A History of Indo-Europeans, Migrations and Language
by Edward Dawson, 17 October 2015. Updated 15 March 2020
Those peoples who are now known as Indo-Europeans (IEs)
were the most widely ranging ethnic group in ancient times. Due to
their existence on the steppes as cattle and horse raising people,
they were quite mobile - a characteristic which they shared with
other steppe nomads such as the Turkic and Hunnic peoples.
Indo-European is proposed to be a member of a much
older macro family called Nostratic.
This includes the Uralic, Altaic and Kartvelian
languages, and with a lower probability also languages spoken in
India, North Africa, and the Arabian peninsula. Kartvelian-speaking
tribes would have been close neighbours to the original
Indo-Europeans in the Caucasian Mountains - the apparent difference
between them would be that Kartvelian speakers stayed home in the
mountains, while Indo-European speakers expanded.
This expansion was almost certainly caused by the
adoption of horse-drawn wagons by the Indo-Europeans. This led to
led to the use of chariots in war, and finally to riding horses for
There are various theories about the precise location
of their original homeland. A personal leaning is for the most probable
theory, that they were originally located somewhere on the northern
edge of the Caucasus Mountains. These form a range of peaks that sits
between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and which today is largely
within the borders of Georgia and the southern tip of Russia. The IEs
then expanded out from there, most of them going north into the steppes.
Map 1: The northern edge of the Caucuses Mountains between the
Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is the most probable homeland for
the proto-Indo-Europeans, cut off as they would have been from
their fellow Eurasiatic speakers (click or tap on map to view full
What's in a Name - Sakas & Scythians
RULERS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD:
Arzawans (West Luwians)
Kizzuwatnans (East Luwians)
The United Sites of Indo-Europeans
Proto-Bulgarian Runic Inscriptions
Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians
Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin
Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples
Indo-European Etymological Dictionary (J Pokorny)
A full timeline of events can be seen in the accompanying
list (see link in the sidebar, right). But a brief recap here would be
useful. The separation of the proto-Indo-European (PIE) language from its
parent Nostratic tongue took place approximately at the 6000 BC mark
(see the first map, above).
One can speculate that this occurred via isolation in a
mountainous region (hence favouring the Caucuses Mountains as a homeland).
This would be prior to the 'Kurgan Hypothesis' homeland. 
The beginnings of Indo-European expansion took place around 4000 BC
(see Map 2, below), and with it the beginning of areal dialects. 
The Anatolian dialect began to move southwards, signifying the migration
of one group of Indo-Europeans away from the rest. Most of the others
appear to have begun an expansion northwards into the Pontic-Caspian
Was the horse domesticated and the horse-drawn
wagon adopted at this time? This is the Kurgan Hypothesis homeland
period, also known as the 'Pontic Steppe Hypothesis', with the majority
of Indo-Europeans inhabiting the steppes to the north of the Black
Sea and Caspian Sea. The archaeological evidence so far is too
inconclusive to provide a definite source of origin for the
Indo-Europeans, and some of the more outlandish theories place it
far away from this region, but the Pontic steppe is the favoured
These early Indo-Europeans were identified by
scholars with warrior pastoralists who built kurgan (burial
mounds - a Turkic loan word in Russian which is often used to
identify the Indo-Europeans prior to their expansion) in the steppes
to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in what is now
southern Russia and Ukraine.
However, the core of this particular study focuses
on the expansion as shown by language shifts rather than other
Map 2: The initial expansion of Indo-Europeans took place around
4000 BC, with one group heading southwards, while the main body
expanded into the Pontic-Caspian steppe, a vast stretch of plains
to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea (click or tap on map to
view full sized)
The Kurgan Hypothesis
homeland theory is the dominant theory to explain the
migrations of Indo-Europeans and the early cultures that
The Anatolian branch of Indo-European language
appears to have separated from the rest around 3500 BC; it retained
many archaic features which were lost among the other branches of
Indo-European, indicating a clear separation between the two branches
at this time (south and north).
The ancestor tongue of Hatti (Hittite), Luwian (many
sub-branches), Lydian, and Palaic migrated from the Indo-European
homeland and moved south through the mountains. Eventually it reached
the highlands of the Anatolian peninsula. From there the Hatti speakers
(Hittites) manage to form an empire that encompassed most of Anatolia
(although they were much later in establishing themselves than the
Core IEs beginning to divide
Around 3000 BC, the remaining Indo-Europeans (now
excluding the Anatolian branch) probably began the process of separating
into definite proto languages which were not intelligible to each other.
