Origins of the Slavs
by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson,
13 November 2020
It is generally accepted that the origins of the Slavs
lay in the westwards portion of the Indo-European migrations that are
encompassed within the Yamnaya horizon.
Setting up the barricades
That one statement alone is enough to generate a storm
Trying to narrow down the origins of the Slavs is a
risky business, not least because those origins are extremely obscure
and are open to quite a wide variance in interpretation (and a great
deal of misunderstanding).
Today - and even more so during the clashing extremist
philosophies of the twentieth century - various myths and legends are
bandied around as fact, and various facts are openly misinterpreted,
sometimes for nationalist or ideological reasons. Getting to the core
of truth under these circumstances is extremely difficult, and even
the most basic appraisal of Slavic origins will be subject to much
doubt and debate.
A brief résumé of Slavic origins is included in the
Slav king list page (see sidebar links), but there is an option here
to go deeper.
The Slavs were, initially, closely related to the
proto-Balts (principally today's Latvians and related sister
groups that now form the population of modern Latvia, plus
Lithuanians, the now-extinct Old Prussians, and similar lost
Together these peoples seem essentially to have
been far less mobile - or at least less interested in being mobile
- than most other groups of Indo-Europeans.
Both groups (proto-Balts and proto-Slavs) derived
from the same group as the Indo-Iranians of the east, their common
satem-speaking group splitting in two when the latter took up
horse riding and cattle-herding because they were on the steppe,
while the first two did not because they were in forest north of the
steppe. Even though they separated linguistically, there would be
more in common between them in traditions and customs than either
would have with other groups.
They seem largely to have inhabited territory to
the immediate north of the Pontic steppe, in the form of
forest-dwelling forager groups. Initially, they were not located
along the main paths that were being used for the mass migration
of centum-speaking Indo-Europeans towards the west. As a
result they missed the initial impetus to move that was the driving
force behind the formation of the West-Indo-European mass that ended
up in Central Europe.
The reason for this is simple. Migrations from the
steppe required horses. The forest-dwelling eastern Indo-Europeans
of which the proto-Slavs and proto-Balts were part had little or no
grazing, so the habit, and knowledge, of horse culture barely
registered with them.
Eventually a dividing line did emerge - towards the
end of the main migratory period - between proto-Slavs and proto-Balts
as some seemingly drifted southwards, bringing them closer to the
northern Black Sea coast. Others began drifting northwards.
This Balto-Slavic division took place around 2500
BC, after which the Balts carried on drifting northwards until they
reached the south-eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. The Slavs
meanwhile were incubated in territory around the northern coast of
the Black Sea (largely falling within modern northern Ukraine, plus
the southern edges of Russia and Belarus).
The Indo-Europeans of the Pontic-Caspian steppe began to
migrate out of their core territory around 3000 BC, while
those who remained behind - the East IEs - eventually
integrated themselves into the Oxus Civilisation and then
supplied the migratory groups that entered India and Iran
(click or tap on map to view full sized)
Second Wave Germanic Influences
What's in a Name - German
Who Were the Venedi?
What's in a Name - Frey & Freya
RULERS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD:
The Slavs and the Avars (Omeljan Pritsak)
Linguistics Research Centre (University of Texas
at Austin and the College of Liberal Arts)
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (personal
sites) (University of Florida)
Brepolis Medieval Encyclopaedias Online
History of the Langobards (Paul the Deacon (full text)
The Balts (Marija Gimbutas, PDF)
What's in a Name - Slav
Who were the Venedi?
Slavic Tribes (Index)
The precise location of the proto-Slavic homeland
is little more than conjecture, though. Most estimations centre on
a region bounded by the River Bug to the west, the Pripjat to the
north, the Don to the east (feeding into the Sea of Azov on Crimea's
eastern coast), and the Dnieper to the south.
Subjugated farmer folk of the northern Pontic
The move south may have been opportunistic, filling
a void that had been left by several centuries of outward migration.
Migration into this region resulted in the early Slavs becoming the
ground troops for whichever horse-borne nomadic force was on the
steppe - whether eastern Indo-Europeans (in the form of Scythians),
or Ugric groups, or Turkic groups it didn't seem to matter. They made
themselves useful to whomever was there. They were militaristic to an
extent, but seemingly offered little external threat as a people.
This ground-holding, fort-manning infantry aspect
of the Slavs resulted in their further expansion south and also their
being brought west by nomads into Central Europe. The Balts, focussed
on the north, apparently were not involved (in fact the Balts seemed
particularly successful in fighting off nomad incursions into their
Slavs appear to have been the same sort of fighters
as were early Celts and Germanics, in the form of un-armoured light
infantry. They were dominated by Goth, Huns, and Avars at various
times (and in that order).
These nomads - principally the Avars - set up border
garrisons on the edges of sedentary empires which comprised trained
soldiers who were employed to deal with local conditions. It is evident
that the Avars brought with them - moved wholesale perhaps - Slavic
infantry to be used in the forested and mountainous areas on the edge
of Eastern Roman territory. The Slavs didn't expand into
southern-central Europe as much as being ordered to move there by
their nomad masters.
