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.


No large-scale steppe migration into Anatolia; early Yamna migrations and MLBA brought LPIE dialects in Asia


Another, simultaneous paper with the Eurasian samples from Nature, The first horse herders and the impact of early Bronze Age steppe expansions into Asia, by de Barros Damgaard et al., Science (2018).

A lot of interesting data, I will try to analyse its main implications, if only superficially, in sections.

Anatolian samples

Anatolia_EBA from Ovaören, and Anatolia_MLBA (this including Assyrian and Old Hittite samples), all from Kalehöyük, show almost no change in Y-DNA lineages (three samples J2a, one G2a), and therefore an origin of these people in common with CHG and Iranian Neolithic populations is likely. No EHG ancestry is found. And PCA cluster is just somehow closer to Europe, but not to EHG populations.

NOTE. Hittite is attested only in the late first half of the 2nd millennium, although the authors cite (in the linguistic supplement) potential evidence from the palatial archives of the ancient city of Ebla in Syria to argue that Indo-European languages may have been already spoken in the region in the late 3rd millennium BCE.

Regarding the Assyrian samples (one J2a) from Ovaören:

Layer V of GT-137 was the richest in terms of architectural finds and dates to the Early Bronze Age II. In this layer, 2 different structures and a well were uncovered. The well was filled with stones, pottery, and human skeletons (Figs. S2 and S3). In total, skeletons belonging to 22 individuals, including adults, young adults, and children, must belong to the disturbed Early Bronze Age II graves adjacent to the well (103). Pottery and stones found below the skeletons demonstrate that the water well was consciously filled and closed. The fill consists of dumped stones, sherds and skeletons, and the closing stones demonstrate that the water well was consciously filled and cancelled.

Regarding the site most likely associated with the emergence of Old Hittite (two samples J2a1, one G2a2b1), this is what we know:

The Middle Bronze Age at Kaman-Kalehöyük represented by stratum IIIc yields material remains (seals and ceramics) contemporary with the international trade system managed by expatriate Assyrian merchants evidenced at the nearby site of Kültepe/Kanesh. It is therefore also referred to as belonging to the “Assyrian Colony Period” (98). The stratum has revealed three burned architectural units, and it has been suggested that the seemingly site-wide conflagration might be connected to a destruction event linked with the emergence of the Old Hittite state (99). (…) Omura (100) suggests that the rooms could belong to a public building, and that it might even be a small trade center based on the types of artifacts recovered. Omura (100) has concluded that the evidence from the first complex indicates a battle between 2 groups took place at the site. It is possible that a group died inside the buildings, mostly perishing in the fire, while another group died in the courtyard.

NOTE. For more on the Old Hittite period, you can read this for example.

Regarding PCA:

The PCA (Fig. 2B) indicates that all the Anatolian genome sequences from the Early Bronze Age ( -2200 BCE) and Late Bronze Age (-1600 BCE) cluster with a previously sequenced Copper Age ( -3900- 3700 BCE) individual from Northwestern Anatolia and lie between Anatolian Neolithic (Anatolia_ N) samples and CHG samples but not between Anatolia_N and EHG samples.

(…) we are not able to reject a two-population qpAdm model in which these groups derive -60% of their ancestry from Anatolian farmers and -40% from CHG-related ancestry (p-value = 0.5). This signal is not driven by Neolithic Iranian ancestry.

Principal Component Analysis estimated with ancient and modern Eurasians.

NOTE. Anatolian Iron Age samples, from the Hellenistic period, which was obviously greatly influenced by different, later Indo-European migrations, does show a change in PCA.

Regarding CHG ancestry:

Ancient DNA findings suggest extensive population contact between the Caucasus and the steppe during the Copper Age (-5000-3000 BCE) (1, 2, 42). Particularly, the first identified presence of Caucasian genomic ancestry in steppe populations is through the Khvalynsk burials (2, 47) and that of steppe ancestry in the Caucasus is through Armenian Copper Age individuals (42). These admixture processes likely gave rise to the ancestry that later became typical of the Yamnaya pastoralists (7), whose IE language may have evolved under the influence of a Caucasian language, possibly ‘from the Maykop culture (50, 55). This scenario is consistent with both the “Copper Age steppe” (4) and the “Caucasian” models for the origin of the Proto-Anatolian language (56).

