The new Scicomm’s warhorse is “CHG ancestry = PIE” and the Iranian homeland


Funny reports are popping up due to a recent article in New Scientist (behind paywall), World’s most-spoken languages may have arisen in ancient Iran, which echoes the controversial interpretations of Wang et al. (2018).

I have been waiting to read the printed edition, but that of May 26th doesn’t have the article in it, so it may be a web-only text.

Nevertheless, here are some excerpts about the PIE homeland from a news aggregator that caught my attention (emphasis mine):

The two proposed locations are divided by the Caucasus mountains, which are found between the Black and Caspian Seas. In today’s geography, the mountains cover parts of Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

To find out whether the ancient language came from north or south of these mountains, a team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History looked at the bones of 45 ancient humans from the Caucasus region, and analyzed their DNA. These people lived in the area between 3,200 and 6,500 years ago.

Interestingly, from looking at their genes, the researchers determined that these ancient people seemed to be moving predominantly in one direction – they were heading north. This suggests that, contrary to what was previously believed, the first Indo-European language might actually have arisen south of the Caucasus mountains, only spreading to other parts of Europe and Asia as people migrated north from this region. The findings are currently available on BioRxiv.

We know that the Proto-Indo-European language appeared somewhere between 5,500 and 9,000 years ago, and the study suggests it only spread to Europe about 6,500 years ago. Therefore, this lost language could have originated south of the Caucasus.

What’s more, the ancient people analyzed had similar genetic signatures to prehistoric farmers who once lived in western Iran. Therefore, the ancient version of many of our languages may have first evolved in ancient Iran, before spreading with the people who first spoke it, and their ancestors, as they radiated north of the Caucasus mountains to the Eurasian steppe.

However, there are still many who favor the conflicting theory – that the Proto-Indo-European language arose in the Eurasian steppe. But this would only take the language back about 4,800 years – when people moved from the Eurasian steppe into Europe – and specialists think the language is significantly older. The idea that it first sprung up in Iran about 6,500 years ago follows this assumption.

It seems that – now that the Danish workgroup (responsible for the “steppe ancestry = Indo-European” and “Corded Ware expanded from Yamna“) is backing down, and both it and the Reich/Jena group are accepting that Yamna represents the expansion of Late Indo-European into Afanasevo, Bell Beaker, and Sintashta – anything before Yamna in the steppe is just another “conflicting theory” among equals…

So forget the “steppe ancestry = PIE”, and welcome the newly fashionable “CHG ancestry = PIE“, and of course the Iranian homeland.

This is how I imagine genetic labs writing anthropological interpretations and conclusions of their papers, against every single reasonable restraint (and the well-established models of linguists and archaeologists) and then publicizing them:



Haplogroup R1b-L51 in Khvalynsk samples from the Samara region dated ca. 4250-4000 BC

A commenter in a previous post left a reference to an oral communication by Aleksander Khokhlov – shared in a Russian forum on genetics – , from the XIV Conference on Samaran Archaeology, 27-28th January 2018 (still publicized in the Samaran Archaeological Society).

NOTE. You may know Khokhlov as a palaeoanthropologist, part of the Samara Valley project, like David W. Anthony. See the project referenced here, or their recently published book.

Here is my translation of the reported summary (emphasis mine):

Khokhlov, A.A. Preliminary results of anthropological and genetic studies of materials of the Volga-Ural region of the Neolithic-Early Bronze Age by an international group of scientists.

In his report, A. A. Khokhlov introduced the scientific circle to the still unpublished data of the new Eneolithic burial ground Yekaterinovskiy Cape, which combines both the Mariupol and Khvalynsk features, and is dated to the fourth quarter of the V millennium BC. All samples analyzed had a Uraloid anthropological type, the chromosome of all samples belonged to haplogroup R1b1a2 (R-P312/S116), and to haplogroup R1b1a1a2a1a1c2b2b1a2. mtDNA to haplogroups U2, U4, U5. In the Khvalynsk burial grounds (first half of the IV millennium BC), the anthropological material differs in a greater variety. In addition to the Uraloid substratum, European wide-faced and southern European variants are recorded. To the samples are added haplogroup R1a1, O1a1, I2a2 to mtDNA T2a1b, H2a1.

Yekaterinovskiy burial of male, 20-25 years old, dated ca. 4400-4200 BC. Via Pikabu.

