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At the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture

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Recreation of a Cucuteni-Trypillian house burning; note the amount of extra fuel (straw and wood) added to the outside of the clay walls to increase the temperature needed for ceramic vitrification.

The Indo-Europeans’ bronze weapons and horses would have given them a tremendous advantage over the autochthonous inhabitants of Europe, namely the native haplogroup I (descendant of Cro-Magnon), and the early Neolithic herders and farmers (G2a, J, E1b1b and T). This allowed R1a and R1b to replace most of the native male lineages, although female lineages seem to have been less affected.

A comparison with the Indo-Iranian invasion of South Asia shows that 40% of the male linages of northern India are R1a, but less than 10% of the female lineages could be of Indo-European origin. The impact of the Indo-Europeans was more severe in Europe because European society 4,000 years ago was less developed in terms of agriculture, technology (no bronze weapons) and population density than that of the Indus Valley civilization.

This is particularly true of the native Western European cultures where farming arrived much later than in the Balkans or central Europe. Greece, the Balkans and the Carpathians were the most advanced of European societies at the time and were the least affected in terms of haplogroup replacement. Native European Y-DNA haplogroups (I1, I2) also survived better in regions that were more difficult to reach or less hospitable, like Scandinavia, Brittany, Sardinia or the Dinaric Alps.

The first forrays of steppe people into the Balkans happened between 4200 BCE and 3900 BCE, when horse riders crossed the Dniester and Danube and apparently destroyed the towns of the Gumelnita, Varna and Karanovo VI cultures in Eastern Romania and Bulgaria.

A climatic change resulting in colder winters during this exact period probably pushed steppe herders to seek milder pastures for their stock, while failed crops would have led to famine and internal disturbance within the Danubian and Balkanic communities. The ensuing Cernavoda culture (Copper Age, 4000-3200 BCE), Coțofeni culture (Copper to Bronze Age, 3500-2500 BCE) and Ezero culture (Bronze Age, 3300-2700 BCE), in modern Romania, seems to have had a mixed population of steppe immigrants and people from the old tell settlements.

These steppe immigrants were likely a mixture of both R1a and R1b lineages. Many Danubian farmers would also have migrated to the Cucuteni-Tripolye towns in the Eastern Carpathians, causing a population boom and a north-eastward expansion until the Dnieper valley, bringing Y-haplogroups G2a, E1b1b, J and T in what is now central Ukraine.

This precocious Indo-European advance westward was fairly limited, due to the absence of Bronze weapons and organised army at the time, and was indeed only possible thanks to climatic catastrophes. The Carphatian, Danubian, and Balkanic cultures were too densely populated and technologically advanced to allow for a massive migration.

The forest-steppe R1a people successfully penetrated into the heart of Europe with little hindrance, due to the absence of developed agrarian societies around Poland and the Baltic. The Corded Ware (Battle Axe) culture (3200-1800 BCE) was a natural western expansion of the Yamna culture, reaching as far west as Germany and as far north as Sweden and Norway.

DNA analysis from the Corded Ware culture site of Eulau confirms the presence of R1a (but not R1b) in central Germany around 2600 BCE. The Corded Ware migrants might well have expanded from the forest-steppe, or the northern fringe of the Yamna culture, where R1a lineages were prevalent over R1b ones.

The expansion of R1b people into Old Europe was slower, but proved inevitable. In 2800 BCE, by the time R1a had reached Scandinavia, the Bronze Age R1b cultures had barely moved into the Pannonian steppe. They established major settlements in the Great Hungarian Plain, the most similar habitat to their ancestral Pontic Steppes.

Around 2500 BCE, they were poised for their next major expansion into modern Germany and Western Europe. By that time, the R1b immigrants had blended thoroughly with the indigenous Mesolithic and Neolithic populations of the Danubian basin, where they had now lived for 1,700 years.

The strongly partriarchal Indo-European elite remained almost exclusively R1b on the paternal side, but absorbed a high proportion of non-Indo-European maternal lineages. Hybridised, the new Indo-Europeans would have lost most of their remaining Proto-Europoid or Mongolid features.

Their light hair, eye and skin pigmentation, once interbred with the darker inhabitants of Old Europe, became more like that of modern Southern Europeans. The R1a people of the Corded Ware culture would come across far less populous societies in Northern Europe, mostly descended from the lighter Mesolithic population (haplogroup I1 and I2), and therefore retain more of their original pigmentation (although facial traits evolved considerably in Scandinavia, where the I1 inhabitants were strongly dolicocephalic and long-faced, as opposed to the brachycephalic and broad-faced steppe people).

