I have been thinking a lot lately about historical evidence. In the study of history, much focus is put on the written word. Usually, the term “prehistory” is used to refer to events that took place prior to the adoption of writing in any given area, and certainly before the first known invention of writing itself. Other artefacts are deemed to be part of archaeology and anthropology rather than history, with the written evidence being prized over an object. There is a great weight put on a description of an object in a text, even if we have plenty of evidence from the object itself. It is helpful to have historical context for things – especially if we have no idea what things are – but the written word can only capture so much, and can also be entirely fictional.
But what I find bothersome (although it isn’t anyone’s fault) is that so much of our human story has been lost. We have put so much faith in written evidence that we have virtually given up on studying “prehistory”. Those who do – namely, archaeologists, historical linguists, anthropologists, etc. – are making inferences about the past that are not conclusive, but nonetheless paint a murky and real picture of a world without writing.
Much could be said about this work, but it does feel disjointed. Without written words, it can feel like the peoples of the distant past are voiceless. They don’t feel as relatable to us as when we can read what they left behind. This is rather disheartening, because of course, they were real and relatable people, even if the world that they lived in wasn’t.
I have long been fascinated with historical linguistics. Specifically, I have often wondered about the Indo-European languages and how they became so widespread. There are many hypotheses as to how this occurred. One was simply that there was a lot of conquest by a powerful group, while another supposed that some peoples outbred others and expanded, gradually replacing populations. Still others, particularly recently, have posited that there was a high degree of desirability in learning Indo-European, likely for socio-economic reasons, and there was thus little actual population replacement or conquest.
At this point, there is little archaeological evidence to support any of these hypotheses. It cannot be agreed upon even which archaeological remnants belong to whom. Thus the mysterious Indo-Europeans are primarily known through what can be determined from the languages inspired by and descended from theirs, as well as common cultural traits found in cultures that spoke Indo-European languages many centuries later and bothered to write them down.
What is thrilling about the mystery is that there is a lot of freedom to interpret existing evidence. The world of the fourth millennium BCE, when historical linguistics would suggest the Indo-Europeans existed, is an uncharted place. It is where history meets science fiction again. There are no written stories from the era to find, but there are lots to create from the pieces that we do have.