Kurgan origins and expansion with Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka chieftains


The concept of ‘Kurgan peoples’ is a general idea whereby ‘kurgan builders’ are identified with Indo-European speakers. It is a consequence of the oversimplification of Gimbutas’ theory, and is still widespread among linguists, archaeologists, geneticists, and amateurs alike.

NOTE. On the already simplistic assumptions of Gimbutas regarding the so-called ‘kurgan’ burials, see e.g. Häusler’s early criticism.

However, as more ancient DNA studies appear, many ancient cultures once held as ‘kurganized’ are becoming more and more clearly disconnected from Proto-Indo-Europeans: So for example Varna, Cucuteni-Trypillia, Maykop, or Northern Iranian kurgan builders.

The first marked burials

In his chapter Aspects of Pontic Steppe Development (4550-3000 BC), Ukrainian researcher Yuri Rassamakin makes some interesting remarks.

NOTE. As you may know, Rassamakin supports a ‘Skelyan’ (macro-)culture encompassing every group from the North Pontic steppe and steppe-forest, where (therefore) Novodanilovka or Suvorovo would be just rich elites among Sredni Stog and related ‘commoners’. So he can hardly be described as interested in supporting Khvalynsk over Sredni Stog influence…

The first period of development (ca. 4550 – 4100/4000 BC) is marked as a period of emergence of the first burial symbols.

Gimbutas – like later her pupil Mallory -, Merpert, or Danilenko believed that the first mark of emerging kurgans were precisely the presence of constructions above burials, such as simple, small, stone henges, dolmens, cists, or cairns. Hence the traditional connection of ‘kurgans’ with Sredni Stog. This Sredni Stog connection is currently still a widespread belief, that is kept alive because it appears in many secondary sources (e.g. the much beloved as it is outdated and simplistic reference book Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture).

These first constructions described as from Sredni Stog were nevertheless found solely among Sredni Stog ‘elites’. That is, burials from Novodanlilovka-type cultural sites. So, following the initial assessments of this culture by Soviet archaeologists (like Telegin), for Gimbutas (1956) they were among ‘Sredni Stog’ burials, and for Merpert (1959) they might have been due to an “initial, genetic basis” originally from Khvalynsk, and thus (what was described as) Sredni Stog seemed to have been formed under “strong eastern influences”.

NOTE. From Rassamakin’s own account: Gimbutas’ model was later corrected, when in the mid-1980s Telegin judged that the cemeteries in fact represented an independent cultural type (Novodanilovka-type sites), developing over two stages (Telegin 1985a, 311-20; 1991). These were the same burials which Danilenko thought reflected a distinct pastoralist culture among the early Yamnaya tribes, which Gimbutas attributed to the first kurgan wave, and which Merpert, in part, ascribed to the first chronological period of the early Yamnaya culture-historical province.

The classification of megalithic monuments of the Pantie steppe. (After Dovzhenko 1993, fig. 1 with changes by the author.)

These early constructions, however, are not found anywhere else in the North Pontic region except for those ‘Sredni Stog elites’:

  • Rooves made from separate slabs with cairns are known in the Dnieper and Volga regions: In the Khvalynsk I culture, 17% of burials were superimposed with stone cairns or had a single stone marker.
  • Cists with cairns are known from Severskii Donets and Azov areas.
  • A unique cromlech is described from the Dniester-Danube area (Suvorovo).
  • In the remaining cases, especially for the Volga area and pre-Caucasus steppe, there are some specific variants:
    1. Use of natural hills as a burial marker
    2. Presence of smalll earthen or wooden constructions.

If we accept that these constructions are the first rudimentary kurgans or proto-kurgans, and that kurgans were a mark of expanding Indo-European culture, let’s see who built them first and why:

The emergence of kurgans

emergence-kurganIn his book Рождение Кургана (2012), The Emergence of the Kurgan, Sergei Korenevskiy makes a thorough analysis of the first kurgan finds.

The Novodanilovka group (ca. 4500-4000 BC), coincident with the Trypillia B1 stage, is characterized by the presence of ochre (in great quantity) in burials, as seen in Khvalynsk, as well as stone constructions in burials.

NOTE. Similarly to Rassamakin, Korenevskiy believes in the unity of North Pontic cultures, and specifically of Novodanilovka chiefs among Sredni Stog commoners, and of all of them with Khvalynsk in a Khvalynsk-Sredni Stog cultural-historical region, because of their “chronological and regional coincidence” and similar pottery, in spite of differences in burial and symbolism. So, hardly an interested party in supporting the expansion of Khvalynsk to the west, either.

Obviously, for those of us who believe that symbolism and burials do mean something beyond similar pottery decoration, in the instances where Sredni Stog appears in his text, it should be read Novodanilovka (and Khvalynsk-Sredni Stog should be read Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka) instead; because he is not referring to the older Khvalynsk – Sredni Stog community of the beginning of the 5th millennium, but to a very distinct group of sites related to the Khvalynsk expansion with horse symbolism at the end of the 5th millenium.

For the early Eneolithic time and the existence of the Khvalynsk-Sredni Stog community, on the problem under consideration, the main source [of knowledge for the first kurgans] may be the Nalchik and Khvalynsk burial grounds.

The kurgans themselves were not simple pits filled with earth. There was a belief that the funerary structure was the place where the buried moved to another world. Most likely, such a place could be considered to be a generic collective cemetery.

The second important point may be that the Eneolithic era was the time of development of a prestigious economy that created its values ​​in the form of different things. Among them were items requiring high skills or manufacturing techniques (different woolen tools, scepters, stone bracelets), as well as tools that occupy an important role in labor, war and industry (stone flat axes, arrowheads, knife-like plates and chips of flint). The decorations of the burial costume included certain iconic objects – bone plates from canine fang, pins, bone sticks with a hole- “zurki”).

Presented were a variety of beads from bone, stone, shell. Bead washers could be collected in whole garlands, thus acquiring a special value. Prestigious cult things, presumably, were copper jewelry: beads, rings, bracelets. They, like the shells, were products of the gift exchange and reflected the direct or indirect involvement of the owners.

Map of the Eneolithic burial monuments of the Pontic – Ciscaucasian steppes (automatically translated from Russian):
1 – Csongrad, 2 – Decha Mureshului, 3 – Targovishte (Gonova Mogila), 4 – Kulvec, 5 – Devnya river, 6 – Kamenar, 7 – Kasimcha, 8 – Lungoch-Fundund, 9 – Falciu, 10 – Jurdjulesti, 11 – 12 – Suvorovo, 13 – Kaynary, 14 – Artsz, 15 – Koshary, 16 – Krivoy Rog, 17 – Zalina, 18 – Dereyevka, 19 – Igren 8, 20 – Chapley, 21 – Petro-Svistunovo, 22 – in Vinogradny, 23 in Zagorozhye, 24 in Novodanilovka, 25 in Blagoveshchenka, 26 in Kut, 27 in Lower Rogachik, 28 in Lyubimovka, 29 in Alekasandria, 30 in Yama, 31 in Olkhovatka, 32 in Aleksandrov, 33 in Lugansk Voroshilovgrad), 34 – Don, 35 – Mariupol, 36 – Liventsovka-1, 37 – Wet Chaltyr, 38 – Likhovsky, 39 – Mukhin II, 40 – Karataevo, 41 – Coysug, 42 – Krasnogorovka III, 43 – South, 44 – hut. Popova, 45 – Baturinskaya, 46 – Novotitarovskaya, 47 – Staronizhesteblyevskaya, 48 – Suvorovskaya, 49 – Cheerful Grove I and III, 50 – Kyzburun III, 51 – Nalchik, 52 – Upper Akbash, 53 – Galyugaevsky barrows, 54 – Coma – Ravo, 55 – Bamut, 56 – Arkhara, 57 – Kursavsky, 58 – Nikolsky, 59 – Kokberek, 60 – New School, 61 – Tube, 62 – Narym-Bay, 63 – Ak Zhounas, 64 – Shlyakhovsky, 65 – Political , 66 – Berezovka I and II, 67 – Even, 68 – Novotrivolnoe, 69 – Tarlyk, 70 – Engels-Anisovka, 71 – Khlopkovo hillfort, 72 – Khvalynsk I and II, 73 – Krivoluchye, 74 – Ivanovsky, 75 – Tunnel, 76 – Ipatovo , 77 – Aigursky, 78 – Tipki, 79 – Sharahalsun, 80 – Chograi, 81 – Overload, 82 – Novokorsunovskaya, 83 – Cardonik, 84 – Vladimirovskaya 85 – Pyatigorsk (Konstantinovsky plateau), 86 – Steblitsky, 87 – Jangr, 88 – Progress-2 The map was made on the basis of the publication I.V. Manzuri (Manzura, 2000. With. 244, fig. 1) with additions of the author

Khvalynsk and Nalchik first marked burials

[The Nalchik burials:] with respect to the reconstruction of social relations, data are few. In general, the funerary practice of this necropolis does not reflect the position of any fighting tools in the grave. (…)

Judging by the rare ornaments from the burials of the necropolis, the population that left it was implicated in the prestigious values of the Khvalynsk-Sredni Stog community. A more detailed picture of the era of early Eneolithic reflects the data of the Khvalynsk-type burial ground.

Funerary monuments of the steppe Eneolithic Ciscaucasian group, the Don-Volga interfluve and the Nalchik burial ground against the background of the Eneolithic groups of South of Eastern Europe (automatically translated from Russian): 1 – Aigursky, 2 – Veselyaya Roshcha and s. Zhukovsky, 3 – Sharahalsun, 4 – Chograi, 5 – Galyugaevsky burial mounds, 6 – Komarovo, 7 – Grozny, 8 – Suvorovo, 9 – Upper Akbash, 10 – Kizburun III, 11 – Baturin, 12 – Staronizhnesteblyevskaya, 13 – Novotitarovskaya, 14 – Cardonik, 15 – Steblitsky, 16 – Vladimirovskaya, 17 – Tunnel, 18 – Progress-2, 19 – Ipatovo, 20 – Novokorsunovskaya, 21 – Bamut 22 – Kursavsky, 23 – Arkhara, 24 – Nikolsky, 25 – Jangr, 26 – Overload, 27 – Shlyakhovsky, 28 – Nalchik burial ground, 29 – Samashki, 30 – Pyatigorsk, Konstantinovsky plateau, 31 – Berezhnovka-I, 32 – Bykovo I – Ciscaucasian groups a, II – Volga-Manych group, III – Lower Don group, IV – Dono-Donetsk group, V – Podneprovskaya group, VI – Zavolzhskaya (Volga-Uriural) group (given in fragmentary form: Berezhnovka I, room 5, item 22, Bykovo 2 point 3)
Map from Wang et al. (2018) [to be compared with the initial distribution of kurgans in the region]. The zoomed map shows the location of sites in the Caucasus. The size of the circle reflects number of individuals that produced genome-wide data. The dashed line illustrates a hypothetical geographic border between genetically distinct Steppe and Caucasus clusters.

(…) the Khvalynsk burial ground was characterized by a system of age groups and a forming social structure based on the hierarchy of estate groups. The social organization of Khvalynians can be characterized by the stage of evolution of a small-family variant of the development of a primitive society, in which the social status of a man and a woman became closer. The role of the married woman / mother was accentuated. Archaeological signs of this process can be considered joint burials of old people and children and as part of burials with same and mixed genders.

Statistics of the Khvalynsk burial ground. Примечание: ж. — женский, п. — подросток, р. — ребенок, м. — мужской, вз. — взрослый

In summary, one can arrive at the following conclusions. It is unlikely to be a mistake if we assume that the Khvalynsk burial ground was abandoned by a local community that lived on the basis of the tribal collective. Their economic activities were connected with hunting, fishing, homestead cattle breeding with an obvious acquaintance with the horse (it is not known if the object of hunting or domestication). In the mythology of the afterlife and the funerary traditions of the Khvalynians, the same egalitarianism of the forms of funerary buildings was dominant, but signs of the personification of graves began to appear, with marks in the rarest of cases with stones.

