J.R Mallory
In Search of the Indo-Europeans
Chapter 7 pp. 186-222

The Early Eneolithic of the Pontic steppe and forest-steppe

The Eneolithic cultures of the Pontic-Caspian emerge by 4500 BC and subsequently evolve into Early Bronze Age cultures by about 2500 BC, if not earlier. Since these dates coincide almost precisely with the suspected floruit (if any fact can coincide precisely with something that is only conjecturally suspected  to exist, a wonderful example of verbal diddling) of the Proto-Indo-Europeans before the emergence of distinct Indo-European groups, we are justified in examining this period more closely than the preceding one. Our attention will focus on those areas of material culture or behavior that seem to pertain most (i.e. deliberately not exclusive) to our reconstructions of Indo-European society.

In broad terms, all of the cultures which we are about to encounter take their origin from their Neolithic antecedents in the Pontic-Caspian although precise derivations are very much open to debate. The earlier Eneolithic cultures embrace a series of individual cultures, all of which are distinguished in archaeological nomenclature, but which also display recurrent traits that point either to long-standing mutual contacts or underlying genetic relations. These include the Sredny Stog, Novodanilovka, Lower Mikhaylovka- Kemi Oba cultures in the west and the Samara, Khvalynsk and Southern Ural Eneolithic cultures in the east. In addition, residual Neolithic cultures such as the Dnieper-Donets culture lingered in some regions to be contemporary with some of the Early Eneolithic cultures before finally being absorbed by them. By the end of the Eneolithic period, about 3500-2500 BC, most of the Pontic-Caspian region was occupied by the Pit-grave (Russ. Yamnaya) horizon. The successors of the Pit-grave culture are set to a period in which one generally assumes (assume = accept without verification or proof) the emergence of already differentiated Indo-European-speaking peoples. It is during the course of the Eneolithic period that those who support the Pontic-Caspian as the exclusive homeland of the Indo-Europeans argue for their initial expansion.

Map of Sredny Stog (SS) and Pit Grave Kurgan (Y) cultures


Sredny Stog (SS) culture

Distribution of the Sredny Stog and Novodanilovka sites
After Mallory "In search of", p. 198

Nomadic pot
Pointed-based pot from Dereivka
After Mallory "In search of", p. 201

- genetically distinct people
- medium to tall proto-Europoids, more robust (heavier) than Tripolye people, more gracile (slender) than Dnieper-Donets people
- mixed horse stockbreeding economy
- horse as a food source (which implies milk products, and a genetical conflict with Indo-Arian intolerance of lactose)
- horseback riding
- burial with travel and food provisions, horse, pots and tools, eastern orientation, the complex indicate formed religious beliefs
- kinship-grouped burials with ochre
- emerging of N.Pontic kurgan burials
- kurgan burials with all Türkic hallmarks of stone slabs and cists, cromlechs, eastern orientation, stone stelae, funeral feast, eastern orientation, but yet without kazan-type caldrons
- rounded or pointed base nomadic ceramics of local forest-steppe ancestry
- crushed shell tempered ceramics as technological and ethnic marker
- cord ornament ceramics

The Sredny Stog culture is easily the best known of the Early Eneolithic cultures of the Pontic-Caspian. It is attested by approximately 100 sites located primarily along the middle Dnieper and extending eastwards to include the Donets and the lowermost reaches of the Don. Both radiocarbon dates and synchronisms with the better-dated Tripolye culture indicate that this culture flourished about 4,500-3,500 BC .

The evidence for settlements in the Sredny Stog culture is not extensive and the site of Dereivka on the middle Dnieper is by far the most impressive. An area of over 2,000 square meters was apparently bordered by some form of fence which enclosed several houses, work places and areas of ritual activity. The houses were slightly sunk into the ground, rectangular in shape, with the largest measuring 13 by 6 meters. Hearths were found within them. Scattered about the site were various activity areas including a place for repairing fish gear and processing one's catch, a potter's workshop, and a place where bones were worked into tools. Semi-subterranean huts are also known from Alexandria, and surface dwellings, similar to those from Dereivka, have been uncovered at Konstantinovka on the lower Don. At Dereivka, in addition to more secular activities, there was also some evidence for ritual. This included a deposit consisting of the head of a stallion accompanied by the left footbones of a horse, the remains of two dogs, and a figurine in the shape of a wild boar. Beneath one of the walls of a house was discovered a pit with the burial of a dog.

The economy of the Sredny Stog culture was based on stockbreeding, agriculture, hunting and fishing. The domestic livestock, in terms of the attested number of individuals from five Sredny Stog sites, included horse, sheep/goat, cattle, pig and dog.

