20. The Indo-European Migrations (~1500 – 800 BCE)

Summary In the early 21st century nearly half of the world population speaks a mother tongue which belongs to the Indo-European language family. The languages belonging to this language family likely originated around 4000 BCE among nomadic horsemen in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, they subsequently spread to Europe, to India and to Iran in several waves of migrations. Around 1500 BEC Indo-European peoples entered India, starting the Vedic period, and around 800 BEC the Indo-European Medes, Parthians and Persians entered Iran.

Keywords Domesticated Species; History of South Asia; Languages

Indo-European branches map

Geographic distribution of the Indo-European language family in the early 21st century. Among the shown language branches on this map are the Italic languages (golden), the Germanic languages (red), the Balto-Slavic languages (green) and the Indo-Iranian languages (blue). Apart from the regions marked above, due to European colonialism since about 1500 CE, nowadays Indo-European languages are also widely spoken in the Americas, in Australia and in parts of Africa. User:Hayden120 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Since the 16th century European scholars realized that the Indian and the European languages had many similarities. This is why nowadays they are combined into the Indo-European language family. This language family is divided into several branches, such as the Italic language branch which includes Italian, Spanish and French; the Germanic language branch which includes German and English; the Balto-Slavic languge branch which includes Russian and Polish; and the Indo-Iranian language branch which includes Hindustani, Bengali and Persian, among others. Other major language families – besides the Indo-European one – are the Sino-Tibetan language family which includes the Chinese languages and Burmese; the Turkic language family which includes Turkish and Kazakh; the Afro-Asiatic language family which includes Arabic, Hebrew and Somali; and the Niger-Congo language family which includes Swahili, among others. Nowadays, in the early 21st century, the mother tongues of nearly half of the world population belong to the Indo-European language family.

Today’s similarities among the various languages between England and Bengal are rooted in early human migrations which likely started from the Pontic-Caspian steppe north of the Caucasus around 4000 BCE. The people which spoke the Proto-Indo-European language were originally nomads living in that area which today belongs to southern Russia and Ukraine. The horse was likely domesticated by them around that time, and it was useful in war and helped them to efficiently bridge vast distances in Eurasia.

The Indo-Iranian peoples, a sub-group of the Indo-Europeans, appeared in central Asia around 2000 BCE. They split into the so-called Indo-Aryan and the Iranian peoples. The Indo-Iranians migrated into the civilized regions with agriculture and states in two waves, with the Indo-Aryans first migrating to the Indus Valley (in the Vedic period) and to the Fertile Crescent (founding the Mitanni kingdom) around 1500 BCE, and the Iranians – among them Medes, Parthians and Persians – migrating from Central Asia to the western Iranian plateau around 800 BCE. The Indo-Aryan migration to the Indus Valley, and from about 1200 BCE on to the east into the Ganges Plain and to the south into central India, was a particular important event in the history of India, as the Indian caste system originates from that time when Indo-Aryans suppressed the local populace and put themselves at the top of society. The four classes in the caste system which survive until today, from the top to the bottom, are the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (peasants and merchants) and the Shudras (servants).


An Egyptian painting of the Hyksos riding on horses and using chariots around 1600 BCE. The Hyksos, who were partially Indo-European, invaded Egypt and introduced the horse to Egypt in that time. (© Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In the west Indo-Europeans spread to Europe since the 4th millennium BCE. There were various migrations to the Fertile Crescent in the 2nd millennium BCE. The Hyksos, an at least partial Indo-European people, invaded Egypt in 1650 and ruled it for a century. Among other techniques, they introduced the horse and the chariot to Egypt. The Sea Peoples, who invaded the New Kingdom of Egypt, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and other states around 1200 BCE during the Bronze Age Collapse, were a vast mix of peoples who at least partially were Indo-Europeans. Other Indo-European peoples coming into that area at that time were the Greeks, the Phrygians and the Philistines.

Later three of the four big ancient empires were erected by Indo-Europeans, namely the Achaemenid Empire in Iran, the Maurya Empire in India and the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin. Among the four big ancient empires only the Qin dynasty of China was not founded by Indo-Europeans.

Back to main page