Greek chariot
Around a 3000 B.C., during the early Bronze Age, Indo-European people began migrating into Europe, Iran and India and mixed with local people who eventually adopted their language. In Greece, these people were divided into fledgling city states from which the Mycenaeans and later the Greeks evolved. These Indo European people are believed to have been relatives of the Aryans, who migrated or invaded India and Asia Minor. The Hittites, and later the Greeks, Romans, Celts and nearly all Europeans and North Americans descended from Indo-European people.

Indo-Europeans is the general name for the people speaking Indo-European languages. They are the linguistic descendants of the people of the Yamnaya culture (c.3600-2300 B.C. in Ukraine and southern Russia who settled in the area from Western Europe to India in various migrations in the third, second, and early first millenniums B.C.. They are the ancestors of Persians, pre-Homeric Greeks, Teutons and Celts. [Source:]

Indo-European intrusions into Iran and Asia Minor (Anatolia, Turkey) began about 3000 B.C.. The Indo-European tribes originated in the great central Eurasian Plains and spread into the Danube River valley possibly as early as 4500 B.C., where they may have been the destroyers of the Vinca Culture. Iranian tribes entered the plateau which now bears their name in the middle around 2500 B.C. and reached the Zagros Mountains which border Mesopotamia to the east by about 2250 B.C...

Mark Damen of the Utah State University wrote: Indo-European theory rests on the fact that various languages from all across Eurasia, in lands as far apart as India and Iceland, show many essential similarities, enough that they must have originated as a single tongue at some point long ago. Parallels in vocabulary and grammar quickly emerged among foreign languages, particularly in what were then the oldest preserved tongues: Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. The last is the language of The Vedas, an ancient body of writings from India, and close analysis of its text showed that Sanskrit has a strong affinity with Latin and Greek. For instance, the Sanskrit word for "three" is trayas, clearly cognate with (i.e. from the same linguistic origin as) Latin tres and Greek treis, also words for "three." Likewise, the Sanskrit sarpa, "snake," obviously shares a common ancestor with the Latin serpens, the forebear of the English word serpent.

Indo-European Languages

The Indo-European languages are a language family that originated in western and southern Eurasia. It includes most of the languages of Europe as well as ones from northern Indian subcontinent and the Iranian English, French, Portuguese, Russian, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, Hindi, Farsi, Greek, Italian are all Indo-Europe languages. The Indo-European family is divided into several branches or sub-families, of which there are eight groups with languages still alive today: Albanian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian, and Italic. An additional six subdivisions are now extinct. [Source: Wikipedia]

Around 46 percent of the world's population (3.2 billion people) speaks an Indo-European language as a first language, far and away the largest of any language family. According to Ethnologue, there are about 445 Indo-European languages still spoken today, with over two-thirds of them in the Indo-Iranian branch. The most widely-spoken individual Indo-European languages are English, Hindustani, Spanish, Bengali, French, Russian, Portuguese, German, Persian and Punjabi, each with over 100 million speakers. Among the Indo-European languages that are small and in danger of extinction are Cornish, which has fewer than 600 speakers.[1]

All Indo-European languages are descended from a single prehistoric language, reconstructed as Proto-Indo-European (PIE), spoken sometime in the Neolithic to early Bronze age. The Indo-European family is not known to be linked to any other language family through any more distant genetic relationship, although several disputed proposals to that effect have been made.

The earliest written Indo-European language — Mycenaean Greek and the Anatolian languages, Hittite and Luwian — appeared during the Bronze Age. The oldest examples are isolated Hittite words and names found in Old Assyrian Akkadian language texts found in the texts of the Assyrian colony of Kültepe in eastern Anatolia in the 20th century B.C.. Akkadian was a Semitic language.

The Indo-European family is important is of historical linguistics as it has the-longest recorded history of any known family after the ancient Egyptian language and the Semitic languages. The analysis of the family relationships between the Indo-European languages and the reconstruction of their common source, was the cornerstone of establishing historical linguistics as an academic discipline in the 19th century.


