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The Balts or Baltic peoples (Latvian: balti, Lithuanian: baltai Latgalian: bolti), defined as speakers of one of the Baltic languages, a branch of the Indo-European language family, are descended from a group of Indo-European tribes who settled the area between lower Vistula and upper Daugava and Dnieper rivers on the southeast shore of the Baltic Sea.
Because the thousands of lakes and swamps in this area contributed to the Balts' geographical isolation, the Baltic languages retain a number of conservative or archaic features. Among the Baltic peoples are modern Lithuanians, Latvians and Latgalians -- all Eastern Balts -- as well as the Prussians, Yotvingians and Galindians, whose languages and cultures became extinct in the Middle Ages.
The prehistoric cradle of the Baltic peoples according to archaeogenetic research and archaeological studies was the area near the Baltic sea and central Europe at the end of the Ice Age and beginning of the Mesolithic period. They spread in the area from the Baltic sea in the west to the Volga in the east. The Slavic cradle was in the Danubian - Krakowian region close to the Baltic. The Slavs entered the Dniepr region in the 6th century CE after the Avar invasion of Europe, conquering and assimilating most of the Eastern Balts. According to some older theories, the formative region of the Balts was located until the end of the second millennium BC near the upper and middle Dniepr river in modern Ukraine, which is thought to have been settled by a hypothetical Balto-Slavic community; that is, a population ancestral both to the modern Balts and Slavs. In the early 1st millennium BC several groups of people migrated from the area to the shores of the Baltic Sea, where they settled between the Pasłęka and Neman rivers. It is not likely that this migration gave birth to the Baltic tribes.
Several scholars, such as Būga, Vasmer, Toporov and Trubachov, in conducting etymological studies of eastern European river names, were able to identify in certain regions names of specifically Baltic provenance, which most likely indicate where the Balts lived in prehistoric times. This information is summarized and synthesized by Gimbutas in The Balts (1963) to obtain a likely proto-Baltic homeland. Its borders are approximately: from a line on the Pomeranian coast eastward to include or nearly include the present-day sites of Warsaw, Kiev, and Kursk, northward through Moscow to the River Berzha, westward in an irregular line to the coast of the Gulf of Riga, north of Riga.
This homeland includes all historical Balts and every location where Balts have been said or implied to have been at different periods of time. The Baltic occupation of Western Russia, for instance, may be dated to the 4th century AD.
In the first centuries of the 1st millennium AD, the Baltic tribes settled the area between the Vistula and the Daugava. Their culture is easily recognizable and most probably they were the ancestors of the tribes of Western Balts (Old Prussians, Yotvingians and Galindians), as well as Eastern Balts (Lithuanians, Semigallians, Curonians and Latgalians/Latvians).
In 98 AD Tacitus described one of the tribes leaving near the Baltic Sea (Mare Svebicum) as Aestiorum gentes, or amber gatherers. It is believed that these peoples were inhabitants of the Sambian peninsula, although no other contemporary sources exist.
The proto-Baltic culture that remained in the Dnieper area, however, bore a significant resemblance to its Baltic counterpart, and was also similar to the culture of other peoples inhabitating the forests of Eastern Europe, which became almost completely Slavicised between the 7th and the 10th centuries CE.
In the 12th and the 13th centuries, internal struggles, as well as invasions by Ruthenians and Poles and later the expansion of the Teutonic Order resulted in an almost complete annihilation of the Galindians, Curonians, and Yotvingians. The last of the Prussians became Germanized some time in the 16th century, after the Reformation in Prussia. The cultures of the Lithuanians and Latgalians/Latvians survived and became the ancestors of the populations of the modern countries of Latvia and Lithuania.
Genetic research and a possible Finnio-Ugric origin
In addition, and to a great extent in contradiction to research on the basis of linguistic analysis, genetics-related data has started to emerge in recent years. According to Finnish research (Laitinen et al, 2001) and Richard Villems (2001, Estonia) who have carried out principal component analysis of some major genetic lines, the closest genetic relatives of modern Balts (Lithuanians and Latvians) appear to be modern Estonians and Mari people (autonomous republic of Mari-El in Russia) while Russians and Poles have considerably less genetic similarity. This has led some scientists to believe that the people known today as Balts were initially largely of Finno-Ugric origin (or in turn, modern day Finns were initially of east Baltic origin) - thus, the languages spoken today by these groups would have become established through language replacement.
Baltic peoples and tribes
- Latvians (Letts)
- Curonians (Kursi)
- Kursenieki Curonians (Kursenieki)
- Semigallians (Zemigalians)
- Eastern Galindians
- Dniepr (Eastern) Balts