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7-10-2015, 12:49

Indo-European Speakers and Eurasian History

Although we cannot precisely locate the Indo-European homeland, it is certain that speakers of Indo-European languages spread over Eurasia in the second and first millennia B. c.E., carrying their languages into regions where people spoke other vernaculars. Indo-European languages gradually came to dominate Eurasia. The earliest definitive evidence of an Indo-European language is from what is now Turkey, where, as we saw in Chapter 2, a people called the Hittites had established a powerful state by 1800 B. c.e. whose official court language was Indo-European Hittite. In Greece, evidence of Indo-European first appears in Linear B tablets from 1500 to 1200 b. c.e. that include Greek words. It is possible that Indo-European speakers lived in both Turkey and Greece for many centuries before they started to write.

The presence of Indo-European languages farther west and north in Europe is clear from the earliest written remains found there; that is, from about 500 b. c.e. onward. Although today Indo-European languages are dominant throughout Europe, a few regions remain in which non-Indo-European languages have survived over millennia, such as Finland and the Basque area of Spain.

In Asia, Indo-European speakers did not become as dominant as they were in Europe. In the Middle East outside Turkey (where people today speak Turkish, the non-Indo-European language of later immigrants), people continued to use Semitic languages, such as Akkadian in antiquity and Arabic in more recent times. But migrants speaking Indo-European languages moved into southern Asia, arriving on the Iranian plateau in the second millennium b. c.e. The Gathas—songs of the Persian prophet Zoroaster (see Chapter 4)—were probably composed toward the end of that millennium, in around 1300 b. c.e., and their language is Indo-European with close similarities to the Sanskrit of India.

The most easterly evidence of Indo-European languages appears in the Central Asian provinces of modern China, where excavations have uncovered burials with naturally mummified human bodies in the Tarim Basin. Some of the burials date back to 2000 b. c.e., and they continued until 500 b. c.e. The dead people had European physical features, including fair skin and light hair, and some scholars believe that they were Indo-European speakers. They arrived in western China when the chariot first appeared in Shang China, and the two events seem to be related.

The spread of Indo-European languages was thus one of the most important events in the early history of the entire Eurasian continent. As a result, by the beginning of the Common Era, if not before, peoples from the Atlantic Ocean to the western regions of China spoke a variety of related languages that had a common source. The spread of Indo-European languages is but one example of the profound impact of nomadic peoples on the settled societies of Eurasia.