Late Neolithic/Copper Age Eastern Europe
LATE NEOLITHIC/COPPER AGE EASTERN EUROPE
FOLLOWED BY FEATURE ESSAYS ON:
Domestication of the Horse . . . . . . . . . . 363
Kolomischiina . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 368
Between 5000 b.c. and 2500 b.c. the area east of the Carpathians and north of the Black Sea was populated by a diverse collection of societies with economies based on farming and herding. This discussion focuses on the territory of the modern-day nation of Ukraine, although it includes adjacent areas as well. Central to this discussion are several principal Late Neolithic/Copper Age (sometimes called "Eneolithic") cultures of this region: the Cucuteni-Tripolye, the Sredny Stog, and the Pit Grave (also known as Yamnaya) cultures.
Throughout this region, various researchers see different patterns of culture development, which are cited herein. While the later stages of the Dnieper-Donets culture are considered, these communities are discussed primarily in the context of their role as the indigenous precursors to the Sredny Stog and Tripolye cultures, which occupied the region after c. 5000–4500 b.c. Tripolye is, in effect, the same cultural group as Cucuteni, named after the type site of Cucuteni, located in the valley of the middle Prut in Romania. The culture in Ukraine and Moldova is named after the type site of Tripolye, situated to the south of Kiev.
In considering these communities, an additional and complicating factor comes into play in the periodization (or the attribution to cultural period) of the Neolithic and Copper Age communities. This stems from the fact that groups that have a characteristically Neolithic economy exist alongside groups with what is effectively a Copper Age economy. This dichotomy is particularly evidenced in the areas to the west and east of the Dnieper and also to the northern and southern areas of eastern Europe. The communities occupying the regions to the north of east-central Europe retain a predominantly fisher-hunter-gatherer economy, with poorly developed pottery styles, across eastern Europe, the Urals, and Siberia and into the Baikal region during much of the period studied.
The areas to the south developed varying expressions of Neolithic and evolved Copper Age economies, although in the case of the Dnieper-Donets communities, elements of the economies and material culture of both the northern and southern regions are in evidence. In the Late Neolithic, the spread of Corded Ware pottery is associated with assemblages of battle-axes, beakers, and amphorae. In northeastern Europe the integration of Corded Ware ceramics was accompanied by limited numbers of domesticates within the prevailing hunting economies and the intensification of economic nomic and cultural interactions across Europe. The distribution of Corded Ware assemblages extends from Holland in the west, across northern and central Europe to the Upper Volga and Middle Dnieper in the east.
The Corded Ware assemblages are associated with a shift toward the increased exploitation of domesticated animals and highly dispersed settlement patterns. Plow agriculture is attested and a wider range of soils in differing environments are being exploited. While early researchers have attributed the widespread appearance of the Corded Ware assemblages with an invasion of nomadic pastoralists from the south Russian steppes, the assemblage, characterized by Corded Ware pottery and battle-axes in burials, is most likely indicative of changing roles of the individual in society. Earlier communities emphasized the group identity; the Corded Ware assemblages indicate a status-related emphasis on males, the rise of the individual, and an emphasis on personal wealth and status. In addition, the assemblages reflect the widespread movement of prestige items through trade and/or exchange across large areas of Europe during the later Neolithic.
It should be noted that in the absence of radiocarbon dating for many sites, associations and chronologies often are developed on the basis of artifact typology. This method has been shown to be of questionable value upon occasion. Our consideration of the Late Neolithic/Copper Age cultures of eastern Europe includes later investigations. While presenting interesting overviews and a reconsideration of the Late Neolithic/Copper Age sequences, even the newer studies sometimes are marred somewhat by the evident lack of detail resulting from limitations in the radiocarbon dating of sites, which is clearly a significant problem in the context of complex cultural developments.