Hittite Lion-hunt relief around 1200 BC
at Aslantepe
The Proto-Indo-Europeans are a hypothetical prehistoric population of Eurasia who spoke Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the ancestor of the Indo-European languages according to linguistic reconstruction. [Source: Wikipedia]

Knowledge of them comes chiefly from that linguistic reconstruction, along with material evidence from archaeology and archaeogenetics. The Proto-Indo-Europeans likely lived during the late Neolithic, or roughly the 4th millennium BC. Mainstream scholarship places them in the Pontic–Caspian steppe zone in Eastern Europe (present day Ukraine and southern Russia). Some archaeologists would extend the time depth of PIE to the middle Neolithic (5500 to 4500 BC) or even the early Neolithic (7500 to 5500 BC), and suggest alternative location hypotheses.

By the early second millennium BC, descendants of the Proto-Indo-Europeans had reached far and wide across Eurasia, including Anatolia (Hittites), the Aegean (the linguistic ancestors of Mycenaean Greece), the north of Europe (Corded Ware culture), the edges of Central Asia (Yamnaya culture), and southern Siberia (Afanasievo culture).

The precise geographical location of the Proto-Indo-European homeland — the Indo-European urheimat — is unknown and has been the subject of intense scholarly debate. The most widely accepted of many the competing hypotheses is the Kurgan hypothesis, which posits the urheimat to be the Pontic–Caspian steppe, associated with the Yamnaya culture around 3000 BC. By the time the first written records appeared, Indo-European had already evolved into numerous languages spoken across much of Europe and south-west Asia.

Spread of Indo-European Culture and Languages

Shoaib Daniyal wrote: About half of the planet’s population today speaks an Indo-European language. This is a remarkable fact: It means that around three billion people speak tongues that descended from what was, once upon a time, a single language and was spoken by a group of nomads whose numbers wouldn’t have been larger than that of a tribal confederation. [Source:Shoaib Daniyal, Scroll, Quartz India, June 11, 2015]

“How did this single language, which linguists have taken to calling Proto-Indo-European, spread across the word, giving rise to entities as diverse as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, French, Persian and Bhojpuri? The nomadic tribes that spoke the language spread through large parts of the known world around 6,000 years ago. In the words of anthropologist David W. Anthony, writing in his fantastic book on the spread of the Indo-Europeans, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World:

“The people who spoke the Proto-Indo-European language lived at a critical time in a strategic place. They were positioned to benefit from innovations in transport, most important of these being the beginning of horseback riding and the invention of wheeled vehicles. Horses, wagons and chariots gave these Indo-Europeans certain advantages militarily over the existing settled societies of Europe and Asia. Another innovation was biological: Indo-Europeans developed a gene mutation that allowed them to digest milk even after being weaned, thus providing these nomads with a continuous and mobile source of nutrition. We can see echoes of these historical facts in the culture of the early Vedic people who venerated horses and frowned upon the killing of milch cattle.

“While this much the experts agree on, there are two competing hypotheses for the place of origin of these Indo-Europeans (or, as they were earlier known, the Aryans). The conventional view places their homeland in the Pontic steppe, which corresponds to modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. An alternative hypothesis claims that the Proto-Indo-Europeans spread from Anatolia in modern-day Turkey. The latter hypothesis was recently backed up by a seminal study led by evolutionary biologist Quentin Atkinson from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, which was published in the journal Science.”

