this article as a PDF (easier to print)
of Patriarchy in Europe:
Reflections on the Kurgan Theory of Marija Gimbutas ©
(In The Rule of Mars: The History and Impact of Patriarchy,
edited by Cristina Biaggi, Manchester, Conn: KIT; forthcoming
An investigation of the beginnings of patriarchy in Europe is
more than an intellectual exercise. Its path crosses the boundaries
of archaeology, anthropology, gender studies, history, linguistics,
mythology, genetics, among other disciplines, and inevitably leads
to a constellation of assumptions, interpretations and beliefs
about the origin story of European civilization.
Patriarchy has been defined as the social arrangement in which
men possess structural power by monopolizing high-status positions
in important social, economic, legal, and religious institutions
(Glick and Fiske 2000:373). As a designation of social structure,
it is associated with patrilineal inheritance and a patrilocal
system of residence. Patriarchy typically promotes warfare which
further intensifies male dominance on every level of society (see
Christ 1997:60-62). While there is no universal consensus about
exactly how and when full-fledged patriarchal institutions were
first established in Europe, it is clear that by the Early Bronze
Age patterns of male dominance in various regions were well established.
Some researchers prefer the idea that male dominance always existed
or that patriarchal structures resulted from internal “evolution”
out of more “primitive” social systems. Lithuanian/American
archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) posits that the earliest
societies in Europe were neither male dominated nor primitive and
that patriarchy became established as the result of a “collision
of cultures” that triggered the spread of androcratic patterns.
According to her Kurgan Theory, the progressive intrusion of nomadic
pastoralists from north of the Black Sea disrupted the mature, matristic1,
horticultural2 societies of southeast
Europe. Between the mid-fifth to the mid-third millennia BC, radical
changes took place throughout Europe in language, social structure,
and ideology. This paper investigates the beginnings of patriarchy
in Europe in light of Gimbutas’ Kurgan Theory which has been
at the center of scholarly debates for more than half a century.
As a Research Fellow in East European Archaeology at Harvard University
(1950-1963), Marija Gimbutas devoted herself to the question of
post-Palaeolithic European origins. Her monograph, The Prehistory
of Eastern Europe (1956), was the first text to evaluate and
summarize all archaeological research from the Baltic to the northern
Caucasus up to 1955. Until Gimbutas produced this work, the prehistory
of Eastern Europe had been available to Western scholars only in
fragmentary form due to political and linguistic barriers. This
research provided a considerable quantity of data indicating extensive
culture change in Europe with the appearance of “intruders
from the east” whom she named Kurgans after their distinctive
burial mounds (Gimbutas 1960: 549)3.
Gimbutas also authored the comprehensive volume, Bronze Age
Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe (1965), among other
texts which established her reputation as a specialist on the Indo-European
In the mid-1950s, Gimbutas combined her extensive background in
linguistic palaeontology with archaeological evidence to locate
the homeland of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers and to explain
the rapid and extensive spread of Indo-European languages. This
theory stimulated a renewed interest in the “Indo-European
problem” resulting in a number of other homeland theories
(see Mallory 1989:143-185; Gamkrelidze and Ivanov 1985:3-91; Makkay
1987; Renfrew 1987)5. In In
Search of the Indo-Europeans (1989), James Mallory writes,
“the Kurgan theory has been accepted by many archaeologists
and linguists, in part or total, and is the solution one encounters
in Encyclopedia Britannica and the Grand Dictionnaire
Encyclopédique Larousse” (Mallory 1989, 185; see
also Dergachev, 2002). The Kurgan theory continues to be critiqued
and debated among a new generation of scholars (see, e.g., Manzura
1999; Stefanovich 2003; Nikolova 2003).
Gimbutas coined the term “Kurgan culture” to refer to
the pastoral communities documented from the fifth millennium BC
in the harsh environment of the Volga-Ural-Caspian region. These
peoples, who are assumed to have spoken a Proto-Indo-European language6,
appear to have gone through a long process of convergence that resulted
in the consolidation of shared morphology and lexicon (Gimbutas
1997:307; Mallory 1989:195; Anthony 1991:196; Lehmann 1997). “This
chronology does not represent the evolution of a single group, but
of a number of various steppe peoples who shared a common tradition,
extending over broad temporal and spatial parameters” (Gimbutas
1991:352). “As numerous historical instances testify, pastoral
societies throughout the Eurasian steppe are typified by remarkable
abilities to absorb disparate ethno-linguistic groups” (Mallory
Horse domestication, which provided a powerful means of transport,
was most likely accomplished by 5000 BC or earlier between eastern
Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan (Bökönyi 1987; Gimbutas
1991:353)7. Access to horse riding
may have intensified the aggressive territoriality and warlike behavior
that typify these increasingly mobile tribes.
