How A Handful of Yamnaya Culture Nomads Became the Fathers of Europe
The origins of modern Europeans are shrouded in mystery and wracked by controversy. Archaeologists and linguists have long debated the origins of the Indo-European language family as well as the origins of civilization and settled life in Europe. Recent discoveries in past years suggest that the origin of European culture, as well as some central Asian cultures, is within an archaeological culture called the Yamnaya.
Migration of Genes vs. Migration of Ideas
One major source of contention over the origins of the precursor to modern European cultures is over whether they involved the movement of actual people or merely the exchange of ideas. Before about 9,000 BP Europe was still in the Palaeolithic. It was populated largely by hunter-gatherers, living not very differently from how they had lived when they first arrived in Europe roughly 37,000 years ago.
Beginning around 9,000 BP however, agriculture and village life began to spread across Europe and by 5,000 BP the continent was mostly settled by Neolithic farmers. Around 5,000 BP or 3,000 BC a Bronze Age culture began to spread across Europe, probably from the steppes of Eurasia.
In one view, this change is related to trade networks that existed across Eurasia. People of Europe were in trade contact with the people of the Middle East and the Eurasian steppes and they adopted the technology and lifeways of more technologically advanced outsiders.
The original position of many European archaeologists, however, was that the second instance, at least, represented an invasion. In 3,000 BC, nomadic pastoralists from the steppes of Eurasia replaced and interbred with the Neolithic farmers who had settled Europe about 4,000 years earlier.
More recent views also contend that Neolithic farmers from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) began to spread across Europe around 7,000 BC without much interbreeding with the native hunter-gatherers. This suggests that both may have been the result of actual migrations of people.
Although there are still many unanswered questions, sequencing of ancient human genomes has revealed that these culture changes in Europe were partially the result of a migration of people.
The earlier migration of farmers from Anatolia is beyond the scope of this article, but recent research suggests that the dawn of Bronze Age Europe was due to the expansion of the Yamnaya culture.
Evidence of a Migration
Recent studies over the years have revealed that most central and northern Europeans, as well as some groups in central Asia, are descended from the Yamnaya. It appears that, beginning 2800-3000 BC, the Yamnaya moved out from somewhere in modern-day western Russia or the Ukraine and began to move into the plains of central Europe.
The Yamnaya migrated from modern-day western Russia or the Ukraine and into the plains of central Europe. (Бутывский Дмитрий / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Sequencing of the human genome has made it much easier to trace human migrations since different populations will have characteristic genes which can then be used to track a migration route . Eurasia has hundreds of different ancient human genomes that can be studied in order to decipher past migration within Eurasian populations. More ancient genomes to sequence means more data and thus higher resolution results.
One interesting aspect of the Yamnaya migration is that it seems to have consisted mostly of men. The genetic evidence suggests overwhelmingly that Yamnaya men intermarried with European women to create some modern European populations, particularly the people of central and northern Europe. The Yamnaya also appear to be behind the Corded Ware culture .
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Yamnaya Corded Ware. (EvgenyGenkin / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Yamnaya crossed enormous distances, likely because of a newly domesticated animal at the time, the horse. Horses were domesticated some time before 3,000 BC in central Asia. One of the earliest material cultures associated with a domesticated horse species is the Botai culture . The domestication of the horse would have given nomadic groups more mobility allowing them to go greater distances. It would be as if they had suddenly been given a car.
Other Simultaneous Migrations
In studying human migrations, scientists did not only find evidence of human migrations in genomic studies but also the migration of disease . Scientists have tracked the spread of viruses in human populations. One example is the Hepatitis B virus (HBV).
Through investigating ancient genomes, scientists were able to track how the virus has followed human populations over the course of history. They also discovered at least one extinct HBV genome . The Yamnaya and other ancient Eurasian populations have helped scientists understand not just human history but also the history of human viruses.
Yamnaya Culture and Society
What little is known about the Yamnaya is mostly known from archaeology. The term Yamnaya comes from the Russian expression Yamnaya Kultura which means ‘pit culture’. This is because of the types of graves that they left behind.
The Yamnaya were nomadic pastoralists who originally lived on the steppes of Eurasia before moving west. One thing that has been suggested about the Yamnaya is that they are responsible for the concept of property being owned by particular families and transmitted only to individuals within those families.
Before the arrival of the Yamnaya, European tombs were large and communal and appear to have belonged to more than one family. Yamnaya tombs, however, consist of more individual grave sites. This may have been related to the nomadic lifestyle of the Yamnaya. More mobility would have allowed for less time for the development of large multi-family communities such as clans.
Yamnaya culture tomb. (XVodolazx / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Yamnaya were also one of the first Bronze Age cultures in Europe. Their use of bronze and copper may have given them an advantage over the mostly Neolithic, Stone Age inhabitants of Europe at the time. It has even been suggested that European women may have found Yamnaya men more desirable for marriage because of their prowess as warriors and their superior technology.
The Yamnaya who invaded Europe appear to have been mostly male. The male to female ratio may have been as high as 14 to 1. Because of this, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Yamnaya men coming into the region were mostly warriors. It is unlikely, however, that this was part of an organized invasion. Nonetheless, the movement into new lands may have been intentional.