Unlike the Nalchik cemetery, in the Khvalynsk and Khlopkovsky burial grounds, new trends in assessments of the suitability of implements for funerary practice are clearly discernible. So, they expressed themselves in the appearance of rare graves with scepters, axes – buggers, stone adzes, harpoons and fishing hooks. Basically, all these symbols of the rite are associated with male burials. The least saturated with burial items with stone adzes, and they are represented in small forms. But the fact is important. Society began to pay attention to these categories of objects, linking their symbols with mythological ideas about the things of the afterlife and their functions in the “other dimension of reality” specifically as tools of war and symbols of military power or valor (axes with trunnions), spiritual power (scepters), as well as woodworking (adzes). In terms of “wealth”, these complexes were not particularly distinguished from other inventory sets.

The population that left the Khvalynsk burial ground had to do with the deficit of the era, which was copper products. The latter emphasized, apparently, the age status of some men from 40 to 60 years old and adult women. Another scarce raw material could be a sea shell (item 38) from the burial of a man aged 25-35 years.

As a result, it can be concluded that the complexes of funerary ritual of the Khvalynsk burial ground indicate the existence of ideas about a person at the time of his transition to another world, as a member of the collective of the clan (community) with the admitted individual prestige of things that emphasize his age or social status, but in the framework of the common egalitarian tradition of a collective necropolis. At this time, presumably, views were developing on the relationship of the things put in the grave with the “property” of the buried.

Map of finds of scepters 1: 1 – Khvalynsky burial ground; 2 – Cotton hill fort and cemetery; 3 – Fitionion; 4 – Rezevo; 5 – Drama; 6 – Vinc de Jos; 7 – Ružinoas; 8 – Kayraklia; 9 – Selcuca; 10 – Suvorovo; 1 1 – Terekli Mekteb; 12 – Khlopkovsky burial ground; 13 – Kasimcha; 14 – Kokbek; 15 – Samara (Kuibyshev); 16 – Shlyakhovsky; 17 – Archa; 18 – Mogosesti; 19 – Vladikavkaz (Ordzhonikidze); 20 – Jungr; 21 – Harvesting; 22 – Maykop; 23 – Alexandria; 2: 1 – Valen; 2 – Yasenev Polyana; 3 – Birllesti; 4 – Harvesting; 5 – Rostov-on-Don; 6 – Berezovskaya HPP; 7 – Zhora de Souz, 8 – Fedeshen; 9 – Konstantinovsky settlement. Conditional signs. 1 – group 3, 2 – group 4, 3 – groups 1, 2, 4 – group 5, 5 – group 4, 6 – group 6

The aftermath of the kurgan expansion

The most important phenomenon in the Weltanschauung of the late Eneolithic population in the steppes of Eastern Europe and Ciscaucasia was the spread of the religious tradition, relatively new in comparison with the time of the Mariupol cultural and historical community, according to which the deceased began to go to another world in a position on his back, crocheted, in the company of ochre magic.

This position appears to be dominant in the materials of the Khvalynsk cemetery, and as a very significant – but not dominant – feature of the materials of the Nalchik cemetery. The posture on the back is crocheted, becoming typical for the Sredni Stog culture, as well as the bearers of the oldest Kurgan traditions in the Ciscaucasia and the Volga-Don region.

Our position on this issue is as follows. I can fully adhere to the opinion of B. Govedaritsa and I.V. Manzura that the transition of the population of the Khvalynsk – Sredni Stog community to the tradition of the burial crouched on their backs looks like the most important ideological innovation in the mythology of death among the local population of Eastern Europe and Ciscaucasia in relation to the earlier time of the Mariupol cultural and historical community.

Chronology of Cucuteni-Tripolye cultures after Videiko (2004), with corresponding Khvalynsk / Nalchik / Novodanilovka / Pre-Maykop / Maykop kurgans.

In the funerary practice of this cultural education there is much in common with the traditions of the funerary practice of the Balkan-Danube region. At the same time, the posture pose on the back is spread more widely in the Neolithic and Eneolithic than only Western Europe. It was recorded in the necropolis of Kul-Tepe I in Azerbaijan (Abibulaev, 1982), the necropolis of Tepe Gissar in Iran (Schmidt, 1933, 1937), in burials 1, 2 in the settlement of Poylu II of Leleatepin culture in Azerbaijan (the Kura valley) (Museibli , 2010. P. 208). In other words, it is the same universal way of inhumation, like a pose on one side or a burial on the back, although not so widespread on a global scale.

From where and how such ritualism could appear in its specific carriers, it definitely cannot always be established. But let us pay attention to the fact that the peculiarity of the posture of the deceased population of the Khvalynsk – Sredni Stog community on the back is that the deceased was not simply placed on his back, he was often heavily sprinkled with ochre. The last detail of the ritual clearly has a prototype for the carriers of the Mariupol community of the Northern Black Sea Region. This suggests that such funerary practice of the Khvalynsk – Sredni Stog community was formed on the spot, as an internal transformation of the ritual of a stretched-out body with a copious sprinkling of the bone with mineral red paint. The idea of ​​innovation was to set the feet on the ground, which caused the knees to rise.

Map of burial monuments with ochre by regions in the Pontic – Ciscaucasian area (Govedariča, 2004). I – Carpathian group, II – Northwestern group, III – North Black Sea group, IV – Volga-Caspian group, V – North Caucasian group

The consequence for the Proto-Indo-European homeland

So, from now on, when someone says “the oldest known kurgans come from Sredni Stog”, you know what that means: first, these are not the oldest ‘kurgans’, but rather ‘proto-kurgans’ (after, all, some of the first radiocarbon dates of full fledged steppe kurgans come from the Repin culture, if we don’t take the rich Maykop variant into account); and second, they were not really from Sredni Stog, but from Khvalynsk-related cultures, because the first rudimentary kurgans can be clearly traced back to Khvalynsk, Novodanilovka, Northern-Caucasus, and Suvorovo sites.

The latest genetic research on Khvalynsk- and Yamna-related migrations should have been a party for all involved in a quest to know the truth about Proto-Indo-Europeans, as it is becoming clear that their language and culture expanded from the eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe. This is a short checklist of relevant facts:

✅ Khvalynsk formed from EHG + local steppe Neolithic groups: checked.

✅ Kurgan origins and expansion from Khvalynsk: checked.

✅ Expansion of horse domestication and horse symbolism from Khvalynsk: checked.

✅ Arrival of steppe ancestry in the Balkans with Suvorovo: checked.

✅ Patrilineal clans proven by Y-DNA bottlenecks in Khvalynsk and Yamna: checked.

✅ Homogeneous genetic admixture of expanding Yamna: checked.

✅ Admixture different from Yamna in coetaneous West and Central European, Corded Ware, Fennoscandian, Caucasus, and Indus Valley samples: checked.

✅ Expansion of Khvalynsk as Early Yamna and Afanasevo: checked.

✅ Expansion of Yamna Hungary as East Bell Beakers: checked.

✅ Y-DNA bottlenecks of expanding Bell Beakers: checked.

✅ Expansion of East Yamna (and admixture with CWC) in Sintashta/Potapovka: checked.

✅ Y-DNA bottlenecks of expanding Andronovo/Srubna: checked.

✅ Yamna in the Balkans and steppe ancestry in Mycenaeans (in contrast with Minoans): checked.

✅ Bell Beaker expansion over Europe and later resurge of R1a-Z645 in Central-East Europe: checked.

All this combined is giving a clear-cut image of how Proto-Indo-Europeans expanded. More importantly, it shows – as I have said many times already – that Proto-Indo-European was a real language, spoken by an evolving and expanding community (with radical language changes beautifully coupled with archaeological expansions). The implications of this are huge, if only because we can finally get rid of all naysayers in linguistics and archaeology, who wanted to speak about ‘constellations of languages’ and ‘pots not people’.

So why would some of those who describe themselves as interested in Prehistory not accept this as the most likely picture right now? I can just think of one tiny item of the checklist, among many that are left unchecked or have been unchecked due to the latest genetic research:

❌ ‘MY haplogroup’ was involved in the expansion of ‘MY people’: Unchecked.

It is not just that this isn’t checked. It was checked by many in the 1990s and in the 2000s, and some stupid magical meaning was attributed to it. But now it has been unchecked for most Europeans, and this has caused an absurd unrest among some of them, who are now joining those who already opposed mainstream theories (e.g. supporters of the Anatolian homeland, the Iran homeland, the Indus Valley homeland, etc.) with a common aim: to spread reactionary views against the mainstream theories.

If all samples from Khvalynsk, Yamna, Afanasevo, and Bell Beaker had been R1a-Z645; most European Neolithic samples had shown R1b-L23 subclades; and results from Sredni Stog, Corded Ware and part of the Indo-Iranian community were of haplogroup N1c-L392 (although eventually R1a-Z645 had expanded with Indo-Iranians)… Would these people doubt all those facts from the checklist? I don’t think so.


When Bell Beakers mixed with Eneolithic Europeans: Pömmelte and the Europe-wide concept of sanctuary


Recent open access paper The ring sanctuary of Pömmelte, Germany: a monumental, multi-layered metaphor of the late third millennium BC, by Spatzier and Bertemes, Antiquity (2018) 92(363):655-673.

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

In recent decades, evidence has accumulated for comparable enclosures of later dates, including the Early Bronze Age Únětice Culture between 2200 and 1600 BC, and thus into the chronological and cultural context of the Nebra sky disc. Based on the analysis of one of these enclosure sites, recently excavated at Pömmelte on the flood plain of the Elbe River near Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt, and dating to the late third millennium BC

The main occupation began at 2321–2211 cal BC, with the stratigraphically earliest features containing exclusively Bell Beaker finds. Bell Beaker ceramics continue after 2204–2154 cal BC (boundary occupation I/II), although they were probably undecorated, but are now complemented by Únětice Culture (and other Early Bronze Age) types. At this time, with features common to both cultures predominate. Only contexts dating to the late main occupation phase (late phase II) and thereafter contained exclusively Únětice Culture finds. Evidently, the bearers of the Bell Beaker Culture were the original builders of the enclosure. During a second phase of use, Final Neolithic and Early Bronze Age cultures coexisted and intermingled. The material remains, however, should not be taken as evidence for successive groups of differing archaeological cultures, but as witnesses to a cultural transition from the Bell Beaker Culture to the Únětice Culture (Spatzier 2015). The main occupation ended 2086–2021 cal BC with the deconstruction of the enclosure; Bell Beaker finds are now absent. Finally, a few features (among them one shaft) and radiocarbon dates attest the sporadic re-use of the site in a phase of abandonment/re-use that ended 1636– 1488 cal BC.

Cultural sequence and chronological model of the Pömmelte enclosure’s occupation (dates in 1σ-precision) (designed by André Spatzier).

How the above-ground structures possibly influenced perception may reveal another layer of meaning that highlights social functions related to ritual. While zone I was disconnected from the surroundings by a ‘semi-translucent’ post-built border, zones II/III were separated from the outside world by a wooden wall (i.e. the palisade), and zone III probably separated individuals from the crowd gathered in zone II. Accessing the interior or centre therefore meant passing through transitional zones, to first be secluded and then segregated. Exiting the structure meant re-integration and re-connection. The experience possibly induced when entering and leaving the monument reflects the three stages of ‘rites of passage’ described by van Gennep (1909): separation, liminality and incorporation. The enclosure’s outer zone(s) represents the pre- and post-liminal phase; the central area, the liminal phase. Seclusion and liminality in the interior promoted a sense of togetherness, which can be linked to Turner’s “communitas” (1969: 132–33). We might therefore see monuments such as the Pömmelte enclosure as important communal structures for social regulation and the formation of identity.

