East Slovakia Yamnaya settlers and links with Niche-Graves

Prehistoric populations did not set stable regional boundaries, but rather dynamic local ones in constant flow and change of interaction strategies. Semi-nomadic groups like the Yamnaya and early mobile Corded Ware communities had an even more variable control of pasture lands – at least until they settled down and became “locals” in certain territories. Nevertheless, the Carpathians – like the Caucasus Mountains – might be a priori regarded as a more stable natural border, that could help populations of the same language keep strong cultural and kinship ties.

The upcoming samples from the Carpathian Basin, announced in Szécsényi-Nagy’s oral communication, will be the earliest known individuals of hg. R1b-L51 in Central Europe. If I am right about the distribution of the samples hinted during the presentation (and that is still a big if), it would mean not only a confirmation of the presence of R1b-L51 among the westernmost Yamnaya settlers, but a Yamnaya origin of kurgans in Eastern Slovakia, which has been suspected for a long time. It would obviously have other wide-ranging implications.

#EDIT (8 OCT 2020): Szécsényi-Nagy’s Keynote lecture at the EAA meeting (26th August 2020) – published in its entirety at their YouTube channel – has been taken down, so I have to assume that the authors want to keep the information private until its definitive publication. My previous post discussing specific samples now redirects here.

Main migration routes of Steppe cultures in the 3rd millennium. Image modified from Dragoslav Srejovic (1986) to include the already found Yamnaya-related lineages in Bulgaria and in the Carpathian Basin.

This area south of the Carpathians can be seen as an extension of the Älfold or Great Hungarian Plain, or alternatively as a passage into (and less frequently from) Subcarpathia; most likely, based on the previous Neolithic expansions through this area, it was both. The assessment of Eneolithic kurgans of the Carpathian Basin has been historically done by different researchers at completely different periods (the Slovakian ones were sadly investigated at a quite early stage of research in archaeology), separated by modern national boundaries, and influenced by fashionable “local” trends, which has created an artificial division in their study – one that only population genomics seems to be able to bridge now.

Novotná and the corded decoration

The first careful description for some of these mounds seems to have been laid out by Mária Novotná in Die Kultur der ostslowakischen Hügelgräber und ihre Beziehungen zu den benachbarten Gebieten, In: Hügelbestattung in der Karpaten-Donau-Balkan-Zone während der äneolithischen Periode (1986).

Interesting excerpts, even though some have become obsolete now (translated from German, emphasis mine):

Burial mounds

The barrows in Eastern Slovakia are connected to the cultural influence of the cattle-herding population, the so-called “Group of East-Slovakian burial mounds”. It was introduced into the literature by V. Budinský-Krička (1967). Of the 300 or so mounds registered from at least 45 sites, he examined most of them himself – a total of 50 – between 1940 and 1957. In the following period, only small rescue excavations were carried out. Soil reclamation and forest work have an unfavorable effect on the condition of the hills insofar as many of the more established embankments are gradually disappearing. There are no groups of barrows, just isolated and unevenly spaced mounds, scattered like a chain in the forest. Isolated mounds are not uncommon. The burial mounds are concentrated in a geographically narrowly delimited area, the center of which is the Ondava mountainous region.

Map of the North Carpathian zone of the occurrence of Corded Ware mound burials: a – limit of the distribution area of the Corded Ware mound burials; b – southern border of the closed distribution area of the Globular Amphora culture; c – generalized area of distribution of the East-Slovakian group of tumuli (according to V. Budinský-Kricka); d – the villages with tumuli mentioned in the article (…). e – altitude 240-300 above sea level; f – altitude 300-480 m above sea level; g – height over 480 above sea level. Image modified from Machnik (1986), in the same volume.


In addition to the right and left position, the stretched position of the skeletons is known in Subcarpathia, but it remains unknown in Eastern Slovakia, where the supine position with crouched legs (so-called rhombic position) is common. The origin of this custom is not rooted in the Corded Ware culture of Subcarpathia, but rather lies in the southern Russian steppes. (…) [This] skeletal position is also considered to be the eastern element of the Carpathian Basin in the Tisza region. In the older ochre Pit-Grave culture between the Urals and the Dnieper, rhombic positions are part of the local features, which continues between the Dniester and the Lower Danube in the period that coincides with the Mierzanowice and Kostan’y cultures.