A western group would evolve into the Celtic, Italic, Venetic,
Illyrian, Ligurian, Vindelician/Liburnian and Raetic branches.
Map 3: The Indo-Europeans of the Pontic-Caspian steppe began to
migrate out of their core territory around 3000 BC, while those
who remained behind - the East IEs - eventually integrated
themselves into the Oxus Civilisation and probably then supplied
the Aryans of India and Iran (click or tap on map to view full sized)
Early in this western group's expansion, one tribe
apparently headed eastwards instead of westwards (perhaps forced to
do so by, for instance, becoming divided from the main mass of
western Indo-Europeans) to evolve into the Tocharian branch of
A north-western branch began the German ethnic group.
A northern branch founded what would become Baltic and Slavic peoples.
Proto-Greeks formed a south-western branch, probably along with Thracians,
Dacians, and Phrygians, all of which seem to have been related to the
Armenians. An eastern, or 'stay at home' branch apparently calling
themselves Arya or something similar formed the ancestors of Indians,
Kurds, Iranians, Mannaeans, Medians, and related peoples.
Language division theories
There are two theories about the splitting of the
proto-Indo-European language (PIE) into divergent languages. One is
the tree theory, which illustrates them separating like the branches
of a tree. The other is the wave theory, which indicates dialects in
contact influencing their neighbours. Both theories would seem to be
correct to some degree. In truth both would have happened depending
on the degree of mutual contact and/or isolation.
Furthermore, there is evidence that branches which split
apart in the manner of the tree model can adopt a linguistic trend
or custom from each other. One of the most glaring examples of this
would be the shift from PIE's ancestral 'kw' sound to 'p' in both Celtic
and Italic tongues across a central area of Europe, something that
was not adopted by geographically-isolated Celts in Spain and Ireland,
or those Italics to the west of the Pennines.
Another is the satem/centum split. For
convenience, and no other reason, the tree model is used here. Whilst
it is generally too simplistic for a complete explanation, using a
wave model would make the branches incoherent.
The 'leading edge' of the Balto-Slavic group seems
to have become proto-Balts, and their southern relatives, proto-Slavs.
These two moved north from the other Indo-Europeans, or were already
somewhat to the north of them anyway, semi-isolated forest-dwellers.
They appear to have moved into (or remained largely located within)
forested river valleys during the early stages of IE migration and,
if they ever had it, gave up the semi-nomadic or fully nomadic
lifestyle as a result.
The proto-Germans migrated into southern Scandinavia
and the Jutland peninsula.
Some peculiarities that distinguish proto-Germanic from
other Indo-European tongues may have been borrowed from Finnic languages.
There also appears to have been heavy cultural contact with their neighbours
to the immediate south, the Celts. They borrowed at least one deity (Taranis,
better known as Thor). They also appear to borrowed a prominent peculiarity of
pronunciation that was associated with the Celtic influence on their religion.
The Celtic 'gw' or 'gu' instead of 'w' was adopted in speech, so that the
word for a magician, 'wod/woth', became 'god/goth', meaning a deity. The
'gw' became 'g' and, in at least one recorded instance, a 'k', as the
Baltic Sea was recorded by the Romans as the Codanus Sinus.
There appears to have been two conflicting groups of
deities who were honoured by early Indo-Europeans; these are best known
by their Vedic names of Devas and Asuras. Some cultures honoured both,
but most chose one or the other as dominant one. The proto-Germans seem
to have chosen the Asuras as dominant, under their dialectal variant
'Os', otherwise known as 'Aesir'.
This language group dominated most of Europe in ancient
times, and still does in Western Europe. Its member languages are Celtic,
Italic, Venetic, Illyrian, Ligurian, Vindelician/Liburnian, and Raetic
branches. West Indo-Europeans are probably best known for their
geographically wide-ranging group, the Celts, who in turn adopted Latin
once they had been conquered by the Romans.
This group's most influential member language, however,
is Latin, an Italic tongue that was spread across Europe by the Roman
empire. Celtic tribes have been associated with Urnfield culture
artefacts that began to appear around 1200 BC in central Europe,
with the later Hallstatt culture which started around 800 BC, and also
with the La Tène culture of around 450 BC.
Whilst these associations are not doubted here,
readers should be cautious about merely accepting these defining
labels. Celtic-speaking tribes were not limited to the regions
within these material cultures and instead extended well beyond
them. On the other hand, the Hallstatt material culture was also
found in the Illyrian area of Eastern Europe, showing a wide range
Movement of this group appears to have been almost
exactly west from the ancestral homelands, with some bending of
their path due to geography. A serious question would be why they
came west. Were they pushed by other nomads, and if so, who? Peoples
in the area might have been Iranian nomads or perhaps Thracians,
such as the Cimmerians who originated on the steppes before moving
south into Iran and Anatolia.