Layers of meaning of the Pömmelte enclosure as deduced from the archaeological record (design by André Spatzier).

(…) The long-term stability of these connotations must be emphasised. As with the tradition of making depositions, these meanings were valid from the start of the occupation — c. 2300 BC — until at least the early period following the deconstruction event, c. 2050 BC. While the spatial organisation and the solar alignment of the main entrances were maintained throughout the main occupation, stone axes and ‘formal’ graves indicate the continuation of the spatial concepts described above until the twentieth to nineteenth centuries BC.

These layers of meaning mirror parallel concepts of space including, although not necessarily restricted to, the formation of group identities (see Hansen & Meyer 2013: 5). They can perhaps be better understood as a ‘cosmological geography’ manifested in the symbolism of superimposed levels of conceptual ideas related to space and to certain cardinal points (Figure 8). This idea is closely related to Eliade’s (1959: 29–36) understanding of “organized — hence comicized — territory”, that is territory consecrated to provide orientation within the homogeneity of the chaotic ‘outside world’, and the equivalence of spatial consecration and cosmogony. Put differently, the Pömmelte enclosure can be interpreted as a man-made metaphor and an icon of the cosmos, reflecting the Weltanschauung (a comprehensive conception of the world) of the people who built and used it. By bringing together Eliade and Rappaport’s ideas of meaningfulness in relation to religious experience (Rappaport 1999: 391–95), it may be argued that Pömmelte was a place intended to induce oneness with the cosmos. In combining multiple layers that symbolically represent different aspects of life (first-ordermeaning), the enclosure became an icon metaphorically representing the world (second-order-meaning). As this icon was the place to reaffirm life symbolism ritually, through their actions, people perhaps experienced a sense of rootedness in, or unity with, the cosmos (highest-order-meaning). Although we can only speculate about the perceptions of ancient people, such a theory aiming to describe general principles of religious experience can provide insight.


The circular enclosure of Pömmelte is the first Central European monumental complex of primarily sacred importance that has been excavated and studied in detail. It reveals aspects of society and belief during the transition from the Final Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age, in the second half of the third millennium BC. Furthermore, it offers details of ritual behaviour and the way that people organised their landscape. A sacred interior was separated from the profane environment, and served as a venue for rites that secured the continuity of the social, spiritual and cosmic order. Ancestor worship formed another integral part of this: a mound-covered burial hut and a square-shaped ditch sanctuary (located, respectively, within and near the enclosure’s south-eastern sector; cf. Figure 2)—dating to 2880–2580 cal BC and attributed to the Corded Ware Culture (Spatzier 2017a: 235–44)—suggest that this site was deliberately chosen. With construction of the ring sanctuary, this place gained an immense expansion in meaning—comparable to Stonehenge. Through architectural transformation, both of these sites developed into sanctuaries with increasingly complex religious functions, including in relation to the cult of the dead. The cosmological and social functions, and the powerful symbolism of the Nebra sky disc and hoard (Meller 2010: 59–70), are reflected in Pömmelte’s monumental architecture.

All of these features—along with Pömmelte’s dating, function and complex ring structure—are well documented for British henge monuments (Harding 2003; Gibson 2005). The continuous use of circular enclosures in Central Europe from around 3000– 1500 BC remains to be confirmed, but strong evidence indicates usage spanning from the fifth to the first millennia BC (Spatzier 2017a: 273–96). From 2500 BC onwards, examples in Central Europe, Iberia and Bulgaria (Bertemes 2002; Escudero Carrillo et al. 2017) suggest a Europe-wide concept of sanctuary. This indicates that in extensive communication networks at the beginning of bronze metallurgy (Bertemes 2016), intellectual and religious contents circulated alongside raw materials. The henge monuments of the British Isles are generally considered to represent a uniquely British phenomenon, unrelated to Continental Europe; this position should now be reconsidered. The uniqueness of Stonehenge lies, strictly speaking, with its monumental megalithic architecture.

Model of the spatial organisation of the Pömmelte enclosure (designed by André Spatzier).

The Classical Bell Beaker heritage

No serious scholar can argue at this point against the male-biased East Bell Beaker migrations that expanded the European languages related to Late Proto-Indo-European-speaking Yamna (see David Reich’s comments), and thus most likely North-West Indo-European – the ancestor of Italo-Celtic, Germanic, and Balto-Slavic, apart from Pre-Celtic IE in the British Isles, Lusitano-Galician in Iberia, or Messapic in Italy (see here a full account).

With language, these migrants (several ten thousands) brought their particular Weltanschauung to all of Western, Central, and Northern Europe. Their admixture precisely in Hungary shows that they had close interactions with non-Indo-European peoples (genetically related to the Globular Amphorae culture), something that we knew from the dozens of non-Indo-European words reconstructed exclusively for North-West Indo-European, apart from the few reconstructed non-Indo-European words that NWIE shares with Palaeo-Balkan languages, which point to earlier loans from their ancestors, Yamna settlers migrating along the lower Danube.

It is not difficult to imagine that the initial East Bell Beaker group shared a newly developed common cosmological point of view that clashed with other neighbouring Yamna-related worldviews (e.g. in Balkan EBA cultures) after the cultural ties with Yamna were broken. Interesting in this respect is for example their developed (in mythology as in the new North-West Indo-European concept) *Perkwūnos, the weather god – probably remade (in language as in concept) from a Yamna minor god also behind Old Indian parjányas, the rain god – as one of the main gods from the new Pantheon, distinct from *Dyēus patēr, the almighty father sky god. In support of this, the word *meldh-n- ‘lightning’, behind the name of the mythological hammer of the weather god (cf. Old Norse Mjǫllnir or Latvian Milna), was also a newly coined North-West Indo-European term, although the myth of the hero slaying the dragon with the magical object is older.

The Hand of Perkūnas by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, from Wikipedia

Circular enclosures are known in Europe since the Neolithic. Also, the site selected for the Pömmelte enclosure had been used to bury Corded Ware individuals some centuries before its construction, and Corded Ware symbolism (stone axe vs. quern) is seen in the use given by Bell Beakers and later Únětice at this place. All this and other regional similarities between Bell Beakers and different local cultures (see here an example of Iberian Bell Beakers) points to syncretism of the different Bell Beaker groups with preceding cultures in the occupied regions. After all, their genealogical ancestors included also those of their maternal side, and not all encountered males disappeared, as is clearly seen in the resurge of previous paternal lineages in Central-East Europe and in Scandinavia. The admixture of Bell Beakers with previous groups (especially those of similar steppe-related ancestry from Corded Ware) needs more complex analyses to clarify potential early dialectal expansions (read what Iosif Lazaridis has to say).

The popular “big and early” expansions

These syncretic trends gave rise to distinct regional cultures, and eventually different local groups rose to power in the new cultural regions and ousted the old structures. Social norms, hierarchy, and pantheons were remade. Events like this must have been repeated again and again in Bronze and Iron Age Europe, and in many cases it was marked by a difference in the prevailing archaeological culture attested, and probably accompanied by certain population replacements that will be seen with more samples and studies of fine-scale population structure.

Some of these cultural changes, marked by evident haplogroup or admixture replacement, are defined as a ‘resurge’ of ancestry linked to previous populations, although that is obviously not equivalent to a resurge of a previous cultural group, because they usually represent just a successful local group of the same supraregional culture with a distinct admixture and/or haplogroup (see e.g. resurge of R1a-Z645 in Central-East European Bronze Age). Social, religious, or ethnic concepts may have changed in each of these episodes, along with the new prestige dialect.

NOTE. A recent open access paper on two newly studied Middle Bronze Age inhumations from Stonehenge give an interesting idea of potential differences in social identities, in ancestry and geographic origin (which characterize ethnicity) may have been marked by differences in burial ceremonies: Lives before and after Stonehenge: An osteobiographical study of four prehistoric burials recently excavated from the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, by Mays et al. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2018) 20:692-710.

This must have happened then many times during the hundreds (or thousands in some cases) of years until the first attestation of a precise ancient language and culture (read e.g. about one of the latest branches to be attested, Balto-Slavic). Ancient language contacts, like substrates or toponymy, can only rarely be detected after so many changes, so their absence (or the lack of proper studies on them) is usually not relevant – and certainly not an argument – in scholarly discussions. Their presence, on the other hand, is a proof of such contacts.

Diachronic map of Late Copper Age migrations including Classical Bell Beaker (east group) expansion from central Europe ca. 2600-2250 BC

We have dozens of papers supporting Uralic dialectal substrate influence on Pre-Germanic, Proto-Balto-Slavic, and Pre- and Proto-Indo-Iranian (and even Proto-Celtic), as well as superstrate influence of Palaeo-Germanic (i.e. from Pre- to Proto-Germanic) and Proto-Balto-Slavic into Proto-Finno-Saamic, much stronger than the Indo-Iranian adstrate influence on Finno-Ugric (see the relative importance of each influence) which locates all these languages and their evolution to the north and west of the steppe (with Proto-Permic already separated, in North-East Europe, as is Proto-Ugric further east near the Urals), probably around the Baltic and Scandinavia after the expansion of Bell Beakers. These connections have been known in linguistics for decades.

Apart from some early 20th century scholars, only a minority of Indo-Europeanists support nowadays an Indo-European (i.e. centum) substrate for Balto-Slavic, to keep alive an Indo-Slavonic group based on a hypothetical 19th century Satem group; so e.g. Holzer with his Temematic, and Kortlandt supporting him, also with some supposed Indo-European substrate with heavy non-Indo-European influence for Germanic and Balto-Slavic, that now (thanks mainly to the views of the Copenhagen group) have been linked to the Corded Ware culture, as it has become clear even to them that Bell Beakers expanded North-West Indo-European.

NOTE. The Temematic etymologies have been (all of them) fully dismissed e.g. in Matasović (2013). I have already explained why an Indo-Slavonic group from Sredni Stog is not tenable, and genetics (showing Late PIE only from Yamna expansions) is proving that, too.

For their part, only a minority among Uralicists, such as Kuz’mina, Parpola or Häkkinen, believe in an ‘eastern’ origin of Uralic languages, around the Southern Urals. Genomic finds – like their peers – are clearly not supporting their views. But even if we accept this hypothesis, there is little space beyond Abashevo and related East Corded Ware cultures after the recent papers on Corded Ware and Fennoscandian samples. And yet here we are:

The Copenhagen “Homeland” interactive map

Brought to you by the Copenhagen fantasy map series, Indo-Europeans after (no, really, after) the expansion of Yamna settlers in Hungary ca. 2700 BC: Yamna settlers have magically disappeared. Yamna-related Balkan EBA cultures and the hundreds of Yamna kurgans around the Lower Danube and in Hungary up to Saxony-Anhalt do not exist. Dat huge mythical Middle Dnieper territory lasting (unchanged) for a thousand years, in sooo close contact with Yamna territory (so beautifully ‘linked’ together that they must have been BFFs and admixed!). Uralic Mesolithic hunter-gatherers resisting IE invasions in Volosovo for 1,500 years like Asterix’ Gaulish village against the Romans. Tiny pockets of Bell Beakers will eventually emerge from (surprise!) Corded Ware territories beautifully scattered over Central and Northern Europe (unlike those eastern CWC mega-regions). And, of course, you can almost see Kroonen & Iversen’s Kurgan Pre-Germanic mixing already with their agricultural substrate TRB precisely in full-IE Denmark (quite appropriate for the Danish school). And sheep symbols representing wool finds, for no reason. A great map to mock for years to come, with each new genetic paper.

