Over two thirds of the population on our fair planet speak branches of Indo-European language family as their native tongue. The territories include Europe, Russia, India, Iran, North and South America.
Why and how is this so? Why did variations of this language family spread far and wide across the globe?
Recall that scholars speculate that a prehistoric culture speaking what they called Aryan, i.e. proto Indo-European, gave birth to this multitude of languages. This theory raised many more questions. Why the spreading? When did everything happen? What was Aryan culture like? There were some unexpected answers to these questions.
Remember that most of the evidence for the existence of an Aryan culture is circumstantial rather than historical. There are no eyewitness accounts like we have with Herodotus, Thucydides or the Bible. Instead all the conclusions are based upon archaeological remains, current facts, and linguistic analysis. Many linguists couch their conclusions in statements such as: ‘These conclusions, based upon present information, are subject to change if new data is forthcoming.’ Evidently they’ve already had to modify conclusions. While many conflicting theories have been proposed to explain the diversity of information, some main threads have emerged.
In the attempt to understand prehistoric Aryan culture, scholars discovered evidence that pointed to an even more ancient ancestral culture. According to linguistic evidence they spoke the original proto Indo-European language. Between 4500 BCE and 3000 BCE, this language split into three main groupings - Anatolia, Greek, and Iranian. This was presumably due to a clan split resulting in a geographical separation. This is when Aryan culture came into being. To help us grasp the history and features of this culture, the original ancestor, deemed Kurgan, would like to tell us a little about his clan. Welcome him onto our show with a big hand. Let’s hear it for Kurgan.
Kurgan: “Thanks. It’s a pleasure to tell the story of our ancient culture from my perspective. Our clan included a relatively small and homogenous group of Eurasian tribes. They inhabited the Steppes of Central Asia - a region between the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains and west of the Urals. Scholars are pretty sure that I am Aryan’s father because our family of tribes went through a significant fragmentation and expansion around 4000 BCE. This time period corresponds with the language split.
We were noted for our distinctive gravesites. They consisted of a manmade hill on top of a deep shaft. The bodies of our chiefs were buried in these mounds. There were many of these artificial mounds sprinkled around the area mentioned. These are called barrows in English and kurgans in Turkic or Russian. This is how we got our name - the Kurgan or Barrow tribes.
Our gods were anthropomorphic. We represented them in supernumerary fashion, with multiple body parts, for instance 3 to 5 heads and 4 arms. Some of my descendants, including the Aryans of India, took after me with their multi-limbed and multi-headed divinities. The priest had great prestige in our society. We even practiced human sacrifice. These sacrifices had propitiatory relevance, as we wanted to appease the gods.
My people had a normal upbringing. Like all the other ancient cultures, we began as hunter-gatherers employing the stone making tools of the Paleolithic Era. Like the rest, we became farmers during the Neolithic Era. My culture raised grain, used domesticated animals, and created pottery with pretty designs - just like everyone else in the region.
However, the geography of our homeland forced us to move in another direction. The Himalayas, the tallest and largest mountain range on the planet, is located in the center of Asia. North of this enormous mountain range are the Eurasian Steppes, an arid region consisting of rolling planes. It is dry because of the rain-shadow effect. Because of the lack of rainfall in the steppes, there was rarely an abundant crop that led to the agricultural surplus that is the foundations of civilizations.
Due to the profusion of grassland combined with the difficulty of farming in my arid part of the world, we shifted from farming to herding. We abandoned the farm and became nomadic. When our flocks needed new grassland, we simply moved on. Scholars characterize ours as a semi-nomadic pastoralist culture.
Due to the hostile environment, our Steppes cultures have never supported large populations or large cities. We never built any pyramids or temples and left very little art. We were too busy traveling. Nothing durable - we were always on the move. Because of our nomadic lifestyle, we needed to travel light. Even though we left few remains behind, our peoples have played a leading role in the creation of Western Civilization, and have left a lasting legacy.
