ELTE BTK Magyar Nyelvtudományi és Finnugor Intézet

On the uralian Homeland − in general and in particular

nyomtatható változat

Our thoughts are based on the following definition:

The Uralian homeland is the territory where people speaking Uralian lived.

Why do look for the Uralian homeland? It was János Sajnovics who first suggested that the relationship among the Hungarian, Finnish and Lapp languages could be accounted for by the fact that these peoples were the descendants of an ancient great nation. The site where this ancient people lived was the homeland. The search for the homeland of the Uralian peoples was started by linguists during the last century. Their question was as follows: where was the presupposed homeland? This sort of question has characterized research up till now. The primary problem has always been the definition of the site of the homeland. The other questions concerning the homeland have been neglected to a large extent.

The analysis of the problem of the Uralian homeland can be approached with the help of 5 questions:

1.      How did the Uralian homeland come into being?

2.      How did the Uralian homeland cease to exist?

3.      How large territory was occupied by the Uralian homeland?

4.      Where was the Uralian homeland?

5.      When did the Uralian homeland exist?


As the homeland and the parent language are closely related to each other and as they existed side by side, the answers to these questions bear upon the creation, development and disintegration of the parent languages into several branches. Naturally, we are not aimed at giving – and cannot give – definite answers.


On the birth of the homeland: the parent language and the homeland are notions existing together by our definition. The homeland and the parent language were born and ceased, disintegrated together. The importance of the homeland can be found in this fact. The social and economic development of the people living in the homeland was made possible by the homogeneous language which was born in the homeland. The linguistic record relating to the earlier periods can be interpreted in several ways. The nostratic-theory presupposes an earlier Uralian-Altaic-Indoeuropean parent language. We may explain the linguistic phenomena of common roots existing in the above-mentioned families of languages with territorial connections. Our third option is to declare that the state of the language that existed before the parent language is not a language of full value but only a prelanguage level of communication that possessed a smaller wordstock than the three major parent languages and it expressed the relationship between man and his environment with its morphological and syntactical system in the making in a more primitive way than the others. The special literature on the topic has given thought to each of these options and there are pros and cons concerning each of them. It is difficult to approach the time of the birth of the homeland from linguistic and historical points of view and we should look for new methods and new ways to solve the problem.



On the disintegration of the original homeland: we may establish the following facts about the last period of the disintegration of the parent language: the migration away from the homeland should be imagined as a slow process because it was not a sudden explosion of the number of people that caused it. The sudden rise in the number of the population can happen after switching to production on a territory eminently suitable for agriculture, where the potentials of the territory to keep the population there can be improved with the introduction of intensive production methods to a certain extent.

However, there is a different situation in the tundra and forest regions. We may suspect slow outgoing migrationn here which can be result of a rise in the number of a less populous fishing-hunting community; this means of production - as opposed to agriculture - cannot be increased by means of intensive methods to a degree that it would delay migration for a longer period; the tension resulting from the growing population can be alleviated with slow and gradual expansion. We should think of slow migration away from the given territory if we suppose that the people living in the homeland cultivated the land to a certain extent. This idea is not supported by the arceological data; however, we should give it a thought because – for instance in Hungarian, the words kenyér, kása búza, liszt are of Finno-Ugrians origins. The not so favorable climatic conditions, as well as the small territory that was available for agriculture in a forest-belt or that could be made suitable for it by cleaning did not make it possible for the population to grow fast even if there were some sort of agriculture; in consequence of it, we should not think of a fast outgoing migration even if we accepted the fact that the people living in the homeland had some wheat-growing culture.

The conclusion is that the territory of the homeland slowly but continuously grew (naturally there were setbacks from time to time because of the adverse conditions) so the largest extension of the homeland was achieved during the last period of its existence, when linguistic homogeneity still existed but the formation of the would-be ethnocultural units xand the territorial separation had already started.

The territory of the homeland in tje last period of its existence can be defined with the help of the Uralian and Finno-Ugric names of tree that have been used by Péter Hajdú to locate the homeland. Péter Hajdú`s chain of thought was as follows: if the Uralian name of a tree can be found in the language of any of smaller groups of the language-family (e.g. Baltic-Finnish, Permian, etc.), then he concluded that the name of the tree with common etymology must have been known in all the languages of the group.[1] The other way is to examine if there is a system at all in preserving certain names of tree in the Uralian languages studied by Péter Hajdú.

The spruce (Picea) has been known from Western Siberia to the Baltic since the Proto-Holocene Age according to pollen analysis. Its etymology is the most complete one from among the names of tree analyzed; its name of Uralian origin can be found from the Baltic-Finnish languages to the Samoyedic ones.