The new propaganda tool GIS timeline map of the Copenhagen group:

  • consciously ignores Yamna settlers along the Danube, in the Balkans, and in Hungary, and initial East Bell Beakers, i.e. the obvious origin and expansion of North-West Indo-Europeans, but in contrast magnifies (and expands in time) regions for Sredni Stog / Corded Ware cultures (which suggests that this is yet another absurd attempt to revive the theories of the Danish school…);
  • substitutes arrows for Kron-like colors (where danger red = Indo-European) with the same end result of many other late 20th century whole-Europe Kurgan maps, linking Sredni Stog and Corded Ware with Yamna, but obviating the precise origin of Corded Ware peoples (is it Sredni Stog, or is it that immutable Middle Dnieper group? is it West Yamna, or Yamna Hungary? is it wool, or is it wheels?);
  • relegates Uralic speakers to a tiny corner, a ‘Volosovo’ cultural region, thus near Khvalynsk/Yamna (but not too much), that miraculously survives surrounded by all-early-splitting, all-Northern Eneolithic Indo-Europeans, thus considering Uralic languages irrelevant not only to locate the PIE Urheimat, but also to locate their own homeland; also, cultures identified in color with Uralic speakers expand until the Iron Age with enough care not to even touch in the map one of the known R1a samples published to date (because, for some people, apparently R1a must be Indo-European); and of course N1c or Siberian ancestry are irrelevant, too;
  • and adds findings of wheels and wool probably in support of some new ideas based on yet another correlation = causation argument (that I cannot then properly criticize without access to its reasoning beyond cute SmartArt-like symbols) similar to their model – already becoming a classic example of wrong use of statistical methods – based on the infamously named Yamnaya ancestral component, which is obviously still used here, too.

The end result is thus similar to any other simplistic 1990s Gimbutas (or rather the recently radicalized IE Sredni Stog -> Corded Ware -> BBC version by the Danish workgroup) + 2000s R1a-map + 2010s Yamnaya ancestry; but, hard to believe, it is published in mid-2018. A lot of hours of senseless effort, because after its publication it becomes ipso facto outdated.

For comparison of Yamna and Bell Beaker expansions, here is a recent simplistic, static (and yet more accurate) pair of maps, from the Reich Lab:

Cultural maps from Eneolithic and Chalcolithic cultures in Wang et al. (2018).

If the Copenhagen group keeps on pushing Gimbutas’ long ago outdated IE Sredni Stog -> Corded Ware theory as modified by Kristiansen, with their recently invented Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker model in genetics, at some point they are bound to clash with the Reich-Jena team, which seems to have less attachment to the classic Kurgan model and the wrong interpretations of the 2015 papers, and that would be something to behold. Because, as Cersei would say: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” And when you play the game of credibility, after so many, so wrong publications, well…

NOTE. I have been working on a similar GIS tool for quite some time, using my own maps and compiled genetic data, which I currently only use for my 2018 revision of the Indo-European demic diffusion model. Maybe within some weeks or months I will be able to publish the maps properly, after the revised papers. It’s a pitty that so much work on GIS and analysis with genetic data and cultural regions has to be duplicated, but I intend to keep some decent neutrality in my revised cultural maps, and this seems impossible at this point with some workgroups who have put all their eggs in one broken basket…


Origins of equine dentistry in Mongolia in the early first millennium BC

New paper (behind paywall) Origins of equine dentistry, by Taylor et al. PNAS (2018).

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

The practice of horse dentistry by contemporary nomadic peoples in Mongolia, coupled with the centrality of horse transport to Mongolian life, both now and in antiquity, raises the possibility that dental care played an important role in the development of nomadic life and domestic horse use in the past. To investigate, we conducted a detailed archaeozoological study of horse remains from tombs and ritual horse inhumations across the Mongolian Steppe, assessing evidence for anthropogenic dental modifications and comparing our findings with broader patterns in horse use and nomadic material culture.

We conducted a detailed study of archaeological horse collections spanning the past 3,200 y, including those from the Late Bronze Age DSK complex (ca. 1200–700 BCE, n = 70), Early Iron Age Slab Burial culture (ca. 700–300 BCE, n = 4), Pazyryk culture (ca. 600–200 BCE, n = 2), Late Iron Age Xiongnu Empire (ca. 200 BCE–200 CE, n = 3), Early Middle Ages post-Xiongnu period (ca. 100–550 CE, n = 3), and Turkic Khaganate (ca. 600–800 CE, n = 3).

A (top): Contemporary Mongolian herder engaged in horseback riding, using left-handed rein position causing asymmetric pressures to the horse’s skull. Photo by Orsoo Bayarsaikhan. B(center) contemporary Mongolian horse skulls, showing asymmetric and skewed thinning to the nasal bones caused by bridle pressure. C(bottom) Asymmetric deformation to the cranial bones of a Deer Stone-Khirigsuur horse (left), alongside an early Middle Ages horse with a similar feature (right). Modified from Taylor and Tuvshinjargal (2018).


This Late Bronze Age dental modification counts among the earliest documented instances of equine veterinary care, and the oldest known evidence for horse dentistry. At first glance, the detailed historical record of early equine veterinary care in places such as China, Greece, Rome, and Syria, which spans the late second millennium BCE through the early centuries CE (11, 15, 16), might imply that equine dentistry emerged in the sedentary civilizations of the Old World. However, the earliest textual references describe only nonsurgical medicinal treatments and make few mentions of oral health (11). Recent archaeological discoveries suggest that human care of domestic animals was practiced by hunter-gatherers as far back as the Paleolithic (46), and that pastoralists may have occasionally practiced surgical procedures on domestic animals as early as the Neolithic in Europe (47). The evidence presented here indicates that horse dentistry was developed by nomadic pastoralists living on the steppes of Mongolia and northeast Asia during the Late Bronze Age, concurrent with the local adoption of the metal bit and many centuries before the first mention of dental practices in historical accounts from sedentary Old World civilizations.

Our results reveal a fundamental link between equine dentistry and the emergence of horsemanship in the steppes of Eurasia. At the turn of the first millennium BCE, militarized, horse-mounted peoples reshaped the social and economic landscape of many areas of the Eurasian continent. Conflagrations with equestrian peoples, such as those between the Persian Empire and the Pontic “Scythians,” plagued alluvial civilizations from the Near East to India and China, while large-scale movements of people linked East and West in never-before-seen ways (48). The archaeological and historical records indicate that the earliest horseback riding was accomplished without stirrups or saddles, and probably using only bitless or organic-mouthpiece bridles (49, 50). The bronze snaffle bit, and the improved control it provided, was a key technological development that enabled the use of horseback riding for more stressful and difficult activities, such as long-distance transportation and warfare (32). We argue that these technological improvements in horse control were preceded and sustained by innovations in veterinary dentistry by nomadic peoples living in the continental interior. By increasing herd survival and mitigating behavioral and health issues caused by horse equipment, innovations in equine dentistry improved the reliability of horseback riding for ancient nomads, enabling horses to be used for nonpastoral activities like warfare, high-speed riding, and distance travel.

Damage to the retained wolf tooth in a 4-5 year old mummified horse, dating to the 2-4th centuries CE from the site of Urd Ulaan-Uneet in western Mongolia


Archaeozoological data from Mongolian horses indicate that the nomadic practice of equine dentistry dates back more than 3,000 y to the DSK complex, a Late Bronze Age culture associated with the first mounted horseback riding and mobile pastoralism in eastern Eurasia. Attempted removal of deciduous incisors through sawing of the exterior suggests experimentation with dental extraction, but not the removal of wolf teeth. The appearance of extracted first premolars in the first millennium BCE coincides with the arrival of metal bits in the archaeological record and oral trauma linked with metal bit use, suggesting that innovations in dental practice were an adaptation to the mechanical changes in horse equipment. These bronze and metal bits provided greater control over the horse, facilitating the development of military uses for the horse, but also introduced new dental problems with the first premolar. Our results indicate that, coincident with the earliest evidence for metal bit use, wolf tooth extraction was practiced in Mongolia by ca. 750 BCE and continued through the early Middle Ages. These results push back the earliest dates for equine dentistry by more than a millennium and suggest that nomadic peoples developed key innovations in veterinary care that enabled more sophisticated horse control, ultimately changing the structure of communication, exchange, and military power in ancient Eurasia.


About Scepters, Horses, and War: on Khvalynsk migrants in the Caucasus and the Danube


dergachev-scepters-khavlynsk-horsesAbout two months ago I stumbled upon a gem in archaeological studies related to Proto-Indo-Europeans, the book О скипетрах, о лошадях, о войне: этюды в защиту миграционной концепции М.Гимбутас (On sceptres, on horses, on war: Studies in defence of M. Gimbutas’ migration concepts), 2007, by V. A. Dergachev, from the Institute of Cultural Heritage of the Moldavian Republic.

Dergachev’s work dedicates 488 pages to a very specific Final Neolithic-Eneolithic period in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, and the most relevant parts of the book concern the nature and expansion of horses and horse domestication, horse-head scepters, and other horse-related symbology – arguably the most relevant cultural signs associated with Proto-Indo-European speakers in this period.

I haven’t had enough time to read the whole book, but I have read with interest certain important chapters.

About Scepters

Typological classification

The genetic and chronological relationship of horse-head pommel-scepters is classified with incredible detail, to the extent that one could divide subregions among those cultures using them.

Scheme of regional distribution – chronological – typological development of the carved horse-head stone scepters.

Simplified conclusions of this section include (emphasis mine):

  1. The [horse-head pommel-]scepters arose originally in the depth of the Khvalynsk culture. Following the now well-known finds, they are definitely related to those of the Middle Volga group.
  2. horse-head-pommel-scepters-distribution
    General scheme of genetic and chronological development of carved scepters by visual assessment of morphological details.
  3. In their next modifications, these scepters continued to evolve and develop into the area of the Khvalynsk culture in its latest stages, and possibly later.
  4. Simultaneously, with the same modifications, these scepters “are introduced” into common usage in the Novodanilovka culture, which in its spread by one wing was in contact and interspersed immediately with the area of Khvalynsk remains; and on the other hand, far in the south – in the Pre-Kuban and Ciscaucasian regions – within the range of the Domaikopska culture; and in the west – in the Carpathian – Post-Kuban – with the areas of early agricultural cultures Cucuteni A – Trypillia B1, Gumelnița-Karanovo VI.
  5. The simultaneous presence in the areas of the Ciscaucasian, Carpatho-Danubian, and especially Novodinilovka cultures, whose carriers continue the Khvalynian traditions of making stone scepters, and the scepters themselves (in their non-functional implication in the local cultural environment), all definitely allow us to view these findings as imported Novodanilovka objects.
Schematic depiction of the spread of horse-head scepters in the Middle Eneolithic. See a full version with notes here.

Cultural relevance of scepters

The text goes on to make an international comparison of scepters and their relevance as a cultural phenomenon, with its strong symbolic functions as divine object, its use in times of peace, in times of war, and in a system of ritual power.

Restoration of V. A. Dergachev: a) model for restoration – Paleolithic and Neolithic wands; b) the expected appearance of the Eneolithic scepter on the handle with a coupling (according to Dergachev 2007).
Especially interesting is the section dedicated to Agamemnon’s scepter in the Iliad, one of the oldest Indo-European epics. Here is an excerpt from Illiad II.100-110 (see here the Greek version) with the scepter’s human and divine genealogy:

Then among them lord Agamemnon uprose, bearing in his hands the sceptre which Hephaestus had wrought with toil. Hephaestus gave it to king Zeus, son of Cronos, and Zeus gave it to the messenger Argeïphontes; and Hermes, the lord, gave it to Pelops, driver of horses, and Pelops in turn gave it to Atreus, shepherd of the host; and Atreus at his death left it to Thyestes, rich in flocks, and Thyestes again left it to Agamemnon to bear, that so he might be lord of many isles and of all Argos.