Albanian appears to be an Indo-European dialect isolate.
Its affinities appear to make no sense whatsoever, so the less said here
about it the better. Any help in this area would be appreciated, so please
get in touch. Whoever or whatever they were and are, they occupy the
western coast just north of the Greeks.
This term refers to the
east/west split (respectively) in Indo-European language groups.
This language group seems to include both Greeks and
Armenians; whether they split off from a more recent common ancestor than
PIE, or were in close contact is debatable.
Also in this area were the Thracians, but their origin
is even more debatable because they appear to have spoken a satem
language rather than the centum one of their neighbours. A tidy
assignment of their origin is impossible due to the uncertainty of their
history. Were they a West IE people, perhaps Italics or Illyrians, who were
taken over by an eastern, satem-speaking military elite, with their
languages subsequently fusing? Also tentatively placed in this group are
Dacians and Phrygians.
These are the Anatolian languages, the first to split off
from PIE. The best known is Hittite, which also included Luwian, Palaic,
Lydian, and Lycian. This is the group that appears to have abandoned the
steppes at the earliest date, and yet historical records indicate that they
had the same highly mobile horse-borne habits as the other Indo-Europeans.
They fought from chariots and attacked south from Anatolia into Mesopotamia
The Tocharians appear to have a very odd history. Their
language shows elements of both eastern and western influences, which raises
the question of whether they began as a Western IE group (or a conquering
core of Western IE warriors) that went eastwards and either assimilated
another tribe or other tribes, or were in heavy contact with them. A case
could even be made for them being an Anatolian language group or being in
heavy contact with the Anatolian group.
An intriguing possibility that is becoming more of
a probability with further study is that they are a hybrid people
made up of elements of multiple groups. The curious thing about Tocharian
is that it is a centum language - just like IE languages in the west
- but it is the easternmost of the IE languages.
This is the centum/satem split.
The satem (eastern) pronunciation was generally
adopted in the old homeland of Indo-Europeans after the mass departure
of peoples to the west into Europe who became Celts and Germans, and to
the far east by the proto-Tocharians, but this was well after the
Tocharian departure so it cannot have been an influence on them. The
centum/satem split would seem to have been - in general -
a west/east split. The west-speaking Tocharians were perhaps forced by
prevailing unknown circumstances to head eastwards instead of westwards.
Anatolian was the first group to detach itself from the
main core of Indo-Europeans and this seems to be a centum group.
This would mean that PIE was originally centum. The Tocharians were
also centum-speakers, even though they later borrowed
heavily from other languages. We find Sanskrit words that they adopted
due to their Buddhist religion. It would seem that Tocharian was heavily
hybridised, in the manner of English with its large French vocabulary,
and religious-adopted Latin vocabulary.
A website named The United Sites of Indo-Europeans
(see links) says:
This group is perhaps the least studied in all
[of the] Indo-European macro-family. It consists of two dead languages,
Tocharian A (or Agnean) and Tocharian B (or Kuchanian), spoken in the
first millennium AD in East Turkestan, in several [oases in which]
inscriptions and texts written in [these languages] were found.
The [routes and methods used in] Tocharic migrations
from [the] Middle East to East Asia are still unknown. The languages show
many borrowings from early Iranian languages, archaic Finno-Ugric, and
even Tibetan-like forms, but the structure itself shows much similarity
first of all with Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages. Linguists think
Tocharians moved through Central Asia from west to east and, on their way,
had many linguistic contacts reflected in their tongue. Before these
migrations, [it] being a dialect in [the] proto-Indo-European community,
Tocharians must have communicated closely with future Anatolians and
The 'Mask of Agamemnon' was so named
by Heinrich Schliemann, perhaps optimistically, but this
is a prime example of Mycenaean work - descendants of
East (Homeland) IEs
What in the past were called Aryans are now known as
Indo-Iranians and Indo-Aryans - the original term has bad connotations
due to its use by the Nazis.
They appear to have been the group that remained where
they were in the old homeland, in the steppes to the north of the
Caucasus. They also appear to have stayed longer than any ancient
group in the 'secondary homeland' to the north of the Black Sea, which
is just west of their primary homeland in the upper Caucasus.