The legendary brothers, Lech, Czech and Rus, were the eponymous
founders of the Polish, Czech and Russian nations, shown here in
Viktor Vasnetsov's 'Warriors', 1898
The earliest recorded Slavs have no recorded tribal affiliations,
although such tribes probably existed. But as far as the record goes
they seem to have been simple peasant farmers of the general Slavic
group, who were eventually used to fight as light infantry using
The Avars seem primarily responsible for militarising
the Slavs, while previous nomad empires largely appear to have kept
them in their peasant status. Only when they began entering Central
Europe did subgroups begin to be noted by individual names or start
adopting new names.
Demolishing the counter-claims
Some students of Slavic history seem also to entirely
deny a northern Ukraine origin for the Slavs. For example, the West
Slavs, it is claimed, were resident in territory that now forms Poland
for at least seven thousand years, thereby predating any conceivable
Indo-European arrival by around three thousand years.
Previous peoples to have occupied parts of Poland,
such as the Venedi, Vandali, Lechs (named after the mythical and
eponymous founder figure of the Western Polans), and Sarmats (Sarmatians
again, despite their being Indo-Iranians, although this does mean
that they shared the same group origins as the Balts and Slavs
themselves), are claimed as Polish Slavs with a different name. Their
chronicled mentions by Roman, English, or Frankish sources are instead
hailed as references to early Slavs that are using western names for
those Slavs. Just as unbelievable are the occasional claims that the
western Veneti were also Slav-descended.
However, what is being missed here is the fact that
peasant populations quite often remain where they are, while warrior
elites and their immediate family groups come and go. In this case,
by the time that Celtic, Vandal, Gothic, and other elites had come
and gone, a late-flourishing Slavic military had formed (not
necessarily an elite itself - more a universal peasant force that had
become very experienced in its role).
This military presence followed an already
well-established migratory path (by other, earlier Indo-European migrant
groups and their descendants) to take command over those peasants in what
would become Poland and adjoining territories. There is no conflict with
DNA results because the same general people were still there, and probably
the same ones for around seven thousand years.
Only the military elite, and therefore the language
and customs, had changed. A majority native population that had previously
adopted Celtic or Germanic culture and language now adopted Slavic culture
and language and therefore became Slavs.
This map attempts to show the Scythian lands at their
greatest extent, failing to extend northwards thanks
to the Balts (click or tap on map to view full sized)
During antiquity, much of the territory to the north of the Black Sea
was generally labelled as being Sarmatian or Scythian, leading some
students of Slavic history to assume that the Sarmatians were in fact
the early Slavs. This is largely seen as being incorrect as the
Sarmatians had an Indo-Iranian origin (as previously mentioned).
Instead, they occupied territory that included some of the early Slavs,
and a degree of integration between the two groups was inevitable over
Bearing in mind all of this claim and counter-claim,
an examination of the basic facts is required, starting with the name,
'Slav' (see What's in a Name - Slav, via the sidebar links).
The mid-sixth century AD Byzantine bureaucrat and
historian, Jordanes, noted the tribal lay of the land to the north
of the Eastern Roman empire. In the western part of 'Scythia' were
the Germanic Gepidae, who had formed a short-lived state named Gepidia
that was surrounded by the great and famous rivers of the Pannonnian
basin. The Tisia flowed through this region on the north and north-western
sides of the state, while to the south-west was the great Danube. On the
east it was cut by the Flutausis, a swiftly eddying stream that swept
whirling into the Ister's waters.
Within those rivers lay Dacia, encircled by the
Carpathian Mountains. Near their left ridge, which inclines toward the
north, and beginning at the source of the Vistula, dwelt the populous
race of the 'Venethi' (Venedi), occupying a great expanse of land.
Jordanes wrote that '...though their names are now dispersed amid
various clans and places, yet they are chiefly called Sclaveni and
The Antes were one of the earliest identifiable groups
of Slavs (although claiming them purely as Slavs is problematic, as can
often be the case with early-appearing ethnic groups), so this claim
seems to show that Slavic intrusion into Venedi lands had already taken
place by the mid-500s AD to such an extent that the identification of the
Venedi as, probably, eastern Celts or a development of Danubian
proto-Italics had already been submerged beneath a new Slavic identity.
The territory of the Sclaveni was said to extend from
the city of Noviodunum and the lake called Mursianus (probably the vast
marshes at the juncture of the Drava and the Danube) to the Danaster
(the ancient Tyras, or modern Dniester), and northwards as far as the
Vistula. That territory seemed not to contain any substantial
settlements of its own though: 'they have swamps and forests for their
Precisely which Noviodunum was meant is not entirely
clear. The name is a relatively common Celtic one meaning 'new fort'.
That a Celtic name existed at all on the eastern side of the Vistula
is telling - this has to have been the influence of the Venedi prior
to the rise of the Slavs there.
