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This article is about Bronze Age burial mounds and the Kurgan culture. See Kurgan, Kurgan Oblast for a Russian city of that name. See Highlander for the fictional character called Kurgan.

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Indo-European studies

Kurgan (кургáн) is the Russian word (of Turkic origin) for a type of burial mound or barrow, heaped over a burial chamber, often of wood.

In 1956 Marija Gimbutas introduced her Kurgan hypothesis combining kurgan archaeology with linguistics to locate the origins of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speaking peoples. She tentatively named the culture "Kurgan" after their distinctive burial mounds and traced its diffusion into Europe. This hypothesis has had a significant impact on Indo-European research. Those scholars who follow Gimbutas identify a Kurgan culture as reflecting an early Indo-European ethnicity which existed in the steppes and southeastern Europe from the fifth to third millennia BC.

Several towns in Russia are called Kurgan, as well as one oblast (Курганская область), named after its capital.

Missing image
Sudovian kurgan near Suwałki, Poland


Kurgan type barrows were characteristic of Bronze Age nomadic peoples of the steppes, from the Altai to the Caucasus and Romania. Sometimes, burial mounds are quite complex structures with internal chambers. Within the burial chamber at the heart of the kurgan, members of the elite were buried with grave goods and sacrificial offerings, sometimes including horses and chariots.

Some excavated kurgans

See also Scythia.

  • Kurgan 4 at Kutuluk near Samara, Russia, dated to ca. 24th century BC, containing the skeleton of a man, estimated to have been 35 to 40 years old and about 135 cm tall. Resting on the skeleton's bent left elbow was a copper object of a length of ca. 65 cm with a blade of a diamond-shaped cross-section and sharp edges, but no point, and a handle, originally probably wrapped in leather. No similar object is known from Bronze Age Eurasian steppe cultures, and the object has been compared to the vajra thunderbolt of Indian Indra.
  • Novovelichkovskaya kurgan of ca. 2000 BC on the Ponura River, Krasnodar region, southern Russia, containing the remains of 11 people, including an embracing couple, buried with bronze tools, stone carvings, jewelry, and ceramic vessels decorated with red ocher. The tomb is associated with the Novotitarovskaya nomads.
  • Issyk kurgan, 31 miles east of Alma Ata, southern Kazakhstan, containing a skeleton, possibly female, with 4.000 gold ornaments, with a headdress reminiscent of Kazakh bridal hats, discovered n 1969.
  • Kurgan 11 of the Berel cemetery, in the Bukhtarma valley, Kazakhstan, containing a tomb of ca. 300 BC, with a dozen sacrificed horses, preserved with their skin, hair, harnesses, and saddles intact, buried side by side on a bed of birch bark next to a funeral chamber containing the pillaged burial of two Scythian nobles, excavated in 1998.

Kurgan hypothesis

Overview of the Kurgan hypothesis

The "Kurgan hypothesis" of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) origins assumes gradual expansion of the "Kurgan culture" until it encompasses the entire pontic steppe, Kurgan IV being identified with the Yamna culture of around 3000 BC. Subsequent expansion beyond the steppes leads to hybrid cultures, such as the globular amphora culture to the west, the immigration of proto-Greeks to the Balkans and the nomadic Indo-Iranian cultures to the east around 2500 BC. The domestication of the horse, and later the use of early chariots is assumed to have increased the mobility of the Kurgan culture, facilitating the expansion over the entire Yamna region. In the Kurgan hypothesis, the entire pontic steppes are considered the PIE Urheimat, and a variety of late PIE dialects is assumed to have been spoken across the region. The area near the Volga labelled ?Urheimat in the map above marks the location of the earliest known traces of horse-riding, and would correspond to an early PIE or pre-PIE nucleus of the 5th millennium BC.

Stages of expansion

Gimbutas identifies four successive stages of the Kurgan culture and three successive "waves" of expansion.

  • Wave 1, predating Kurgan I, expansion from the lower Volga to the Dnieper, leading to coexistence of Kurgan I and the Cucuteni culture. Repercussions of the migrations extend as far as the Balkans and along the Danube to the Vinca and Lengyel cultures in Hungary.
  • Wave 2, mid 4th millennium BC, originating in the Maikop culture and resulting in advances of "kurganized" hybrid cultures into northern Europe around 3000 BC. In the view of Gimbutas, this would correspond to the first intrusion of Indo-European languages into western and northern Europe.
  • Wave 3, 30002800 BC, expansion of the Yamna culture beyond the steppes, with the appearance of the characteristic pit graves as far as the areas of modern Romania, Bulgaria and eastern Hungary.

