Villabruna cluster in Late Epigravettian Sicily supports South Italian corridor for R1b-V88


New preprint Late Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers in the Central Mediterranean: new archaeological and genetic data from the Late Epigravettian burial Oriente C (Favignana, Sicily), by Catalano et al. bioRxiv (2019).

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

Grotta d’Oriente is a small coastal cave located on the island of Favignana, the largest (~20 km2) of a group of small islands forming the Egadi Archipelago, ~5 km from the NW coast of Sicily.

The Oriente C funeral pit opens in the lower portion of layer 7, specifically sublayer 7D. Two radiocarbon dates on charcoal from the sublayers 7D (12149±65 uncal. BP) and 7E, 12132±80 uncal. BP are consistent with the associated Late Epigravettian lithic assemblages (Lo Vetro and Martini, 2012; Martini et al., 2012b) and refer the burial to a period between about 14200-13800 cal. BP, when Favignana was connected to the main island (Agnesi et al., 1993; Antonioli et al., 2002; Mannino et al. 2014).

A-B) Geographic location of Grotta d’Oriente.

The anatomical features of Oriente C are close to those of Late Upper Palaeolithic populations of the Mediterranean and show strong affinity with other Palaeolithic individuals of Sicily. As suggested by Henke (1989) and Fabbri (1995) the hunter-gatherer populations were morphologically rather uniform.

Genetic analysis

We confirmed the originally reported mitochondrial haplogroup assignment of U2’3’4’7’8’9. This haplogroup is present in both pre- and post-LGM populations, but is rare by the Mesolithic, when U5 dominates (Posth et al.2016).

Lipson et al. (2018) (their supplementary Figure S5.1) and Villalba-Mouco et al. (2019) (their Figure 2A) showed that European Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers fall along two main axes of genetic variation. Multidimensional scaling (MDS) of f3-statistics shows that these axes form a “V” shape (Fig. 3). (…)

Focusing further on Oriente C, we find that it shares most drift with individuals from Northern Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg, and less with individuals from Iberia, Scandinavia, and East and Southeast Europe (Fig. 4A-B). Shared drift decreases significantly with distance (Fig. 4C) and with time (Fig. 4D) although in a linear model of drift with distance and time as a covariate, only distance (p=1.3×10-6) and not time (p=0.11) is significant. Consistent with the overall E-W cline in hunter-gatherer ancestry, genetic distance to Oriente C increases more rapidly with longitude than latitude, although this may also be affected by geographic features. For example, Oriente C shares significantly more drift with the 8,000 year-old 1,400 km distant individual from Loschbour in Luxembourg (Lazaridis et al.,2014), than with the 9,000 year old individual from Vela Spila in Croatia (Mathieson et al.,2018) only 700 km away as shown by the D-statistic (Patterson et al.,2012) D (Mbuti, Oriente C, Vela Spila, Villabruna); Z=3.42. Oriente C’s heterozygosity was slightly lower than Villabruna (14% lower at 1240k transversion sites), but this difference is not significant (bootstrap P=0.12).

Multidimensional scaling of outgroup f3-statistics for Late 531 Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

Discussion and Conclusion

The robust record of radiocarbon dates proves that they reached Sicily not before 15-14 ka cal. BP, several millennia after the LGM peak. In our opinion, in fact, the hypothesis about an early colonization of Sicily by Aurignacians (Laplace, 1964; Chilardi et al., 1996) must be rejected, on the basis of a recent reinterpretation of the techno-typological features of the lithic industries from Riparo di Fontana Nuova (Martini et al., 2007; Lo Vetro and Martini, 2012; on this topic see also Di Maida et al., 2019).

These analyses have implications for understanding the origin and diffusion of the hunter-gatherers that inhabited Europe during the Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. Our findings indicate that Oriente C shows a strong genetic relationship with Western European Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, suggesting that the “Western hunter-gatherers” was a homogeneous population widely distributed in the Central Mediterranean, presumably as a consequence of continuous gene flow among different groups, or a range expansion following the LGM.

The same statistic as in A plotted with geographic position

The South Italian corridor

Once again, a hypothesis based on phylogeography – apart from scarce archaeological and palaeolinguistic data (“Semitic”-like topo-hydronymy and substrates in Europe) – seems to be confirmed step by step. Since the finding of the Villabruna individual of hg. R1b-L754 (likely R1b-V88, like south-eastern European lineages expanded with WHG ancestry), it was quite likely to find out that southern Europe was the origin of the expansion of R1b-V88 into Africa.

The most likely explanation for the presence of “archaic” R1b-V88 subclades among modern Sardinians was, therefore, that they represented a remnant from a Late Upper Palaeolithic/Early Mesolithic population that had not been replaced in subsequent migrations, and thus that the migration of these lineages into Northern Africa and the Green Sahara happened during a period when Italy was connected by a shallower Mediterranean (and more land connections) to Northern Africa.

