Yoghurt and the Indo-Europeans

My essay on lactose tolerance and its relationship to the Indo-European expansion triggered some discussion. As I mentioned in my previous history of beer, according to authors J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams the Proto-Indo-European lexicon which has been carefully reconstructed by European scholars through generations of comparative linguistics contains words which indicate a diet that included meat, salt, dairy products and the consumption of alcoholic beverages such as beer, mead and possibly wine. The word for “honey” is of particular interest as both the Chinese and the Uralic words for “honey” appear to be loanwords from Indo-European. Although sheep and goats can be milked, the abundance of terms for milk products in the proto-lexicon suggests the more intensive exploitation of cattle for milk, yet it has so far proved difficult to establish exactly when milking began in Eurasia:

“The consumption of milk by adults also has genetic implications in that many people become lactose intolerant after childhood, i.e. become ill when they consume milk. This situation is particularly prevalent in the Mediterranean while lactose tolerance increases as one moves northwards. The ability to consume milk has been seen as a selective advantage among northern Europeans in that it helps replace the necessary quantities of vitamin D which is reduced in regions of poor sunlight. The processing of milk into butter or cheese reduces the ill effects of lactose intolerance. The different alcoholic beverages also merit brief discussion. The word for ‘mead’ (*médhu) is well attested phonologically….There is archaeological evidence for mead from the third millennium BC but it may be considerably older. Beer (*helut) is earliest attested, about the mid fourth millennium BC (Iran and Egypt), but it too may be older. The proliferation of drinking cups that is seen in central and eastern Europe about 3500 BC has been associated with the spread of alcoholic beverages and, possibly, special drinking cults.”

The sign * indicates that this word is not directly attested in any written source, but it is likely that something similar to this word once existed. For those speaking PIE, honey (*medhu) was important as the source of mead, which was also called *medhu.

The Scythians were nomadic pastoralists with horses and kurgan tombs who lived north of the Black Sea in what is now the Ukraine and southwest Russia, roughly the same region where the original Proto-Indo-European language may have come from. They created a powerful empire in Antiquity centered on the Crimea and dominated the Pontic-Caspian steppe for centuries before finally succumbing to the related Sarmatians during the Roman period. Their distinctive animal art influenced various peoples across Eurasia all the way to China. Their language belonged to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. Author Max Nelson explains in The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe:

“Plato cites the Scythians as his first example of overindulgers in drink, and other sources do the same. Our first reference to peoples who live north of the Black Sea (later to be identified as Scythians) is in Homer, who speaks of the Mare-milkers who drink mare’s milk. In our first reference to Scythians, they are called milk-drinkers, and many later authors also give them this epithet. Herodotus also says that the Scythians are milk-drinkers and seems to speak of them making fermented milk by having blind slaves agitating mare’s milk and curdling it. One Hippocratic work also discusses the Scythian practice of agitating mare’s milk to make cheese, butter, and presumably also a fermented product. Herodotus further says that the Scythians make a drink from the fruit of the Pontic tree, a type of cherry, and milk, but again does not specify whether or not it is intoxicating.”

The Scythians were said to drink mare’s milk (milk from female horses). Fermented mare’s milk remains popular among nomads of the Eurasian steppes. Fermentation destroys the lactose. This makes the brew acceptable for lactose intolerant people, which includes the majority of the world’s population, among them many Mongols. Lactose intolerance is not a food allergy and does not mean that a person has to give up dairy products entirely. Some cheeses, especially hard ones like English Cheddar, Italian Parmesan, Dutch-style Gouda or Swiss cheese, have low levels of lactose and are easier on the stomach than milk. France and Italy have hundreds of national varieties of cheese. Yoghurt with active cultures of “friendly” bacteria that produce lactase enzyme which helps digest lactose can be acceptable, too, as well as butter and ice cream in modest quantities. Milk for adult human consumption now usually comes from the cow or the water buffalo, but the goat is common in certain countries.

Yoghurt is a fermented milk product inoculated with a starter culture containing different types of bacteria, normally Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. The Bulgarian physician Stamen Grigorov (1878-1945) studied natural sciences in Montpellier, France and medicine in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1905 he discovered Lactobacillus bulgaricus. Yoghurt has been widely consumed in Bulgaria at least since the ancient Thracians.

The microbiologist Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (1845-1916) from the Russian Empire (the Ukraine) studied in Western Europe and in 1867 returned to the new University of Odessa. In 1888, Louis Pasteur gave him an appointment at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He was fascinated with Grigorov’s discoveries since he was interested in the process of aging and had observed that rural populations in Bulgaria and the Russian steppes who consumed much milk fermented by lactic-acid bacteria were exceptionally long lived. Mechnikov received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908 for his studies of the immune system and phagocytosis, the process where phagocytes (white blood cells) engulf and ingest particles and harmful bacteria.