The cembra pine (Pinus Sibirica) could be found in the Proto-Holocene and Old Holocene Ages on the banks of the Ob and Irtis rivers and it spread over the Northwest part of the Ural at the beginning of the Mid-Holocene, i.e. about 8000 years ago. Its etymology covers this area; from among the European Uralian languages, it is only the Zyryan and the Votyak that know the name of Uralian origin.

The fir (Abies) spread from Western Siberia at the time when the cembra pine did; however the remains of the pollen dating from the Mid-Holocene Age were found only on the right bank of the Kama in Europe. In accordance with its spread, its name of Uralian origin can be found in the Cheremissian besides the languages mentioned above.

The larch (Larix) is a West-Siberian plant; it appeared on the European side of the Ural Mountains only in the New Holocene Age (2000-3000 years ago). In accordance with its spreads, it does not have either Baltic-Finnish or Volga etymology: its name of Uralian origin has been preserved only in the Zyryan and Ob-Ugrian languages.

And finally the elm (Ulmus), which spread from West to East in the European territory of Russia according to our former beliefs, but the latest pollen analysis proved that it could be found in the Southern Uralian region as well and it has a name of common etymological root in the Finnish, Mordvinian, Cheremissian and Hungarian languages.

I detect relations between the plants of the present living area of the Uralian peoples and the names of trees preserved in the individual languages. The language whose territory corresponds to the present area of spreading of the trees mentioned has preserved the Uralian name of trees. This relationship between the plants of the present living area of the Uralian peoples and the names of trees preserved in different ways proves that the disintegration of the Uralian original language happened on the territory extending from the Baltic to Western Siberia, on the present living areas of the Uralian peoples. It can be deducted from this interpretation of the names of the trees that we accept the big homeland – for the very last period of the Uralian homeland. I interpreted these data in my paper at the Finno-Ugrian Conference at Debrecen that we should reckon with the big homeland extending from the Baltic to Western Siberia from the Mezolitic Age.[2] My opinion has been modified since then upon the basis of these evidences: the area of the birth of the Uralian parent language should be looked somewhere else.



How large territory was occupied by the Uralian homeland? I have already touched the territorial changes of the homeland in connection with the previous question; now I would like to discuss the teoretical options relating to the little and big homelands. The connection that can established between the territory of the Uralian homeland and the separated peoples (Finno-Ugrians and Samoyedes, then the Finno-Permians, Ugrians, etc) with independent languages as follows:

a) Little homeland - outgoing migration - the separated peoples on a large territory (this is the general view).

b) Big homeland - the separated peoples lived in the same area (a generally known alternative).

c) Little homeland - the separated peoples lived in the same area.

d) Big homeland - the separated peoples lived in a small territory. (The latter two ideas are theoretical possibiliies that have not been discussed seriously yet; they contradict reality.)


According to the general belief, the Uralian homeland occupied a small territory and it disintegrated when the people living there migrated away. This idea does not rely on the definition of the homeland proposed in the introduction to this paper. It defines the homeland as the place where the Uralian linguistic and social unity terminated.[3]

I would like to recall that in my answer to the second question I suggested that the largest territorial expansion of the homeland can be dated back to exactly this period.

The majority of the theories about the homeland speak about a little homeland. The scholars must think that the linguistic unification and the birth of the parent language occured only on a relatively small area. The little homeland is a preconception which can easily be put aside if we consider the fact that the longest period in the history of mankind was the prehistoric one. If we suppose the lenght of time of living in the homeland longer, then we should think that the territory of the homeland was larger. If we accept the small homeland, then existence there lasted for a shorter period than in a large homeland.

We should also ask if we need to presuppose an outgoing migration to understand the linguistic and historical events. The rise in the number of a fishing-hunting community necessarily goes hand in hand with the territorial expansion of that country. The need for territorial expansion was articulated within very small units as the linguistic unity in the strategic decisions concerning the life of the communities was not an important factor. It means that expansion went on in different directions and was started by different groups, and it was not a process directed by a central will. The connections among the individual little units may have been based on cooperation and common strategic decisions. The disintegration of the communities and their separation from one another must have been accompanied by linguistic separation as well. In sum: we may suggest that the beginning of the disintegration of the original language were due to outgoing migration from a small territory.

