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Barbarian Europe

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 of counter-claims.

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.

Origins

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 groups).

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).

Map of Indo-Europeans c.3000 BC
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)


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 coast

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 lands).

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.

Lech, Czech and Rus
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 guerrilla tactics.

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.

Map of Scythian Lands around 500 BC
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 time.

Basic facts

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 Antes'.

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 cities'.

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 vassal.

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 eighth centuries.

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.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 450-500
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 full sized)

Hallstatt culture

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 Indo-European population?


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 pottery.

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 group.

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.

Map of the Frankish Empire in AD 800
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 sized)


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.

 

Main Sources

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 Modern World

Jordanes - The Origin and Deeds of the Goths

Ptolemy - Geography

Online Sources

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 text)

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.