The use of horses as mounts led to an expansion in the
size of potential exploitative territories by a factor of five
and therefore to conflicts over localized resources that had formerly
been beyond effective reach (Anthony 1986:302)8.
As early as the first half of the fifth millennium BC in the lower
Volga basin, male burials appear in pit graves covered by kurgans
(round barrows). These graves contain prestige weapons indicating
both the importance of warfare and the establishment of social hierarchy.
The similarity of grave goods and evidence of a horse cult in burial
sites separated by thousands of kilometers suggest the existence
of phenomenal mobility and intertribal relations between peoples
of the Caucasus and the North Pontic steppe.
While some scholars question the association of language with specific
ethnic groups (Renfrew 1987; Anthony 1991:194-195; Makkay 1992:194),
Gimbutas emphasized the connection between PIE speakers and an
entire complex of traits found progressively from the Volga
steppe to the Dnieper. The Kurgan culture is reconstructed according
to a lexicon of PIE terminology verified by archaeological data
and comparative Indo-European linguistics. This multidisciplinary
investigation points to a pastoral economy with rudimentary agriculture,
crude cord-impressed pottery with solar motifs, horse domestication,
territorialism, warfare, and a patrilineal, patriarchal social system
(Gimbutas 1991, 1997; Mallory 1989:123-124; Whittle 1996:137; Best
1989:337). Such elements were unknown west of the Black Sea before
4400 BC, but were spread throughout Europe accompanied by the appearance
of Kurgan burials. The Kurgan Theory posits three infiltrations
of Kurgan peoples into Europe resulting in the Indo-Europeanization
of the continent over a two thousand year period (Gimbutas 1992:400-405)9.
The Civilization of Old Europe
The development of radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology during
the mid-twentieth century revealed the true antiquity of the earliest
food producing cultures in Europe which were suddenly understood
to have flourished between the seventh and fifth millennia BC. Gimbutas’
research on the archaeology, symbolism and social structure of these
Neolithic10 peoples indicates balanced,
egalitarian, matrilineal societies with no indication of domination
of one sex over the other11. She
coined the over-arching term “Old Europe” in recognition
of the commonalities of economy, ritual life and social structure
of horticultural societies before the Indo-European influence12.
Early Neolithic farming cultures from the Balkan peninsula to the
Ukraine and throughout southeast and central Europe, represent “old
histories of tradition, renewal and reaffirmation . . .[with] little
evidence for overt lineage or other internal differentiation”
(Whittle 1996:121). Colin Renfrew describes the Neolithic farmers
of this period as “egalitarian peasants” whose societies
were non-hierarchical. “[T]here is no reason to suggest the
existence in them of hereditary chieftains, and certainly none to
warrant a specialized functional division of population into warriors,
priests and common people” (Renfrew 1987:253).
The well-constructed Neolithic settlements of southeast Europe are
typified by elegant sculptural and ceramic art, craft specialization
and elaborate ritual traditions. Of the thousands of anthropomorphic
and zoomorphic sculptures found in households throughout the region,
the vast majority of identifiable images are female, reflecting
the centrality of women’s ritual activities (Gimbutas 1974,
1989, 1991; Hodder 1990:61-63). Archaeologist Henrieta Todorova
(1978:83) writes that more than ninety percent of the Neolithic
figurines found in Bulgaria are female. Of the two hundred fifty
figurines from Gimbutas’ excavation at Sitagroi, northern
Greece, “not one can be clearly identified as male”
In Gimbutas’ view, Old European female imagery expresses metaphoric
concepts of sacred cosmology within a mother-kinship structure.