In terms of geography this region of the Russian Plain, dissected by broad river valleys, is characterized by low relief. The Russian Plain rarely rises higher than 200 meters above sea level and is drained by large rivers, such as the Vistula, Dnieper, and Dniester, which flow into the Baltic and Black Seas. In general, the rivers that drain the southwestern part of the countries of the former Soviet Union have a low gradient. The exception is the point where these rivers cross swells in the underlying solid geology, which result in the formation of rapids at such locations as Kuibyshev on the Volga and Dnepropetrovsk on the Dnieper. At these places the underlying geology also has an impact upon the direction of the rivers' flow, causing the rivers to shift from their general southeastern direction toward the southwest. The "elbows" of the Dnieper, Don, and Donets are particularly noteworthy in this respect.
The region experiences a Continental climate, being semiarid in its southern areas. In the steppe zone, which extends from west to east between the Carpathians and the Caucasus for some 1,000 kilometers and 600–700 kilometers northward from the Crimean peninsula, the soils are characterized as black earth chernozems on loess. These loess soils formed from fine, wind-blown material in the arid and cool climatic zones to the south of the ice sheets that had expanded southward across the Russian Plain during the Pleistocene period, before c. 10,000 years ago.
On the northern margins of the loess zone, the soils that formed under the mixed-oak woodlands and open grasslands of the forest steppe are well drained and fertile but more varied, as the result of physiographic, climatic, and biological factors. During the period from about 4000 to 2000 b.c., a climatic optimum led to the expansion of broad-leaved forest. This actually had a negative effect on the soils of this zone, resulting in reduced soil productivity. It also has been argued that the loess soils to the south of the forest-steppe zone were very prone to depletion and erosion once the vegetation cover was removed. Arguing against this negative view is the fact that these soils have been shown to be excellent for wheat cultivation, becoming depleted only in modern times through overexploitation.
It was in this region, with mixed broad-leaved forests to the north and steppe to the south, that the Dnieper-Donets culture developed. The nature of the landscape, with poor water resources away from the major rivers and their tributaries, would tend to result in a focus of activity toward the river valleys. This certainly appears to have been the case with the earlier Dnieper-Donets communities, who clearly exploited the resource-rich river valleys throughout their development in the later Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, between c. 7500 and 4500 b.c. It has been suggested that vegetable foods would have constituted about 30–40 percent of the diets of these earlier populations, with many of the potentially edible wild plants species concentrated in wetland habitats, such as the rivers, lakes, and coastlines of Europe.
DNIEPER-DONETS AND THE MARIUPOL-TYPE CEMETERIES
About two hundred sites and an equivalent number of radiocarbon determinations are used in dating the Neolithic and Copper Age cultures of Ukraine. The Dnieper-Donets culture/Mariupol-type cemeteries continued until c. 4500–4000 b.c., and, as such, their development fully overlapped the Tripolye periods A1 and A2 through to the B1–2 transition between c. 5500 and 4000 b.c. These cemeteries are named after the "type" site of Mariupol, which was excavated in southern Ukraine, to the north of the Sea of Azov. They are attributed to the Dnieper-Donets culture. Chronologically, the Mariupol-type cemetery series also slightly overlapped the later Sredny Stog cultures, between c. 4500 and 4000 b.c., on the basis of a few dates from the Mariupol-type cemetery of Nikolskoye.
There is evidence from later-stage Dnieper-Donets sites to suggest that these communities were using domesticated plants and animals, either through exchange with adjacent Tripolye culture groups or through active agropastoralism. Indications of settlement are sparse, however, represented by limited remains of semi-subterranean huts. Direct evidence for culture contacts and exchange comes from the Dnieper-Donets cemetery of Nikolskoye, which has been dated to between 5400 and 3900 b.c. and holds an imported Tripolye pot. Similarly, Tripolye pottery forms have been recovered from the Dnieper-Donets settlement site of Pustynka 5. In addition to ceramics, the cemetery of Nikolskoye has numerous miniature copper beads, a copper pendant, and a gold pendant associated with the later stages of burial; these finds have clear associations with the Tripolye culture. Thus, we have solid evidence for contact between the later-stage Dnieper-Donets communities and the incoming farming cultures.
