Proto-Indo-European society

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Proto-Indo-European society is the culture of the Proto-Indo-European people, the hypothetical speakers of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language.

Theories about the culture are based primarily on linguistics and not ethnic, social, or cultural study, as the origin of Indo–European and their urheimat is still debated. There is no direct evidence of the nature of a "Proto-Indo-European society", as such.

Scientific approaches[edit]

Much of our modern ideas in this field involve the unsettled Indo-European homeland debate about the precise origins of the language itself. There are three main approaches researchers have employed in their attempts to study this culture, but all are subject to resolution of the debate and all are the subject of criticism:

  • Archeology: Interpretations that are based on archaeological evidence.
  • Comparative linguistics: Interpretations that are based on the comparative analysis of the languages of historically known societies (see Trifunctional hypothesis).
  • Linguistic reconstruction: Interpretations that are based on the reconstruction and identification of words (those cited *thus on this page, with a preceding asterisk) which formed part of the vocabulary of the Proto-Indo-European language. These are reconstructed on the basis of sounds, not meaning. Exactly what these terms may have referred to at the stage of Proto-Indo-European is therefore less certain. The technique of inferring culture from such reconstructions is known as linguistic palaeontology.

What follows in this page are interpretations based only on the assumption of the Kurgan hypothesis of Indo-European origins, and are by no means universally accepted.

Societal structure[edit]

Whether these people regarded themselves as a linguistic or ethnic community cannot be known, nor by which name they may have referred to themselves.

Family structure[edit]

A large number of words relating to kinship relations have been reconstructed by comparative linguistics. Some authors[citation needed] infer from the analysis of this lexicon that the familiar organization was patriarchal, patrilocal and patrilineal. For example, they point to the word *h2u̯edh believed to mean "to lead (away)" and also the word that denotes a male wedding a female (but not vice versa), as evidence of patrilocality. Patrilinearity is also the dominant pattern in historical IE societies, and matrilocality would be unlikely in a patrilineal society.[1]

Social classes[edit]

Georges Dumézil suggested for Proto-Indo-European society a threefold division of a clerical class, a warrior class and a class of farmers or husbandmen, on his interpretations that many historically known groups speaking Indo-European languages show such a division. However Dumézil's approach has been widely criticised.[citation needed]

If there was a separate class of warriors, it probably consisted of single young men.[citation needed] Traces of initiation rites in several Indo-European societies (e.g. early Slav, Volcae, Neuri and their lupine ritualism) suggest that this group identified itself with wolves or dogs (see Berserker, Werewolf, Wild Hunt).


A Proto-Indo-European word for "village" or "settlement" has been reconstructed: *weiḱs (Sanskrit viś, Polish wieś "village"; Ancient Greek woikos "home"; Latin vicus). It is taken as evidence that at least part of the PIE speakers lived in urban settlements.

A word for "chief" or "king" also was reconstructed: *h₃rēǵs (Sanskrit rājan, Latin rex, reg-, Gaulish -riks). It has been conjectured to designate a village chief.[citation needed]

The reconstructed word for "household" is *domos (Latin domus, Polish dom). It has been taken to indicate that the villages were divided into clans.[citation needed] It is also conjectured that each clan was headed by a patriarch, the *dems-potis (Ancient Greek despotes, Sanskrit dampati, Polish pan domu).

Inferences have been made for sacral kingship, suggesting the tribal chief at the same time assumed the role of high priest.[citation needed]



A word for bronze can be reconstructed: *h₂éyos from Germanic, Italic and Indo-Iranian. Words for gold and silver were recovered too. On the other hand, a word for iron could not. Thus the reconstructed lexicon is consistent with a culture of the Bronze Age.


The word *n̥sis (Vedic Sanskrit así, Latin ensis) probably meant a bladed weapon, such as a dagger. The material could have been bronze or bone.[citation needed]

The word *iḱmos presumably denoted a spear or similar pointed weapon. Words for axe include *h₂égʷsih₂ (Germanic, Greek, Italic) and *péleḱu- (Vedic Sanskrit paraśú, Greek pélekus).[citation needed]


Linguists reconstructed two words for wheel: *kʷékʷlos (Vedic Sanskrit cakrá, Greek kúklos, Old English hweol, Serbo-Croatian kolo) and also *róth₂eh₂ (Vedic Sanskrit rathá, German Rad, Latin rota).

