Sredni Stog, Proto-Corded Ware, and their “steppe admixture”

Once the haplogroups of the announced West Yamna and Yamna settlers in Hungary and Khvalynsk from Ekaterinovka appear, it is to be expected that there won’t be much discussion on the Y-DNA bottlenecks that affected Khvalynsk – Yamna migrations.

So let’s cut to the chase and see where Corded Ware peoples (mainly of R1a-Z645 subclades) got their so-called “steppe admixture” different from that of Yamna. Because, as you might have realized by now, Sredni Stog – and consequently Corded Ware – remains nowadays an undefined (archaeological) mess.

Rassamakin explains it quite well, in the chapter Eneolithic of the Black Sea Steppe; In Levine M., Rassamakin Yu., Kislenko A. and Tatarintseva N., 1999. Late Prehistoric Exploitation of the Eurasian Steppe. McDonald Institute Monographs, University of Cambridge.

NOTE. These are only certain relevant excerpts. The whole chapter is worth a thorough read, whatever position you hold regarding steppe expansions. In fact, he supports the Skelya cultural (macro-)group instead of Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka vs. Sredni Stog, he does not believe in significant expansions from the east (but in local movements and a ‘general evolution’ of Pontic-Caspian steppe cultures to Early Yamna), and offers e.g. the presence of copper and trade from the west (and its poor presence in the east) as an example of the importance of the North Pontic area vis-à-vis Khvalynsk/Repin. Not an interested party in supporting Gimbutas or Anthony, then, if you fear that.

Cultural groups in the North Pontic area

Telegin divided the Sredny Stog culture into three local variants – the Dnepr Culture variant, the Oskol-Donets (Aleksandriya) Culture variant, and the Lower Don (Konstantinovka) Culture variant. He elaborated a periodization based on the evolution of decorative motifs in the pottery assemblages.

At first, the internal contradictions of the Sredny Stog culture were not accorded particular prominence, despite clear intimations of problems when, for example, sites like the settlement of Konstantinovka on the Lower Don, was identified as actually belonging to another, independent culture (Kiyashko 1974). The first real blow to the integrity of the Sredny Stog culture was dealt by Telegin himself, when he removed five Novodanilovka-type sites, and accorded them the status of an independent cultural phenomenon (Telegin 1985a). Until that point, sites of this type had were customarily considered to be within the framework of the late group of Sredny Stog cemeteries, despite having been for long regarded by some as representative of an earlier, independent cultural group (Movsha & Chebotarenko 1969; Zbenovich 1973, 74-5; Gimbutas, Merpert and Danilenko passim). Indeed, it was unclear why these cemeteries had initially been assigned to the Late, rather than the Early, Sredny Stog culture. Now these sites were mechanically stripped out of the one system, but their place in the new system was not clearly defined.

Rassamakin (1999) concept of cultural development of burial rituals in the North Pontic steppe.

Thus a paradox arose. Sites that had served to a considerable extent as the initial basis for the Sredny Stog culture, for the elaboration of its periodization and chronology, were now accepted as forming the core of an essentially different culture. Because of this, by the mid 1980s, both the Sredny Stog culture and the Eneolithic systematization as a whole were becoming rather amorphous. Essentially, the Sredny Stog culture was associated in the minds of many researchers solely with the settlement site at Dereivka, while they had only a confused and indistinct idea of the nature of early Sredny Stog sites. (…) Ultimately a situation developed where all attempts to view new evidence, new local groups, or even cultures through the prism of the Sredny Stog culture were futile, since researchers were unclear about of the essence of the culture itself, and often qualified themselves in footnotes with references to ‘preCorded Ware’ or ‘Corded Ware’ stages, or by relating their observations back directly to the specific sites of Sredny Stog II or Dereivka.

Thus, in the Middle Eneolithic, a number of independent cultures (Kvityana, Repin, Konstantinovka, and, to some degree, Dereivka, Cernavoda and Lower Mikhailovka) emerged in the region that had in the Early Eneolithic been occupied by the Skelya culture, either as lineal successors to this culture or under its influence. But the principal stimuli in this period were the Tripolye tribes, direct imports from whom reach the southern zone of the Dnepr left bank.

