Preda-Bălănică (2020): The Yamnaya Impact North of the Lower Danube

Miscellanea Archaeology & Prehistory Preda-Bălănică (2020): The Yamnaya Impact North of the Lower Danube

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    Carlos QuilesCarlos Quiles
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    Review of the current state of the art in assessing Yamnaya migrations, The Yamnaya Impact North of the Lower Danube, A Tale of Newcomers and Locals, by Preda-Bălănică, Frînculeasa, & Heyd (2020), In: Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 117, 1, p. 85-101.

    Interesting excerpts:

    It was common practice for the Yamnaya populations to build their mounds in places previously occupied by other communities. Examples come from Moldavia, where several tumuli were erected over settlement remains of the late Cucuteni B phase or Horodiştea-Erbiceni (Burtănescu, 2002, p. 224-225). In Muntenia they overlay Cernavoda III, Cernavoda II-Folteşti II or Horodiştea-Folteşti habitation layers (Frînculeasa et al., 2017b, p. 39), while in Oltenia and Banat, sherds assigned to Coţofeni pottery were found in the filling of burials or on the ancient surface (Frînculeasa et al., 2015a, p. 77). This practice could be related to claiming possession of those territories (Heyd, 2011, p. 542), however, one has to bear in mind that even though the Yamnaya populations occupied and dominated the plain, they were never actually alone. Local communities inhabited the hilly areas, and traces of their interactions with the steppe newcomers are present in the archaeological record.

    Yamnaya north of the Lower Danube

    When looking at all these burials, one can see several common features. Mounds often superpose earlier habitation layers; in Serbia they were usually built on top of Baden or Kostolac sites (Koledin et al., 2020, in press) and in Hungary over Cernavoda III or Baden sites (Dani, 2011, p. 26). In Bulgaria, links to the Coţofeni culture can be seen especially in the findings from Târnava (Panayotov, 1989, p. 84-93), while those to the Ezero sequence are seen in Ovchartsi (Alexandrov and Kaiser, 2016). The available radiocarbon dates indicate the emergence of these burials at the very end of the fourth or beginning of the third millennium BC, this being true for Romania (Frînculeasa et al., 2017b), Bulgaria (Kaiser and Winger, 2015, p. 14), Serbia (Koledin et al., 2020, in press) and Hungary (Horváth et al., 2013). No east to west delay can be discerned; the expansion seems to have happened in one episode. East of the Prut, in Moldavia, absolute dates are very scarce and not completely reliable (Rassamakin and Nikolova, 2008, Table 1, nos 188-190).

    We also have to highlight the widespread occurrence of the typical funerary standard, which was strictly followed most of the time. Rectangular grave pits were dug and carefully arranged with mats, potentially pillows, hides and furs, and wooden covers. The deceased, usually an adult male individual, was placed in a supine position with flexed legs; the orientation is west-east, with the head facing westwards; ochre is present; the grave-goods consist mainly of ornaments or pottery (Dani, 2011, p. 29; Kaiser and Winger, 2015; Koledin et al., 2020, in press). Silver hair rings are the most common findings and the deducted hair fashion is one of the main characteristics associated with the Yamnaya identity in all these regions (Dani, 2011; Kaiser and Winger, 2015, p. 9; Frînculeasa et al., 2019; Koledin et al., 2020, in press). Strings of animal teeth are more often found in Hungarian and Romanian Yamnaya mounds and in child graves (Ecsedy, 1979; Frînculeasa et al., 2017b, p. 94). However, some local nuances in burial custom can also be observed. Deposition of ochre lumps in the grave seems more common in the Carpathian Basin, while in the Lower Danube area ochre is more often sprinkled on the deceased (Heyd, 2011, p. 539; Kaiser and Winger, 2015, p. 11). On average, the mounds also contain far fewer secondary burials in the westernmost distribution area (Koledin et al., 2020, in press). In contrast, in southern Bulgaria, mounds contain a larger number of secondary burials, commonly furnished with local pottery (Alexandrov and Kaiser, 2016, p. 362, p. 365). East of the Prut, the funerary standard is similar, but the presence of additional grave-goods such as wooden carts or wheels, stone and flint artefacts, or copper tanged daggers should be noted (Dergacev, 1994; Ivanova, 2013).

    Perspectives for future research

    The arrival of the Yamnaya populations in south-eastern and east-central Europe changed the history of this region, and subsequently of the entire continent. Thousands of mounds erected in the flat landscapes are the only source available in order to understand this phenomenon, given that none of their settlements has been identified in the entire western region (Burtănescu, 2002, p. 223; Heyd, 2011, p. 539). They testify to migrations, an approach boldly supported by recent genetic studies (Allentoft et al., 2015; Haak et al., 2015; Mathieson et al., 2017). More doubtful, however, is the claim about mass migrations. We are only at the beginning of the process of understanding the demographics involved. But there is another, more pressing issue. What is local and what is not, in these two millennia of interaction between the northern Pontic-Caspian and the western Pontic steppe lands of south-eastern Europe? Even the 500 years of interaction between the Yamnaya and contemporary societies regarded as local has of course created mixed burial customs and assemblages. Local or non-local is not something permanently frozen in time, but actively changing and transforming. The first Yamnaya groups did not remain “newcomers” forever, but after some time they became “locals”. Thus, if new groups arrived from the steppe in a more or less intense or permanent flux, even though they shared a similar lifestyle and beliefs, they may well have been seen as newcomers or even competition for the already existing “local” Yamnaya. At the same time, for local communities living in settlements and burying their dead in flat cemeteries, who were already used to the presence of the people of the steppe and their way of life, newcomers would not have represented a significant change (Heyd, 2011, p. 545).

    The latest paragraph, together with the reference to Furholt (2019) and Kristiansen et al. (2017), seems like a clear call to reflect on the fact that some shared cultural traits or some overarching narratives do not, in fact, coincide with the reality of migrations, which were not as “massive” or as coordinated as pretended in the 2015 papers. In other words, Steppe-related ancestry does not give support to hypothesized cultural links based on superficial archaeological similarities.

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