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The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee

Just as in the case of words for 'sheep', the words that mean 'to fart loudly' are similar among many written Indo-European languages. This suggests an ancestral form perd, used in proto-Indo-European (PIE), the unwritten mother tongue.

Naturally, the same word root shared among several daughter languages does not automatically prove shared inheritance from the mother tongue. The word could also have spread later from one daughter language to another. Archaeologists sceptical of linguists' attempts to reconstruct mother tongues love to cite words like 'Coca-Cola', shared among many modern European languages. The archaeologists claim that linguists would absurdly attribute 'Coca-Cola' to the mother tongue of thousands of years ago. In fact, 'Coca-Cola' illustrates how linguists weed out recent borrowings from old inheritances: the word is obviously foreign ('coca' is actually from a Peruvian Indian word, 'cola' West African), and it does not exhibit the same sound shifts among languages as do old Indo-European roots (in German it is still 'Coca-Cola', not Kocherkohler). By such methods, linguists have been able to reconstruct much of the grammar and nearly 2,000 word roots of the mother tongue, termed proto-Indo-European but usually abbreviated as PIE. That is not to say that all words in modern Indo-European languages are descended from "IE: most are not, because there have been so many new inventions or borrowings (like the root 'sheep' replacing the old PIE root owis in English). Our inherited PIE roots tend to be words for human universals that people surely were already naming thousands of years ago: words for the numbers and human relationships (as in the table on page 226); words for body parts and functions; and ubiquitous objects or concepts like 'sky', 'night', 'summer', and 'cold'. Among the human universals thus reconstructed are such homely acts as 'to break wind', with two distinct roots in PIE depending on whether one does it loudly or softly. The root for doing it loudly (PIE perd) gave rise to a series of similar words in modern Indo-European languages (perdet, pardate, etc.)including English 'fart' (see figure on page 235, and sample text on pages 2489). So far, we have seen how linguists have been able to extract, from written languages, evidence of a pre-literate mother tongue and steamroller. The obvious next questions are: when was PIE spoken, where was it spoken, and how was it able to overwhelm so many other languages? Let's begin with the matter of'when', another seemingly impossible question. It is bad enough that we have to infer the words of an unwritten language; how on earth do we determine when it was spoken?

We can at least start to narrow down the possibilities, by examining the oldest written samples of Indo-European languages. For a long time, the oldest samples that scholars could identify were Iranian texts of around 1000-800 BC, and Sanskrit texts probably composed around 12001000 BC but written down later. Texts of a Mesopotamian kingdom called Mitanni, written in a non-Indo-European language but containing some words obviously borrowed from a language related to Sanskrit, push the proven existence of Sanskrit-like languages back to nearly 1500 BC. The next breakthrough was the late-nineteenth-century discovery of a mass of ancient Egyptian diplomatic correspondence. Most of it was written in a Semitic language, but two letters in an unknown language remained a mystery until excavations in Turkey uncovered thousands of tablets in the same tongue. The tablets proved to be the archives of a kingdom that thrived between 1650 and 1200 BC and that we now refer to by the biblical name 'Hittite'. In 1917 scholars were astonished by the announcement that the Hittite language proved on deciphering to belong to a previously unknown, very distinctive and archaic, now-vanished branch of the Indo-European family, termed Anatolian. Some obviously Hittite-like names mentioned in earlier letters of Assyrian merchants at a trading post near the Hittite capital's future site push the detective trail back to nearly 1900 BC. This remains our first direct evidence for the existence of any Indo-European language.

Thus, as of 1917, two Indo-European branchesAnatolian and Indo-Iranianhad been shown to exist by around 1900 and 1500 BC, respectively. A third early branch was established in 1952, when the young British cryptographer, Michael Ventris, showed that the so-called Linear B writing of Crete and Greece, which had resisted deciphering since its discovery around 1900, was an early form of the Greek language. Those Linear B tablets date to around 1300 BC. But Hittite, Sanskrit, and early Greek are very different from each other, certainly more so than are modern French and Spanish, which diverged over a thousand years ago. That suggests that the Hittite, Sanskrit, and Greek branches must have split off from PIE by 2500 BC or earlier. How much earlier do the differences between those branches imply? How can we obtain a calibration factor that converts 'percentage difference between languages' into 'time since the languages began to diverge'? Some linguists use the rate of word change in historically documented, written languages, like the changes from Anglo-Saxon to Chaucer's English to Modern English. These calculations, which belong to a science called glottochronology (or chronology of languages), yield the rule of thumb that languages replace about twenty per cent of their basic vocabulary every thousand years.