The horse served both as a meat source, evidenced by the slaughter patterns which specifically reflect the butchering of young males, and for transport. Antler cheekpieces for fixing the bit in the horse's mouth are known from Dereivka and other Sredny Stog sites. This evidence, coupled with the logical requirements of controlling herds of horses from horseback, supports the thesis that the horse was probably ridden at this time. Generally, archaeologists are skeptical that the horse could also have been employed for traction. Both the small size of the animals (average withers height of 136 centimeters) and the absence of a suitable harness would have rendered these earliest domestic horses poorly suited to pull the heavy timber carts or wagons that are first attested in the Eneolithic.

Although the horse would have revolutionized transportation and the mobility of the Sredny Stog people, it is questionable whether it alone provided the complete prerequisites for true steppe nomadism involving the cyclic exploitation of steppe pastures on a year-round basis. While sheep were well suited to the steppe, the presence of domestic pigs on Sredny Stog sites points to a settled regime, although one that was amassing the technological and economic requirements which might permit specialized nomadic pastoralism. It is always very difficult to evaluate the comparative values of stockbreeding versus agriculture in prehistoric sites, yet the evidence for half a dozen querns (primitive stone hand grinder) and about a dozen grinders from Dereivka at least indicates the processing of plant foods, although these may not necessarily have been domestic. In general, Soviet (now Russian) archaeologists assume (i.e. not assume, but stipulate, based on the refuse bone count) that stockbreeding provided the primary core of the Sredny Stog economy.

The wild animals hunted by the Sredny Stog population included a wide range of prey attested throughout Europe. The primary game animals were red and roe deer, elk, wild boar and, again reminding us more forcefully of the riverine environment of these sites, beaver and otter. Badger, wolf, fox and hare are also represented in the faunal samples. Birds such as mallard, pintail duck, goose, teal and coot were recovered as well.

Finally, there can be little doubt that fishing also played a role in the Sredny Stog economy. The discovery of net sinkers, fishhooks, and fish remains at Dereivka confirms the exploitation of wels, perch, roach, red-eye, carp and pike. Unio and Palludino shells were also collected extensively.

The technology of the Sredny Stog culture provides several areas for comment. Ceramics were still bag-shaped with rounded or pointed bases which clearly reflect their local forest-steppe ancestry. The fabric of the vessels was frequently tempered with crushed shell which provides a useful technological, and some would claim ethnic, marker for the Pontic-Caspian region. By the later period of the Sredny Stog culture, the so-called Dereivka period following 4000 BC, cord ornament appears on the pottery setting a pattern which subsequently emerges over much of the rest of Europe at a later date. The implications of this design technique will assume greater importance when we attempt to trace the expansion of the Indo-Europeans (or certainly non-IEs for that matter).

The lithic remains of the Sredny Stog culture contain much of what we might expect of most Eneolithic societies across Europe. Knives, scrapers, arrowheads, spearheads are all known. Among the antler tools, the most interesting are the hammers and mattocks which occur in great abundance at Dereivka. The excavator, Dmitry Telegin, argues that the hammers were close range weapons and served an analogous function to the stone battle-axes which appear later in the Eneolithic. Cheekpieces for horses were also fashioned from antler.

Copper objects are rare in the Sredny Stog culture and generally consist of little more than beads, although Telegin suggests that copper tools did exist at Dereivka as evidenced by traces of copper oxides on worked bone and the requisite techniques employed in working antler into tools. Evgeny Chernykh has demonstrated by spectral analysis that the copper was derived from the Balkan-Danubian region and probably passed eastwards via the Tripolye culture to the Sredny Stog.

A number of Sredny Stog cemeteries have been uncovered and reveal relatively uniform burial rites. The graves are simple pits without any evident surface marker such as a kurgan. The deceased were buried on their backs but with their legs flexed (in distinction to the customary extended positions of the Dnieper-Donets culture), and they were frequently strewn with ochre (like the Dnieper-Donets graves). Grave gifts were few and included pots and tools (the religious concept of the grave goods apparently is identical with the Samara, Dnieper-Donets, and later stage of  the Globular Amphorae cultures). At Dereivka one of the graves was accompanied by a pot imported from the Tripolye culture.

The disposition of the burials within the cemetery is also distinguished from the previous (i.e. earlier?, older? genetically related? genetically replaced?) Dnieper-Donets culture where numerous burials were interred in a series in group pits. In the Sredny Stog culture the burials tend to be grouped into small numbers, two to five, which are separated from other small groups within the same cemetery. Soviet archaeologists see in this a shift in social organization where the various small groups indicate family or other kinship units who retained their distinct identities even within their cemeteries.

The Sredny Stog cemeteries also provide information about both the physical appearance and life-spans of the population. In general, the Sredny Stog people are described as proto-Europoids of medium to tall stature, more gracile than the Dnieper-Donets people but still quite robust when compared with their contemporaries in the Tripolye culture. From the small Sredny Stog cemetery on Igren island, Ina Potekhina has examined the demographic structure of the population. Males who had achieved adulthood died on average about the age of thirty-six years while the few females in the cemetery, contrary to the usual pattern observed in prehistoric cemeteries, outlived the men and died at about forty-four years of age. If the very high rate of infant mortality is taken into consideration, the average age at death for the entire population was about twenty-seven years.

