Paleolinguistics – early spread of Indo-European language group

Posted by jerry on September 2nd, 2004 — Posted in History, Writing

There appear to be at least three major competing hypotheses to explain the rapid spread of the Indo-European language group throughout europe at the conclusion of the Younger Dryas cold event around 10,800 BCE:

• the battle axe movement – through displacement by warlike activity

• the farming wave – as the climate improves more sparsely populated farmland becomes available relatively free of hunter-gatherers; and

• rapid population growth resulting from improvement in climate, previously decimated by a mini ice age

There is an excellent article on the early history of Indo-European languages written by Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov that was published in Scientific American.

All of these can account for the spread and movement of language – by conquering, farming spread, or re-population of areas. But I wonder if there is a further explanation: namely the decimation of a population by a sudden cold climate event or natural disaster – or even the spread of disease. That is, language spread because of the need to preserve knowledge in a stressed or dying population. Among a static population, whether farmers or hunter-gatherers or more likely a combination of the two, once the main skills have been passed on, such groups would only need to exchange information that relates to change, because once you know the seasons in which to plant, or the signs of potential quarry, then there is little need for discussion. But in a stressed population, there is far more need to share information in case such knowledge is lost forever.

During the great bubonic plague outbreaks of the 14th and 17th centuries, up to a third of Europe’s population was wiped out – and locally it was not uncommon for between fifty percent and ninety-five percent to be killed by the disease. Both of these periods saw the emergence of two things: an increase in technology solutions in the increasing absence of ‘man’power; and the birth of instruction manuals for everything from blacksmithing to embroidery stitches – because there was such a risk of essential knowledge being lost that information had to be passed beyond the strict boundaries of the guilds.

– Just a thought


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