It is apparent that, for all their conceptual differences, if we remove Danilenko’s subdivisions, Telegin’s and Danilenko’s models are identical in terms of site periodization and sequence: first Kvityana, then Sredny Stog II, and finally Dereivka.

The North Pontic area in the Eneolithic (4000-3500 BC)

The Kvityana and Dereivka cultures in relation to other sites: 1) Molyukhov Bugor (settlement); 2) Dereivka (settlement); 3) Aleksandriya (settlement); 4) Minevsky Yar (settlement); 5) Khutor Repin (settlement).

Tripolye influence is seen most clearly in the development of the Lower Mikhailovka culture and a new burial rite which spread as far as the Molochnaya. Changes are apparent in kurgan architecture; that is, in the construction of stone chambers, sanctuaries comprising upright elements, and ring-shaped ditches (Rassamakin 1990; 1993; 1994; Pleshivenko & Rassamakin 1994 ). Lower Mikhailovka sites in the northwestern Black Sea coast region are known by a whole series of different designations, one of which, as I have already noted above, is ‘the Bessarabian variant of the Cernavoda I culture’ (Manzura 1993).

The formation of the Kvityana culture should be considered both in the context of the development of the Lower Mikhailovka culture, and in terms of the influence of the Sredny Stog II pottery assemblage. The first is manifested in the development of the kurgan ritual itself, with such structural elements as cromlechs, orthostats and stone cists. These are most apparent to the south, in the zone of contact with the Lower Mikhailovka culture. The second is apparent in the similarity between Kvityana pottery and Sredny Stog II pottery, notably in a number of shared compositional and technical elements, despite the fact that the shapes, techniques and style are all quite different.

As a whole, the Kvityana culture is notably conservative and archaic in appearance; this is manifest both in the preservation of a burial rite involving a supine position, and in the appearance of the pottery which, on the basis of the absence of corded or caterpillar track decoration, was until recently considered the earliest Sredny Stog ware.

(…) we still lack sufficient evidence to trace in detail the path by which the Kvityana culture spread from the Dnepr into the Dnestr-Danube region. The southern steppe route is excluded, but Kvityana sites are recorded on the Southern Bug, in the Dnestr region, and even along the forest-steppe boundary on the Prut Gudging by the numerous excavations of kurgans in this belt. This route in some respects repeats that along which the Skelya elite groups moved. Southward movement along the Southern Bug and its tributaries into the steppe zone is indicated only by isolated sites, the number of which is far smaller than in the Dnestr-Danube region, despite the intensive excavation of kurgans in this region. Evidence for Kvityana penetration into the northwestern Black Sea coast is provided by the appearance in Usatovo assemblages of typical Kvityana figural tubular bone beads, with diagnostic lateral notches on the sides (Malyukevich & Petrenko 1993).

Expansions of Kvityana and Trypillia cultures. Rassamakin (1999)

[The Dereivka] culture is currently only known only from settlement material, notably from sites in the Dnepr region (Dereivka and Molyukhov Bugor), but also from typologically distinctive pottery in the Eneolithic layer of the settlement of Aleksandriya on the Oskol. Dereivka culture pottery has also been recorded at a number of locations in the forest-steppe Dnepr region and the Seversky Donets, at Tetyanchino, Kamennye Pataki, and Minevsky Yar. The ceramic assemblage is well-defined and easily recognizable: vessels consistently display a weak profile and slightly elongated proportions, with high, straight mouths, evenly cut off at the rim, and conical bases (Fig. 3.23). The Dereivka culture occupies the southern part of the forest-steppe region and is bounded to the south by the Kvityana culture.

Telegin rightly noted that Dereivka and Kvityana pottery bore some resemblance to one another. Several fragments of the latter were found in the Dereivka assemblage, and provide evidence for the contemporaneous existence of the two cultures. The Molyukhov Bugor pottery assemblage stands out in terms of a prevalence of pottery with corded decoration, which only occurs in insignificant amounts at Dereivka and Aleksandriya. However, artefactual analysis has not produced any clear guidance for a chronological organization of these sites, as was postulated by Telegin.