There are quite marked similarities between the burials of the Sredny Stog culture and those of the Novodanilovka group which also occupied the lower Dnieper and the steppe region of the Ukraine contemporary with the early Sredny Stog culture. The Novodanilovka burials are grouped into small cemeteries, generally not exceeding half a dozen burials, among which Chapli, Yama, Voroshilovgrad (renamed back to Luhansk) and Petro Svistunovo are the best known. The burials are in the supine position with legs flexed, orientation is to the east or northeast, and the deceased was sprinkled with ochre - all of which are characteristics also seen in the Sredny Stog culture. Where they differ is in the elaboration seen both in the construction of the tombs and in the grave goods. Generally, the grave pits are lined with stone slabs and the burials are richly accompanied with a wide assortment of goods. Included among these are stone tools of which long flint knives, arrowheads and spearheads are quite typical. The flint is of high quality and was obtained from the Donets region. Polished stone axes, fashioned from slate or serpentine, maces made from stone, antler or even copper also occur. About a dozen copper bracelets are known; their function is indisputable, as they have been found about the lower arm bones of a burial at Chapli. Other ornaments include rings, beads and pendants of copper, and pendants fashioned from boar's tusk, animal teeth and shell. Globular vessels with slightly pointed bases also occur with the burials.

The interpretation of the Novodanilovka group is made extremely difficult because of the total absence of any settlement sites. Other than a few hoards of copper or flint objects, such as the Goncharovka hoard with 150 knife-like blades, the Novodanilovka burials are without a clear cultural context. They were initially assigned to the Sredny Stog culture but are now recognized by Ukrainian archaeologists as an independent group, putatively composed of specialist flintworkers engaged in the long-distance exchange of flint and possibly copper.

Sredny Stog (SS) culture Novodanilovka cemetery

Male-female burial at Chapli
We can see now traditional home partition reflected in counterposes and positions
After Mallory "In search of", p. 202

Copper bracelet from Chapli (D. 6 cm)
Imported from Balkans
After Mallory "In search of", p. 203

That future discoveries within the Sredny Stog settlements may extend the range of its objects and practices to include the more exotic items found in Novodanilovka burials is always possible, and it has been suggested that these graves merely represent wealthier members of the Sredny Stog culture. What is most important is the pattern of broad general (and biological) similarity between the different cultures and groups occupying the Dnieper-Ural area.

The third major Ukrainian cultural entity of the earlier Eneolithic is the Lower Mikhaylovka-Kemi Oba culture which spans the region between the lower Dnieper and the Crimea. The lower Dnieper variant, the Lower Mikhaylovka culture, synchronizes roughly with the later part of the Sredny Stog culture, while the Kemi Oba culture of the Crimea extends into the later Eneolithic.

Some settlements have been ascribed to the Lower Mikhaylovka culture, the most famous being the eponymous site of Mikhaylovka where the Lower Mikhaylovka remains underlie the later Pit-grave settlement and fortifications. Here semi-subterranean houses were found, one of which measured about 15.5 by 5 meters. The faunal remains from Lower Mikhaylovka were not abundant but include sheep/goat, cattle, horse, pig and dog, in that order, with some traces of hunting. The ceramics are different from the Sredny Stog culture and are flat-based with raised necks. Of special note is a low pedestalled bowl which may be interpreted as a censer, analogous to similar ritual paraphernalia encountered regularly in this region throughout later prehistory.

Burials and associated rituals have attracted special attention. The burials are placed in low kurgans (mounds) and the presence of stone rings, cromlechs, is frequently noted. Hearths have been discovered built on top of the kurgans, on their periphery or within the burial pit itself. Grave goods are rare but may include pottery, copper awls or shell ornaments (i.e. the same cultural and religious pattern later recorded among Huns and Turkic people accross the steppe zone).

Kemi-Oba and Lower Mikhaylovka versions of Sredny Stog culture

After Mallory "In search of", p. 204

One of the more striking recent discoveries of the Lower Mikhaylovka group is the existence of altars or offering places. Beneath a kurgan at Kalanchak was found a circular area on which lay the fractured remains of an anthropomorphic stone stela with traces of ochre; potsherds; and animal bones. Similar deposits have been found elsewhere (i..e. area associated with Sredny Stog traditions).

