updated 2009

UI-RA-LA: The Ancient World of Boat Peoples, by Andres Pääbo



Origins in the Aboriginal Languages of the Boat Peoples of Prehistoric Europe

This article is created because, outside of realms of Finnic studies, a very very old entrenched theory of Finno-Ugric origins seems to persist in encyclopedias and texts in the major languages. This is because few people consult the developments in the thinking.  While certainly it may be true that within the very large Finno-Ugric area there were movements and adjustments within it - for example the original Finns coming up from the the more civilized parts of the Baltic northwards to be among the primitive Lapps.  No dount there were similar movements in earlier times, but the question is what was the original situation?  The original situation was one of an expansion of boat people, and in time groups settling down and having reduced contacts which produced  large dialectic regions. Early studies of the languages that were classified as "Finno-Ugric" determined by comparative linguistics that in fact the manner in which languages in this group varied was in relation to obstacles to communicative exchange. While early observers spoke only in terms of distance, a stronger determinant of divergence from the original language was for boat-oriented hunter-gatherers to become confined to water systems. I give examples from the distribution of the Algonquian peoples - similarly boat-using hunters - as found in the northwest quadrant of North America when Europeans arrived in the 16th century. The early studies did not have the benefit of the kind of wisdom we do today such as in this Algonquian example, nor all the new archeological information that have come to light in the past century that tends to point to the boat-peoples having an original out-of-Europe origin, irrespective of later shiftings.  As a result the niave linguists of the late 1800's created a description of the origins of the Finno-Ugric languages that does not fit reality in any way. It was based only on models developed for languages further south, where peoples were farming oriented, not far ranging aboriginals, and who had to deliberately migrate from time to time. The most realistic and supported (from the data ) view is that the Finno-Ugric speaking tradition comes from the aboriginal boat-oriented hunter-gatherers that spanned northern Europe from the Britain to the Urals and up the rivers of Europe long before farmers pushed north, and have only disappeared from south to north as a consequence of being assimilated into the northward expansion of farmers.

The "Finno Ugric" Language - The Old View

     The Theory of Ancient Boat peoples, as presented in   THE ORIGINS AND EXPANSIONS OF  BOAT-ORIENTED WAYS OF LIFE : Basic Introduction to the Theory advances the idea that the language today classified as "Finno-Ugric" have evolved from the original languages of the boat-oriented hunter-fishers who spanned northern Europe's water-filled regions from about 10,000 BC. Agriculturally speaking that means they derive from the "Maglemose" culture and its descendants. This new view, which is supported by modern data from archeology, genetics, and other fields, is dramatically different from an old view of Finno-Ugric languages, that was developed rather arbitrarily by linguists of the 1800's, which had no evidence beyond comparative linguistic analysis.
   The most modern manifestations of Finno-Ugric speakers today are those closest to European civilization - Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian (Hungarian being most similar to the most remote and primitive, the Khanti, and considered to be a southern displacement as a result of migrations). Other Finno-Ugric languages exist in pockets within other nations, ranging from the Saami to Karelians, to Votes, to Mari, to Khanti, and more.  Because the surviving Finno-Ugric languages are for the most part in regions removed from the thrust of European civilization into continental Europe, common sense suggests that they are remnants of what once was a larger group which extended southward to the south Baltic and the Jutland Peninsula and west to the British Isles. Today, this truth of indigenous aboriginal peoples enduring in more remote regions can be seen in North America. There, original Native languages are still spoken in northern Canada. Towards the south, even those considering themselves Native, speak English and many know very little of their original language.
   There is a good logical basis for inquiring as to whether the Finno-Ugric languages represent the original languages of northern continental Europe in general and whether today's surviving Finno-Ugric languages are remnants of original peoples, surviving according to the degree they were isolated from the northward thrust of European agricultural civilization.
     This new approach  - to think of the Finno-Ugric languages as being remnants of the original languages of Europe - is faced by an old theory that has been entrenched in world knowledge for a century. If the reader looks at any older books, or even new books by authors who referred to older books, they will see the older theory. It held that Finno-Ugric languages had a tight origin near the Urals and then expanded by repeated migrations. The flaw of this should immediately be obvious. If the Finno-Ugric languages had a tight origins and expanded, what where the languages of the original hunters already distributed throughout the north? Over the years scholars have dealt with this problem by assuming that the original peoples were "Finns", that is, people identifiable with today's Saami of arctic Norway and Finland. Trouble is, linguistics has been unable to separate the Saami, from Finnic languages, and there has always been a tendency to include Saami with Finnish, Estonian and other Finnic languages.  Thus this old theory of Finno-Ugric origins from a tight area, if it is accepted, can only represent internal movements of the same people. But that idea has its flaws too. It is known that boat-using hunter-fishers were already widely migratory in their annual movements. The very idea of a tight origins simply could not be applied to people whose natural homeland is inherently broad - covering entire water systems.
      How did the old theory come about? It was developed by linguists alone, and used models derived from settlement oriented farming people - people who were very settled and if they moved, they had to deliberately migrate. After these linguists of the 1800's  had determined the existence of a Finno-Ugric language, they attempted to describe the history of its evolution. Not having any archeological data, nor knowledge of the behaviour of seasonally nomadic behaviour of boat-using hunter-fisher-gatherers, they created a story more suited to settled farming peoples. That model saw the growth of settled populations in small regions, culminating in break-off groups who migrated elsewhere, and then after a time the breakaway group grew and produced yet another breakway group. This old theory  has been contradicted -- especially by Estonian archeologists like R. Indreko -- throughout the 20th century but, having become deeply entrenched in texts and beliefs, it has been hard to displace by a more realistic theory. An illustration of the old theory is given below:

