Geographic Spread of the Indo-European Language Family

Caitlin Dempsey


About three billion people in the world speak a language that is part of the Indo-European family of languages. There are over 400 languages and dialects belonging to this family.  

Eleven of the languages with the largest number of native speakers belong to the Indo-European family of languages and make up 1.7 billion of the world’s population (these languages are Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Punjabi, German, French, Marathi, and Urdu).

Indo-European languages dominant in Europe, as well as Central, Western and South Asia.

Understanding the early spread of Indo-European languages was the focus of a study by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA in partnership with Harvard Medical School, the results of which were recently published in the journal Nature.  

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To accomplish this, Genome-scale data from more than 90 ancient skeletons found around Europe, ranging from 3000 to 8000 years old was used.

The results of the research call challenge popular assumptions about the origins of this language family in Europe. “These results challenge the other popular theory that all Indo-European languages in Europe today owe their origin to the arrival of the first farmers from Anatolia more than 8000 years ago,” said the leader of the study, Professor David Reich of Harvard Medical School.

Researchers found that a later migration occurring around 4,500 years ago out of the Russian Steppe accounts for a second spread of Indo-European, meaning that there were two major population replacements in Europe during the Stone Age. 

The study found that the prolific “Corded Ware” Culture from Central Europe, named after their distinctive pottery, owe up to 75% of their ancestry with the so called Yamnaya people, cattle herders of the eastern steppe.

Geographic distribution of archaeological cultures and graphic illustration of proposed population movements.  Source: Haak et. al, 2015).
Geographic distribution of archaeological cultures and graphic illustration of proposed population movements. Map shows shows proposed routes of migration by first farmers from Anatolia into Europe around 9,000−7000 years ago. Map b shows the resurgence of hunter-gatherer ancestry during the Middle Neolithic 7,000−5,000 years ago.  Map C shows the arrival of steppe ancestry in central Europe around 4,500 years ago. Source: Haak et. al, 2015).

Researchers plan to further this area of study by filling in gaps in knowledge about migration routes in Europe and further east where Indo-European languages are also spoken.  

“Particularly if we want to nail this hypothesis and put a geographical homeland somewhere in the steppes in Ukraine or Southern Russia, then we would assume that whatever was brought by these people would also be found in other populations that today speak an Indo-European language,” Dr Haak said. “That is equally likely for people further in the East, if you go to Iran or India. Currently we’ve only focused on Europe, but that equally applies to those regions as well. Now we have to look at both ancient and modern day Indian populations.”

The Indo-European family of languages. Click the image for a larger view.
The Indo-European family of languages. Visit the source image for a larger view:. Source: Zoti Zeu, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wiki Commons,


“Ethnologue list of languages by number of speakers”. 

Haak, Wolfgang, et al. “Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1502.02783 (2015).

Haak, Wolfgang, et al. “Massive Migration from the Steppe was a Source for Indo-European Languages in Europe.” Nature advance online publication (2015)Web. doi:10.1038/nature14317

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.