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The Kurgan hypothesis (also known as the Kurgan theory or Kurgan model) is the most widely accepted proposal to identify the Proto-Indo-European homelands from which spread of the Indo-European languages occurred. It postulates that the people of a Kurgan culture in the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea were the most likely speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE). The term is derived from the Russian kurgan (курган) meaning tumulus or burial mound.
The Kurgan hypothesis was first formulated in the 1950s by Marija Gimbutas, who used the term to group various cultures, including the Yamna, or Pit Grave, culture and its predecessors. David Anthony instead uses the core Yamna Culture and its relationship with other cultures as a point of reference.
Marija Gimbutas defined the Kurgan culture as composed of four successive periods, with the earliest (Kurgan I) including the Samara and Seroglazovo cultures of the Dnieper/Volga region in the Copper Age (early 4th millennium BC). The people of these cultures were nomadic pastoralists, who, according to the model, by the early 3rd millennium BC had expanded throughout the Pontic-Caspian steppe and into Eastern Europe.
Arguments for the identification of the Proto-Indo-Europeans as steppe nomads from the Pontic-Caspian region had already been made in the 19th century by German philologists Theodor Benfey and pre-eminently Otto Schrader. In his standard work about PIE and to a greater extent in a later abbreviated version, Karl Brugmann took the view that the Urheimat could not be identified exactly at that time, but he tended toward Schrader’s view. Later on, some scholars favoured the view of a Northern European origin. The view of a Pontic origin was still strongly favoured, e.g., by the archaeologist Ernst Wahle. One of Wahle's students was Jonas Puzinas, who in turn was one of Gimbutas’ teachers. Gimbutas, who acknowledges Schrader as a precursor, was able to marshal a wealth of archaeological evidence from the territory of the Soviet Union (and other countries then belonging to the eastern bloc) not readily available to scholars from western countries, enabling her to achieve a fuller picture of prehistoric Europe.
When it was first proposed in 1956, in The Prehistory of Eastern Europe, Part 1, Marija Gimbutas's contribution to the search for Indo-European origins was an interdisciplinary synthesis of archaeology and linguistics. The Kurgan model of Indo-European origins identifies the Pontic-Caspian steppe as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) Urheimat, and a variety of late PIE dialects are assumed to have been spoken across the region. According to this model, the Kurgan culture gradually expanded until it encompassed the entire Pontic-Caspian steppe, Kurgan IV being identified with the Yamna culture of around 3000 BC.
The mobility of the Kurgan culture facilitated its expansion over the entire region, and is attributed to the domestication of the horse and later the use of early chariots. The first strong archaeological evidence for the domestication of the horse comes from the Sredny Stog culture north of the Azov Sea in Ukraine, and would correspond to an early PIE or pre-PIE nucleus of the 5th millennium BC.
Subsequent expansion beyond the steppes led to hybrid, or in Gimbutas's terms "kurganized" cultures, such as the Globular Amphora culture to the west. From these kurganized cultures came the immigration of Proto-Greeks to the Balkans and the nomadic Indo-Iranian cultures to the east around 2500 BC.
Gimbutas defined and introduced the term "Kurgan culture" in 1956 with the intention of introducing a "broader term" that would combine Sredny Stog II, Pit-Grave and Corded ware horizons (spanning the 4th to 3rd millennia in much of Eastern and Northern Europe). The model of a "Kurgan culture" brings together the various cultures of the Copper Age to Early Bronze Age (5th to 3rd millennia BC) Pontic-Caspian steppe to justify their identification as a single archaeological culture or cultural horizon, based on similarities among them. The eponymous construction of kurgans (mound graves) is only one among several factors. As always in the grouping of archaeological cultures, the dividing line between one culture and the next cannot be drawn with hard precision and will be open to debate.
