Proto-Indo-European speakers?

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    Dr. Jewel,

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with Liberty Classroom subscribers in the Western Civ lectures. I recently completed the series, although I watched or listened to the first 10 or so lectures three or more times before moving on. I also appreciate the quizzes for each lecture.

    I really enjoyed the early commentary on the nature of “civilization” and of being “Western.” Telling the linear story of Western civilization is complicated by the adoption of Christianity into the Roman world, which had already absorbed the Greek; thereby retroactively incorporating Hebrew history into the story of the West, which until then wouldn’t have been considered part of the same story. As a result, the linear history of the West begins in Greece, goes through Rome until Jesus, and then backtracks to reincorporate Mesopotamian and Egyptian history through the Hebrews.

    My question: Would it possibly make sense to begin the study of Western civilization with the “Proto-Indo-European” speakers? As I understand it, these were people from the western Eurasian steppes who originated the language that serves as the basis for most modern European languages today, as well as ancient Sanskrit. They also seem to have been the first people to domesticate the horse. I’ve read that most languages throughout time have existed only for a short period over a small area, but it makes sense that the language of these Proto-Indo-Europeans would spread since they had mastered the horse and could travel greater distances, and the more people speaking the language, the more sustainable that language would become.

    Much later in time and further east, the Eurasian steppe produced Genghis Khan. The area and conditions seem to produce fierce horse warriors. It seems to me that the early Proto-Indo-Europeans would have had some similarities to the horse warriors of later times, except that they didn’t necessarily have any settlements to loot. The nobility has almost always identified with horsemanship, which makes sense, given the nobility’s historic military role. It makes sense that the first men to master horses would set themselves above other men, but without a productive economy on which to loot, this nobility would have to be fully earned. But when the first horsemen left the steppes to discover productive settlements in Anatolia and Mesopotamia, it makes sense that they would loot them. I imagine they’d view all of nature as theirs for the taking. This seems to have been the attitude of the Mongols.

    The Hittites, as Indo-European speakers, seem to have emerged from the Eurasian steppes and swept down into Anatolia and then later Mesopotamia. The Mycenaeans were also Indo-European speakers, and they seem to have been much more brutal than the Minoans they replaced, who may or may not have been Indo-European themselves. Later, I suspect the Sea People were of this same origin, as the carnage they seem to have visited on settled society is reminiscent of the wrath of the Mongols. Again, it seems like the environment from which the Indo-Europeans emerged probably produced progressively fiercer warriors, both from natural selection and the increasing wealth that civilization was producing on which they could prey. This would seem to continue up through the Vikings, even.

    On one hand, it makes sense to start Western civilization in Greece, since the Greeks seem to have forgotten the existence of prior Proto-Indo-European speaking cultures — the Mycenaeans and the Hittites. The civilization that begins in Greece seems mostly independent from anything that came before it, and that civilization extends linearly to today. I think the fact that the Mycenaeans and Hittites were forgotten is evidence for the Greek Dark Ages being real and not a historical accident, by the way.

    But on the other hand, the Indo-European languages are essentially Western, too. The Hittites and Mycenaeans were “Western” by this definition, while the Mesopotamians and Egyptians were not.

    As I understand it, the Nazis were very interested in Indo-European studies. I think that’s a shame, since it seems the subject is taboo as a result.

    I appreciate that you have helped supply the bedrock of knowledge that has even allowed me to formulate this hypothesis. Thanks!

    Jason Jewell

    Hi Jason, and thanks for your comments. One reason I’ve laid out the course the way I have is that once you try to go back much beyond the Greeks in the direction you are suggesting, everything gets very speculative. You’ll notice that there is virtually no “pre-history” in the course for that reason. In my opinion, doing history requires documents.

    You’re also correct that the continuity of civilization is one I’ve tried to stress. There’s no really good way to demonstrate this going back before the Greeks’ cultural memories of the Minoans and Myceneans. You’d have to adopt some sort genetic or linguistic determinism to justify tracing things back beyond that and then get into really speculative archeology and anthropology to try say anything substantive. I’m not convinced of the value of that approach, and in any case it wouldn’t be an area of expertise for me.

    I hope this reply makes sense and is helpful to you. Thanks again for posting.


    Thanks! Your response makes sense: “History” has historically been document-based, since the study of history is older than genetics, archeology, geology, etc.

    You gave excellent coverage to the Minoans Myceneans in the course, and you covered the Hittites fairly thoroughly too. I became interested in the Hittites by learning about the Battle of Kadesh, and then I saw a 2-hour documentary about them and discovered they spoke an Indo-European language. I think this might make them “Western” in a sense, at least in relation to the other large empires of their times. Similarities between them and the later Greeks is an area I’d like to see historians explore.

    As I understand it, the Mycenean Linear B is also Indo-European, while the Minoan Linear A has never been deciphered. The idea of the Minoans being the Keftiu, possibly Egyptian in origin, made a lot of sense to me, but I read that there were DNA studies of Minoan remains that indicated otherwise and would seem to indicate heritage similar to modern Cretans.

    The course is excellent, and I can’t wait to get started in Part II. But the real interest you sparked in me is the study of very early cultures, such as the Natufian people, and combining what’s known (or thought to be known) about them with the kind of sociological analysis inspired by Hoppe, Oppenheimer, etc. Professor Casey’s first several lectures in the History of Political Thought Part I are great in this regard too.

    Thank you for the inspiration!

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