Révész Péter


Was there a Danube Basin Finno-Ugric Homeland?

Peter Z. Revesz

Department of Computer Science and Engineering
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Abstract: The location of a Proto-Finno-Ugric homeland was debated for a long time based on cognate words and paleobotany that cannot lead to a firm conclusion. Recent archaeogenetic research showed a population movement from the Neolithic Danube Basin to Crete where the Minoan civilization flourished during the Bronze Age. In addition, the Minoan scripts have been deciphered as a Finno-Ugric language. These two facts suggest that the Proto-Finno-Ugric homeland was in the Danube Basin.

  1. Introduction

Linguists have proposed a Finno-Ugric language family with a Volga-Kama or a Siberian homeland. This remains controversial for two reasons. First, the linguistic and geographic connection between Hungarian and other Finno-Ugric languages is less obvious than those connections among the Indo-European languages that most Hungarians learn. Second, there is no Volga-Kama or Siberian archaeological site from around 3000 BC that can be identified as Finno-Ugric. In fact, the argument regarding the homeland was based on some combination of paleobotany and linguistics. Paleobotany can track the changes in the habitat areas of various plants due to either climate change or human activity such as the spread of agriculture. Unfortunately, paleobotany and plant name cognates can tell neither the location nor the time of the homeland. Any attempt to find these falls into one of these two cases.

In the first case, some period for the existence of Proto-Finno-Ugric is assumed. Then something is deduced about the homeland. For example, we assume that the separation time occurred 4000 BC, then knowing where the plants in the cognate vocabulary grew at that time can allow a deduction of the possible homeland areas:

(cognates) and (paleobotany) and (separation time) à (homeland)

In the second case, some homeland is assumed. Then something is deduced about separation time. For example, the lack of common agricultural crop names and the Volga-Kama homeland hypothesis implies that the homeland existed sometime until neolithization reached the Volga-Kama area around 4000 BC. Hence, the deduction is:

(cognates) and (paleobotany) and (homeland) à (separation time)

Hence, assuming either a homeland or a separation time can yield the other, but we can never deduce them both. This pessimistic result assumes that in either case we have a perfect knowledge of paleobotany. However, our knowledge of paleobotany is still developing and remains unreliable.

Instead of paleobotany, archaeogenetics aided the investigation of Hungarian origins in recent years.  The archaeological evidence shows that the 9th century conquerors of the Carpathian Basin were genetically closest to Hunnish and Turkic groups. Árpád, the leader of the 9th century conquerors, shared Y-chromosome with a Hun from Mongolia [7]. Hence, these 9th century conquerors could not bring the Hungarian language with them to the Carpathian Basin as was previously assumed. There are many examples in history where a minority conquering group leaves little impact on the native language. For instance, English remained the language of Britain after the Norman conquest led by William the Conqueror. The English grammar and basic vocabulary are still Germanic, although many French words were borrowed after the conquest. The Hungarian language seems to have changed similarly with Hungarian remaining a Finno-Ugric language in grammar and basic vocabulary, while borrowing Turkic words after the 9th century conquest.

The above archaeogenetic results beg the question of when the Hungarian language was brought to the Carpathian Basin. László [4] thought that the Avars may have brought with them Hungarian language speakers, but archaeogenetic data show no clear distinction between the Avars and the 9th century conquerors. Magyar [6] proposed a Proto-Hungarian homeland and Krantz [3] proposed a Proto-Finno-Ugric homeland in the Carpathian Basin. Most researchers remained unconvinced by these proposals, which were more hypothetical than scientific.

My research regarding the Minoan civilization gradually led me to the conclusion that the Finno-Ugric homeland was in the Danube Basin. I believe that there is now enough scientific evidence for a Danube Basin homeland to convince objective researchers everywhere. Below I review my research of the Minoan civilization in Section 2, and then summarize its implications for a Danube Basin Finno-Ugric homeland. 

  • The Decipherment of the Minoan Scripts

I accidentally discovered the Minoan-Hungarian linguistic relation when I was learning Greek as a J. William Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at the University of Athens in Spring 2008. I saw that some Greek words are surprisingly like Hungarian words phonetically and in meaning. I made this discovery independently of the earlier Greek-Hungarian glossaries of Aczél [1] and Varga [15], who both reported similarities between Greek and Hungarian words. These authors used their discoveries to argue against the existence of a Finno-Ugric language family in non-scientific ways. In contrast, I recognized that many of the Hungarian words are ancient words that derive from a hypothetical Proto-Finno-Ugric language. I also inquired about the etymology of the Greek word and learned that they are Pre-Greek words, that is, they were borrowed from some earlier languages such as the unknown Minoan language.

I first heard about the Minoans from Paris Kanellakis, my Ph.D. advisor at Brown University, who showed me the Phaistos Disk, a mysterious-looking written document that nobody could decipher for over a hundred years. Naturally, I thought that if the Minoans spoke a Hungarian-related language, then I may be able to decipher the Phaistos Disk. The main problem of decipherment is to find a substitution of the symbols by phonetic values in a consistent manner such that a readable, meaning text emerges after the substitution. I reasoned that the meaningful text must include the most basic words and in the reconstructed Proto-Finno-Ugric forms instead of the current Hungarian forms. The deciphered text is a prayer to a sun goddess [9].

Eventually, I succeeded in this effort as described in my publication [9]. I also went on to decipher a group of twenty-eight documents written in the Linear A script, a more developed, abstract form of writing that were used by the Minoans in later times [11]. These twenty-eight documents contain fragments and variations of the same prayer, commonly called libation formula.