Cultures that Gimbutas considered as part of the "Kurgan culture":
- Bug-Dniester (6th millennium)
- Samara (5th millennium)
- Kvalynsk (5th millennium)
- Sredny Stog (mid-5th to mid-4th millennia)
- Dnieper-Donets (5th to 4th millennia)
- Usatovo culture (late 4th millennium)
- Maikop-Dereivka (mid-4th to mid-3rd millennia)
- Yamna (Pit Grave): This is itself a varied cultural horizon, spanning the entire Pontic-Caspian steppe from the mid-4th to the 3rd millennium.
Stages of culture and expansion
Gimbutas' original suggestion identifies four successive stages of the Kurgan culture:
- Kurgan I, Dnieper/Volga region, earlier half of the 4th millennium BC. Apparently evolving from cultures of the Volga basin, subgroups include the Samara and Seroglazovo cultures.
- Kurgan II–III, latter half of the 4th millennium BC. Includes the Sredny Stog culture and the Maykop culture of the northern Caucasus. Stone circles, anthropomorphic stone stelae of deities.
- Kurgan IV or Pit Grave culture, first half of the 3rd millennium BC, encompassing the entire steppe region from the Ural to Romania.
There were three successive proposed "waves" of expansion:
- Wave 1, predating Kurgan I, expansion from the lower Volga to the Dnieper, leading to coexistence of Kurgan I and the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture. Repercussions of the migrations extend as far as the Balkans and along the Danube to the Vinča culture in Serbia and Lengyel culture in Hungary.
- Wave 2, mid 4th millennium BC, originating in the Maykop culture and resulting in advances of "kurganized" hybrid cultures into northern Europe around 3000 BC (Globular Amphora culture, Baden culture, and ultimately Corded Ware culture). According to Gimbutas this corresponds to the first intrusion of Indo-European languages into western and northern Europe.
- Wave 3, 3000–2800 BC, expansion of the Pit Grave culture beyond the steppes, with the appearance of the characteristic pit graves as far as the areas of modern Romania, Bulgaria, eastern Hungary and Georgia, coincident with the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture and Trialeti culture in Georgia (c.2750 BC).
- 4500–4000: Early PIE. Sredny Stog, Dnieper-Donets and Samara cultures, domestication of the horse (Wave 1).
- 4000–3500: The Pit Grave culture (a.k.a. Yamna culture), the prototypical kurgan builders, emerges in the steppe, and the Maykop culture in the northern Caucasus. Indo-Hittite models postulate the separation of Proto-Anatolian before this time.
- 3500–3000: Middle PIE. The Pit Grave culture is at its peak, representing the classical reconstructed Proto-Indo-European society with stone idols, predominantly practicing animal husbandry in permanent settlements protected by hillforts, subsisting on agriculture, and fishing along rivers. Contact of the Pit Grave culture with late Neolithic Europe cultures results in the "kurganized" Globular Amphora and Baden cultures (Wave 2). The Maykop culture shows the earliest evidence of the beginning Bronze Age, and Bronze weapons and artifacts are introduced to Pit Grave territory. Probable early Satemization.
- 3000–2500: Late PIE. The Pit Grave culture extends over the entire Pontic steppe (Wave 3). The Corded Ware culture extends from the Rhine to the Volga, corresponding to the latest phase of Indo-European unity, the vast "kurganized" area disintegrating into various independent languages and cultures, still in loose contact enabling the spread of technology and early loans between the groups, except for the Anatolian and Tocharian branches, which are already isolated from these processes. The Centum-Satem break is probably complete, but the phonetic trends of Satemization remain active.
Further expansion during the Bronze Age
The Kurgan hypothesis describes the initial spread of Proto-Indo-European during the 5th and 4th millennia BC. As used by Gimbutas, the term "kurganized" implied that the culture could have been spread by no more than small bands who imposed themselves on local people as an elite. This idea of the PIE language and its daughter-languages diffusing east and west without mass movement proved popular with archaeologists in the 1970s (the pots-not-people paradigm). The question of further Indo-Europeanization of Central and Western Europe, Central Asia and Northern India during the Bronze Age is beyond its scope, far more uncertain than the events of the Copper Age, and subject to some controversy. The rapidly developing field of archaeogenetics and genetic genealogy since the late 1990s has not only confirmed a migratory pattern out of the Pontic Steppe at the relevant time, it also suggests the possibility that the population movement involved was more substantial than anticipated.