The Antes, who 'are the bravest of these peoples dwelling
in the curve of the sea of Pontus' (the Black Sea), were spread between the
Dniester and the Danaper (the modern Dnieper), rivers that 'are many days'
journey apart'. In fact, it would seem from various sources that the Antes
were the first Slavic group to fight to avoid being anyone else's
The earliest stages of the Slavic expansion northwards
is still being established in a satisfactory manner by actual
archaeological finds. It seems that the area between Kiev and Novgorod
was occupied in consecutive waves by different tribal groups (although
the names of individual groups are not known), between the fifth and
Basic facts - to the north
Early traces of Slavs in the north - identified with
the Krivichis Slavics - are to be found in the area of Pskov, east of
Estonia and Latvia and south of Lake Peipus in the basin of the River
Velikaja. So that Slavs could reach these locations, the
previously-dominant Balts were slowly and gradually pushed back or
subjugated over the course of several centuries.
Soon after the middle of the fifth century AD the Hunnic
empire crashed into extinction, starting with the death of
Attila in 453. His son and successor, Ellac, was killed in
battle in 454, and the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths
in 456, ending Hunnic unity (click or tap on map to view
Hallstatt face and mask, from the
culture of the same name which spanned the Old Iron Age
period between 800-450 BC - was it this Celtic culture
that reached out towards the Vistula to 'Celticise' its
Here the long, narrow burial mounds with cremation graves and very
sparse grave goods provide that identification with the Krivichis
Slavics. Their dating to the fifth century is based on finds of round
and convex ornamental bronze plates, tweezers, and bracelets that
thicken at the ends and which have analogies in the Finno-Ugrian stone
barrows in Estonia.
That is interesting on its own. It suggests that they
picked up influences from their Finno-Ugric neighbours and potentially
subjugated sister groups (Finno-Ugric groups survive to this day in
large pockets across western Russia).
The earliest Krivichis also appear to have occupied
the hill fort at Pskov, which superseded the Finno-Ugrian layer of the
Djakovo type, and the unfortified settlements along the upper Velikaja,
which replaced the Baltic hill fort villages and their plain and brushed
These settlements yielded pottery and metal objects of
a type that was similar to that in the long barrows. However, it does
seem strange that the earliest barrows and settlements that can be
attributed to this tribe are found so far north and not on the upper
Dvina and in the areas of Smolensk and Polock, where Krivichis are
attested from the seventh or eighth centuries to the thirteenth.
Obviously, they did not use the Dnieper route in their
expansion, but may have come up from the south via the upper reaches of
the River Nemunas, and across the lands of the Baltic Brushed Pottery
As yet their sites in present western Belarus cannot
be identified archaeologically due to a lack of excavations, but there
are some lingual testimonies that suggest that this was the line of
advance for the Krivichis, which provided early Slavic borrowings from
the Balts. For instance, the river name Mereč comes from the
Lithuanian Merkys, a tributary of the upper Nemunas, which is an
appropriation that is considered by linguists to predate the ninth
century and relationships between the early Pskov and Polish dialects.
In the present districts of Smolensk and Polotsk the
longbarrows of the Krivichis type date back to the eighth century and
later, with the exception of a few that are assumed to be of an earlier
date. Much of this northern movement of Slavs is available via
archaeological finds alone. Only the advances to the south and west were
recorded in writing.
The Avars as a major influence
Overall it was the Avars who played the most vital role
in the development of the Slavs. There is general agreement among western
scholars that the Avars were instrumental in the introduction of Slavs
into the historical record.
Under Charlemagne's leadership, the Franks greatly
expanded their borders eastwards, engulfing tribal
states, the Bavarian state and its satellite, Khorushka,
and much of northern Italy, with the Avars now an
eastern neighbour (click or tap on map to view full
Just as the Huns caused the Germanic peoples to migrate and to develop new
political groups, so too did the Avars cause the Slavs to move and to develop.
In fact the early, largely sedentary Slavs on the Pontic steppe had already
been stirred up by the Huns, with large numbers drifting northwards to find
refuge on the borders of the lands of the Balts. Some also drifted westwards,
as shown by those groups which settled in Carinthia in the last two decades
of the fifth century.
But now Slavs became directly involved in events in
Southern Europe, at least partially in the employ of the Avars, and probably
having been moved into the region in sizeable numbers by the Avars. Things
would never be the same again.
International Encyclopaedia for the Middle
Ages-Online (Supplement to LexMA-Online)
Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and
Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the
Jordanes - The Origin and Deeds of the Goths
Ptolemy - Geography
The Slavs and the Avars, Omeljan Pritsak
Linguistics Research Centre, University of Texas at
Austin and the College of Liberal Arts
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (personal sites)
at the University of Florida
Brepolis Medieval Encyclopaedias Online
History of the Langobards, Paul the Deacon (full
The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available
online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click
or tap on the sidebar link to download or access it)
Maps and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward
Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.