Likely Late Epigravettian/Mesolithic expansion of R1b-V88 into Northern Africa. See full map.

Nevertheless, the arguments for a quite recent expansion of R1b-V88 through the Mediterranean and into Africa keep being repeated, probably based on ancestry from the few ancient (and many modern) populations that have been investigated to date, a simplistic approach prone to important errors that overarch whole migration models.

For example, in the recent paper by Marcus et al. (2019) the presence of these lineages among ancient Sardinians (from the late 4th millennium BC on) is interpreted as an expansion of R1b-V88 with the Cardial Neolithic based on their ancestry, disregarding the millennia-long gap between these samples and the presence of this haplogroup in Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Northern Iberia and Northern Italy, and the comparatively much earlier splits in the phylogenetic tree and dispersal among African populations.

Afroasiatic and Nostratic

I was asked recently if I really believed that we could reconstruct Proto-Nostratic and connect it with any ancestral population. My answer is simple: until the Chalcolithic – when the whole picture of Indo-Europeans, Uralians, Egyptians or Semites becomes quite clear – we have just very few (linguistic, archaeological, genetic) dots which we would like to connect, and we do so the best we can. The earlier the population and proto-language, the more difficult this task becomes.

NOTE. 1) I tentatively connected hg. R with Nostratic in a previous text – when it appeared that R1a expanded from around Lake Baikal, hence Eurasiatic; R1b from the south with AME-WHG ancestry, hence Afroasiatic; and R2 with Dravidian.

2) After that, I though it was more likely to be connected to AME ancestry and the Middle East, because of the apparent expansion of WHG from south-eastern Europe, and the potential association of Afroasiatic and (Elamo-?)Dravidian to Middle Eastern populations.

3) However, after finding more and more R1b samples expanding through northern Eurasia, spreading through the (then wider) steppe regions; and R1a essentially surviving among other groups in eastern Europe for thousands of years without being associated to significant migrations (like, say, hg. C after the Palaeolithic), it didn’t seem like this division was accurate, hence my most recent version.

But, in essence, it’s all about connecting the dots, and we have very few of them…

Phylogenetic tree from Pagel et al. (2013), partially in agreement with Kortlandt’s view on Eurasiatic. “Consensus phylogenetic tree of Eurasiatic superfamily (A) superimposed on Eurasia and (B) rooted tree with estimated dates of origin of families and of superfamily. (A) Unrooted consensus tree with branch lengths (solid lines) shown to scale and illustrating the correspondence between the tree and the contemporary north-south and east-west geographical positions of these language families. Abbreviations: P (proto) followed by initials of language family: PD, proto-Dravidian; PK, proto-Kartvelian; PU, proto-Uralic; PIE, proto–Indo-European; PA, proto-Altaic; PCK, proto–Chukchi-Kamchatkan; PIY, proto–Inuit-Yupik. The dotted line to PIY extends the inferred branch length into the area in which Inuit-Yupik languages are currently spoken: it is not a measure of divergence. The cross-hatched line to PK indicates that branch has been shortened (compare with B). The branch to proto-Dravidian ends in an area that Dravidian populations are thought to have occupied before the arrival of Indo-Europeans (see main text). (B) Consensus tree rooted using proto-Dravidian as the outgroup. The age at the root is 14.45 ± 1.75 kya (95% CI = 11.72–18.38 kya) or a slightly older 15.61 ± 2.29 kya (95% CI = 11.72–20.40 kya) if the tree is rooted with proto-Kartvelian. The age assumes midpoint rooting along the branch leading to proto-Dravidian (rooting closer to PD would produce an older root, and vice versa), and takes into account uncertainty around proto–Indo-European date of 8,700 ± 544 (SD) y following ref. 35 and the PCK date of 692 ± 67 (SD) y ago.”

In linguistics, I trust traditional linguists who tend to trust other more experimental linguists (like Hyllested or Kortlandt) who consider that – in their experience – an Indo-Uralic and a Eurasiatic phylum can be reconstructed. Similarly, linguists like Kortlandt are apparently (partially) supportive of attempts like that of Allan Bomhard with Nostratic – although almost everyone is critic of the Muscovite school‘s attachment to the Brugmannian reconstruction, stuck in pre-laryngeal Proto-Indo-Anatolian and similar archaisms.

I mostly use Nostratic as a way to give a simplistic ethnolinguistic label to the genetically related prehistoric peoples whose languages we will probably never know. I think it’s becoming clear that the strongest connection right now with the expansion of potential Eurasiatic dialects is offered by ANE-related populations (hence Y-chromosome bottlenecks under hg. R, Q, probably also N), however complicated the reconstruction of that hypothetic community (and its dialectalization) may be.

Therefore, the multiple expansions of lineages more or less closely associated to ANE-related peoples – like R1b-V88 in the case of Afrasian, or R2 in the case of Dravidians – are the easiest to link to the traditionally described Nostratic dialects and their highly hypothetic relationship.

