ASTANA – A Scandinavian team has come to Kazakhstan in search of the common homeland of all Indo-European peoples, collecting bone fragments for analysis in the Centre for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen.
The researchers are looking for a genetic connection to match the linguistic connections that have already been drawn, Norwegian historian Sturla Ellingvag of the Explico Historical Research Foundation told The Astana Times on Feb. 20. “We’re trying to find a connection in science, in our DNA, to prove that there is indeed a connection, between, for example, Norwegians and the people in Kazakhstan. And also we are looking for a homeland, which is somewhere on the Caspian steppe, or in Russia, or some say it’s in Armenia or Ukraine. There are many different theories.”
The researchers collected about 120 Bronze and early Iron Age bone samples in total from Pavlodar, Kostanai and Karaganda during their week-long trip to Kazakhstan, from Feb. 14 – 21. Kazakhstan is fascinating, the researcher says, because it contains human remains that are “so far back on the DNA map.”
The 4,000 year old samples they’ve found have been very well preserved, Ellingvag said. “I can only speak from meeting archaeologists in Astana and here in Karaganda, but I’m very much impressed by the professionalism and also by the exhibitions they have,” he said.
The project to search for the ancestral homeland of the Indo-European peoples falls under the umbrella of a large grant from the Danish government and is being supported by the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Gotenburg University in Sweden and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, which has one of the best historical DNA analysis labs in the world and which is where the analysis on the Kazakh remains will actually be done. Universities in Karaganda, Pavlodar and Kostanai are also involved.
The Kurgan hypothesis posits that the speakers of proto-Indo-European, the hypothesized common ancestor of the massive Indo-European language group, originally lived on the Pontiac-Caspian steppe, an area of land stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and including parts of Russia, Ukraine and northwest Kazakhstan, beginning around the fifth millenium B.C. The hypothesis describes the spread of the language family from the steppe in every direction. “Kurgan” is a term for a type of burial mound common in the Caucasus, across Kazakhstan and beyond.
“Two thousand years ago, we started having Kurgan graves in Scandinavia,” said Ellingvag. The commonalities between burial mounds in Norway and Scythian/Saka mounds in Kazakhstan are striking, he said. “[The Scythian people] had these ornaments, these animal ornaments, which are very, very important in Scandinavian art … and the ornaments are actually quite similar, which is striking, it’s very special.”
The Kurgan hypothesis has been somewhat substantiated by genetic evidence so far, according to a press release by the Kon-Tiki Museum on the project, and advances in the technology for doing historical DNA research over the past few years means it is now possible to get closer to finding this genetic and linguistic starting point for most of the peoples of Europe.
“During the past 15 years, the Y-DNA R1a haplogroup has been characterised as a genetic signal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The theory now looks more plausible than ever, thanks to recent discoveries about its structure and phylogeography. Moreover, the Y-DNA R1a haplogroup has been found in numerous ancient remains supposedly belonging to early Indo-Europeans,” the press release explains.
A separate but related project is looking into the DNA of ancient horses. The Kurgan culture is credited with being the first to domesticate the horse.
The research team includes Ellingvag, Danish DNA-scientist Peter Damgaard and Bettina Heyerdahl, daughter of Norwegian archaeologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl. They are also working with Kazakh researcher Emma Usmanova.