So, first of all:

  • This is a reported summary of an oral communication, and it was written in a forum by a user. Unlike many out there, though, this one uses his real name, apparently assisted to the conference, and is himself a Russian of self-reported haplogroup R1a1a, so probably no interest in reporting this if it’s not true. Errors contained may have been made by him, and may not have been found in the original communication, since he says he wrote it by hand.
  • Something is obviously off with the haplogroup nomenclature. There has recently been mixing of standards, with some papers reporting R1b1a2-M269 (which is supposed to be now ISOGG V88), and most using R1b1a1a2-M269. What I had never seen is both standards used at the same time, as in this report, so I guess it’s another error of transcription.
  • It is doubtful that we would be talking about that recent referenced subclade of U106, but it can’t be a surprise to finally find L51 subclades alongside Z2103 in Proto-Indo-European territory. Also, the summary must obviously refer to Q1a1, not O1a1, and probably to the first half of the V (and not IV) millennium BC.

NOTE. Since Khokhlov, like Anthony, is an anthropologist, and this is an archaeological conference, we could suppose – if the report is truthful to what he said or what could be read in the summary – that this is the best he can do to report genetic material that was not assessed by him, but by a specialized lab, because it is not his field. I think the relevant data is nevertheless useful until we have the official publication.

Archaeological remains studied come from a site near Yekaterinovka. You can read more about it in The Ekaterinovsky cape – A new Eneolithic burial ground in the forest-steppe volga region (2013).

From this report of archaeological works, we know there were 60 Early Eneolithic burials excavated in 2013, dating to the period between S’yezzhe and Khvalynsk. 15 more burials were excavated in 2017, and there are to date already around 93 reported burials, with ongoing excavations.

Assuming that what the report conveys is more or less correct in the basics, let’s derive some simple conclusions from the data:

  • The presence of some samples uniformly of R1b-L23 subclades that early will mean an end to the question of when this haplogroup dominated over the Khvalynsk population, and probably also when it appeared (rather early during this culture’s formation), since it would mean R1b-L23 subclades were widespread already by the end of the 5th millenium.
  • I can only guess that CHG ancestry will be found in these samples, based indirectly on what is reported in anthropological terms, and what appears later in Yamna and Afanasevo samples. This will contradict some recent comments suggesting an admixture driven by males from the south, and especially a Maykop -> Khvalynsk migration as a source of this component, placing the admixture at earlier times, and/or driven by exogamy. Therefore we can reject the formation of Middle PIE outside of Khvalynsk, and also the expansion of Proto-Anatolian from Maykop (unless Maykop itself is proposed as a steppe offshoot).
  • The presence of L51 lineages in certain clans side by side with others formed mainly by Z2103 in such a small region supports (as I proposed) the existence of early diverging LPIE communities – and therefore also the early splitting of a Northern and a Southern (i.e. Graeco-Aryan) dialect, each associated with certain regional groups – already by this time, which may help with the identification of later migrants that ended in Afanasevo (and thus confirm the dialectal origin of Pre-Tocharian). It goes without saying that all those ideas of R1b-L51 stemming from North Pontic cultures, the Balkans, Central or Western Europe – unrelated to Khvalynsk or Yamna – should be rejected.
  • Khvalynsk was probably dominated by R1b-L23 subclades already ca. 4250-4000 BC, which – combined with earlier, more diverse Eneolithic samples from the region (dated ca. 5000-4500 BC) – would support an expansion of these subclades just before this time, in the mid-5th millennium BC, as I proposed based on ancient samples and TMRCAs of modern haplogroups. It is now more likely then that I was right in linking the expansion of R1b-M269 and early R1b-L23 lineages as chiefs with the spread of horse riding from early Khvalynsk, and thus associated also with the split and migration of the Proto-Anatolian community, probably with expanding Suvorovo-Novodanilovka chiefs.
  • These findings should finally put an end to the idea of a shared “R1a-R1b Proto-Indo-European community”, by rejecting its existence already during the early Khvalynsk period, and therefore also rejecting the idea of a North Pontic Indo-Slavonic proto-language as impossible, since it would need a split 2,000 years before the known Late PIE expansions associated with Yamna, and 3,000 years before the formation of the early Indo-Iranian community in Sintashta-Andronovo.

NOTE. While the presence of R1b-P312 and R1b-U106 subclades that early does not seem likely based on their estimated formation dates (in turn based on modern descendants), this is not the first time that such estimations have been proven wrong with ancient samples (viz. the “late” Z93 subclade from Eneolithic Ukraine sample I6561). Also, we already have one sample labelled U106 supposedly expanding with Indo-Iranians, and a sample of an early L51 subclade in Central Asia potentially linked to Afanasevo migrants in the infamous tables of Narasimhan et al. (2018), which help support its early presence in the North Caspian area. Some of these younger subclades seem (based on TMRCAs and forming dates of modern haplogroups) more like a wrong ‘excessive-subclade-reporting fest’, probably due to the use of a certain software for inferences of Y-SNP calls from scarce material, but who knows.