Reconstruction of North African vegetation during past green Sahara periods. Estimated and reconstructed MAP for the Holocene GSP (6–10 kyr BP) projected onto a cross-section along the eastern Sahara (left panel) and map view of reconstructed MAP, vegetation and physiographic elements [7,8,11,45] (right panel). Image from Larrasoaña et al. (2013).

What should be clear to anyone is that the attempt of many modern Afroasiatic speakers to connect their language to their own (or their own community’s main) haplogroups, frequently E and/or J, is flawed for many reasons; it was simplistic in the 2000s, but it is absurd after the advent of ancient DNA investigation and more recent investigation on SNP mutation rates. R1b-V88 should have been on the table of discussions about the expansion of Afroasiatic communities through the Green Sahara long ago, whether one supports a Nostratic phylum or not.

The fact that the role of R1b bottlenecks and expansions in the spread of Afroasiatic is usually not even discussed despite their likely connection with the most recent population expansions through the Green Sahara fitting a reasonable time frame for Proto-Afroasiatic reconstruction, a reasonable geographical homeland, and a compatible dialectal division – unlike many other proposed (E or J) subclades – reveals (once again) a lot about the reasons behind amateur interest in genetics.

Just like seeing the fixation in (and immobility of) recent writings about the role of I1, I2, or (more recently) R1a in the Proto-Indo-European expansion, R1b with Vasconic, or N1c with Proto-Uralic.

NOTE. That evident interest notwithstanding, it is undeniable that we have a much better understanding of the expansions of R1b subclades than other haplogroups, probably due in great part to the easier recovery of ancient DNA from Eurasia (and Europe in particular), for many different – sociopolitical, geographical, technological – reasons. It is quite possible that a more thorough temporal transect of ancient DNA from the Middle East and Africa might radically change our understanding of population movements, especially those related to the Afroasiatic expansion. I am referring in this post to interpretations based on the data we currently have, despite that potential R1b-based bias.


Balto-Slavic accentual mobility: an innovation in contact with Balto-Finnic


Some very specific prosodic innovations affected the Balto-Slavic linguistic community, probably at a time when it already showed internal dialectal differences. Whether those innovations were related to archaic remnants stemming from the parent Proto-Indo-European language, and whether that disintegrating community included different dialects, remains an object of active debate.

“Archaic” Balto-Slavic?

The main question about Balto-Slavic is whether this concept represents a single community, or it was rather a continuum formed by two (Baltic and Slavic) or possibly three (East Baltic, West Baltic, Slavic) neighbouring communities, speaking closely related Northern European dialects, which just happened to evolve very close to each other, i.e. in cultures that were closer to each other than they were to Germanic or Balto-Finnic.

In my opinion, their similarities warrant the reconstruction of a single original central-east European community since the dissolution of Bell Beakers, speaking a North-West Indo-European dialect, and most internal differences between Baltic and Slavic may be explained as innovations. The precise identification of a Proto-Balto-Slavic community remains elusive, although the Unetice-Iwno-Mierzanowice triangle remains the best bet, with Trzciniec showing what seems like an Early Slavic-like population reaching up to the East Baltic.

Bell Beaker expansion in eastern Europe and around the Baltic.

The reconstruction of a common Balto-Slavic proto-language is known to range from difficult to impossible, depending on who you ask, not the least because of the differences that are discussed in this post, and which have been the own battlefield created by Balticists and Slavicists for decades. The old tenet that Balto-Slavic had inherited some traits directly from PIE is – in contrast with e.g. the Italo-Celtic concept – surprisingly vivid still today.

Take, for example, these internal differences and supposedly archaic traits:

  • The ruKi rule, where Baltic shows mostly *is, *us, and Slavic shows *, *; or the different output of Satemization in Baltic compared to Slavic (and both compared to Indo-Iranian). Nevertheless, the Satemization trends in Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian are usually explained together and taken as a sign of a traditional three-velar system for PIE.
    • If you consider Satemization as a late trend in Balto-Slavic, affecting each dialect in a different way, and thus Balto-Slavic phonetic evolution clearly distinct from the Indo-Iranian trend, rejecting trictectalism, this problem is solved. This would also solve the impossible Indo-Slavonic problem, and the paradox of Balto-Slavic sharing a genetic phylum with Germanic and Italo-Celtic.
    • If you, however, conflate these differences and North-West Indo-European features with an ad hoc explanation of a hypothetic Centum dialect called Temematic, which intends to solve their (in Holzer’s words) unlösbaren inconsistencies, you essentially add a whole new inconsistency without solving their previous ones. For a full rebuttal of Holzer‘s Temematic etymologies, see Matasović (2014).
  • Kortlandt’s reconstruction of a PIE 3rd singular *-e (Baltic from *-et, Slavic from *-eti) and 3rd plural *-o, which would have been replaced independently in other Indo-European dialects (by *-eti, *-onti), is reminiscent of his own reconstruction of laryngeals almost up to the attestation of all Indo-European dialects, including Baltic. If you consider these traits an innovation, this artificially created problem is immediately solved.
  • Genitive plural Pre-Baltic *-ōm vs. Pre-Slavic *-ŏm is another commonly cited example. However, I would place this difference among other similar differences found within other related IE dialects, hence a common phonetic innovation (see e.g. below for the classicist view of unstable obliques).
  • Kortlandt’s reconstruction of oblique cases in *-m-, shared with Germanic, as stemming from a common Middle PIE *-mus (based essentially on Old Lithuanian *-mus and on a non-existent equivalent Anatolian formation), hence different from those in *-bʰ-. While you can argue for infinite more reasonable alternatives, the most often cited one is the ins.-dat. pl. *-bʰ- as a common NWIE innovation based on ins. sg. *bʰi-, while forms in *-m- (including ins. sg.) as a Northern European phonetic innovation. The simplest, most elegant explanation I’ve read to date (I think by Rémy Viredaz) is the similar bilabial change of Giacobo/Giacomo in Italian…