  • Arguments for a Danube Basin Finno-Ugric Homeland

A major problem in identifying a homeland is that most archaeological remains cannot tell us anything about the language that was spoken. The only exception is written documents, but they work only when there are enough of them to make secure claims about deciphering them. An acceptable decipherment settles the issue of the language spoken. Intriguingly, there are some written documents in the Danube Basin associated with the Old European civilization, but those documents are so few that no generally acceptable decipherment could be made. In contrast, the Minoan civilization left us about two thousand written documents written in either the Linear A or the Cretan Hieroglyphic script [8]. This situation helped the decipherment of these scripts. My decipherment can be tested against other documents and is gaining more attention and acceptance.

The lack of securely decipherable written documents within the Danube Basin can be circumvented if we can prove that there was a population movement from the Danube Basin to Crete, where the Minoan civilization flourished from about 3000 to 1450 BC, when the Mycenean civilization apparently conquered it, and the writing was replaced by Linear B, which is the most archaic form of Greek writing [8].

I gathered evidence for such a population movement by comparing Minoan and Hungarian art motifs [13] and ancient Minoan and Hungarian DNA samples [12]. In the latter journal article, I used my bioinformatics background together with the ancient Minoan DNA data of Hughey et al. [2] and Lazaridis et al. [5].

The DNA study implies that the Minoans’ ancestors lived in the Danube Basin and the western littoral area of the Black Sea as farmers of the Old European culture during the Neolithic period [12]. They had to come by ship from the western Black Sea littoral area to the island of Crete. According to my decipherments, the Minoan scribes used a language that is close to Proto-Hungarian. We cannot know from the decipherments whether the scribal language reflects the language of the general Minoan population or just the language of a ruling elite of conquerors, but even in the latter case, the ancient Danube Basin had to be speaking the same scribal language. Therefore, we can conclude that the Danube Basin was a Proto-Hungarian homeland. However, was it also a Proto-Finno-Ugric homeland?

The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization, which means that the separation between the Minoans and Proto-Hungarians must have occurred at the beginning of the Bronze Age. In contrast, the separation between the Hungarians and the Baltic and Urals area Finno-Ugric peoples must have occurred before the beginning of the Neolithic period because there are no cognate agricultural words between Hungarian and the Ob-Ugric Khanty and Mansi languages, which are considered the closest to Hungarian. Therefore, the separation had to occur before the Neolithic period, that is, some during the Mesolithic period. During the Ice Age, the Danube Basin was a human refuge area, and Krantz believed that the Proto-Finno-Ugric language was formed there during the Mesolithic period. Presumably, with the warming of the climate the ancestors of the Baltic and Ural area Finno-Ugric peoples moved north and northeast. The Finno-Ugric language family tree can be explained by assuming that those groups moved away earliest that are the furthest from Hungarian on the language family tree. Wherever they went, they mixed with the local population.

The early spread of the Finno-Ugric groups and their mixing with the local populations means that only a faint common genetic trace can be shown among the Finno-Ugric peoples. A large percent of the early European hunter-gatherers belonged to the U5 mitochondrial haplogroup, which is inherited maternally. Even today, Finno-Ugric groups show a relatively large percent of the U5 haplogroup compared to their non-Finno-Ugric speaking neighbors. Although the mitochondrial DNA is small relative to entire DNA material, it is very significant because it is associated with the spoken language in matrilinear groups, which were common in Europe before the arrival of Indo-Europeans.

However, not only the hunter-gatherers but also the Corded Ware Culture farmers spread from the Danube Basin to the Baltic area, leaving a genetic trace in present day Estonians [14]. This can explain the relatively high percentage of the R1a y-DNA haplogroup in both Estonians and Hungarians even today.

The above simplistic story needs some modification because Hungarians and the Ob-Ugric peoples have some cognate horse-related words. These cognate words may be explained by assuming that they are loanwords that spread from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe either from another language group to both Hungarians and the Ob-Ugric peoples, or, more likely, the Ob-Ugric people became great horsemen while living on the Steppe. The invention of horseback riding cut down the traveling times on the Steppe. Hence after separating during the Mesolithic period, and learning separate agricultural words during the Neolithic period, the Proto-Hungarians and the Proto-Ob-Ugric peoples may have found contact again with each other. This contact resulted in exchange of newly formed words relating to horses and other cultural words of that later period. This scenario explains the paradox of having both indications of a Pre-Neolithic separation and a later horse-domestication period contact. Furthermore, the movement could have been both ways. It is entirely possible that some group of Proto-Hungarians went east to the Urals and established a culture near the area described as Magna Hungaria by Friar Julian in the 13th century.

  • Conclusion

A Danube Basin homeland based on archaeogenetic research showing population movement from the Danube Basin to the Crete combined with the decipherment of Minoan scripts as having a Proto-Hungarian-like language is more logical and trustworthy than a Volga-Kama homeland based on paleobotany and some cognate words of plant names. Nevertheless, more research is needed on this still controversial topic.


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Volt-e duna-medencei finnugor őshaza?

Absztrakt: A finnugor őshaza helyét sokan probálták már megtalálni paleobotanika és rokon szavak elemzése segítségével, de ezek nem vezetnek biztos eredményre. Az újabb archaeogenetikai kutatások népvándorlást mutatnak az újkőkori Duna-medencéből Krétára, ahol a minószi civilizáció virágzott a bronzkorban. Továbbá, a minószi nyelv egy finnugor nyelvnek bizonyult az írások megfejtése alapján. E két tény együtt azt sugallja, hogy a Duna-medencében volt egykor a finnugor őshaza.