The Anatolian languages are a family of extinct Indo-European languages that were spoken in Asia Minor (ancient Anatolia), the best attested of them being the Hittite language. Under Marija Gimbutas' Kurgan hypothesis, Proto-Anatolians are believed to have taken a route either from the Caucasus or the Balkan Peninsula. Development of Proto-Anatolian in the Balkan Peninsula is considered more likely and Anatolians seem to have entered Asia Minor in successive waves from the Balkan Peninsula. The Hittites were an ancient Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC. This empire reached its height during the mid-14th century BC under Suppiluliuma I, when it encompassed an area that included most of Asia Minor as well as parts of the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. After c. 1180 BC, the empire came to an end during the Bronze Age collapse, splintering into several independent "Neo-Hittite" city-states, some of which survived until the 8th century BC.
The Corded Ware culture (2900 BCE - 2350 BCE) was a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze age Indo-European archaeological culture of Europe. Corded Ware encompassed most of continental Northern Europe, coastal Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula.
A genetic study conducted by Haak et al. (2015) found that the ancestral contribution to the Corded Ware culture came from the Yamnaya culture, tracing the origin of Corded Ware culture to migrations from the Yamnaya steppes. The study found that about 75% of the DNA of Late Neolithic Corded Ware skeletons in Germany was the same as Yamnaya DNA.
Wilde et al. (2014) and Haak et al. (2015) also found that Yamnaya Indo-Europeans who migrated to Europe were overwhelmingly dark-eyed (brown), dark-haired and had a skin colour that was moderately light, though somewhat darker than that of the average modern European. While light pigmentation traits had already existed in pre-Indo-European indigenous Europeans (in both farmers and hunter-gatherers) and long-standing philological attempts to correlate them with the arrival of Indo-Europeans from the steppes were misguided.
A genetic study of Bronze Age Eurasian populations conducted by Allentoft et al. (2015) found that Corded Ware culture played a key role in disseminating many forms of the Indo-European language ancestral to Proto-Greek, Proto-Italio-Celtic, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Balto-Slavic and Proto-Indo-Iranian.
Afanasevo culture (3500 BCE - 2500 BCE) was an early Indo-European migration to Minusinsk Basin and the Altai Mountains from the pontic steppes during Eneolithic period. They are believed to have spoken Tocharian languages, an extinct branch of Indo-European language.
Genetic studies conducted by Allentoft et al. (2015) and Haak et al. (2015), found that Afanasevo were genetically identical to Yamnaya people. Afanasevo were later replaced by second wave of Indo-European migrations from Andronovo culture.
The Sintashta culture (2100 BCE – 1800 BCE) is a Bronze Age archaeological culture of the northern Eurasian steppe on the borders of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Andronovo culture (1800–1400 BC) is a collection of similar local Bronze Age Indo-Iranian cultures that flourished in the western Siberia and west Asiatic steppe. The Indo-Iranian branch went south, forming the Iranian people and the Indo-Aryan migration into India forming the Indo-Aryan people. Closely related to the Indo-Aryans were the Mitanni, who founded a kingdom in the Middle East.
According to genetic study conducted by Allentoft et al. (2015), Sintashta culture and Andronovo culture is derived from the Corded Ware culture. Genetic studies conducted by Keyser et al. (2009), Wilde et al. (2014) and Allentofte et al. (2015) reported high prevalence of people with characteristics such as light eyes and blond hair in Andronovo and Sintashta, indicating ancestry derived from late Corded Ware culture.
According to genetic study conducted by Keyser et al. (2009), nine out of ten male skeletons from the Andronovo culture horizon carried Y-DNA R1a1a (M17) Mummies in the Tarim Basin also proved to carry R1a1a Tarim Basin mummies were found to be genetically related to Andronovo culture, rather than to Afanasevo or Yamnaya.