Rassamakin’s (1999) periodization of the North Pontic cultures

Late Phase and Final Eneolithic (3500-3000 BC)

In the Dnestr region, southward pressure from Tripolye led to the formation of, firstly, Vykhvatinsk-type sites, and then, in the steppe zone, Usatovo-type sites, which had undoubtedly absorbed some features of the Lower Mikhailovka culture. In the Prut and Middle Dnestr regions, sites of the Gordineşti (Kasperovkao) types are formed (these correspond, in the Romanian Prut region and on the Siret, to sites of the Horodiştea-Erbiceni type, and on the Lower Danube to the Cernavoda III culture: Morintz & Roman 1968; Dinu 1980; 1987). Movsha considers that sites of this type (Kasperovkao in her terminology) also occur in the Southern Bug region.

Sofievka-type sites emerge in the forest-steppes of the Middle Dnepr. A number of researchers (Zbenovich, Dergachev, and Sorokin), taking account of the change in the Tripolye culture at stage C2, propose a special division, considering sites of this period alone as ‘Late Tripolye’. In their view (with which I agree), stage Cl in culture-historical terms still corresponds to ‘Middle Tripolye’.

(…) existing evidence allows us to put forward the following scheme (Fig. 3.49:2). To the east of the Usatovo sites, from the lower reaches of the Southern Bug to the Azov region, encroaching on the Crimean steppes, the Lower Mikhailovka culture remains intact. To the north, upstream along the Dnepr and its tributaries, the Kvityana culture survives in its initial core zone. Between the Southern Bug and the Dnepr, in the contact zone between the three cultures (Tripolye, Lower Mikhailovka and Kvityana) the Dnepr-Bug group of sites emerges, displaying mixed features (Nikolova & Rassamakin 1985; Rassamakin 1988) Tripolye influence on the Dereivka culture appears to increase, as manifested in the appearance of late cultural elements (corded decoration, plastic art, bowls). The fate of the Pivikha culture is unclear. On the Lower Don, the late phase of the Konstantinovka culture (corresponding to the settlements of Konstantinovka and Razdorskoe I: Level 7) continued.

The final stage

The final stage of this period is characterized by two waves of migration, which properly speaking conclude the development of the Eneolithic.(…)

The first migration is connected with the breakdown of that system of Late Tripolye forest-steppe sites of the Prut-Dnestr and Southern Bug regions, dealt with by Movsha within the framework of the Kasperovo local group (and termed Gordineşti by others such as Dergachev, Manzura, and Petrenko). Almost all researchers into the Tripolye culture note the widespread occurrence of diagnostic elements of this group in the south, in the zone of the Usatovo sites and, in the east and southeast, towards the Dnepr and its left bank (Movsha 1984; 1990; 1993; Subbotin & Petrenko 1986; Manzura 1990a). (…)

The migrational wave that left Zhivotilovo-Volchanskoe-type burials in the steppe also linked up the forest-steppe Bug, Dnestr, and Prut regions with the Lower Don region, and, possibly with the North Caucasus, where the late stage of the Maikop culture (the Novosvobodnaya sites) continued. The identical rites of the Maikop culture and Zhivotilovo-Volchanskoe sites makes it difficult to establish the direction of migration, or which was the active side in the process. A number of researchers have given precedence to the Maikop culture. But the spread of the Tripolye assemblage unambiguously indicates the active involvement of the Tripolye tribes.