As you can see, some Balto-Slavicists could have written whole books about how their object of study holds the key to solve problems on common Proto-Indo-European paradigms, some of which wouldn’t need solving if they hadn’t been started by Balto-Slavicists themselves…

While all of these “archaic” traits are easily dismissed without further ado (except for some understandable damaged pride among academics), there is one especially pervasive idea among those willing to find the white whale of laryngeal remnants in Indo-European languages (see here for other examples of dubious laryngeal remains).

The prophecy before the battle, Józef Ryszkiewicz, 1890. Or, how to conjure laryngeal remnants in Balto-Slavic.

Accentual development in contact

Whichever position one prefers, the general argument is that the Balto-Slavic accentual system is non-trivial for the classification of both dialects into a common branch. However, that would only be completely true if it were a common innovation, but not so much if it were a natural laryngeal evolution.

In fact, the broken tone preserving a PIE laryngeal, as proposed by Kortlandt – continuing Meillet’s idea of synchronous PIE-PBS developments – was always very difficult to accept. Even the rising pronunciation is not original, and represents a shift of the accent on the initial syllable in Latvian…

In my opinion, the derivation of a modern phenomenon from a PIE laryngeal must always raise a red flag (see below on archaisms vs. innovations in IE languages). As you can see from my take of the fable in Balto-Slavic, which uses Kortlandt’s reconstruction, I preferred not to take into account the reconstructed accents. The fable remains thus a model of what could have been a common Proto-Balto-Slavic, unlike other reconstructions, which are much less tentative.

NOTE. You could argue that accents may be reconstructed in spite of the wrong theory behind them, but this is not true; at least not of all reconstructed accents, some of which require further assumptions. Think about it this way: I wouldn’t take into account a reconstruction of Germanic accent which used Danish glottalized tone for a hypothetical Proto-Germanic laryngeal, even if most accents seemed correct at first sight. The truth is, I didn’t want to dedicate time to go through each reconstructed word and its explanation, so it was easier to delete them all, even though that’s not an actual solution, either. You will find the same doubts in the description of Balto-Slavic evolution in my old Modern Indo-European grammar. The introduction to IE dialects was partially copied from Wikipedia (which, in the case of Balto-Slavic, essentially summarized data from Kortlandt), but in the grammar I just tried to keep the basics, and not very successfully, because you need a comprehensive and coherent description of a language’s evolution. That’s how messed up the question was, and how it still is, even though 15 years of research have passed…

Despite the idea of an “archaic Balto-Slavic”, especially prevalent among older researchers, the current trend is to consider Balto-Slavic prosodic changes as a natural innovation, even among those who would artificially reconstruct laryngeal remnants up to late Balto-Slavic stages.

NOTE. You can read more about the Proto-Indo-European laryngeal loss and vocalism. While the presence of certain laryngeals up to Late PIE is certain, the loss in many environments is also generally agreed upon. This is especially true of a hypothetical Indo-Slavonic branch, like that supported by Kortlandt: even those supporting multiple laryngeal loss events must admit that Indo-Iranian showed no laryngeals before its disintegration, whether they put this loss as an internal Proto-Indo-Iranian evolution, or they place it earlier. Tocharian attests to an evolution similar to the rest of Late PIE dialects (hence to a quite early laryngeal loss trend), and Balkan dialects (supposedly splitting before Indo-Slavonic) also lost laryngeals in a similar way, except for initial ones, which show vocalic output instead of full loss.