Kurgan Hypothesis

20120217-Iliad  Achill_erschlaegt_Hektor.jpg
Achilles dragging Hector
from a chariot in the Iliad
Kurgan hypothesis (also known as the Kurgan theory or Kurgan model) or Steppe theory is the most widely accepted proposal to identify the Proto-Indo-European homeland. The term is derived from the Russian word kurgan, meaning tumulus or burial mound. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Steppe theory was first formulated by Otto Schrader (1883) and V. Gordon Childe (1926) and systematized in the 1950s by Marija Gimbutas, who used the term to group various prehistoric cultures, including the Yamnaya (or Pit Grave) culture and its predecessors. Gimbutas defined the Kurgan culture as composed of four successive periods, with the earliest (Kurgan I) including the Samara and Seroglazovo cultures of the Dnieper–Volga region in the Copper Age (early 4th millennium BC). The people of these cultures were nomadic pastoralists, who, according to the model, by the early 3rd millennium BC had expanded throughout the Pontic–Caspian steppe and into Eastern Europe.

Three genetic studies in 2015 gave partial support to the Kurgan Hypothesis. According to those studies, haplogroups R1b and R1a, now the most common in Europe (R1a is also common in South Asia) expanded from the steppes north of the Pontic and Caspian seas, along with at least some of the Indo-European languages, The studies also detected a genetic marker present in modern Europeans which was not present in Neolithic Europeans, which plausibly could have been introduced with paternal lineages R1b and R1a, as well as Indo-European languages.

Yamnaya Horsemen from the Eurasian Steppe Reshaped Europe’s Population 5000 Years Ago

About 5,000 years ago early Bronze Age men from the Eurasian steppe swept into Europe on horseback and have left behind their DNA with European women who passed the DNA on down through the generations. The mostly male migration may have persisted for several generations, leaving a lasting impact on the genomes of living Europeans. “It looks like males migrating in war, with horses and wagons,” says Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University in Sweden, a population geneticist and lead author of a study on the migration. [Source: Ann Gibbons, Science, February 21, 2017 +++]

Ann Gibbons wrote in Science: “5000 to 4800 years ago, nomadic herders known as the Yamnaya swept into Europe. They were an early Bronze Age culture that came from the grasslands, or steppes, of modern-day Russia and Ukraine, bringing with them metallurgy and animal herding skills and, possibly, Proto-Indo-European, the mysterious ancestral tongue from which all of today’s 400 Indo-European languages spring. They immediately interbred with local Europeans, who were descendants of both the farmers and hunter-gatherers. Within a few hundred years, the Yamnaya contributed to at least half of central Europeans’ genetic ancestry. +++

“To find out why this migration of Yamnaya had such a big impact on European ancestry, researchers turned to genetic data from earlier studies of archaeological samples. They analyzed differences in DNA inherited by 20 ancient Europeans who lived just after the migration of Anatolian farmers (6000 to 4500 years ago) and 16 who lived just after the influx of Yamnaya (3000 to 1000 years ago). The team zeroed in on differences in the ratio of DNA inherited on their X chromosomes compared with the 22 chromosomes that do not determine sex, the so-called autosomes. This ratio can reveal the proportion of men and women in an ancestral population, because women carry two X chromosomes, whereas men have only one. +++

“Europeans who were alive from before the Yamnaya migration inherited equal amounts of A from Anatolian farmers on their X chromosome and their autosomes, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This means roughly equal numbers of men and women took part in the migration of Anatolian farmers into Europe. “But when the researchers looked at the DNA later Europeans inherited from the Yamnaya, they found that Bronze Age Europeans had far less Yamnaya DNA on their X than on their other chromosomes. Using a statistical method developed by graduate student Amy Goldberg in the lab of population geneticist Noah Rosenberg at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, the team calculated that there were perhaps 10 men for every woman in the migration of Yamnaya men to Europe (with a range of five to 14 migrating men for every woman). That ratio is “extreme”—even more lopsided than the mostly male wave of Spanish conquistadores who came by ship to the Americas in the late 1500s, Goldberg says. +++

“Such a skewed ratio raises red flags for some researchers, who warn it is notoriously difficult to estimate the ratio of men to women accurately in ancient populations. But if confirmed, one explanation is that the Yamnaya men were warriors who swept into Europe on horses or drove horse-drawn wagons; horses had been recently domesticated in the steppe and the wheel was a recent invention. They may have been “more focused on warfare, with faster dispersal because of technological inventions” says population geneticist Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley, who is not part of the study. But warfare isn’t the only explanation. The Yamnaya men could have been more attractive mates than European farmers because they had horses and new technologies, such as copper hammers that gave them an advantage, Goldberg says. +++