This momentous break with the settled life style of the farmer was to have severe consequences. Our nomadic lifestyle inevitably collided with those who preferred the fixed existence of farming. Constantly in search of fresh pastureland for herds, we didn’t recognize boundaries or territories. In contrast, farmers immediately claim territory. Their plowed land gets in the way of our grazing pasturelands.
This led to irresolvable differences. We didn’t need to compromise because we could take what we wanted. Disputes were settled on the battlefield rather than by negotiation or legislation. Might makes right. This is the human way. My descendants, the rulers of your civilizations, practice the same politics.
In addition to their enclosed fields being an obstacle to our grazing livestock, we saw how prosperous the farmers were. We wanted what they had. At first, we just raided their communities. Eventually, we conquered and enslaved them.
This domination was not difficult, as we were better fighters. We constantly honed our military abilities, while the farming communities cultivated the fertility of the earth. We developed our superior martial skills, first as hunter/predators, then in fighting rival herders for the scarce natural resources of the Steppes.
This included fighting for access to our prized oases that provided water, which was essential for our survival. As nomads, our tribes would regularly leave a fertile area after our herds had finished grazing. When we returned some time later, we frequently found someone else there. And they usually weren’t that friendly. The result was armed conflict, where the winner took all.
As shepherds, we were dependent on our herds. We were constantly searching for new pastureland. Because it is hard to travel with too many people, we minimized the number of humans in our tribes - 50 to 100 maximum. When our tribes grew too large, they split into smaller groups. The number of our tribes increased, but the number of people in each tribe remained the same.
While our tribes split, we didn’t lose touch. Real or fictitious kinship bonds were renewed at annual assemblies presided over by our high king. Our kings married as many wives as possible to establish kinship bonds. These kinship bonds unified our extended tribal clans. This unity increased our king’s potential power, as his military capabilities provided the underpinning of his power. His sons were expected to fight to the death against each other to be the next high king.
Although this tradition might seem barbaric, this practice is actually very efficient. That way we get the best man for the job. Women need not apply. Sorry we are not an Equal Opportunity employer. Survival of the fittest son worked best for our small tribes, because an effective military leader was essential for the survival of the tribe.
Our social forms developed because they were most fit. So don’t talk to me about morals, cooperation and barbarism.
Another aspect of our social evolution had to do with our discovery of animal milk as a food source. Milk gave us an incredible military advantage over our neighboring nomadic tribes initially, and then over the peaceful farming cultures a bit later. This is but one of our important contributions to the development of Western civilization.
While our herds could sustain themselves on grass, we always needed water. Thus we moved from oasis to oasis. Sometimes we got lost in the huge dessert or when we arrived at the oasis it was dried up or occupied by someone else. We watched our herds of sheep, cattle, and horses nurse their young. Because of necessity we began giving the milk of our herds to our children during hard times. After all children have the proper enzymes to digest milk. This animal milk could sustain our infants for months.
At one point we got so thirsty during our frequent droughts that someone came up with the bright idea of drinking this animal milk ourselves. It was a logical step. Out of desperation, we started drinking animal milk for sustenance. However, tapping into this new food source meant that we had to adapt physiologically to continue producing the children’s enzymes necessary to digest milk. It caused a lot of indigestion and diarrhea at first. With time we developed the essential internal biology to take advantage of this unique food source. Desperation breeds solutions.
While it took time, it gave us an incredible advantage. It freed us from dependency upon sedentary food and water sources. This provided us a much greater range of movement. With the addition of milk to our diets, it became easier for our nomadic culture to survive, and even thrive.
Because we developed this superior food supply, i.e. nutrient rich milk, we had a remarkably efficient nomadic life style. This efficiency allowed us to dominate our neighbors. Further, our independence from fixed sources of nutrition, such as farming and fishing, allowed us to overrun and eventually enslave these Neolithic cultures. That’s when my descendant Aryan was born. That’s when our family language and culture became dominant.
Another of our military innovations was related to metal work. Although our Ukrainian neighbors had used metal for decoration and art, we immediately recognized its military potentials. They developed copper for art. We mixed copper with tin to make bronze. As bronze is much harder, it is more suitable for weaponry.
