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Barbarian Europe

The Thraco-Cimmerian Hypothesis

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 6 April 2024

The Cimmerians cannot specifically be located at any homeland location prior to their appearance in Anatolia. Even so, it is generally agreed that they originated in the Pontic-Caspian steppe (to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea).

Complications arise when considering the so-called 'Thraco-Cimmerian Hypothesis', a rather controversial subject to say the least.

Thraco-Cimmerian hypothesis

This concerns an Eastern Celtic 38 group (in DNA terms), part of the Indo-European Cimmerian-Scythian group which dominated the Pontic steppe, who blasted their way into the historical record in the eighth and seventh centuries BC.

Eventually this Eastern Celtic 38 group settled to a large extent amongst the Thracian tribes (just as historical Cimmerians themselves are supposed to have done).

With that basis being clarified, some modern writers believe that a subsequent Thraco-Cimmerian migration westwards out of Thrace (or several, probably) triggered cultural changes which contributed to the transformation of the Celts themselves.

It is a point of fact that the Celtic core territories were altered from the Hallstatt C culture into the La Tène culture. The hypothesis states that this change was effected through Thraco-Cimmerian contact with these core Celtic territories. In fact, although a specific Thraco-Cimmerian migration along the Danube is now less supported, it is undeniable that such a Thraco-Cimmerian cultural influence did make its way westwards.

This influence came from Indo-European groups who at the very least shared the same cultural values, and martial equipment - and probably language too - as the Thracians and Cimmerians, and even Scythians.

The language of Thrace appears to have been East Indo-European - a satem language rather than a centum language like Latin or Common Celtic. It seems entirely plausible to assume that Thracians could understand fellow satem-speakers such as the Cimmerians and Scythians without too much confusion.

However, attempting to tie archaeological evidence to the Thraco-Cimmerian hypothesis can sometimes be dismissed by scholars (although not all of them).

When studying the hypothesis, Anne Kristiansen has focussed on a shift in production centres from Hungary to Italy and the Alpine region. The weight of evidence shows that there was a warrior culture of the horse/wagon complex in the eighth century BC (such horse and wagon peoples were typical of Pontic-Caspian steppe cultures, and they persisted in the region for a surprisingly long time).

From a Central European perspective, this particular warrior culture followed the Danube from Hungary to the Hallstatt regions of the east: Austria, and perhaps Bavaria, these being the eastern limits of the core Celtic homeland.

In successive waves from the ninth to the sixth centuries BC this migratory train pushed farther west before veering off to the north.

Gold and amber jewellery
Could the 'Thraco-Cimmerian'-driven or influenced migration along the Danube have brought with it the cultural changes which, around two hundred years later, resulted in the burial of the 'Celtic princess' at the Heuneburg, a centre of Celtic culture in south-western Germany

Cimmerians

The year 652 BC marked the apogee of Cimmerian power, with their conquest of the kingdom of Lydia, but their supremacy would last only another eleven or so years before defeat and total eclipse


Ultimately, one branch followed the course of the River Elbe while a second backtracked west from the headwaters of the Rhine, then heading north-east to the Elbe, and then going farther north into Jutland (where it theoretically formed, or merged with the ancestors of, the Cimbri - see Second Wave Germanic Influences via the sidebar link).

Even though this influential eastern influence passed through and then departed the core homeland of the Hallstatt complex, the entire complex was still altered with new male prestige weapons and specialised horse tack and wagons which were new to the region.

Such specialist items can be associated with the arrival or development of new ruling elites, especially in eastern Central Europe. The migratory Danubian population had made enough of an impression that the locals adopted their culture and language traits into their own Hallstatt culture, thereby producing the differences of the La Tène culture.

Cimmerians and Scythians?

Kristiansen considers the influences to be not only Cimmerian but also Scythian (another nomadic horse-based group from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, some of whom extended into the Transoxiana region of Central Asia to become better known as the Sakas).

David Rankin also supported this theme. He wrote of the evidence which showed that Celtic peoples owed their origins to a specifically eastern warrior culture which imposed itself upon an Eastern European culture of the Urnfield or Lusatian type, and which introduced the lordly habit of tumulus burial.