So, where does a laryngeal loss fit in this “Indo-Slavonic” scheme, exactly? Before the Tocharian split? Before the Balkan split? After the Balkan split but before the full loss in Indo-Iranian? And where exactly does this group belong regarding Corded Ware, and where does Germanic? No idea (but you can read Kortlandt try fitting his model with Gimbutas’ “Kurgan peoples”). Because one thing is to reconstruct Proto-Greek, or Proto-Celtic, or Proto-Italic forms without laryngeals and to put them in relation with a purely theoretical three-laryngeal PIE, and a different one is to reconstruct laryngeals (including in environments which were already lost in Tocharian) up to Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic, which seems more than just a bit of a stretch…

Indo-European dialectal relationships, from Mallory and Adams (2006).

Thomas Olander offered a summary of the current positions regarding the Balto-Slavic accentual system recently in Indo-European heritage in the Balto-Slavic accentuation system (2013), which also contains a summary of his Mobility Law, to explain this phenomenon as a common Pre-Baltic and Pre-Slavic innovation.

Andersen, an advocate of different Baltic and Slavic dialects developing in contact with Satem dialects, suggested in The Satem Languages of the Indo-European Northwest. First Contacts? (2009), partially based on Olander’s initial proposal, that Baltic and Slavic accentual mobility arose as a result of contact with languages with fixed word-initial ictus: the accent was lost in the word-final mora in pre-Proto-Baltic and, independently, in pre-Proto-Slavic. Hence, the central innovation, the accent loss

technically is not a shared Slavic and Baltic innovation. On the contrary. It shows that the speakers of the Pre-Slavic and Pre-Baltic dialects formed bilingual communities with speakers of contact dialects that were of the same prosodic type, viz. had fixed initial ictus but no free accent.

In the meantime, Olander (2019) has found out about more real-world examples of this same phenomenon:

Prosodic features are known to be susceptible to contact influence (Salmons 1992:1 and passim). While it does not directly influence the evaluation of the Mobility Law as a non-trivial innovation, it is interesting that most of the alleged parallels are indeed considered to be contact-induced changes due to influence from languages with an ictus on the word-initial syllable (Andersen 2009: 11-14; Rinkevičius 2013): Balto-Fennic in the case of the Karelian and (perhaps through Latvian as an intermediary) Žemaitian dialects, and Hungarian in the case of the Slavonian dialects (for Karelian see Jakobson 1938/2002: 239; Veenker 1967: 74; Thomason & Kaufman 1988: 122, 241; Salmons 1992: 41- 42; for Žemaitian see Zinkevičius 1966: 45- 46; for Slavonian see Ivić 1958: 287).

I am not aware of any hypotheses on a contact-induced origin for Greek prosodic innovations, but it is at least worth noting that there is agreement on significant substrate influence on Greek. While we may speculate that these substrate language(s) had word-initial ictus like Balto-Fennic and Hungarian, we do not have any actual information about the prosodic system(s) (thus even Beekes 2014: 9, who in other respects provides a fairly detailed picture of the substrate).

The parallels from other speech varieties show that an accent loss of the type suggested for a pre-stage of Baltic and Slavic is a type of prosodic change that has occurred several times in different various systems. In the context of the present paper this means that the sound law itself cannot be classified as a non-trivial innovation; it may have taken place in already differentiated dialects or languages. Also, the parallels suggest that a loss of the accent may be the result of influence from languages with fixed word-initial ictus.

In this time when even linguists agree that substrate/contact languages have to be related to specific ethnolinguistic groups (see here for Germanic), the fact that Olander stops short of naming this substrate behind Pre-Baltic and Pre-Slavic as being Late Uralic in general, or Balto-Finnic in particular, is surprising.

NOTE. Not the least because Olander is part of the Homeland Timeline map project of the Copenhagen group (their website is not working right now), and they placed Volosovo as Uralians expanding with Netted Ware in contact with the Baltic during the Bronze Age…So what’s to doubt about Balto-Slavic – Balto-Finnic contacts, exactly? Maybe if Balto-Finnic was the substrate language behind Balto-Slavic (as it was in Germanic), it would mean that Uralic languages were previously spoken in territories that became later Germanic- and Balto-Slavic-speaking?

Still image from the Copenhagen Timeline Map (accessed one year ago), showing in green Volosovo hunter-gatherers who, according to the map, later expand to the north-east with Netted Ware…

Archaism vs. Innovation

If we tried to describe these trends of explaining peculiar traits in recent Indo-European dialects as archaism vs. innovation from a purely theoretical point of view, we could roughly distinguish two different positions (with infinite variants, of course) among academics – just like we could find people more inclined to leftist or rightist trends when speaking about economy. When it comes to linguistics, which is the least messed-up field where one can describe Indo-European and Indo-Europeans, I think we can find two alternative basic tenets:

  • One idea would hold that the oldest attested dialects – and those with an older guesstimated proto-language – are the gold standard as to what the original situation may have been, and about what could be described as an archaism. For example, Ancient Greek and Mycenaean or Vedic Sanskrit for old dialects; Tocharian, or Italic dialects for those with quite old guesstimates, each for different reasons; and Anatolian for both, old dialect and attested early.
  • NOTE. Nevertheless, the phonology of Anatolian inscriptions is often difficult to ascertain, and its ancient dialectal nature stemming from a Middle PIE stage may still be disputed by some. The archaic nature of Tocharian seems to be maybe less generally accepted than that of Anatolian, but I would say there is general consensus on the matter today.

