The Germanic Tribes: Origins


Figure 1.--.

The origins of the Germanic peoples are obscure. Both the ethnic and geographic origins of the people speaking Teutonic languages are not known from history with any precision. The subject has, of course, been subject to intensive academic scrutiny during the era of the Third Reich, but the results were more tailored to express the ideological desires of the Nazi's than to actual history. The origins of these Germanic peoples are still shrouded in pre-history. The Germanic peoples certainly entered Europe well before the Roman era, but the ancient Germanic peoples left no written language, as they were semi-nomadic, the archeological remains are sparse. The Germanics were probably formed from a mixture of races in the coastal region of northern Europe, perhaps especially around the Baltic Sea. They appear to have settled in the north-central plains of Europe sometime around the end of the 6th century B.C. What is known with any precision is that the Germanic tribes first appeared in southern Scandinavia and along the North Sea and southern Baltic in modern Poland. These Germanic tribes then moved southward into modern Germany, Austria, and parts of Switzerland, assimilating with the Celts or driving them westward. The migration from Scandinavia was often along rivers. The Germanics from Southern Scandinavia pushed south along the Weser, Oder, Baltic Sea and North Harz toward the Rhine, the Channel, the Weichsel and the Danube. Later, other Germanic tribes pushed north and west to the British Isles, Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands north of Scotland. The Germanic tribes pushing south encountered the Romans at a period in their history when the latter were expanding north of the alps, setting in motion one of the titanic confrontations in history that eventually resulted in the occupation of large parts of Italy, France and Spain by such tribes as the Longobards, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks, Vandals and others, a confrontation never completely resolved until World War II which with few exceptions fixed European borders.

Obscure Origins

The origins of the Germanic peoples are obscure. Both the ethnic and geographic origins of the people speaking Teutonic languages are not known to history with any precision. This is a subject I admittedly know little about and I would be very interested to hear from readers who can enlighten me.

Asiatic Origins

The origins of these Germanic peoples are still shrouded in pre-history. The Germanics entered Europe out of Asia, but there is a little solid information available about it. As nomadic people they left few or no archeological traces. There are, however, even without archeological evidnce, two sources of scientific evidence open to researchers. One is linguistic and the other genetic.
Linguistic research: Whereas the ancient Germanic peoples left no trace of their Asiatic origins, the field of linguistics does offer the tantalizing possibility of tracing relationships among ancient peoples. This study began with British colonial officials in India during the 18th century, when they began noticing words in the Hindi language that were synonymous with words in European languages. Researchers, by about 1800, demonstrated a definite relationship between Sanskrit (the dead language on which modern Hindi is based) and most European languages. The extensive literature of ancient India (which began earlier than that of any other Indo European language) preserved elements of basic Indo-European forms and suggested the existence of a common parent language. Using Grimm's Law in the 1820s, linguists began to map out the development of Indo-European languages. The hypothetical common parent language is referred to as proto-Indo-European. Linguists speculate that proto-Indo-European (PIE) may have been spoken more than 5,000-6,000 years ago in the steppe regions north of the Black Sea and then as migrations divided people at some time during the third millennium BC. dialects began to shape that evolved into separate languages. There are two basic subgroups, a Western (Centum) group and an Eastern (Satem) group. (Centum and satem are synonyms for hundred). The Germanic language group is one of four subdivisions of the Western group that includes Greek (Hellenic), Latin (the modern European Romance languages), and Celtic. There is considerable debate among linguistics as to the actual language groupings and relationships among those groupings. I am not familiar at this time as to what extent linguistic studies have actually helped in tracing the origins of the Germanic peoples. Perhaps some of our readers are familiar with the research effort and methods involved. It isnot an easy matter. The use of language can actually mask genetic origins. The French, for example, with Germanic origins, speak a Romance language. The Irish, many with Celtic origins, speak the Germanic English language. Similar language shifts have often occurred in pre-history as well. What is unclear to me is why PIE dominated the languages spoken over such a wide area. This seems to suggest a warlike people conquering a huge tract of territory and imposing their language on subject peoples that were then assimilated. That process of assimilation explains presumably partially the diversity in the modern Indo-European languages. However, I have not yet found a good article attempting to construct the actual history behind it.
Genetic research: Genetic relations are finite and unlike linguistic relations can not be obscured. Unfortunately I am unfamiliar with any active genetic research attempting to trace the Asiatic origins of the European peoples. I know some work has been done on genetic elements in an effort to trace the early migration of humans out of Africa, but have not yet looked into this. Perhaps readers can provide some insights here. Of course, genetic research into Germanic origins is a very sensitive topic because of the NAZI past. Probably some researchers are unwilling to address this subject because of rge senativities involved.

