Indo-Europeans and the Yamnaya Culture

Migration in Prehistory

Around 5,000 years ago, ox-drawn wagons rumbled out of the Eurasian grasslands and into the Danube Valley of eastern Europe. Led by scouts on horseback and accompanied by herds of sheep and cattle, they went west through what’s now Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria. They passed the curving arc of the Carpathian Mountains and left the Balkans behind, eventually traveling all the way to the Great Hungarian Plain. This little island of grassland in the middle of Europe became their new home.

These migrants from the steppe filled the Hungarian Plain with earthen burial mounds called kurgans, permanent markers of their otherwise ephemeral presence. Hundreds of these kurgans survive today, breadcrumbs leading us back in time on the trail of the people who brought into Europe the Indo-European languages so many millions of people speak today. Archaeologists call the people who built these mounds representatives of the Yamnaya Culture, transplanted more than 800 miles from their homeland on the steppe to the Pannonian Basin in central Europe.

Migration is a tricky thing. It carries a great deal of baggage in the present, and that baggage weighs down our understanding of migration in the distant past as well. We know it happened: People move now, they’ve moved at every stage of the past for which we have reliable information, and they’ve often done so over long distances with the intention of permanently finding a new home.

Archaeologists and historians have struggled with migration for a long time. A century ago, it was a catch-all explanation for any change in the material record. If the pottery and arrowheads changed, well, that was probably because new people moved in from elsewhere. If a text told you that people moved, that must have been a massive human wave. In more recent decades, archaeologists turned dramatically away from migration. Changes in material style were much more likely to be the result of organic developments, they thought, as the social order shifted, elites emerged and fell, and new ideas about organizing society took hold.

The advent of ancient DNA, especially in the last decade, has shifted the paradigm once more. Migration is again growing popular as a cause of historical change. That’s mostly because it has the obvious benefit of being a pretty good explanation for how people with a specific kind of ancestry, which shows up earliest in one place, shows up later in others. It’s pretty obvious that these people, or individuals and groups related to them, moved.

But knowing this must have happened is one thing; identifying the precise ways it happened, when, who moved, and for what reasons is much more difficult. It’s also infinitely more meaningful, and gives us a great deal more insight into the past than simply pointing at the data and hollering, “Migration!”

There are lots of different kinds of migrations. Refugees fleeing oppression or an environmental disaster look quite a bit different than a group of elite warriors seeking to conquer territory and impose themselves on the current inhabitants. Some migrations are heavily biased toward young, unattached men; others consist of entire family units. People often hop just a few miles down the road to make a new life, but sometimes they leap hundreds of miles, crossing mountains and oceans to reach their new homes.

Material culture - what archaeologists pull out of the ground - isn’t the most straightforward guide to understanding how people in the distant past migrated. Sherds of pottery and stone tools don’t tell easily accessible stories. Neither do bones. Even ancient DNA, and the patterns of ancestry it reveals, doesn’t speak for itself.

The Yamnaya migration is one of the most straightforward examples we find in the distant human past. Artifacts, genes, and even a reconstructed language - Proto-Indo-European - all seem to match up. We see styles of artifact and burial that are intrusive (meaning unlike older practices) to the new area, in this case the Hungarian Plain and to a lesser extent the Danube Valley. People on the steppe buried their exalted dead in kurgans; kurgans show up later in the Hungarian Plain than on the steppe, accompanied by the same kinds of artifacts we find in burials on the steppe. It’s not exactly counterintuitive to guess that people from the steppe, whom we identify with the Yamnaya Culture, moved from one place to the other. When we add the genetic evidence, the migration becomes even clearer: People buried in kurgans on the Hungarian Plain derived most or all of their ancestry from people who had lived on the steppe a few centuries (at most) before.

Even more striking, the archaeological and genetic evidence of this migration match up almost perfectly with the society we can reconstruct for the original speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language, the language ancestral to the entire Proto-Indo-European family. That family includes English, Latin and its descendants, Russian, Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, and dozens of others, spoken by billions of people around the world today.

This was a world of mobile herders who took their cattle and sheep from place to place, using horses to do so. They were hierarchical and extremely patriarchal, organized around bonds of male kinship, and far from averse to a bit of raiding and fighting. All of that seems to match the Yamnaya both on the steppe and in their new home in the Hungarian Plain.

Even in the case of the Yamnaya, where the material culture seems to fit so nicely with the genetic and linguistic evidence, things aren’t entirely straightforward. Some of the people buried in kurgans in Hungary, even those with typically steppe-style artifacts, have exactly zero genetic ancestry from the steppe. They must have adopted the ways of the migrants through acculturation, and if we’ve found one in a kurgan - the highest-status form of burial available at that place and time - then there were almost certainly many others who didn’t receive that treatment. This wasn’t just a mass population replacement, but a longer-term series of cultural interactions and changes. There were already people living in the Hungarian Plain, and at least some of them found the Yamnaya lifestyle attractive enough to emulate and adopt.

We don’t really why these migrants moved hundreds of miles from their ancestral grasslands into the heart of Europe. It wasn’t a one-time wave of migration, but an ongoing flow of people. Migrants seem to have kept coming for centuries. Whether that was because of population pressures, cultural imperatives, or something else altogether is impossible to say. This fact also tells us that the stream of movement went in both directions. Every significant migration produces a group of returning migrants, and these would have been the people telling the folks back home what they could find over the horizon. Migrants almost never leap blindly into a new land; they operate on the basis of information flows about what they can find, and existing connections to help them along their way. Brothers follow brothers, nieces follow aunts, and cousins follow cousins. This is a neat explanation for precisely how the Yamnaya migration might have happened.

We still have a great many questions about the Yamnaya migration, but it’s one of the most intensively studied and clearest examples of long-distance population movement from any period of the human past. We’re rarely so lucky.

If you’d like to learn more about the Yamnaya and their migration, check out today’s episode of Tides of History.

I wrote a book! It's called The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World. The book comes out in July, but you can pre-order it here.

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