The Kurgan culture in the steppes west of the Ural Mountains (Indo-Aryans)
The Kurgan people were an Indo-European culture existing during the fifth, fourth, and third millennia BC; they lived in northern Europe, from Russia across Germany, and various authorities have mounted a case for them being THE proto-Indo-European culture, from which all Indo-European cultures descend. Other researchers think it likely that later-day Kurgans were the "Sea People" who laid waste to the Holy Land around 1200 BC - traveling south along the Mediterranean in ships, with their women following them in wagons along the shore. The word kurgan means barrow or grave in Slavic and Turkic; Kurgan culture is characterized by pit-graves or barrows, a particular method of burial. They are also called the Pit-grave people, or Barrow people.
The earliest Kurgan sites are in the Ukraine and southern Russia, from which they spread by about 2000 BC to Europe, crossing the Dnieper River. Wherever Kurgan culture spread, it was marked by common elements unlike those of the surrounding Bronze-Age cultures. These are the characteristics of the Kurgan people:
They practiced animal husbandry; in rubbish dumps at Kurgan hill-forts and villages are found the bones of lots and lots of horses, many cattle, and a few pigs, sheep and goats. Few bones of wild game (such as deer) were found, so Kurgans were not a hunting culture. Horse-heads carved in diorite were found, with harness-marks cut into them to indicate bridles.
Kurgan horse-herders may have been like the Scythians, who rode geldings only, their main herds being kept wild under stallions, and controlled through the mares which were hobbled near the settlements and milked regularly. Both wild-horse bones and bones of domesticated horses were found in Kurgan sites; modern bone-analysis specialists can apparently tell the difference between the two types.
Kurgan people typically lived on flat steppe grasslands, near wooded areas and watercourses. There were mixed forests of oak, birch, fir, beech, elder, elm, ash, aspen, apple, cherry and willow. There were aurochs, elk, boar, wild horses, wolves, fox, beaver, squirrels, badgers, hare and roe deer. Their ornaments were made from elk antlers, cattle and sheep bones, and boar tusks; one of the most common implements found at their settlements was a hammer-hoe made from elk antler. They had bone awls, chisels, and polishers, and wooden bows with flint-tipped arrows which were carried in skin quivers, Scythian-style. They fished: in their villages were bone harpoons, points, fishhooks, and also fish bones. They had wool and flax. They didn't raise much grain (that is, they were not heavily into farming) - only a few sickles were found in their villages, though archeologists found grindstones, pestles, and saddle-querns; also found was millet grain and melon seeds. One object which may have been a ploughshare was discovered. Beneath one Kurgan barrow-mound, a stretch of ground protected by the mound itself showed unmistakable plough-furrows.
They did use two- and four-wheeled wagons with big wheels of solid wood, unspoked. Examples of these have been found, along with of clay images: toy wagons, buried with royalty. Also found were copper figurines of yoked oxen in pairs, so oxen probably drew these solid-wheel carts - which were of about the same proportions, wheel to cartbed, as a child's toy cart with a low rim around it.
Metal objects, early Kurgan period: copper awls plus tanged, leaf-shaped copper knives or small daggers. Late Kurgan period: daggers, awls, flat shaft-hole axes. The Kurgan people of the northwest Caucasus mountain region (a center for metallurgy from way WAY back) at about 3500 BC and afterward possessed gold and silver vases, beads, and rings; also bull, goat and lion figurines; also copper axes, adzes, daggers and knives. No bronze objects were found; this means they either had no knowledge of alloying, or no access to tin. The last is unlikely; tin was available to the Persians and Greeks in later days, though the sites of the ancient tin mines are not now known; the major known site was in England, of course. The Kurgans would have panned their gold from rivers in the Caucasus mountains: gold, copper and silver can be found raw in their pure form, ready for use.
The lion figurines at first sound odd; there are certainly no lions in Europe or Asia today. But the Greeks also left artwork depicting lions, and wrote of wild lions in the mountains of Macedonia and Asia Minor, which came down into settled lands and preyed upon livestock. So the Kurgan artisans in the Caucasus mountains, north of Asia Minor, were probably also familiar with lions. Equally, there were wild bison in Latvia and Russia right up to modern times.