The CHG specific ancestry and the absence of EHG-related ancestry in Bronze Age Anatolia would be in accordance with intense cultural interactions between populations in the Caucasus and Anatolia observed during the late 5th millennium BCE that seem to come to an end in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE with the village-based egalitarian Kura-Araxes society (59, 60), thus preceding the emergence and dispersal of Proto-Anatolian.

Our results indicate that the early spread of IE languages into Anatolia was not associated with any large-scale steppe-related migration, as previously suggested (61). Additionally, and in agreement with the later historical record of the region (62), we find no correlation between genetic ancestry and exclusive ethnic or political identities among the populations of Bronze Age Central Anatolia, as has previously been hypothesized ( 63).

The Anatolian question

There is no steppe ancestry or R1b-M269 lineages near early historic Hittites. Yet.

Nevertheless, we already know about potentially similar cases:

So there seems to be thus no theoretical problem in accepting:

  • That neither steppe ancestry nor R1b-M269 subclades, already diminished in Bulgaria in the mid-5th millennium, did reach Anatolia, but only those Common Anatolian-speaking Aegean groups over whose ancestors Proto-Anatolians (marked by incoming EHG ancestry) would have previously dominated in the Balkans.
  • That steppe ancestry and R1b-M269 subclades did in fact arrive in the Aegean, but EHG was further diluted among the CHG-related population by the time of the historic Anatolian-speaking peoples in central Anatolia. Or, the most likely option, that their trace have not been yet found. Probably the western Luwian peoples, near Troy, were genetically closer to Common Anatolians.

Both of these scenarios are interesting, in that they show potential links between Pre-Greek peoples of Hellas (related to Anatolians) and the Pelasgian substrate of early Greek dialects, since they show a similar recent CHG-related wave from the East.

What we can assert right now is that Proto-Anatolian must have separated quite early for this kind of data to show up. This should mean an end to the Late PIE origin of Anatolian, if there was some lost soul from the mid-20th century still rooting for this.

As I said in my review of Lazaridis’ latest preprint, we will have to wait for the appropriate potential routes of expansion of Proto-Anatolian to be investigated. As he answered, the lack of EHG poses a problem for steppe expansion into Anatolia, but there is still no better alternative model proposed.

Model-based clustering analysis of present-day and ancient individuals assuming K = 6 ancestral components. The main ancestry components at K = 6 correlate well with CHG (turquoise), a major component of Iran_N, Namazga_CA and South Asian dines; EHG (pale blue), a component of the steppe dine and present in South Asia; East Asia (yellow ochre), the other component of the steppe d ine also in Tibeto-Burman South Asian populations; South Indian (pink), a core component of South Asian populations; Anatolian_N (purple), an important component of Anatolian Bronze Age and Steppe_MLBA; Onge (dark pink) forms its own component.

This is what the authors have to say:

Our findings are thus consistent with historical models of cultural hybridity and “Middle Ground” in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual but genetically homogeneous Bronze Age Anatolia (68, 69). Current linguistic estimations converge on dating the Proto-Anatolian split from residual PIE to the late 5th or early 4th millennia BCE (58, 70) and place the breakup of Anatolian IE inside Turkey prior to the mid-3rd millennium (53, 71,72).

We cannot at this point reject a scenario in which the introduction of the Anatolian IE languages into Anatolia was coupled with the CHG-derived admixture prior to 3700 BCE, but note that this is contrary to the standard view that PIE arose in the steppe north of the Caucasus (4) and that CHG ancestry is also associated with several non-IE-speaking groups, historical and current. Indeed, our data are also consistent with the first speakers of Anatolian IE coming to the region by way of commercial contacts and small-scale movement during the Bronze Age. Among comparative linguists, a Balkan route for the introduction of Anatolian IE is generally considered more likely than a passage through the Caucasus, due, for example, to greater Anatolian IE presence and language diversity in the west (73). Further discussion of these options is given in the archaeological and linguistic supplementary discussions (48, 49).

If you are asking yourselves why the Danish school (of Allentoft, Kristiansen, and Kroonen, co-authors of this paper) was not so fast to explain the findings the same way the proposed their infamous Indo-European – steppe ancestry association (i.e. ancestry = language, ergo CHG = PIE in this case), and resorted to mainstream anthropological models instead to explain the incongruence, I can think of two main reasons:

The possibility of having an early PIE around the Caucasus, potentially closely related not only to Uralic to the north, but also to Caucasian languages, Sumerian, Afroasiatic, Elamo-Dravidian, etc. could be a good reason for those excited with these few samples to begin dealing with macro-language proposals, such as Eurasiatic and Nostratic. If demonstrated to be true, a Northern Iranian origin of Middle PIE would also help relieve a little bit the pressure that some are feeling about the potentially male-driven Indo-European continuity (even if not “autochthonous”) associated with the expansion of R1b-L23 subclades.

