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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Central Asia as the PIE urheimat? Forget it

Right or wrong, the main contenders for the title of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) homeland, or urheimat, are Eastern Europe, Anatolia and Transcaucasia, in that order. Central Asia, is, at best, one of the also-rans in this tussle, much like India and the Arctic Circle.

However, if you've been following the discussions on the topic in the comments at this blog over the last couple of years, you might be excused for thinking that Central Asia was in fact a natural choice for the PIE homeland, and thanks to new insights from ancient DNA, on the cusp of being proven to be the only choice.

Well, it's already been a very busy year for insights from ancient DNA, including in regards to Central Asia.

For instance, back in February a paper in Science by Gaunitz et al. revealed that the Botai people of Eneolithic Central Asia kept a breed of horse that was ancestral to the Przewalski's horse (see here). This is potentially a crucial fact in the PIE homeland debate, because the horse is the most important animal in early Indo-European religion. However, the Przewalski's horse is a significantly different clade of horse from the modern-day domestic horse. Hence, even if the Botai people were the first humans to domesticate the horse, then so what, because they didn't domesticate the right type of horse.

It remains to be seen who domesticated the right type of horse, and apparently there's a least one major ancient DNA paper on the way that will try to solve this problem. But we already know that the Middle Bronze Age Sintashta people, who lived in the southern Urals, just east of the current border between Europe and Asia, did keep the right type of horse, and it was also phylogenetically somewhat more basal, and thus ancestral, to most modern-day horse breeds.

Interestingly, by far the most basal horse genome within the domestic horse clade is Duk2, from an Early Bronze Age archaeological site near the city of Dunaujvaros in Hungary. But it's not certain who this horse belonged to exactly or where it really came from, because the site in question was probably a major trading post, where livestock and crops were exchanged for bronze articles. In other words, Duk2 may have been imported from somewhere nearby or afar. My bet is that it came from the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Let's wait and see.

Moreover, earlier this week the New York Times ran a feature on the work that David Reich and his colleagues at Broad MIT/Harvard are doing with ancient DNA. The article included an image of Reich standing in front of a whiteboard, and this whiteboard just happened to have on it a migration and mixture model based on ancient human DNA for Central Asia focusing on the period 2200-1500 BCE (scroll down the page here).

I've already analyzed this model in as much detail as I could in an earlier blog entry (see here). However, in the context of this blog entry, it's important to note that the model clearly shows major population movements from Europe and West Asia into Central Asia, rather than the other way around (ie. all of the really big arrows are pointing east). The paper with the final version of this model is apparently coming soon, and after it does come, we'll probably be having our last ever discussion here about Central Asia as a potential PIE homeland. I can't wait.

Update 01/04/2018: The preprint of the paper on ancient Central Asia that I mentioned above is now available at bioRxiv. See here.

See also...

Of horses and men

The mystery of the Sintashta people

Late PIE ground zero now obvious; location of PIE homeland still uncertain, but...


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Matt said...

Anthro Survery: "Dark Ages" weren't even a big thing in Europe to begin with. The "muh Romanz...muh barbarians....muh Renaissance" is an outdated paradigm.

My understanding basically agrees with yours but a bit more of yes and no on this. On the one hand, there definitely was a big collapse of economic activity, literary production, literacy rate and engineering prowess in Western Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire. There were ways in which the Romans were able to do things that benefited from both the extent of their unified market and the large tax base their civilization could call on, that just couldn't be sustained at all once that collapsed. To some extent this shock did regress much of Western Europe to an Iron Age level "lower" than Rome and much of the world at the time.

On the other hand, this decline absolutely was more gradual in onset and shorter in duration and different in kind (no large scale things, but lots of small scale technological advance) that thought of by those who believe in a "Dark Age" up to the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. Certainly as you say the Europeans of the High Middle Ages by at least the 11th century were able to do things technologically which the Romans could not, which other cultures in their world at that time could not, for all that they were not able to do some of the things that Rome could that specifically depended on their huge empire.

Also like you say, it's never been the case through history larger empires have ever really had a consistent strong return to science or philosophy (against "Two heads are better than one" that scientific progress is linked to the ability of cultures to include larger volumes of people). Science was always more of a sporadic, culturally motivated phenomenon among small groups of individuals than anything like a mass pursuit which consistently scaled with the economy, and Rome really didn't seem to boom scientifically any more than what followed (probably less).

(One of the distinctions between China and Europe that has been noted is that China's tendency to unification produced repeated iterations of a similar, though shallower cycle; a period of growth following the establishment of a dynasty, due to wider trade and a larger tax base for the government, followed by mass death, population decline and economic decline in a down phase when the dynasty lost control of its territory. Post-Roman Western Europe by contrast was always so divided that while it never experienced the same booms, it could never all experience this kind of huge decline again, and so the picture for the continent as a whole looks more like linear growth.

If you ignore the downswings China can look glorious compared to Europe of the same time, and particularly if you look at large projects like the Grand Canal that can only be done by a large empire, but the downswings matter!)

Anthro Survey said...


What you wrote mirrors much of what I also think. I often like to make the following analogy: Medieval Europe was like an ambitious investigator with inadequate funding for his lab. :D

Indeed, technological improvement was one of the constants in the middle ages despite the turmoil. I'm sure Romans would have marveled at articulated plate armor, not to mention the tall, spacious Gothic cathedrals. Things really started taking off after 1250, imo, when Europe started to gain a definitive edge over the rest.

It should also be noted that the virtual absence of slavery in Europe probably stimulated, in part, a greater reliance on non-human power, namely windmill and watermill construction. This increase in mechanization surely had consequences.

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