At first we created daggers, halberds, thin sharp axes, and mace heads with this blended metal. Eventually we produced bronze battleaxes. Our distinctive Battle Axes became our weapon of choice. For this reason, scholars frequently refer to us as the Battle Axe culture.
Although some have said that our culture wasn’t artistic, our weapons were beautiful, set as they were with semiprecious stones. Our metal work was very refined. We were motivated by the need for very sharp blades. They are much more effective militarily.
Engels, Karl Marx’s friend, said that the rise of metallurgy corresponded with the fall in the status of women. He said that bronze was an essential ingredient to the war on women. We Kurgans belonged to one of the militaristic cultures that Engels was referring to.
He called it a war on women. I say it is an inevitable result of a war-based economy. In times of military conflict, the status of the soldier rises in importance, as he is necessary for the community’s survival. Simultaneously, the status of women and the artist drops, as their talents are secondary to military proficiency. This is a natural process. For this reason, militant leaders frequently encourage a constant state of hostility to maintain their dominance.
For our nomadic culture, military proficiency combined with a strong leader was the key to survival. Only much later did we use it to dominate our neighbors. Because our leaders allowed us to survive in the hostile environment of the Steppes, we honored them with our custom of creating kurgans by placing mounds of earth atop our chieftain’s grave. This tradition started long before he led us to conquer peaceful cultures.
The kurgans frequently had the skeletons of young women laying next to the chieftain, presumably so that he could have sex in the after life. In contrast, the Neolithic gravesites didn’t exhibit this glorification of a military leader. Instead men, women, and even children were given equal respect. This was but one indication that they lived in a more peaceful egalitarian time.
However don’t naively blame us for destroying this idealistic era, when men and women were equal. If it hadn’t been us, it would have been someone else. Population pressures lead inevitably to military conflict.
Another element to our success was the horse. The domestication of horses was a major turning point for our culture. Our Ukrainian neighbors mounted horses about 4000 BCE. These were probably the ancestors of the Russian Cossacks, who were such wonderful horsemen. We picked up on the military potentials immediately. We hooked these horses up to wheeled vehicles - another of our innovations. We used these horse-drawn vehicles for military purposes - to invade neighboring territories in search of plunder or perhaps fresh grazing ground for our prized horses.
With this development, military primacy shifted to our Steppes where horses were easy to raise. It was hard for the Neolithic farming cultures to sustain large herds of horses because grain had to be taken from humans to feed the horses. With the addition of horses, my poor nomadic culture was transformed into a dominant global force.
Once we had domesticated horses and began using milk as a food source, we were invincible. We could travel long distances rapidly and our herds provided us with all of our dietary needs. We didn’t have to waste time farming - i.e. plowing, planting, and harvesting our crops. Instead we herded our animals, which provided us with meat, clothing, and milk with its complete nutrients. After all babies live on their mother’s milk for up to a year with nothing else. And we were the first to tap into it as complete food source for adults. More importantly our horses allowed us to dominate the peaceful farming cultures that surrounded us. No man could stand up to a horse.
According to the evidence, we had three waves of raiding and then conquering. The first, which occurred between 4300 and 4200 BCE, was just a raid. We plundered and left. Powered by our horse drawn vehicles, the second wave occurred between 3400 and 3200 BCE. We came as conquerors in our third wave. We spread from the Western Steppes to Danubian Europe about 3000 BCE and into the Aegean about 2300 BCE.
We were usually absorbed within a few generations by the cultures we conquered. There were very few of us nomadic conquerors compared to the settled populations.
You might wonder how our small tribes were able to dominate the much larger population base in the agricultural regions? Couldn’t they easily overwhelm us with force of numbers despite our superior military technology?
Not really. Each of our small tribes was self-reliant. However, in military emergencies we called manpower from afar, relying on our kinship bonds. Because of the mobility of our horsemen, we could gather quickly from great distances. While there were large numbers of us in the Western Steppes, there was still a vast amount of open space. Our sudden appearance with large numbers of horsemen gave the false impression of a great population density. Our tribes united rapidly against common enemies and equally rapidly broke apart because of tribal rivalries. This rapid consolidation and disintegration is the way of the Steppes.