On the other hand, I am a firm supporter of solid anthropological models of migration, and of “late and small” language expansions, usually accompanied by demic diffusion, which has been demonstrated to be linked with haplogroup expansion and reduction in variability.

Therefore, for the moment, even if it is weak – as weak as it always was (but still stronger than Gimbutas’ Maykop route) – the Balkan route seems like the best fit for all the data combined.

In fact, we already have steppe ancestry moving into the Lower Danube and Bulgaria in the mid-5th millennium. Let’s not forget that.

Yamna expansion to the East

Interesting data from an early East Yamna offshoot at Karagash, ca. 3018-2887 BC, of R1b-Z2106 lineage, which shows some ancestry, lineage, and cultural continuity in Sholpan, ca. 2620-2468 BC, in Kazakhstan.

This sample might be part of another descendant group from the migration waves that reached Afanasevo, and can thus be related to other early Asian R1b-L23 samples found in Narasimhan et al. (2018).

On the formation of Yamna and its CHG contribution, from the supplementary material:

  1. An admixture event, where Yamnaya is formed from a CHG population related to KK1 [=Kotias, dated ca. 7800 BC] and an ANE population related to Sidelkino and Botai. We inferred 54% of the Yamnaya ancestry to come from CHG and the remaining 46% to come from ANE.
  2. A split event, where the CHG component of Yamnaya splits from KK1. The model inferred this time at 27 kya (though we note the larger models in Sections S2.12.4 and S2.12.5 inferred a more recent split time [see below graphic]).
  3. A split event, where the ANE component of Yamnaya splits from Sidelkino. This was inferred at about about 11 kya.
  4. A split event, where the ANE component of Yamnaya splits from Botai. We inferred this to occur 17 kya. Note that this is above the Sidelkino split time, so our model infers Yamnaya to be more closely related to the EHG Sidelkino, as expected.
  5. An ancestral split event between the CHG and ANE ancestral populations. This was inferred to occur around 40 kya.
A 10-leaf model based on combining the models in Fig. S16 and Fig. S19 and re-estimating the model parameters.

On the expansion of domestication

CHG is not found in Botai, no gene flow from Yamna is found in its samples, and they are more related to East Asians, while Yamna is related to West Eurasians:

The lack of evidence of admixture between Botai horse herders and western steppe pastoralists is consistent with these latter migrating through the central steppe but not settling until they reached the Altai to the east (4). More significantly, this lack of admixture suggests that horses were domesticated by hunter-gatherers not previously familiar with farming, as were the cases for dogs (38) and reindeer (39). Domestication of the horse thus may best parallel that of the reindeer, a food animal that can be milked and ridden, which has been proposed to be domesticated by hunters via the “prey path” (40); indeed anthropologists note similarities in cosmological beliefs between hunters and reindeer herders (41). In contrast, most animal domestications were achieved by settled agriculturalists (5).

NOTE. I am not sure, but they seem to hint that there were separate events of horse domestication and horse-riding technique by the Botai and Yamna populations due to their lack of genetic contribution from the latter to the former. I guess they did not take into account farming spreading to the steppe without genetic contribution beyond the Dnieper… In fact, the superiority in horse-riding shown by the expanding Yamna peoples – as they state – should also serve to suggest from where the original technique expanded.

Indo-Iranian migrations

On the expansion of Yamna, and the different expansion of Steppe MLBA (with Indo-Iranian speakers) into Asia, further supporting Narasimhan et al. (2018), they have this to say:

However, direct influence of Yamnaya or related cultures of that period is not visible in the archaeological record, except perhaps for a single burial mound in Sarazm in present-day Tajikistan of contested age (44, 45). Additionally, linguistic reconstruction of proto-culture coupled with the archaeological chronology evidences a Late (-2300-1200 BCE) rather than Early Bronze Age (-3000-2500 BCE) arrival of the Indo-Iranian languages into South Asia (16, 45, 46). Thus, debate persists as to how and when Western Eurasian genetic signatures and IE languages reached South Asia.

Samples from the Namazga region (current Turkmenistan) from the Iron Age show an obvious influence from steppe MLBA (ca. 2300-1200 BC), and not steppe EBA (i.e. Yamna), population, in contrast with samples from the Chalcolithic (ca. 3300 BC), which don’t show this influence. This helps distinguish prior contacts with Iran Neolithic from the actual steppe population that expanded Indo-Iranian into Asia.

