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The Proto-Indo-Europeans by Ceisiwr Serith

Who Are the Proto-Indo-Europeans?

How Long Ago Did the Proto-Indo-Europeans Live?

Where Did the Proto-Indo-Europeans Live?

What Kind of Culture Did They Have?

What Was the Proto-Indo-European Ideology Like?

What was the Proto-Indo-European Religion Like?

Who are the Proto-Indo-Europeans?

"Indo-European" is the name of a family of languages that includes the Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Hellenic, Armenian, and Indo-Iranian branches, as well as a number of smaller, dead branches such as Illyrian, Venetic, and Anatolian (OK, the last is not too small, but it is dead).  If you are reading this, you can read at least one Indo-European language, since English is part of the Germanic branch.

People who speak an Indo-European language as their primary tongue can loosely be described as "Indo-European."  Note that it is a language indicator, not a racial one.  You are not an Indo-European by genes.  How many people whose ancestors came from Africa or Asia have English as their primary language?  They are Indo-Europeans too, no matter what the color of their skin.

This can not be stressed enough.  The idea that "Indo-European" is some sort of racial term has been the source of everything from confusion to downright evil.  The Nazi racial theories, with the concomitant Holocaust, was a result of such a belief.  ("Aryan" was sometimes used to mean "Indo-European," although it more properly refers to the Indo-Iranians.  Needless to say that, like the swastika, its perverted use by the Nazis has limited its modern use greatly.)

However, since language is a carrier of culture, it can roughly be said that there is an Indo-European culture.  More precisely, just as the Indo-European languages are related, there are cultures that are also related that may be called "Indo-European."  This is similar to the way that "Celtic," which is a linguistic term, has been applied to a certain group of related cultures.
It is clear that when you have a family  you have an ancestor.  The ancestor of the Indo-European languages is Proto-Indo-European (PIE).  This language no longer exists, and did not exist in any time during which there was writing (at least not in the area where people speaking it existed), so all of what we know about the language has been reconstructed.  The descendant languages have been compared, rules for sound changes observed, grammatical structures taken into consideration, and from all of that has emerged a picture of a language -- of Proto-Indo-European.  There are still arguments over a number of the particulars (don't even bother to ask me about laryngeals, how many there were, and how they were pronounced; the very arguments are so far over my head that I am just waiting for the dust to settle so I can use the information), but there is also a surprising amount of agreement, especially on many items in the basic vocabulary.
For instance take the following (and for your first lesson in linguistic representation, you can learn that an asterisk before a word means that it has been reconstructed rather than being seen written down or heard spoken):
     *oino, *dwo, *trei, *kwetwor, *penkwe, *ses, *septm, *okto, *newm, *dekm.
Or try this series:
     *pater, *mater, *bhrater, *swesor, *sunnus, *dhughter.
Congratulations; you can read Proto-Indo-European. 
Of course, not all of PIE is that recognizable; a PIE word may not have survived into Germanic or been borrowed into English.  But a lot of them have been, and PIE as a result has the aura of an old friend.
Now let us return to the question of who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were.  Just as "Indo-European" can carry a cultural meaning, so can "Proto-Indo-European."  The Proto-Indo-Europeans were those who spoke Proto-Indo-European.  We do not know what race they were, although they were most likely predominately Caucasian.  However, that does not even matter; what matters is their language and their culture.

Just as we can reconstruct their language by comparing their descendant languages, we can reconstruct their culture by comparing their descendant cultures.  Elements of the cultures are compared, patterns noted, and shared elements postulated as inherited.  From that sort of work we can figure out what culture the PIEs had.

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How long ago did the Proto-Indo-Europeans live?

From a combination of archaeology, linguistic analysis, and sheer guesswork, we can put the period when they lived, at 3000 - 5000 BCE.  We can't be more accurate than that for several reasons.  First, the data won't allow us to be.  There is enough slippage in each variable that taken as a whole we cannot be precise.  Second, there are questions of definition.  From what I said above, it might have seemed as if "Proto-Indo-European" referred to a slice in time.  But languages and cultures grow and change and wither.  What is the language called "English?"  Is it Old English?  Middle English?  Modern English?  And what period witching each of these?  Is it the Modern English of Shakespeare, or of TV broadcasters?  In the same way, PIE existed over a long period of time, and it is wrong to point to one exact period and say:  this is PIE.  Finally, there is the question of dialects.  Just as British English and American English differ in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, so too were there dialects of PIE.  Some may have differed because of space, and some because of time.