A note: the early Russian naturalist P. S. Pallas ("The Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire", originally published 1812) remarks that in the steppes of the lower Volga lived a giant land reptile called the Coluber Jaculator lizard, which the Russians named the courageous Sheltopufik; he wrote that it "is not venomous, is often six feet long; it moves about with erect head and breast, and when pursued defends itself by darting against the horse and his rider. There are likewise two other species of reptiles, the Berus, and the Halys, both of a poisonous nature." Large lizards like those of the species mentioned by Pallas inhabited the fringe lands of Asia from the Russian steppe all the way to the Persian Gulf. It is probably not a coincidence that the earliest dragon legends come from the same place!
Kurgan pottery: this was very primitive, made from clay mixed with crushed shells and sand. The pots were decorated with incision-marks made by a triangular stick, with pit impressing, cord impressing and impressing with a stick wound with cords.
The Kurgan settlements came in two types. The first is a simple village, usually located on a river terrace; there would be ten to twenty small, rectangular, semi-subterranean houses with pitched roofs supported by thin wooden posts. There would be stone-walled hearths, usually one hearth per house, but situated either indoors or just outside. A very large village could have up to two hundred houses.
The second type is a hill-fort placed on a steep river bank in a place difficult of access - usually a promontory at the juncture of two rivers. Note: both types of settlement had the advantage of being defensible; so the Kurgan people had to put up with being raided by their neighbors, and probably raiding them right back. That is, they were well acquainted with war. The semi-subterranean houses sound like the underground homes of the Armenians and Gobi desert peoples, which existed right up to modern times; the Armenians lived underground by reason of the cold of their winters, and the Gobi people by reason of the intense heat of their summers. Also, in the Russian steppe as late as 1900, the Cossacks lived in semi-subterranean houses. They did it to escape the terrible storms and blizzards of the winter months, taking underground with them all their livestock and fuel, and many a disgusted British traveler attests to it.
Some examples of excavated Kurgan sites:
Hill-fort One (Miklajlovka, where the Podpil'na River meets the Dnieper): a settlement guarded by massive stone walls 3 meters high, built of about ten courses of large stones. It had rectangular houses totally unlike the river village houses: built with timber walls on massive stone foundations (the last up to one meter in height) and two or more large interior rooms. In the last period of usage, the fort became very large, girdled with huge walls and ditches, and held houses with stone foundations and wattle-and-daub walls.
Hill-fort Two (Skelja-Kamenolomnja, on promontory overlooking Dnieper River): it was built on a site with cliffs on three sides, and a thick stone wall on the slope approaching the fourth side. Within the boundaries were rectangular houses on stone foundations. Also found were workshops for fabricating polished stone tools, battle-axes and mace-heads etc.
Hill-fort Three (Liventsovka at Rostov on the Don): this stood on a high hill surrounded by a massive stone wall, with ditches both inside and outside the wall. There were square or circular hearths in the houses.
Hill-fort Four (Nagyarpad, southern Hungary): this housed an estimated 250 people, in fifty small houses standing in rows along a paved road leading to the top of a steep hill. Two large wooden houses, probably royal, stood on the terrace at the terminus of the road.
These hill-forts are the prototypes for Greek, Illyrian, Celtic, Baltic, Germanic etc castle-hills et al. Walls and citadels built from massive stones are characteristic of the earliest historical times; the proper term for such work is Cyclopean, from the ancient Greeks who were convinced only giants could have built on such a scale!
Graves: the Kurgan people left rich treasure-graves containing gold, silver and precious stones. These important graves are set aside in separate cemeteries, and the bodies are committed in timber or stone houses. One body of a man was dressed in a garment onto which gold ornaments had been sewn: 68 lion images, 19 bulls and 38 rings. (This sounds reminiscent of the Scythians who succeeded the Kurgans in Russia; they too wore garments decorated all over with small gold plaques, like beads but flat and stamped with tiny images.) Necklaces of animal teeth were common. Sun images were also commonplace. Also found were stag figurines with enormous antlers, ornamented with concentric-circle motifs; these were probably linked to rock engravings of stags with supernatural antlers. Also found were horse-heads carved from stone, mounted on rods and used as scepters. (Note: this last re scepters was the archeologist's interpretation; the garment hung with metal and horse-wand sounds shamanistic to me. In fact, wands surmounted by horse-heads are a well-known accouterment of Mongolian shamans, who also make a point of sewing metal objects and ribbons onto their ceremonial garments. The more metal the better was their rationale, ie the heavier the garment, the more desirable it was; as for the wands with horse-heads, modern shamans use them as drum-sticks and also as "magic horses" for spirit journeys.)