The vast body of Neolithic symbolism represents a “cohesive
and persistent ideological system” reflecting an abiding respect
and consciousness of interconnection with the cycles of life in
nature (Gimbutas 1989a)14. Female
images (often pregnant) are associated with grain storage containers
and areas where grain was ground or baked into bread. Elegantly
decorated anthropomorphic vessels and figurines incised or painted
with symbolic signs, sometimes with bird or animal masks, are found
in house shrines and other domestic contexts. Andrew Sherratt takes
Gimbutas’ lead by noting that the similarity of figurine forms
that circulated through regional trading networks may have carried
“ritual codes” representing consciously held ideological
beliefs. Moreover, the “pervasive ritual and symbolic character
of material culture. . . lacks the marks of individual rank and
Since all societies contain both sexes, anthropologist Peggy Reeves
Sanday asks the following questions:
Which sex bears the symbolic and social burden for conjugating
the social universe?
Which sex is imbued (naturally or socially) with the reproductive
powers that recharge the sources of supernatural fecundity? What
is the gender of the dominant symbols tying the archetypal to the
social? How do males and females complement one another in the political
arena and how is this arena tied to the cosmological order? (Sanday
Sanday’s primary research among the Minangkabau people of
West Sumatra suggests an ethnographic parallel with Gimbutas’
description of Old European societies in which the mother/child
bond is sacred; customs associated with matrilineal descent reside
at the foundation of collective identity; and women nurture and
uphold the ancient traditions centered around life cycle ceremonies
which bring members of different clans together through which all
members of the society are integrated. Female symbolism is manifested
in social practices that authenticate and regenerate
the social order, influencing the lives of both sexes. Women do
not exert power over others, but function in their roles
as mothers and senior women “to conjugate –
to knit and regenerate social ties in the here-and-now and in the
hereafter” (Sanday 1998, 2002)15.
During the Early Neolithic (7th-6th millennia BC) in southeast
Europe, the mother-child bond and a respectful continuity between
the living and those “in the hereafter” are indicated
by the fact that women and children were buried within settlements,
often under house floors. Houses, therefore, functioned as abodes
for the living as well as for the ancestors. Before cemeteries
came into use, c. 5000 BC, adult male burials are conspicuously
rare (Gimbutas 1991:283, 331).
In the later Neolithic, the ancestors were honored in graveyards
and in communal burials, such as the megalithic tombs of Western
Europe, where no emphasis on individual power or hierarchy can
be found. The offerings left at these tombs must have strengthened
social relations within an extended community in which ritual,
rather than rank, functioned as the organizing principle (Sherratt
1997:144). Gimbutas associates the symbolism of Old European tombs
with the womb of the Great Goddess – as ritual centers of
regeneration within the cycles of life (1989:151-158).
A Collision of Cultures
The cultures Old Europe reached a florescence of sustained development
during the fifth millennium BC made possible by long-term dynamic
stability. Between the mid-fifth and the mid-third millennia,
however, mature culture centers throughout southeast Europe suffered
a crisis of disruption. When the first barrow graves appeared
in Europe, nearly seven hundred major habitation sites, representing
a rich fabric of cultural and technological development, disintegrated
after flourishing undisturbed for hundreds of years. So many Late
Neolithic/Copper Age sites throughout southeast Europe were consumed
by fire during that period that the stratigraphic level is called
the “Burned House Horizon” (Tringham and Krstic´
1990:116). Previously stable populations were dislocated and societies
became increasingly stratified.
Gimbutas’ Kurgan Theory describes the progressive collision
between two entirely different social systems, languages and ideologies
which resulted in the disintegration of Old European societies,
the introduction and dispersal of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language,
and the creation of hybrid societies composed of Old European and
Indo-European elements16. Kurgan
I, c. 4400-4300 BC, developed in the Volga steppe, expanded throughout
the North Pontic steppe, down along the Black Sea coast and into
the Danube basin; Kurgan II, c. 3500 BC, moved into Europe from
the North Pontic region; Kurgan III, c. 3000-2800 BC, migrated again
from the Volga steppe (see Gimbutas 1991:352-401).
The movement of three “waves” of Kurgan peoples into
Europe introduced an ensemble of technological, social and ideological
features, previously unknown in Europe, that spread, in various
degrees, among the Neolithic populations. These features include
a hierarchical, patriarchal social structure, warfare, bronze
metallurgy, weapons, horse riding, pastoral economy, worship of
sky gods, ceramics tempered with crushed shell and decorated with
stabbed, combed, or cord impressions, solar symbolism, and élite
burials under tumuli often with human and animal sacrifice.
