Kurgan hypothesis

Kurgan hypothesis

The Kurgan hypothesis (also theory or model) is a model of early Indo-European origins, which postulates that the Kurgan culture of the Pontic steppe were the most likely speakers of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language.

Though described as "attractive" and "the single most popular" model of early Indo-European, [Harvcoltxt|Mallory|1989|p=185. "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 "Encyclopaedia Britannica" and the "Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Larousse"."] [Harvcoltxt|Strazny|2000|p=163. "The single most popular proposal is the Pontic steppes (see the Kurgan hypothesis)..."] alternate theories such as the Anatolian "urheimat" have some support.

The Kurgan hypothesis was first formulated in the 1950s by Marija Gimbutas, who divided the Kurgan culture into four periods, arranged by date, with Kurgan I corresponding to the early Yamna culture of the Volga region and its extension to the Sredny Stog II of the Dnieper region. These pastoralists departed from their "urheimat" in "three waves of migrations to Europe" dated to Kurgans I, III and IV. [Gimbutas (1985) page 190.] The earliest cultures able to be associated in the theory are of the Copper Age phase of technology.


When it was first proposed in 1956, Marija Gimbutas's contribution to the search for Indo-European origins was a pioneering 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 Pit Grave culture of around 3000 BC.

The mobility of the Kurgan culture facilitated its expansion over the entire Pit Grave region, and is attributed to the domestication of the horse and later the use of early chariots.Parpola in Harvcoltxt|Blench|Spriggs|1999|p=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 Harvcol|Mallory|1989|pp=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 (Harvcolnb|Anthony|1986|pp=295f.; Harvcolnb|Mallory|1989|pp=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, stockbreeding and limited horticulture, spread all over the Pontic steppes, and, "c." 3000 BC, in practically every direction from this centre (Anthony 1986, 1991; Harvcolnb|Mallory|1989|loc=vol. 1).] 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. The earliest known chariot was discovered at Krivoye Lake and dates to "c." 2000 BC. [Harvcoltxt|Anthony|Vinogradov|1995]

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.

Mallory’s inconclusiveness about the westward Indo-European migrations was cited by linguist Kortlandt, to conclude that archaeological evidence is pointless beyond what can be motivated from a linguistic point of view. From the 1990s on, new archaeological evidence from Northern European prehistoric cultures resulted in new questions concerning the influence and expansion of Kurgan cultures to the west. The pan-European migrations and process of "kurganization", especially of Corded Ware cultures, may not have been as extensive as Gimbutas believed. [http://www.answers.com/topic/corded-ware-culture-1] The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology - Timothy Darvill, 2002, Corded Ware, p.101, Oxford University Press, ISBN 019-211649-5]

Kurgan culture

The model of a "Kurgan culture" postulates cultural similarity between the various cultures of the Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age (5th to 3rd millennia BC) Pontic-Caspian steppe to justify the identification as a single archaeological culture or cultural horizon. The eponymous construction of kurgans 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 any accuracy and will be open to debate.

Cultures forming part of the "Kurgan horizon":
*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 BC

Gimbutas defined introduced the term "Kurgan culture" in 1956 with the intention to introduce 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). [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"] By the 1980s, it had become clear that this extended "Corded Ware-Battle Axe-Tumulus" burial complex envisaged by Gimbutas needed to be considered separately, under the heading of (3rd millennium) "Kurganization" (spread of "Kurgan elements" beyond the area of the Kurgan culture proper).Mallory (1986, p. 308) points out that "by the mid-5th millennium BC, we already have very striking cultural similarities from the Dnieper-Donets culture in the west to the Samara culture of the middle Volga ... this is continued in the later Sredny Stog period." The "Yamna culture in all its regional variants" arose later, and may already represent diversification.

The comparison of cultural similarities of these cultures is a question of archaeology independent of hypotheses regarding the Proto-Indo-European language.The postulate of these 5th millennium "cultural similarities" informed by archaeology are a prerequisite of the "Kurgan model" which identifies the chalcolithic (5th millennium) Pontic-Caspian steppe as the locus of Proto-Indo-European.

tages of expansion

Gimbutas' original suggestion identifies four successive stages of the Kurgan culture and three successive "waves" of expansion.

