Individual, Kin and Family in Prehistoric Europe – What Words Can Tell

The project Individual, Kin and Family in Prehistoric Europe – What Words Can Tell, funded by a grant from the VELUX FOUNDATION, runs for a three-year period from 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2016.

The aim of the project is to provide answers to the question of who our Euro­pean ancestors really were by following the clues of language. Archaeology is the best-known means of insight into prehistoric populations. Studies of graves and settlements provide us with details about ancient peoples, their living conditions, gen­eral state of health, social structure, material culture, trade relations and religious beliefs. But for those aspects of human life where archaeology can provide little or no information, we have lin­guistic evidence: Where potsherds and arrowheads fall short, words can tell.

In order to connect linguistic evidence with the surrounding world and the inform­at­ion gained from other disciplines, in part­icular archaeology, we have to combine the traditional comparative method with the palaeo­linguistic approach: If a word for a certain cultural feature, object, plant or creature is attested with regular sound correspondences throughout the Indo-European family, we must conclude that the corre­spond­ing concept existed in the common Indo-European homeland before the dispersal of the proto­language. Even though this approach is by no means new, we are still in need of more systematic and comprehensive studies of European core vocabulary, where specific semantic fields are investigated in detail, and in particular, we need to include a chronological stratification of the linguistic material. A more balanced picture is achieved if we include and distinguish between the following layers:

a) substratum loans from indigenous non-Indo-European peoples (typically flora, fauna etc.)
b) words of common Indo-European heritage (e.g. basic verbs, pronouns, terminology of livestock farming)
c) words belonging to a more restricted area within the Indo-European languages (e.g. Celto-Germanic warfare terminology)
d) later cultural loans from known or unknown sources

The chosen sub­ject matter for this project is the individual, his or her life cycle and roles within kin and family from around 3,500 BCE onwards - that is, the period that presumably saw the spread of the Indo-European languages across the continent.

The project is divided into four sub-projects managed by Professor Birgit Anette Rasmussen (head of project) and the three postdoctoral scholars Adam Hyllested, Benedicte Nielsen Whitehead and Bjarne Simmelkjær Sandgaard Hansen. One subproject takes a birds-eye view, analyzing the scope and precise content of common Indo-European terminology, while the others focus on selected subfields, viz. the notoriously archaic Italic, Germanic and North-East European societies:

  1. Individuals, family ties and life phases in prehistoric Europe (Birgit Anette Rasmussen)
  2. Life phases, kinship and social structures in ancient Europe: Evidence from North-East European languages (Adam Hyllested)
  3. Gender, kinship and family terms in Roman society (Benedicte Nielsen Whitehead)
  4. Gender, kinship and life phases in the Old Germanic society (Bjarne Simmelkjær Sandgaard Hansen)