Very interesting therefore the Namazga CA sample (ca. 855 BC), of R1a-Z93 subclade, showing the sign of immigrant Indo-Aryans in the region. For more on this we will need an evaluation in common with the corrected data from Narasimhan et al. (2018), and all, including de Barros (Nature 2018), in combination with statistical methods to ascertain differences between early Indo-Aryans and Iranians.

A summary of the four qpAdm models fitted for South Asian populations. For each modern South Asian population. we fit different models with qpAdm to explain their ancestry composition using ancient groups and present the f irst model that we could not reject in the following priority order: 1. Namazga_CA + Onge, 2. Namazga_CA + Onge + Late Bronze Age Steppe, 3. Namazga_CA + Onge + Xiongnu_lA (East Asian proxy). and 4. Turkmenistan_lA + Xiongnu_lA. Xiongnu_lA were used here to represent East Asian ancestry. We observe that while South Asian Dravidian speakers can be modeled as a mixture of Onge and Namazga_CA. an additional source related to Late Bronze Age steppe groups is required for IE speakers. In Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic speakers. an East Asian rather than a Steppe_MLBA source is required.

Siberian peoples and N1c lineages

We have already seen how the paper on Eurasian steppe samples tries to assign Uralic to Neolithic peoples east of the Urals. The association with Okunevo is unlikely, since most are of haplogroup Q1a2, but they seem to suggest (combining both papers) that they accompanied N lineages from Siberian hunter-gatherers (present e.g. in Botai or Shamanka II, during the Early Neolithic), and formed part of (or suffered from) different demic diffusion waves:

These serial changes in the Baikal populations are reflected in Y-chromosome lineages (Fig. SA; figs. S24 to S27, and tables S13 and SI4). MAI carries the R haplogroup, whereas the majority of Baikal_EN males belong to N lineages, which were widely distributed across Northern Eurasia (29), and the Baikal_LNBA males all carry Q haplogroups, as do most of the Okunevo_EMBA as well as some present-day Central Asians and Siberians.

NOTE. Also interesting to see no R1a in Baikal hunter-gatherers after ca. 3500 BC, and a prevalence of N lineages as supported in a previous paper on the Kitoi culture, which some had questioned in the past.

In fact, the only N1c1 sample comes from Ust’Ida Late Neolithic, 180km to the north of Lake Baikal, apparently before the expansion of Q1a2a lineages during the EBA period. While this sample may be related to those expanded later in Finno-Ugric territory (although it may only be related to those expanded much later with Yakuts), other samples are not clearly from those found widely distributed among North-East Europeans only after the Iron Age, or – as in the case of Shamanka II (N1c2), they are clearly not of the same haplogroup.

Geographical location of ancient samples belonging to major clade N of the Y-chromosome.


It is great to see the paper and the supplementary material deal with Y-DNA haplogroups and their relevance for migrations with such detail. Especially because this paper comes from the same Copenhagen-based research group that originally associated ancestry with language, creating thus today’s mess based on steppe ancestry.

Regarding Y-DNA data, once again almost 100% of samples from late Khvalynsk/Yamna and derived cultures (like Afanasevo and Bell Beaker) are R1b-L23, no single R1a-M417 lineage found, and few expected by now, if any, within Late Proto-Indo-European territory.

While they claim to take Y-DNA into account to assess migrations – as they do for example with Asian cultures – , their previous model of a Yamna “R1a-R1b community” remains oddly unchanged, and they even insist on it in the supplementary materials, as they do in their parallel Nature paper.

They have also expressly mitigated the use of ancestral components to assess populations, citing the ancestral and modern association of CHG ancestry with different ethnolinguistic groups in the Middle East, to dismiss any rushed conclusions on the origin of Anatolian, and consequently of Middle PIE. And they did so evidently because it did not fit the anthropological data that is mainstream today (supporting a Balkan route), which is the right thing to do.

However, they have apparently not stopped to reconsider the links of CWC and steppe ancestry to ancestral and modern Uralic peoples – although they expressly mention the strong connection with modern Karelians in the supplementary material.

Also, after Narasimhan et al. (2018), there is a clear genetic continuity with East Yamna (in ancestry as in R1b-L23 subclades), so their interpretations about Indo-Iranian in this paper and especially de Barros (Nature 2018) – regarding the Abashevo -> Sintashta/Srunba/Andronovo connection – come, again, too late.