In some areas, Old European traditions were incorporated into
new hybrid societies. In other areas, indigenous and alien elements
coexisted for various periods. The direct and indirect results
of Kurgan influence led to on-going cultural instability that
fostered the adoption of aggressive behavior by populations that
may never have come into direct contact with peoples from the
steppe. Some Old European cultures developed “secondary
chiefdoms” as a protective response against the encroachment
of mobile, kurganized groups.
The “collision of cultures” did not only involve those
elements that survive in the archaeological record, but the non-material
dimensions as well, such as stories, songs, myths, rituals and
beliefs which function within complex webs of meaning. Some of
these cultural elements were assimilated into new contexts, while
others were transformed or eventually forgotten. New beliefs and
behaviors, typical of Indo-European patterns, were introduced
that legitimated the imposition of male power, dominant status
and privilege. Motifs common to Indo-European mythic schemes include
bride stealing, cattle raiding, heroism in combat and the worship
of male warrior gods (see Brenneman 1997:239-240).
When cultures are disrupted, gender – which is culturally
constructed – is also affected (see Kent 1998:18). The big
question is how and why do previously balanced societies become
Researchers have found that matrilineal patterns are adaptive
in favorable environments where people are not subjugated by conquest,
whereas patrilocality and patrilineality are more likely to be
found where there is endemic warfare, where resources are scarce
or where populations have been conquered by “patrilineal
invaders” (Martin and Voorhies 1975:222, in Sanday 1981:176;
Sanday 1981:269-70, n. 21). Sandy comments that in some circumstances,
women actually accept male dominance for the sake of cultural
and social survival:
It is easy to imagine dependence on the male world evolving when
expansion, migration, or social stress puts men in the position
of fighting literally and figuratively to maintain an old or to
forge a new sociocultural identity in the face of pressures threatening
to destroy this identity. In such circumstances, both men and
women work to protect the larger identity and supporting world
view that mediates sexual identities. . . .[Women’s] lives
and those of their children may rest on the willingness to do
so (Sanday 1981:181-82).
Sanday also suggests that the oppression of women can result from
men taking wives in the new land and treating them as something
to be controlled. “Once a stance of control and manipulation
is adopted, it is not easily abandoned” (Sanday 1981:50-51).
It is important to emphasize that the Indo-Europeanization of Europe
was not a simple replacement of Old European peoples by barbarians
from the east. Cultural changes were the result of destabilization,
complex movements, fusions, overlays, and ideological and technological
transformations that took place over two thousand years resulting
in the entrenchment of patriarchal institutions. Nevertheless, certain
deeply-rooted Old European cultural and mythic patterns persisted
as subcurrents within the superstratum of Indo-European traditions
(Gimbutas 1991, 1997; Marler 2001). These include remnants of matrilineal
kinship patterns, non-Indo-European terminology, worship of female
deities, female-centered rituals and a continuity of certain Old
European artistic traditions.
The dramatic social, economic and ideological changes that took
place between 4500-2500 BC are well known among prehistorians.
Sherratt, for instance, acknowledges the destruction and dispersal
of previously stable regional societies whose communal rituals
and symbolism centered around female imagery. He describes the
appearance of a completely different social order based on competition
and “a self-aggrandizing ethos” with “sumptuous
codes of artifact use and symbolic analogies” based on the
image of the warrior male. The prevalence of stone and copper
battleaxes and prestige items deposited in graves emphasized individual
rank and status. “[T]his type of organization has the property
of being able to spread at the expense of surrounding groups,”
which Marshall Sahlins (1961) calls “an organization of
predatory expansion” (Sherratt 1997:152). According to Marvin
Harris, male supremacist institutions arise as a “by product
of warfare, of the male monopoly over weapons, and the use of
sex for the nurturance of aggressive male personalities”
(Harris 1977:81 in Sanday 1981:174).
While Sherratt’s description of two different culture systems
seems parallel to Gimbutas’ “collision of cultures,”
he distances himself from the Kurgan theory by avoiding any association
with “external influences” before 3500 BC. Only then,
after male dominance is well established, does he acknowledge a
cultural “discontinuity caused by incorporation of new features
. . .from the Steppes” and “some actual penetration
of Steppe tribes” (Sherratt 1997:141)17.
This concerted attempt to “avoid constant recourse to external
causes” (Sherratt 1997:252) is symptomatic of a current vogue
in archaeological interpretation to explain cultural changes in
terms of internal development. Popular trends in European archaeology
have gone from identifying population movements as stimulators of
culture change, to an anti-diffusionist / anti-migrationist position
(interpreting changes only in terms of local processes) which Christopher
Hawkes termed “Immobilism” (Hawkes 1987:203)18.