However, we may give another answer. The homogeneity of the parent language may have come into existence in a large homeland during a longer period. The only possible way to communicate in the Paleolithic and the Mezolithic Age was to keep in touch personally. The pace of the development of the individual communities depended on the intensity of connections - naturally, we should not think, in terms of present-day connections; whole generations may have passed without getting into touch with anyone. It means that the groups wandering over a large territory may have been more successful than the others and may have become the mediators of skills, etc. If we accept the mediating role of active, wandering communities, it is possible that the unity of the Uralian parent language came into being in a relatively large area. In this case outgoing migration does not account for the disintegration of the parent language. We may think of the change in the way of life as a cause of the disintegration of the unity. We may even think that the changes in the climate had a role in it, too. These changes may have trigerred economic processes which narrowed the connections of the communities. We would also like to call the attention to the different territorial needs of the different ways of life in the tundra and in the forest. The latter requires much less territory than the former despite the fact that its needs are relatively great in comparison with those of agriculture. The connections of the individual communities may have narrowed not just because of the change in the way of life (the shift from life in the tundra to one in the forest is just one example), but because the quantity of experience may have reached a level which rendered the connection extended over a huge territory needless.



On the site of the Uralian homeland: this question has been the most frequently discussed and the arguments can thus be clustered around it. We cannot get very far with theoretical considerations here: it is time we spoke of the homeland proper. My point of departure is one of my former suggestions that the site of the homeland may have changed. This idea may help us create a synthesis of the different theories.

Unfortunately, just a few Hungarian scholars are interested in the Uralian homeland. Gyula László`s theory, proposed in 1961, about the homeland extending from present-day Poland to the Oka river has been criticized both by the linguists and the archeologists.[4]

Péter Hajdú`s theory has been given a better treatment about the Ural-West Siberian homeland.[5] István Fodor has emphasized that this theoriy finds the homeland on linguistic considerations in the same place as the Soviet archeological findings did. István Fodor also accepted V. N. Cernecov`s theory that the Uralian people arrived here from the south.[6]

Antal Bartha practically lists all the possibilities concerning the homeland in Vol. I. of the History of Hungary and he treats them as equal.[7] He thinks that the site of the homeland can only be defined in the Finno-Ugrian age, later than the Uralian one. According to him, the Finno-Ugrians` homeland was around the Volga and the Kama three thousand years B.C.[8]

Péter Veres has modified Péter Hajdú`s theory with the help of the recent palynological results. The scholars have realized since the publication of Nejstadt`s work in 1957 that the elm (Ulmus) tree (which plays a crucial role in Péter Hajdú`s definition of the homeland), spread from the the southern part of the Ural toward Western Siberia at the beginning of the Mid-Holocene Age and also appeared along the middle and lower parts of the Ob. On the basis of it, the extension of the territory of the homeland was possibly as far south as the boundary of the leafy trees and the grasslands. Péter Veres does not even exclude the possibility on the basis of certain evidences that the Uralian people arrived here from farther down the south.[9]

János Makkay has also dealt with the question of the homeland recently. He presented a paper at the Finno-Ugrian Conference at Debrecen in 1990 and published a book next year.[10] His theory has been influenced by the latest results in archeology. He sets up a chronology and keeps track of the peopling of the present-day place of living of the Finno-Ugrians from the last glaciation. According to him, the peopling of the area extending from Finnland to Western-Siberia and covered now by forests started in 10-7 thousand years B.C. The migration following the withdrawal of the ice toward the north had two directions: one started from present-day Ukraine, while the other from the lower parts of the Volga.[11] This migration had come to end by the 4 thousand B.C. The route of the wanderers from the Dnieper river was straight toward the Baltic and Scandinavia; while the people from the lower-Volga moved parallelly with the other group but got farther north and they turned toward Finnland and Scandinavia from there. So János Makkay accepts the idea that Finno-Ugrians had lived in the territories of Finnland and the Baltic since that time and he also subscribes to the theory that the homeland of the Uralian people was among the Dnieper, the Volga, the Ural and the landlocked sea east of the Ural in Upper Paleolithic Age.[12]

As it can be seen, the theories with adequate historical perspective possess the dynamic which sometimes misses in the linguistic theories about the Uralian homeland. I think there is no substantial difference between the southern origin of the people speaking Uralian paren language and the one about the Western-Siberian homeland as modified and streamlined by Péter Veres. The southern part of the Ural Mountains meet the territory from which the migration to the North of the Uralians might have started. The two directions supported by János Makkay - from the Dnieper and the lower-Volga - should be supplemented with a third one proposed by Péter Veres: from areas south of the Ural to the north. This solution supports our theories that the linguistic homogeneity disintegrated because of the migration was carried out in several directions and by several groups. Moreover, it may also be proposed that the migration went hand in hand with a change in the way of life: the more favorable climate in the making and the forest region ensured the survival of the individual groups. The starting site of the Uralian people was not smaller than the one they arrived at and this fact suggests that the Uralian parent language was born in a large area. It also means that the parent language developed slower than if the homeland had been smaller.