* 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, early two-wheeled chariots, 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.
* Wave 1, predating Kurgan I, expansion from the lower Volga to the Dnieper, leading to coexistence of Kurgan I and the Cucuteni culture. Repercussions of the migrations extend as far as the Balkans and along the Danube to the Vinca and Lengyel cultures 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). In the belief of 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 and eastern Hungary, coincident with the end of the Cucuteni culture (c.2750 BC).

econdary Urheimat

The "kurganized" Globular Amphora culture in Europe is proposed as a "secondary Urheimat", separating into the Bell-beaker culture and Corded Ware culture around 2300 BC and ultimately resulting in the European branches of Italic, Celtic and Germanic languages, and other, partly extinct, language groups of the Balkans and central Europe, possibly including the proto-Mycenaean invasion of Greece.


*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, early two-wheeled proto-chariots, predominantly practicing animal husbandry, but also with permanent settlements and 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 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.


A specific haplogroup R1a1 defined by the M17 (SNP marker) of the Y chromosome (see: [http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nrg/journal/v4/n8/full/nrg1124_fs.html&filetype=pdf] for nomenclature) is associated by some with the Kurgan culture. The haplogroup R1a1 is "currently found in central and western Asia, India, and in Slavic populations of Eastern Europe", but it is rare in most countries of Western Europe ("e.g." France, or some parts of Great Britain) (see [http://www.roperld.com/YBiallelicHaplogroups.htm] [http://mbe.oupjournals.org/cgi/content/full/19/7/1008] ). However, 23.6% of Norwegians, 18.4% of Swedes, 16.5% of Danes, 11% of Saami share this lineage ( [http://www.oxfordancestors.com/papers/mtDNA04%20Saami.pdf] ).. This lineage is currently found in central and western Asia, India, and in Slavic populations of Eastern EuropInvestigations suggest the Hg R1a1 gene expanded from the Dniepr-Don Valley, between 13 000 and 7600 years ago, and was linked to the reindeer hunters of the Ahrensburg culture that started from the Dniepr valley in Ukraine and reached Scandinavia 12 000 years ago.cite journal | last = Passarino | first = G | coauthors = Cavalleri GL, Lin AA, Cavalli-Sforza LL, Borresen-Dale AL, Underhill PA | title = Different genetic components in the Norwegian population revealed by the analysis of mtDNA and Y chromosome polymorphisms | url = http://www.nature.com/ejhg/journal/v10/n9/full/5200834a.html | journal = Eur. J. Hum. Genet. | year = 2002 | volume = 10 | issue = 9 | pages = 521–9 | pmid = 12173029 | doi = 10.1038/sj.ejhg.5200834]

Ornella Semino et al. (see [http://hpgl.stanford.edu/publications/Science_2000_v290_p1155.pdf] ) propose this postglacial spread of the R1a1 gene from the Ukrainian LGM refuge was "magnified" by the expansion of the Kurgan culture into Europe and eastward. R1a1 is most prevalent in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine and is also observed in Pakistan, India, and central Asia.

Correspondingly, R1b (also Eu18 — see [http://www.genome.org/cgi/content/full/12/2/339] for nomenclature conversions) was believed to have spread from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) following the last glacial period (20,000 to 13,000 years ago), and is still prevalent in western Europe, or Atlantic Europe, especially in the Basque Country, without being rare in eastern Europe.

Another marker that closely corresponds to Kurgan migrations is distribution of blood group B allele, mapped by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. The distribution of blood group B allele in Europe matches the proposed map of Kurgan Culture, and Haplogroup R1a1 (YDNA) distribution.

Criticisms and qualifications

Archeological evidence

According to S. G. Talageri, Gimbutas's assignment of Indo-European attributes to archaeological artifacts is far too generalized and vague to be meaningful.