Despite what may have been mutually beneficial trade-and-exchange networks, it appears that the northeastward expansion of Tripolye and the northward expansion of the Sredny Stog groups were directly influential in marginalizing the indigenous Dnieper-Donets community. At the end of their existence, the latter culture groups apparently were relegated to an area about one third of the size of their original territory in the northern regions of the Dnieper-Pripyat basins. Thus, after c. 4400 b.c. two principal cultures are thought to have occupied southern Ukraine—Tripolye and the Sredny Stog groups—with the Pit-Comb culture populating northeastern Ukraine and the Lower Mikhailovka culture inhabiting the lower Dnieper southward to the Crimean peninsula.
THE PIT-COMB POTTERY CULTURE
Another important development at this time (c. 4500 b.c.) is the appearance of the Pit-Comb pottery culture in northeastern Ukraine and the North European Plain. In its early stage this culture, made up of fisher-hunter-gatherers, had affinities with groups in the region of the Volga and Oka Rivers; there is no sign of the use or knowledge of domesticates. Although there are no cemeteries of this culture in the Ukraine, evidence from the Volga-Oka drainage system indicates that the group buried their dead in a fashion similar to that of the Dnieper-Donets communities. The dead were laid on their backs and buried with grave goods comprising animal tooth pendants and flint implements.
The Pit-Comb pottery culture, having developed between about 4500 and 2800 b.c., overlapped chronologically with the middle and later periods of the Dnieper-Donets culture, stages B and C of the Tripolye culture, and the Globular Amphora, Funnel Beaker, and Sredny Stog cultures. The Pit-Comb culture occupied the northern and northeastern regions of Ukraine and adjacent areas and also was located in areas where Dnieper-Donets culture sites, such as Kozlovka, Poltava, and Alexandria, were situated. As with most sites in the Ukrainian region, the Pit-Comb culture sites focused on the river regions, around the Desna, Siem, southern Donets, Worskla, Psla, and Suly Rivers, which include tributaries in the upper Dnieper system.
It appears that the only pottery forms associated with this culture are point-based jars with mineral tempers decorated with horizontal rows of pits. Occasionally, the patterning has an alternating pit-and-comb decoration—hence the name Pit-Comb culture. Artifacts made of bone include barbed harpoon points, arrowheads, adzes, and fishhooks; the flint and stone inventory comprise scrapers for processing hides, knives, chisels and awls, arrowheads, and axes.
THE CUCUTENI-TRIPOLYE CULTURE
The Cucuteni-Tripolye culture has been dated on the basis of some sixty-five radiocarbon determinations from thirty-five sites between 5500 and 2300 b.c. The Tripolye culture, named after the site of Tripolye to the west of the Dnieper River (Ukraine), about 20 kilometers south of Kiev, has been referred to as one of the most important Neolithic cultures of eastern Europe. This culture expanded eastward from Romania into Ukraine, to occupy the forest-steppe zone to the west of the Dnieper River. About a thousand sites have been attributed to this culture. While Tripolye is considered part of a single cultural entity, along with the Cucuteni culture, differing regional research initiatives and varying degrees of investigation of culture sites have resulted in the development of two discrete chronologies for each culture, Tripolye in Ukraine and Cucuteni in Romania. Here the name "Cucuteni-Tripolye" is used in discussing general characteristics of the larger entity, and "Tripolye" alone refers specifically to sites and their chronology in Ukraine.