Naturally, the migration would have brought the disintegration of the parent language even if this process had happened in line with the former theories, i.e. from the Ural-Kama neolithic culture to the West. However, this theory has not been proved up till now, a cultural dividing line could be discovered in the Middle-Volga region from the neolithic age. The cultural influences coming from the west reached only as far as the Volga-Kama region, while those from the east got as far as the mouth of the Oka and the Upper-Volga. This boundary line could be found between the predecessors of the Mordvinians and the Cheremissians from the point of view of othnogenesis of the Finno-Ugrian peoples: the Mordvine language is closer to the baltic-Finnish, while the Cheremissian has a lot in common with the Permian languages.[13] This linguistic-cultural phenomenon may also get some meaning with the help of the theories of the homeland mentioned above. The participiants of the migration starting from the Dnieper-region and mentioned by János Makkay may have been the predecessors of the Baltic-Finnish and the Mordvinians, while in the groups setting out from the Lower-Volga there may have been the predecessors of the Cheremissians and the Permians (according to János Makkay, the predecessors of the Lappians may have followed the same route), and the easternmost group from the Southern-Ural (suggested by Péter Veres) may have included the predecessors of the Ugrians and the Samoyedes.



As far as the chronological borders (question No. 5) of the Uralian homeland are concerned, we have not got closer to the establishment of the beginnings upon the basis of the theories discussed in this paper. The 6-7000 years between the beginning of the supposed migration and the Neolithic Age of the Finno-Ugrian territories must have begin the period of the disintegration of the Uralian parent language. We do not know yet the connection between this period and the one of the development of the parent language. We may only speculate that it can not have been shorter than the period of disintegration.

I have tried to interpret the different theories regarding the homeland as mutually complementary ones and to support my thesis with the linguistic data in the works referred to. I believe that as a result of them we may be able to answer more questions concerning the Uralian homeland, with the assistance of a homogeneous system than with the help of our former theories. I think that this fact alone proves that we are on the right track.


[1] Hajdú, Péter: Über die alten Siedlungsraume der uralischen Sprachfamilie. Acta Linguistica Hungaricae. Budapest, 1964. 47–83.

[2] Klima, László: Osnovy kritiki teorij uralskoj prarodiny. CIFU 7/6. Debrecen, 1990. 58–64.

[3] Hajdú, Péter: Az uráli nyelvek genetikai kutatása. In: Hajdú Péter-Domokos Péter: Uráli nyelvrokonaink, Budapest, 1978. 52.

[4] László, Gyula: Östörténetünk legkorábbi szakaszai. Budapest, 1961.

[5] Hajdú, Péter: Über die alten Siedlungsraume der uralischen Sprachfamilie. Acta Linguistica Hungaricae, Budapest, 1964. 47–83.

[6] Fodor, István: Verecke híres útján. Budapest, 1975.

[7] Bartha, Antal: A nemzetségi társadalom korszaka. In: Magyarország története I/1. 377–419. Budapest, 1984. 396–412.

[8] Bartha, Antal: A nemzetségi társadalom korszaka. In: Magyarország története I/1. 377–419. Budapest, 1984. 419.

[9] Veres, Péter: A finnugor öshaza meghatározásának vitatott kérdései a legújabb adatok alapján. Népi Kultúra – Népi Társadalom XVI., Budapest 1991. 124–127.

[10] Makkay, János: New aspects of the PIE and the PU/PFU homelands: contacts and frontiers between the Baltic and the Ural in the neolithic. CIFU 7/1A, Debrecen, 1990. 55–83.; Makkay, János; Az indoeurópai népek östörténete. Budapest, 1991.

[11] Makkay, János: Az indoeurópai népek östörténete. Budapest, 1991. 92–93.

[12] Makkay, János: Az indoeurópai népek östörténete. Budapest, 1991. 191–195.

[13] Bereczki, Gábor; Vzaimootnosenija marijskoj leksiki s leksikoj mordovskich i permskich jazikov. CIFU, Budapest, 1963. 202–203.); Bereczki, Gábor: Suscestvovala-li pravolzskaja obscnost' finno-ugrov? Acta Linguistica Hungaricae. Budapest, 1974. 81–85.; Bereczki, Gábor: Permi-cseremisz lexikális kölcsönzések. Nyelvtudományi Közlemények. Budapest, 1977. 57–77.; Klima, László: A volgai finnugorok nyelvi rokonságáról és néppé válásuk kezdeteiről. doctoral dissertation, manuscript, Budapest. 1990.; Klima László: A magyar szókészlet finnugor elemei és az őstörténet. Emlékkönyv Benkö Loránd hetvenedik születésnapjára. Budapest, 1991. 362–368.