EDIT (2 MAY 2018): A commenter in the forum cast doubts on the actual dates of the site, citing the reservoir effect in Khvalynsk which may show earlier radiocarbon dates than the actual ones. Since this is an international team well versed in archaeological remains of this region, and there have been already many samples and remains assessed before and after these dates, it is not very likely that they did not take such problems of radiocarbon dating into account when reporting the findings…

The publication of this and more data in a book is supposedly due for the summer, so let’s wait for the officially reported haplogroups, and for the corrected tables in Narasimhan et al. (2018), to draw the necessary detailed conclusions.

This post was emailed to subscribers of this blog on the 1st of May immediately after publication, with our Newsletter. If you want to keep up to date with the latest interesting information instantly (few mails will be submitted a month, if any), subscribe now.

EDIT (May 2017) The answer I received from the group to my questions regarding these samples can be read here.


The Lower Danube during the Eneolithic, and the potential Proto-Anatolian community


Local cultural settings and transregional phenomena: on the impact of a funerary ritual in the Lower Danube in the 4th millennium BC, by Frinculeasa & Mirea, In: Buletinul Muzeului Judetean Teleorman, Seria Arheologie, 9, 2017, p. 75-116.

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

1. In the area under discussion, around 4300-4200 BC – a chronological segment marking the evolutionary peak of ‘Old Europe’ (Anthony 2007: 225), represented by the Cucuteni A/ Tripolie BI, Aldeni-Bolgrad, Gumelniţa-Karanovo VI cultures – the first tumular burials appeared (Govedarica 2016: 85). However, flat burials, marked by the existence of some allogeneous elements in the local Eneolithic milieu, were also present. These finds have been linked to the presence (in terms of both trade and conflicts) of Suvorovo/Suvorovo-Novodanilovka communities (Anthony 2007: 251ff.; Govedarica and Manzura 2011: 46ff.; Reingruber and Rassamakin 2016) or of some groups from the ‘western part of the Skelia culture’ (Anthony 2007: 251ff.; Govedarica and Manzura 2011: 46ff.; Reingruber and Rassamakin 2016). (…) The zoomorphic sceptres and the four-knobbed stone mace heads found east of the Prut/the Lower Danube are also related to this topic (Govedarica 2004; Govedarica and Manzura 2011: abb. 5; Gogâltan 2013).

2. The next chronological segment intersects the ‘hiatus’ recorded between the end of the Gumelniţa-Karanovo VI cultural complex and the beginning of the Cernavoda I culture (Rassamakin 2011a: 85ff.; Govedarica and Manzura 2011: 51). We should also mention the existence of a small set of absolute dates ranging within the interval 4200/ 4150 – 3900/ 3850 BC that come from the sites of Sultana, Vităneşti, Pietrele, Bucşani, Ploieşti ‘Triaj’, Ovcarovo, Hotnica etc. (Reingruber 2015; Reingruber and Rassamakin 2016; Frînculeasa 2016; Bem and Haită 2016: 63; Krause et al. 2016). The examples of Sărăteni and Krasnoe15 and the abovementioned dates seem to fill out a part of this chronological segment. It is still difficult to say whether they reflect the presence of some communities that led to the disappearance of the Gumelniţa-Karanovo VI complex or are connected with an early Cernavoda I, or possibly late Suvorovo evolution. If we refer to the absolute dates obtained for samples taken from mammal bones found in Cernavoda I settlements, we notice that the appearance of this culture in the abovementioned chronological interval is not yet confirmed (Frînculeasa 2016, tab. 3).

3. The Cernavoda I discoveries (approximately 3850/3800 – 3550/3500 BC) are represented in the Lower Danube by settlements and flat graves (the presence of tumular burials should not be completely excluded, see Brăiliţa). In the Bugeac area, the Cernavoda I culture was until recently defined only by tumular burials (Manzura 1999). The presence at Orlovka of flat graves and of a settlement (with two habitation levels, in which the Cucuteni B painted pottery occurs in association with the unpainted pottery with crushed shells into the paste) (Govedarica and Manzura 2015; Manzura 2018) shows that we are dealing with the same cultural phenomenon both west and east of the Prut, beyond the so-called ‘Bessarabian version’. North of the Danube there are flat burials, with individuals in side-crouched position. Unlike the tumular graves (including the early ones), in the flat graves there are no ornaments, only (unpainted) pottery items, including at Orlovka cemetery.