European settlement

Once the Germanic tribes arrived in Europe, some information becomes available, although until they come in contacts with the Romans it is very limited. The Germanic peoples certainly entered Europe well before the Roman era, but the ancient Germanics left no written language and because they were semi-nomadic, the archaeological remains are sparse. The Germanic people were probably formed from a mixture of races in the coastal regions of northern Europe, perhaps especially around the Baltic Sea. They appear to have settled in the north-central plains of Europe sometime around the end of the 6th century BC. All that is known with any precision is that the Germanic tribes first appear in southern Scandinavia and along the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts moving south into modern Poland. These Germanic tribes, then, moved southward into modern Germany, Austria, and parts of Switzerland, assimilating the Celts or driving them west. The migration from Scandinavia was often along rivers, the Germanic tribes from southern Scandinavia pushed south along the Weser, Oder, Baltic Sea and via the North Harz to the Rhine, the Channel, the Weichsel and the Danube. Later, other Germanic tribes pushed north and west to the British Isles, Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands north of Scotland. The Germanic tribes that were pushing south encountered the Romans at a period in their history when the latter were expanding north of the Alps, setting in motion one of the titanic confrontations. In the east the Germanic tribes faced the Slavs. In the West the Germanic tribes faced the Romanized people of Western Europe. The various Germanic tribes conquiered most of Western Europe. The Burgondians settled down in Gaul (France), Visigoths and Vandals in Spain, and Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Longobards in Italy. The confrontation continued in one way or another through modern European history. In the 20th century the Russians persued pan-Slavism. The German Empire was the princial Germanic nation. To the east they faced the Russian (Slavic) Empire. To the west across the Rhine they faced Romanized Europe. After Germany' defeat in World War I (1914-18), the NAZIs resurected Medieval mythology and added pseudo-scientific racist idelogy bringing the confrontation begun milennia before to an apocalyptic connclusion in World War II (1939-45). German miscalculation in both Wars brought America in to prevent German victories. The borders in Europe have not significantly changed since the War, except the break up of some states. Knowing what we do today, the borders are unlikely to change in the future.

NAZI Scholarship

The subject was a matter of intensive (pseudo) academic scrutiny during the Third Reich era. The results were more tailored to express the ideological desires of the Nazis than to actual historical knowledge. The NAZIs, without modern genetic scientific means or even knowledge of DNA resorted to crude methods like measuring skull characteristics or eye colour. The NAZIs also dispatches several notable anthropological expeditions. There was a desire to find links with such imperialistic civilizations as the Spartans or the Assyrians, but not with the black haired, brown eyed, tan colored Indians.

Reader Comment

A reader writes, "Your Germanic story must be interesting to people who have little knowledge of this evolution. It makes easy and informative reading. I have one objection and that is your frequent use of the word Germans instead of Germanic peoples or tribes. Germans are people who speak the High German language and were, at one time, citizens of Das Deutsche Reich, ruled by, either, an emperor such as Kaiser Wilhelm or Adolf Hitler. Because of the problems we had with the Nazi super race it sort of offends me to read that my ancient ancestors were Germans instead of Germanic people or Teutones. I am of Dutch descent and therefore dislike to be called of German extraction, feeling just like the average Englishman, Norwegian, Dane or Fleming would feel about it. Otherwise, keep up the good work. With kind regards." -- Hendrik Westera

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Created: August 29, 2003
Spell checked: April 8, 2004
Last updated: April 9, 2004