  • The other general idea would support that the most isolated dialects are those which may hold the key to the oldest Indo-European traits, somehow hidden from external influences and areal contacts, and thus from generalized innovative trends that have affected the best known ancient dialects. In that sense, languages like Slavic, Baltic, Albanian, or Armenian – as well as some Balkan fragmentary dialects – are quite common aims of study to reveal exceptional PIE traits.

I think the education system in Southern Europe and South Asia is that of formal classicists. In eastern Europe, I’d reckon the education system – especially in regions that were never connected to the Graeco-Roman tradition – favours linguistics as a study of the own and related proto-languages. For northern Europe, I would say it’s 50/50, especially in Scandinavia, depending on whether classicists or linguists dominate over the departments of Indo-European. For example, while Germany or Austria would maybe lean more toward the classics, Copenhagen’s obsession with Germanic as the most archaic IE branch is well known…

A 17th-century birch bark manuscript of Pāṇini’s grammar treatise from Kashmir. Image from Wikipedia.

Both positions, when blindly accepted, are bound to fail at some point or another:

  • If you take Classical Sanskrit, Classical Greek, or Classical Latin as an example of Proto-Indo-European, you are bound to make radical mistakes when reconstructing the parent language, more so if you disregard the oldest attested layers of the languages. An interesting view of the so-called Adradists at the Complutense University of Madrid – apart from their famous 9-laryngeal reconstruction – is that Middle PIE had only 5 cases, with a general (unstable) oblique one in Late PIE that later evolved into the attested 5 to 8 cases in the different dialects. That is, in my opinion, a fairly typical classicist error, which would be easily addressed by taking into account the oldest stages, like those attested in Mycenaean and in Old Latin, instead of focusing on classical grammar. The 8-case system is, in fact, one of the few true Balto-Slavic archaisms, supported by external comparanda.
  • On the other hand, if you take Albanian, Armenian, Baltic or Slavic, or even phonetically dubious data like those from some Anatolian inscriptions, you can eventually argue for anything. And I really mean anything; you are leaving the logic door wide open for any crazy-ass opinion about Proto-Indo-European based on traits found in modern languages: From how many velars evolved (if at all, because you may find all of them in Luwian, or still living in Albanian or in Armenian…) and their nature as ejective consonants in Late PIE (based on Armenian or Germanic); to how many laryngeals and when these laryngeals disappeared (if they actually did disappear, because some may even find them in Modern Lithuanian, in Armenian, or in Danish…); etc. Once you believe your own romantic view of some modern language(s) retaining traits from five thousand years ago, there is no stopping that; not for you, but not for anyone else, either.

NOTE. One of the funniest consequences of this type of ‘worldview’, where one assumes that – the own interpretations of – modern dialects are as reliable (or even more so than) ancient ones, and that Indo-European dialects somehow split at the same time from the parent language (so there was one common “full laryngeal” language, and then all attested dialects evolved from it) are some of the theories that you can easily find posted on Facebook’s group on Proto-Indo-European. Let’s just say, for the sake of simplicity, that you can compare English ‘sunrise’ with Spanish ‘sonrisa’ “smile” all you want, and assert that both reveal a common origin in PIE *sup- hence from the Sun and the smile going “up” or something, but any explanation as to how you reached that conclusion doesn’t make for the why this comparison shouldn’t have even started at all. Now replace English and Spanish with Armenian, Slavic, and/or Albanian, invent some new IE sound law, throw one or two laryngeals in the mix, and somehow this might get a pass among certain linguists…

The Celebration of Svetovid on Rügen, Alphonse Mucha, The Slav Epic. Image from Wikipedia. Were Early Slavs some among a selected few romantic peoples to keep the “true” Indo-European language and traditions? Of course not.

While no one can deny the value of different Indo-European branches for the reconstruction of the parent language, no matter how recently they were attested, the only reasonable solution whenever a difficult case arises is to trust ancient dialects more than recent ones. Using data from fringe theories based on recent dialects to build a Proto-Indo-European paradigm, especially when there is contradictory data from ancient IE dialects, is flawed for two reasons:

  1. Languages attested later – especially after periods of population movements and contacts – would show, in general, a greater degree of change. Preferring Old Slavic or Classical Armenian to reconstruct Indo-European over ancient dialects like Ancient Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, or ancient Italic dialects is, in a way, like taking Byzantine Greek, Pali, or Old French as models, respectively.
  2. Classical languages are indeed modified due to the action of grammarians, but once standardized these “languages behind a state” (or religion) are less prone to change, due to the transmission of oral (and written) literature, education, commerce, etc. Languages left to unorganized tribes are less constrained in their evolution, and their internal (substrate) and external (contact) influences are greater and (what’s worse) unknown.