Most scholars reject glottochronology calculations, on the grounds that word replacement rates must vary with social circumstances and with the particular words themselves. However, the same scholars are generally still willing to make a seat-of-the-pants estimate. The usual conclusion from either glottochronology or pants' seats is that PIE may have started to break up by 3000 BC, surely by 2500 BC, and not before 5000 BC.

There is still another, completely independent approach to the dating problemthe science termed linguistic paleontology. Just as paleontologists try to discover what the past was like by looking for relics buried in the ground, linguistic paleontologists do it by looking for relics buried in languages.

To understand how this works, recall that linguists have reconstructed nearly 2,000 words of PIE vocabulary. It is not surprising that these include words like 'brother' and 'sky', which must have existed and been named since the dawn of human language. But PIE should not have had a word for 'gun', since guns were not invented until about 1300 AD, long after PIE-speakers had already scattered to speak distinct languages in Turkey and India. In fact, the word for 'gun' uses different roots in different Indo-European languages: 'gun' in English, fusil in French, ruzhyo in Russian, and so on. The reason is obvious: different languages could not possibly have inherited the same root for 'gun' from PIE, and they each had to invent or borrow their own word when guns were invented.

The gun example suggests that we should take a series of inventions whose dates we know, and see which of those do and which do not have reconstructed names in PIE. Anythinglike gunthat was invented after PIE began to break up should not have a reconstructed name. Anythinglike brotherthat was invented or known before the break-up might have a name. (It does not have to have a name, because plenty of PIE words have surely become lost. We know the PIE words for 'eye' and 'eyebrow' but not'eyelid', although PIE speakers must have had eyelids.) Perhaps the earliest major developments without PIE names are battle chariots, which became widespread between 2000 and 1500 BC, and iron, whose use became important between 1200 and 1000 BC. The lack of PIE terms for these relatively late inventions does not surprise us, since the distinctness of Hittite had already convinced us that PIE broke up long before 2000 BC. Among earlier developments that do have PIE names, there are words for 'sheep' and 'goat', first domesticated by around 8000 BC; cattle (including separate words for cow, steer, and ox), domesticated by 6400 BC; horses, domesticated by around 4000 BC; and ploughs, invented around the time that horses were domesticated. The latest datable invention with a PIE name is the wheel, invented around 3300 BC.

Therefore, linguistic paleontology, even in the absence of any other evidence, would date the break-up of PIE as before 2000 BC but after 3300 BC. This conclusion agrees well with the one reached by extrapolating the differences between Hittite, Greek, and Sanskrit backwards in time. Hence if we wish to find traces of the first Indo-Europeans, we should be safe concentrating on the archaeological record between 2500 and 5000 BC, and perhaps slightly before 3000 BC. Having reached fair agreement about the 'when' question, let's now ask: where was PIE spoken? Linguists have disagreed about the PIE homeland ever since they first began to appreciate its significance. Almost every possible answer has been proposed, from the North Pole to India, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific shores of Eurasia. As the archaeologist J.P. Mallory puts it, the question is not, 'Where do scholars locate the Indo-European homeland? , but 'Where do they put it nowT

To understand why this problem has proved so difficult, let's first try to solve it quickly by looking at a map (see page 228). As of 1492, most surviving Indo-European branches were virtually confined to Western Europe, and only Indo-Iranian extended east of the Caspian Sea. Western Europe would be the most parsimonious solution to the search for the PIE homeland, the solution that required the fewest people to move long distances. Unfortunately for that solution, in 1900 a 'new' but long-extinct Indo-European language was discovered in a triply unlikely location. Firstly, the language (Tocharian, as it is now known) turned up in a secret chamber behind a wall in a Buddhist cave monastery. The chamber contained a library of ancient documents in the strange language, written around 600800 AD by Buddhist missionaries and traders. Secondly, the monastery lay in Chinese Turkestan, east of all extant Indo-European speakers and about a thousand miles removed from the nearest ones. Finally, Tocharian was not related to Indo-Iranian, the geographically closest branch of Indo-European, but possibly instead to branches used in Europe itself, thousands of miles to the west. It is as if we suddenly discovered that the early medieval inhabitants of Scotland spoke a language related to Chinese.