The R1b conquest of Europe happened in two phases. For nearly two millennia, starting from circa 4200 BCE, steppe people limited their conquest to the rich Chalcolithic civilisations of the Carpathians and the Balkans. These societies possessed the world’s largest towns, notably the tell settlements of the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture.

Nothing incited the R1b conquerors to move further into Western Europe at such an early stage, because most of the land north and west of the Alps was still sparsely populated woodland. The Neolithic did not reach the British Isles and Scandinavia before circa 4000 BCE. Even northern France and most of the Alpine region had been farming or herding for less than a millennium. Northwest Europe remained a tribal society of hunter-gatherers practising only limited agriculture for centuries after the conquest of the Balkans.

Why would our R1b “conquistadors” leave the comfort of the wealthy and populous Danubian civilisations for the harsh conditions that laid beyond ? Bronze Age people wanted metal, tin, copper, and gold, of which the Balkans had plenty, but that no one had yet discovered in Western Europe.

R1b-L51 is thought to have arrived in central and western Europe around 2500 BCE, approximately two millennia after the shift to the Neolithic in these regions. Agrarian towns had started to develop. Gold and copper had begun to be mined. The prospects of a conquest were now far more appealing.

The archeological and genetic evidence (distribution of R1b subclades) point at several consecutive waves towards the Danube between 2800 BCE and 2300 BCE (beginning of the Unetice culture).

It is interesting to note that this also corresponds to the end of the Maykop culture (2500 BCE) and of the Kemi Oba culture (2200 BCE) on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and their replacement by cultures descended from the northern steppes. It can therefore be envisaged that the (mostly) R1b population from the northern half of the Black Sea migrated westward due to pressure from other Indo-European people (R1a) from the north, like the burgeoning Proto-Indo-Iranian branch, linked to the contemporary Poltavka and Abashevo cultures.

It is doubtful that the Beaker culture (2800-1900 BCE) was already Indo-European because they were the continuity of the native Megalithic cultures. It is more likely that the beakers and horses found across western Europe during that period were the result of trade with neighbouring Indo-European cultures, including the first wave of R1b into central Europe. It is equally possible that the Beaker people were R1b merchants or explorers who travelled across Western Europe and brought back tales of riches poorly defended by Stone Age people and waiting to be conquered by the more advanced Indo-Europeans, with their bronze weapons and horses.

What is undeniable is that the following Unetice (2300-1600 BCE), Tumulus (1600-1200 BCE), Urnfield (1300-1200 BCE) and Hallstatt (1200-750) cultures were linked to the spread of R1b to Europe, as they abruptly introduce new technologies and a radically different lifestyle.

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture (4800 to 3000 BC), also known as Cucuteni culture (from Romanian), Trypillian culture (from Ukrainian) or Tripolye culture (from Russian), is a Neolithic–Eneolithic archaeological culture, which existed from the Carpathian Mountains to the Dniester and Dnieper regions in modern-day Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, encompassing an area of more than 350,000 km2 (140,000 sq mi).

During the Trypillia BII, CI, and CI-II phases, populations belonging to the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture built the largest settlements in Neolithic Europe, some of which contained as many as 1,600 structures.

However, the majority of Cucuteni-Trypillian settlements consisted of high-density, small settlements (spaced 3 to 4 kilometers apart), concentrated mainly in the Siret, Prut, and Dniester river valleys.

One of the most notable aspects of this culture was the periodic destruction of settlements, with each single-habitation site having a roughly 60 to 80 year lifetime. The purpose of burning these settlements is a subject of debate among scholars; some of the settlements were reconstructed several times on top of earlier habitational levels, preserving the shape and the orientation of the older buildings. One particular location, the Poduri site (Romania), revealed thirteen habitation levels that were constructed on top of each other over many years.

During the late period the Cucuteni-Trypillian territory expanded to include the Volyn region in northwest Ukraine, the Sluch and Horyn Rivers in northern Ukraine, and along both banks of the Dnieper river near Kiev.

Members of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture who lived along the coastal regions near the Black Sea came into contact with other cultures. Animal husbandry increased in importance, as hunting diminished; horses also became more important. The community transformed into a patriarchal structure. Outlying communities were established on the Don and Volga rivers in present-day Russia.

Dwellings were constructed differently from previous periods, and a new rope-like design replaced the older spiral-patterned designs on the pottery. Different forms of ritual burial were developed where the deceased were interred in the ground with elaborate burial rituals. An increasingly larger number of Bronze Age artifacts originating from other lands were found as the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture drew near.