The economy of the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture was mixed, with both the exploitation of domesticated plants and animals and the gathering of wild plants and hunting of wild animals. Among the material recovered from the fired clay used in the floors of Cucuteni-Tripolye dwellings, imprints of hulled wheat, naked six-row barley, and hulled barley have been recovered, although the latter was only rarely represented. Other species include bread wheat and, occasionally, broomcorn millet, along with pea, bitter vetch, pulses, and grapes. At Majdanetskoe, located between the Southern Bug and Dnieper Rivers and dating to 3650–3000 b.c., peas formed perhaps 75 percent of the plant remains recovered during excavations. Wild plant species identified from Cucuteni-Tripolye sites attest to woodland food collecting: among them, cornelian cherry, plum, hawthorn, pear, and wild grapes. In addition, edge gloss on a harvesting tool from Mirnoje might testify to intensive collecting activities.
Domesticated animals included cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, and remains of wild animals represented red deer, roe deer, wild pig, moose, and horse. Fishing, too, appears to have been an important element in the subsistence economies of earlier Cucuteni-Tripolye communities. Moreover, while domesticates often outnumber wild species, there is evidence that the hunted animals could have represented up to 60 percent of the animals eaten at certain Cucuteni-Tripolye sites. Thus, while Cucuteni-Tripolye is considered a farming culture, the economy remained mixed throughout its existence, although the emphasis on hunting varied in the latest periods.
At numerous early Tripolye sites, such as Klishchev yar (3990–3770 b.c.) and Soroki-Ozero (3970–3510 b.c.), there are indications that cattle breeding was an important element of the economic activity of these communities. Conversely, at Kolomischiina II in stage BII of Tripolye, wild animals constituted about 79.5 percent of the fauna, while the stage CI site of Kolomischiina I had 80 percent wild animals in its faunal assemblage. At the later-stage sites in the steppe zone, sheep and goats seemed dominant over cattle and horses among the domesticated faunas.
In its earliest stages the Cucuteni-Tripolye settlements have signs of two-storied dwellings, probably housing a single family. Settlements initially were located in the river valleys of the region, perhaps representing acculturation of existing groups. Expansion of settlement into the loess lands away from the river valleys might indicate the movement of Cucuteni-Tripolye farming groups into adjacent regions. Such a strategy would be logical, in that local knowledge certainly would have made the occupation of a new region easier and more viable than uninformed expansion.
There is no evidence for cemeteries in the early to middle stages of Tripolye, although some houses have been found to have people buried beneath their floors. Excavations at the late-stage cemetery of Vykhvatintsy on the middle Dnieper showed that the dead were buried in a contracted position on their left sides, usually with their heads to the east or northeast.
Early settlement sites were quite small, basically comprising small hamlets of perhaps a dozen houses. The maximum expression of settlement size is reached at such sites as Vesely Kut (150 hectares in area) and Majdanetskoe (stage CI, c. 3790–3000 b.c.) which was 200 hectares in area and contained in excess of two thousand dwellings and storage buildings. Fortifications of two-story buildings have been inferred. Although it was thought at first that fortification was in response to a threat from such steppe groups as the Sredny Stog to the east, it is apparent that some internal conflict between Tripolye groups, in terms of competition for resources, may have played a part in these developments. The occurrence of burial mounds over Tripolye sites seems to have been a later, post-Tripolye phenomenon in certain cases. The superimposition of burials over Tripolye sites might represent the symbolic reclamation of territory by subsequent culture groups.
The investigations at sites such as Kolomischiina have indicated that smaller buildings may have functioned as stores or dedicated production areas for pottery or grain processing. Building 7 at Kolomischiina, for example, is a small enclosure, roughly 24 square meters, with about twenty vessels and no evidence for a hearth, which suggests that this building was simply a storage hut. The layout of the houses indicates that while they were large, they were not necessarily used exclusively for habitation. Areas of clay flooring show evidence of grain-processing activities. Whereas there is clear evidence for an expansion of population into the later middle phase of Tripolye, estimates of population size would need to account for the areas of these "hous es" that were given over to grain processing and other storage activities.
