Old Europe


Old Europe is a term coined by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to describe what she perceives as a relatively homogeneous and widespread pre-Indo-European Neolithic culture in Europe, particularly in Malta and the Balkans.

In her major work, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: 6500–3500 B.C. (1982), she refers to these Neolithic cultures as Old Europe. Archaeologists and ethnographers working within her framework believe that the evidence points to migrations of the peoples who spoke Indo-European languages at the beginning of the Bronze age (the Kurgan hypothesis). For this reason, Gimbutas and her associates regard the terms Neolithic Europe, Old Europe, and Pre-Indo-European as synonymous.

Old Europe, or Neolithic Europe, refers to the time between the Mesolithic and Bronze Age periods in Europe, roughly from 7000 BC (the approximate time of the first farming societies in Greece) to ca. 1700 BC (the beginning of the Bronze Age in northwest Europe). The duration of the Neolithic varies from place to place: in southeast Europe it is approximately 4000 years (i.e., 7000–3000 BC); in North-West Europe it is just under 3000 years (ca. 4500–1700 BC).


Regardless of specific chronology, many European Neolithic groups share basic characteristics, such as living in small-scale, family-based communities, more egalitarian than the city-states and Chiefdoms of the Bronze Age, subsisting on domestic plants and animals supplemented with the collection of wild plant foods and hunting, and producing hand-made pottery, without the aid of the potter’s wheel. There are also many differences, with some Neolithic communities in southeastern Europe living in heavily fortified settlements of 3,000-4,000 people (e.g., Sesklo in Greece) whereas Neolithic groups in Britain were small (possibly 50-100 people) and highly mobile cattle-herders.


Europe in ca. 45004000 BC


Europe in ca. 40003500 BC


Simple map of the major late 4th millennium BC “Old European” cultures. Green is the Funnelbeaker culture (TRB). Blue is the Linear Ceramic culture (LBK). Orange is theLengyel culture, purple the Vincha culture, red the Cucuteni culture and yellow the western part of the Yamna culture.

Marija Gimbutas investigated the Neolithic period in order to understand cultural developments in settled village culture in the southern Balkans, which she characterized as peaceful, matrilineal, and possessing a goddess-centered religion. In contrast, she characterizes the later Indo-European influences as warlike, nomadic, and patrilineal. Using evidence from pottery and sculpture, and combining the tools of archaeology, comparative mythology, linguistics, and, most controversially, folklore, Gimbutas invented a new interdisciplinary field, archaeomythology.

In historical times, some ethnonyms are believed to correspond to Pre-Indo-European peoples, assumed to be the descendants of the earlier Old European cultures: the Pelasgians, Minoans, Leleges, Iberians, Etruscans and Basques. Two of the three pre-Greek peoples of Sicily, the Sicans and the Elymians, may also have been pre-Indo-European. The term “Pre-Indo-European” is sometimes extended to refer to Asia Minor, Central Asia andIndia, in which case the Hurrians and Urartians, Dravidians may also be counted among them.

How many Pre-Indo-European languages existed is not known, nor whether the ancient names of peoples believed, in ancient times or now, to have descended from the pre-ancient population referred to speakers of distinct languages. Marija Gimbutas (1989), observing a unity of symbols marked especially on pots, but also on other objects, concluded that there may have been a single language spoken in Old Europe. She thought that decipherment would have to wait for the discovery of bilingual texts.

The idea of a Pre-Indo-European language in the region precedes Gimbutas. It went by other names, such as “Pelasgian“, “Mediterranean”, or “Agaean”. Apart from the marks on the pot, the main evidence concerning it (or them) is in names: toponyms, ethnonyms, etc., and in roots in other languages believed to be derived from one or more prior languages, possibly unrelated. Reconstruction from the evidence is an accepted, though somewhat speculative, field of study. Suggestions of possible Old European languages include Urbian by Sorin Paliga,[2] the Vasconic substratum hypothesis of Theo Vennemann (also see Sigmund Feist‘s Germanic substrate hypothesis), and Tyrsenian languages of Helmut Rix.

Kurgan hypothesis

According to the Kurgan hypothesis, Indo-European peoples arrived in the 4th millennium BC across the steppes north of the Black Sea. A warlike people, they imposed themselves as an elite on the Old European populations, who adopted their language. The hypothesis that Indo-European speakers reached Europe from the Pontic steppes in the Bronze Age was perhaps first clearly stated by V. Gordon Childe (1926). Many linguists favor this idea, since studies employing glottochronology appear to show that the common Proto-Indo-European language is unlikely to date before 5000 BC to 4000 BC. For instance, the prominent archaeologist J.P. Mallory has not only assembled the evidence for an origin north of the Black Sea, but has also assembled a compelling collection of evidence showing that Indo-European linguistic influences first appeared in Anatolia around the Bosporus, with the earliest Indo-European traces spreading steadily thence southward and eastward through Anatolia over the centuries, thousands of years after the region had adopted agriculture.

Nevertheless, the Kurgan hypothesis recently fell out of favor with some archaeologists who, beginning with Colin Renfrew (1987), pointed out that there is just not a Europe-wide archaeological horizon that corresponds to this putative cultural change. If the cultural imprint was strong enough to replace languages, then they claim it should have left some trace on material culture as well – although the actual correspondence between linguistic change and material culture is disputed. Peter Bellwood (2001, 2004) has developed a general hypothesis that major language phyla are likely to be associated with the Neolithic Revolution – see Borean languages for related discussion. His reasoning is first, that the spread of the Neolithic toolkit is more likely to occur through demic diffusion than through cultural diffusion, and second, that a sedentary population relying on domesticated plants and animals will grow much faster than a nomadic, foraging population. Thus, the populations located in the original hearth areas will grow and expand, carrying their language with them. Bellwood (2004) therefore maintains that the Indo-European languages were brought to Europe during the Neolithic, and not the Bronze Age. This theory is disputed by linguistic evidence such as the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European words for the wheel and for metal-working, both post-Neolithic developments.

Renfrew’s hypothesis – Anatolian hypothesis

Modifying his “Anatolian hypothesis“, Colin Renfrew (2003) proposes “Old Europe” of the 6th to 5th millennium BC Balkans as the locus of Proto-Indo-European, deriving from a prior (7th millennium) Pre-Proto-Indo-European (Proto-Indo-Hittite) stage.

Paleolithic Continuity Theory

The Paleolithic Continuity hypothesis reverses the Kurgan hypothesis and largely identifies the Indo-Europeans with Gimbutas’ “Old Europe”. PCT reassigns the Kurgan culture (traditionally considered early Indo-European) to a people of predominantly mixed Uralic and Turkic stock. This hypothesis claims that Etruscans were a Uralic, proto-Hungarian people that had already undergone strong proto-Turkish influence in the third millennium BC, when Pontic invasions would have brought this people to the Carpathian Basin. A subsequent migration of Urnfield culture signature around 1250 BC would have caused this ethnic group to expand south in a general movement of people, attested by the upheaval of the Sea Peoples and the overthrow of an earlier Italic substrate at the onset of the “Etruscan” Villanovan culture. However, the Paleolithic Continuity theory is rejected by most Indo-European linguists.

List of Old European Cultures


About Alex Imreh

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