History : Jan-Feb 2019
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 17 they have reconstructed a picture of what PIE culture might have been like and how it could have spread with the language. Critics consider this type of linguistic“paleontology”controver- sial because it is subject to interpretation and vulnerable to drawing conclusions supported by weak evidence. After many years of sifting through languages that developed out of PIE, linguists reconstruct- ed an approximate word list of key terms. These root words convey traits, figures, practices, and symbols that had high significance across cul- tures. Sheep would have been important to all herders, and the PIE word for“sheep”is a root of that word in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Lithuanian, German, and English. To support theories like this one, scholars have used archaeological evi- dence to establish the importance of sheep in a shared culture. The word“king”is believed to derive from the PIE word meaning “to extend one’s arm,” a ges- ture that connotes giving a command. Scholars tied these roots together by comparing similar kingship rituals across disparate cultures. One custom from ancient Rome involves the sacrifice of a racehorse and presentation of its tail to the Regia, wife of the sacred king. In another cus- tom, parts of a sacrificed horse are brought to the king in the ancient Indian rite of Ashvamedha. In a third, an ancient Irish tradition, the king is symbolically wed to a slaughtered horse. Ritual links like these, in such different societies, sug- gest a shared significance across them. Spreading the Word Studying protolanguages also has geographical implications, as scholars strive to locate where PIE culture began. Among academics, there are a number of theories, but two leading contend- ers are the Kurgan and the Anatolian hypotheses. These two draw on a multidiscliplinary approach and utilize diverse supporting materials and evidence. The Kurgan hypothesis was put forward by the Lithuanian-born American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in the 1950s. She believed that the Indo-Europeans were associated with the Yamna culture that lived on the Pontic-Caspian DIVINE TRIAD Flanked by Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer, the Hindu god Brahma the creator smiles in this late ninth-century a.d. sandstone sculpture (above). Musée Guimet, Paris ERICH LESSING/ALBUM THE POWER OF THREE A STRIKING THEORY W hile researching ancient cultures of the Caucasus, French linguist Georges Dumézil (1898-1986) rec- ognized a theme common across Indo- European cultures, which he termed “tri- functionality.” Aspects of life—sacred, so- cial, or economic—tended to be divided into threes. Dumézil discovered tripartite struc- tures in most Indo-European peoples, such as the three original castes of ancient India: Brahmans (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (nobles and warriors), and Vaishyas (mer- chants). Many religions often feature tripar- tite structures, such as the Hindu trinity of gods (left). In Greek myth there are many triads, such as the Moirai, better known today as the three Fates, who determined the beginning, middle, and end of each mortal’s life. The Holy Trinity of Christianity may also be an echo of deep, Indo-European belief systems.