About the horse

His studies on horse remains show an interesting, detailed quantitative and statistical approach to the importance and (cultural and chronological) origin of horses (and likely horse domestication) in each culture.

Although the part on horse remains is probably a bit outdated today, after many recent studies of Eneolithic steppe sites (see here one example), it still shows the relative distribution of horse bone remains among different steppe cultures, which is probably similar to what could be reported today:

Territorial distribution of horse remains in the Middle Eneolithic period. Absolute and relative numbers.

Even more interesting is the relationship of the distribution of horse remains with archaeological complexes and horse-related symbols. Some excerpts from the conclusions of this section:

  1. Accounting and analysis of archeo-zoological and archaeological data proper for a horse for a vast area from the Tisza and the Middle Danube to the Caucasus and the Urals (which includes the main cultures of the western agricultural, Caucasian, and Eastern European cultural zones) clearly points to the eastern cultural zone as a zone of the originally the most important social significance of a horse as the only possible zone of the earliest domestication, horseback riding and all-round use of a horse. In relation to the eastern, the western land – the ancient Carpatho-Danubian or the Caucasian cultural zones – are secondary and subordinate to the first on the phenomenon under consideration.
  2. horse-symbols
    Horse-shaped hanger-amulets made of bone.
  3. The first quantitative leap in the manifestation of the remnants of a horse, marking itself and the first qualitative changes in the social status of this animal, is due mainly to the Middle Volga culture of the developed Neolithic of the Middle Volga region (in part, the Southwest Urals), which, accordingly, determine the cultural context, time and geographic region – or, the initial, single and main epicenter of the process of taming and domestication of a horse.
  4. On the one hand, the subsequent substantial increase in the number of horse remnants, and, on the other, the wide inclusion of the horse in cults, rituals, funerary rituals (horse pendants, ornamented metacarpus, horse bones, sacrificial altars) in the Samara culture of the Early Eneolithic of the same region definitely indicates the continuing increase in the social significance of this species of animal, which was most likely expressed in the final design of a specialized horse breeding culture and, accordingly, in a wide range of applications using a horse for riding. At the same time, we can observe the beginning of the transfer of the already domesticated horse from the original historical and geographic epicenter to other cultures of the eastern cultural zone and, in part, the cultures closest to the periphery of this zone, into the western agricultural zone (Bolgrad-Aldeni P, Pre-CuCuteni-Trypillya A) .
  5. expansion-horse-steppe
    Schematic depiction of cultures and regional-chronological distribution of percentage of horse remains. (Depicted are arrows from Middle Volga and Samara culture to the rest)
  6. Middle Eneolithic – early stages. One of the leading places in the remnants of the horse is in the Middle Volga region, the Khvalynsk culture. Genetically related to the Samara, the Khvalynsk I culture preserves the traditions of the ritual, cultural meaning, the treatment of the image of a horse in funerals (altars, horse bones, funerary rituals). But, At the same time, it is in this precise culture that the image of the horse, included in the social symbolism (horse-head pommel-scepter), for the first time it acquires a special, maximum social significance. That is why the appearance and subsequent widespread distribution of the social symbols in Novodanilovka-type objects can definitely be considered as another qualitative leap in the social significance of a horse – its use for military purposes for close and distant expeditions. And such an interpretation is fully confirmed from the analysis of Novodanilovka-type objects, which is the subject of discussion.
  7. Judging by the osteological data and the typological evolution of the horse-head scepters, the Khvalynian culture and remains of the Novodanilovka type are already associated with the relatively widespread and intensive findings of domesticated horses in various areas of the eastern cultural zone (semi-desert regions of the Lower Volga and the Caspian region – Khvalynsk culture, forest-steppe and steppe from the Volga to the Dnieper – Sredni Stog, Repin cultures), and the western – agricultural (Gumelnitsa, Cucuteni A-Tripolye Bl), and the Caucasus (Pre-Maykop) zones, where, however, the horse played a very modest role.
  8. samara-khvalynsk-horses
    Schematic depiction of cultures and regional-chronological distribution of zooarchaeological and ritual data on horses. (Shadowed are from top to bottom the Middle Volga, Samara, Khvalynsk, and Novodanilovka; in bold, other percentages of unrelated cultures: e.g. to the left of Khvalynsk and Novodanilovka, Sredni Stog with 29.65% overall horse bone remains, but 0% of horse symbolism)
  9. From the functional point of view, according to the sum of the data, there is no reason to doubt that in the eastern zone the horse is already present in the Late Neolithic period. Since its domestication and the emergence of a specialized horse breeding, it has been also widely used for meat, milk and dairy products (including the traditional hippace tradition of the later Scythians), and since the beginning of the early Eneolithic for transport and for riding purposes. Another thing is the horse as a means of war, a means of distant travel and expansion. The beginning of the use of a horse for these purposes, in the opinion of the author, is determined by the appearance of social symbolism in the form of horse-head scepters, and is most fully reflected in the memories of the Khvalynsk culture and, in particular, the Novodanilovka type. Concerning western or Caucasian cultural zones related to Khvalynsk, the horse is thought to have been linked to the eastern region, used mainly for riding, as a means of transport and for communication, which, however, does not exclude its use for meat.

These are the main conclusions-interpretations, suggesting the analysis and archaeological and other sources containing information about the horse. And as for our pommel-scepters, then, as can be seen from these sources, the main thing is that the culture of the Middle Volga region, according to all the data, definitely accumulates in itself the longest traditions associated with the gradual increase of social significance of the horse. And if so, this circumstance motivates the possibility or necessity of appearing in the environment of the bearers of this culture of unique signs-symbols that carry within themselves or reflect the image of this animal as an extremely significant social reality. The revealed and characterized quality, as a matter of fact, fill or open by themselves the hypothetical elements we have previously identified, the meanings of that particularity, folded in the social sign-symbol, in our case – the horse-head-shaped scepter.

Archaeological sites with objects (signs-symbols) related to horses. Horse-head scepters included in other maps are excluded from this one (notice the conspicuous absence of such objects in Sredni Stog and neighbouring North Pontic regions).

The relevance of Dergachev’s work

As you certainly know by now if you are a usual reader of this blog, there were two other seminal publications that same year correcting and expanding Gimbutas’ model:

Each one of these works taken independently (especially the books) may give a different version of Proto-Indo-European migrations; Anthony and Dergachev are heirs of Gimbutas’ simplistic kurgan-based model, and of other previous, now rejected ideas, and they reflect them whenever they don’t deal with first-hand investigation (and even sometimes when interpreting their own data). Taken together – and especially in combination with recent genetic studies – , though, they describe a clearer, solider model of how Proto-Indo-Europeans developed and expanded.

Distribution of horse-head scepters, according to Dergachev, Sorokin (1986).

Anthony’s publication overshadowed the importance of Dergachev’s work for the English-speaking world – and by extension for the rest of us. However, V. A. Dergachev’s updated study of his previous work on steppe cultures shows the right, thorough, and diligent way of describing the expansion of early Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka chieftains with the horse and horse symbolism into the Caucasus and the Lower Danube (like the seminal work of Harrison & Heyd 2007 described the expansion of Yamna settlers with East Bell Beakers, culturally opposed to Corded Ware and to the Proto-Beakers). On the other hand, Anthony’s broad-brush, superficial description of thousands of years of potential Indo-European-speaking peoples gave a migration picture that – although generally right (like radiocarbon-based Iberian origin of the Bell Beaker culture was right) – was bound to be wrong in some essential details, as we are seeing in archaeology and genetics.

NOTE. As I have said before, Anthony’s interpretations of Sredni Stog culture representing a sort of ‘peasants’ under the rule of Novodanilovka chiefs was based on old theories of Telegin, who changed his mind – as did the rest of the Russian school well before the publication of Dergachev’s book, considering both as distinct cultural phenomena. Anthony selected the old interpretation, not to follow a Gimbutas / Kristiansen model of Sredni Stog being Indo-European and expanding with GAC into Corded Ware (because, for him, Corded Ware peoples were originally non-Indo-European speakers): he seems to have done it to prove that Proto-Anatolian traveled indeed through the North Pontic area, i.e. to avoid the regional ‘gap’ in the maps, if you like. Then with the expansion of Repin over the area, Sredni Stog peoples would have been absorbed. With genetic investigation, as we know, and with this kind of detailed archaeological studies, the traditional preference for “large and early” IE territories – proper of the mid-20th century – are no longer necessary.

Anthony (2007): “Steppe and Danubian sites at the time of the Suvorovo-Novodanilovka intrusion, about 4200-3900 BC.”

Steppe Eneolithic

We already had in 2016 a Samara hunter-gatherer sample dated ca. 5600 BC, representative of EHG ancestry, of haplogroup R1b1a. We also had three early Khvalynsk samples from Samara Eneolithic dated ca. 4600 BC, with a drift towards (what we believe now is) a population from the Caucasus, showing haplogroups Q1a, R1a1(xM198), and R1b1a, the last one described in its paper as from a high-status burial, similar to high-status individuals buried under kurgans in later Yamna graves (of R1b-L23 lineages), and therefore likely a founder of an elite group of patrilineally-related families, while the R1a1 sample showed scarce decoration, and does not belong to the M417 lineage expanded later in Sredni Stog or Corded Ware.

In 2017 we knew of the Ukraine_Eneolithic sample I6561, from Alexandria, of a precise subclade (L657) of haplogroup R1a-Z93, dated ca. 4000 BC, and likely from the Sredni Stog (or maybe Kvitjana) culture. This sample alone makes it quite likely that the expansion of R1a-Z645 subclades happened earlier than expected, and that it was associated with movements along forest-steppe cultures, most likely along the Upper Dniester or Dnieper-Dniester corridor up to the Forest Zone.

We have now confirmation that Khvalynsk samples from the Yekaterinovka Cape settlement ca. 4250-4000 BC were reported by a genetic lab (to the archaeological team responsible) as being of R1b-L23 subclades, although the precise clades (reported as P312 and U106) are possibly not accurate.

NOTE. Curiously enough, and quite revealing for the close relationship of scepters to the ritual source of power for Khvalynsk chieftains (political and/or religious leaders), the scepter found in the elite burial 45 of the Ekaterinovka cape (a riverine settlement) shows a unique zoomorphic carving, possibly resembling a toothed fish or reptile, rather than the most common horse-related motifs of the time.

Zoomorphic carved stone scepter of the Ekaterinovka Cape burial 45: photos (left) and schematic depiction (right).

With Wang et al. (2018), a real game-changer in the Khvalynsk – Sredni Stog (and also in the Yamna/Bell Beaker – Corded Ware) opposition, we also know that two Steppe Eneolithic samples from the Northern Caucasus Piedmont, dated ca. 4300-4100 BC, show haplogroup R1b1. Although its direct connection to the expansion of early Khvalynsk with horse-related symbolism is not clear from the archaeological information shared (none), this is what the paper has to say about them:

The two distinct clusters are already visible in the oldest individuals of our temporal transect, dated to the Eneolithic period (~6300-6100 yBP/4300-4100 calBCE). Three individuals from the sites of Progress 2 and Vonjuchka 1 in the North Caucasus piedmont steppe (‘Eneolithic steppe’), which harbor Eastern and Caucasian hunter-gatherer related ancestry (EHG and CHG, respectively), are genetically very similar to Eneolithic individuals from Khalynsk II and the Samara region19, 27. This extends the cline of dilution of EHG ancestry via CHG/Iranian-like ancestry to sites immediately north of the Caucasus foothills.