Isaac Carasso (1874-1939) was a Sephardic Jew born in Thessaloniki in northern Greece, where his family had settled four centuries earlier after the Jews were expelled from Spain. He left Greece for Catalonia during the Balkan wars. Having previously lived in the Balkans where yoghurt was a dietary staple, he decided to introduce this healthy product and opened a small business named “Danone” after his son Daniel Carasso (1905-2009), whose nickname in Catalan was Danon. He was aware of scientific advances that had been made by Mechnikov at the Pasteur Institute. He perfected the first industrial manufacturing process by combining traditional methods with the pure cultures that had been isolated in Paris. Danone was established in Barcelona in 1919 and sold a new product to local pharmacies: yoghurt. It was promoted as a traditional Bulgarian preparation assuring a long and healthy life.

His son Daniel learned the family business in Spain and decided to establish Danone in France in 1929. During World War II he immigrated to the United States and proceeded to found the first American yoghurt company. He introduced the addition of fruits, which appealed to modern consumers and turned yoghurt “from an obscure ethnic food into an international staple.” Yoghurt had not been widely known to a global audience before this.

It is interesting to notice that yoghurt-like products were enjoyed in a belt stretching from the Black Sea region and the Caucasus into Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. This area largely overlaps with the geographic extension of the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European.

Where Proto-Indo-European was first spoken has been debated for more than two centuries, sometimes in a politicized manner. Although the question has not yet been fully settled, the case for northeast Europe is stronger now than it was a few generations ago. I therefore agree with author David W. Anthony when he says that “I believe with many others that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was located in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas in what is today southern Ukraine and Russia. The case for a steppe homeland is stronger today than in the past partly because of dramatic new archaeological discoveries in the steppes.”

The earliest attested wheels from 3500 BC, which were probably associated with the first phase of expansion of Proto-Indo-European itself, were solid disc wheels. The invention of the spoke made wheels lighter and transportation swifter, with spoked wheels and chariots appearing around 2200-2000 BC. It is likely that peoples of the Eurasian steppes were the first to tame the horse, maybe as a meat animal before they figured out they could ride them or use them for warfare. The faster horse-drawn chariot was developed before 2000 BC in the western steppes and contributed to another phase of the Indo-European expansion, although Proto-Indo-European itself was almost certainly dead as a spoken language by 2500 BC.

According to available evidence it looks plausible that after 2000 BC, aided by the new spoke-wheeled chariot, the speakers of the Proto-Indo-Iranian language moved from the Urals and southwestern Russia into Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, northern India and the Tarim Basin, eventually giving birth to the languages we know as Vedic Sanskrit and Old Persian.

In India, Sanskrit literature is very wide ranging in its content and includes among its most widely known works romantic comedy, theoretical linguistics, economics, sexology (the Kama Sutra), lyrical verse as well as history and moral fables. It is a very self-conscious literary tradition, but whether India gave birth to the entire IE language family is highly questionable. As Nicholas Ostler writes in his interesting A Language History of the World:

“A dialect of Indo-Iranian, it is first heard of in the North-West Frontier area of Swat and the northern Panjab (now in Pakistan), spoken by peoples who have evidently come from farther north or west, and who like to call themselves arya (later a common word for ‘gentleman’, and always the Buddhists’ favourite word for sheer nobility of spirit). Somehow their descendants, and even more their language, spread down over the vast Indo-Gangetic plain, as well as up into the southern reaches of the Himalaya (‘snow-abode’) mountains, so that by the beginning of the fifth century BC the language was spoken in an area extending as far east as Bihar, and as far south, perhaps, as the Narmada. Sanskrit literature from the period, principally the epic poems Mahabharata (‘Great Bharata’) and Ramayana (‘The Coming of Rama’), is full of military exploits and conquests. The result was the present-day situation, a northern Indian heartland, stretching from sea to sea, of languages more or less closely related to Sanskrit.”

The first practical spoked wheel horse-drawn chariots are attested in the burials of the Andronovo culture in southwest Russia, which practiced sophisticated bronze metallurgy and spread this eastward across the steppes. It is often assumed, though not proven, that they spoke an Indo-Iranian language. The first Chinese words for horses and chariots (and a few other terms) were Indo-European loanwords. Pottery of Andronovo-type has been found in Xinjiang in western China. The first known chariot burial site in Shang Dynasty China dates from about 1200 BC. At the opposite end of Eurasia, a stone at Bredarör in Sweden from ca. 1300 BC is carved with an image of a chariot with four-spoke wheels drawn by two horses.