Baltic and Slavic, like Albanian or Armenian, are dialects attested very recently, which may have undergone complex internal and external influences we may never fully understand. Confronted with controversial or inexplicable traits compared to ancient branches like Greek, Indo-Iranian, or Italo-Celtic (especially if they fit with other Indo-European dialects), the conservative solution that will be right most of the time (and I mean 99.9999% of cases) is to assume they represent an innovation over Late PIE.

The fact that some researchers still use these recent dialects as a blank canvas instead, in order to propose unending new ideas about how to reconstruct IE proto-languages, or even older common PIE stages, is shocking. Not “R1a/Steppe” vs. “N1c/Siberian” haplogroup+ancestry bullshit-level shocking, but still unacceptable in a serious academic environment.

The only reason why Balto-Slavicists have failed so many times in this “unsolvable” question that seems to be Proto-Balto-Slavic reconstruction, apart from the known differences between Baltic and Slavic, is precisely the fixation of many with their object of study as a model for other IE languages (and thus for PIE), instead of taking the rest as a model for the reconstruction of Balto-Slavic (or of Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic).

Repeating ad nauseam the popular concept of Balto-Slavic (or Baltic and Slavic) being among the most archaic IE dialects, or the slowest evolving IE dialects, and cheap nationalist slogans of the sort, does not help this aim, and just reading or hearing that should make anyone cringe instantly. Not less than reading or hearing about Sanskrit being essentially equal to PIE, or spoken in the Indus Valley 10,000 years ago. Because we are not living in the 19th century, mind you.


Yamna/Afanasevo elite males dominated by R1b-L23, Okunevo brings ancient Siberian/Asian population


Open access paper New genetic evidence of affinities and discontinuities between bronze age Siberian populations, by Hollard et al., Am J Phys Anthropol. (2018) 00:1–11.

NOTE. This seems to be a peer-reviewed paper based on a more precise re-examination of the samples from Hollard’s PhD thesis, Peuplement du sud de la Sibérie et de l’Altaï à l’âge du Bronze : apport de la paléogénétique (2014).

Interesting excerpts:

Afanasevo and Yamna

The Afanasievo culture is the earliest known archaeological culture of southern Siberia, occupying the Minusinsk-Altai region during the Eneolithic era 3600/3300 BC to 2500 BC (Svyatko et al., 2009; Vadetskaya et al., 2014). Archeological data showed that the Afanasievo culture had strong affinities with the Yamnaya and pre-Yamnaya Eneolithic cultures in the West (Grushin et al., 2009). This suggests a Yamnaya migration into western Altai and into Afanasievo. Note that, in most current publications, “the Yamnaya culture” combines the so-called “classical Yamnaya culture” of the Early Bronze Age and archeological sites of the preceding Repin culture in the middle reaches of the Don and Volga rivers. In the present article we conventionally use the term Yamnaya in the same sense, in which case the beginning of the “Yamnaya culture” can be dated after the middle of the 4th millennium BC, when the Afanasievo culture appeared in the Altai.

Because of numerous traits attributed to early Indo-Europeans and cultural relations with Kurgan steppe cultures, members of the Afanasievo culture are believed to have been Indo-European speakers (Mallory and Mair, 2000). In a recent whole-genome sequencing study, Allentoft et al. (2015) concluded that Eastern Yamnaya individuals and Afanasievo individuals were genetically indistinguishable. Moreover, this study and one published concurrently by Haak et al. (2015) analyzed 11 Eastern Yamnaya males and showed that all of them belonged to the R1b1a1a (formerly R1b1a) (…)

Early Chalcolithic migrations ca. 3300-2600 BC.

Published works indicate that R1b was a predominant haplogroup from the late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age, notably in the Bell Beaker and Yamnaya cultures (Allentoft et al., 2015; Haak et al., 2015; Lee et al., 2012; Mathieson et al., 2015). Nearly 100% of the Afanasievo men we typed belonged to the R1b1a1a subhaplogroup and, for at least three of them, more precisely to the L23 (xM412) subclade. (…)

(…) our results therefore support the hypothesis of a genetic link between Afanasievo and Yamnaya. This also suggests that R1b was indeed dominant in the early Bronze Age Siberian steppe, at least in individuals that were buried in kurgans (possibly an elite part of the population). The geographical and temporal distribution of subhaplogroup R1b1a1a supports the hypothesis of population expansion from West to East in the Eurasian steppe during this period. It should however be noted that the Yamnaya burials from which the samples for DNA analysis were obtained (Allentoft et al., 2015; Haak et al., 2015; Mathieson et al., 2015) were dated within the limits of the Afanasievo period. Ancestors of both East Yamnaya and Afanasievo populations must therefore be sought in the context of earlier Eneolithic cultures in Eastern Europe. Sufficient Y-chromosomal data from such Eneolithic populations is, unfortunately, not yet available.