So far archaeologists can trace back the origins of the Kurgan culture to the 5th millennium, although its earlier antecedents are still unknown. [The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, 22:587-588] Archaeologists are generally more critical of the Kurgan hypothesis than Indo-Europeanists.Fact|date=April 2008 New archaeological evidence contests the spread of Kurgan culture to the west and instead points at local developments within Corded Ware and previous Funnelbeaker cultures, pushing back the archaeological continuity of western Indo-European cultures to at least the 5th millennium BC. This has led some archaeologists to declare the Kurgan hypothesis "obsolete". [Pre- & protohistorie van de lage landen, onder redactie van J.H.F. Bloemers & T. van Dorp 1991. De Haan/Open Universiteit. ISBN 90 269 4448 9, NUGI 644] However, it is generally held unrealistic to believe that a proto-historic people can be assigned to any particular group on basis of archaeological material alone. [The Germanic Invasions, the making of Europe 400-600 AD - Lucien Musset, ISBN 1-56619-326-5, p7]

Language does not equal ethnic group

Also, the field of linguistics is attempting to develop new investigative techniques for formative linguistic processes. [The Meertens Institute (KNAW) and the Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication (UvA) have started a research-program called Variation in Inflection, or simply Variflex, to combine theoretical linguistics, diachronic linguistics, dialectology, first language acquisition and second language acquisition. [http://home.hum.uva.nl/variflex/pps.htm] .] Linguists argue linguistic expansion does not imply "kurganization" of material cultures, and hold extrapolating current linguistic developments to the past to be precarious (for instance deflexion should be excluded for being a Western European non-representative linguistic process), to conclude a separation between Centum and Satem in the fourth millennium is appropriate but does not imply a different stance on the material cultures involved. [Frederik Kortlandt, Professor of descriptive and comparative linguistics, University of Leiden - unpublished communication, may 2007]

Krell (1998) points out that the Proto-Indo-European had an agricultural terminology and not merely a pastoral one. As for technology, there are plausible reconstructions suggesting knowledge of navigation, a technology quite untypical of Gimbutas' 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. This is putting the cart before the horse. Such an unsystematic approach should have given her linguistic proponents real cause for questioning the relevance of her theory, especially if one considers that, by virtue of its nature, the study of PIE is first and foremost a matter for linguistic, not archaeological investigation (Bryant 2004:40).

Peaceful vs. violent spread

Gimbutas believed that the expansions of the Kurgan culture were a series of essentially hostile, military invasions 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 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 feminist archaeology. Many scholars who accept the general scenario of Indo-European migrations proposed, maintain that the transition was likely 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.

JP Mallory accepts the Kurgan hypothesis as the de-facto standard theory of Indo-European origins, but he recognizes valid criticism of Gimbutas' radical scenario of military invasion: "almost all the arguments for invasion and cultural transformation are far better explained without reference to Kurgan expansion."

Häusler's Problem

The Corded Ware culture has always been important in locating the Indo-European origins. The German archaeologist Alexander Häusler was an important proponent of archeologists that searched for homeland evidence here. He sharply criticised Gimbutas' concept of 'a' Kurgan culture that mixes several distinct cultures like the pit-grave culture. Häusler's criticism mostly stemmed from a distinctive lack of archeological evidence until 1950 from what was then the East Bloc, from which time on plenty of evidence for Gimbutas's Kurgan hypothesis was discovered for decades. [Schmoeckel 1999] He was unable to link Corded Ware to the Indo-Europeans of the Balkans, Greece or Anatolia, and neither to the Indo-Europeans in Asia. Nevertheless, establishing the correct relationship between the Corded Ware and Pontic-Caspian regions is still considered essential to solving the entire homeland problem. [In Search of the Indo-Europeans - J.P.Mallory, Thames and Hudson 1989, p245,ISBN 0-500-27616-1]

Renfrew's Linguistic Timedepth

While the Kurgan scenario is widely accepted as one of the leading answers to the question of Indo-European origins, it is still a speculative model, not normative. The main alternative suggestion is the theory of Colin Renfrew and Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, postulating an Anatolian Urheimat, and the spread of the Indo-European languages as a result of the spread of agriculture. This belief implies a significantly older age of the Proto-Indo-European language (ca. 9,000 years as opposed to ca. 6,000 years), and among traditional linguists finds rather less support than the Kurgan theory, on grounds of glottochronology (though this method is widely rejected as invalid by mainstream historical linguistics), since the PIE language contained words for devices especially related to cattle-breeding and riding invented not earlier than the 5th millennium BC by nomadic tribes in Asian steppes, and because there are some difficulties in correlating the geographical distribution of the Indo-European branches with the advance of agriculture.