This may seem like waffling.  Get used to it; what seems like waffling is pretty standard when dealing with a subject like this.

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Where did the Proto-Indo-Europeans live?

Good question.  This is such a source of debate that it has been given its own name, "The Homeland Question," and that homeland has its own name, the "Urheimat."  Areas from Scandinavia to Siberia have been suggested.  These days, the argument has settled down into three areas (at least until the next theory comes along).  The first, and most popular, is the area around the northern tip of the Caspian sea.  This was suggested by the late Marija Gimbutas, and is known as the "kurgan theory," after the burial mounds or kurgans that are found in that area.  The second was proposed by Gamkrelidze and Ivanov in their massive work Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans.  This puts the PIEs somewhat further south, in the Caucasus mountains.  Since this theory is relatively recent, it has not been properly evaluated, and so no one knows how likely it is to be right.  The third theory is that of Colin Renfrew, which places the Urheimat in Anatolia.  This is the Asian portion of Turkey.  He also postulates that Indo-European culture spread by waves of enculturation, with the spread of agriculture, rather than by waves of migration, with the spread of people.  His theory has not fared well in the academic world.  To note just one problem, it requires Indo-European culture to reach from Anatolia to Greece not by crossing the Bosphorus, but by going east, north over the Black Sea, west, and then down into the peninsula.  Not a very sensible way for something to travel, whether people or culture.
So where did the Proto-Indo-Europeans live?  Good question, and not one that will be answered in the near future.  I myself lean towards the kurgan theory, but if forced to commit myself I will say with Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty that the PIEs came from "east of the asterisk."

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What kind of culture did the Proto-Indo-Europeans have?
I have already said that we can reconstruct much of their culture by comparing the descendant cultures.  We can also use the language -- if they had a word for something, they must have had the thing.  (Unfortunately, we cannot do this the other way round; we cannot assume they didn't have a thing just because we don't have a word for it.  The word may simply not have survived in enough language branches to be reconstructed.)  We know, for instance, that they had the wheel -- *kw(e)-kwl-o-.  We know that they had houses with doors -- *dhwer-.  Many other things about their culture can be reconstructed this way.  (For a good summary, see the appendix by Calvert Watkins to the American Heritage Dictionary.)
When all of it has been summed up, my guess is that they had what is called a transhumant culture.  In such a culture, the main form of livestock, cattle in the case of the PIEs, is brought to summer pastures when the weather gets warm.  There it is watched over by the young men, while the older men, women, and children stay at the homestead and take care of the crops that had been planted before the cattle had been taken away.  In the fall, the cattle come home, and the whole tribe is together for the winter.  I base this on a number of factors, including such an economy in such diverse areas as Iron Age Ireland and modern day Kalashastan.  There are also certain cultural markers such as a tendency to think of things in pairs, indeed, in certain pairs, that  marks such a culture.