Specific Thraco-Cimmerian archaeological finds with the earliest-known iron goods (along with bronze items), such as horse bridles have been documented in the Balkans, and along the Danube corridor to Lake Zurich in Switzerland, as well as northwards to Denmark, all of which have been dated between the tenth and eighth centuries BC.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Bird vases of the Urnfield culture

Bird vases of the late second millennium Urnfield culture (from which the Celtic tribes descended) were objects which were closely related to the Urnfield belief system, and it may not be accidental that this vase was found next to a pot containing bird eggs in the cemetery of Békásmegyer, as the two objects together may emphasise the pots' symbolism of life and fertility


It is now recognised that some Thracian tribes may have been Celtic (or perhaps more probably proto-Celtic, sharing close similarities with groups in Austria and Bavaria).

These incomers most likely brought typical Balkan haplogroups into the western Celtic areas, probably decreasing in numbers as a function of distance from their home base. The Bronze Age shift to the Iron Age was not altogether smooth, while also having regional features which delayed its introduction.

Iron was in use in post-Mycenaean Greece by 1000 BC (after the Doric invasions there), but not until 750 BC did Central Europe see its introduction (with the Iron Age Hallstatt C Celts), and not until 500 BC did its use emerge in the Nordic zone (amongst the early Germanic groups).

Gradual change

Changes were gradual rather than reflecting any sort of 'revolution'. Amongst the Celts, their original name (which has been proposed as being 'Galat' - see 'related links' in the sidebar) appears to survive best along the fringes of their expansion.

A group would become isolated sufficiently on the borders so that they had no competitors who were using the same name, and therefore had no reason to change that name (see, for instance, Galatians, Caledonians, and Galicia).

If the Cimmerian name followed this pattern then the Cimbri of Jutland may indeed be a Cimmerian/Celtic mix which retained their old name. Given the close Indo-European relationship between all of these groups, that name could still have the original meaning of 'compatriots' or 'companions' which is normally ascribed to the Cimbri.

This still would not invalidate the view of many modern scholars of the Cimbri being a Germanic tribe which bore Celtic influences.

Belgic Gauls
Celtic-speaking tribes from as far afield as Iberia and Bohemia, and Britain and the Balkans could understand one another, and could even make sense of more distant relations of their language group such as Latin


The most likely hypothesis

Furthermore, whilst the name of one of the most powerful Cimmerian leaders, the very Celtic-seeming Tugdamme, may be a borrowing between different, separated groups, it is far more likely to be a direct adoption from one group into another by conquest or consolidation.

The idea that the emergence of the La Tène's P-Celtic-speakers was the result of Hallstatt Q-Celtic-speakers being influenced or taken over by nomadic Cimmerians/Scythians or their associates is a very fascinating one.

That something made a change in material culture and language amongst the Celts is not disputed, but what was it? Is the hypothesis which is discussed here the correct answer or is there another?

The frustrating thing is that not enough is known about Cimmerian language to know whether they were using the same 'kw' sound as the Hallstatt Celts or whether they used the substituted 'p' sound of the La Tène Celts.

If the latter then they may well have introduced this speech shift to the Celts, along with many other innovations, just as the hypothesis describes.

 

Main Sources

Anne Katrine Gade Kristensen - Who were the Cimmerians, and where did they come from? (Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Hist-fil. Medd 57)

David K Faux - A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry

David Rankin - Celts and the Classical World (1996)

Ernest A Budge - The History of Esarhaddon (Son of Sennacherib) King of Assyria, BC 681-688

Fritz Hommel - The Civilisation of the East (translated by J H Loewe, Elibron Classic Series, 2005)

Isaac Asimov - Asimov's Chronology of the World

Kristian Kristiansen - Europe Before History

Online Sources

David M Robinson - Ancient Sinope: First Part (The American Journal of Philology, Vol 27 No 2, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1906, and available from JSTOR - see sidebar links)

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Marija Gimbutas - The Balts (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - see sidebar external links)

 

 

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