“The finding that Yamnaya men migrated for many generations also suggests that all was not right back home in the steppe. “It would imply a continuing strongly negative push factor within the steppes, such as chronic epidemics or diseases,” says archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, who was not an author of the new study. Or, he says it could be the beginning of cultures that sent out bands of men to establish new politically aligned colonies in distant lands, as in later groups of Romans or Vikings.” +++

Indo-European migrations
Indo-European migrations


Around 1500 BC, Aryan charioteers from the steppes of northern Iran conquered India. Aryan tribes also gave birth to early civilizations in Greece, Europe and India and were master charioteers. The Aryans were a loosely federated, semi-nomadic herdsmen people who spread both east and west from Central Asia, taking their sky gods with them. The Aryans first settled in the Punjab and later moved on to the Ganges Valley.

Aryans are defined as early speakers of Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-European language that provided the basis for all the languages in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the majority those in Europe.

Based on linguistic evidence Aryans are believed to have originated from the steppes of Central Asia. They were led by a warrior aristocracy whose legendary deeds are recorded in the Rig Veda. The term “arya” in Sanskrit means “noble.” The Aryans introduced the horse-drawn chariot, the Hindu religion and sacred books known as the Vedas to present-day India.

The term “Aryan” has been used by European writers since 1835 but fell into disfavor in the mid 20th century because of its association with Nazi propaganda, which described the people of northern and central Europe as being the purest representatives of an “Aryan race.” Today, historians and ethnologist who discuss Aryans make it very clear they are taking about speakers of Aryan languages and are not taking about Aryan blood, hair, eyes or other features.


Xerxes Inscription Iranians (Persians) are an Indo-European people who descended from Aryan tribes as many Indians and Europeans have. They are not Arabs or Turks and are offended if they are confused with Arabs. Over the centuries modern Iranians have mixed and intermarried with the people of South Asia, Central Asia and the Arab Peninsula and people who traveled on the Silk Road between China and Europe.

Persian (Farsi) is the official language of Iran. It is an Indo-European language, like English, French and German, and is spoken in Iran, much of northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There are also many Persian words and influences in Turkish, Urdu and other languages. Persian, in turn, has many Arabic words and influences.

The original Persians were members of Aryan tribes that arrived from the Central Asia and the Caucasus with sheep and horses in the 2nd millennium B.C., driving out an earlier agricultural civilization. They made their home on Iranian plateau at a time when the Middle East was dominated by ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Assyria. These people spoke an Indo-European language and called themselves “Irani” . The name “Persian” comes from Greek geographers who named them after the province Parsa, or Persis.

The Persians and their close relatives the Medes dominated present-day Iran beginning around 1000 B.C. They were described in cuneiform records from that time. In 612 B.C. an alliance of Medes, Scythians and Chaldeans defeated the Assyrians by besieging and destroying the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. The Medes then created an empire that ruled the Persians to the East and the Assyrians to the west. It was the first of many great Persian empires.

Early Greeks

The ancient Greeks emerged from Indo-European tribes that came from northern Greece and conquered and absorbed the Mycenaeans around 1100 B.C. and gradually spread to the Greek islands and Asia Minor. Ancient Greece developed around 1200-1000 B.C. out of the remnants of Mycenae. After a period of decline during the Dorian Greek invasions (1200-1000 B.C.), Greece and the Aegean Sea area developed a unique civilization.