Obviously, the Tocharians did not reach Chinese Turkestan by helicopter. They surely walked or rode there, and we have to assume that central Asia formerly had many other Indo-European languages that disappeared without the good fortune to be preserved by documents in secret chambers. A modern linguistic map of Eurasia (see page 228) makes obvious what must have happened to Tocharian and all those other lost Indo-European languages of central Asia. That whole area today is occupied by people speaking Turkic or Mongolian languages, descendants of hordes that overran the area from the time of at least the Huns to Genghis Khan. Scholars debate whether Genghis Khan's armies slaughtered 2,400,000 or only 1,600,000 people when they captured Harat, but scholars agree that such activities transformed the linguistic map of Asia. In contrast, most Indo-European languages known to have disappeared in Europelike the Celtic languages Caesar found spoken in Gaulwere replaced by other Indo-European languages. The apparently European centre of gravity of Indo-European languages as of 1492 was actually an artifact of recent linguistic holocausts in Asia. If the PIE homeland really was centrally located in what became the Indo-European realm by 600 AD, stretching from Ireland to Chinese Turkestan, then that homeland would have been in the Russian steppes north of the Caucasus, rather than in Western Europe.

Just as the languages themselves gave us some clues to the time of PIE's break-up, so too they contain clues to the location of the PIE homeland. One clue is that the language family to which Indo-European has the clearest connections is Finno-Ugric, the family that includes Finnish and other languages native to the forest zone of north Russia (see map on page 228). Now it is true that the links between Finno-Ugric and Indo-European languages are enormously weaker than those between German and English, which stem from the fact that the English language was brought to England from northwest Germany only 1,500 years ago. The links are also much weaker than those between the Germanic and Slavic language branches of Indo-European, which probably diverged a few thousand years ago. Instead, the links suggest a much older propinquity between the speakers of PIE and of proto-Finno-Ugric. But since Finno-Ugric comes from the north Russian forests, that suggests a PIE homeland in the Russian steppe south of the forests. In contrast, if PIE had arisen much further south (say, in Turkey), the closest affinities of Indo-European might have been with the ancient Semitic languages of the Near East.

A second clue to the PIE homeland is the non-Indo-European vocabulary swept up as debris into quite a few Indo-European languages. I mentioned that this debris is especially noticeable in Greek, and it is also conspicuous in Hittite, Irish, and Sanskrit. That suggests that those areas used to be occupied by non-Indo-Europeans and were later invaded by Indo-Europeans. If so, the PIE homeland was not Ireland or India (which almost no one suggests today anyway), but it also was not Greece or Turkey (which some scholars still do suggest).

Conversely, the modern Indo-European language still most similar to PIE is Lithuanian. Our first preserved Lithuanian texts, from around 1500 AD, contain as high a fraction of PIE word roots as did Sanskrit texts of nearly 3,000 years earlier. The conservatism of Lithuanian suggests that it has been subject to few disturbing influences from non-Indo-European languages and may have remained near the PIE homeland. Formerly, Lithuanian and other Baltic languages were more widely distributed in Russia, until Goths and Slavs pushed the Baits back to their current shrunken domain of Lithuania and Latvia. Thus, this reasoning too suggests a PIE homeland in Russia. A third clue comes from the reconstructed PIE vocabulary. We already saw how its inclusion of words for things familiar in 4000 BC, but not for things unknown until 2000 BC, helps date the time when PIE was spoken. Might it also pinpoint the place where PIE was spoken? PIE includes a word for snow (snoighwos), suggesting a temperate rather than tropical location and providing the root of our English word 'snow'. Of the many wild animals and plants with PIE names (like mus meaning mouse), most are widespread in the temperate zone of Eurasia and help to pin down the homeland's latitude but not its longitude.

To me, the strongest clue from the PIE vocabulary is what it lacked rather than includedwords for many crops. PIE speakers surely did some farming, since they had words for plough and sickle, but only one word for an unspecified grain has survived. In contrast, the reconstructed proto-Bantu language of Africa, and the proto-Austronesian language of Southeast Asia, have many crop names. Proto-Austronesian was spoken even longer ago than PIE, so that modern Austronesian languages have had more time to lose those old names for crops than have the modern Indo-European languages. Despite that, the modern Austronesian languages still contain far more old names of crops. Hence PIE speakers probably actually had few crops, and their descendants borrowed or invented crop names as they moved to more agricultural areas. That conclusion presents us with a double puzzle. Firstly, by 3500 BC farming had become the dominant way of life in almost all of Europe and much of Asia. That severely narrows down the-possible choices for the PIE homeland; it must have been an unusual area where farming was not so dominant. Secondly, it begs the question why PIE speakers were able to expand. A major cause of the Bantu and Austronesian expansions was that the first speakers of those language families were farmers, spreading into areas occupied by hunter-gatherers whom they could outnumber or dominate. For PIE speakers to have been rudimentary farmers invading a farming Europe turns historical experience on its head. Thus, we cannot solve the 'where' of Indo-European origins until we have come to grips with the hardest question: why?