Map of funerary finds with skeletons in extended position from the 4th millennium BC and
contemporaneous cultural areas.

Therefore, the presence of tumular graves east of the Prut, in the same chronological interval, may be related to phenomena located east of the Dniester. In fact, Y. Rassamakin associates these finds with the Lower Mikhailovka culture, which precedes here the ritual that is specific to Kvityana communities (Rassamakin 1994: 42, 44; 1999: 92). He establishes a chronological relation between a number of findings such as the plastic anthropomorphic representations from Cernavoda, Râmnicelu, Târpeşti, Folteşti and Satu Nou (Neagu et al. 1982) and Dereivka (Rassamakin 1994: 41; 1999: 90), which seems to point to a revival of contacts between the North Pontic area and the Lower Danube, contacts which had been interrupted with the dissolution of the Gumelniţa-Karanovo VI cultural complex (Reingruber and Rassamakin 2016).

4. At the middle of the 4th millennium BC (we do not exclude that it could reach the end of the chronological interval in which the Cernavoda I culture evolves), we can establish the occurrence (in secondary position) in tumuli – located in the Prut-Dniester interfluve – of graves with deceased laid in extended position. It is a period in which the Kvityana funeral traditions transcend their place of origin. The painted pottery culture provides evidence for, indirectly or directly through the presence of vessels in graves, including east of the Dniester (Rassamakin 2011b; 2013a), the contact and the chronological relationship. Placing the constructions with rings later towards the last third of the 4th millennium BC is supported by the Usatovo finds (Tripolie CII) which are posterior to the Cernavoda I ones (Govedarica and Manzura 2011). The relationship and direct chronological relation between the Kvityana and the (early) Usatovo is also supported by the discovery of Sadovoe (Maljukevich and Petrenko 1993: fig. 5/2). (…)

5. Another horizon with burials of individuals in supine position is stratigraphically recorded between Zhivotilovka and Yamnaya (the last third of the 4th millennium BC); however, a coexistence of both cultural/ funerary groups with specific ritual elements (side-crouched and supinely with knees folded and raised) is not excluded either. The absence of inventory and of ochre and the presence of oval-elongated pits are specific elements.

6. (…) The extended position disappeared in the Early Bronze Age/ 3rd millennium BC (Rassamakin 2013a: 116), but is to be found again in the Katacombnaya ritual (Frînculeasa et al. 2017a). Ascertaining the many discrepancies regarding the contexts and radiocarbon dates, we maintain our reservations on this matter as well. Therefore, the two samples do not represent a solid basis for a possible discussion

From the conclusions:

If the Kvityana evolution covers a significant part of the first half of the 4th millennium BC, and partially the second half, west of the Prut we are dealing with Cernavoda I and later Usatovo communities in the same chronological time frame. The relationship between this ritual/ Kvityana and the Cernavoda I culture, which is stratigraphically unclear, and the absence of items to prove direct contacts show a slight chronological gap in favour of the Cernavoda I culture and the side-crouched ritual, at least in the Prut-Dniester interfluve. This ritual continues to be present, crosses the evolution of Zhivotilovka communities and continues as far as the start of the Yamnaya. The extended position is a late occurrence within the tumular burials in the Lower Danube, but here it is also a rather discreet ritual, one that seems to be of secondary importance. The presence of this ritual (and the accurate interpretation of stratigraphic situations) is an additional element for establishing a better chronological and chorological relationship between the West Pontic area and realities located in the North Pontic steppe, amidst a phenomenon which seems to have rewritten history in other parameters, initially of the Lower Danube and then of Western Europe.

If someone was still relying on Gimbutas – and mostly anything before the 2000s, like “kurgans”, in general terms – to assess cultural developments, and particularly ethnolinguistic identifications, it is time to let it go. The situation in the North Pontic area reveals itself far more complex with each new assessment of recent findings and radiocarbon dates.

By now it is evident that the LPIE-speaking community, formed in the Khvalynsk/Repin -> Yamna period, became dominated by R1b-M269 subclades early during its formation and expansion, based on what we have already seen in the Afanasevo expansion to the east, in the Bell Beaker migrants to the west, and in the admixed lineages (with incoming Abashevo peoples) in the North Caspian steppe that formed the Early Indo-Iranian community. While we don’t have much data on the Balkan region, especially Yamna migrants leading to the Proto-Greek migration, it is quite likely to support this, too.