There is extensive evidence for the recognition of the Sun as a deity among many Indo-European peoples. There is much evidence, both literary and iconographic, for the circular Sun being associated with a wheel, or that the Sun-god has a chariot with wheels drawn by a horse. A widespread motif in Iron Age Europe was the swastika, an equilateral cross with arms bent in the same rotary direction. This is an ancient and initially positive religious symbol that was in use well before 1000 BC but was hijacked by the Nazis in the twentieth century and turned into a symbol of evil. It seems to be a variant of the spoked wheel, giving a clear suggestion of rotary movement. Its solar significance is often contextually apparent.

The details of which culture spread where and exactly what language they spoke are still debated by scholars, but the effects are clear: Between 1800-1200 BC you could find horse-drawn chariots in use throughout almost the entire landmass of Eurasia, from the borders of Shang Dynasty China via Egypt, Crete and Anatolia to northern Europe. This corresponds to the period of the ancient Vedas and the emergence of Vedic Sanskrit in India. Peoples speaking Indo-European languages played a vital role in the diffusion of wheeled vehicles.

Diffusion eastward in Eurasia of metallurgy and metal weapons and tools during the second millennium BC is certain and acknowledged by Chinese specialists. This external stimulus to the already emerging Chinese civilization spread via the western Xinjiang region, which physically belongs to the steppes, to the Yellow River valley. Silk fabric was developed very early in China, probably in prehistoric times. There is a claim, so far unconfirmed, that traces of Chinese silk have been found on an Egyptian mummy from the end of the New Kingdom period, ca. 1070 BC. Whether this is true or not, there can be little doubt that there were contacts across Eurasia more than a thousand years before what is often seen as the beginning of the Silk Road. According to David W. Anthony in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language:

“The Eurasian steppe is often regarded as a remote and austere place, poor in resources and far from the centres of the civilized world. But during the Late Bronze Age the steppes became a bridge between the civilizations that developed on the edges of the continent in Greece, the Near East, Iran, the Indian subcontinent, and China. Chariot technology, horses and horseback riding, bronze metallurgy, and a strategic location gave steppe societies an importance they never before had possessed.…The road from the steppes to China led through the eastern end of the Tarim Basin, where desert-edge cemeteries preserved the dessicated mummies of brown-haired, white-skinned, wool-wearing people dated as early as 1800 BCE. In Gansu, on the border between China and the Tarim Basin, the Qijia culture acquired horses, trumpet-shaped earrings, cast bronze ring-pommel single-edged knives and axes in steppe styles between about 2000 and 1600 BCE. By the time the first Chinese state emerged, beginning about 1800 BCE, it was exchanging innovations with the West.”

A number of remarkably well-preserved mummies from the second millennium BC have been recovered in the dry Tarim Basin of Central Asia, dominated by the Taklamakan Desert and located in what is today far western China. Several of the corpses have European features and reddish-blond or copper-colored hair. The oldest mummies such as the Loulan Beauty date back to ca. 1800 BC. “From around 1800 BC, the earliest mummies in the Tarim Basin were exclusively Caucausoid, or Europoid,” says Professor Victor Mair of Pennsylvania University. The textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber reckons that their cloth can be traced back to the Caucasus and the area north of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe. DNA samples have confirmed the northwest Eurasian origins of many of the mummies in this region.

Indra, the Vedic god of thunder, is described in the Rigveda as having reddish-blond or copper-colored hair and beard, similar to his Slavic and Germanic counterparts in Europe. He was a pre-eminent drinker of soma, a ritual, intoxicating drink possibly similar to mead. Indra also plays a part in the Jain and Buddhist mythology of India, but in Brahamanic times he slowly lost his grandeur and was supplanted by Vishnu and Shiva as the most important gods.

There is at least one Proto-Indo-European god whose name we can track across a vast area, stretching form India to Italy. His name has been reconstructed as *D(i)yēus. It originated as one of a number of words built on a root meaning “to give off light” and is located in the semantic sphere of “brightness of heaven” or “daylight.” This had an adjectival form *deiwo, “celestial,” which was a common term for “god” and from which derives the modern English word “deity.” The Greek Zeus was the king of the gods and the supreme power in the world, but there is little reason to believe that the Proto-Indo-European Dyeus had any such importance. He was the father of the gods, but not their ruler. In the world of the Rigveda Dyaus has no prominence and is not even the major storm-god. That is Indra.

In many parts of the Indo-European speaking world we encounter a dedicated storm-god not identified with the sky-god, as was Zeus in Greece and Jupiter in Rome: The Hittite and Luwian Tarhun, the Indic Indra, the Slavic Perun, the Baltic Perkunas, the Germanic Thor and the Celtic Taranis. This probably constituted the original situation in the Proto-Indo-European religion. Inscriptions from Bulgaria attest a hero-cult of one Perkos, presumably an old Thracian divinity of some kind. Perkūnas is the Lithuanian form of the name. The Latvian is Pērkons and the Old Prussian Perkūnis. From medieval times there are records in the Baltic Sea region of people worshipping a god of thunder and making sacrifices to him for rain.

