The scientific study of the Indo-European language family is generally dated to 1786, when Sir William Jones read his famous paper before the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, which includes these immortal lines:
‘The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident… there is a similar reason… for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic… had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.’
Early scholarship on the Indo-Europeans was facilitated and influenced by two coinciding factors: (1) Anglo-French colonialism (bringing knowledge of Asiatic cultures to Europe); (2) Romantic-era disenchantment with dogmatic Christianity and corresponding interest in the wisdom of the exotic East. The latter cultural paradigm of Ex Oriente Lux (‘Light from the East’) was anticipated by Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Kant, who placed the origins of civilisation around the Himalayas. A craze for Europe’s new-found Aryan cousins inspired the early Romantic generation of scholars such as Friedrich Schlegel to locate the homeland of the Indo-Europeans in India: such ‘Indomania’ was echoed by the preoccupation of thinkers like Schopenhauer and Herder with Buddhist and Hindu philosophies.
By the middle of the 19th century, scholarly opinion on the origin of the Indo-Europeans had shifted north and west, based initially on the Sanskritic vocabulary evidence of Julius von Klaproth and F. A. Pott. A Central Asian or Bactrian Urheimat (‘homeland’) was suggested by Max Müller, Adolphe Pictet, Franz Bopp, and Jacob Grimm.
This was strongly criticized by the ethnologist Robert Latham and the philologists Theodor Benfey and Canon Isaac Taylor, who proposed an Indo-European homeland in the North of Europe. ‘To deduce the Indo-Europeans of Europe from the Indo-Europeans of Asia,’ Latham declared, ‘is like deriving the reptiles of Great Britain from those of Ireland in herpetology’ (1851, introduction to Tacitus’ Germania). This derivation of the Indo-Europeans from the Nordic area was supported by the mythographer Viktor Rydberg and the Celticist Sir John Rhys.
At the end of the 19th century the Ex Oriente Lux paradigm, which affirmed the seniority of Near Eastern civilisation over ‘barbaric’ Northern Europe, came under heavy attack from the French Jewish archæologist Salomon Reinach, who dubbed it ‘la mirage orientale.’ He was joined in chorus by the German prehistorians Matthäus Much and Gustaf Kossinna, who championed Northern Europe as the homeland of the Indo-Europeans and ethnocultural fountainhead of the ancient world. We shall focus on this theory in the second part of this essay.