There is a debate among scholars regarding how the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture took place. According to the Kurgan hypothesis as this had first appeared by the archeologist Marija Gimbutas in her book “Notes on the chronology and expansion of the Pit-grave culture” (1961), and later expanded by her and others, the culture’s end came in a rather violent way connected with the territorial expansion of the Kurgan culture.

Combining archaeological evidences with linguistics, concluded that the people of Kurgan culture (a term grouping the Pit Grave culture and its predecessors) of the Pontic steppe, being most likely speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language, effectively destroyed the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture in a series of invasions undertaken during their expansion to the west.

Based on these archaeological evidences Gimbutas seeing a distinctive cultural difference between the patriarchal, warlike Kurgan culture, over the more peaceful matriarchal Cucuteni-Trypillian culture which was at large a part of the “Old European cultures” that finally extinct in a process visible in the progressing appearance of the fortified settlements, the hillforts, the religious transformation from the matriarchy to patriarchy, and the graves of warrior-chieftains, in a correlated geographical and temporal direction from the east to the west.

To this, “the process of Indo-Europeanization was a cultural, not a physical, transformation and must be understood as a military victory in terms of successfully imposing a new administrative system, language, and religion upon the indigenous groups.

Accordingly the Kurgan Hypothesis holds that this violent clash took place during the Third Wave of Kurgan expansion, between 3000-2800 BC permanently ending the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture.

In 1989 Irish-American archaeologist J.P. Mallory in his book “In Search of the Indo-Europeans” summarizing the three existed theories over the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, mentions that archaeological findings in the region indicates that part of the Kurgan culture (which he refers to, by their more accepted name of Yamna culture) had established settlements in the eastern part of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture’s area, co-existing for some time with those of the Cucuteni-Trypillian’s before that culture ended.

Artifacts from both cultures found within each of their respective archaeological settlement sites, attest an open trade that took place for a period between them. Although he points out that from the archaeological evidences is clear that the area was led to what he called “a dark age” with its population seeking refuge to every possible direction except eastern.

Using caves, islands and hilltops where they could more easily fortify themselves, abandoning in the process 600-700 settlements, he is leaving open a possibility for a rather gradual transformation procedure than a violent onslaught that brought about the extinction of the culture.

The obvious issue with that theory is the limited common historical life-time between the Cucuteni-Trypillian (4800-3000 BC) and the Yamna culture (3600-2300BC); given that the earliest archaeological findings of the Yamna culture (3600-3200 BC) are located to the Volga-Don basin, not in the Dniester and Dnieper area where the cultures came in touch, while the Yamna culture came to its full extension in the Pontic steppe at the earliest at around 3000 BC, ie the time the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture ended thus indicating an extremely short time of survival after coming in contact with the Yamna culture.

Another contradicting indication is that the kurgans that replaced the traditional horizontal graves in the area now contain human remains of a fairly diversified skeletal type approximately ten centimeters taller than the previous population.

In the 1990s and 2000s, another theory regarding the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture emerged based on climatic change that took place at the end of their culture’s existence that is known as the Blytt-Sernander Sub-Boreal phase.

Beginning around 3200 BC the earth’s climate became colder and drier than it had ever been since the end of the last Ice age, resulting in the worst drought in the history of Europe since the beginning of agriculture.

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture relied primarily on farming, which would have collapsed under these climatic conditions in a scenario similar to the Dust Bowl of the American Midwest in the 1930s.

According to The American Geographical Union, “The transition to today’s arid climate was not gradual, but occurred in two specific episodes. The first, which was less severe, occurred between 6,700 and 5,500 years ago. The second, which was brutal, lasted from 4,000 to 3,600 years ago. Summer temperatures increased sharply, and precipitation decreased, according to carbon-14 dating.

According to that theory, the neighboring Yamna culture people were pastoralists, and were able to maintain their survival much more effectively in drought conditions. This has led some scholars to come to the conclusion that the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture ended not violently, but as a matter of survival, converting their economy from agriculture to pastoralism, and becoming integrated into the Yamna culture.

However, the Blytt–Sernander approach as a way to identify stages of technology in Europe with specific climate periods is an oversimplification not generally accepted.

A conflict with that theoretical possibility is that during the warm Atlantic period, Denmark was occupied by Mesolithic cultures, rather than Neolithic, notwithstanding the climatic evidence.

Moreover, the technology stages varied widely globally. To this must be added that the first period of the climate transformation ended some 500 years before the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture and the second approximately 1,400 years after.

Cucuteni-Trypillian culture

House burning of the Cucuteni–Trypillian culture

Decline and end of the Cucuteni–Trypillian culture

Prehistoric Romania

History of Ukraine

Prehistory of Southeastern Europe

Neolithic Europe

Chalcolithic Europe

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