The Origins of the Hittites: Where Did These Indo-European Speaking People Live Before Coming to Anatolia?

The origins of the Hittites have long been a topic of debate among historians and archaeologists. Especially regarding their routes of arrival to Anatolia, the development of Proto-Hittite language, and interactions of the Hittites in Anatolia, there exist numerous different views and theories. However, amidst all these arguments, there is a historical fact widely accepted by almost everyone: the Hittites had quickly become one of the prominent civilizations in the region and had made significant contributions to Anatolia.

Anatolia Before the Hittite Migration

With the end of the Paleolithic and the Ice Age, we see various regions of Anatolia transitioning from hunter-gatherer and nomadic communities to settled agricultural societies. During this period, people developed significant skills such as pottery making and began engaging in agriculture and animal husbandry by establishing various settlements.

In the 5000s BCE, alongside the Chalcolithic period, the use of copper began to spread in Anatolia. During the Bronze Age, characterized by bronze tools and artifacts, Anatolia witnessed significant movements.

The Bronze Age marks the period when the first civilizations developed in Anatolia. During this time, it is observed that various civilizations settled in Anatolia and interacted with local cultures. In the early Bronze Age, Anatolia was predominantly inhabited by local peoples and small kingdoms such as the Hattians and Hurrians, who were not part of the Indo-European or Semitic races.

The Hattians, who ruled in the central Anatolian region and were considered a native people, spoke Hattic, a agglutinative and isolate language. Even long after the disappearance of the Hattians from the historical stage, the expression “Land of Hatti” continued to be used in historical texts for Anatolia. In fact, even the Hittites who migrated to Anatolia referred to these lands they inhabited as the “Land of Hatti”. Consequently, philologists reading the tablets in Hattusa once believed for a time that the Hattians and the Hittites were of the same race.

On the other hand, the Hurrian people continued to exist in the eastern and southeastern parts of Anatolia. Acting as a bridge between Mesopotamia and Anatolia due to their geographical location, the Hurrians facilitated cultural interactions between the two regions. Like the Hattians, the Hurrians also spoke a distinctive language. Hurrian, one of the two languages in the Hurrian-Urartian language family, has no known relation to any modern language today.

The Origins of the Hittites and Their Routes of Arrival to Anatolia

The Hittites, engaging with the local peoples and cultures living in Anatolia, took the first step towards establishing their civilization in the mid-Bronze Age. By bringing together various communities living in Anatolia, they created a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and polytheistic empire.

However, the origin of the Hittites, a people known to be of Indo-European descent, was exactly where? Through which migration routes did they come to Anatolia?

Unfortunately, we do not have comprehensive data that would unequivocally answer these questions. However, many findings suggest that the origin of the Hittites lies in the north of the Black Sea or in Eastern/Southeastern Europe. Indeed, archaeological evidence indicates that the Hittites had connections with the Ezero culture in the Balkans and the Maykop culture in the Caucasus. Therefore, it is estimated that the Hittites came to Anatolia from the north.

Research into the origins of the Hittites requires a multidisciplinary approach, necessitating researchers in this field to draw from many different sources. Bringing together scientific evidence from various disciplines such as archaeology, philology, epigraphy, paleography, anthropology, and genetics helps to create a more comprehensive picture of the origins and migration routes of the Hittites. In this context, the prevalent view among historians is that the Hittites came to Anatolia either through the Balkans or through the Caucasus. However, recent studies have particularly focused on the Caucasus route.

James Patrick Mallory, an archaeologist specialized in Indo-European studies, has suggested that the people of Anatolia may have reached the Near East during the early Bronze Age through a route via the Balkans or the Caucasus. This scenario, dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE, is also associated with migrations from the Yamnaya culture to the Danube Valley.

However, based on the research of Hittitologist Petra Goedegebuure, it has been determined that the Hittite language borrowed a series of terms related to agriculture from cultures located in eastern regions. This suggests that the Hittites may have used a possible Caucasus route before reaching Anatolia.

German philologist Ferdinand Sommer claimed that based on the expression “sea” found in a religious document estimated to belong to the reign of Muwatalli II (1295-1272 BC), the direction of the Hittite arrival to Anatolia could be determined. The text is as follows:

The sun god rising from the sea in the text suggests that the sea mentioned is located to the east of the Hittites. Therefore, some researchers speculate that the Hittites might have passed through the west of a sea when coming to Anatolia. Two possible seas that could confirm this speculation are the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Consequently, this document strengthens the idea that the Hittites’ migration to Anatolia might have occurred through the Balkans or the Caucasus.

The Hittite Sun Course Monument in Ankara
The Hittite Sun Disk Monument in Ankara.
Image Credit: Emre Tosun (Wikimedia)

A Heritage Inspired by Hattian Culture

The Hittites coexisted with indigenous communities such as the Hattians and Hurrians in Anatolia. However, this relationship was not limited to mere geographical proximity; it involved numerous interactions on political, cultural, and economic levels.

Through military campaigns and diplomacy, the Hittites conquered some regions and encountered the indigenous Hattian and Hurrian communities. As a result of these conquests, the necessity of coexisting among different ethnic and cultural groups emerged, leading to long-term interactions. Particularly, traces of the Hattian culture significantly influenced the Hittite civilization.

The Hittites’ adoption of the Hattian culture primarily played a significant role in shaping their religious and mythological beliefs. The Hittites embraced Hattian gods and integrated them with their own deities. This integration resulted in the presence of Hattian elements at the core of Hittite mythology and religious practices. For example, among the Hittite gods, there are those of Hatti origin who often held prominent roles in the Hittite pantheon. Moreover, Hittite priests used the Hattic language in some religious rituals for many years.

12 underground gods of the Hittites. (Yazılıkaya)
12 underground gods of the Hittites. (Yazılıkaya)
Image Credit: Klaus-Peter Simon (Wikimedia)
©️CC BY 3.0 DEED

However, the Hittites’ influence from the Hattian culture was not limited to religious aspects but also manifested in the fields of art and architecture. Hittite art and architecture developed and took shape under the influence of Hattian art. Particularly, traces of the Hattian style can be seen in the structural features and decorations of Hittite palaces.

  • Wikipedia contributors. Hittites. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. April 20, 2024, 08:00 UTC. Accessed April 21, 2024.
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  • De Martino, Stefano. “The origin of the hittite cuneiform and the invention of the hieroglyphic luwian writing.” Pasiphae: rivista di filologia e antichità egee: XV, 2021 (2021): 109-116.