Braziers were found in Kurgan houses and grave-houses: these burned charcoal and also cow's-dung. Ashes and charcoal were found in the graves: fires had been lit in the braziers inside the grave-houses. The charcoal deserves a special mention because while dung as fuel is free and easy to gather (and cow-droppings, pastoral peoples say, burns better than those of horses or sheep) charcoal has to be specially prepared; but dung burns with an acrid fume and people who live in homes heated by dung fires usually develop eye problems, while charcoal burns with little or no smoke and those who enjoy a charcoal fire are happier and healthier.
Red ochre was found in the graves . . . but then, red ochre and Indo-European graves go together, from southern Palestine to the coast of England. Also found were metal cauldrons . . . as per Scythian graves, where the household goods were buried with the dead chief. The graves of poor people contained only (usually) a ceramic pot, a flint tool, or nothing.
Also found in some graves were bones from the tails of sheep; the rationale is that the tails of Asian fat-tailed sheep were buried with the dead. The fat-tailed sheep themselves have been raised in middle Asia since before history began. Herodotus mentions them, and they were commonly kept by nomads from the Bedouin of north Africa right up into Siberia. Unlike European breeds, these sheep grow enormous tails, rather like the humps of camels; fat and marrowlike substances are stored in their tails, just as with the humps of camels, and the sheep themselves are better able to endure arid country. The tails themselves used to be cut off and kept to provide cooking fat, for the kitchens of Persian and Arabian women. And perhaps they still are to this day!
And since the harnesses of Kurgan horses were made from bone and leather, the graves of poor Kurgans contained only flint tools, and the only worked metal was sewn on people's clothing, one might conclude these people were still well in the grip of the Stone Age.
The mortuary houses themselves mimicked actual houses, being made of timber or of stone slabs. Husbands were frequently buried with their wives; sometimes an adult was buried with one or more children. Animal bones were found jumbled in pits near the graves; Kurgan graves north of the Black Sea usually included snake skeletons, sometimes up to ten of them. (Note: Edith Durham in her book High Albania mentions that many old graves in the Albanian mountains - one of the remotest places on earth - were frequently marked with pre-Christian symbols; suns and crescent moons combined with Christian crosses were common, and a serpent image which the Albanians told her represented courage and war, ie the snake was the mark of a hero!) Sometimes human bones were found jumbled in with the animal bones in the adjoining offering-pits. It was an Indo-European custom up to historic times for animals to be sacrificed at the grave, their flesh eaten and their bones then collected in skins and interred.
These grave-houses were covered by earth or stone mounds, and then topped with stone stelae. Each stela was carved with a crude human shape, male, holding a mace or axe in one hand; one figure holds a bow. In the graves of men, ornamental axes of antler, copper, stone, or semiprecious stone were found. Some of these axes were made from nephrite, serpentine, diorite, amber, or other materials obviously not meant for utility. The amber came from the Baltic region, and since mother-of-pearl and faience beads were also found in the graves, this certainly points to a thriving trade between regions.
The knucklebones of sheep were found in many graves (particularly the graves of children) throughout European sites. Knucklebones are a gaming device; in Indo-European languages there are correspondences between the knucklebone or astrogalus and words for dice. Plural: astragali.
And how do you play knucklebones with the astragali of sheep? Well, we have accounts of that too, as it happens. The Uzbeg nomads of southern Russia used to call it the Ashik-game (after ashik, the word for the anklebones of sheep) and played it after the manner of European dicing, with four anklebones or astragali. The upper part of the bone they called tava, the lower altchi, and the two sides were called yantarap. The player took all four bones in the palm of his hand, threw them up and got half of the stake wagered, if two tava or two altchi turned up; or the whole stake, if all four tava or altchi showed.
Incidentally, the Venus figurines of the late Stone Age are not Kurgan. They pre-date Kurgan expansion into Anatolian, Aegean, and Balkan cultures. Seated goddesses of clay, alabaster or marble also appeared in the Ukraine and north Caucasus regions prior to the third millennium BC; these were borrowed from southern cultures in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Equally, male and female figures carved from stone (called Babas) were apparently scattered across the Russian steppe, but they are attributed to the descendants of the Scythians, not to prehistoric peoples. According to old Russian chronicles, a famous statue named Slata Baba once stood near a river between settled Russia and the Siberian wilderness; what happened to it is not now known.