The complete lack of tomb construction, ochre dye, and the fact that with the rhombic position the arms do not lie along the body (as is always the case in the steppe area), suggests that the element from the southern Russian steppes did come into contact here, but in a modified form that has lost many elements. The cremation custom, which is most often associated with the local milieu in the barrows in eastern Slovakia, has in fact no direct forerunners, contemporaries or successors. After the graves of the Lažňany group, there were later only individual cremation graves of the Baden culture (Bracovce, Hanušovce, Sefia). The graves from the Nyírség-Zatín group, which could be considered as practicing cremation, are so far unknown from eastern Slovakia [this is now corrected; see below]. At the same time, the cremation rite became indigenous to the Lubaczów and Upper Dniester groups. Urn graves as well as body and cremation graves under a mound in the Upper Dniester group correspond to the situation in the East Slovakian mound graves. There are fewer similarities with the two Subcarpathian ceramic groups in the grave equipment. East-Slovakian mounds are poorer and remind sometimes of the graves in the southern Russian steppes, where ceramics were not used for the dead. The cullet and splitting or the chips just scattered in the mound are a special feature of this group.

Early Bronze Age cultures in the central region of the Carpathian Basin (after KALICZ 1984, map 3) (1: Bell Beaker – Csepel group, 2: Chłopice-Veselé culture, 3: Lajta group, 4: Somogyvár-Vinkovci culture, 5: Early Nagyrév culture, 6: Nyírség culture, 7: Maros culture, ⬤: stray finds of the Bell Beaker – Csepel group, ○: Budapest-Albertfalva);


Two cultures meet in ceramics: Subcarpathian corded ceramics and Inner Carpathian native ceramics. Most of the cullet material – which hardly allows a more precise reconstruction of the form – is based on the type of decoration according to the Subcarpathian Corded Ware culture, most often the finds of the Lubaczów group.


In the case of complete vessels with Carpathian embossing, the closest relationship is found with Makó and Nyírség-Zatín groups. The territorial expansion of the Makó group hardly enables such a connection. Part of the ceramics mentioned corresponds to the so-called Begleitkeramik of the late Neolithic complex, which we have not yet been able to culturally specify more precisely in eastern and northern Slovakia. It is probably only partially related to the Nyírség-Zatín group, which is so far little known in the area mentioned.


Bátora and the Yamnaya population

A complement to Novotná’s focus on corded decoration and flint provenance comes from The question of the presence of the Yamaya and Catacomb culture in the area of the Middle Danube and North Carpathians, by Josef Bátora (2016).

Interesting excerpts (minor changes for clarity, emphasis mine; original content under CC-BY license):

Nomadic ethnic groups in Eastern European steppes evidently used wheeled vehicles for transport and movement at the end of 4th millennium BC (33rd – 31st centuries BC) (Tureckij 2004, 198). Even if we still lack clear evidence for using horses as beasts of burden in this period (Boroffka 2004, 470-471), we can assume that bearers of the Yamnaya culture were able to overcome long distances in a relatively short time. That is why the movement from the North Pontic region to the Carpathian-Balkan area did not have to be a long and gradual process.

Distribution of Copper Age wagon models in the Carpathian Basin (drawing by Sándor Ősi). 1. Bădăcin, 2. Plessing, 3. Radošina, 4. Mödling, 5. Pilismarót, 6–7. Budakalász, 8. Moha, 9. Szigetszentmárton, 10. Balatonberény, 11. Boglárlelle, 12–14. Esztergom, 15. Kaposvár, 16–17. Pezinok, 18. Chorvátsky Grob. Image modified from Mária Bondár (2012).

(…) The Third wave is represented by the early horizon of the Yamnaya culture that could be dated to 3300/3100-2900/2600 cal. BC and is in the researched area connected to the period of the Baden/ Coţofeni IIa, b (Horváth et al. 2013, 171). Graves underneath mounds from the upper Tisa valley region, for example in Sárrétudvar-Örhalom (graves nr. 8 and 10), Tiszavasvári-Gyepáros, Kétegyháza-Török halom, (kurgan 3, grave nr. 4) (Dani, Horváth 2012, 148) could be also dated to this horizon. It is interesting, that bearers of the Yamnaya culture in this period settled not only in flat areas of the upper Tisza valley, known for their steppe-like environment (and hundreds of mounds are still, even today, clearly visible on the flat terrain (Ecsedy 1979), however we can also determine their presence in the northern region of east Slovakia, which was occupied by the Baden culture.