Olalde et al. and Mathieson et al. (Nature 2018): R1b-L23 dominates Bell Beaker and Yamna, R1a-M417 resurges in East-Central Europe during the Bronze Age

The official papers Olalde et al. (Nature 2018) and Mathieson et al. (Nature 2018) have appeared. They are based on the 2017 preprints at BioRxiv The Beaker Phenomenon And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe and The Genomic History Of Southeastern Europe respectively, but with a sizeable number of new samples.

Papers are behind a paywall, but here are the authors’ shareable links to read the papers and supplementary materials: Olalde et al. (2018), Mathieson et al. (2018).

NOTE: The corresponding datasets have been added to the Reich Lab website. Remember you can use my drafts on DIY Human Ancestry analysis (viz. Plink/Eigensoft, PCA, or ADMIXTURE) to investigate the data further in your own computer.

Image modified by me, from Olalde et al (2018). PCA of 999 Eurasian individuals. Marked is the late CWC outlier sample from Esperstedt, showing how early East Bell Beaker samples are the closest to Yamna samples.

I don’t have time to analyze the samples in detail right now, but in short they seem to convey the same information as before: in Olalde et al. (2018) the pattern of Y-DNA haplogroup and steppe ancestry distribution is overwhelming, with an all-R1b-L23 Bell Beaker people accompanying steppe ancestry into western Europe.

EDIT: In Mathieson et al. (2018), a sample classified as of Ukraine_Eneolithic from Dereivka ca. 2890-2696 BC is of R1b1a1a2a2-Z2103 subclade, so Western Yamna during the migrations also of R1b-L23 subclades, in contrast with the previous R1a lineages in Ukraine. In Olalde et al. (2018), it is clearly stated that of the four BB individuals with higher steppe ancestry, the two with higher coverage could be classified as of R1b-S116/P312 subclades.

This is compatible with the expansion of Indo-European-speaking Yamna migrants (also mainly of R1b-L23 subclades) into the East Bell Beaker group, as described with detail in Archaeology (and with the population movement we are seeing having been predicted) first by Volker Heyd in 2007.

Yamna – East Bell Beaker migration 3000-2300 BC. Adapted from Harrison and Heyd (2007), Heyd (2007)

Also, the resurge of R1a-Z645 subclades in Czech and Polish lands (from previous Corded Ware migrants) accompanying other lineages indigenous to the region – seems to have happened only after the Bell Beaker expansion into these territories, during the Bronze Age, probably leading to the formation of the Balto-Slavic community, as I predicted based on previous papers. The fact that a sample of R1b-U106 subclade pops up in this territory is interesting from the point of view of a shared substrate with Germanic, as is the earlier BB sample of R1b-Z2103 for its connection with Graeco-Aryan dialects.

All this suggests that a North-West Indo-European dialect – ancestor of Italo-Celtic, Germanic, and Balto-Slavic -, supported in Linguistics by most modern Indo-European schools of thought, expanded roughly along the Danube, and later to northern, eastern, and western Europe with the Bell Beaker expansion, as supported in Anthropology by Mallory (in Celtic from the West 2, 2013), and by Prescott for the development of a Nordic or Pre-Germanic language in Scandinavia since 1995.

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

Maybe more importantly, the fact that only Indo-Iranian-speaking Sintashta-Petrovka (and later Andronovo) cultures were clearly associated with R1a-Z645 subclades, and rather late – after mixing with early Chalcolithic North Caspian steppe groups (mainly East Yamna and Poltavka herders of R1b-L23 subclades) – gives support to the theory that Corded Ware (and probably the earlier Sredni Stog) groups did not speak or spread Indo-European languages with their migration, but most likely Uralic – as seen in recent papers on the much later arrival of haplogroup N1c – (compatible with the Corded Ware substrate hypothesis), adopting Indo-Iranian by way of cultural diffusion or founder effect events.

As Sheldon Cooper would say,

Under normal circumstances I’d say I told you so. But, as I have told you so with such vehemence and frequency already the phrase has lost all meaning. Therefore, I will be replacing it with the phrase, I informed you thusly

I informed you thusly:

“How Asian nomadic herders built new Bronze Age cultures”

I recently wrote about a good informal summary of genomic research in 2017 for geneticists.

I found a more professional review article, How Asian nomadic herders built new Bronze Age cultures, by Bruce Bower, appeared in Science News (25th Nov. 2017).

