22 May 2009

Colin Renfrew. The Anatolian Hypothesis

For many years, basically until the second half of the 20th century, the study of Indo-European (IE) was exclusively in the hands of linguists. They analyzed ancient languages, devising laws and family trees, and imagined the emergence and expansion of Indo-European as an event which involved a series of massive migrations or invasions occurring (what a coincidence!) a few centuries before the first attested documents written in IE languages. In the 1950s and 60s, the Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marjia Gimbutas provided the archaeological evidence to support the traditional view. Her theory, generally known as the Kurganic Theory, was later developed by other authors, e.g. J P Mallory. It can be summarized as follows: the original homeland of the proto-IE (PIE) speakers was in the Russian steppes; they started to spread into other Eurasian territories between 4000 and 3000 BC. Gimbutas identified these early proto-Indo-Europeans with a series of prehistoric cultures of that time, especially the one that built the Kurgans, a type of burial mound. Another important aspect of this theory is the role of the horse, linked to pastoralism and warfare. Needless to say, Gimbutas’ theory fitted perfectly well with the orthodox IE paradigm, and it soon became the most widely accepted explanation for IE origins. The first scholar who challenged this view was the eminent British archaeologist Colin Renfrew (image on the left). His theories are based on a simple fact: a phenomenon of such proportions as the expansion of IE languages can only be explained in connection with a really significant event in prehistory. And this event, according to Renfrew, is the expansion of agriculture in the Neolithic. This puts the chronology of PIE a couple of millennia back in time (around 5000-6000 BC), and the PIE homeland somewhere in the Anatolian Peninsula, from where, alongside agriculture, IE languages (and peoples) spread towards Europe and Central Asia. For this reason, his theory is often referred to as the Anatolian Hypothesis.

There’s no doubt that Renfrew’s theories about IE origins are an important step forward in this field of study, and a stimulus for further reassessments of the IE question. The most important thing is that he proved the inconsistencies of the traditional view, for example the ones regarding the role of horses in the expansion of Indo-Europeans. Needless to say, Renfrew’s theory has generally been rejected by mainstream Indo-Europeanists, who prefer the more traditional view, based on a series of obsolete assumptions about language change and prehistory. Personally, I think that the diffusion of agriculture in the Neolithic must necessarily have had some relevant linguistic consequences, associated with the new technology and the socio-economic changes that it brought about, but it doesn’t seem to be the best explanation for the expansion of IE. As we have variously seen in this blog, this explanation could be found further back in time, in the Paleolithic.

Further reading:
- MALLORY, J. P. (1989). In Search of the Indo-Europeans. Language, Archaeology and Myth. Thames and Hudson.
- RENFREW, Colin (1987). Archaeology and Language. The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins. Pimlico.


Anonymous said...

This was a very helpful and easy to follow essay, it really helped me to understand the anatolian hypothesis better. But it started to seem a bit biased at the end.

Language Continuity said...

Well yes, if I give my opinion you might think that this is 'biased', why not?, but remember one thing: this is not Wikipedia, this is obviously a personal blog. I try to offer well-documented information, and I also provide my own views. Could it be otherwise?