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The Kurgan hypothesis (also theory or model) is one of the proposals about early Indo-European origins, which postulates that the people of an archaeological "Kurgan culture" (a term grouping the Yamna, or Pit Grave, culture and its predecessors) in the Pontic steppe were the most likely speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language. The term is derived from kurgan (курган), a Turkic loanword in Russian for a tumulus or burial mound. The hypothesis is one of several scenarios.[note 1][note 2]
The Kurgan hypothesis was first formulated in the 1950s by Marija Gimbutas, who 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 bearers of these cultures were nomadic pastoralists, who, according to the model, by the early 3rd millennium BC expanded throughout the Pontic-Caspian steppe and into Eastern 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 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.
While 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 Theodor Benfey and Otto Schrader, the idea had never gained traction prior to Gimbutas, with most scholars favouring a Northern European origin instead, linking the Proto-Indo-Europeans to the Corded Ware culture. 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 then-communist countries) not readily available to scholars from western countries, enabling her to achieve a fuller picture of prehistoric Europe.
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.[note 3] 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.[note 3]
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 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).[note 4] The model of a "Kurgan culture" postulates cultural similarity between the various cultures of the Copper Age 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 that Gimbutas considered as part of the "Kurgan Culture":
David Anthony considers the term "Kurgan Culture" so lacking in precision as to be useless. 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 therefore does not use the term and discusses instead the core Yamna Culture and its relationship with other cultures. He does not include the Maikop culture among those that he considers to be IE-speaking, presuming instead that they spoke a Caucasian language.
Gimbutas' original suggestion identifies four successive stages of the Kurgan culture:
There were three successive proposed "waves" of expansion:
The term "kurganized" used by Gimbutas 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 IE language and its daughter-languages diffusing east and west without mass movement has proved popular with archaeologists. However, geneticists have opened up the possibility that these languages spread with mass movement.
Geneticists have noted the correlation of a specific haplogroup R1a1a defined by the M17 (SNP marker) of the Y chromosome and speakers of Indo-European languages in Europe and Asia. The connection between Y-DNA R-M17 and the spread of Indo-European languages was first proposed by Zerjal and colleagues in 1999. and subsequently supported by other authors. Spencer Wells deduced from this correlation that R1a1a arose on the Pontic-Caspian steppe.
Subsequent studies on ancient DNA tested the hypothesis. Skeletons from the Andronovo culture horizon (strongly supposed to be culturally Indo-Iranian) of south Siberia were tested for DNA. Of the 10 males, 9 carried Y-DNA R1a1a (M17). Fairly close matches were found between the ancient DNA STR haplotypes and those in living persons in both eastern Europe and Siberia. Mummies in the Tarim Basin also proved to carry R1a1a and were presumed to be ancestors of Tocharian speakers.
A study published in 2012 states that "R1a1a7-M458 was absent in Afghanistan, suggesting that R1a1a-M17 does not support, as previously thought, expansions from the Pontic Steppe, bringing the Indo-European languages to Central Asia and India." However, this study does not in any way conflict with the hypothesis of expansions from the Pontic Steppe, since the study does not take into account the early wave of the Indo-European speaking people. Even today the R1a1a7-M458 are very rare, almost absent, in the area of the proposed Indo-European origins between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea; the R1a1a7-M458 marker first started in Poland 10,000 years ago (KYA), and arrived in the western fringes of the Pontic steppe 5,000 years ago and the eastern fringes only 2,500 years ago, while the first Indo-European wave (4500–4000 BC Early PIE) began up to 4,000 years before this.
The DNA testing of remains from kurgans also indicated a high prevalence of people with characteristics such as blue (or green) eyes, fair skin and light hair, implying an origin close to Europe for this population.
The Kurgan hypothesis describes the initial spread of Proto-Indo-European during the 5th and 4th millennia BC. 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 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. The Maykop culture (also spelled Maikop), ca. 3700 BC—3000 BC, was a major Bronze Age archaeological culture in the Western Caucasus region of Southern Russia. 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 European Funnelbeaker and Corded Ware cultures have been described as showing intrusive elements linked to Indo-Europeanization, but recent archaeological studies have described them in terms of local continuity, which has led some archaeologists to declare the Kurgan hypothesis "obsolete". 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 Corded Ware culture has always been important in locating 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. 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.
From the Pontic Steppe Indo-European people moved east, where they founded the Sintashta culture and the Andronovo culture. The Sintashta culture, also known as the Sintashta-Petrovka culture or Sintashta-Arkaim culture, is a Bronze Age archaeological culture of the northern Eurasian steppe on the borders of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, dated to the period 2100–1800 BCE. The Andronovo culture is a collection of similar local Bronze Age Indo-Iranian cultures that flourished ca. 1800–1400 BCE in western Siberia and the west Asiatic steppe. It is probably better termed an archaeological complex or archaeological horizon. The name derives from the village of Andronovo ( ), where in 1914, several graves were discovered, with skeletons in crouched positions, buried with richly decorated pottery.
From these cultures further migrations went further east, to found the Afanasevo culture, and the Tocharian languages formerly spoken by Tocharian peoples in oases on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin (now part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China). The Indo-Iranian branch went south, forming the Iranian people and the Indo-Aryan migration into India. Closely related to the Indo-Aryans were the Mitanni, who founded a kingdom in the Middle East.
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:
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 (in 1989) accepted 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:
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."
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 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 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. Returning to the Balts and the Slavs, their ancestors 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.
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.
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."
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.