Sherratt represents a somewhat middle ground that emphasizes internal
development during the Late Neolithic/Copper Age while accepting
the possibility of demic diffusion during the Early Bronze Age only
after patterns of aggressive dominance are already in place19.
Some archaeologists have commented on the futility of clinging to
a Eurocentric approach that rejects all evidence of intrusive elements
in the prehistory of Europe (see, e.g., Özdogan 1997:1; Anthony
During the second half of the 4th millennium BC (Gimbutas’
second Kurgan wave), the four-wheeled wagon, the plough, arsenic
bronze metallurgy and a distinctive battery of bronze tools and
weapons were introduced into Central and southeast Europe20.
These elements, mostly found in graves, can be directly traced to
the North Pontic region where massive hillforts and hundreds of
similar tumuli are found (Gimbutas 1991:369-371). In northwestern
Ukraine, tumulus cemeteries of the kurganized Usatovo complex contained
skeletons of a “dagger-wielding warrior elite, many of whom
died of hammer-type skull wounds, and who exploited the surviving
late Tripolye21 agricultural population
of the adjacent uplands” (Anthony 1991:212).
By the early 3rd millennium BC, a massive incursion from the Volga
steppe (Gimbutas’ third Kurgan wave) is evidenced by thousands
of Yamna-type (pit-grave) burials that spread throughout the Balkans
and into eastern Hungary (Mallory 1989:241; Dumitrescu 1980).
New population dislocations and drastic changes in the ethnic
configuration of Europe resulted in the further entrenchment of
While it is currently popular among some archaeologists to question
Gimbutas’ Kurgan Theory (especially the first Kurgan wave),
Valentin Dergachev states that, after a detailed investigation
of the evidence, “Gimbutas was right” (Dergachev 2002).
Geneticist L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza concludes that Gimbutas’
theory of migrations of Proto-Indo-European speakers from the
Euro-Asiatic Steppes after 4500 BC, “strongly correlates”
with his “third principal component of European genes”
(Cavalli-Sforza and Cavalli-Sforza 1995:155; Cavalli-Sforza et
al. 1994:265; Cavalli-Sforza 1997).
Regardless of ongoing arguments, the mid-5th to the mid-4th millennium
BC timeframe is extremely significant in terms of determining
the initial impulse toward the establishment of patriarchal structures
Theories of Internal Transformation
Researchers who reject the possibility of external influences
have no recourse but to seek internal explanations for social
changes. Since elite dominance, cultural stratification and warfare
are endemic to the Indo-European Bronze Age, it is therefore assumed
by some scholars that the roots of these patterns must be found
during the Neolithic or Copper Age in societies that are otherwise
described as egalitarian.
It has become common for archaeologists, who are searching for signs
of dominance and social tensions in Neolithic societies, to interpret
evidence of ritual activity as a sign of social control and competition22.
For instance, instead of interpreting female figurines as visual
metaphors of deeply held cosmogonic beliefs, Alasdair Whittle assumes
that the prevalence of their use in ritual “symbolises a general
concern with increased conflict at the family level between men
and women, and with an increased conflict within and between communities
for social leadership and the control of production.” He infers
that ritual activity with figurines was used “as a means of
alleviating social tension” (Whittle 1985:155-156). Since
direct evidence of conflict, control and competition cannot be found,
he concludes that these features “seem to have been regularly
masked or concealed” but are nevertheless “a dynamic
source of change” (1985:165).
Ruth Tringham and Dusıan Krstic´ discuss the social inequalities
and exploitation which they assume exist “in all societies,
including those traditionally classed as ‘egalitarian’”
(Tringham and Krstic´ 1990:605). Although inequality and
exploitation within the Neolithic cultures of Southeast Europe
have “low archaeological visibility,” they nevertheless
consider these factors to be crucial in the process of socioeconomic
transformation. In their view, the enormous production and ritual
use of figurines functioned to maintain structures of hierarchy,
power, status and dominance. They describe the disintegration
of ancient Neolithic and Copper Age settlements as the internal
evolution of social fissioning into small scattered villages reflecting
new patterns in the structure of dominance (Tringham and Krstic´
Tringham also proposes an internal explanation for the widespread
conflagration that destroyed Late Neolithic/ Copper Age villages
throughout Southeast Europe, rejecting any connection between the
wholesale burning of houses and nearby Kurgan presence. Instead,
she imagines that the inhabitants burned their own houses upon the
death of the resident “patriarch23.”