To the south, in the Crimea, are the remains of the Kemi Oba culture which is primarily represented by small cemeteries. Besides those features which are similar to the Lower Mikhaylovka group, for example, kurgans, cromlechs, eastern orientation, and so forth, there are several other features of considerable interest. A number of the tombs which have been built as stone cists have included painted ornament on the walls. Of greater representational interest are the carved stone stelae on which are depicted the heads and arms of figures, and which are covered with both geometric and more realistic ornament. A fine example of this is the stone stela that derives from Kernosovka. The stela stood 1.2 meters high and depicts the head, including a face with a moustache and beard; arms; and phallus. On the front surface of the stela are carved images of what have been interpreted as tools such as mattocks, a battle-axe, and animals including two horses. There are about seventy such figures known from the Pontic region. Considerable evidence exists that they were employed in Later Eneolithic burials, especially in the construction of Pit-grave graves where they were used to cover the deceased. This was clearly not their original purpose since they were constructed to stand upright, and Dmitry Telegin suggests that they were originally manufactured by the Lower Mikhaylovka-Kemi Oba culture and later appropriated by Pit-grave tribes who reused them in their own burials.

Early Eneolithic in the East

The Eneolithic successors of the earlier Seroglazovo culture (11th-9th millennium BC) are the Samara culture (ca 5500–4800 BC) of the middle Volga forest-steppe, and the Pre-Caspian culture to its south. Both cultures are still very poorly known and their formulation as cultural entities is relatively recent.

Samara culture ca 5500–4800 BC

- burial with travel and food provisions, horse, pots and tools, eastern orientation, the complex indicate formed religious beliefs
- kinship-grouped burials with ochre
- crushed shell tempered ceramics as technological and ethnic marker

The Samara culture, which takes its name from the river Samara, was only discovered in 1973. Its major site is the cemetery of Sezzhee where many of the practices and some of the grave goods encountered in the Dnieper-Donets culture are paralleled. The burials are in flat graves, extended on their backs, and often powdered with ochre, especially the graves of children. The majority of graves were accompanied by goods that included polished stone axes, shell beads, pendants of animal teeth, bone tools, ceramics, and small plates fashioned from boar tusk or shell which would be sewn on garments, a practice most notably attested in the Dnieper-Donets cemetery at Mariupol. In addition, figures carved from tusk or bone also occur in the graves. They were fashioned into the shapes of horses, cattle and ducks. The possibility that the horse was employed ritually in the burial rite is suggested by the discovery of horse skulls and other bones in the overburden of the cemetery.

The distinctive shell-tempered Samara ceramics are known on other sites throughout this region and, according to Igor Vasiliev, ceramically influenced the forest cultures to the north. This provides a point of mutual contact between a segment of what we presume to have been Proto-Indo-European speakers and the region most often favored as the probable homeland of the Uralic languages.

Distribution of Eneolithic cultures of the Caspian-middle Volga region

After Mallory "In search of", p. 206

Pre-Caspian culture 5000-3000 BC

The Pre-Caspian culture to the south is very poorly known with little more than twenty sites identified. These are generally on heavily eroded dune surfaces where material from different periods has been mixed together. The sites are, as a rule, situated along the shores of dry lakes and are composed of flat-based ceramics, quartzite tools and occasionally animal bones. Both the Samara and Pre-Caspian cultures are synchronized with the Dnieper-Donets culture to the west.

Khvalynsk culture

- mixed horse stockbreeding economy
- horse as a food source (which implies milk products, and a genetical conflict with Indo-Arian intolerance of lactose)
- burial with travel and food provisions, horse, pots and tools, eastern orientation, the complex indicate formed religious beliefs
- kinship-grouped burials with ochre
- stone grave covers, funeral feast, eastern orientation
- rounded or pointed base nomadic ceramics of local forest-steppe ancestry
- crushed shell tempered ceramics as technological and ethnic marker

The successor to both the Samara and Pre-Caspian cultures is known as the Khvalynsk culture which takes its name from the major cemetery of Khvalynsk, situated on the right bank of the Volga. This cemetery covered an area of about 1,100 square meters and revealed the remains of 158 burials. The cemetery reflects striking similarities with both the Dnieper-Donets and Sredny Stog cemeteries. While there are forty-five individual burials, the majority were placed in group pits ranging from a pair to as many as seven together. The burials were normally in the supine position with legs flexed, often covered with ochre, and orientated from north to east. The graves were simple pits, though a number had been covered with stones.

The grave goods from the Khvalynsk cemetery are exceedingly rich and include about fifty pots, again employing crushed shell temper; beads fashioned from Unio shell, bone and stone; dentalium shell pendants; stone arrowheads and axes; bone harpoons, fishhooks and knives; and animal bones. Here, too, were uncovered figures carved from boar tusk and shell, and about forty copper objects. These included spiral bracelets and rings and, like the Sredny Stog copper, spectral analysis indicates that the copper was originally derived from the Balkan-Danubian region far to the west. In the overburden of the graves there were found the bones of domestic horse, cattle and sheep/goat.