In this connection, we should direct our attention to the situation observed on the settlement at Košice-Barca, where in layer IV/1 (fig. 1), together with the Baden culture ceramics shards with corded decoration were found. (…) Flat copper axes (fig. 2/9) found in the same layer suggest the classical phase, however numerous shards decorated by incised – twig like ornament and indented bands (Hájek 1961, fig. 5) are typical for the later phase (fig. 2/3, 6, 8). This ornamental package is the same as the Coţofeni culture finds, as known not only from the area of northwest Romania (Roman 1976, tab. 41/3, 21; 47/2), but also from the area of eastern Slovakia, from Zemplínske (…) A biconical vessel with a flattened base found in layer IV/1 in Košice-Barca is a rather exceptional find. Decorated with corded imprints and inclined cuts, that when seen from above create the shape of a four-pointed star. It is a rare find with only a few analogies in graves from the North-Western Pontic region. These graves are considered by Y.N. Merpert (Мерперт 1974; Ivanova 2013) as graves representing a specific Yamnaya cultural and historical entity, later named by T.I. Cherniakov as the “Late Yamnaya Budzhak” culture (Черняков 1979). It is therefore the Yamnaya culture population, settled in the so-called “contact zone” in the area between the south Bug, Prut and Danube rivers. It is evident in the ceramic repertoire, where the Carpathian-Balkan shapes are mostly presented (Ivanova 2013, fig. 9-12). When compared to the already mentioned biconical vessel with flattened base, identical in shape and ornamentation is a fragment of a vessel from a nearby site in Valaliky-Všechsvätých. (…)

Valaliky, part Všechsvätých, district Košice-okolie. Fragment of globular vessel close to the pottery of later phase of Yamnaya culture in northwestern part of northern Pontic region.

With uttermost certainty the corded ware ceramics of the Barca type could be connected to the steppe population waves of the Yamnaya culture, penetrating more deeply into the northern Carpathian region. Because of this pressure, probably on vast area, specifically in lowlands, the Baden culture collapsed and survived only in mountainous and hardly accessible terrain, which was subsequently occupied by people from the less safe regions. There, they created virtually the first highlander civilization in the area of contemporary Slovakia (Struhár 2015, 13). This is confirmed by a whole network of Late Baden fortified settlements situated on promontories, hilltops, and travertine terraces.

NOTE. For an interesting assessment of the late Baden hilltop settlements of the western Carpathians and its cultural similarities to the Bell Beaker culture, see Struhár, Soják, & Cheben (2014).

Corded decoration, but…

As it was already noted at the fortified settlements of the late phase of the Baden culture, pottery decorated with corded ornament is known from the northern Carpathian region. It is remarkable, that we encounter it in all regions with the Late Baden settlements, but mostly in those that are located further to the east (they are absent in the Zvolen Basin and in Turiec). Their presence is significant mainly in Eastern Slovakia, in Spiš (for example, Hrabušice, Levoča, Spišské Podhradie, Letanovce, Žehra, Veľká Lomnica); in southern Slovakia, in Gemer (for example, Stránska, Zádielske Dvorníky) and in northern Hungary (Ózd, Tiszanagyfalu) (fig. 5/1, 2, 4, 5).

Distribution map of settlements of late Baden culture with the occurrence of corded pottery in eastern Slovakia.

The latest analysis of the Corded Ware pottery from a settlement in Veľká Lomnica carried out by P. Madej proved that it was made with technology typical for ceramic production of the epi-Corded Ware cultural complex of the Early Bronze Age. Pottery clay contained pieces of granite from the Tatra region (fig. 5/3). Decoration and style is close to pottery known from sites of the Mierzanowice culture in Polish part of the Carpathians (Novotná, Soják 2013, 100-101). In Veľká Lomnica, besides typical corded ornament, shard decorated by false corded ornament (Wickelschnur) were also found (Novotná, Soják 2013, obr. 57/3a, b). Decoration on pottery from layer IV/1 in Košice-Barca (fig. 2/1) has analogies with the one found at the Michajlivka settlement of the of Yamnaya culture in Ukraine. M. Novotná and M. Soják are connecting the pottery with false corded decoration in Veľká Lomnica with the Corded Ware culture, arguing with the presence of similarly decorated pottery of this culture on the territory of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria (Novotná, Soják 2013, 101). This dating is supported by an angulated stone axe found in Spiš in the “Čertova diera” cave in Letanovce (Hovorka, Soják 1997, tab. IX/3).