Map 1. This theory has been around so long that there has been a tendency to revise it (mainly to change the date of arrival at the Baltic), rather than throw it out, until recently.

           There has never been a problem with the comparative linguistics determinations themselves. The problem has been in applying it to describe the real events.
           Linguistics has decided on the existence of a large superfamily of  "Uralic" languages of western Eurasia, which have a basic subdivision between the "Samoyeds" and "Finno-Ugrians". The former refer to peoples in the high arctic, originally reindeer hunters, now herding them, who have strong arctic mongoloid racial features. The original studies concluded from linguistic distances that  an original "Uralic" language family split into the "Samoyed" language family and the "Finno-Ugric" language family.  There is nothing wrong with seeing these two groups having roots in the same prehistoric language. The issue is how the languages, dialects, drifted apart.. The original tight-origin theory assumed a tight origin  in the vicinity of the Ural Mountains around 6000BC, and then the original parental "Finno-Ugric" language started to subdivide and subdivide, with each breakaway group migrating elsewhere. See the above map. The problems with this theory are countless, notably, when one takes into account the far-ranging nature of boat-using hunter-fisher-gatherers such as found in Canada in around 1600.
       Back when the original tight-origin theory was being developed  it appears only one contemporary linguist was intelligent enough to realize something was wrong. In 1907 Heikki Ojansuu expressed the view that "the F-U peoples once occupied a broad zone extending somewhere from the region of Ilmajärvi, then along the Volga and its tributaries to the region of the Kama and the Urals" He believed that hunters and fishermen needed large areas for their activities (Heikki Ojansuu, Oma Maa, 1 (1920), 318-328). Later another Finn, Paavo Ravila noted, but did not realize, the solution of simple dialectic differentiation, that the geographical distribution of the F-U languages closely reflected their relationship. Later, another Finn, Erkki Itkonen, proposed the conflicts the original linguists' theory had with archeology (that found no evidence of migrations) could be reduced by assuming the F-U peoples occupied the entire area from the Urals and the Baltic from time immemorial. (Itkonen, Oma Maa, 1958) Toivo Vuorela summed this line of thinking as follows (Vuorela, The Finno-Ugric Peoples Eng. trans. J. Atkinson, 1964) "In this sense [Itkonen] refers to Ojansuu's idea of an 'unbroken zone of peoples' from Ilmajärvi to the Urals, and to Ravila's view that the geographical distribution of the F-U languages reflects their relationship. When the once food-gathering peoples, who had needed wide areas in which to move about, became agriculturalists and so were more inclined to stay in one area, 'the various groups that were accustomed to live together became virtually frozen to the spot in their former hunting grounds' -- and thus dialects became more and more separate and over centuries and millenia developed into separate languages.
     The idea of hunting people 'being frozen to their former hunting grounds' is interesting from the point of view of the Estonian and Finnish words for 'family' pere/perhe . It is possible that this word originates from  PEO-RA  (ie, pida + rada) meaning  'hunting,trapping, catching +  trail, way, road'  suggesting that  each clan had their own hunting territory of trails, something confirmed among Canada's Algonquian Indian past; so that when they had to settle down, the hunting trails disappeared so that all that was left was the clan, the family, the PEO-RA, or pere/perhe.
