Kurgan Culture, Yamnaya Culture, or Aliens? Old Europe and Indo-European Speakers by Alma T. C. Boykin
So, a few weeks back, a commenter argued that the peoples of Old Europe were more or less egalitarian and possible matriarchal until the people of the Kurgan Culture appeared and imposed a horse-riding patriarchy on everything. I admit, as soon as I saw “Kurgan Culture,” I knew the well-meaning individual was not current on the state of research concerning the two groups involved. So what is the state of research, and what the heck is this all about anyway?
The area centered roughly between the Tisza River in Hungary, the Dniester and Dnieper Rivers to the east, the Polish/Slovak Carpathians to the north, and the Iron Gates of the Danube to the south, is where a series of cultures that archaeologists lump together as the Danube Culture or “Old Europe” developed. There are a number of sub-groups within this Old European culture, and the ones I’m the most familiar with are the late-phase pair known as Cucuteni-Trypillia. Cucuteni is found in Transylvania and adjoining parts of what is now Romania, and Trypillia was on the eastern side of the Carpathians, in the Dniester and Dnieper River watersheds. The timespan for Old Europe is around 6000 BC/BCE to roughly 3500 BC/BCE.
Marija Gimbutas did intense research on the Danube Culture, and published in English. She also wrote several popular archaeology books about the Danube Culture. She proposed that the lack of obvious markers of social rank, the lack of apparent weaponry, and the prevalence of female “deity” images meant that Old Europe had been matrilocal, matriarchal, peaceful, and egalitarian. They had farmed and had done well for centuries. The end of Old Europe came at the hands of the horse-riding “Kurgan Culture” nomads from the steppe, who were warlike, nomadic, and patriarchal. Gimbutas, like many activists of the 1970s, felt that the peaceful, woman-led Old European culture had been far superior in many ways to the aggressive, hierarchical warrior nomads who buried their dead with weapons, animal and human sacrifices, and lots of gold and silver. The nomads erected hills, called kurgans, leading to the term Kurgan Culture.
Fast forward to the year 2014, when I inadvertently started doing research into the Cucuteni-Trypillia phase. I was actually trying to learn a lot more about steppe nomads in order to do some comparative work for an academic paper. I ended up with sources for the Cucuteni-Trypillia people as well as what I wanted. In 2019, I started digging deeper into the Cucuteni stuff, and discovered that a lot remains unknown, and what we do know is very odd, in the sense that it doesn’t match a lot of theories people have developed about how societies change over time. It also doesn’t match Gimbutas’ early work, either. She has been discredited in many ways, although she remains the pioneer*, and her term Old Europe is still in common use.
The rest of this little essay can be summed up as “we don’t know much yet, but what we do know is Odd.” It also reflects my personal interest, and is not in any way a survey of the entire 3000 year period.
Cucuteni-Trypillia started out as a single cultural group. People lived in villages of up to several hundred people, and farmed. They had domesticated sheep and goats, but also ate a lot of deer, some beef (probably very old animals), rabbits, squirrel, and other things. They gathered nuts, berries, and other wild foods in season, and had some domesticated or wild apples and possibly plums. Maybe. They gathered wild grains to augment their domestic grains. They also had very highly decorated pottery, and made items from copper and some very primitive bronzes. Houses came in three general types, wattle-and-daub, log houses, and semi-subterranean. The Old European people are considered Chalcolithic, or Copper Age, bridging between Neolithic and Bronze Age.
We have no idea about their language. It was not Indo-European. The Danube peoples migrated up from Anatolia around 5500 BC/BCE, before Indo-European languages developed. It is thought that some traces of the root language can be found in Greek and Sardinian, but that’s still open to debate. The western groups seem to have had some sort of written symbols, perhaps a form of writing, but thus far no long inscriptions have been found, and no way of translating the tablets and seals exists.
We also don’t know anything about who or what they worshipped, or their government. The Trypillia Large Settlements (TLS) seem to have a major building or two near the center of the settlement, and lots and lots of smaller houses built into groups, almost neighborhoods. A wall of some kind seems to have encircled the TLS, as was common for settlements. No sign of status markers like obvious palaces, or caches of goods, or graves with lots of stuff, have been found. That isn’t to say that some won’t be found, or that non-durable status goods didn’t exist. Textiles were a high-demand trade good, but very few of them survive from pre-history. Without written documents or obviously high-status places, we can only guess as to how the people of the TLS organized themselves. They could have indeed been an egalitarian matriarchy. Or an egalitarian patriarchy. Or they could have been rigidly organized in castes and commanded by priest-kings or Brahmin-like priestly castes. Or something no one has thought of yet. Status might have been based on access to food, textiles, animal products, or things that were destroyed upon the death of the owner and scattered into the rivers.