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What was the Proto-Indo-European ideology like?
I have already mentioned a tendency to think in pairs.  There is also a tendency to think in threes.  This tendency to think in threes forms the basis of Georges Dumezil's "tripartite ideology."  Now this theory is still controversial, with some rather heated emotions on both sides.  I fall somewhere in the middle; it seems to explain a lot about Indo-European culture, but is not the be all and end all.
This theory states that Indo-European culture (and, by extension, PIE culture) was divided up into three groups, which Dumezil calls "functions."  The first function is the magical-religious one.  This consists of the priests and the rulers.  The second function is that of the warrior.  The third is that of the producers.  Shan M. M. Winn has summed it up nicely in a book title:  "Heaven, Heroes, and Happiness."
As with all such systems there are elements that do not fit.  For instance, the king, although identified with the first function, does not really fit there.  He comes out of the second function (he is in fact a warrior), is inaugurated by the first function, but must support all three functions.  He is called "transfunctional," then.
There are also those who are outside the structure entirely.  These may be slaves, or foreigners, or artisans.  The occupy an ambiguous place in society, sometime forming a fourth function (such as in India), and sometime being viewed as somewhat dangerous.
Although I have described them as if they were classes, that is not their entire role.  Dumezil named them "functions" rather than "classes" for a reason.  They show up in the oddest places.  Medicine, for instance, was divided into three types, prayers and magic (first function), surgery (second function), and herbs (third function).  In this way the three functions ordered the thinking of the PIEs.
As an interesting case, take the modern American government.  Based on a combination of originally Pagan Common Law, Roman government, and Athenian democracy (don't ever let anyone tell you that our system of government is based on Judaeo-Christian principles), it has the Supreme Court (the "priests" who interpret the sacred document), the President (the commander in chief) and the Congress (the representative of the mass of the people).  And the Chief Executive is the representative of the second function, who must be inaugurated by the chief of the first function, but serve the country as a whole.
The tripartite ideology does indeed show up in the oddest places.
One aspect of the functions which Dumezil did not seem to have noticed, and which has been set up as an alternative theory by others (particularly Michael York), is a binary division, mentioned earlier.   Outside/Inside, Female/Male -- the binary division runs through our culture.  But it is also a part of the tripartite ideology.  The first function may be divided into the enforcers of religious law (the priests) and the enforcer of social law (the king).  The second function is divided into the good warrior who protects society and the dangerous one whom we must be protected from.  And there is the odd fact that the deities associated with the third function tend to be twins; since one is frequently mortal and one immortal, this may be a recognition of life and death as two sides of the same coin (not that the PIEs had coins, mind you).
So the ideology of the PIEs is an interplay between three and two.

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What was the Proto-Indo-European religion like?
Well, for one thing, we can be sure that they had gods, since they had the word *deiwos for them.  And we can be sure of some of the things that they thought about them.  The gods were *dotores weswam -- givers of goods.  They were *nmrtos -- undying.  We can reconstruct the names and functions of some of them -- *Dyeus Pater, the shining sky father -- and just the functions of others, such as the hearth goddess.
Rather than go into the deities, though, I would like to concentrate here on two principles.  These interact with each other, but I will try to explain them separately.
The first is what I call the ghosti-principle.  *ghosti- is a PIE word which means "one with whom one has a reciprocal obligation of hospitality."  Our words "guest" and "host" both come from this root.  And that is just what the principle implies.  There is an interaction amongst people, and between people and the gods, according to the laws of hospitality.  In the first instance, society is bound together by an exchange of gifts, or by acting as guest on one occasion and host on another.  In the second instance, we are bound to the gods through the giving of gifts and the receiving of blessings.  This is, in fact, the origin of the Indo-European version of sacrifice.  When a sacrifice was performed, the people who offered it ate most of the meat.  Some of the animal was burned to go to the gods.  The sacrifice was thus a shared meal, in which the people served as hosts and the gods as guests.  Since the gods knew the rules, they would then be obligated to serve as hosts on another occasion, and they would do so by granting us our wishes.  This is not simply a form of divine extortion; the gifts the gods give us not only obligate us in turn, but bind us closely to them in a shared society.
The second is the *Artus.  The Artus (I will leave aside the asterisk) is the pattern of the universe.  It comes from the root *ar-, meaning "to fit together, particularly according to a pleasing pattern."  "Artus" is the root of the Vedic rta, and is similarly in operation to the Germanic wyrd.  It is a result of an interplay between the order that is the universe (it is an aesthetically pleasing order; "cosmos" and "cosmetic" are related) and the chaos that is without.  Order, allowed to remain unfed, becomes brittle and dead.  Chaos is dangerous and not capable of supporting life.  It is only through the interplay of these two, in a sort of ghosti-principle way, that the cosmos can live.  And the pattern that that cosmos makes as it unfolds is the Artus.  The PIEs likened the cosmos to a tree, fed by the waters of chaos.  But the fruits of the tree dropped back into the waters, feeding them in turn, in an eternal ghosti relationship.   And the pattern that the branches of the tree made as it grew throughout time and space?  That was the Artus.  And we live amongst its branches, and our deeds are its fruit.

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