Researchers frequently assume that social inequality and patterns
of domination are normal conditions in all human societies. Even
when gender is not specified, references to domination, competition,
status and exploitation tacitly imply the function of male, not
female, power. In fact, male-centered reconstructions of human
societies and kinship have dominated archaeology for more than
two centuries (Arnold and Wicker 2001, p. vii). All gender, social,
political, and economic differences are typically arranged hierarchically
and male power is considered ubiquitous and is “observed”
even when it is not (Kent 1999, p. 38; see also Nelson 1997, 116).
During the Late Neolithic/Copper Age, radical changes can be observed
in habitation patterns, social structure, economy, symbolism,
material culture and ideology: many large, stable horticultural
settlements that had developed for hundreds of years in peaceful
conditions were abandoned or fractured into scattered hamlets
in marginal areas, often becoming fortified; crude pottery and
craft techniques similar to those used by mobile steppe tribes
began to be produced in contrast to the elegant Old European ceramics
and other mature traditions; there was an increasing reliance
on pastoralism; balanced, egalitarian societies in which women
were honored became stratified and male dominated; female figurines
and female centered rituals and symbolism were largely replaced
by male-centered imagery and rituals; barrow graves or tumuli
containing prestige items and weapons, often honoring heroes and
warlords, appeared alongside and later replaced Old European cemeteries
and communal graves; warfare and weaponry (previously unknown)
became widespread. To interpret these changes only in terms of
local developments blurs the distinctions between the mature cultures
of Old Europe and Indo-Europeanized societies that replaced them.
The scenario of internally motivated transformation is well aligned
with 19th century models of cultural evolution. According to Sherratt,
“Technological change and the unilinear development of increasingly
hierarchical forms of society still lie at the base of many current
interpretations” (Sherratt 1997:134). As Alison Wylie states,
our knowledge of the past is limited less by the fragmentary nature
of our data than by the limitations of our epistemologies (Wylie
The Myth of Cultural “Evolution”
During the mid-nineteenth century, anthropologists began formulating
evolutionary models of social development that have had a marked
influence on archaeological reconstructions of past societies. The
theory of patriarchal universalism was first articulated in Ancient
Law (1861) by Sir Henry Maine who described patriarchal society
as the culmination of a long, evolutionary progress out of the primitive
conditions of savagery. Maine considered societies with women in
power to be lower on the evolutionary scale and matriarchy (interpreted
as rule by women) as impossible, virtually laughable. In general,
Victorian anthropologists viewed patriarchy as an evolutionary advance
over matriarchal or matrilineal societies.
In The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of
Man (1870), John Lubbock described male rule within the patriarchal
family as the pinnacle of civilized evolution, elevated from the
natural (associated with women and indigenous societies)
which he described as primitive and savage. Lewis Henry Morgan took
a further step in Ancient Society (1877), by proposing
an evolutionary sequence of cultural development from savagery to
barbarism to civilization. This model was adopted by Engles as well
as by the prominent archaeologist V. Gordon Childe. In his treatise,
Social Evolution (1951), Childe identifies the Palaeolithic
and Mesolithic eras as “savagery,” and the Neolithic,
Bronze and Iron Ages as “barbarism,” whereas Classical
Greece and Rome represent “civilization.”
In From Savagery to Civilisation (1946), J.D.G. Clark elaborates
Morgan’s sequence into bands (lower savages, primitives),
tribes (upper savages, lower barbarians), chiefdoms (upper barbarians),
and states (civilization). The band-tribe-chiefdom-state sequence
was further codified by Elman Service in Primitive Social Organization:
An Evolutionary Perspective (1962) and Origins of the State
and Civilization (1975)24.
While the limitations of the evolutionary model have been discussed
by a number of scholars (see, e.g., Diamond 1974; Maisels 1999;
Trigger 2003), an internal trajectory of male dominance is often
taken for granted. For instance, Trigger (2003:186) asserts that
“the bias of family organization in all the early civilizations
was masculine, but not always patrilineal.” In this way,
male dominance is assumed to be normative even within non-patriarchal
or non-patrilineal social structures -- only to bloom at a later
period to fulfill its full patriarchal potential.