To make modern researchers even more puzzled, the last century or so of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture left almost no graves, either in Romania or in Ukraine and Moldova. Low numbers of graves from earlier eras have been found, leading to some speculation that cremation or exposure (like the Parsi do with their Towers of Silence) was used to dispose of the dead. The last century or so? Nothing, or as close to nothing as can be found. Without graves, it is hard to determine social organization, the presence or absence of disease and warfare, the sex ratios of a culture, and so on, since there were no written documents.
The Trypillia side has gotten the most attention, because of those large settlements. As in, up to 15,000-20,000 people large. That alone is very unusual. Each house had a built-in oven, and probably a grain-storage mini-house near-by. The buildings had a second story, a loft or storage space, that was reached from outdoors by a ladder. The houses were wattle-and-daub with clay over the outside. Each house was about the same size. None seem unusually large or small, and all that have been excavated had similar internal features. Perhaps the houses had small shrines inside, and each family worshiped clan deities and totem animals (all the bull-headed things that have been found), as well as venerating sky and earth deities as a group? Perhaps worship was done away from the houses, and only small tokens kept as reminders or for personal devotions.
The houses, walls, storage buildings were all burned to the ground every 60-80 years or so. The entire settlement went up in flames, deliberately burned. People either tidied up and rebuilt on the site, or moved to a new site. That’s unheard of. Was it a ritual of some kind, a communal death and rebirth and sacrifice? Since some items seem to have been “killed” before the burning, that’s one thought. Another is that so many vermin and so much garbage piled up that burning the place down served as a public health protection.
The Cucuteni people didn’t have such large settlements, although they seem culturally very close to the Trypillia people, based on surviving artifacts. They too burned the settlements, rebuilding on the same site.
So, what happened in that last 150 years? Did the nomadic horsemen from the steppes (the Kurgan, or more accurately Yamnaya Culture) attack, burn, pillage, loot, enslave, rob, and generally beat up on the peaceful matriarchy until it vanished, leaving Europe to the Indo-European speaking barbarians? Um, probably not. One suspicion is that a shift in weather patterns favored the newcomers as weather in the area turned cool and moist, then colder and drier. This was great for grass and grazing, but not great for farmers. Questions about the exact timing of the cultural contacts relative to the weather shift are still open. Another very recent speculation, based on the genetic analysis of the few late-phase bodies found this far, hints that disease might have moved ahead of the steppe peoples, as happened with the Plague of Justinian and later waves of disease. Again, timing and transmission mechanism are still hotly debated, and I’m one of the sceptics.
What we do know is that the TLS settlements went away, the Danube Culture disappeared or was absorbed by the Yamnaya Culture (the steppe people) and with two exceptions, Indo-European languages filled up Europe. Basque is one exception, Maltese is the other. Horses grazed where the Danube peoples had farmed, and the Bronze Age had arrived.
I borrowed a lot of this for my Familiars novels, added a generous dollop of Handwavium and speculation, and turned the end of the TLS into a cautionary tale about making very bad bargains with forces beyond your control. After all, I’m a lazy writer. I steal good ideas from history so I don’t have to think up new stuff for myself.
Anthony, David. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.
Ibid. The Lost World of Old Europe (an exhibit catalogue with papers and photos)
Haarmann, Harald. The Mystery of the Danube Civilization (excellent IF you have some background in archaeology)
Müller, Johannes et al. Trypillia Mega-Sites and European Prehistory: 4100-3400 BC
Menotti, Francesco Et al. The Tripolye Culture Giant Settlements in Ukraine. (this one is focuses just on the Trypillia Large Settlements.)
Olsen, Birgett Annet et al. Tracing the Indo-Europeans (a collection of papers. Updates Anthony, but can be very technical.)
For a good website article about Old Europe:
*This is Sarah speaking, not Alma who is a gentle soul.
Isn’t it curious that Gimbutas, Mead and all the rest are found to have made up stuff wholesale, but remain “respected” and — like Marx — we get told “but it still has applications, even if it was wrong.”? Meanwhile, anyone dissenting from the narrative of the left is considered “thoroughly discredited” if they once got a word wrong.
Be the unicorn, my friends. Puncture that nonsense. Why else the razor sharp horn?