    Another issue was whether Finno-Ugric languages existed to the west of the Baltic, since no Finno-Ugric languages survived there by the 19th century. Clearly had a Finno-Ugric language or two survived in Sweden or Britain,  as proof, all the thinking would have taken another route. (History in Norway and Sweden speak of  'Finns' on coasts, in the forests and on the tundra, and scholars commonly assume that it means the Saami,(Lapps).
     Still, here too, there was one scholar who took another view than the tight-Ural-origin theory.  The German Gustaf Kossinna tried to place the F-U homeland in North Germany and Scandinavia (Mannus, I-II Mannus Bibl. 26 (1909-1911)) Interestingly, there is a suggestion in the Estonian folk epic Kalevipoeg that (assuming the part I will refer to is from original folklore and not invented by the compiler) there was, perhaps back in the Viking Age, Finno-Uric speakers in Norway. In the story, Kalev has three sons, one becoming Kalevipoeg, the hero of Estonian and Finnish folklore, another going to Russia to become a merchant (referring probably to the Votes and others who carried on trade to the Dneiper and Volga) and the third to Norway to "become a warrior". It is clear that the intent of the folk legend was to acknowledge all obviously related Finnic peoples, as they would obviously have had the same parent - Kalev(a). This last Norwegian warrior character is interesting because it was during 800-1000AD that Danish kings were on a campaign to bring Norway into their kingdoms. Thus for two centuries southern Norway and up its coast was a region of conflict, requiring soldier assistance. It follows that around 800-1000AD, Estonians would have perceived there to be a related people always at war with the Danish armies, and hence the legend-maker included a son of Kalev who was a warrior/soldier in Norway, in order to give an origin to a Finnic-speaking people in southern Norway.  Historically Norwegian and Swedish documents speak of the aboriginal peoples - not just the reindeer people, but those on the coasts and in the forests, - being 'Finns' and that the name 'Finland' was a Swedish creation, as the area now Finland belonged to Sweden.  One can say 'Well they were people related to the Saami (Lapps)' and that might be alright, if the Saami spoke a language very different from Finnish, but the fact is the Saami language is so Finnic in character, that linguistics includes it in the Finno-Ugric and often even in the Balto-Finnic languages. It all suggests the better view is that the Saami and Balto-Finnic language are related and that what separates them is only the level of development towards civilization, the more southerly ones (Finnish, Estonian, and extinct ones further south) adapting more and faster to the agricultural civilization pushing up from the south, while the northernly ones (Saami) remained relatively primitive due to greater isolation.
     Furthermore, should we put up the western boundary at Scandinavia? Since archeology indicates trade connections between Norway and northern Britain (ie the Picts), we can extend the Finno-Ugrians even to the Picts, at least those of the east side. The connection between the trader-Picts and the east Baltic is affirmed by the Anglo-Saxon scholar monk Venerable Bede who wrote in his famous history of Britain, that the Picts had come in longboats "from Scythia". In that day, "Scythia" was the region from the east Baltic eastward. Clearly traders from Greater Estonia were arriving on the British east coast, and were witnessed to speak a language similar to that of the Picts who recieved them.
     Thus alternative views that are now proving to be more correct, have had early precendents among scholars; however individual voices were drowned out by those who promoted the tight Ural origin, and successions of migrations westward.