Košice-Barca. Artefacts from layer IV/1: 1-8 – pottery and 9 – copper flat axe (after Hájek 1961; Novotná 1970).

…of Yamnaya origin

Especially important for solving this problem are (mostly) stratified finds found under mounds of the Corded Ware culture, from southeastern Poland, containing components of the Yamnaya-Catacomb cultures.

  • The first of them is grave 1149 from Świete, near the San river, where a pot with a pointed bottom was found (fig. 6/3). The best analogies could be found on sites of the Yamnaya culture in the area of the North Black Sea region (Kośko, Klochko, Olschevskij 2012, obr. 17/3; 75; Wlodarczak 2014, obr. 17/3).
  • The second is a conical bowl from a disturbed grave in Koniusza; it has a thickened rim decorated in the upper part and on the rim with chevron like three corded lines (fig. 6/1). According to P. Wlodarczak, they could be related to the North Pontic area (Wlodarczak 2014, 45). Rim shards from a similar vessel were found at Hradisko I in Smižany, the site of the Late Baden period (Soják 2001, fig. 9/2, 3) (fig. 5/1, 2). E. Horváth found analogies in the Gorod-Volyn group pottery of the Tripolye culture (stage CII) (Horváthová 2010, 59).
  • The third is grave 4 from Szczytna, with outstanding grave assemblage containing mostly metal artifacts, with no analogies in the Corded Ware culture but pointing to the North Pontic area (Czopek 2011, 243-251; Wlodarczak 2014, 43, 45). A copper shaft-hole axe with flat upper face is exceptionally interesting. The axe is similar in shape to axes of the Baniabic type. Their design is quite old, typologically close to the second group of axes of the Maikop culture, according to S.N. Korenevskij’s classification (Кореневский 1981). The Yamnaya culture played the most important role in spread of their oldest copies in western direction. From the area of southeast Poland this is the third example of shaft-holed, flat faced axes. Previously found axes from Rudna Mala and Munin are, however, not stratified materials (Gedl 2000, fig. 2). Solitary finds of the Baniabic type from the north Carpathian area are known from southwest Slovakia (Dolný Pial – Vladár 1970, fig. 1; 2; Radimov – Farkaš, Plachá 2002, fig. 4/1) and northern Hungary (Kisbér, Novotná 1957, Tab. 1/2a, 2b).
Poland. Artefact showing Yamnaya culture traits retrieved from Corded Ware culture cemeteries: 1 – Koniusza, site 1; 2 – Balice; 3 – Świete, site 11 (after Wlodarczak 2014).

According to A. Kośko, V.I. Klochko, and A. Olschevskij, the most probable route to southeastern Poland used by groups from the North Black Sea region was heading from southeast along the valleys of the Dniester and the San. Second route, heading along the valleys of the Siniuk and the South Bug should be also taken into account (Kośko, Klochko, Olschevskij 2012, 75). Besides the already indicated Danube route, the Yamnaya-Catacomb people, with high probability, could penetrate into the north Carpathian zone by these two routes.

NOTE. For more on this intrusion of Yamnaya-Catacomb newcomers that contributed to the formation of the Niche-Grave groups, see Indo-Iranian influence on West Uralic through the Catacomb culture.

Vučedol style

Besides the material with cord-decoration, at settlements of the Late Baden culture, pottery of the Vučedol style, i.e. the Kosihy-Čaka-Makó and the Nyirség Zatín cultures was also found. On Spiš, it was found at Gánovce, Vítkovice, and Žehra-Dreveník settlements, represented mostly by footed bowls with inner decoration (Kol. 1970, tab. LXXXVII/1, 3; Bátora 1983, tab. III/2). Farther to the north, this influence was displayed in the area of Little Poland, where on the Brzezia site, in upper parts of the pit of the Baden culture, pottery of the Vučedol style was also found (Godlowska 1968, 109). In northeastern Hungary on the same site is known the pottery of the Baden culture and the Makó group (Kalicz 1968, 57-58). (…) On southwestern Slovakia in Malé Kosihy, Kosihy-Čaka-Makó culture finds were located directly on Baden culture layer (Točík 1961, 19-24).