A study in 2003 by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson at the University of Auckland [http://www.psych.auckland.ac.nz/psych/research/Evolution/Gray&Atkinson2003.pdf] , using a computer analysis based upon lexical data, favours an earlier date for Proto-Indo-European than assumed by the Kurgan model, ca. the 7th millennium consistent with Renfrew's Anatolian Urheimat. Their result is based on maximum likelihood analysis of Swadesh lists. Their results run counter to many accepted categorizations of linguistic relations between the different branches within the Indo-European languages tree.

Occurrence of Horse-riding in Europe

According to Gimbutas's hypothesis, the reconstructed linguistic evidence suggests that the Indo-Europeans were horse-riding warriors who used thrusting weapons and could easily overrun other areas, and did do so insofar as central Europe is concerned, around the fourth-fifth millennia BC. On the techno-cultural level, the Kurgan people were essentially at a pastoral stage. Discounting this equation, Renfrew (1999: 268) holds that on the European scene mounted warriors appear only as late as the turn of the second-first millennia BC and these could in no case have been Gimbutas's Kurgan warriors predating the facts by some 2,000 years. Mallory (1989, p136) also joins in here and 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. 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 surrounding areas, thus spreading the Indo-European languages (Bryant 2004:40).

Level of civilization vs. language

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. There are others, like Mallory and Schmitt, who are equally critical of Gimbutas’s hypothesis. [The Homeland of Indo-European Languages and Culture - Some Thoughts] by Prof. B.B.Lal ( Director General (Retd.), Archaeological Survey of India, [http://www.geocities.com/ifihhome/articles/bbl001.html] ]

Fredrik Kortlandt's revision

Frederik Kortlandt (comparative linguistics, university Leiden) proposes a revision of the Kurgan model [http://www.kortlandt.nl/publications/art111e.pdf] The spread of the Indo-Europeans - Frederik Kortlandt, 1989] . . 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 arrives at the following picture: The territory of the Sredny Stog culture in the eastern Ukraine he calls 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 Harvcolnb|Mallory|1989) became speakers of Balto-Slavic, while the speakers of the other satem languages would have to be assigned to the Yamnaya horizon, and the western Indo-Europeans to the Corded Ware horizon. Returning to the Balts and the Slavs, their ancestors should be correlated to the Middle Dnieper culture. Then, following Mallory (pp197f) 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.

According to Frederik Kortlandt, there seems to be a general tendency to date proto-languages farther back in time than is warranted by the linguistic evidence. However, if the Indo-Hittite and Indo-European could be correlated with the beginning and the end of the Sredny Stog culture, respectively, he states that the linguistic evidence from the overall Indo-European family does not lead us beyond Gimbutas' secondary homeland, so that the Khvalynsk culture on the middle Volga and the Maykop culture in the northern Caucasus cannot be identified with the Indo-Europeans. Any proposal which goes beyond the Sredny Stog culture must start from the possible affinities of Indo-European with other language families. Taken into account the typological similarity of Proto-Indo-European to the North-West Caucasian languages and assuming this similarity can be attributed to areal factors, Frederik Kortlandt thinks of Indo-European as a branch of Uralo-Altaic which was transformed under the influence of a Caucasian substratum. Such events would be supported by archaeological evidence and locate the earliest ancestors of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European north of the Caspian Sea in the seventh millennium (cf. Mallory 1989: 192f.), essentially in agreement with Gimbutas’ theory.

ee also

*Yamna culture
*Ukrainian stone stela
*Domestication of the horse
*Animal sacrifice,
*Shaft tomb
*Ukrainian LGM refuge

; Competing hypotheses
*Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses
**Armenian hypothesis
**Anatolian hypothesis
**Out of India theory
**Paleolithic Continuity Theory



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*Citation|first=Marija|last=Gimbutas|author-link=Marija Gimbutas|editor-last=Cardona|editor-first=George|editor2-last=Hoenigswald|editor2-first=Henry M.|editor3-last=Senn|editor3-first=Alfred|contribution=Proto-Indo-European Culture: The Kurgan Culture during the Fifth, Fourth, and Third Millennia B.C.|title=Indo-European and Indo-Europeans: Papers Presented at the Third Indo-European Conference at the University of Pennsylvania|year=1970|pages=155–197|place=Philadelphia|publisher=University of Pennsylvania Press|id=ISBN 0812275748.
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