Mitochondrial- (A) and Y- (B) haplogroup distribution in studied populations

Okunevo and paternal lineage shift in South Siberia

Results obtained in the current study, from more than a dozen Okunevo individuals belonging to the earliest stage of Okunevo culture, that is the Uibat period (2500–2200 BC) (Lazaretov, 1997), suggest a discontinuity in the genetic pool between Afanasievo and Okunevo cultures. Although Y-chromosomal data obtained for bearers of the Okunevo culture showed that one individual carried haplogroup R1b, most Okunevo Y-haplogroups are representative of an Asian component represented by paternal lineages Q and NO1.

Okunevo carrier of Y-haplogroup Q1b1a-L54, which also supports this hypothesis (L54 being a marker of the lineage from which M3, the main Ameridian lineage, arose). Okunevo people could therefore be a remnant paleo-Siberian population with possible Afanasievo input, as suggested by the presence of the R1b1a1a2a subhaplogroup in one individual.

Late Chalcolithic migrations ca. 2600-2250 BC.

Replacement of Asian Indo-European elite lineages by R1a

Published genetic data from the late Bronze Age Andronovo culture from the Minusinsk Basin (Keyser et al., 2009), the Sintashta culture from Russia (Allentoft et al., 2015) and the Srubnaya culture from the region of Samara (Mathieson et al., 2015), show that males did not belong to Y-haplogroup R1b but mostly to R1a clades: there appears to have been a change in the dominant Y-chromosomal haplogroup between the early and the late Bronze Age in these regions. Moreover, as described in Allentoft et al. (2015), the Andronovo and Sintashta peoples were closely related to each other but clearly distinct from both Yamnaya and Afanasievo. Although these results do not imply that Y-haplogroup R1b was entirely absent in these later populations, they could correspond to a replacement of the elite between these two main periods and therefore a difference in the haplogroups of the men that were preferentially buried.

Early Bronze Age migrations ca. 2250-1750 BC.

Afanasevo and the Tarim Basin

The discovery, in the Tarim Basin, of well-preserved mummies from the Bronze Age allows for the construction of two hypotheses regarding the peopling of the Xinjiang province at this period. The “steppe hypothesis,” argues for a link with nomadic steppe herders (Hemphill and Mallory, 2004), possibly represented in this case by Afanasievo populations and their descendants (Mallory and Mair, 2000). However, newly published cultural data from the burial grounds of Gumugou (Wang, 2014) and Xiaohe (Xinjiang, 2003, 2007) shows material culture and burial rites incompatible with the Afanasievo culture. The earliest 14C date for Tarim Basin burials would place them at the turn of the 2nd millenium BC (Wang, 2013), 500 years after the Afanasievo period.

Instead, early Gumugou and Xiaohe burial grounds were contemporary with the start of the Andronovo period. Likewise, the Bronze Age population of the Xinjiang at Gumugou/Qäwrighul is not phenotypically closest to Afanasievo but to the Andronovo (Fedorovo) group of northeastern Kazakhstan and western Altai (Kozintsev, 2009). Our investigations demonstrate that Y-chromosomal lineage composition is also compatible with the notion that the ancient Tarim population was genetically distinct from the Afanasievo population. The only Y-haplogroup found by Li et al. (2010) in the Bronze Age Tarim Basin population was Y-haplogroup R1a, which suggests a proximity of this population with Andronovo groups rather than Afanasievo groups.

I don’t think these finds are much of a surprise based on what we already know, or need much explanation…

I would add that, once again, we have more proof that the movement of Okunevo and related ancient Siberian migrants from Central or North Asia will not be able to explain the presence of Uralic languages spread over North-East Europe and Scandinavia already during the Bronze Age.

Also interesting is to read in more peer-reviewed papers the idea of Late Indo-European speakers clearly linked to the expansion of patrilineally-related elite males marked by haplogroup R1b-L23, most likely since Eneolithic Khvalynsk/Repin cultures.


Neanderthal language revisited: speech old and shared with archaic humans


Neanderthal language revisited: not only us, by Dediu and Levinson, Curr Opin Behav Sci (2018) 21:49–55.


Here we re-evaluate our 2013 paper on the antiquity of language (Dediu and Levinson, 2013) in the light of a surge of new information on human evolution in the last half million years. Although new genetic data suggest the existence of some cognitive differences between Neanderthals and modern humans — fully expected after hundreds of thousands of years of partially separate evolution, overall our claims that Neanderthals were fully articulate beings and that language evolution was gradual are further substantiated by the wealth of new genetic, paleontological and archeological evidence briefly reviewed here.

The new data supports language and speech being old and shared with archaic humans. However, this does not rule out subtle and very interesting differences

Check out also the interesting open access article Drawings of Representational Images by Upper Paleolithic Humans and their Absence in Neanderthals Might Reflect Historical Differences in Hunting Wary Game, by Richard G. Coss.