Invasionist vs. diffusionist scenarios
Gimbutas believed that the expansions of the Kurgan culture were a series of essentially hostile, military incursions where a new warrior culture imposed itself on the peaceful, matriarchal cultures of "Old Europe", replacing it with a patriarchal warrior society, a process visible in the appearance of fortified settlements and hillforts and the graves of warrior-chieftains:
The process of Indo-Europeanization was a cultural, not a physical, transformation. It must be understood as a military victory in terms of successfully imposing a new administrative system, language, and religion upon the indigenous groups.
In her later life, Gimbutas increasingly emphasized the violent nature of this transition from the Mediterranean cult of the Mother Goddess to a patriarchal society and the worship of the warlike Thunderer (Zeus, Dyaus), to a point of essentially formulating a feminist archaeology. Many scholars who accept the general scenario of Indo-European migrations maintain that the transition was probably much more gradual and peaceful than suggested by Gimbutas. The migrations were certainly not a sudden, concerted military operation, but the expansion of disconnected tribes and cultures, spanning many generations. To what degree the indigenous cultures were peacefully amalgamated or violently displaced remains a matter of controversy among supporters of the Kurgan hypothesis.
J. P. Mallory (in 1989) accepted the Kurgan hypothesis as the de facto standard theory of Indo-European origins, but he recognized valid criticism of Gimbutas' radical scenario of military invasion:
One might at first imagine that the economy of argument involved with the Kurgan solution should oblige us to accept it outright. But critics do exist and their objections can be summarized quite simply – almost all of the arguments for invasion and cultural transformations are far better explained without reference to Kurgan expansions, and most of the evidence so far presented is either totally contradicted by other evidence or is the result of gross misinterpretation of the cultural history of Eastern, Central, and Northern Europe.
Kortlandt's linguistic proposal
Frederik Kortlandt in 1989 proposed a revision of the Kurgan model. He states the main objection which can be raised against Gimbutas' scheme (e.g., 1985: 198) is that it starts from the archaeological evidence and looks for a linguistic interpretation. Starting from the linguistic evidence and trying to fit the pieces into a coherent whole, he concludes that the territory of the Sredny Stog culture in the eastern Ukraine is the most convincing candidate for the original Indo-European homeland. The Indo-Europeans who remained after the migrations to the west, east and south (as described by Mallory 1989) became speakers of Balto-Slavic, while the speakers of the other satem languages would have to be assigned to the Pit Grave horizon, and the western Indo-Europeans to the Corded Ware horizon. The ancestors of the Balts and Slavs should be correlated to the Middle Dnieper culture. Then, following Mallory (197f) and assuming the origin of this culture to be sought in the Sredny Stog, Yamnaya and Late Tripolye cultures, he proposes the course of these events corresponds with the development of a satem language which was drawn into the western Indo-European sphere of influence.
Anthony's "Revised Steppe Theory"
David Anthony's The Horse, the Wheel and Language describes his "Revised Steppe Theory." David Anthony considers the term "Kurgan culture" so lacking in precision as to be useless, instead using the core Yamna culture and its relationship with other cultures as a point of reference. He points out that
The Kurgan culture was so broadly defined that almost any culture with burial mounds, or even (like the Baden culture) without them could be included.
He does not include the Maykop culture among those that he considers to be IE-speaking, presuming instead that they spoke a Caucasian language.
Three autosomal genetic studies in 2015 gave support to the theory of Gimbutas. According to those studies, haplogroups R1b and R1a, now the most common in Europe (R1a is also common in South Asia) would have expanded from the Russian steppes, along with the Indo European languages; they also detected an autosomal component present in modern Europeans which was not present in Neolithic Europeans, which would have been introduced with paternal lineages R1b and R1a, as well as Indo European Languages.