The system of the latest Eneolithic Pointic cultures and the sites of the Zhivotilovo-Volchanskoe type: 1) Volchanskoe; 2) Zhivotilovka; 3) Vishnevatoe; 4) Koisug

The second migration, at the very end of the Eneolithic, is connected with the spread of the Repin culture (in its second phase) from the Middle Don. Sinyuk defined three main directions: north, to the Upper Don; southwest, into the Dnepr region; and south, to the Lower Don and the Lower Volga. Trifonov considers this broad expansion of the Repin culture to be colonization (Trifonov 1996). The Repin culture level at Razdorskoe I (Razdorskoe I: Level 8) overlies the Konstantinovka levels (Levels 6 and 7), signalling that the Konstantinovka culture had apparently ceased to exist (Kiyashko 1994, 80). It seems that the expansion of the Repin culture is also associated with a reduction in the territorial extent of the Kvityana and Dereivka cultures. Repin burial assemblages, settlements and temporary camps appear in the Seversky Donets basin and in the Eastern Azov region (at Trekhizbenka, Kapitanovo, Aleksandriya, and Razdolnoe). The same complexes are also widely distributed towards the Dnepr (Marina 1992). The most striking western manifestation of Repin elements is seen in the upper horizon of the middle level of the Mikhailovka settlement (Lagodovska et al. 1962, 39-46).

Khvalynsk-Yamna and Sredni Stog-Corded Ware

We already know that Ukraine Eneolithic samples showed steppe ancestry and had apparently began a process of convergence coinciding with (or after) the first Khvalynsk-related migrations. It is unclear what had happened before (i.e. how much “CHG ancestry” was absorbed by Ukraine Neolithic groups in their transition to the Eneolithic before ca. 4500 BC), although in principle we can assume that all Caucasus-related admixture received by North Pontic cultures ca. 4500-4000 BC was mediated by westward movements from Khvalynsk-related peoples.

Image modified from Wang et al. (2018). Samples projected in PCA of 84 modern-day West Eurasian populations (open symbols). Previously known clusters have been marked and referenced. An EHG and a Caucasus ‘clouds’ have been drawn, leaving Pontic-Caspian steppe and derived groups between them.See the original file here.

Contacts with (and later absorption of) Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka-related migrants, as well as heir cultures, like those in the steppe adjacent to the Black Sea coast, and also direct contacts with Caucasus-related populations through Zhivotilovo-Volchanskoe can justify a greater contribution of CHG ancestry ca. 4000-3500 BC. Close contacts with Cucuteni-Trypillia (through Mikhailovka and maybe Kvityana, possibly with WHG and CHG admixture related to Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka) and GAC peoples to the north are the obvious source of further similarities with Yamna. Distinct similarities, that is, if we take into account the different sources and timing of such ancestral components, and Y-chromosome bottlenecks…

Therefore, after a process of convergence ca. 4500-4000 BC, and potentially more contacts with late Eneolithic North Pontic steppe cultures ca. 4000-3500 BC, Proto-Corded Ware peoples must have finally spread from the northernmost (forest-steppe) areas previously occupied by Dereivka, Pivikha, or Sofievka groups from ca. 3300 BC onwards – a date roughly coincident with the expansion of late Khvalynsk/Repin to the west developing the Early Yamna culture, with which it likely entered in contact (hence potentially a source for further admixture convergence ca. 3500-3000 BC).

Only later happened the great migration ca. 3000-2800 BC of Classical Corded Ware culture migrants, at the same time as Early Yamna migrants expanded to the west, and some groups also to the north along the Prut (possibly directly connected to the admixture found in the two Baltic LN/CWC ‘outliers’).

Steppe-related migrations ca. 3100-2600 BC with tentative linguistic identification.

We didn’t know much about Sredni Stog or Corded Ware, and we still don’t. I can’t see the future, and I don’t have access to information from Reich-Jena or Copenhagen groups, and never have. But I just don’t see the need to explain Corded Ware as derived from (coeval) Early Yamna, and I haven’t since the 2015 papers. It was not the best explanation for the data that was published, and the more information we receive, the less sense this theory makes.

However, I guess we will see some groups still resorting to the good old Yamnaya ancestral component™ = Indo-European no matter what, consciously ignoring that a proportion of ancestral components (some combination of EHG:CHG:WHG in this case) means nothing without a proper explanation of their precise temporal and regional origin, and how they connect with Yamna; just like the CHG ancestry = Indo-European trend we are living right now does not make any sense.

Publishing only selected results after trying every possible combination of samples with bioinformatic tools does not help strengthen this connection, either.