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1.4. The Proto-Indo-European Urheimat or ‘Homeland’

1.4.1. The search for the Urheimat or ‘Homeland’ of the prehistoric Proto-Indo-Europeans has developed as an archaeological quest along with the linguistic research looking for the reconstruction of the proto-language.

NOTE. According to A. Scherer’s Die Urheimat der Indogermanen (1968), summing up the views of various authors from the years 1892-1963, still followed by mainstream Indo-European studies today, “Based upon the localization of later languages such as Greek, Anatolian, and Indo-Iranian, a swathe of land in southern Russia north of the Black Sea is often proposed as the native area of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European” (Meier-Brügger, 2003).

Photo of a Kurgan ( Archaeology Magazine).

1.4.2. The Kurgan hypothesis was introduced by Marija Gimbutas in 1956 in order to combine archaeology with linguistics in locating the origins of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. She named the set of cultures in question “Kurgan” after their distinctive burial mounds and traced their diffusion into Eastern and Northern Europe.

1.4.3. According to her hypothesis, PIE speakers were probably a nomadic tribe of the Pontic-Caspian steppe that expanded in successive stages of the Kurgan culture and three successive “waves” of expansion during the 3rd millennium BC:

·   Kurgan I, Dnieper/Volga region, earlier half of the 4th millennium BC. Apparently evolving from cultures of the Volga basin, subgroups include the Samara and Seroglazovo cultures.

·   Kurgan II–III, latter half of the 4th millennium BC. Includes the Sredny Stog culture and the Maykop culture of the northern Caucasus. Stone circles, early two-wheeled chariots, anthropomorphic stone stelae of deities.

·   Kurgan IV or Pit Grave culture, first half of the 3rd millennium BC, encompassing the entire steppe region from the Ural to Romania.

o    Wave 1, predating Kurgan I, expansion from the lower Volga to the Dnieper, leading to coexistence of Kurgan I and the Cucuteni culture. Repercussions of the migrations extend as far as the Balkans and along the Danube to the Vinča and Lengyel cultures in Hungary.

o    Wave 2, mid 4th millennium BC, originating in the Maykop culture and resulting in advances of kurganized hybrid cultures into northern Europe around 3000 BC – Globular Amphora culture, Baden culture, and ultimately Corded Ware culture.


Hypothetical Homeland or Urheimat of the first PIE speakers, from 4500 BC onwards. The Yamna (Pit Grave) culture lasted from ca. 3600 till 2200 BC. In this time the first wagons appeared. People were buried with their legs flexed, a position which remained typical for the Indo-Europeans for a long time. The burials were covered with a mound, a kurgan. During this period, from 3600 till 3000 IE II split up into Pre-IE III and Pre-Proto-Anatolian. From ca.3000 B.C on, Late PIE dialects began to differentiate and spread by 2500 westward (Europe’s Indo-European), southward (Proto-Greek) and eastward (Proto-Aryan, Pre-Proto-Tocharian).


Wave 3, 3000-2800 BC, expansion of the Pit Grave culture beyond the steppes; appearance of characteristic pit graves as far as the areas of modern Romania, Bulgaria and eastern Hungary.

NOTE. On the Kurgan hypothesis, Mallory & Adams (2006) say that “[t]he opposite method to a retrospective approach is a prospective approach where one starts with a given archaeological phenomenon and tracks its expansion. This approach is largely driven by a theory connected with the mechanism by which the Indo-European languages must have expanded. Here the trajectory need not be the type of family tree that an archaeologist might draw up but rather some other major social phenomenon that can move between cultures. For example, in both the nineteenth century and then again in the later twentieth century, it was proposed that Indo-European expansions were associated with the spread of agriculture. The underlying assumption here is that only the expansion of a new more productive economy and attendant population expansion can explain the widespread expansion of a language family the size of the Indo-European. This theory is most closely associated with a model that derives the Indo-Europeans from Anatolia about the seventh millennium BC from whence they spread into south-eastern Europe and then across Europe in a Neolithic ‘wave of advance’.

A later alternative mechanism is the spread of more pastoral societies who exploited the horse (and later the chariot) and carried a new language across Europe and Asia from the fourth millennium bc onwards. The underlying assumption here is that the vector of Indo-European language spread depended on a new, more aggressive social organization coupled with a more mobile economy and superior transportation technology. As this theory sets the homeland in the steppelands north of the Black and Caspian seas among different cultures that employed barrows for their burials (Russian kurgan), it is generally termed the Kurgan theory.