Book Review – In Search of the Indo-Europeans


Mallory, J.P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth. 


The significance of J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans for students in ADF training programs cannot be overstated. Mallory presents a thorough overview and analysis of the Indo-European theory while simultaneously giving sufficient consideration to the various types of evidence which undermine or support it. In addition to exploring the linguistic, archaeological, and historical evidence for the Indo-European theory, Mallory summarizes the various schools of thought and identifies which (if any) have the most merit.

The three most fundamental takeaways from Mallory’s work include:

  1. The idea of an Indo-European (IE) or Proto-Indo European (PIE) people is essentially a linguistic concept that attempts to trace a range of related languages to a common source language.
  1. In the process of reconstructing the original IE/PIE language, it is also possible to discover some characteristics of IE or PIE culture. These include ideas about the social structure, religion or beliefs, and economy of PIE/IE culture.
  1. Some, but by no means all, of the proposed characteristics of PIE/IE culture enjoy widespread acceptance among experts and academics. However, in the absence of supporting archaeological evidence, it must be kept in mind that virtually all of what has been postulated about the Indo-Europeans remains theoretical and in some cases, controversial.

Survey of Previous Approaches 

Mallory begins In Search of the Indo-Europeans by briefly sketching out the work of other pioneers in the field of linguistic paleontology. Mallory first acknowledges that the first serious attempts to reconstruct language assumed the historical accuracy of the Bible, and in particular depended on the related fallacy of Japhetism, in which Indo-European peoples were viewed as a singular population with a single language that exerted a unified influence of the rest of the world. Mallory also identifies the complexities that arise for linguistic paleontologists as the Indo-Europeans interact with their non IE neighbors.

Throughout the text, Mallory critiques various theories related to IE studies, beginning with the earliest, Judeo-Christian focused attempts to study the IE language. Mallory also considers the archaeological evidence as well as the field of comparative mythology. His ultimate conclusion is that most of what has been proposed about the Indo-Europeans is entirely speculative. However, he does identify those theories for which there is the most supporting evidence and academic consensus. For example, he writes that

If we must have concrete legacies, then the best claim is that of horse domestication and the social consequences this revolution in transportation and warfare brought to the world. In addition, the Indo-Europeans are at least one of the candidates for the inventors of wheeled vehicles, although a number of non-Indo-European peoples have every bit as good a claim. (270)

IE Culture and Religion

For my own study as an ADF Druid, Mallory is most illuminating in his discussion of Proto-Indo-European culture and his exploration of IE religion. In Chapter 4, Mallory argues that the central problem with using language as a means of recreating IE culture lies in its volatility. He writes that

The reason for our inability to recover with certainty some of these words lies embedded in the basic Indo-European hypothesis. An expansion of Indo-European speakers over a vast area took many of them out of their earlier environment so that they experienced radical changes in their cultural ecology before they emerged into history. By this time they had often abandoned those parts of their vocabulary that they no longer needed and the remaining trace of a particular PIE word may be left in only a handful of languages. These may be preserving an old inherited word, but they may also be later creations confined to a particular area of the Indo-European speaking world. (113)

In other words, as the IE peoples migrated, their language changed to reflect their new environments. These changes make it difficult to piece together the original IE language because each migration resulted in new mutations in the language, thereby making it difficult to compare the different languages with each other and with the original source.

Nevertheless, Mallory does consider the most commonly accepted evidence that provides some insight into the lives of the Indo-Europeans. He provides summaries of the academic consensus on the IE environment (the discussion of tree names is compelling), economy, technology, and social organization.

In the following chapter, Mallory turns his attention to the topic of Indo-European religion, relying once again on linguistic paleontology to reconstruct what we can regarding their belief systems. It is at this point that Mallory delves into Dumézil’s theory of tripartition: that IE society was divided into three distinct social classes/social functions: the herders & cultivators, the warriors, and the sovereigns/priests. Dumézil finds the pattern of tripartition in the mythologies and rituals of a variety of Indo-European peoples. My favorite is his consideration of the Greek myth of the apple of discord, in which each of the three bribes offered to Troy signify one of the three functions of tripartition: sovereignty, military prowess, and fertility.

Another important insight with regard to tripartition is that of the nature of the triple sacrifice that appears to be somewhat common among IE peoples. In sum, the deities were divided and ordered in a reflection of the social divisions of tripartition: deities of the celestial realm (sovereigns), deities of war, and chthonic deities. Distinct forms of sacrifice were required depending on which type of deity was being honored. Celestial beings received victims by hanging, war deities received victims killed by sword or fire, and the chthonic deities received victims who had been drowned. In some cases, a triple sacrifice was also made. 

The Indo-European Homeland Problem 

In the second half of the book, Mallory makes two significant (and related) points which are both essential to any mature discussion of IE history and our own current political climate. Both relate to “the” origin of IE peoples and the continuity (or lack thereof) within the history of IE culture.

With regard to the IE homeland, Mallory points out that what theorists are really discussing is “essentially a spatial expression of a vaguely defined temporal division of that linguistic continuum (145). In other words, the IE homeland has been hypothesized in different locations at different times based on the best (but always evolving) understanding of linguistic paleontology and archaeological evidence. While academics and researchers continue to debate the precise location of any IE homeland (is there only one?), Mallory does acknowledge “A recurring pattern of support for a homeland which should lie between Central Europe and the east Caspian” (158). Finally, it is worth noting that, according to Mallory, the linguistic evidence for IE migration suggests that such a movement was “broadly centrifugal from a central homeland rather than linear from one of the extremes (155). In the context of ADF, this means that there is evidence for a core IE language and culture that diffused throughout Europe and Western Asia, although it certainly mutated and proliferated as time passed.

The Aryan Myth

Given the persistence of racism and the recent resurgence (reemergence?) of Neo-Nazi sentiment, Mallory’s epilogue is a refreshing reminder of how insubstantial any claims of Aryan supremacy (or even identity) must be. Mallory reminds us that the Aryan myth was the creation of “a handful of Nazi fanatics” (266) and was based on a tradition of poor research, disregard for archaeological and linguistic evidence, and imaginative re-workings in popular culture.

Instead of the rubbish that constitutes the Aryan myth, Mallory argues that the “best claim” (270) for a IE legacy is that of horse domestication, although other non-IE peoples may have “every bit as good a claim.” He also suggests that the trifunctional ideology of the IE peoples may be considered to be part of their legacy, but notes that this theory has drawn criticism from those who believe it is too universal to have any real meaning or value. Finally, Mallory concludes by returning his focus to the best established legacy from the IE, their language.

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