We had one last military innovation to make us invincible– the spoked wheel. The wheel could have served more peaceful purposes. But in the hostile world of the Steppes, we immediately saw its military potentials. The domestication of the war horse, combined with our superior metal work and the wheel, allowed us to develop horse drawn vehicles, which turned into 2 man chariots. These innovations occurred about the end of the fourth millennium before the Common Era ≈ 3000 BCE. As we refined our bronze technology, we perfected our chariots with their patented spoked wheels at the end of the third millennium ≈ 2000 BCE. These military advancements rendered us virtually invincible.
Around 2250 BCE, Sargon, another of my kinsmen, was able to dominate Mesopotamia with horses only. But the development of horse drawn chariots with 2 spoked wheels a few centuries later established our full military dominance. The two-man chariot was invincible - with a charioteer to control the horses and an archer to inflict damage. This was the style of fighting glorified by the Mahabharata, the famous book written by my descendant’s culture, the original Aryans. The ultimate team in this classic Hindu novel was Krishna, as the charioteer, with Arjuna, as his archer.
Our chariot revolutionized military tactics. In combination with the bow, the two-man chariot team was synonymous with military power. We drove circles around the phalanx of foot soldiers, raining arrows upon them and then attacking in formation. This divided the army so that we were able to easily rout them and then conquer their culture. With the discovery of the chariot, we overran the Middle East in 2000 BCE, and then extinguished the Indus Valley civilization in India about 1500 BCE. Our military expansion drove the Tamils, the descendants of the Indus Valley culture, into southern India. From here, their culture exerted a significant influence upon Southeast Asia.
We also migrated to northern Europe, where we displaced or enslaved the local fishing, hunting, and farming cultures. After a few millennia, our language morphed into what your scholars call a Germanic language. This was the pattern we followed in all of our military migrations. With the chariot, we were able to dominate the world – or at least the Eurasian continent. Because we spread so far, each culture had a different name for us. We were called Aryans in India, Kurgans in Eastern Europe, Hittites in the Fertile Crescent, and Achaeans in Greece.
Our Kurgan culture spread in all directions dominating as we dispersed. No culture could stand up against us, especially those peaceful agri-cultures based upon crafts and trade. For the first few thousand years, we would just raid these rich agricultural centers - using them as our grocery store. Then we returned home to the Steppes. However eventually our tribes didn’t return home. Instead we stayed and settled down. We enslaved the indigenous population, becoming their rulers. This is when Aryan was born.
Your scientists call this migration from our homeland in the arid Steppes to the forested regions of the planet as conquerors the Great Dispersal. Our Indo-European speaking culture dispersed in all directions leaving our homeland, the Steppes, for good. We were replaced by other similar nomadic cultures, but we departed to conquer the Neolithic cultures of Eurasia, inaugurating the Bronze Age.
Despite our size we had a long lasting effect on the cultures of the ancient world. Our bronze military technology based upon the chariot even spread to the Shang dynasty of China about 1600 BCE, even though our language didn’t. They also used bronze to dominate their indigenous agri-culture. Ah! The glorious Bronze Age. That was when my son Aryan was born. My militarily aggressive culture spread in all directions, leaving our seed in the indigenous population wherever we migrated.
You could say that I Kurgan was Aryan’s father and the conquered indigenous culture was his mother. My dominant language and culture mixed with her language and culture to give birth to Aryan. My Kurgan language, merged with the indigenous tongues to become Celtic, German, Italic, Persian or Hindi. But it continued to retain its unique Indo-European character.
Similarly, my Kurgan culture merged with indigenous peoples to give rise to Aryan’s culture. As we shall see, I, Kurgan, am different than my son Aryan. Just like any father and son, we have similarities, but also some significant differences. I’ll let Aryan pick up the story line from here to give you his perspective.”