Occurrence of horse riding in Europe
Renfrew (1999: 268) holds that mounted warriors appear in Europe only as late as 1000 BC and these could in no case have been "Gimbutas's Kurgan warriors" predating the facts by some 2,000 years. Mallory (1989, p. 136) enumerates linguistic evidence pointing to PIE period employment of horses in paired draught, something that would not have been possible before the invention of the spoked wheel and chariot, normally dated after about 2500 BC.
In fact, currently, the earliest well-dated depiction of a wheeled vehicle in Europe is on the Bronocice pot (c. 3500 BC); the oldest securely dated real wheel-axle combination is the Ljubljana Marshes Wheel (c. 3150).
According to Krell (1998), Gimbutas' homeland theory is completely incompatible with the linguistic evidence. Krell compiles lists of items of flora, fauna, economy, and technology that archaeology has accounted for in the Kurgan culture and compares it with lists of the same categories as reconstructed by traditional historical-Indo-European linguistics. Krell finds major discrepancies between the two, and underlines the fact that we cannot presume that the reconstructed term for 'horse', for example, referred to the domesticated equid in the protoperiod just because it did in later times. It could originally have referred to a wild equid, a possibility that would "undermine the mainstay of Gimbutas's arguments that the Kurgan culture first domesticated the horse and used this new technology to spread to surrounding areas."
Pastoralism vs. agriculture
Kathrin Krell (1998) finds that the terms found in the reconstructed Indo-European language are not compatible with the cultural level of the Kurgans. Krell holds that the Indo-Europeans had agriculture whereas the Kurgan people were "just at a pastoral stage" and hence might not have had sedentary agricultural terms in their language, despite the fact that such terms are part of a Proto-Indo-European core vocabulary.
Krell (1998), "Gimbutas' Kurgans-PIE homeland hypothesis: a linguistic critique", points out that the Proto-Indo-European had an agricultural vocabulary and not merely a pastoral one. As for technology, there are plausible reconstructions suggesting knowledge of navigation, a technology quite atypical of Gimbutas' steppe-centered Kurgan society. Krell concludes that Gimbutas seems to first establish a Kurgan hypothesis, based on purely archaeological observations, and then proceeds to create a picture of the PIE homeland and subsequent dispersal which fits neatly over her archaeological findings. The problem is that in order to do this, she has had to be rather selective in her use of linguistic data, as well as in her interpretation of that data.
- Competing hypotheses
- Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses
- Mallory: "The Kurgan solution is attractive and has been accepted by many archaeologists and linguists, in part or total. It is the solution one encounters in the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Larousse."
- Strazny: "The single most popular proposal is the Pontic steppes (see the Kurgan hypothesis)..."
- Parpola in Blench & Spriggs (1999:181). "The history of the Indo-European words for 'horse' shows that the Proto-Indo-European speakers had long lived in an area where the horse was native and/or domesticated (Mallory 1989:161–63). The first strong archaeological evidence for the domestication of the horse comes from the Ukrainian Srednij Stog culture, which flourished c. 4200–3500 BC and is likely to represent an early phase of the Proto-Indo-European culture (Anthony 1986:295f.; Mallory 1989:162, 197–210). During the Pit Grave culture (c. 3500–2800 BC), which continued the cultures related to Srednij Stog and probably represents the late phase of the Proto-Indo-European culture – full-scale pastoral technology, including the domesticated horse, wheeled vehicles, stock breeding and limited horticulture, spread all over the Pontic steppes, and, c. 3000 BC, in practically every direction from this centre (Anthony 1986, 1991; Mallory 1989, vol. 1).
- >Gimbutas (1970) page 156: "The name Kurgan culture (the Barrow culture) was introduced by the author in 1956 as a broader term to replace and Pit-Grave (Russian Yamna), names used by Soviet scholars for the culture in the eastern Ukraine and south Russia, and Corded Ware, Battle-Axe, Ochre-Grave, Single-Grave and other names given to complexes characterized by elements of Kurgan appearance that formed in various parts of Europe"
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