The "Finno Ugric" Language - The NewView
        Already from about the 50's archeology, failing to find any evidence of east-to-west migrations or a tight homeland, took issue with the old theory. Noted Estonian archeologist Richard Indreko, for example wrote that the archeological evidence, on the contrary, showed a movement of archeological culture the other way - from west to east.  But the tendency was to revise the old theory, than to dispose of it. Archeology showed an east to west movement of pottery with comblike markings. Maybe that showed the migration, some said. Richard Indreko addressed this suggestion by pointing out that the movement of a cultural feature does not  mean migration. It can mean simply the movement of a new cultural practice through contacts between related Finno-Ugric tribes. Later it could be the result of trade.
       But nobody pointed out the main problem with ANY migration theory: the nature of the life of boat-using hunter-fishers. Living in Canada, I became interested in the Algonquian aboriginal peoples, who lived a similar life as boat(canoe)-travelling hunter-fishers, in a similar northern environment. I saw in them a good model for ancient Finno-Ugric language development. In this Algonquian language family, the linguistic divisions - as Europeans found them in the 16th century - were according to water basins, a different language in a different water basin, with the larger ones having dialectic subdivisions. This is because they moved around in canoes. They were boat-people. People who are dependent on boats not only travel some five times further than people on foot, but they will tend to remain within the water system where the boats can travel.  Thus each water system would tend to form its own dialectic subdivision of the larger culture. In a sentence far-ranging seasonally nomadic boat-using hunter-gatherers were not localized, but were naturally constrained by where their boats could easily go, constrained by water basin boundaries.
       When Europeans arrived in he 17th century they found that there were the Cree in the water basin of the Hudson Bay, Ojibwa in the water basin of the Great Lakes, Algonquins in the Ottawa River water basin, Montagnais Innu in the Saguenay River water basin, and Labrador Innu in the Churchill River water basin. I haves shown this on a map of North America below.


Map 2. The Algonquian native peoples of the forested region of the east quadrant of northeast North America, were boat-using hunter-fisher gatherers who lived a seasonally nomadic life. Their language divisions are related to water basins, and the best explanation for their history is that there was a rapid expansion up all the rivers from the Altantic, that filled up the lands, and then gradually dialectic divergence occurred according to boat-use being confined to water basin regions.

When we apply this to northern Europe, to the entire region that archeology demonstrates was inhabited by boat-oriented hunter-fisher peoples, we arrive at a map like this:


Map 3.The Finno-Ugric origins are best viewed in boat-using hunter-gatherers in a similar environment, and their language family divisions also are related to water basins. The Finno-Ugric subdivisions are however older, as the languages have further subdivided as a result of people settling down into farming. But the ancient situation, resembling that of the Algonquians, is evident. Note that if the Finno-Ugrians extended further west, there once were other dialectic regions for example in the Vistula and Oder River water basins.

     The above map shows that the Finno-Ugric language subdivisions too are related to water basins (Baltic, Volga, Ob, etc), , so that the it is clear that there were no migrations, but rather the constant movements of seasonally nomadic boat-peoples, who were nonetheless constrained to water systems so that linguistic distances developed according to the natural separation of boat peoples by the water systems in which they moved
     In short, the languages developed in the same way as dialects--by an original language covering a large area, and geographic circumstances causing localization. (And later in history as the nomadic Finno-Ugrians settled down to farm, each of the basic water-system dialects began to subdivide further between one farming area and another.)