There is some evidence in names to show that people
using a language which was related to Vedic and Avesta lived to the
north of the Black Sea; and various groups of Iranian nomads also
occupied that area for a very long time.
The group split into two related linguistic groups,
one we call Iranian, and the other Indian; both appear to have lived
to the north of the Black Sea (some of the people in this region were
known in classical antiquity as Scythians and Sarmatians). In addition
to the steppes they expanded into modern Afghanistan, Iran, India,
Pakistan, and the hill country of Syria and eastern Turkey.
Along the way they integrated themselves into the Oxus
civilisation of around 2200-1700 BC and were probably also responsible
for the 'spiral cities' of the Kazakhstan steppe. It seems more
likely that 'integrated' is correct rather than 'founded'. IE nomads
did not apparently build cities; they conquered or infiltrated into
a material culture that itself built cities. The Oxus civilisation
people (indigenes, meaning the original natives of that area,
equating to aborigines) were probably in conflict (at war) with the
IEs of the Andronovo horizon. In time they probably did become IEs
due to IE settlement amongst them, but this would have been in the
manner of Greece being occupied by the proto-Mycenaeans: the
language may have changed but the gene pool would have remained
As nomads they were quite mobile, ranging as far as
China in the east where they were known as eastern Saka (Scythians),
to Spain in the west where they were known as Alani (the word is an
altered form of Arya).
Some of these Alani accompanied the Vandals into North
Africa, settling with them in Tunisia. Their language fragmented into
dialects just like all the others, but in this case there is evidence
of heavy contact with non-IE languages, particularly from other nomads.
There appears to have been heavy contact between Alani and proto-Bulgarians.
For instance, the ruler of the Alani bore the proto-Bulgarian (originally
Mongol language) title of 'khan' (see the link for Proto-Bulgarian
Runic Inscriptions in the sidebar).
As settled farmers, the Indian group moved into modern
Pakistan and India; and the settled Iranians moved into modern Iran,
eastern Turkey and nearby areas.
One tribe, or dialect group seem actually to
have stayed close to the original homeland, and are today's Ossetians.
Professor Gennady Zdanovich has recently (2010) made fresh
discoveries on the modern Kazakhstan steppe of Bronze Age
'spiral' cities which exhibit many signs of having been built
and used by Indo-Europeans, having been built around 2000 BC
Of great personal fascination to
the present author is the fact that one of the Cimmerian kings was
named Tugdamme, which is a near-perfect analogue for the name
Togodumnus of the
Is Tugdamme a
name that was used by the Cimmerians? Or perhaps a Tocharian
pronunciation with the same meaning? Tug/Togos is a deity name,
more familiar as Dagda and meaning shining like the sun (cognate
with the English word 'day'). Damme/Dumnus is often defined as
meaning 'world', but far more likely it is a cognate of the Latin
Dominus and means either 'dominant' or 'dominated', probably the
latter in this case. Celtic name constructions often use a deity
name along with other words indicating 'beloved by', 'dog of',
'servant of', etc. In this case it would be roughly 'ruled by'
the deity Togos.
Bear in mind the fact that the timelines given
above are conjectural in most cases; the farther back in time one
goes, the fewer written records can be used. By necessity the
estimates used above are rough - they may be right or they may be
wrong - and in either case exact dates seem impossible to prove
What seems certain is that the Indo-Europeans
started out as a numerically small group, possibly or even probably
in some sort of isolation, who then entered the steppes and at some
point became nomadic via horse-drawn wheeled vehicles. From that
action alone, the Indo-Europeans can be regarded as possibly the
first militarily aggressive nomadic people on the Eurasian
continent, and certainly the first successful one.
As such they had a terrible advantage over the
isolated tribes and organised civilisations that they encountered:
they could appear out of apparently nowhere and attack, and if they
didn't win could simply roll away in their chariots and carts, out
of reach of sedentary peoples to attack again somewhere else or
later at the same spot. Not until other nomads such as Huns and
Mongols developed and expanded was this advantage duplicated. The
Indo-Europeans had mixed success in Asia; but in Europe, with no
steppes, they took almost everything they encountered.
Indo-Europeans remained militarily aggressive and
eventually controlled most of the planet, which was only partially
rolled back in modern times as other peoples acquired advanced
military and industrial technology. Their contribution to worldwide
civilisation has been considerable.
Indo-European Chronology - Countries and
Linguistics Research Center, University of
Texas at Austin
Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological
Proto-Bulgarian Runic Inscriptions
Studies in the History and Language of the
Text copyright © Edward Dawson. Original maps copyright
© P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.