February 18, 2014

Links among Indo-Europeans, Caucasus peoples, and Native Americans: Genes, language, and mythology

Greg Cochran has written up some ideas about the origin and spread of the Indo-Europeans, based on new genetic data about the population waves that swept over Europe.

Way back when, there were only western hunter-gatherers (WHG). These were replaced by farmers from the Levant (EEF: Early European Farmers). Later came a third group, who are most likely the group we know as the Indo-Europeans. They were themselves a mix of two more basic genepools, the WHG and the Ancestral North Eurasians (ANE) -- a group that roamed around Central Asia / Siberia, and contributed genes to the group that would eventually leave Asia and colonize the Americas.

Greg guesses that the Indo-European group could likely have come from the northern or northeastern Caucasus region, as folks there have the highest signal from that ANE genepool. That region has already been considered a likely homeland of the Indo-Europeans based on linguistic evidence.

So perhaps the Chechens and the Irish are more similar than we think, and not by accident?

I left several comments, which I'll copy and paste below in case you don't want to read through a long comment thread. They all pursue the approach of seeing genes, languages, myths, and visual icons as pieces in a larger population bundle. When a group is spreading its genes by moving into a region and displacing the locals, they also set down their language, myths, and icons. To a decent extent, anyway, and there's no way to know how far in any specific case without being curious and looking.

Key point: it's not only by one group adopting another group's language, myths, and icons that those could be spread.

* * * * *

I wonder if the ANE are the genetic link to the proposed Dene-Caucasian superfamily of languages. That would bring together the Na-Dene languages of the Americas, Yeniseian in Central Siberia, and the Northern and Northeastern Caucasian languages, including Chechen (but not the Southern ones like Georgian).
Basque is also thrown into this superfamily for reasons I don’t understand. Here’s another case where genetics could help to rule on a dispute in linguistic classification. If the Dene-Causcasian languages are closely related to the ANE genepool, and Basques are more or less out of that genepool, don’t bother trying to shoe-horn Basque in with Na-Dene, Yeniseian, and N/NE Caucasian languages.

* * * * *

Iconography should be looked into as well. Like the swastika — not as just another cool geometric motif, but as something with greater meaning and sacred symbolism. Was its veneration due to the ANE?
It goes way back among the Indo-Europeans, who via Buddhism introduced it into East / SE Asia.
It’s widespread among the Nakh peoples (N/NE Caucasians, including Chechens). I didn’t know before following the genetics-inspired hunch, but they’ve got swastikas all over their oldest monuments, sculptures, grave markers, and so on. And importantly, as a higher symbol, representing purification. Under the Wiki article for Vainakh mythology, the Nakh national ornament is shown to be a variant on the swastika, mixed with a four-leaf clover and thus clearly linking them to the Celts? (Only half-kidding…)

Some Native American groups, particularly the Navajo, who speak a Na-Dene language. It represents the Hopi nation as well, and they are Uto-Aztecan speakers who live next door to the Navajo.
If the N/NE Caucasus provided the seed for the Indo-Europeans, then perhaps the swastika was part of the package. And if the Caucasians inherited it from the ANE, that would explain its separate central role among the Navajo, who are also descended from the ANE (and maybe from there to their Hopi neighbors).
That would help to explain its otherwise puzzling and patchy global distribution.

* * * * *

Indo-European mythologists tend to gloss over Greek mythology when trying to reconstruct the Proto-mythology because it has too many elements from the Levant, i.e. the EEF heritage (such as Adonis). Of European mythologies, they lean most heavily on Celtic, Norse, and Slavic.
If myth diffusion was piggy-backing on genetic diffusion, that would explain why the mythologies of Ireland and Norway bear a closer resemblance to the Vedas than does Greek mythology. The ANE genetic signal is lower in Southern Europe.
Roman is an odd case — Indo-Europeanists lean on that too, but only somewhat. A lot is pilfered from Greece. But then there’s the founding of the folk by one twin who kills the other, the veneration of wolves, and the fact that the supreme god’s name is Ju Piter — “Father Sky” — instead of the plainer Zeus, which doesn’t include the word for “father.” In that way, it’s like Dyaus Pita in the Vedic pantheon, both from the Proto-god Dyeus.
Roman myth looks more Celto-Germanic than Greco-whatever. And Italo-Celtic is another one of those not-too-controversial groupings within the IE tree. Sticking with genes and myths as a bundle, it makes you wonder if the proto-Romans didn’t wander into Italy from a Celto-Germanic region. It wasn’t from the east, since that was the Greeks and Illyrians / Albanians.