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Man, from Yamnaya culture, sculptural reconstruction. ( Math920 / Public Domain)
It is possible that the reason for this migration was to found colonies that were politically and culturally aligned with the homeland to expand their culture and their family holdings to new lands. This would make their purpose similar to the Greek and Roman colonies established across the Mediterranean. It is also possible that they could have been raiders intending to become rich from plunder and gain glory in battle to establish their place in their society, similar to the Vikings.
The Yamnaya lifestyle appears to have been a mixture of pastoralism, agriculture, and hunting and gathering which is similar to the lifestyles of later European cultures such as the Celts and early Germanic cultures. This makes sense since these recent findings would suggest that the Germanic people and the Celts were their descendants.
The Yamnaya and Proto-Indo-European
It is hard, if not impossible, in many cases to determine the language associated with an archaeological culture. Unless they have translatable written records that have been preserved, the language spoken by an ancient society leaves no trace of itself in the archaeological record.
Despite this problem, there are ways to determine the language most likely spoken by an archaeological culture. The spread of Yamnaya genetic influence across Europe and central Asia roughly matches the spread of Indo-European languages.
The origin of the Indo-European languages is another field fraught with contention and controversy. The two main views are that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical ancestor of Indo-European languages, were either Anatolian farmers who began to expand from their homeland in 7000 BC, or pastoralist nomads from the steppes of Eurasia who began to spread out from their homeland around 4000 BC.
The Yamnaya were pastoral nomads. (Hamed Saber / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The latter hypothesis is known as the Kurgan Hypothesis which comes from the name for the type of grave used by the people of the region at the time. Kurgan cultures, which include the Yamnaya, buried their dead in graves that were covered by dirt mounds. The Kurgan cultures are thought to represent not just one migration, but many, of which the Yamnaya may have been the first. These migrations are traditionally believed to have taken place between about 4000 BC and 1000 BC.
Indo-European migrations according to the Kurgan hypothesis. (Joshua Jonathan / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Were the Yamnaya the First Indo-Europeans?
The speakers of Proto-Indo-European were part of what archaeologists and linguists call Proto-Indo-European (PIE) culture. For now, PIE culture is largely theoretical and has been created by drawing inferences from what Proto-Indo-European words reveal about their society. For example, Proto-Indo-European has words for livestock such as sheep, goats, and cattle. It also has words for wheat and barley. This suggests that the speakers of the language were familiar with these animals and crops and may have raised them.
One way to cross-check the possible correlation between genetics and linguistics that might connect the Yamnaya and the Indo-European languages is to look at the archaeology of the Yamnaya and see if it fits with what would be predicted of PIE culture.
The Indo-European language groups as of 500 BC along with selected isoglosses. (Xiaopo~commonswiki / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
PIE culture was at least partly sedentary, raising crops like wheat barley and probably living in waddle and daub structures. Based on predictions of PIE culture, this might mitigate against the idea that PIE culture can be identified with the Yamnaya.
On the other hand, it is known that the Yamnaya did also practice agriculture. They had a complex approach to subsistence which included farming. It is likely that once they reached Europe, they settled down and began to practice farming more often.
If they adopted farming from the local non-Indo-European cultures, we would expect words related to agriculture to be foreign loanwords, and not in the original Proto-Indo-European lexicon.
For example, there doesn’t seem to be an original PIE word for ‘sea’. The word for ocean or sea is not consistent across many Indo-European language subgroups and, in some cases, appears to have been borrowed from a foreign, possibly non-Indo-European language, as is the case with the Greek, thalassa. Alternatively, the fact that there are original PIE words for domestic barley and wheat suggests that Proto-Indo-European speakers, whoever they were, were already familiar with farming when they became a distinct linguistic group.
If the archaeological evidence is compared to predictions about PIE society, the evidence is inconclusive but does not conflict with the hypothesis that the Yamnaya are the elusive and mysterious PIE culture. This is also consistent with the discovery that the spread of Yamnaya genetic material roughly correlates with the spread of Indo-European languages into Europe and central Asia.
The origin of the first Indo-European languages, according to the Kurgan Hypothesis, is about 1,000 years after the time when the Yamnaya are believed to have moved out from their homeland, but everything else seems to fit. This suggests at least a plausible connection between the Yamnaya and the Indo-European languages though it may not make them the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European.
The Yamnaya and the Beginnings of Globalization
In history, pastoralist nomads are often characterized as warlike, uncooperative barbarians. This is understandable since the people that recorded history tend to be from the sedentary agricultural societies that pastoralist nomads had a habit of raiding.
It makes sense that agricultural civilizations would have a dim view of these nomadic raiders and paint them in a negative light. It is also true that, sometimes, nomadic pastoralists are warlike as innumerable examples in history show. Archaeological evidence does suggest, however, that ancient pastoralist nomads had another side to them.
They did engage in occasional raids, but there is also evidence that there was significant trade and communication between different nomadic groups and farming communities. Evidence is mounting that pastoralist nomads helped to create a vast trade network stretching across much of Eurasia in which goods and information were transferred. Many societies involved in this network were probably decentralized tribes and chiefdoms.
Nonetheless, they helped create an inter-continental trade network that connected agricultural civilizations across the ancient world. It could be said that the first movement towards economic and cultural globalization was implemented by pastoralist nomads wandering the steppes of central Eurasia.
Top image: The Yamnaya came to Europe from modern-day western Russia or the Ukraine. Source: katiekk2 / Adobe Stock.
By Caleb Strom
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