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Origin of the Germanic Peoples - Part 2


Active Member
Where, when and how did the Germanic tribes arise? There is no definitive answer to this question either, but there are quite a few theories based on archaeological evidence. In his recent book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, the archaeologist D. Anthony weaves together complicated archaeological and linguistic evidence to add to our knowledge of PIE speakers. Anthony postulates that tribes of PIE speaking, Chalcolithic age (late neolithic/copper age) people, called the Usetovo, represent the intermediate link between the PIE and the pre-proto-Germanic dialects. The Usetovo culture who were a product of diverse cultural influences, emerged around 3300 BCE, with a proposed homeland in the Steppes around the lower Dniester River. It is theorised that they spoke a western dialect of PIE and as a result of their migrations and their political, social and cultural interactions the western PIE dialect spread up the Dniester through a series of client cultures. The most important of these client cultures being the Corded Ware horizon (corded ware is a style of pottery) who became the medium through which the western PIE dialect spread into Northern Europe. The western PIE dialect of the Usetovo slowly became the root of pre-proto Germanic. (the term pre-Germanic is also used).

The archaeological Corded Ware horizon was extensive, it spanned the copper age and early bronze age and its outward expansion began about 3000 BCE. At its height this horizon encompassed northern Europe, modern-day Denmark, Germany, Poland, the Czechoslovak Republic, the Baltic States, Slovakia, western Russia, northern Ukraine, Finland southern Sweden and the coast of Norway. Beeks (1995) suggests that the people of the Corded Ware horizon were the predecessors of not only the Germanic but also the Celtic, Balto-Slavic and Italic peoples. For those of you familiar with the Kurgan hypothesis of Gimbutas, who in the 1950s was the first to propose a steppe homeland, the Kurgan culture includes the Usetovo, Corded Ware, Stredny Stog, Yamnaya and Cernavoda. That is of course a simplification of Anthony's hypothesis, if anyone is interested in reading his work, it is available in the link below. Remember when you read it, it is one hypothesis among a quite a few and most certainly has its critics. But it does give us a feel for current archaeological scholarship in this area.


So when and where did proto Germanic evolve from pre-proto-Germanic? We rely on linguists and archaeology to answer this question as there is no written or spoken evidence, which is the reason it is called "proto". Proto Germanic slowly developed from pre-Proto-Germanic in the Nordic Bronze age, that is 1730-500 BC, during this time there are changes in metallurgy (smelting of copper and tin to produce bronze), new burial practices emerge as do new weapons and styles of pottery. In this period the climate in southern Scandinavia was warmer which provided favourable conditions for migration, farming and population growth, under these conditions the Nordic Bronze age flourished. This age produced some amazing artifacts of which the Trundholm sun chariot is one of the better known examples. Scandinavia also has a large concentration of bronze age rock art. For a discussion of rock art in the Nordic Bronze age and on the Trundholm sun chariot, see the reference below.

Scandinavian Bronze Age Rock Art – contexts and interpretations...

If the Nordic bronze age was the epoch within which the development of proto Germanic was nurtured the Iron age (600-1 BCE) was the epoch in which it was spoken. The Iron Age in that area that is now southern Scandinavia and northern Germany, is divided into three eras, the Jastorf (600 -300 BCE), the Ripdorf (300-150 BCE) and the Seedorf (150-1 BCE). The Jastorf culture was a continuation of the Nordic Bronze age with heavy borrowing from the Celtic Halstatt culture and later from the Celtic La Tene culture, as the Celts wete the first to master iron working. Consensus on when proto Germanic was spoken seems to be between 500 BCE- 100 AD, much earlier dates are proposed but linguists believe proto Germanic didn't complete the entire sound shift that differentiates it from pre-proto-Germanic until around 500 BCE.

The earliest written evidence we have of the existence of a Germanic language falls within the late Jastorf early Ripdorf periods, that is the inscription of the word or words harikastiteiva on Nagau Helmet B, dated between 300-200 BCE. The inscription is written in Etruscan, but part of the word, that of Harigast, is widely considered to be a Germanic name, the inscription therefore suggests that at this time a Germanic language existed. Unfortunately the meaning of harikastiteiva and the exact date of the inscription is still unclear.

When and why did proto Germanic divide into its three daughter languages? The economy of proto Germanic speaking tribes was based on mixed agriculture, that is animal husbandry (sheep, goats, cattle and horses) and crops (oats, barley, millet and flax), so as with all farmers they were reliant on favourable conditions for farming. During this period the climate gradually deteriorated encouraging migration south into Celtic dominated central Europe. These initial migrations took place between 600-100 BCE, after a couple of centuries the border between the Germanic and Celtic tribes had moved west to the Rhine, displacing the Gallic tribes (Celts). The Germanic tribal migrations produced a split of proto Germanic into the three language branches. The Germanic tribes that stayed in Scandinavia spoke north Germanic, an example of which is old Norse, the language of the Vikings. Those who had migrated west produced the west Germanic languages and the east Germanic languages developed among those tribes that had migrated eastward to the Baltic coastline of northern Germany and Poland, settling around the Oder and Vistula, then gradually moving to Scythia (Ukraine).

The first written evidence of the Germanic tribes was recorded the Greek explorer Pytheas, in 325 BCE, during this time of migration. Pytheas undertook an epic voyage along the Northern coastline and he is credited with being the first in the Classical world to distinguish the Celtoi (Celts) from the Germanic tribes. Pythaeus mentions two tribes, the Teutons and the Guton/Guttones, which is cognate with the Goths indicating that the migration of what would become the east Germanic speaking tribes, from their homeland in Gotland, had not yet begun.The focus of the classical world at this time was still on the Celtoi, who dominated central Europe and presented the greatest military threat to the classical world.

During the Iron age the Germanic tribes had come into close contact with the Celtoi and were greatly influenced by their culture, so much so that later ancient historians had difficulty distinguishing Celtic tribes from Germanic tribes. The Celtic influence on the Germanic people was evident in their art, language, mythology and organisation of their warbands. However, Celtic influence in Europe was waning, the Celts were in effect caught between the advancing Roman Empire to the South and the migrating Germanic tribes from the North. By 54 BCE the Celtic tribes in Europe (Gauls) had been gradually displaced, conquered or assimilated by the expansionist Romans and Celtic power in Europe had come to an end. By this time Germanic tribes were known to the Romans but up to this point they had managed to peacefully coexist, this situation was about to dramatically change.


D. Anthony; The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.
M. Enright; Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy, and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age.
Mallory and Adams; The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.
Donald Ringe; Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic : A Linguistic History : vol 1
Prof. Robert S.P. Beekes; Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An introduction.
M. Todd; The Early Germans.
Kingdoms of the Germanic Tribes - Goths / Ostrogoths