Therefore, earlier PIE stages are the most likely objects of controversy for the future. Just like proponents of the Anatolian and Armenian homeland theories have surreptitiously shifted their proposal of “farmers expanding LPIE languages” to “farmers expanding earlier PIE stages”, we will see many different accounts of how late Khvalynsk/Repin came to be, and especially of what new culture now represents Middle PIE, be it early Sredni Stog, Northern Iran, or the Lower Danube.

I am not a priori radically opposed to any of those territories as potential earlier ‘original’ (i.e. Early PIE) homelands, although none of them is a likely Middle PIE Urheimat. The fact that such renewed proposals seem to be mostly based on haplogroups or ancestral components mixed into newly formed pet theories, instead of sound linguistic and archaeological models of cultural continuity (following late Khvalynsk/Repin backwards to their most likely forming cultures) does not help their cause.

Most likely Pre-Proto-Anatolian migration with Suvorovo-Novodanilovka chiefs in the North Pontic steppe and the Balkans.

I am certainly not opposed to a strong influence on the formation of a Middle PIE-speaking community (in terms of Y-DNA lineages and potentially language, since genomics cannot change our knowledge of prehistoric cultures) due to immigrants from the Caucasus. After all:

  1. There seems to be a Northern Caucasian (phonetic) substrate in Middle PIE compared to Uralic;
  2. There is an obvious genetic contribution to both North Pontic and North Caspian steppe communities (probably greater in the latter); and
  3. If you defend an Indo-Uralic community – e.g. in a Neolithic steppe cultural-historical community, as I would be inclined to support – , a sizeable migration from the south – whether driven by female exogamy, male migrants, or both – would explain that influence.

Nevertheless, even in this case of an obvious migration (e.g. by R1b-M269 lineages) from the Caucasus, we could be talking about a Caucasian group influencing the formation of a Middle PIE community, represented by Khvalynsk, i.e. not necessarily about a Maykop-Khvalynsk community.

That is, peoples from the Caucasus could have admixed with the (already diverse) North Caspian steppe community to form the Middle PIE-speaking peoples whose expansion developed both known dialectal splits:

  1. Proto-Anatolian, probably represented by Suvorovo-Novodanilovka chiefs, but possibly by Maykop; and
  2. Late PIE, undoubtedly represented by the community forming in late Khvalynsk/Repin -> Yamna.

The Lower Danube remains thus the most important region to investigate, looking for traces of a Proto-Anatolian migration out of the steppe. Today this route seems more likely than Gimbutas’ original idea of Maykop representing a steppe offshoot, since the culture and thus its contacts with the steppe are older than she expected, Anatolian is dated earlier than she could have known based on the works available then, and even the latest available language guesstimates and radiocarbon dates don’t fit quite right in light of the known cultural contacts.

Until some proof appears of a different origin than what archaeologists have described to date, we need more than a simple one-paragraph informal pet theory to change the mainstream model.

A) Given that data from Mesolithic and Eneolithic Pontic-Caspian steppe shows a mixed population in terms of haplogroups, and R1b-M269 lineages are still nowhere to be seen – in the three samples from the Samara region of the Khvalynsk culture -, I can still only guess that it is precisely the expansion of Middle PIE (Pre-Proto-Anatolian and Pre-LPIE) the event associated with the expansion of chiefs of R1b-M269 lineages, especially R1b-L23 subclades, and the general reduction in haplogroup variability, as is obviously seen later in Yamna.

B) If this haplogroup is found first in the Caucasus, and then in Maykop and Khvalynsk during and after their known contacts, though, instead of in Suvorovo-Novodanilovka chiefs, then the question may be settled as Reich recently proposed, and we may have to revise the language split (or, rather, the loss of contact between both MPIE dialects) to a slightly later date.

C) As a third, more complex alternative, if such haplogroup reduction actually happened slightly later – which is unlikely based on modern R1b-M269* and R1b-L23* haplogroup distribution – , say during the expansion of Khvalynsk and Repin as a Yamna community, then

C.1.) any lineage up to that point with steppe ancestry (including the R1b-V88 sample found in Varna, the same lineage apparently found in a likely early chief from Samara) could be the smoking gun of a potential Proto-Anatolian community spreading through the Balkans.

C.2) Alternatively, if it’s the Caucasus or Northern Iran the origin of Middle PIE formation, then any haplogroup or admixture from Maykop to Anatolia could represent Proto-Anatolians…

We just need more samples near the steppe in time and space to depict a clearer genetic image.

EDIT 28-29 APR 2018: Changes made to the text, including the possibility of a Maykop route.

Featured image: Distribution of burial sites of the Zhivotilovka type.