The evolutionary model presents civilization – and patriarchy
by extension – as the height of social development. Civilization
is generally defined as a political state with a hierarchy of
social classes, unequal access to wealth, power and social prestige,
full time specialists, large urban centers, monumental architecture
and art, and an assumed patriarchal social structure.
This definition is in direct contrast to Gimbutas’ interpretation
of Old Europe as the foundation of European civilization:
I reject the assumption that civilization refers only to androcratic
warrior societies. The generative basis of any civilization lies
in its degree of artistic creation, aesthetic achievements, nonmaterial
values, and freedom which make life meaningful and enjoyable for
all its citizens, as well as a balance of powers between the sexes
Gimbutas not only defines Old Europe as a true civilization, but
she considers the Kurgan culture to represent a more primitive
level of development. The cultural chaos following the Kurgan
movements into Europe is sometimes referred to as the “Balkan
dark age” (see Mallory 1989:238). Not only is Gimbutas’
sequence the opposite of the evolutionary model, but to present
Old Europe as a highly developed civilization flies in the face
of previously held notions about the inferior status of non-patriarchal
In Gimbutas’ view, it is impossible to understand the development
of subsequent European cultures without recognizing the legacy
of Old Europe and the complex processes of amalgamation with Indo-European
traditions. Remarkable cultures, such as the Thracians, the Celts,
and the Greeks, arose as the result of vigorous hybridizations
between Old European and Indo-European elements. Each of these
Indo-European cultures is warlike and fiercely territorial, featuring
mounted warriors, highly skilled craftsmen creating magnificent
works of art in precious metals, while maintaining elements of
the substrate culture. Both gods and goddesses are worshipped
and elaborate mythic traditions feature powerful female figures
as well as heroes. “Although, the Indo-European patriarchal
world-view admittedly dominates Greek antiquity, indigenous elements
and ideas of pre-Indo-European origin are perpetuated . . .”
(Haarmann 1996). Gimbutas postulates that matrilineal cultural
and ritual elements, observed in ancient Greece, among the Etruscans,
Basques and in other non-Indo-European societies, represent remnants
of ancient Old European traditions that have survived as substratum
features within patriarchal social systems (see Gimbutas 1989:xx,
1991). This ancient legacy continues to perpetuate ongoing challenges
to the forces of male hegemony.
Marija Gimbutas emphasizes that patriarchy did not arise in Europe
as a natural “evolution” out of earlier, egalitarian
structures, nor was male dominance a universal feature of prehistoric
societies. The destabilization and collapse of Old European societies
resulted from a progressive “collision” and amalgamation
between two diametrically opposed cultural and ideological systems.
The Kurgan culture developed patterns of territorial aggression
in the harsh environment of the Circum-Pontic steppe and imported
distinctive cultural features into Europe. Once Old European societies
were destabilized and seeded with Kurgan or kurganized elements,
social, ideological, economic and material changes spread through
both external and internal dynamics resulting in the intensification
and entrenchment of patriarchal patterns.
By defining Old Europe as the foundation of European civilization,
and hypothesizing the beginnings of patriarchy as a later phenomenon,
simultaneous with the Indo-Europeanization of the continent, Gimbutas’
Kurgan Theory challenges the doctrine of universal male dominance
that has functioned as the origin story of Western civilization.
Visit Joan Marler's website at www.archeomythology.org
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1. “Matristic” combines matrilineal,
matrifocal, matricentric and egalitarian (in the sense that the
sexes were balanced and complimentary).
2. Gimbutas used “agriculture” as a general term for
food producing societies. Horticulture refers more specifically
to gardens cultivated by hand before the use of the plow.
3. Radiocarbon dates were not available when Gimbutas did her research
for The Prehistory of Eastern Europe (1956), therefore
the dates of the first presentation of the Kurgan Hypothesis, at
the Fifth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological
Sciences in Philadelphia, September 1-9, 1956, and the 1960 publication,
were too young.
4. The complete bibliography of Marija Gimbutas (up to 1996) is
published in From the Realm of the Ancestors, (Marler 1997:
5. For a response to Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, see Gimbutas 1985:185-202;
1997:301-314. For a response to Renfrew, see Gimbutas 1988a:714;
1988b:453-456; 1997:334-337, 338-344.
6. “Indo-European” is a linguistic term that refers
to a large family of related languages spoken from Europe to India.