NOTE: I know, I know, the Pontic-Caspian steppe is in East Europe, not Asia, but what can you do about people’s misconceptions regarding European geography? After all, the division is a conventional one, there are not many landmarks to divide Eurasia…

It refers to Kristiansen’s model, which we already know supports the expansion of IE languages with the Corded Ware culture, and a later Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker migration. This is followed by many geneticists today as “The steppe model”.

Corded Ware culture emerged as a hybrid way of life that included crop cultivation, breeding of farm animals and some hunting and gathering, Kristiansen argues. Communal living structures and group graves of earlier European farmers were replaced by smaller structures suitable for families and single graves covered by earthen mounds. Yamnaya families had lived out of their wagons even before trekking to Europe. A shared emphasis on family life and burying the dead individually indicates that members of the Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures kept possessions among close relatives, in Kristiansen’s view.

“The Yamnaya and the Corded Ware culture were unified by a new idea of transmitting property between related individuals and families,” Kristiansen says.

Yamnaya migrants must have spoken a fledgling version of Indo-European languages that later spread across Europe and parts of Asia, Kristiansen’s group contends. Anthony, a longtime Kristiansen collaborator, agrees. Reconstructed vocabularies for people of the Corded Ware culture include words related to wagons, wheels and horse breeding that could have come only from the Yamnaya, Anthony says.

As Indo-European languages spread, the Yamnaya’s genetic impact in Europe remained substantial, even after the disappearance of Corded Ware culture around 4,400 years ago, Reich’s team reported online May 9 at bioRxiv.org. About 50 percent of the ancestry of individuals from a later Bronze Age culture, dubbed the Bell Beaker culture for its pottery vessels shaped like an inverted bell, derived from Yamnaya stock. Such pottery spread across much of Europe starting nearly 4,770 years ago and disappeared by 3,800 years ago. Migrations of either people or ideas may have accounted for that dispersal.

NOTE. Anthony, as we know, has already changed his mind with the most recent data.

The author juxtaposes other opinions, to somehow balance the article:

Like many of his colleagues, archaeologist Volker Heyd of the University of Bristol in England was jolted by the 2015 reports of a close genetic link between Asian herders and a Bronze Age culture considered native to Europe. But, Heyd says, the story of ancient Yamnaya migrations is more complex than the rapid-change scenario sketched out by Kristiansen and Anthony.

No evidence exists that Yamnaya people rapidly developed practices typical of the Corded Ware culture in one part of Europe, Heyd argues in the April Antiquity. Cultural shifts in Europe around 5,000 years ago must have emerged from an extended series of small-scale dealings with Yamnaya and other pastoralists, which was then capped off by a large influx of steppe wagon travelers, he says.

For instance, individual graves and other signs of contact with the Yamnaya people and even earlier Asian pastoralists appear in Europe 1,000 to 2,000 years before DNA-transforming migrations occurred. Consider that the Yamnaya account for 5 percent of the ancestry of Ötzi the Iceman, who lived in southeastern Europe roughly 300 years before the Yamnaya’s big move (SN: 5/27/17, p. 13). Little is known about those earlier encounters.

Efforts to decipher ties between Yamnaya and Corded Ware culture are complicated by the fact that DNA is available from just a few people from each group, says Heyd, who is currently excavating Yamnaya graves in Hungary. Ancient DNA samples analyzed in the 2015 papers come from only a handful of Yamnaya and Corded Ware culture sites in a few parts of Europe and Russia.

Heyd suspects that Yamnaya travelers had even earlier contacts, perhaps by 5,400 years ago, with central and eastern Europeans known for making globe-shaped pots with small handles. Individuals from that culture, excavated at two sites in Poland and Ukraine, possess no Yamnaya genes, a team affiliated with Reich’s lab reported online May 9 at bioRxiv.org. But Heyd thinks mating between members of that European culture and Yamnaya migrants may have occurred a bit farther east, where cross-cultural contacts probably occurred at the boundary of European forests and Asian grasslands.

Other genetic clues point to a long history of Asian pastoralists crossing into parts of Europe. Small amounts of DNA from steppe herders, possibly the Yamnaya, appeared in three hunter-gatherer skeletons from southeastern Europe dating to as early as around 6,500 years ago.

It is always interesting to see how reports gradually evolve, including more and more doubts about the ‘Yamnaya component’, and how it may be correctly interpreted. Slow but steady wins the race.

Check out the full article.

Featured image: from the article, based on the 2015 papers and Kristiansen’s model.

See also:

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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