Aim High Magazine #62: The Kurgan Theory


Zapraszamy do przeczytania świetnego artykułu Mikołaja Lewczuka  o model rozprzestrzeniania się języka praindoeuropejskiego zwanym „teorią kurhanową” (the Kurgan theory). A już za kilka dni opublikujemy najnowszy numer AimHigh z wieloma ciekawymi artykułami naszych uczniów. Zapraszamy! 


The Kurgan Theory

The term “Indo-European” is used to describe a family of languages that are spoken in Europe and southern Asia (India, Iran and Afghanistan).  Similarities between languages spoken in those rather distant places were first noticed in 16th century by European visitors, but only much later did they realize these similarities are due to common origin.  This in the 19th century led to the search of this original language and an Urheimat (original ‘homeland’) of the people who used to speak it. While historically there were multiple theories that tried to identify this homeland, nowadays the most widely accepted is the Kurgan theory.

The Kurgan theory, also known as the Kurgan model, postulates that Urheimat of the Proto-Indo-European language is the Pontic Steppe (the steppe north of Caucasus Mountains, modern Ukraine and Russia), and the population who spoke it is identified with Yamnaya culture. Both the name of this theory and of the archaeological culture refer to the burial mounds characteristic for this time and place (“yamnaya” means “related to pits” and “kurgan” is a burial mound in Russian). It was first formulated by Otto Schrader in 1883 and later systematized by Marija Gimbutas in the second half of the 20th century. Our knowledge of Yamnaya comes mostly from three sources: archaeology, genetics and linguistic reconstructions. From what we know, Yamnaya, in genetics also known as Western Steppe Herders, emerged from mix of Eastern hunter-gatherers (who live in what we now know as Eastern Europe) and Caucasian hunter-gatherers around 5th millennium BC. Yamnaya themselves lived a semi-nomadic pastoral life, with some agriculture in western part of the steppe. Archaeological evidence suggests they spent winters in forested river valleys, and summer on steppes, where they allowed their herds to graze. They knew sheep, goats, pigs and cows, with cattle being very important for them, both in practical and spiritual sense. They were also one of the first to domesticate horses, both for consumption and transport, and the first to build wheeled wagons which were oxen-drawn. Those innovations allowed them to thrive in harsh steppe climate.

Yamnaya, as linguistic reconstructions suggest, lived in patriarchal and hierarchical warrior societies. Their diet consisted mostly of meat (of both domestic and wild animals), dairy products and wild vegetables. They buried their elites, as mentioned before, in pit graves which were later covered by burial mounds. Dead bodies were placed in lying position with bent knees and covered with ochre. It was common to also put grave goods, such as whole wagons, metal objects (as metallurgy was important to Yamnaya) or anthropomorphic stelae, with carved human heads, arms, and weapons. One of the most interesting aspects of this ancient society were koryos – hypothetical group of adolescent warriors who lived for a number of years in the wild, living from hunting and raiding, before being fully integrated into society – with this being a sort of a rite of passage into manhood. They were allowed to do forbidden things and break taboos. Members of koryos tried to imitate wolf – animal seen as evil and even saying its name out-loud was seen as taboo – and wolf behaviour. Many attributes of those young warrior bands, such as identification with wolves and dogs or fighting half-naked, could be found in Greek, Celtic, Germanic or Vedic tradition.

Around 3200 BC, due to climate change that made steppes drier and cooler, Yamnaya began migrating out of the Pontic Steppe. Owing to their horses, wagons, tradition of koryos and many health-related advantages, they were able to get as far west as British Isles and Iberian Peninsula, as far East as  Tarim Basin (Western China) as far south as norther India and Iranian Plateau. Their legacy is gigantic- not only in the linguistic sense. Their arrival was linked with creation of new cultures (Corded Ware in Middle Europe and Bell Beaker in Western Europe), and many aspects of their original religion still survived in pagan Europe and in Hinduism. They also brought technology, such as chariots or bronze tools, as well as new genes responsible for digestion of dairy and fair complexion. In Europe the biggest percentage of Yamnaya ancestry is found in the north (50% in Norwegians) and in Asia it peaks among the Kalash people (also 50%). It is safe to assume, that if it wasn’t for Yamnaya and their migrations, world would have been a completely different place.

Mikołaj Lewczuk (3e Liceum)