The Mycenaeans were a group of warlike Indo-European peoples who entered Greece from the north starting around 1900 B.C. and established a Bronze Age culture on the mainland and nearby islands. Their culture was dependent on that of the Minoans of Crete, who for a time politically dominated them. They threw off Minoan control around 1400 B.C. and were dominant in the Aegean until they themselves were overwhelmed by the next wave of invaders around 1150 B.C.. [Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]

No one is sure exactly how the Greeks evolved. Most likely they were a Stone-Age people that began voyaging to Crete, Cyprus, the Aegean islands and the Greek mainland from southern Turkey around 3000 B.C. and mixed with the Stone Age cultures in these lands.

Around a 2500 B.C., during the early Bronze Age, an Indo-European people, speaking a prototypical Greek language, emerged from the north and began mixing with the mainland cultures who eventually adopted their language. These people were divided into fledgling city states from which the Mycenaeans evolved. These Indo European people are believed to have been relatives of the Aryans, who invaded India and Asia Minor. The Hittites, and later the Greeks, Romans, Celts and nearly all Europeans and North Americans descended from Indo-European people.

Greek speakers appeared in the Greek mainland about 1900 B.C. They eventually consolidated themselves into petty chiefdoms that grew into Mycenae. Some time later the mainland "Greeks" began mixing with the Bronze Age people of Asia Minor and island "Greeks" (Ionians) of which the Minoans were the most advanced. The first Greeks are sometimes referred to as the Hellenes, the tribal name of an early mainland Greek people who were initially mostly nomadic animal herders but over time established settled communities and interacted with the cultures around them.. The early Greeks drew upon Mycenae traditions, Mesopotamian learning (weights and measures, lunar-solar calendar, astronomy, musical scales), the Phoenician alphabet (modified for Greek), and Egyptian art. They established city-states and planted the seeds for a rich intellectual life.

Indo-Europeans in Italy

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “All of the languages spoken in prehistoric Italy, with the exception of Etruscan, are members of the Indo-European language family. Working backwards on the basis of similarities among words from different languages and dialects (the comparative method), scholars are able to reconstruct the bare bones of a language they call Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The people who spoke this language were on the move in the latter part of the third and the first half of the second millennia BC. These people, these speakers of PIE, come to us loaded with ideological signification. They are wrapped in the now discredited racist efforts of the Nazis and other groups who sought to make them the archetypal civilizers, the so-called Aryan people from whose bloodline the pure stock of Germany was supposed to descend. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Hence, when we find that leading scholars such as Massimo Pallottino, the dean of Italic prehistory, are more than a little wary about admitting to a massive influx of more advanced PIE-speaking people across the Alps in the Early to Middle Italic Bronze Age, we may suspect that (even if unconsciously) there is more involved in the decision than an impartial assessment of the evidence. Whenever the evidence can bear it, in fact, Pallottino and his school tend to favor a hypothesis of native development to explain and account for major innovations traceable in the archaeological record, as opposed to the influx of new and ethnically different kinds of people. Of course, even Pallottino, with his nativist bent, admits that prior to the Early Bronze Age the people of Italy were in all probability not speaking a dialect of Indo-European, and that the Indo-European language must have come into Italy from outside. ^*^

The standard line posits a single large ingression of warlike Indo-European speakers, who both tamed and advanced the indigenous population, and whose language and cultural practices spread throughout the peninsula. Pallottino prefers a messier model. He argues that the various Italic dialects, Latin, Osco-Umbrian, and the rest, can not be direct descendants of a single Proto-Italic dialect of PIE. In other words, that Indo-European was introduced into Italy at various times and in various guises, by various different groups of people, who were not conquerors en masse but rather smaller groups who were peacefully absorbed into the existing culture. Burial practice is extremely important for deciding on this question.” ^

Charioteers and Indo-European Invaders

Between 2000 and 1000 B.C. successive waves of Indo-Europeans migrated to India from Central Asia (as well as eastern Europe, western Russia and Persia) . These “Aryans” invaded India between 1500 and 1200 B.C., around the same time they moved into the Mediterranean and western Europe. At this time the Indus civilization had already been destroyed or was moribund.

The Indo-Europens had advanced bronze weapons, later iron weapons and horse drawn chariots with light spoked wheels. The native people the conquered at best had oxcarts and often only stone-age weapons.