On the basis of calculations of settlement sites like Kolomischiina I, which may have had about five hundred inhabitants, or eighty families, it has been suggested that Tripolye culture sites would have needed 250 hectares of arable land under cultivation to sustain the population, with another 250 hectares lying fallow. The mean population density is thought to have been about nineteen persons per square kilometer. The fact that not all of the structures at such sites as Kolomischiina I would have functioned as dwellings has led researchers to conclude that this estimate represents a maximum population density after c. 3600 b.c. in the territory of the Tripolye culture in Ukraine.
Throughout its development, the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture produced fine pottery forms and clay anthropomorphic figurines. Pottery forms varied and included vases, beakers, bowls, binocular vases, and hollow stands. Pottery decoration developed toward a trichrome style characterized by an orange pottery painted with black-and-white patterns, as the culture expanded into Moldova. The anthropomorphic figurines varied in design but generally were of a female form, less than 100 millimeters tall, with stylized legs, buttocks, chest, head, and face, in either a standing or a semireclining position. The female figurines have been interpreted as a symbol for fertility, as grains of wheat and barley have been recovered from the clays of many of these figurines from Luka-Vrublivetska, which is dated to c. 4950–4550 b.c.
Increasing climatic aridity after c. 3500–3200 b.c. is believed to have caused instability in the Tripolye farming economy, leading to economic diversification. Many sites exhibit declines in ceramic production and house building. After c. 3320 b.c. in the middle Dnieper area, a shift in economy toward stockbreeding is evident in one variant of this culture. Discrete groups within the Tripolye culture expanded their ranges within the territory of Ukraine during the latter period, and significant elite burials are evident, perhaps suggesting the development of military-oriented chiefdoms.
THE SREDNY STOG CULTURE
In general, Sredny Stog and its component subcultures are thought to have overlapped the end of Tripolye period A, c. 4500 b.c., through to Tripolye stage C2, c. 3200–2800 b.c. Some one hundred settlements are known from this culture. These settlements contrast with Tripolye culture sites in that there is a lack of defense, with dwelling sites and cemeteries being open and located in the forested river valleys on the west side of the middle Dnieper and eastward to the Donets and lower Don.
In the Sredny Stog economy stockbreeding originally was thought to have been important, with the horse dominating assemblages, but this earlier hypothesis was revised in light of newer investigations. It now appears that the evidence from such sites as Dereivka testifies to the hunting of horse as opposed to its domestication; coincidentally this species also has been identified in low numbers on Tripolye A period sites between 5500 and 4500 b.c.
In its earliest stage, c. 4500–4300 b.c., Cucuteni-Tripolye imports are found on Sredny Stog sites, reinforcing the fact that exchange was occurring. More dramatic evidence for contact has been recovered from the middle-stage Tripolye site of Nezvizko 3. At this site, an aged man of a physical type similar to that of Sredny Stog people and buried in a style resembling that of Sredny Stog burials, was found to have facial injuries inflicted by a stone axe. These injuries were not the immediate cause of death, however, as study of the skeleton suggested that this person survived for perhaps ten to fifteen years after the injuries were inflicted. It has been suggested that he might reflect the intermingling of Cucuteni-Tripolye and Sredny Stog populations.
The development of the Sredny Stog culture has been viewed as a result of the migration of pastoralists into the Dnieper and northern regions of the Black Sea. Various models exist, however, for the development of the Sredny Stog culture, which in its latter stage is characterized by a Corded Ware pottery stage. An alternative hypothesis is that this culture arose from the local Neolithic groups in the Azov and lower Don regions. Other researchers see its genesis in the Dnieper region, again as a direct derivative of earlier Neolithic traditions. As these various arguments suggest, the identification of Sredny Stog as a discrete entity that developed between c. 4500 and 2800 b.c. could be and has been questioned by the studies of different researchers. This lack of agreement stems from the fact that the sites used to define this culture are datable to different periods and have inconsistencies in terms of their associated artifact inventories.
