Marija Gimbutas and the expansion of the “Kurgan people” based on tumulus-building cultures

An interesting article that I keep stumbling upon, The tumulus in European prehistory: covering the body, housing the soul, by Anthony Harding (2011):

Finally, in Kurgan IV she saw “continuous waves of expansion or raids[that] touched all of northern Europe, the Aegean area, and the east Mediterranean areas possibly as far south as Egypt”. This was the period of the Catacomb Graves, but also the Early Bronze Age rock-cut tombs of the Mediterranean, Vučedol, Bell Beakers in Hungary, the Single Grave culture of the Nordic region. The Kurgan Culture reached Ireland, she remarked in a paper of 1978 “as early as 3500 B.C.” – by which she presumably referred to megalithic mounds covering passage tombs.

(…)

According to Gimbutas, the “Kurgan people” are evidenced by single graves in deep shafts, often in wooden chests (coffins) or stone cists marked by low earth or stone barrows; the dead lay on their backs with legs contracted; they were buried with flint points or arrowheads, figurines depicting horses’ heads, boars tusk ornaments and animal tooth pendants. Human sacrifice was allegedly performed during the funeral ceremonies,and sometimes ritual graves of cattle and other animals were added. This is said to contrast with what Gimbutas called the culture of Old Europe (i.e. the earlier Neolithic of the Balkans), who “betray a concern for the deification of the dead and the construction of monumental works of architecture visible in mortuary houses,grave markings, tumuli, stone rings or stone stelae, and in the large quantity of weapons found in the graves”.

(…)

single-graves-kurgan
The varying burial traditions of the Early Bronze Age in Central and Eastern Europe (Häusler 1977, fig. 1). Circles: tumuli with the “mound edge principle”. Semicircles: tumuli. Stippling: cremation; other symbols represent inhumation graves, divided according to orientation and sex

Can we really associate the practice of mound-building with a specific people, and assume that the spread of the practice indicates the spread of the people? That is one of the “big questions” of European archaeology, and one which a number of papers in the volume address. My own position is that the practice of tumulus building seems so widespread in time and space that it seems hard to associate it with one particular ethnic group – though I can understand how, in the melting pot that was Early Europe, people could believe this to be the case. There are, however, major arguments against the idea, on archaeological grounds alone – which Häusler’s map indicates very clearly. Burial mode and grave form in Copper and Bronze Age Europe was far too variable for any such simplistic correlation. In any case, what are we to make of the appearance of tumuli in such far-flung places as Japan or North America, where tumuli are very common? It was always unlikely that the megalithic tombs of western Europe were to be associated with movements from the steppe 1000 or 2000 years earlier, and nothing that has happened since Gimbutas was writing has changed that situation

Research has corrected Gimbutas’ opinion on the time of spread of Indo-Europeans, on the role of the horse (see e.g. Anthony 2007) in their expansion, and the unrelatedness of the two main central European Chalcolithic archaeological packages: the Corded Ware package that expanded from the Balkans into north-eastern Europe, and the Yamna package (together with the proto-Beaker package) that evolved into the East Bell Beaker culture.

yamna-migration
Extent of migration of the “Yamna package“, from Heyd 2007

However, the shadow of the “Kurgan people” remains in the outdated body of innumerable writings. It was revived with the first attempts at disentangling Europe’s genetic past (based on the role of R1a in expanding Proto-Indo-European).

Particularly strong in that sense is the model set forth by Kristiansen, who was nevertheless aware since his first proposal of the differences between the ‘Kurgan people’ of the steppe and those of the Corded Ware culture, selecting thus an alternative framework of long-lasting human and economic interactions between the “Kurgan people”, the Globular Amphora and Baden cultures with an origin of the culture in the natural region formed between the Upper Dnieper and Vistula rivers.

This idea is continued today, and has been recently linked with the Agricultural Substrate Hypothesis. Originally proposed by Kroonen and linked to the spread of Middle Eastern “R1b1b2” with agriculture, it is now (in Kristiansen et al. 2017 and more recently in Iversen and Kroonen 2017) linked with the expansion of the Corded Ware culture, thus proposing that Pre-Germanic is a branch separated some 6,000 years ago from other branches…

kurgans-corded-ware
Kristiansen’s (1989) schematic presentation of basic principles of burial positions in the Late Neolithic / EBA cultures in northern Eurasia, following to some extent Häusler (1983)

The linguistic proposal is obviously compatible with mainstream archaeological models – which suggest the introduction of Pre-Germanic in Scandinavia with Bell Beaker peoples -, but since the linguistic proposal alone would probably not make such a fuss without the accompanying genetics, I guess this is the right way to publicise it. I doubt linguists really care about genetics, and I really doubt amateur geneticists will read the linguistic proposal, but who cares.

Kristiansen’s traditional model is obviously in contrast with contemporaneous anthropological writings by Anthony, Heyd, or (Gimbutas’ pupil) Mallory, but is nevertheless becoming a resilient tradition in the interpretation of results in studies of human ancestry in Europe.

I doubt that Gimbutas, who was not very fond of tradition, would be proud of this kind of legacy, though…

Featured image: “European dialect” expansion of Proto-Indo-European according to The Indo-Europeans: Archeological Problems, Gimbutas (1963). Observe the similarities of the western European expansion to the recently proposed expansion of R1b lineages with western Yamna and Bell Beaker.

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