The wheel was probably not invented by the Proto-Indo-Europeans, but the word *kʷékʷlos is a native derivation of the root *kʷel- "to turn" rather than a borrowing. David Anthony infers from it that the PIE speakers' contact with the people who introduced the wheel to them was short.[2] Horse-drawn chariots developed after the breakup of the proto-language, originating with the Proto-Indo-Iranians around 2000 BC.

Textiles and wood crafts[edit]

Judging by the vocabulary, techniques of weaving, plaiting, tying knots etc. were important and well-developed and used for textile production as well as for baskets, fences, walls etc.[citation needed]


Tarpan horse (1841 drawing)

Proto-Indo-European society depended on animal husbandry. People valued cattle (*péḱu – Vedic Sanskrit páśu, Latin pecu- *gʷōus – Sanskrit go, Latin bo-) as their most important animals, measuring a man's wealth by the number of cows he owned (Latin pecunia 'money' from pecus). Sheep (*h₃ówis) and goats (*gʰáidos) were also kept, presumably by the less wealthy. Agriculture and catching fish (*písḱos) also featured.[original research?]

The domestication of the horse (*h₁eḱuos – Vedic Sanskrit áśvas, Latin equus, Greek hippos) (see Tarpan) may have originated with these peoples: scholars sometimes invoke this as a factor contributing to their rapid expansion.

Ritual and sacrifice[edit]

They practiced a polytheistic religion centered on sacrificial rites, probably administered by a class of priests or shamans.

Animals were slaughtered (*gʷʰn̥tós) and dedicated to the gods (*déiwos) in the hope of winning their favour. The king as the high priest would have been the central figure in establishing favourable relations with the other world.

The Kurgan hypothesis suggests burials in barrows or tomb chambers. Important leaders would have been buried with their belongings, and possibly also with members of their household or wives (sati). The practice of human sacrifice is inferred from the Luhansk sacrificial site.


The use of two-word compound words for personal names, typically but not always ascribing some noble or heroic feat to their bearer, is so common in Indo-European languages that it seems certainly inherited. These names are often of the class of compound words that in Sanskrit are called bahuvrihi compounds.

They are found in the Celtic region (Dumnorix: "king of the world"), in Indo-Aryan (Asvaghosa: "tamer of horses"); in Iranian (Vishtaspa: "possessing horses untied (for racing)"); in Hellenic (Socrates: "good ruler"); in Slavic (Vladimir: "ruler of the world"); in Germanic (Godgifu: "gift of God"), and in Anatolian (Piyama-Radu: "gift of the devotee?"). German itself follows the same pattern ger: spear and man: man.

Patronymics such as Gustafsson ("son of Gustaf"), Rostamzād ("son of Rostam"), Hakopian ("son of Hakop"), and MacDòmhnaill ("son of Donald") are also frequently encountered in Indo-European languages.


Some words connected with PIE world-view:

  • *gʰosti- concerned mutual obligations between people and between worshippers and gods, and from which guest and host are derived.
  • *h₁r̥-tu-, *h₁r̥-to-, a cosmic, ethical, and social "right order of being": that which is "fitting, right, ordered"; also, "right time, ritually correct", revealing the harmony and order of the world (Avestan asha, Vedic Sanskrit ṛta-, ṛtu-, Latin rītus, etc. )


  1. ^ Mallory, J. P.; Adams, Douglas Q., eds. (1997). "Residence". Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. p. 483.
  2. ^ Anthony, David W. (2010). The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press. pp. 30–31.


  • Fortson IV, Benjamin W. (2004). Indo-European Language and Culture. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 16–44. ISBN 1-4051-0316-7.
  • Stüber, Karin (2007). "Die Stellung der Frau: Spuren indogermanischer Gesellschaftsordnung in der Sprache". In Schärer, K. (ed.). Spuren lesen. Chronos. pp. 97–115. ISBN 978-3-0340-0879-2. ‹See Tfd›(in German)