In contrast, the oldest individuals from the northern mountain flank itself, which are three first degree-related individuals from the Unakozovskaya cave associated with the Darkveti-Meshoko Eneolithic culture (analysis label ‘Eneolithic Caucasus’) show mixed ancestry mostly derived from sources related to the Anatolian Neolithic (orange) and CHG/Iran Neolithic (green) in the ADMIXTURE plot (Fig. 2C). While similar ancestry profiles have been reported for Anatolian and Armenian Chalcolithic and Bronze Age individuals20, 23, this result suggests the presence of the mixed Anatolian/Iranian/CHG related ancestry north of the Great Caucasus Range as early as ~6500 years ago.

On the specific burials, we have e.g. the recent open access paper New cases of trepanations from the 5th to 3rd millennia BC in Southern Russia in the context of previous research: Possible evidence for a ritually motivated tradition of cranial surgery?, by Gresky et al. J Am Phys Anthropol (2016):

During the late 5th millennium BC, cultural groups of the Eneolithic occupied the northern circumpontic area and the areas between the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga. For the first time, individual inhumations were placed below low burial mounds (Rassamakin, 2011). During the 4th millennium BC, the area split into two cultural spheres. In the northern steppe area communities continued with the burial practice of crouched inhumations below low mounds, with this culturally transforming into the early Pit Grave culture. In contrast, in the Caucasian foothill zone and the neighbouring steppe, the Majkop-Novosvobodnaya culture emerged (Kohl and Trifonov, 2014). Similarly, during the 3rd millennium BC, two cultural spheres influenced the area: The North Caucasian Culture dominated the Caucasian foothills for the next five centuries, while in the steppe area between the Lower Don and the Caucasus, regional groups of the Catacomb Culture existed side-by-side.

Burials of the Eneolithic epoch (late 5th millennium BC)

The oldest group of individuals with trepanations are found in the North Caucasian variant of the late circumpontic Eneolithic and date to the last third of the 5th millennium BC (Korenevsky, 2012). Burials of this epoch are inhumations in shallow pits, chiefly without burial goods, but covered with large quantities of red ochre. Of special interest is a collective burial of seven individuals from VP 1/12, who were interred together in a secondary burial ritual. The sites of Tuzluki, Mukhin, Voinuchka, Progress, and Sengileevskii all belong to this period.

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.

Without the datasets to test different models, you can only imagine what is happening with the processed, secondary data we have. The position of Eneolithic Steppe cluster in the PCA (probably Khvalynsk-related peoples already influenced by the absorbed, previous Caucasus population), as well as other potential Caucasus groups intermediate between Steppe Maykop and Caucasus Maykop (as suggested by other ancient and modern Caucasus samples), may indicate that Yamna is between Khvalynsk and such intermediate Caucasus populations (as the source of the additional CHG-related ancestry) and – as the paper itself states – that it also received additional EEF contribution, probably from the western cultures absorbed during these Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka migrations (or later during Khvalynsk/Repin migrations).

Also interpreted in light of these early Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka migrations of horse riding chieftains (and their close contacts with the Caucasus), you can clearly see where the similar CHG-like contribution to Ukraine Eneolithic and other North Pontic forest-steppe cultures (which later contributed to Proto-Corded Ware peoples) must have come from. The simplistically reported proportions of EHG:CHG:EEF ancestry might be similar in many of these groups, but the precise origin and evolution of such ancestral components is certainly not the same: statistical methods will eventually show this, when (and if) we have many more samples, but for the moment Y-DNA is the most obvious indicator of such differences.

There was no steppe people speaking a steppe language AKA immutable Proto-Indo-European: the glottochronological models spanning thousands of years are not valid for the steppe, just as they are not valid for an Anatolian homeland, nor for a Caucasus homeland. The actual cultural-historical early Sredni Stog – Khvalynsk community, formed earlier than ca. 5000 BC, is a thousand years older than the expansion of Khvalynsk with the horse, and some two thousand years older than the expansion of Khvalynsk-Repin/Early Yamna migrants (see here for the latest genetic research).

What lies between the formation of that early Eneolithic cultural-historical community, and what we see in archaeology and genetics in Middle and Late Eneolithic steppe cultures, is the radical differentiation of western (Ukraine Eneolithic, mainly forest-steppe) and eastern (Samara and Khvalynsk/Repin, mainly steppe) cultures and peoples, i.e. precisely the period of differentiation of an eastern, Proto-Indo-Hittite-speaking early Khvalynsk community (that expanded with the horse and horse-related symbols) from a western, probably Early Proto-Uralic speaking community of the North Pontic forest-steppe cultural area.

NOTE. I am not against a Neolithic ‘steppe’ language. But this steppe language was spoken before and/or during the first Neolithisation wave, and should be associated with Indo-Uralic. If there was no Indo-Uralic language, then some communities would have developed Early Proto-Indo-European and Early Proto-Uralic side by side, in close contact to allow for dozens of loanwords or wanderwords to be dated to this period (where, simplistically, PIH *H corresponds to EPU *k, with some exceptions).

Map of a) steppe – forest-steppe border during the Eneolithic in the Pontic-Caspian region and b) the border today, showing a more limited steppe zone in the North Pontic area (reason for the specific ways of expansion of horse-related cultures and horse-related nomadic pastoralism during the Eneolithic).

The convergence that we see in PCA and Admixture of Yamna and the earliest Baltic LN / Corded Ware ‘outlier’ samples (if not directly related exogamy of some Baltic LN/CWC groups with Yamna migrants, e.g. those along the Prut), must be traced back to the period of genetic drift that began precisely with these Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka expansions, also closely associated with populations of the Caucasus, thus bringing North Pontic forest-steppe cultures (probably behind Proto-Corded Ware peoples) nearer to Khvalynsk, and both by extension to Yamna.

We have seen this problem arise in Bell Beaker samples expanding all over Europe, turning from a fully Yamnaya-like population to something else entirely in different regions, from more EEF-like to more CWC-like, sharing one common trait: Y-DNA. We are seeing the same happen with Balkan groups and Mycenaeans, with Old Hittites, and with steppe MLBA from Andronovo peoples expanding over Central and South Asia, and we know that patrilineal clans and thus Y-chromosome bottlenecks were common after Neolithisation, especially with nomadic pastoralist steppe clans (and probably also with many previous population expansions).

Steppe Eneolithic peoples were thus no different to other previous and posterior expanding groups, and ancestry is going to be similar for people living in neighbouring regions, so Y-DNA will remain the essential tool to distinguish different peoples (see here a summary of Proto-Indo-Europeans expanding R1b-L23).

We are nevertheless still seeing “R1b zombies” (a quite appropriate name I read on Anthrogenica) still arguing for a Western European origin of R1b-L23 based on EEF-like ancestry and few steppe-related contribution found in Iberian Bell Beakers (read what David Reich has to say on this question); and “OIT zombies” still arguing for IVC representing Proto-Indo-European, based on Iran_N ancestry and the minimal steppe ancestry-related impact on certain ancient Asian cultures, now partly helped by “Caucasus homeland zombies” with the new PIE=CHG model; apart from many other pet theory zombies rising occasionally from their graves here and there. Let’s hope that this virus of the undead theories does not spread too strongly to the R1a-Indo-European association, when the official data on Khvalynsk, West Yamna, and Yamna Hungary come out and show that they were dominated by R1b-L23 lineages.

Because we need to explore in detail the continuation of Khvalynsk-related (potential Proto-Anatolian) cultures in the Lower Danube and the Balkans, e.g. from Cernavoda I to Cernavoda III, then maybe to Ezero, and then to Troy; as well as the specific areas of Late Indo-European expansions associated with Early Yamna settlers turning into Bell Beakers, Balkan EBA, and Steppe MLBA-associated cultures. There is a lot of work to do on proper definition of Bronze Age cultures and their potential dialects, as well as convergence and divergence trends, and not only of Indo-European, but also of Uralic-speaking communities derived from Corded Ware cultures.

If we let the narratives of the 2000s in Genetics (in combination with the 1960s in Archaeology) dominate the conversation, then a lot of time will be absurdly lost until reality imposes itself. And it will.

EDIT (2 JUL 2018): Some sentences corrected, and some information added to the original post.


Paleoenvironment in mid- to late Holocene in the Cis-Ural steppes, and Epigravettian in Eastern Europe

Dynamics of paleoenvironments in the Cis-Ural steppes during the mid- to late Holocene, by Khokhlova, Morgunova, Khokhlov, and Golyeva, Quaternary Research (2018), 1–15.

Interesting excerpts:

About the studied site

The Turganik settlement in the Orenburg Region constitutes part of the so-called Ivanovo microregion of cultural heritage monuments, along with the Mesolithic Starotokskaya site; an Ivanovskoye multi-layered settlement (Neolithic, Eneolithic [or Chalcolithic], Late Bronze Age); Toksky I and Toksky II settlements attributed to the Late Bronze Age (the Timber-Grave archaeological culture); an Ivanovsky ground burial dated to the Eneolithic; and the Ivanovsky kurgan cemetery of the Early Iron Age (Fig. 1).

The ancient settlements are located at the Turganik River mouth, where the river joins the Tok River (the Samara River drainage basin). The Turganik River enters an old channel of the Tok which continues to flow due to that fact. Both valleys are wide and dissected by multiple river channels. The floodplain landscapes are mostly wet meadows with rich herb and grass vegetation, pastures, and hay fields. On both sides of the Turganik River, and farther along the right side of the Tok valley there are flat-topped elevations, with occasional forests (Chibilev, 1996). The Turganik settlement was positioned on a slightly elevated surface at the confluence of the Turganik and Tok rivers, on the right side of the valley. The settlement was inhabited in the Eneolithic and the Late Bronze Age, the fifth to fourth millennia BC.

(a and b) Location of the studied region and (c) the objects of the cultural heritage in the microregion: 1, Turganik settlement; 2, Toksky II settlement; 3, Ivanovsky dune with Ivanovsky ground cemetery; 4, Ivanovskoye II multi-layered settlement; 5, Staro-Tokskaya site; 6, Toksky I settlement; 7, Ivanovsky I kurgan cemetery.

Results and discussion

Pollen assemblages of the Atlantic optimum ~ 5500 yr BP indicate some increase in moisture supply and related afforestation of the floodplain (Lavrushin and Spiridonova, 1995). As follows from our data, the site was abandoned at that time and the no-longer-functioning cultural layer VI was gradually buried under deposits of frequent floods. According to the 14C ages obtained on archeological materials, the age of layer VI (or the second stage of the Eneolithic epoch on the Turganik settlement) may be dated to 4237–3790 cal yr BC, that is, somewhat earlier than the Holocene optimum suggested by palynologists.

Layer V shows another interval marked by increasing climate aridity and the dominance of grass steppes. As stated by the above-cited authors, the climate at the time that layer V was functioning was even dryer than during the formation of layer VI. That is confirmed by our data on the layer V composition, was formed during early Pit-Grave culture (the Early Bronze Age), in the range from 3800–3360 BC, according to the dates obtained on archeological materials (Morgunova et al., 2016b). As follows from the above, the maximum of aridity coincided with the Atlantic optimum.

It follows from the above that the Atlantic period of the Holocene was mostly characterized by arid environments; the peak of aridity fell on the early Bronze Age, the time of the early (Repino) stage of the Yamnaya culture in the Cis-Ural steppes. The Subboreal and Subatlantic periods were relatively colder and more humid, though short episodes of aridity could occur and some of them happened to be recorded in the sequence under study.