* * * * *

Someone also needs to look into the links among the myths of the Indo-Europeans and the N/NE Caucasus groups, and try to tease out who originated what and who borrowed what from whom.
“Vainakh mythology” on Wikipedia says that Amjad Jaimoukha has noticed lots of parallels between the N/NE Caucasus myths and Celtic myths, but that the idea is not being widely discussed. Time to start on that.
John Colarusso has a book on the Nart Sagas of the Ossetians, who speak an I-E language in the Caucasus. Despite a lot of the material being I-E, there are fossils of older Caucasian myth in there, though I haven’t read to book in order to report what they are. Some of those may be seeds that left the P-I-E homeland. Who knows, some of the Ossetian / Sarmatian / Iranian myths that later entered the Caucasus might be returning home!


  1. Early European Farmers appear to have beeny a mixture of the WHG and Basal Eurasian groups. They weren't pure descendants of Levantine farmers. See this comment at West Hunter:


  2. Interesting post. There are a few problems, though:

    Native Americans seem to be relatively homogenous for "Mal'ta" ancestry; Eskimo-Aleuts and Na-Dené deviate in the direction of *less* rather than more.

    While we can identify subtypes (e.g., the Buddhist swastika) with more readily traceable chains of transmission and inheritance, the swastika is just too widespread an icon, found deep in the Old World tropics as well as in America beyond the Na-Dené) to offer any tight association with "ANE".

    If we grant the existence of Dené-Caucasian, we have to address the membership of Sino-Tibetan, too. For linguistic macrophyla with this great a (purported) time depth and geographical dispersion, it seems to me that you'd be hard-pressed to disentangle real signals of common cultural inheritance from the ur-speakers from coincidental convergence and contact-induced transformations.

    Somewhat orthogonal to all that:

    Chinese and Tibeto-Burman offer intriguing linguistic indications of early Indo-European contact, whose appreciation tends to undermine one's confidence in the genealogical unity of the entire "Sino-Tibetan" entity. This article is one especially wild read. The scenario it paints is by no means as fringe as you might reflexively think. Christopher Beckwith contends, startlingly:

    It has recently been argued that the widely believed theory of a genetic relationship between Chinese and Tibeto-Burman — the so-called Sino-Tibetan theory — seems to be based on a shared Indo-European lexical inheritance. 78 Some of this material demonstrably entered Tibeto-Burman as loanwords via Chinese. For example, the words for 'horse', 'wheel', 'iron', and other things known to have been introduced into East Asia after the early second millennium bc, have been treated as Sino-Tibetan words, yet the things themselves, and thus the words for them, could not have been known many thousands of years earlier, at the time of the hypothetical Proto-Sino-Tibetan language, and their phonological shape reflects Old Chinese influence. Nevertheless, although some of the Indo-European element in Tibeto-Burman seems clearly to have entered via Chinese, in many other instances chronological considerations make such a pathway difficult, if not impossible. The most likely solution is that the Indo-European intrusion produced a creole not only with the pre-Chinese of the Yellow River valley but also with at least some of the pre-Tibeto-Burmans further to the southwest in the presumed home of Proto-Tibeto-Burman. 79

    Only further linguistic research will establish whether Early Old Chinese is a minimally maintained Indo-European language or a minimally maintained local East Asian language.

    Coming back to symbology as a long-distance tracer:

    [Victor] Mair connects the nearly identical Chinese Bronze script for wu ["medium", "shaman"] and Western heraldic cross potent ☩, an ancient symbol of a magi or magician, which etymologically descend from the same Indo-European root.

    And what does this look like?


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