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Prehistoric Europe

Dnieper Balts

by Peter Kessler, 23 July 2022

The Dnieper Balts (or Dniepr) are a theoretical grouping of Eastern Baltic tribes. No real name is known for them - either the overall group or individual tribes - and their very existence is known only from the names of rivers in the region.

They are presumed to have occupied territory along the River Dnieper during the Bronze Age (from the mid-second millennium BC).

This was the period in which the Indo-European proto-Balts were in the process of migrating towards the south-eastern Baltic coast from the forests to the north of the Pontic steppe, roughly around 2500 BC, although perhaps taking up to half a millennium on either side of that date.

Their existence, entirely unrecorded by history, eventually ended when they were assimilated by Slavs who were much later in following the same migratory route northwards.

The Dnieper itself was probably a major feature of the general route which was being followed in both migrations, Balt and Slav. After cutting through the centre of what is now Ukraine from the Black Sea, it climbs through the forests of what is now Belarus, with the migration route then providing a pretty easy path towards the Baltic coast.

River names

The Dnieper Balts are known only through the study of the names of bodies of water in this region (hydronyms).

The Baltic influence which pins down their existence is discernable through later Slavic influence or adoption. Those river names have been studied by various experts on the subject which include the renowned archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, the Lithuanian linguist, Kazimieras Būga, and Russian scientists Vladimir Toporov and O Trubachev, who analysed hydronyms around the higher Dnieper basin.

By the 1960s, almost eight hundred hydronyms had been found which could have a Baltic origin.

Seeing as these rivers were now in Slavic territory, and territory which had been under Slavic control for as much as a millennium and-a-half, the fact that they had a Baltic origin meant they they had been named by Balts who, probably, had remained in the area to pass on those names to incoming Slavic groups which became the new rulers.

Any Balts who didn't leave were absorbed, giving Belarussians especially a mixed Slavic-Baltic heritage. Balts also occupied territory right up to the western edge of Moscow, also now a long-held Slavic domain.

Map of the Baltic tribes around AD 1000
By about AD 1000 the final locations of the Baltic tribes were well known by the Germans who were beginning their attempts to subdue and control them, although the work would take a few centuries to complete and the Lithuanians would never be conquered by them (click or tap on map to view full sized)


Main Sources

Leitgiris Living History Club

Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds) - The History of the Baltic Countries (Estonia 2008)

David W Anthony - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

J P Mallory & D Q Adams (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture (1997)

A Sabaliauskas - Mes Baltai ('We, the Balts', Lithuania, 1995)

Sužiedėlis Simas (Ed) - Encyclopedia Lituanica (Boston, 1970-1978)

S C Rowell - Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire Within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Online Sources

Nature - Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Marija Gimbutas - The Balts (1963)



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.