If you study historical linguistics, you will run across the term “Aryan” at some point, probably in an older but perfectly harmless book. A group of people living a few thousand years ago in what is now Iran referred to their tribe as Arya, so the term Aryan seemed a reasonable way to refer to languages related to theirs, including the Avestan language of Zoroastrian scripture, which is still the sacredlanguage of Parsis in India, and Farsi, the language of modern Iran; I’m pretty sure the name “Iran” is derived from Arya. Together with related languages of India (Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, etc.) they formed the Indo-Aryan subgroup of the Indo-European language family; for obvious reasons, we now say “Indo-Iranian” instead.
One wonders why later racists seized upon the designation of a group of Iranians for their fantasy of a master race—honestly, neither Ayatollah Khomeini nor Rohinton Mistry seems much like Hitler’s idea of the uebermensch. But at least it had the cachet of being a very old term, and maybe they thought no-one would know where they got it. Anyway, though I don’t think that there is anything intrinsically racist about historical linguistics, the discipline (like other social sciences) had its share of embarrassments, ranging from naivete to outright social-Darwiinist nutjobbery. The naivete tended to come in the form of an assumption that languages spread only in the form of massive folk migrations, and that, if we find A-style pottery replaced by B-style pottery, and later find people speaking a language related to that spoken by other makers of B=style pottery, that means that B people invaded A-land and replaced the A-people who were there, and that the modern residents are descended from B people.
The problem, of course, is that culture is not genetic. Almost everybody in Honolulu today speaks English, but a small minority of their ancestors were speaking English 300 years ago, and the same could be said, mutatis mutandis, of Rio or any number of other places. So the idea that Irish people are descended from Celtic invaders, or English people the descendants of Anglo-Saxon immigrants, is a gross oversimplification. Many of our ancestors were surely indigenous people who took on Celtic or Germanic language and other cultural forms in order to survive in a society where the rules had changed. To be sure, one can go too far in the other direction, and some archaeologists write as though the indigenous people of Ireland had just bought a Teach Yourself Old Irish CD in order to chat with a few traders—clearly something pretty drastic has to happen to make people abandon their native tongue (as our post-colonial examples also attest).
So if we can safely (and happily) discard the idea of an Indo-European genetic heritage, there is still the cultural inheritance embodied in a common linguistic ancestry. David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is an archaeologist’s exploration of what we can learn about the people who spoke Proto-Indo-European, when, where, and how they lived.
The language gives us some clues: first of all, we have records of very different Indo-European languages from quite a while back, the second millennium BCE in some case (as with the Linear B inscriptions in early Greek). Looking at the degree of difference between, say, Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, Avestan, Germanic (as shown in runic inscriptions and the Gothic Bible translation of Bishop Wulfila) and other branches, it seems that they could not have had a common ancestor much after 3000 BCE.
We can also tell from common roots some things about their location and lifestyle. Of course, two languages can share a word without it’s being a common inheritance: English ‘siesta’ and Spenish ‘siesta’ are not evidence of a common PIE root, just of a loan. Here’s a simple example of how you can tell the difference. As you can see from these cognates in Latin and Irish, something bad happened to initial /p/ in Irish:
pater athair ‘father’
piscis iasc ‘fish’
plenum lán ‘full’
(Why do all the English versions begin with f? That’s another story.)
So if Irish lost its initial /p/, we can immediately spot the following as loan words despite their importance in Irish culture:
pionta ‘pint’ (presumably from English)
Pádraig ‘Patrick’ (from Latin Patricius)
Returning to Indo-European, there are very widespread words for temperate-zone but not tropical plants and animals; the PIE speakers seem to have been very fond of honey (very widespread roots similar to English “mead”), kept cattle and sheep and considered them the main form of wealth (our “fee” and “pecuniary” are descended from the same root meaning both ‘wealth’ and ‘livestock,’ a meaning you can see in pecorino ‘sheep cheese’). They also had horses (the root is the ancestor of Latin equus), which actually narrows the geography down quite a bit. Putting together various hints, Anthony suggests a homeland in the steppes north of the Baltic Sea, in what is now Ukraine and Russia—as he notes, this also fits with their worship of a sky-god, since the sky is the most impressive feature of the steppe landscape.
The Indo-European speakers also had a whole complex of words related to wheeled transport, including wheel, axle (very widely attested), and a verb for transporting something in a vehicle. This is a very useful clue, because wheeled vehicles were unknown in Europe before about 3500 BCE. Anthony posits that this was the time when a fairly obscure bundle of dialects became much more widespread.
In his account, the steppe-dwellers had once been horse-hunters who lived in small, egalitarian bands, until they came into contact with agriculturalist/stockbreeder peoples arriving from Europe on their western frontier. These new neighbors had some enviably fancy stuff, and though the steppe people didn’t abandon their basic hunting lifestyle, they started to incorporate some herding, as insurance against lean years and as a prestige item. Now instead of a simple burial with no grave-goods, certain special people were buried with chachkis (beads, maybe a decorated mace-head to show martial strength) and animal sacrifices. At some point they figured out how to herd the wild horses that were their main source of meat, probably at first still as food, but eventually they must have figured out how to ride them.
As society became more stratified into the herd-owners and the 99%, and as riding increased mobility, cattle-rustling became more attractive and practical. Cattle-raids were probably often a way for an upwardly-mobile young man to obtain a suitable bride-price. Opportunities for raiding increased in about 4000 BCE when the neighboring agricultural culture collapsed, partly due to a couple of centuries of ferocious winters; this led to some massacres, and also to some intermarriage with these “Old Europe” people. This might be the point where the Indo-European speakers picked up a female hearth goddess (the Old Europe folks were very into their hearth goddess, represented by ubiquitous figurines), reflected, for example, in the Latin Vesta (of vestal virgin fame).
But the real explosion came some time after 3500 BCE, when the wheel arrived, and suddenly people who had always had to live near rivers could pack up everything they needed and hit the road, seeking pasture on the wide-open steppes. One consequence of this would be the necessity to negotiate interactions with outsiders who might be passing through your territory, and the Indo-Europeans developed a reciprocal notion of guest-friendship (‘guest’ and ‘host’ are originally the same word) that will be familiar to any reader of Homer. The Odyssey contains so many scenes illustrating the correct (or not) treatment of strangers, described in such obsessive detail, that the whole work comes to seem like a kind of hospitality porn.
So here we have them, these patriarchal, cattle-herding, trailer-living, horse-loving, sky-worshipping little prairie bands, ready to set off on their improbably successful adventure, which by, say, 500 BCE will have their (linguistic and cultural, if not genetic) descendats spread from Ireland to India, from Italy to western China. I can recognize in this description, as I mentioned, Homeric culture, and also early Irish culture with its epic cattle-raids (the great Old Irish epic is the Cattle Raid of Cooley), and various bits of other old-timey sociteties. I suppose you can decide if the patriarchal assumptions and the greed for prestige objects that characterize our own society are an inheritance of the Indo-Europeans or would have developed anyway.