestry has not been detected in any European huntergatherers analysed to date (Lazaridis et al., 2014; Skoglund et al., 2014; Haak et al., 2015; Fu et al., 2016), but made up some fifty per cent of the ancestry of the Yamnaya. The fact that the Corded Ware traced some of its ancestry to the southern Caucasus makes a source in the north less parsimonious.

In our study, we did not speculate about the date of Proto-Indo-European and the locations of its speakers, as these questions are unresolved by our data, although we do think the genetic data impose constraints on what occurred. We are enthusiastic about the potential of genetics to contribute to a resolution of this longstanding issue, but this is likely to require DNA from multiple, as yet unsampled, ancient populations.

Klejn response to that:

Allegedly, I had accused the authors of tracing all Indo-European languages back to Yamnaya, whereas they did not trace all of them but only a portion! Well, I shall not reproach the authors for their ambiguous language: it remains the case that (beginning with the title of the first article) their qualifications are lost and their readers have understood them as presenting the solution to the whole question of the origins of Indo-European languages.

(…) they had in view not the Proto-Indo-European before the separation of the Hittites, but the language that was left after the separation. Yet, this was still the language ancestral to all the remaining Indo-European languages, and the followers of Sturtevan and Kluckhorst call only this language Proto-Indo-European (while they call the initial one Indo-Hittite). The majority of linguists (specialists in Indo-European languages) is now inclined to this view. True, the breakup of this younger language is several hundred years more recent (nearly a thousand years later according to some glottochronologies) than the separation of Anatolian languages, but it is still around a thousand years earlier than the birth of cultures derived from Yamnaya.
More than that, I analysed in my criticism both possibilities — the case for all Indo-European languages spreading from Yamnaya and the case for only some of them spreading from Yamnaya. In the latter case, it is argued that only the languages of the steppes, the Aryan (Indo- Iranian) are descended from Yamnaya, not the languages of northern Europe. Together with many scholars, I am in agreement with the last possibility. But, then, what sense can the proposed migration of the Yamnaya culture to the Baltic region have? It would bring the Indo-Iranian proto-language to that region! Yet, there are no traces of this language on the coasts of the Baltic!

My main concern is that, to my mind, one should not directly apply conclusions from genetics to events in the development of language because there is no direct and inevitable dependence between events in the life of languages, culture, and physical structure (both anthropological and genetic). They can coincide, but often they all follow divergent paths. In each case the supposed coincidence should be proved separately.

The authors’ third objection concerns the increase of the genetic similarity of European population with that of the Yamnaya culture. This increases in the north of Europe and is weak in the south, in the places adjacent to the Yamnaya area, i.e. in Hungary. This gradient is clearly expressed in the modern population, but was present already in the Bronze Age, and hence cannot be explained by shifts that occurred in the Early Iron Age and in medieval times. However, the supposed migration of the Yamnaya culture to the west and north should imply a gradient in just the opposite direction!

Regarding the arguments of Kristiansen and colleagues:

[They argue that] in two early burials of the Corded Ware culture (one in Germany, the other in Poland) some single attributes of Yamnaya origin have been found.

(…) if this is the full extent of Yamnaya infiltration into central Europe—two burials (one for each country) from several thousands (and from several hundreds of early burials)—then it hardly amounts to large-scale migration.

Quite recently we have witnessed the success of a group of geneticists from Stanford University and elsewhere (Poznik et al., 2016). They succeeded in revealing varieties of Y-chromosome connected with demographic expansions in the Bronze Age. Such expansion can give rise to migration. Among the variants connected with this expansion is R1b, and this haplogroup is typical for the Yamnaya culture. But what bad luck! This haplogroup connected with expansion is indicated by the clade L11, while the Yamnaya burials are associated with a different clade, Z2103, that is not marked by expansion. It is now time to think about how else the remarkable results reached by both teams of experienced and bright geneticists may be interpreted.

Regarding the work of Heyd,

(…) with regard to the barrow burials of the third millennium BC in the basin of the Danube, although they have been assigned to the Yamnaya culture, I would consider them as also belonging to
another, separate culture, perhaps a mixed culture: its burial custom is typical of the Yamnaya, but its pottery is absolutely not Yamnaya, but local Balkan with imports of distinctive corded beakers (Schnurbecher). I would not be surprised if
Y-chromosome haplogroups of this population were somewhat similar to those of the Yamnaya, while mitochondrial groups were indigenous. As yet, geneticists deal with great blocks of populations and prefer to match them to very large and generalized cultural blocks, while archaeology now analyses more concrete and smaller cultures, each of which had its own fate.

Iosif Lazaridis shares more thoughts on the discussion in his Twitter account:

As we mentioned in Haak, Lazaridis et al. (2015), the Yamnaya are the best proximate source for the new ancestry that first appears with the Corded Ware in central Europe, as it has the right mix of both ANE (related to Native Americans, MA1, and EHG), but also Armenian/Caucasus/Iran-like southern component of ancestry. The Yamnaya is a westward expansive culture that bears exactly the two new ancestral components (EHG + Caucasus/Iran/Armenian-like).
As for the Y-chromosome, it was already noted in Haak, Lazaridis et al. (2015) that the Yamnaya from Samara had Y-chromosomes which belonged to R-M269 but did not belong to the clade common in Western Europe (p. 46 of supplement). Also, not a single R1a in Yamnaya unlike Corded Ware (R1a-dominated). But Yamnaya samples = elite burials from eastern part of the Yamnaya range. Both R1a/R1b found in Eneolithic Samara and EHG, so in conclusion Yamnaya expansion still the best proximate source for the post-3,000 BCE population change in central Europe. And since 2015 steppe expansion detected elsewhere (Cassidy et al. 16, Martiniano et al. 17, Mittnik et al. 17, Mathieson et al. 17, Lazaridis et al. 2016 (South Asia) and …?…

I love the smell of new wording in the morning… viz. Yamnaya best proximate source for Corded Ware, Corded Ware might account for only a subset of Indo-European languages, Corded Ware representing Aryan languages (probably Klejn misinterprets what the authors mean, i.e. some kind of Indo-Slavonic or Germano-Balto-Slavic group)…

We shall expect more and more ambiguous rewording and more adjustments of previous conclusions as new papers and new criticisms appear.


Featured image from the article: Distribution of the ‘Yamnaya’ genetic component in the populations of Europe (data taken from Haak et al., 2015). The intensity of the colour corresponds to the contribution of this component in various modern populations