In Europe just before the age of writing, there were not one but two economic revolutions so far-reaching in impact that they could have caused a linguistic steamroller. The first was the arrival of farming and herding, which originated in the Near East around 8000 BC, leapt from Turkey to Greece around 6500 BC, and then spread north and west to reach Britain and Scandinavia. Farming and herding permitted a large increase in human population numbers over those previously sustainable by hunting and gathering alone (Chapter Ten). Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge in England, recently published a thought-provoking book arguing that those farmers from Turkey were the PIE speakers who brought Indo-European languages to Europe.

My first reaction to reading Renfrew's book was, 'Of course, he must be right! Farming had to produce a linguistic upheaval in Europe, just as it did in Africa and Southeast Asia. This is especially likely since, as geneticists have shown, those first farmers made the biggest contribution to the genes of modern Europeans.

ButRenfrew's theory ignores or dismisses all the linguistic evidence. Farmers reached Europe thousands of years before the estimated arrival of PIE. The first farmers lacked, and PIE speakers possessed, innovations like ploughs, wheels, and domesticated horses. PIE is strikingly deficient in words for the crops that defined the first farmers. Hittite, the oldest known Indo-European language of Turkey, is not the Indo-European language closest to pure PIE, as one might expect from Renfrew's Turkey-based theory, but is instead the most deviant language and the one least Indo-European in its vocabulary. Renfrew's theory rests on nothing more than a syllogism: farming probably caused a steamroller, the PIE steamroller requires a cause, so farming is assumed to have been that cause. Everything else suggests that farming instead brought to Europe the older languages that PIE overran, like Etruscan and Basque.

Yet around 50003000 BCat the right time for PIE originsthere was a second economic revolution in Eurasia. This later revolution coincided with the beginnings of metallurgy and involved a greatly expanded use of domestic animalsnot just for meat and hides, as humans had been using wild animals for a million years, but for new purposes that included milk, wool, pulling ploughs, pulling wheeled vehicles, and riding. The revolution is richly reflected in the PIE vocabulary, through words for 'yoke' and 'plough', 'milk' and 'butter', 'wool' and 'weave', and a host of words associated with wheeled vehicles ('wheel', 'axle', 'shaft', 'harness', 'hub', and 'lynch-pin'). The economic significance of this revolution was to increase human population and power far beyond the levels made possible by farming and herding alone. For instance, through milk and its products one cow gradually yielded many more calories than did its meat alone. Ploughing allowed a farmer to plant much more acreage than he could with a hoe or digging stick. Animal-drawn vehicles allowed people to exploit far more land and still bring its produce to their village for processing.

For some of these advances it is hard to say where they arose, because they spread so quickly. For example, wheeled vehicles are unknown before 3300 BC, but within a few centuries of that date they are widely recorded throughout Europe and the Middle East. But there is one crucial advance whose origin can be identified: the domestication of horses. Just before their domestication, wild horses were absent from the Mideast and southern Europe, rare in northern Europe, and abundant only in the steppes of Russia eastwards. The first evidence of horse domestication is for the Sredny Stog culture around 4000 BC, in the steppes just north of the Black Sea, where archaeologist David Anthony has identified wear-marks on horses' teeth that indicate use of a bit for riding.

Throughout the world, wherever and whenever domestic horses have been introduced, they have yielded enormous benefits for human societies (Chapter Fourteen). For the first time in human evolution, people could travel overland faster than their own legs could propel them. Speed helped hunters run down their prey and helped herders manage their sheep and cattle over large areas. Most importantly, speed helped warriors to launch quick surprise raids on distant enemies and to withdraw again before the enemies had time to organize a counterattack. Throughout the world the horse revolutionized warfare and enabled horse-owning peoples to terrorize their neighbours. The stereotype that Americans hold of Great Plains Indians as fearsome mounted warriors was actually created only recently, within a few generations from 1660 to 1770. Since European horses reached the US West in advance of Europeans themselves and other European goods, we can be sure that the horse alone was what transformed Plains Indian society.