The reconstructed history of the climate changes in the Cis-Ural steppes during three intervals of the Holocene is in a good agreement with the results obtained in other regions. According to Alexandrovskiy (1996, 2000; Alexandrovskiy et al., 1999, 2004), the Atlantic period was the most arid one in the south of Russia, the subsequent intervals being comparatively wetter and colder. The extreme aridity was recorded on the Ukraine territory at the final Atlantic period, a few less arid chrono-intervals having been identified over the entire period (Kotova, 2009).

There are, however, other schemes of climate fluctuations in the central part of the Russian steppe zone; a few of them consider the Atlantic period to be humid, or even the most humid, as compared with the second half of the Holocene (Ivanov, 1992; Demkin, 1997). Also acceptable is a scenario of climatic fluctuations occurring at different times in different regions (Chendev et al., 2010). Further investigations and accumulation of empirical data would help to gain a better insight into the problem.


The ancient people inhabited the place from 5000 to 4000 BC (actually throughout the Atlantic period), when the place was not subjected to flooding. At the time of human habitation, the climate was mostly arid. Paleosols of that time are attributable to the Kastanozems (Endosalic Protosodic). They developed under grass (or herb and grass) steppes. The peak of aridity falls on the final Atlantic period. At the end of Eneolithic epoch (the fifth millennium BC) and in the Early Bronze Age (the fourth millennium BC) there were short-term but violent floods, which forced people to leave the habitable place.

During the Subboreal and Subatlantic periods of the Holocene, the climate became more humid, the floods became regular, the vegetation was dominated by meadow forbs and herbs growing on meadow-chernozem soils (Luvic Chernozem [Stagnic]), and the settlement was completely abandoned. In general, the studied sedimentary record at the Turganik archeological site reveals traceable climate change towards lower temperatures and increasing humidity in the second part of the Holocene, with occasional episodes of aridity that did not affect the general trend.

Interesting also the paper Collagen stable isotopes provide insights into the end of the mammoth steppe in the central East European plains during the Epigravettian, by Drucker et al., Quaternary Research (2018), 1-13

Location of the sites considered in this study.

About the studied site

The central East European plains are famous for their Epigravettian sites that date to around 15–12 14C ka BP (ca. 18.2–13.8 cal ka BP) and display impressive large structures made from the bones of woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius; e.g., Gladkih et al., 1984; Soffer, 1985; Hoffecker, 2002). The origin of the large accumulations of mammoth remains is still a matter of debate, with the main hypotheses being the collection of natural occurrences versus active hunting (e.g., Soffer, 1985; Haynes 1989; Svoboda et al., 2005). In favor of this second scenario, studies of the mammoth remains of Yudinovo (Germonpré et al., 2008) concluded that the mammoths were hunted and, at Mezhyrich, mammoths were obtained by combined procurement via collection of carcasses and active hunting (Péan, 2015). Hunting practices were observed in older sites of the Gravettian culture in the Dnieper and Desna valleys (Demay et al., 2016).

Between ca. 22 and 12 14C ka BP (ca. 26.2–13.8 ka cal BP), the Dnieper and Desna basins correspond to the southern part of the geographical distribution of the woolly mammoth (Markova et al., 2013; Kahlke, 2014). Over time their distribution shifted northwards, while the density of the mammoth population decreased (Markova et al., 2013). According to Markova et al. (2013), the combined effect of gradual warming and growing human pressure is most likely to have had a negative impact on the mammoths, resulting in their local extinction in the Russian and Ukrainian plains around 14–12 14C kaBP (ca. 17.0–13.8 ka cal BP; Stuart et al., 2005).

Discussion and conclusion

Measured δ34S and δ15N values on bone collagen of mammoth, large canid, and fox from Mezhyrich (M), Buzhanka 2 (B), Yudinovo (Y), and Eliseevichi (E).

Humans could have taken advantage of the mammoth vulnerability, as reflected by lower δ15N values, to access animals that died naturally, collect bones, and hunt the most fragile individuals. This, with the possible assistance of domesticated dogs as hunting partners, could have countered a possible return to more suitable conditions for mammoth (Sablin and Khlopachev, 2002; Shipman, 2015). Our results confirm at least that mammoth specimens from Mezhyrich, Buzhanka 2, and, to a lesser extent, Eliseevichi were part of late mammoth populations surviving in sub-optimal conditions. They were thus most likely vulnerable to any pressure from environmental and/or human origin. Detecting further such cases among the late surviving mammoth populations using stable isotopic tracking may be a way to test if mammoth populations still had an optimal ecology or were metastable and, therefore, vulnerable to extinction. For instance, the insular Holocene population of mammoth on Saint Paul Island exhibited low and variable δ15N values, indicating suboptimal ecological conditions preceding their final disappearance (Graham et al., 2016).

The results of δ34S analyses showed no differences among mammoth according to the site but possibly a forage range partitioning between mammoth and coexisting large ungulates. Thus, variability in the mobility pattern for the mammoth between the high and low δ15N groups, such as migratory versus sedentary individuals, is not supported so far. We consider that rapid environmental modifications over time, probably not detectable through radiocarbon dating, can be a valid alternative explanation. Combined with direct competition with other large herbivores, such as the horse, and hunting of the most vulnerable individuals, the loss of their optimal habitat was likely to be the driving factor behind the local extinction of the mammoth in the central East European plains.


Domesticated horse population structure, selection, and mtDNA geographic patterns


Open access Detecting the Population Structure and Scanning for Signatures of Selection in Horses (Equus caballus) From Whole-Genome Sequencing Data, by Zhang et al, Evolutionary Bioinformatics (2018) 14:1–9.

Abstract (emphasis mine):

Animal domestication gives rise to gradual changes at the genomic level through selection in populations. Selective sweeps have been traced in the genomes of many animal species, including humans, cattle, and dogs. However, little is known regarding positional candidate genes and genomic regions that exhibit signatures of selection in domestic horses. In addition, an understanding of the genetic processes underlying horse domestication, especially the origin of Chinese native populations, is still lacking. In our study, we generated whole genome sequences from 4 Chinese native horses and combined them with 48 publicly available full genome sequences, from which 15 341 213 high-quality unique single-nucleotide polymorphism variants were identified. Kazakh and Lichuan horses are 2 typical Asian native breeds that were formed in Kazakh or Northwest China and South China, respectively. We detected 1390 loss-of-function (LoF) variants in protein-coding genes, and gene ontology (GO) enrichment analysis revealed that some LoF-affected genes were overrepresented in GO terms related to the immune response. Bayesian clustering, distance analysis, and principal component analysis demonstrated that the population structure of these breeds largely reflected weak geographic patterns. Kazakh and Lichuan horses were assigned to the same lineage with other Asian native breeds, in agreement with previous studies on the genetic origin of Chinese domestic horses. We applied the composite likelihood ratio method to scan for genomic regions showing signals of recent selection in the horse genome. A total of 1052 genomic windows of 10 kB, corresponding to 933 distinct core regions, significantly exceeded neutral simulations. The GO enrichment analysis revealed that the genes under selective sweeps were overrepresented with GO terms, including “negative regulation of canonical Wnt signaling pathway,” “muscle contraction,” and “axon guidance.” Frequent exercise training in domestic horses may have resulted in changes in the expression of genes related to metabolism, muscle structure, and the nervous system.

Bayesian clustering output for 5 K values from K = 2 to K = 8 in 45 domestic horses. Each individual is represented by a vertical line, which is partitioned into colored segments that represent the proportion of the inferred K clusters.

Interesting excerpts:

Admixture proportions were assessed without user-defined population information to infer the presence of distinct populations among the samples (Figure 2). At K = 3 or K = 4, Franches-Montagnes and Arabian forms one unique cluster; at K = 5, Jeju pony forms one unique cluster. For other breeds, comparatively strong population structure exists among breeds, and they can be assigned to 2 (or 3) alternate clusters from K = 3 to K = 5 including group A (Duelmener, Fjord, Icelandic, Kazakh, Lichuan, and Mongolian) and group B (Hanoverian, Morgan, Quarter, Sorraia, and Standardbred). For group A, geographically this was unexpected, where Nordic breeds (Norwegian Fjord, Icelandic, and Duelmener) clustered with Asian breeds including the Mongolian. Previous results of mitochondrial DNA have revealed links between the Mongolian horse and breeds in Iceland, Scandinavia, Central Europe, and the British Isles. The Mongol horses are believed to have been originally imported from Russia subsequently became the basis for the Norwegian Fjord horse.31 At K = 6, Sorraia forms one unique cluster. The Sorraia horse has no long history as a domestic breed but is considered to be of a nearly ancestral type in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.32 However, our result did not support Sorraia as an independent ancestral type based on result from K = 2 to K = 5, and the unique cluster in K = 6 may be explained by the small population size and recently inbreeding programs. Genetic admixture of Morgan reveals that these breeds are currently or traditionally continually crossed with other breeds from K = 2 to K = 8. The Morgan horse has been a largely closed breed for 200 years or more but there has been some unreported crossbreeding in recent times.33

Principal component analysis results of all 48 horses. The x-axis denotes the value of PC1, whereas the y-axis denotes the value of PC2. Each dot in the figure represents one individual.

Bayesian clustering and PCA demonstrated the relationships among the horse breeds with weak geographic patterns. The tight grouping within most native breeds and looser grouping of individuals in admixed breeds have been reported previously in modern horses using data from a 54K SNP chip.33,34 Cluster analysis reveals that Arabian or Franches-Montagnes forms one unique cluster with relatively low K value, which is consistent with former study using 50K SNP chip 33,34 Interestingly, Standardbred forms a unique cluster with relatively high K value in this study, different from previous study.33 To date, no footprints are available to describe how the earliest domestic horses spread into China in ancient times. Our study found that Kazakh and Lichuan were assigned to the same lineage as other native Asian breeds, in agreement with previous studies on the origin of Chinese domestic horses.4,5,35,36 The strong genetic relationship between Asian native breeds and European native breeds have made it more difficult to understand the population history of the horse across Eurasia. Low levels of population differentiation observed between breeds might be explained by historical admixture. Unlike the domestic pig in China,8  we suggest that in China, Northern/Southern distinct groups could not be used to genetically distinct native Chinese horse breeds. We consider that during domestication process of horse, gene flow continued among Chinese-domesticated horses.

Open access Some maternal lineages of domestic horses may have origins in East Asia revealed with further evidence of mitochondrial genomes and HVR-1 sequences, by Ma et al., PeerJ (2018).


There are large populations of indigenous horse (Equus caballus) in China and some other parts of East Asia. However, their matrilineal genetic diversity and origin remained poorly understood. Using a combination of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and hypervariable region (HVR-1) sequences, we aim to investigate the origin of matrilineal inheritance in these domestic horses.

To investigate patterns of matrilineal inheritance in domestic horses, we conducted a phylogenetic study using 31 de novo mtDNA genomes together with 317 others from the GenBank. In terms of the updated phylogeny, a total of 5,180 horse mitochondrial HVR-1 sequences were analyzed.

Eighteen haplogroups (Aw-Rw) were uncovered from the analysis of the whole mitochondrial genomes. Most of which have a divergence time before the earliest domestication of wild horses (about 5,800 years ago) and during the Upper Paleolithic (35–10 KYA). The distribution of some haplogroups shows geographic patterns. The Lw haplogroup contained a significantly higher proportion of European horses than the horses from other regions, while haplogroups Jw, Rw, and some maternal lineages of Cw, have a higher frequency in the horses from East Asia. The 5,180 sequences of horse mitochondrial HVR-1 form nine major haplogroups (A-I). We revealed a corresponding relationship between the haplotypes of HVR-1 and those of whole mitochondrial DNA sequences. The data of the HVR-1 sequences also suggests that Jw, Rw, and some haplotypes of Cw may have originated in East Asia while Lw probably formed in Europe.