It looks like the eastern steppe communities were an important part in the formation of the Nyírség-Zatín culture, mostly because of the geographical position they were most intensely present from all groups of the late Eneolithic cultural complex. On many sites of eastern Slovakia, the material of the Corded Ware settlement pottery and the Nyírség-Zatín culture were found together. Unfortunately, all these finds were discovered at the time of surface artifact survey, eventually from layers (for example, Beša, Gánovce, Hriadky, Zatín, Žehra-Dreveník). Evidently, communities of Vučedol or those with steppe characteristics, as well as the Corded Ware culture caused complete downfall of last remains of the Late Baden culture in the examined area.

Distribution map of Nyírség-Zatín culture settlements with the occurrence of corded pottery in eastern Slovakia.

Yamnaya settlers to the north and west

Long before excavations of solitary mounds in the northwestern part of Hungary (Rajka-Modrovich puszta: Figler 1994, 22; Gönyü: Bóna 1965, 40) and in eastern Burgenland (Neusiedl am See: Ruttkay 2003, 347) it has been shown that the penetration of nomadic tribes of the Yamnaya and Catacomb cultures at the end of the Eneolithic, in the Carpathian region were heading not only to the Upper Tisza valley but also into the area of eastern Hungary, where they were heading along the Danube further in a northwest and west direction. The excavation of mounds in Šurany in southwest Slovakia (Novotná, Paulík 1989, 368), as well as surface prospection in the southern Hron and Žitava valley are indicating, that the penetration of above mentioned nomadic tribes was heading into the northern spurs of the Danubian Lowland. In the central grave of the Šurany mound disturbed by secondary opening, shards from at least six vessels of different sizes and shapes were found. The pottery has traits of pottery of the Balkan-Danubian complex of the Early Bronze Age and is close to the the Somogyvár-Vinkovci group (Novotná, Paulík 1989, 368-373) (fig. 11/1-4).

(…) Beside the potential grasslands they were attracted to the area of southwest Slovakia (therefore north of the Danube) mostly by the sources of non-ferrous metals like copper, gold, and silver located in the nearby central Slovakian volcanic mountains. Developed metallurgy in this region is suggested not only by already mentioned metal artefacts but also by the flat-faced axe moulds of the Kozarac type from Nevidzany (Bátora 1982, fig. 1) and Veľký Meder (Hromada/Varsík 1994, fig. 1; 2/6). Axes of Kozarac type are exactly the type of artifacts that are typical for the Kosihy-Čaka-Makó and Somogyvár-Vinkovci culture (Bátora 2006, 37). Their close connection to Eastern European communities is clearly documented here again.

Map of middle Danube with tumulus graves from late Eneolithic and drawing of line of penetration of Yamnaya culture bearers into this area: 1 – Kajárpéc; 2 – Gönyü; 3 – Krásno; 4 – Neusiedler am See; 5 – Rajka; 6 – Šurany.

A dagger of the Manych type found in a skeletal double grave in Vienna-Essling in eastern Austria is evidently related to the penetration of nomadic communities along the Danube in western direction (Zimmermann 2003, 469, fig. 1/1). As is known, daggers of this type are typical metal artifacts of the Catacomb culture, where they are most numerously represented in the North Pontic – Caucasian steppes region (Zimmermann 2003, 469; Zimmermann 2007, Abb. 35).

I assume that, as it was pointed out by R. Harrison and V. Heyd, the custom of burying under mounds could not be seen in the period under study as a manifest of social differentiation and power of leading social group, but as an expression of existing contacts with Eastern European population of the Yamnaya culture (Harrison, Heyd 2007, 194, 196). This is also true for the area of the Middle Danube.

Thanks to a sneak peek of the upcoming Yamnaya from Bulgaria, it can now be asserted with a high degree of certainty that all R1b-L23-rich lineages in Central Europe or beyond stem ultimately from Yamnaya settlers. Bátora (2016) among others supported that the Danubian route was their most likely way of expansion into Central Europe. The R1b-L51 subclades of those early samples from the Carpathian Basinif they are indeed from Slovakia – will probably coincide thus with the vast majority of Yamnaya-related R1b in Europe: R-L151.

On the other hand, if they showed the same sink of late Yamnaya/Catacomb basal P310* dead ends found in Święte and Łubcze, and assuming that the mean radiocarbon dates are precise, it would rather question a direct North Pontic origin of Niche-Graves, since the East-Slovakian burial mounds would predate this group by more than a century. In fact, it would probably strengthen a simpler model of a direct origin of all of them in the Danubian route, supported by the described exchange routes (hinted by similarities in corded decoration). That is, unless and until the same subclades were found in late Yamnaya/Catacomb from Ukraine.


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