Perhaps foremost among the sites used to define the Sredny Stog culture is the settlement of Dereivka, which dates to 4500–3800 b.c. This settlement is located on the right bank of the Omelnik, a tributary of the Dnieper, and is the most impressive site within the Sredny Stog culture complex, being about 2,000 square meters in area and defined by a possible fence or palisade structure. A shell dump comprising Unio and Palludino shells delineates this fence or palisade. In effect, this deposit represents a midden, with stones, ash, broken pottery of rounded or point-based form, and a range of artifacts throughout the layers. The Dereivka "complex" has produced some twenty-three thousand finds.
The evidence from the stratigraphy at this site suggests that it may have been subject to periodic reoccupation over a considerable period of time. This is particularly evident at structure 3, where a hearth was identified overlying its north wall. This structure, located immediately east of house 1, has been referred to as a "domestic activity complex." This feature may have been a more superficial structure, however, possibly a temporary fishing hut, as circular formations of stone, probably used for post packing, were located throughout its interior. The identification of this structure as a temporary dwelling used during fishing expeditions is supported by the finds of about twenty ceramic, violin-shaped net sinkers (found nowhere else at the site), a bone fishhook, and heaps of scales and fish bones in the hearth. The evidence clearly indicates that the inhabitants of the site repaired their fishing gear and processed their catch of such species as perch, roach, carp, and pike at this location.
This site has many house structures that are rectangular in shape, with the largest measuring 13 by 6 meters in area. Semi-subterranian houses have been identified at Alexandria in the Donets region, and surface dwellings comparable to those at Dereivka have been recovered at Konstantinovka on the lower Don. At Dereivka, house 2, situated on the southern side of the site, is a rectangular building with two hearths. Clay figurines were recovered from the northwestern corner of this building. They comprised a large fragment of a female statuette and a second piece resembling the head of an anthropomorphic image.
Under the north wall of the house was the ritual interment of a dog. This animal was buried in a large pit beneath the occupation horizon; it had been positioned on its side with its legs extended and its head pointing forward. According to the excavator of this site, this interment represents the cult of guardian animals, a common practice among the Copper and Bronze Age cultures of Tripolye, Yamnaya, and Corded Ware. One of the other pits at this site held a figurine of a boar and a fragment of a second object, two fragments of statuettes, and two bridle cheekpieces made from antler.
The associated cemetery has been placed at between 4400 and 4000 b.c. on the basis of a radiocarbon determination from burial 5. Other researchers have suggested a later date, c. 3500 b.c., for this site. Among the artifacts associated with the burials at Dereivka are copper beads and a red clay bowl of Tripolye type. The dating of Dereivka to Tripolye B2–C1, as opposed to stage C2, would be consistent with the radiocarbon dating of both the settlement and the cemetery site. Other Sredny Stog cemeteries feature equivalent burial practices, with people laid on their backs and with their legs flexed in small grave groups of two to five individuals, separated from other groups in the cemeteries. Single interments usually are covered with red ochre. These small burial groupings are believed to represent discrete family or kin-based groups, the identity of which remained significant even after death.
At Dereivka, horse remains made up more than half of the fauna at the site, and the presence of antler cheekpieces has been cited as an indication of the early domestication and riding of horses. Research has shown, however, that this phenomenon was, in fact, a much later activity and not contemporary with the Copper Age phase of activity at Dereivka. It appears that the economy of the Sredny Stog culture was mixed, with a combination of stockbreeding, including sheep and goats, cattle, and pigs; agriculture; and hunting and fishing. Some processing of plant foods is implied by the presence of querns and grinders at Dereivka, although it should be remembered that the processing of wild plant remains took place from a very early time in this region. The range of wild animals hunted encompassed red and roe deer, moose, wild boar, beaver, otter, badger, wolf, and fox.