“Proto-Indo-European” is the mother tongue, hypothesized
from ancient elements preserved within early historic daughter languages.
7. Sándor Bökönyi gives the mid-fourth millennium
as the uncalibrated date of horse domestication in Ukraine (Bökönyi
1974:238, 1987:136) which he says corresponds to Gimbutas’
older calibrated chronology.
8. Anthony is referring to the adoption of the horse in North America
as an analogy to the situation in the Circum-Pontic Caspian region.
9. Initially introduced in 1956, the Kurgan Hypothesis was developed
and refined over the next three decades. For a complete chronicle
of this development, see the posthumous collection of Gimbutas’
articles, The Kurgan Culture and the Indo-Europeanization of
Europe, edited by M. R. Dexter and K. Jones-Bley (1997).
10. “Neolithic” is a term usually applied to earliest
sedentary food producing societies followed in Europe and elsewhere
by the Bronze Age.
11. Ethnoarchaeologist Susan Kent (1999: 38-41) notes that egalitarianism
is not an absolute or static category and is represented cross-culturally
as a continuum between highly egalitarian and highly non-egalitarian
12. The earliest languages spoken in Europe were most probably non-Indo-European
as indicated by a non-Indo-European substrate containing place names,
personal and tribal names, agricultural, technological, and social
terminology (Gimbutas 1988b:454; Haarmann 1996; Mallory 1989:180;
13. Between 1967 and 1980 Gimbutas was project director of five
excavations of sites in Bosnia, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy.
14. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1982) and The
Language of the Goddess (1989a) present an archaeomythological
analysis of Old European art and symbolism. In The Civilization
of the Goddess (1991), Gimbutas describes the habitation patterns,
religion, social structure, script, and eventual demise of the cultures
of Old Europe.
15. The Minangkabau call themselves “matriarchal” which
is not to be confused with the 19th century interpretation of domination
16. Ideas are carried by migrating people and can also be transmitted
without the need for population movements. Once the process of disruption
began, both forms of transmission may well have taken place.
17. While Gimbutas describes the dispersal of previously stable
populations to marginal areas as a result of invasion, Sherratt
turns the scenario around by reversing the causal connection: The
horticulturalists, for some unexplored reason, moved to poorer land.
“Within the interstices created by this shift, some actual
penetration of Steppe tribes seems to have occurred. . .(Sherratt
18. See, e.g., the “Social Change Theory” as an explanation
for the transformation of Balkan societies in the late 5th-early
4th millennia BC, contra Gimbutas (Nikolova 2002). Western archaeologists
have tended to avoid migration as a stimulus for cultural change
after its misuse by Nazi propagandists who promoted the notion of
19. Nikolova writes that “the theory of social change implies
migrations” (Nikolova 2003:16-17). Although this is intended
to contradict the Kurgan Theory, it is actually harmonious with
Gimbutas’ theory if applied to culture change that continues
after the initial shock and disintegration of previously stable
20. While pure copper metallurgy was practiced in Old European Copper
Age societies, alloys of copper and arsenic, copper and tin, and
copper with arsenic-tin were developed in the Circum-Pontic region
during the second half of the 4th millennium BC. These new harder
metals were crafted into daggers, knives, halberds, chisels, flat
axes, shafthole axes and other items that have analogies in the
north Caucasus, in Transcaucasia, and further east (Gimbutas 1991:369).
21. Known as “Cucuteni” in Romania, and “Tripillya”
in Ukraine, the Russian term “Tripolye” was typically
used during the Soviet era. This long-lived Old European culture
is known for exquisite ceramics and figurines from hundreds of well-built
settlements, some with more than 2000 inhabitants.
22. A prime example of this type of interpretation is applied to
the Neolithic Temple Period of Malta (see Mallone et al. 1993; Stoddart
et al. 1993).
23. Tringham discussed her theory at the 7th Gender and Archaeology
Conference, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California, October
24.Childe assumed that early farming communities were egalitarian
as a result of a “primitive” level of agriculture with
no surplus available for trade. According to the model of cultural
evolution, surplus production would automatically give rise to social
hierarchy. While social inequality has been associated with the
development of agriculture in the Near East and Mesopotamia, the
Neolithic societies in Europe, which developed productive, sustainable
economies, “cannot adequately be described by a simple evolutionary
succession of increasingly ranked societies” (Sherratt 1997:252).