Secondary Urheimat

The "kurganized" globular amphora culture in Europe is proposed as a "secondary Urheimat", separating into the bell beaker and corded ware cultures around 2300 BC and ultimately resulting in the European branches of Italic, Celtic and Germanic languages, and other, partly extinct, language groups of the Balkans and central Europe, possibly including the proto-Mycenaean invasion of Greece.


Gimbutas viewed the expansions of the Kurgan culture as a series of essentially hostile, military invasions where a new warrior culture imposed itself on the peaceful, matriarchal cultures of "Old Europe", replacing it with a patriarchal warrior society, a process visible in the appearance of fortified settlements and hillforts and the graves of warrior-chieftains:

The Process of Indo-Europeanization was a cultural, not a physical transformation. It must be understood as a military victory in terms of imposing a new administrative system, language and religion upon the indigenous groups.

In her later life, Gimbutas increasingly emphasized the violent nature of this transition from the Mediterranean cult of the Mother Goddess to a patriarchal society and the worship of the warlike Thunderer (Zeus, Dyaus), to a point of essentially formulating feminist archaeology. Many scholars who accept the general scenario of Indo-European migrations proposed, maintain that the transition may well have been much more peaceful and gradual than suggested by Gimbutas. The migrations were certainly not a sudden, concerted military operation, but the expansion of disconnected tribes and cultures, spanning many generations. But to what degree the indigenous cultures were peacefully amalgamated or violently displaced remains a matter of controversy among supporters of the Kurgan hypothesis.

JP Mallory advocates the Kurgan hypothesis as the de-facto standard theory of Indo-European origins, but he recognizes valid criticism of Gimbutas' radical scenario of military invasion: almost all the arguments for invasion and cultural transformation are far better explained without reference to Kurgan expansion.

The German archaeologist Alexander Husler has sharply criticised Gimbutas' concept of 'a' Kurgan culture that mixes several distinct cultures like the ochre-grave culture and the pit-grave culture.

The Kurgan scenario is widely accepted as the most likely answer to the question of Indo-European origins, but its status remains speculative. The main alternative suggestion is the theory of Colin Renfrew, postulating an Anatolian Urheimat, and the spread of the Indo-European languages as a result of the spread of agriculture. This view implies a significantly higher age of the Proto-Indo-European language (ca. 10,000 years as opposed to ca. 6,000 years), and among linguists finds rather less support than the Kurgan theory, not only on grounds of glottochronology, but also because the geographical distribution of the Indo-European branches are difficult to correlate with the advance of agriculture.


A specific haplogroup R1a1 defined by the M17 (SNP marker) of the Y chromosome (see:[1] (http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nrg/journal/v4/n8/full/nrg1124_fs.html&filetype=pdf) for nomenclature) is associated by some with the Kurgan culture. The haplogroup R1a1 is currently found in central and western Asia, India, and in Slavic populations of Eastern Europe, but it is not very common in some countries of Western Europe (e.g. France, or some parts of Great Britain) (see [2] (http://www.roperld.com/YBiallelicHaplogroups.htm) [3] (http://mbe.oupjournals.org/cgi/content/full/19/7/1008)). However, 23.6% of Norwegians, 18.4% of Swedes, 16.5% of Danes, 11% of Saami share this lineage ([4] (http://www.oxfordancestors.com/papers/mtDNA04%20Saami.pdf)).

Ornella Semino et al. (see [5] (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/290/5494/1155)) identify haplotype Eu18 (R1b in modern terminology (see [6] (http://www.genome.org/cgi/content/full/12/2/339) for nomenclature) (prevalent in western Europe, especially Basque) and Eu19 (most prevalent in Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and the Russia as descended from an expansion from the Iberian peninsula following the last glacial period (20,000 to 13,000 years ago), and link the spread of Eu19 (which is also observed in Pakistan, India and central Asia) to the Kurgan expansion.

Another study [7] (http://evolutsioon.ut.ee/publications/Kivisild2003b.pdf) concludes that the Indian population received "limited" gene flow from external sources since the Holocene and suggests R1a1 originates from South or West Asia.

See also


  • "In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth" by J. P. Mallory, ISBN 0500276161
  • "The Kurgan Culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe: Selected Articles Form 1952 to 1993" von Marija Gimbutas u.a., ISBN 0941694569
  • "Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture" ed. James Mallory, D. Q. Adams, ISBN 1884964982
  • D. Ya. Telegin et al., Srednestogovskaya i Novodanilovskaya Kul'tury Eneolita Azovo-Chernomorskogo Regiona. Kiev: Shlyakh, 2001. Reviewed by J.P. Mallory, JIES vol. 32, 3/4, p. 363–366.

External links

de:Kurgankultur eo:Kurgano ja:クルガン pl:Kurhan sv:Kurgan


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