Immigration and Transhumance in the Early Bronze Age Carpathian Basin: The Occupants of a Kurgan

By Gerling, Claudia; Banffy, Eszter et al. | Antiquity, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Immigration and Transhumance in the Early Bronze Age Carpathian Basin: The Occupants of a Kurgan


Gerling, Claudia, Banffy, Eszter, Dani, Janos, Kohler, Kitti, Kulcsar, Gabriella, Pike, Alistair W. G., Szeverenyi, Vajk, Heyd, Volker, Antiquity


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Introduction

The transformation from Late Copper to Early Bronze Age societies in the Carpathian Basin, from the final fourth to the mid third millennium BC, and the roles of locals and incomers, remains controversial. Traditionally, the period is characterised by a number of partly-overlapping 'cultures', 'groups' or 'stylistic areas' (Figure 1). Although these map onto different landscapes and environments, their definitions stem primarily from pottery inventories and burial customs, so they do not necessarily represent prehistoric social and economic communities. Moreover, there are clear physical interactions between local and intrusive individuals and population groups, as seen in the case of the contemporary late Baden, late Cotofeni, early Mako, Livezile and Yamnaya groups. No doubt the decisive element in this transformation was the appearance of Yamnaya people in the central and eastern part of the Carpathian Basin. These people originated in the steppes north-east of the Black Sea, subsequently spreading westwards up to the Great Hungarian Plain and the Tisza Valley. One explanation of this event lies in an economic strategy based on mobility--such as pastoralism and nomadism--or transhumance, where livestock move in an annual cycle from their permanent home to seasonal pastures. Here, we present a study in which the combined use of cemetery archaeology, pottery typology, absolute chronology and geochemical methods point to a specialised mobility, practised by transhumant herders.

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The archaeological setting

The western Yamnaya

The society and economy of the northern Pontic zone were reorganised radically in the later fourth millennium BC. Here the Yamnaya cultural complex emerges, defined by its single burials under kurgans (burial mounds), grave pits arranged like rooms, supine body position with flexed legs, ochre staining of bodies, and occasionally single prestige items. The lower Don region seems to be the early nucleus for this formation (Merpert 1974; Rassamakin 1999; Anthony 2007). From there, between c. 3100 and 2400 BC, it expanded across the steppe in all directions. From 3000 BC, similar kurgans and burials appear in a wide zone further to the west, in the modern countries of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. Of the many thousands of known kurgans, about 600 have been opened, and they share notable similarities (Heyd 2011).

Our knowledge of the Yamnaya economy comes mostly from these kurgans and burials, which occasionally feature cattle and domesticated horses. Additional proxy data may be found in the distribution pattern and site location of the new burial mounds, which indicate a deeper exploitation of the open steppe, and the probable coexistence of a nomadic lifestyle for some segments of the Yamnaya society (e.g. Shishlina 2008). This is where the organised movement of human beings--in one (or many) migratory events--embedded in a range of socially induced strategies based on mobility, herding practices and horsemanship, took place. We know from burials at Taraklya in Moldova and Sofievka in Ukraine that Yamnaya people lived in the Carpathian Basin and the Lower Danube, since they were buried with genuine pots of Cotofeni and Mako styles (Dergacev 1998: fig. 20.2; Anthony 2007: 366; Rassamakin & Nikolova 2008: pl. 1.3-4). There is also a climatic change affecting pasture quality and abundance, as rainfall declines, which may have motivated herders to seek better pastures in south-east Europe (e.g. Mackay et al. 2005; Shishlina et al. 2009).

Local inhabitants and newcomers on the Great Hungarian Plain

There were forerunners to the Yamnaya migration dated as early as c. 4200 BC, in the form of a few individual graves, such as that from Csongrad-Kettoshalom (Ecsedy 1979), and others likely to continue throughout the fourth millennium BC (e.g. the supine burials from Tiszavasvari-Deakhalom; Dani 2011), which coincidentally may be linked to the bones of the first domesticated horses in Baden settlements (Heyd in press).

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