The pottery of the Sredny Stog culture exhibits a new decorative motif after c. 4000 b.c., when cord ornament is used to decorate the pots. Stone tools associated with the economic activities of Sredny Stog groups include knives, scrapers, arrowheads and spearheads, with antler tools including hammers and mattocks as evidenced at Dereivka.
It has been reported that the Sredny Stog culture groups differed economically from such cultures as the Cucuteni-Tripolye, in that they were steppe cattle breeders who used point-based pottery and had only superficial settlements (as opposed to the concentrated habitations of the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture). They did bury their dead in a fashion similar to that of the Cucuteni-Tripolye groups, in that they buried their dead in the flexed position. However, the burial ritual differs in relation to specific positioning as Sredny Stog burials were interred on their backs, whereas the Tripolye burials were positioned on their sides with their hands placed near their faces.
In the region between the lower Dnieper and Crimea, a third significant culture group, the Lower Mikhailovka, has been identified. This culture group coincided chronologically with the Corded Ware stage of the Sredny Stog culture. At Mikhailovka the settlement remains of the Lower Mikhailovka group have been shown to underlie those of the Yamnaya culture.
The evidence recovered from such sites as Mikhailovka on the Dnieper indicates that this was a cattle-breeding steppe culture with a well-defined artifact inventory. Although faunal remains are sparse, it appears that cattle, sheep and goats, horses, pigs, and dogs, alongside hunting, made up the subsistence base of this culture. Pottery forms were mainly flat-based, dark in color, poorly decorated, and burnished. Imports of Tripolye painted pottery in Lower Mikhailovka burials support a Tripolye B2–C2 age between 4000 and 2800 b.c. or, more precisely, between 3700 and 3000 b.c. The burial ritual comprised interment in the supine position or with the knees drawn up toward the body, the use of ochre, and the erection of kurgans (burial mounds), with cists and stele used in burial constructions. Burial goods are not numerous, but finds of pottery, copper awls, and shell ornaments have been recovered.
One particularly interesting element of the ritual activities associated with the Lower Mikhailovka culture is the existence of altars or offering places associated with the kurgans, which have been found beneath the mounds. The evidence suggests that ritual deposits were created either before or during the burial ceremony. In this context pottery finds associated with the burials have been interpreted as representing the remains of the funeral feast which formed an integral part of the burial ritual.
THE PIT GRAVE CULTURE (YAMNAYA)
By the end of the Copper Age, most of the Pontic-Caspian region was occupied by the Pit Grave (Yamnaya) culture, which has been described as one of the major cultural-historical entities of prehistoric Europe. The early Pit Grave culture groups initially settled in the steppe zone of eastern Europe c. 3000–2900 b.c., either absorbing or displacing such indigenous groups as the Tripolye and post-Mariupol populations. (The Russian term for "pit grave" is Yamnye pogrebeniia, derived from yama, which literally means "pit.") Researchers in this region have suggested that Yamnaya may have differing origins; the Volga region and the Dnieper (Sredny Stog) are possible heartlands for this culture, along with the region to the southeast, in the Caucasus.
Whatever the mechanisms of its initial development, it is clear that by c. 2500–2000 b.c. the Pit Grave culture encompassed the steppe and forest steppe from the Urals in the east to the Lower Danube in the west. In general, the subsistence base of this culture is believed to have focused primarily on pastoralism. There is evidence of cultivated plants, derived from imprints on ceramics and from physical remains from such sites as Mikhailovka 3. The evidence is sparse, but it usually is accepted that agriculture formed an integral element of subsistence strategies.
The full expression of the kurgan tradition is associated with the Pit Grave culture after c. 2500 b.c. Despite the proliferation of kurgans in Ukraine and the northern Pontic steppe region, less than fifteen settlement sites are known; where there is evidence of settlement activity, it often takes the form of insubstantial camps, probably reflecting the nomadic pastoralism that dominated the economy of the steppe at that time. Faunal species exploited by the Yamnaya culture groups include such domesticates as cattle, sheep and goats, horses, and pigs. A broad range of wild animal remains comprise red deer, aurochs, wild boar, onager (wild ass), and steppe antelope (saiga), alongside smaller species, such as beaver, fox, otter, and hare.
