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Proto-Indo-European society

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Title: Proto-Indo-European society  
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Subject: Indo-European studies, Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses, Proto-Indo-Europeans, Proto-Indo-European religion, Indo-European migrations
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Proto-Indo-European society

Proto-Indo-European refers to the single ancestor language common to all Indo-European languages. It is therefore a linguistic concept, not an ethnic, social or cultural one, so there is no direct evidence of the nature of Proto-Indo-European 'society'. Much depends on the unsettled Indo-European homeland debate as to where and when this common ancestor language was spoken. All interpretations of whatever aspects this society may have had, thus including all those reported here, are therefore only inferences, not established facts, using three main approaches.

  • Some interpretations are based on archaeology, but this entails making the assumption that one of the homeland hypotheses is in fact correct.
  • Another approach has been the comparative analysis of modern or at least historically known societies speaking languages of the Indo-European family, also widely seen as questionable, even the principal tenet, the Trifunctional hypothesis.
  • Linguistic reconstruction makes it possible to identify particular words (those cited *thus on this page, with a preceding asterisk) which are taken to have formed part of the vocabulary of the Proto-Indo-European language. These are reconstructed on the basis of sound laws, however, which are not paralleled by any 'meaning laws', so it is less certain exactly what these terms may have referred to at the stage of Proto-Indo-European. The technique of inferring culture from such reconstructions, known as linguistic palaeontology, is therefore open to criticism, and the same word is open to multiple different interpretations.

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

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

Linguistics has allowed the reliable reconstruction of a large number of words relating to kinship relations. These all agree in exhibiting a highly patriarchal, patrilocal and patrilineal social fabric.

Inferences have been made for sacral kingship, suggesting the 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, but Dumézil's approach has been widely criticised.

If there was a separate class of warriors, it probably consisted of single young men. They would have followed a separate warrior code unacceptable in the society outside their peer-group. Traces of initiation rites in several Indo-European societies suggest that this group identified itself with wolves or dogs (see Berserker, Werewolf, Wild Hunt).

The people were organized in settlements (*weiḱs; Sanskrit viś "village"; Ancient Greek woikos "home"; Latin vicus; Old English (Germanic borrowing from Latin) wic "dairy farm"), probably each with its chief (*h₃rēǵs—Sanskrit rājan, Latin rex, reg-, Gaulish -riks). These settlements or villages were further divided in households (*domos; Latin domus), each headed by a patriarch (*dems-potis; Ancient Greek despotes, Sanskrit dampati).


Technologically, linguistic reconstruction suggests a culture of the Bronze Age: words for bronze can be reconstructed (*h₂éyos) from Germanic, Italic and Indo-Iranian, while no word for iron can be dated to the proto-language. Gold and silver were known.

An *n̥sis (Vedic Sanskrit así, Latin ensis) was a bladed weapon, originally a dagger of bronze or (in earliest times) of bone. An *iḱmos was a spear or similar pointed weapon. Words for axe include *h₂égʷsih₂ (Germanic, Greek, Italic) and *péleḱu- (Vedic Sanskrit paraśú, Greek pélekus); these could have been either of stone or of bronze.

The wheel (*kʷékʷlos – Vedic Sanskrit cakrá, Greek kúklos, Old English hweol, Serbo-Croatian kolo; or *róth₂eh₂ – Vedic Sanskrit rathá, German rad, Latin rota, Romanian roata) was known, certainly for ox-drawn carts. Horse-drawn chariots developed after the breakup of the proto-language, originating with the Proto-Indo-Iranians around 2000 BC.

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.


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.

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

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"; Kennedy: "ugly head"), in Indo-Aryan languages (Asvaghosa: "tamer of horses"); in Greek (Socrates: "good ruler", Hipparchos: "horse master"; Cleopatra: "from famous lineage") in Slavic languages (Vladimir: "ruler of the world"); in the Germanic languages (Alfred: "elf-counsel"; Godiva: "gift of God"), and in the Anatolian languages (Piyama-Radu: "gift of the devotee?").

Patronymics such as Gustafsson ("son of Gustaf"), MacDonald ("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 and social theme and idea expressive of the "right order of (ontic) being": that which is both cosmically, ethically and socially "fitting, right, ordered"; also, "right time, ritually correct", revealing the deeper harmony and order of worldly existence (Avestan asha, Vedic Sanskrit ṛta-, ṛtu-, Latin rītus, Germanic raido, etc. )


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