The Baltic countries were converted to Christianity comparatively late; Latvia in the thirteenth century and Lithuania in the fifteenth, and then only superficially. Pagan cultic practices continued there into the early modern era. As a consequence, there is no written native literature until the Christian period, but the pagan gods and mythology remained alive in the popular consciousness until very late. They left many traces in Baltic songs, ballads and folk-tales. The Slavs were converted much earlier, in the ninth and tenth centuries.

In Finland the name Perkele, the god of thunder in Finnish mythology, is considered a loanword from Indo-European. (Finnish belongs to the smaller Uralic language family.) With the coming of Christianity he was identified with the devil and became a commonly used swearword. Author M. L. West elaborates in the book Indo-European Poetry and Myth:

“In Slavonic lands the thunder-god was called Perun, Old Russian Perunu, Belorussian Piarun, Slovak Parom. The word also meant ‘thunderbolt’, and in this use it survives in the modern languages: Russian peruny (plural), Polish piorun, Czech peraun. There are Russian, Ukrainian, and Slovenian imprecations parallel to the Lithuanian ones featuring Perkunas: ‘may Perun (or Perun’s bolt) kill you (or take you)’. The importance of the god in tenth-century Kiev and Novgorod is attested by a series of documents, and already in the sixth century a Byzantine historian mentions the Slavs’ worship of ‘the maker of the lightning’, considered to be the one in charge of everything. He is similar in character to Perkunas. He has a tawny beard. He is located high up, on a mountain or in the sky, and sends his axe or arrow down on his victim below. He has a close association with the oak: he strikes it, he puts fire into it, and there are sacred trees called ‘Perun’s oak’.”

In the Celtic religion trees were sacred objects, and the oak tree enjoyed a particular prominence. The name “druid” for members of the learned class of priests among the Celts meant “oak-knower.” The oak is often associated with the world tree in Slavic mythology whereas Yggdrasil, the world tree supporting the universe in Norse mythology, is usually identified as a giant ash tree. The oak was the sacred tree of Zeus in ancient Greek mythology.

In AD 723 Saint Boniface (ca. 675-754), an English Christian missionary, cut down Thor’s Oak at North Hesse in Germany, a sacred oak tree associated with the thunder-god Thor that doubled as a community meeting-place. This action is sometimes considered to mark the beginning of the Christianization of the Germanic peoples. There was also a sacred tree at the Norse pagan temple at Uppsala in Sweden which is mentioned by the German medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen in the second half of the eleventh century. This important center of polytheistic worship was thereafter turned into an important center of Christian worship, the seat of the Swedish Archbishop and of Scandinavia’s oldest university.

The town Tórshavn (“Thor’s Harbor”) on the rainy, but scenic Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean has historical ties to mainland Scandinavia, Iceland, Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. Thor was a very popular deity whose name is still used in names among Scandinavians of the Christian era. His connection with trees is shown by many northern European place-names. An oak forest was dedicated to him at Dublin in Ireland, which was founded in the ninth century AD by Scandinavian Vikings.

His weapon is his great hammer Mjöllnir (“the crusher”), which he hurls at his victims, usually creatures outside the human world such as giants. He is red-haired and known for his copper-colored beard, which he shakes when he becomes angry. He is a mighty eater and drinker. Thor’ features are characteristic of the Indo-European storm-gods. He rides in a chariot drawn by two goats, and the thunder is the rumbling of his vehicle. The thunder-god wields his own weapon, usually a club or hammer. Indra’s weapon is called “the smasher.”

Ragnarök (“Doom of the Gods” or “Judgment of the Powers”), the end of the world as we know it, will mean the death of the main god Odin and of his son Thor. This is described in the Icelandic poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress [Völva]”), the first poem of the Poetic Edda and one of our most important sources for understanding ancient Norse mythology. Odin will meet his end against the giant wolf Fenrir. Thor will fight against Jörmungandr, the giant sea serpent known as the Midgard Serpent that bites itself in its tail and encircles the human world (Midgard). Thor will vanquish it, but after walking nine steps he will fall dead from its venom. Following this destruction a new world will arise from the sea. Some of the gods will survive, as will two humans who will then proceed to repopulate the Earth.

The slaying of a dragon or giant snake appears to be a shared Indo-European myth. It has been argued that elements of this ancient myth could have been Christianized into the medieval tale of Saint George the Dragon Slayer. In ancient Greece the word drakon was used for any large serpent. Whereas European dragons have usually been considered malevolent, with some exceptions where they play more positive roles, in Asian cultures they have been revered and associated with wisdom. Dragon figures are a common sight at Chinese festivals.