View Full Version : Societal Structure of the Proto-Indo-Europeans

Johannes de León
Monday, October 4th, 2004, 09:17 PM
The Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) were a patrilineal society of the Bronze Age (roughly 5th or 4th millennium BC), probably semi-nomadic, relying on animal husbandry.

Societal Structure

The native name with which these people referred to themselves as a linguistic community, or as a ethnic unity of related tribes cannot be reconstructed with certainty. It may have been *aryo- (c. f. "Aryan race").

There is evidence for sacral kingship, suggesting the tribal king at the same time assumed the role of high priest. Many Indo-European societies know a threefold division of a clerical class, a warrior class and a class of farmers or husbandmen. Such a division was suggested for the Proto-Indo-European society by Georges Dumézil.

There was probably a separate class of warriors, consisting of young men that were yet unwed. They would have followed a separate warrior code unacceptable in the society outside their peer-group. Traces of initiation rites in several Indo-European societies suggest that this group identified itself with wolves or dogs (c. f. Berserker (viking), werewolf).

The people were organized in settlements (*weiks; english -wick "village"), probably each with its king (*rek's). These settlements or villages were further divided in households (dom), each headed by a patriarch (*demspati; greek despotes, latin dominus, sanskrit dampati).

Ritual and Sacrifice

They practiced a polytheistic religion centered on sacrificial rites, probably administered by a class of priests or shamans.

Animals were slaughtered and dedicated to the gods in the hope of winning their favour. The king as the high priest would have been the central figure in establishing favourable relations with the other world.

The Kurgan hypothesis suggests burials in barrows or tomb chambers. Important leaders would have been buried with their belongings, and possibly also with members of their household or wives (human sacrifice, suttee).


Only small fragments of Proto-Indo-European poetry may be recovered. Apart from sacrificial hymns, there would have been myths (such as myths of a world tree and of the slaying of a serpent or a dragon by a heroic god). Probably of great importance was the extolling of heroic deeds of warriors, perpetuating their glory (*k'levos).


Some words conected with PIE world-view:

*ghosti- concerned mutual obligations between people and between worshipers and gods, and from which guest and host are derived.
*rtu-, rta-, "fitting, right, ordered", also "right time, ritually correct", related to the order of the world (Vedic rta-, rtu-)
verdh- "grow, increase, prosper", also "right, true" (Greek orthos). Associated with fate in the sense of "that which comes to pass, that which evolves" (Old English wyrd, Norse Urd)

Proto-Indo-European society depended on animal husbandry. Cattle (*gwous) were the most important animals to them, and a man's wealth would be measured by the number of his cows. Sheep and goats were also kept, presumably by the less wealthy.

Agriculture and fishing were also practiced.

The domestication of the horse may have been an innovation of this people and is sometimes invoked as a factor contributing to their rapid expansion.


Technologically, reconstruction suggests a culture of the late Bronze Age: Bronze was used to make tools and weapons (*nsis). Gold and Silver were also known.

Judging by the vocabulary, techniques of weaving, plaiting, tying knots etc. were important and well-developed and used for textile production as well as for baskets, fences, walls etc. Weaving and binding also had a strong magical connotation, and magic is often expressed by such metaphors. The bodies of the deceased seem to have been literally tied to their graves to prevent their return.

The wheel (*kwekwlos) was known, certainly for ox-drawn carts, and late PIE warfare may also have made use of horse-drawn chariots.