As noted, exceptions to the described settlement pattern exist, especially at Mikhailovka on the lower Dnieper. The Yamnaya culture settlement evidence at this site comprises two phases of activity, the earliest of which occupied an area of about 1,500 square meters. James Mallory has noted that at this site there were both semi-subterranean and surface structures, along with large quantities of ceramics, tools, and faunal remains. The second phase of Yamnaya settlement saw expansion of this site to cover about 1.5 hectares and its fortification with ditches and stone walls.
The suggestion has been made that the kurgans erected by this culture functioned not only as grave mounds but possibly also as fixed points in the barren steppe, which could assist in guiding movement through the landscape. They also served to emphasize communal and familial links with the ancestors, and as such they reinforced communal rights to the land through the longevity of association afforded by ancestral ties.
As might be anticipated in a society where the economy was based on pastoralism, cattle formed an integral part of the rituals revolving around the burial of the ancestors, and many faunal remains come from burial contexts. The dead were laid on their backs, with the legs flexed and the head oriented to the east or northeast, and covered with ochre. Some extended supine burials, as noted for the Neolithic Dnieper-Donets culture, have been identified in the Danube-Dniester interfluve. Of particular interest are the signs of amputation of the hands or feet of the buried persons. Although this rite has no parallels elsewhere in the Yamnaya cultural area, it is a characteristic of Late Glacial/Early Holocene cemeteries at the Dnieper Rapids, such as Voloshkoe, which dates to c. 10,400–9200 b.c.
Additional Yamnaya and later-stage burials have been recovered from excavations of the kurgan mounds. Yamnaya burials within the mounds often number between fifteen and thirty interments, suggesting family or group or tribal burial grounds. The graves are deep shafts, either square or rectangular in shape and often lined with timber; the burials are found in chambers, usually covered with logs. The existence of barrow mounds before the establishment of the Pit Grave culture (Yamnaya) and their reuse by Pit Grave people show that the first kurgans were in evidence from stage BII/CI at such sites as Vishnevoe. Early-stage Yamnaya burials often are unaccompanied by grave goods, but later examples have produced a wide range of artifacts, such as copper and flint knives, boar tusk pendants and beads, and such tools as scrapers, axes, and sickle blades. Other finds of equipment and tools associated with this culture include flint, bone, and antler tools, among them, mattocks and harpoons, and such weapons as daggers, stone battle-axes and maces, and arrowheads. Copper knives, chisels, awls, and adzes appear to have been produced locally.
While the economic activities of the Yamnaya groups were structured to accommodate prevailing natural conditions, with mixed farming in open, forested river valleys and stockbreeding in the open steppe zone, one of the most significant factors in the development of these mobile economies was the invention of wheeled transport. James P. Mallory has noted that evidence for both two- and four-wheeled carts or wagons has been recovered from Yamnaya burials, such as the Storozhevaya cemetery near Dnepropetrovsk on the Dnieper. Other finds of carts have been made at Staryi Kodak (lower Dnieper) and north of the Sea of Azov at Akkermen. Horse riding also is documented at this time. The "head and hooves" burials of the crania and lower limbs of sheep and, occasionally, horses are encountered. This ritual has been interpreted as a cult activity because the remains have been recovered in situations that indicate that they were placed over the buried person, as part of the burial ritual. Finally, it has been suggested that the extensive adoption of the Pit Grave tradition might reflect the ultimate expression of societal modification aimed at counteracting the climatic changes responsible for the deterioration of such groups as the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture. This modification took the form of a reorientation of subsistence economies and settlement patterns in order to avoid the impacts of worsening climate in relation to the previous agricultural economies employed by the Tripolye culture groups.
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