     Archeology has always suggested the obvious - as the climate warmed after the Ice Age, culture expanded out of Europe into the east. Now the new genetic studies also suggest that Finno-Ugric speaking peoples are basically Europeans. Thus it is only now that Finno-Ugric languages and traditions are being considered in terms of the history of Europe. It is now easier to accept that the Finno-Ugric languages originate from the original boat-oriented hunter-fisher peoples of northern Europe. But many are unable to grasp the nature of these people. But a good picture of them can be had by considering the nature of the Algonquian natives peoples of  northeastern North America - a people who were similarly nomadic boad using hunter-fishers, and similarly lived in a northern wooded region filled with waterways.   In addition we can see how European civilization has affected them from south to north since the 17th century. It is easy to see that the same thing occurred in Europe, except at a much slower pace, as technology and population growth in the civilized parts of Europe were not advancing at the same pace as in the last centuries.
      Let's review what has happened here in North America. North America was overrun by Europeans from the 17th to 20th century, and history plainly shows the manner in which it affected the original native peoplesnbsp; Basically the European settlers were farmers; thus the regions where the native peoples were displaced or assimilated first were first those areas which were ideal for farming.   Marshes, rocky hillsides, acidic rocky soils, mountains and  cold northern climates were places where the European settlers did not immediately go, and native tribes found refuge there. Gradually European settlers pushed into poor lands too, so the native peoples then could only survive in the VERY poor lands, particularly in the remote north.
     Today, native language and culture survives most strongly in Canada, primarily because of the cold northern climate that resists being farmed. While in the United States, only small pockets of native cultures can still be found (desert areas having more of them), in Canada the entire north part of Canada is strongly populated by native cultures, that is, by peoples who still identify themselves as native and even speak their own language (Cree, Dene, Inuit, etc).
     Scholars in North Americans, faced with the question of the evolution of Europe, therefore are more inclined to accept a theory that perhaps the Saami and Finns of northern Europe may similarly be remnants of the original native people of Europe. It is almost obvious. But scholars do not think broadly enough. What is required is to imagine the nature of aboriginal peoples across the entire northern Europe, then being influenced by the arrival of new cultures, new practices, starting with the regions most suited to farming. We are not merely dealing with the extinguishing of the Saami in the Scandinavian Peninsula, from south to north - surviving today only in the most remote north and in the mountains of Norway - but of northern Europe as a whole. How can we draw the line just at Scandianvia? These were boat peoples descended from the Maglemose culture - water was not an obstacle: quite the contrary water facilitated their movements and expansions, and it is clear that these people expanded east and south, wherever waterways were found to carry them and their dugout (or in the north- skin) boats.
        If it has been happening in Canada with respect to the Algonquians, assimilated from south to north, then why do we not apply this truth to early Europe? Possibly it is because scholars in Europe cannot grasp it as well as scholars in North America, especially in Canada.
       Thus the plain fact that farming cultures displace native hunter-fisher-gatherers from south to north, and from fertile higher lands to poor acid marshlands, leads to the conclusions that it is possible that indeed the ancestral language of the Finnic peoples was the original language of continental Europe. What other candidates are there?  And even if there was movement of culture according to waterways - since all these peoples wandered seasonally over wide areas - then that represents cultural influence in the natural course of contacts, not of any kinds of permanent migrations. We are not talking about farmers, who have to pack up wagons and migrate. We are talking about peoples who in the northern world were clans who were already annally covering an area the diameter of several hundred kilometers, and  tribes (groups of 4-6 clans) whose total diameter could be 1000 miles (The reach could have been even more if elongated - as with coastal peoples). All that of course came to an end wherever these peoples established a permanent settlement, even if they remained primarily hunter-fishers; and when they became primarily farmers, their range reduced right down to a radius of maybe only 50 km. 
      The old linguistic theory on the origins of Finno-Ugric languages, in describing their origins in a tight location near the Ural mountains, has done the world of scholarship a great disservice. For over a century scholars have completely ignored the Finno-Ugric languages in investigations of prehistoric Europe simply because they have been told they were not there, but in the east. 
      Well all the evidence shows that the origins of the Finno-Ugric languages were not only in continental Europe but represent the aboriginal foundations of Europe. Farming cultures, and eventually Indo-European cultures came into Europe in waves, and converted the natives in much the same way as European cultures did in North America since the 16th century. Note that in later history, there were no migrations, but rather military conquest, beginning with the Roman conquest of Europe and establishing the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire collapsed, Germanic and Slavic powers adopted Roman methods of conquest and rule, and that is the main reason the regions originally Finno-Ugric in nature are now speaking Germanic or Slavic languages.  The fate of the Finno-Ugric cultures is the same as as that of the native peoples of North America, absorbed into the new cultures introduced by new settlers, or imposed by military conquerors, except in the regions most remote from the thrust of civilization. The only different between North America and Europe is that it occurred much more gradually in Europe.    

© A. Pääbo 2003-2006-2009