"Charioteers were the first great aggressors in human history," the historian Jack Keegan wrote. About 1700 BC, Semitic tribes known as the Hykos, invaded the Nile Valley, and mountain people infiltrated Mesopotamia. Both invaders had chariots. Around 1500 BC, Aryan charioteers from the steppes of northern Iran conquered India and the founders of the Shang Dynasty (the first Chinese ruling authority) arrived in China on chariots and set up the world's first state. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

In India, Aryan settlers cultivated some wheat and barely but they were primarily horsemen and cattle herders. They cleared small patches of forest and set up villages and small towns. They didn’t occupy large towns or cites and didn’t leave any great ruined cities behind.. They didn’t really establish any towns of any size or practice settled farming until the Indian Iron Age begining about 700 B.C.

In India, The Aryans were led by a hereditary king and were divided into five major tribes. They remained warriors. They fought against non-Aryans and fought one another. They even persuaded non-Aryans to help fight against other Aryan tribes. War itself was described as the “search for cows.”

Earliest Evidence of Chariots

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “In ancient graves on the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, archeologists have uncovered skulls and bones of sacrificed horses and, perhaps most significantly, traces of spoked wheels. These appear to be the wheels of chariots, the earliest direct evidence for the existence of the two-wheeled high-performance vehicles that transformed the technology of transport and warfare.[Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“The discovery sheds new light on the contributions to world history by the vigorous pastoral people who lived in the broad northern grasslands, dismissed as barbarians by their southern neighbors. From these burial customs, archeologists surmise that this culture bore a remarkable resemblance to the people who a few hundred years later called themselves Aryans and would spread their power, religion and language, with everlasting consequence, into the region of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. The discovery could also lead to some revision in the history of the wheel, the quintessential invention, and shake the confidence of scholars in their assumption that the chariot, like so many other cultural and mechanical innovations, had its origin among the more advanced urban societies of the ancient Middle East.

New analysis of material from the graves shows that these chariots were built more than 4,000 years ago, strengthening the case for their origin in the steppes rather than in the Middle East. If the ages of the burial sites are correct, said Dr. David W. Anthony, who directed the dating research, chariots from the steppes were at least contemporary with and perhaps even earlier than the earliest Middle East chariots. The first hint of them in the Middle East is on clay seals, dated a century or two later. The seal impressions, from Anatolia, depict a light, two-wheel vehicle pulled by two animals, carrying a single figure brandishing an ax or hammer.

Chariots, Indo-Europeans and the Indo-European Language

“Among the charioteers of the steppes, the pattern was much the same,” Wilford wrote in the New York Times. Aryan-speaking charioteers, sweeping in from the north in about 1500 B.C., probably dealt the death-blow to the ancient Indus Valley civilization. But a few centuries later, by the time the Aryans compiled the Rig Veda, their collection of hymns and religious texts, the chariot had been transformed to a vehicle of ancient gods and heroes. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“Chariot technology, Dr. Muhly noted, seems to have left an imprint on Indo-European languages and could help solve the enduring puzzle of where they originated. All of the technical terms connected with wheels, spokes, chariots and horses are represented in the early Indo-European vocabulary, the common root of nearly all modern European languages as well as those of Iran and India.

In which case, Dr. Muhly said, chariotry may well have developed before the original Indo-European speakers scattered. And if chariotry came first in the steppes east of the Urals, that could be the long-sought homeland of Indo-European languages. Indeed, fast spoke-wheeled vehicles could have been used to begin the spread of their language not only to India but to Europe.

One reason Dr. Anthony has his "gut feeling" about the steppe origin of the chariot is that in this same period of widening mobility, harness cheekpieces like those from the Sintashta-Petrovka graves show up in archeological digs as far away as southeast Europe, possibly before 2000 B.C. The chariots of the steppes were getting around, possibly before anything like them in the Middle East.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" and "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin, Wikipedia, “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books) and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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