Our study supports the hypothesis of the multiple origins of the maternal lineage of domestic horses and some maternal lineages of domestic horses may have originated from East Asia.

Median joining network constructed based on the 247- bp HVR-1 sequences. Circles are proportional to the number of horses represented and a scale indicator (for node sizes) was provided. The length of lines represents the number of variants that separate nodes (some manual adjustment was made for visually good). In the circles, the colors of solid pie slices indicate studied horse populations: Orange, European horses; Blue, horses of West Asia; Light Green, horses from East Asia; Grey, ancient horses; Purper, Przewalskii horses.

Geographic distributions of horse mtDNA haplogroups

The analysis of geographic distribution of the mitochondrial genome haplogroups showed that horse populations in Europe or East Asia included all haplogroups defined from the mtDNA genome sequences. The lineage Fw comprised entirely of Przewalskii horses. The two haplogroups Iw and Lw displayed frequency peaks in Europe (14.08% and 37.32%, respectively) and a decline to the east (9.33% and 8.00% in the West Asia, and 6.45% and 12.90% in East Asia, respectively), especially for Lw, which contained the largest number of European horses (Table 2). However, an opposite distribution pattern was observed for haplogroups Aw, Hw, Jw, and Rw, which were harbored by more horses from East Asia than those from other regions. The proportions of horses from East Asia for the four haplogroups were 38%, 88%, 62%, and 54%, respectively.

Schematic phylogeny of mtDNAs genome from modern horses. This tree includes 348 sequences
and was rooted at a donkey (E. asinus) mitochondrial genome (not displayed). The topology was inferred by a beast approach, whereas a time divergence scale (based on rate substitutions) is shown on the bottom (age estimates were indicated with thousand years (KY)). The percentages on each branch represent Bayesian posterior credibility and the alphabets on the right represent the names of haplogroups. Additional details concerning ages were given in Tables S3 and S6.


Copenhagen group: Germanic and Balto-Slavic from Bell Beaker; Indo-Anatolian homeland in the Caucasus


Article of general knowledge in Der Spiegel, Invasion from the Steppe, with comments from Willerslev and Kristiansen, appeared roughly at the same time as the Damgaard et al. Nature (2018) and Science (2018) papers were published.

NOTE. You can read the article (in German) from Kristiansen’s Academia.edu account.

Excerpts translated from German (emphasis mine):

On the Y-DNA data

Particularly striking is the genetic signature from the steppe on the Y chromosome. From this the researchers conclude that the majority of migrants were males. Kristian Kristiansen, chief archaeologist in the Willerslev team, also has an idea of ​​how this could be explained: “Maybe it’s a rite of initiation, as it was spread among the steppe peoples,” he says.

The younger sons of the Yamnaya herders, who were excluded from the succession, had to seek their fortune on their own. As part of a solemn ritual, they threw themselves to wolves’ skins and then swarmed in warlike gangs to buy their own herds by cattle-stealing.


An ally that they seem to have brought from their homeland may also have contributed to the genetic success of the steppe people: Yersinia pestis, the plague bacterium. Its genes were found by researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Jena – and apparently it emerged exactly at the same time as the Yamnaya thrust began.

About the Hittites

(…) And yet now, where Asia and Europe meet geographically, there is no trace of the Yamnaya genes. The wander-loving people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe apparently found neither the way across the Balkans nor through the Caucasus mountains.

Now the researchers are puzzled: How can it be that a language goes on a walk, without the accompanying speakers coming along? Is it possible that the Indo-European seeped into Anatolia, much like the English language spread today without the need for Englishmen?

Archaeologist Kristiansen does not believe it. The researchers would find it hard to reconsider their theories, he says: “Especially the first chapter of the story has to be rewritten.”

He suspects that there was a predecessor of the Yamnaya culture, in which a kind of Proto-Proto-Indo-European was spoken. And he also has a suspicion, where this people could have drifted around: The Caucasus, says Kristiansen, was their homeland. But that remains unproven: “There’s another hole left,” he admits.

Spread of Indo-European languages

About the Botai

The study of [the Botai] genome revealed that it was genetically radically different from the members of the Yamnaya culture. The Botai, it seems, consistently avoided any contact with their neighbors – even though they must have crossed the territory of the Botai on their migratory waves.

Willerslev assumes that the art of keeping horses from the Yamnaya steppe nomads was adopted from these peoples, and then they developed it further. At some point, the Botai could then have itself become doomed by its groundbreaking innovation: While the descendants of the Yamnaya spread over half of Eurasia, the Botai disappeared without leaving a trace.

Even more interesting than the few words that set the Copenhagen group’s views for future papers (such as the expected Maykop samples with EHG ancestry) is the artistic sketch of the Indo-European migrations, probably advised by the group.

A simple map does not mean that all members of the Danish workgroup have changed their view completely, but I would say it is a great improvement over the previous “arrows of migration” (see here), and it is especially important that they show a more realistic picture of ancient migrations to general readers.

NOTE. Especially absurd is the identification of the ‘Celtic’ expansion with the first Bell Beakers in the British Isles (that idea is hold by few, such as Koch and Cunliffe in their “Celtic from the West” series). Also inexact, but not so worrying, are the identification of ‘Germanic’ in Germany/Únětice, or the spread of ‘Baltic’ and ‘Slavic’ directly to East Europe (i.e. I guess Mierzanowice/Nitra -> Trzciniec), which is probably driven by the need to assert a close connection with early Iranians and thus with their satemization trends.

Also, as we know now thanks to Narasimhan et al. (2018), there is no need to support that convoluted west arrow (representing CWC) from West Yamna to Central Europe, and then to East Yamna, since the Proto-Indo-Iranian community – represented by the Steppe MLBA cloud that later expanded Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages – has a more direct connection with the in situ admixture of Poltavka/Abashevo within the Volga-Ural region.

I think we can keep this from the article:

Their results, as well as those of the competition labs at Harvard University and Jena’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Humanity, leave no doubt: Yes, the legendary herdsmen in the Pontic-Caspian steppe really existed. They belonged to the so-called Yamnaya culture, and they spread, as linguists had predicted, in massive migrations towards Central Europe and India – a later triumph for linguists.

This can be added to a recent comment by de Barros Damgaard:

The project has been an extremely enriching and exciting process. We were able to direct many very different academic fields towards a single coherent approach. By asking the right questions, and keeping limitations of the data in mind, contextualizing, nuancing, and keeping dialogues open between scholars of radically different backgrounds and approaches, we have carved out a path for a new field of research. We have already seen too many papers come out in which models produced by geneticists working on their own have been accepted without vital input from other fields, and, at the other extreme, seen archaeologists opposing new studies built on archaeogenetic data, due to a lack of transparency between the fields.

Data on ancient DNA is astonishing for its ability to provide a fine-grained image of early human mobility, but it does stand on the shoulders of decades of work by scholars in other fields, from the time of excavation of human skeletons to interpreting the cultural, linguistic origins of the samples. This is how cold statistics are turned into history.


Earliest evidence for equid riding in the ancient Near East is a donkey from the Early Bronze Age

Open access Earliest evidence for equid bit wear in the ancient Near East: The “ass” from Early Bronze Age Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath, Israel, by Greenfield et al. PLOS One


Analysis of a sacrificed and interred domestic donkey from an Early Bronze Age (EB) IIIB (c. 2800–2600 BCE) domestic residential neighborhood at Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath, Israel, indicate the presence of bit wear on the Lower Premolar 2 (LPM2). This is the earliest evidence for the use of a bit among early domestic equids, and in particular donkeys, in the Near East. The mesial enamel surfaces on both the right and left LPM2 of the particular donkey in question are slightly worn in a fashion that suggests that a dental bit (metal, bone, wood, etc.) was used to control the animal. Given the secure chronological context of the burial (beneath the floor of an EB IIIB house), it is suggested that this animal provides the earliest evidence for the use of a bit on an early domestic equid from the Near East.

Interesting excerpts:

In contrast to what is known about the use of donkeys for transportation, relatively little is known about their use for riding during this early period [37]. Riding is possible, but fast riding is difficult without some kind of bridle with reins to grasp. Thus, the development of the bit becomes an essential part of the mechanism to control and ride an equid, whether horse, donkey or otherwise [38–41]. While some have tried to argue based on cave art for the presence of bridles (including cheek straps and potentially bits) on equids as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic [42, 43], this perspective has not been accepted [44, 45]. Instead, the weight of the evidence for bridles points toward the Eneolithic and Bronze Age of Kazakhstan and Russia, c. 3500 BCE for horses, not donkeys [38, 40, 46–50]. But, horses are not the earliest domestic equids to appear in the Near East. This role is reserved for the ass/donkey [20, 32, 51].

Photograph of donkey burial from the E5c Stratum of Area E at Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath in Area E as it was being uncovered; facing north.

The earliest unambiguous evidence for bridles and bits in equids in the Near East appear only in the Middle Bronze Age [52, 62, 63], and horses become common only in cuneiform texts and the archaeological record after the turn of the second millennium BC [44]. For example, at the Middle Bronze Age site of Tel Haror, a metal bit was found associated with a donkey burial [63].

Beginning in the Middle Bronze Age, there is a variety of sources that demonstrate that asses were being ridden. In fact, they seem to be the preferred animal ridden for elites in the Early and Middle Bronze Age of Mesopotamia. The earliest clear association of asses being ridden by elites comes from the Old Babylonian period (MBA, 18th century BCE—the Kings of Mari, Syria) [64]. Similarly, by the beginning of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, various texts and iconographic images (e.g. the stela of Serabit el-Khadem) from Egypt and petroglyphs from southern Sinai unambiguously depict and/or describe elites riding asses [5, 65, 66]. The later biblical narrative depicts donkeys carrying the biblical Patriarchs (Abraham), various leaders (such as Saul before he became king), prophets, and judges of Israel [16, 67, 68].

Horses became the standard royal riding animal during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages as they became more prevalent. In later periods, donkeys became associated with humility and the lower classes, and leaders emanating from it (e.g. Jesus).

These finds suggest that bit use on donkeys was already present in the early to mid-3rd millennium BCE, long before the appearance of horses in the ancient Near East. Thus, the appearance of bit use in donkeys in the ancient Near East is not connected to appearance of the horse, contrary to previous suggestions (as already noted by [62]). As such, the impact of the domestic donkey on the cultures of this region and the evolution of early complex societies cannot be underestimated. As with plant and animal domestication, the use of donkeys created a surplus of human labor that allowed for the easy transport of people and goods across the entire Near East. These changes continue to permeate the economic, social, and political aspects of even modern life in many third world countries [3, 8, 9, 93, 94].

So, the first case of equid riding in the Near East, near two of the cradles of civilization (Sumeria and Egypt), is a donkey from the early third millennium BC. Not much in favour of horse domestication (and still less for horse riding) expanding from Norh Iran or the Southern Caucasus to the north.

We already know about domesticated animals in Eneolithic steppe cultures, and there is a clear connection between the appearance of horse riding in Khvalynsk in the early 5th millennium and the expansion of this culture, including Suvorovo-Novodanilovka chiefs as Proto-Anatolians via the Balkans in the second half of the 5th millennium BC, and of Late Proto-Indo-Europeans with late Khvalynsk/Yamna in the late 4th millennium BC.

NOTE. The recent papers of the Copenhagen group made yet another controversial interpretation of genomic findings (see here): they support multiple simultaneous origins for horse-riding technique, in Khvalynsk and Botai, based on the lack of genetic connection between both human populations, with which I can’t agree. Based on the similar time of appearance and the geographic proximity, I think the most likely explanation is expansion of the technique from one to the other, probably – as supported by Anthony’s investigation – from Khvalynsk to neighbouring cultures.