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Human migration

Human migration denotes any movement of groups of people from one locality to another, rather than of individual wanderers. Over the course of prehistoric time and in history, humans have been known to make large migrations. This can be compared with periodic passages of groups of animals such as some birds and fishes; see entry Migration.

Migration and population isolation is one of the four evolutionary forces (along with natural selection, genetic drift, and mutation). The study of the distribution of and change in allele (gene variations) frequencies under such influences is the discipline of Population genetics.

The movement of populations in modern times has continued under the form of voluntary immigration/emigration and involuntary forced migration. There's also seasonal human migration related to agriculture. Daily human commuting can be compared to the diurnal migration of organisms in the oceans. See Phototropia.

This article concentrates on the historical human migrations.


Overview of historical migrations

Human migration has taken place at all times and in the greatest variety of circumstances. It has been tribal, national, class and individual. Its causes have been climatic, political, economic, religious, or mere love of adventure. Its causes and results are fundamental for the study of ethnology, of political and social history, and of political economy.

In its natural origins, it includes the separate migrations first of Homo erectus then of Homo sapiens out of Africa across Eurasia, doubtless using some of the same available land routes north of the Himalayas that were later to become the Silk Road, and across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The pressures of human migrations, whether as outright conquest or by slow cultural infiltration and resettlement, have affected the grand epochs in history (e.g. the fall of the Western Roman Empire); under the form of colonization, migration has transformed the world (e.g. the prehistoric and historic settlements of Australia and the Americas). Population genetics studied in traditionally settled modern populations have opened a window into the historical patterns of migrations, a technique pioneered by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

Forced migration (see population transfer) has been a means of social control under authoritarian regimes, yet under free initiative migration is a powerful factor in social adjustment (e.g. the growth of urban populations).

Earliest migrations

The evolution of Homo sapiens occurred in Africa, where, it seems, the first anatomically modern humans developed. Our most recent common ancestor, whom all living human beings share, probably lived roughly 150.000 years ago. It is thought that a part of the Homo sapiens population then migrated into the Near East, spreading east to Australasia some 60.000 years ago, northeastwards into Europe and eastwards into Asia some 40.000 years ago, and further east to the Americas ca. 30.000 years ago. Oceania was populated some 15.000 years ago.

Spread of Agriculture

Agriculture is believed to have first been practiced some 10.000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent (see Jericho). From there it propagated as a "wave" across Europe, presumably coupled with migrations, a view supported by Archaeogenetics, reaching northern Europe some 5.000 years ago.

Indo-European migration into Europe

See Proto-Indo-European.

In comparison to later ages, relatively little is known about the Pre-Indoeuropean inhabitants of "Old Europe". The Basque language remains from that era, as does the indigenous language in Caucasian Georgia. The speakers of Indo-European languages seem to have originated somewhere in the steppes north of the Black Sea or the Caspian Sea and to have penetrated into Europe, into the Aegean basin and into the Iranian plateau in several separate waves (see Kurgan hypothesis). The Scythians and Sarmatians were Indo-European peoples whose homeland remained the steppes.

The Indo-European migration has variously been dated to the end of the Neolithic (, Marija Gimbutas: Corded ware, Yamna, Kurgan), the early Neolithic (Colin Renfrew: Starčevo-Körös, Linearbandkeramic) and the late Palaeolithic (Marcel Otte, Paleolithic Continuity Theory).

The Great Migrations

Western historians refer to the period of migrations that separated Antiquity from the Middle Ages in Europe as the Great Migrations or as the Migrations Period. This period is further divided into two phases.

The first phase, from 300 to 500 AD, saw the movement of Germanic and other tribes and ended with the settlement of these peoples in the areas of the former Western Roman Empire, essentially causing its demise. (See also: Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Suebi, Alamanni Marcomanni).

The second phase, between 500 and 900 AD, saw Slavic, Turkish and other tribes on the move, re-settling in Eastern Europe and gradually making it predominantly Slavic. Moreover, more Germanic tribes migrated within Europe during this period, including the Langobards (to Italy), and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (to the British Isles). See also: Avars, Huns, Arabs, Vikings, Varangians. The last phase of the migrations saw the coming of the Hungarians to the Pannonian plain.

German historians of the 19th century referred to these Germanic migrations as the Völkerwanderung, the migrations of the peoples.

Other Old World migrations

Other migrations that happened later in the history of Europe generally did not give rise to new states, but disrupted and, to some extent, dominated policy within Europe. Examples are the invasion of the Arabs into Spain - only as late as 1492 the Spanish completed their Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula - or the settlement of Muslims in south-eastern Europe, as a result of European armies fighting back the Turks in the Balkan, and the unsuccessful attempt to reconquer Palestine during the Crusades, despite the enormous amount of people, pilgrims and huge armies, that participated in them. (At the end of the Reconquista, the King and Queen of Spain also expelled the Jews from their country, thus triggering a migration to places such as Eastern Europe and the New World.)

The Jewish diaspora across Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East formed from voluntary migrations, enslavement, threats of enslavement and pogroms. After the Nazis brought the Holocaust upon Jewish people in the 1940s, there was a vast migration to Palestine, which became home to the nation of Israel as a result.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the Roma arrived in Europe (to Iberia and the Balkans) from the Middle East, originating from the Indus river.

The two Great Serbian Migrations took place in 1690 and 1737. That is when hundreds of thousands of Serbs started leaving the areas of their medieval Kingdom and Empire that was overrun by the Turks in the 15th century (Kosovo and Metohija), under the leadership of their patriarchs and Orthodox Church priests, and moved to southern parts of the Kingdom of Hungary, today's Vojvodina, northern Serbia.

Polynesian migration

With the art of open-sea navigation involving the most confident and courageous use of the available technologies of boat-building, combined with the most sophisticated understanding of currents and prevailing winds, the Polynesians, starting with the Lapita culture, have proven to be the most successful in the art of navigation, as the Norse adventurers in the North Atlantic and the Arab traders in the Indian Ocean did not create permanent settlements. The Lapita people, which got their name from the archological site in Lapita, New Caledonia, where their characteristic pottery was first discovered, came from Austronesia, probably New Guinea. Their navigation skills took them to the Solomon Islands, around 1600 BC, and later to Fiji and Tonga. By the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, most of Polynesia was a loose web of thriving cultures who settled on the islands' coasts and lived off the sea. By 500 BC Micronesia was completely colonized.

Polynesian migration patterns also have been studied by linguistic analysis, and recently by analyzing characteristic genetic alleles of today's inhabitants. Both methods resulted in supporting the original archaeological findings, while adding some new and surprising insights.

Migrations to the New World

See Models of migration to the New World.

Migrations and climate cycles

The modern field of climate history suggests that the successive waves of Eurasian nomadic movement throughout history have had their origins in climatic cycles, which have expanded or contracted pastureland in Central Asia, especially Mongolia and the Altai. People were displaced from their home ground by other tribes trying to find land that could be grazed by essential flocks, each group pushing the next further to the south and west, into the highlands of Anatolia, the plains of Hungary, into Mesopotamia or southwards, into the rich pastures of China.


  • Dirk Hoerder, Cultures in Contact. World Migrations in the Second Millenium, Duke University Press 2002

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