Indo-European before the Indo-Europeans? - new evidence from Mesopotamia

Who, what, where and when

Guest lecture by Professor Gordon Whittaker, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

Professor Whittaker's lecture will take place on 14 May 2009 at 16:15 at the University of Copenhagen at Amager (KUA), room 23.4.39, and will be held in English. It is organized by Roots of Europe.

Everybody is welcome.

Short description of the topic

Cuneiform TabletA series of migrations from the late 4th to the mid-2nd millennium B.C. transformed Europe and the western half of the Asian continent more thoroughly than any Völkerwanderungen that have occurred ever since.

Aggressive nomads speaking closely-related Indo-European dialects and languages are said to have swept down from the Russian steppes on the newly domesticated horse and to have imposed themselves with fire and the sword as overlords on the peaceful agriculturalist societies of Old Europe and South Asia. But is this dramatic black-and-white scenario, one that has inspired racism and caused so much suffering in the 20th century, the whole story?

Fresh evidence from the Land of the Two Rivers suggests otherwise. For many decades now, leading Assyriologists have speculated on the existence of an early population in the 4th millennium B.C. that preceded the Sumerians, hitherto generally regarded as the first settlers of the region. Evidence for such a population comes from place names, the names of deities, technical vocabulary and even from environmental terms. Such speculation has proven fruitless, since no linguistic group or archaeologically attested society could be shown to be related. However, in a number of recent publications data have been presented that suggest that one such linguistic group is indeed comparable -- the Indo-European family of languages. Polysyllabic terms lacking a Sumerian etymology can be demonstrated to resemble segmentable Indo-European words with comparable meanings. Furthermore, the cuneiform writing system can be shown to preserve traces of Indo-European influence in its sign values and in its sign composition.

If the alleged pre-Sumerian population in Mesopotamia was indeed Indo-European, then it stands to revolutionize our perception of very early Indo-European society, since its ancestors must have migrated prior to the domestication of the horse. All evidence suggests that they settled in the region as 'peaceful agriculturalists' no different in character from other societies of the Ancient Near East. Although it would be the earliest known Indo-European society by well over a thousand years, it seems in other respects surprisingly familiar. The presentation will discuss a number of key aspects of this controversial evidence, with a special focus on the writing system.