History Files History Files

European Kingdoms

Eastern Europe


South-West Indo-Europeans (Balkans Tribes)
c.3000 - 1000 BC

FeatureAccording to David Anthony, the Yamnaya horizon exploded across the Pontic-Caspian steppe from around 3300 BC, this being the primary vector through which proto-Indo-Europeans could spread westwards. The various interrelated cultural expressions that formed the basis of this 'horizon' were created by early proto-Indo-Europeans who belonged to semi-nomadic, pastoral tribes which could, more or less, understand each other. After beginning their migration, these people reached the Carpathian Mountains and the River Danube near modern Budapest, where this folk migration appeared to halt for quite some time, gradually intermixing with the Neolithic farmer population in what is now Romania and Hungary (see feature link for more on the Indo-European migrations).

The proto-Mycenaeans followed this westwards migration trail, crossing the River Prut to enter Romania on the eastern side of the Carpathian Mountains. The close relationship between Mycenaean and proto-Indo-Iranian languages shows that these two branches divided fairly late, sometime between 2500-2000 BC. Therefore it is likely that proto-Mycenaeans were amongst the last to arrive in Romania as the Yamnaya horizon had already faded out by then. Seemingly they did not stop long in established territory (or their Indo-Iranian influences would have been watered down). Instead, perhaps finding that all the best land had been taken, they carried on heading south, entering into what is now Greece between 1900-1650 BC.

There they swiftly became dominant over the local Neolithic farmers of 'Old Europe', and then over Minoan Crete, while also occupying many of the Greek isles and possibly even the Anatolian coast in the form of the Ahhiyawa. It is fairly common for a newly-arrived warrior culture to impose a fresh layer of ruling nobility on any existing society, and Indo-Europeans seemed especially good at this when the preceding culture was Neolithic. Their last hurrah seemingly came with the conquest of Troy, calculated here to have taken place around 1183 BC. By then climate-induced drought had not only resulted in tremendous political instability in the entire eastern Mediterranean region (making the attack on Troy possible in the first place), it had also brought about the fall of the Hittite empire (Troy's major ally), and triggered migrations by the West-Indo-European settlers along the Danube and the South-West Indo-European settlers of Romania and - by now - the northern Balkans. They began pushing southwards in a tremendous wave of advance, perhaps as early as about 1250 BC. The possibility exists that the rise of the Urnfield culture from around 1300 BC (locally represented by the Gava culture - see map below) could also have been instrumental in initiating this migration.

These people were in the process of forming into historically-recognisable tribes by this time, or at least did so as a result of their migrations. The proto-Illyrians (not a single homogenous group in itself, but seemingly all sorts of odds-and-ends from the Danubian communities) and proto-Epirotes soon occupied the entire western Balkan coast north of Greece itself. The former perhaps did not find enough land or resources, as they soon spilled over the Adriatic and into south-western Italy in the form of the Iapyges (seemingly between the eleventh and tenth centuries BC). The proto-Thracians took the south-eastern corner of the Balkans, everything between the Balkans Mountains (which run through the centre of modern Bulgaria) and the area around Thessalonica. The proto-Dacians - closely related to the Thracians at least - took (or remained in) territory to the north of the Thracians, in Romania and Moldova. The proto-Phrygians took a similar route but carried on going until they had crossed into Anatolia - in fact they may have begun this movement as early as 1450 BC. The story for proto-Armenians is far less certain, but they were also part of this general grouping at some point. The proto-Macedonians took the bulk of the mountainous territory between the Thracians and the Epirotes, while the proto-Dorians, Aeolians, and Ionians continued on into Mycenaean Greece and the islands of the Aegean, seemingly in superior numbers and with aggression enough to see off even the Mycenaeans.

Recent DNA tests on Mycenaean bodies found during well over a century of archaeological digs have been compared with findings from modern Greeks. Those findings were startling - there was no appreciable difference. The Mycenaeans were as Greek as today's population. The Dorians were not mentioned, but it is accepted fact that they took over much of Mycenaean Greece (all bar Athens, plus various areas that were still dominated by the earlier Pelasgians). Given that fact, even if they only provided a superficial layer of nobility to control the general Mycenaean population, then they should show up in the results. With the Mycenaeans unable to preserve their dominance of Greece in the face of the Dorian advance, the Dorian numbers must have been higher than a layer of added ruling nobility, thereby providing an even greater influence on modern DNA results. The only answer is that there was no difference between the Dorians and Mycenaeans (and also the later Minoans) - both had the same DNA or were highly similar. Mycenaean language has also been shown to have provided the basis for modern Greek, so it is also more likely that the Dorian language was very similar, if not the same - after all the two groups had only been separated for a little over half a millennium and may not have been separated at all if trading and low-level migration links had been maintained with the north. The Dorians found it easy to take over Greece because they were essentially the same people as the Mycenaeans.

The Balkans Mountains in Albania

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, from The Iliad, Homer (Translated by E V Rieu, Penguin, 1950), from The Roman History: From Romulus and the Foundation of Rome to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Velleius Paterculus, J C Yardley, and Anthony A Barrett, from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith (Ed), from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol 3, Issue 1, James Cowles Prichard, from History of Humanity - Scientific and Cultural Development: From the Third Millennium to the Seventh Century BC (Vol II), Ahmad Hasan Dani, Jean-Pierre Mohen, J L Lorenzo, & V M Masson (Unesco 1996), and from External Links: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature), and Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe (Nature), and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Haplogroup R1a (Eupedia Genetics), and DNA clue to origins of early Greek civilization (BBC News), and The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals (Science).)

2500 - 2000 BC

The close relationship between Mycenaean and proto-Indo-Iranian languages shows that these two branches divide around this time period, fairly late by any standard. Archaeologically, Mycenaean chariots, spearheads, daggers, and other bronze objects show striking similarities to the Seima-Turbino culture. The proto-Mycenaeans begin their migration from the Pontic steppe, heading along a well-trod route towards the western coast of the Black Sea.

1900 - 1650 BC

Arriving on the west bank of the River Prut (generally speaking, the modern border between Romania and Moldova), the proto-Mycenaeans likely meet other, closely related Indo-European groups of the south-west branch between there and the eastern side of the Carpathian Mountains. Similar groups would already be lining the Danube through Romania and into Hungary, with some eventually entering the region on the western side of the Carpathians. Of those, some seemingly ventured northwards around the Carpathians to reach the Vistula and become the Venedi.

Those groups along the Danube may themselves have begun to fan out into northern Serbia and Croatia, although a belt of much more difficult terrain beyond that, in line with the Balkans Mountains which cut horizontally through Bulgaria, would inhibit any further southwards drift for some time.

Map of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Greece 1900-1650 BC
The proto-Mycenaeans seem to have been amongst the last of the western Indo-European centum-speakers to take to the road, following a path that had been trodden by related tribes for the past thousand years (click or tap on map to view full sized)

It is likely that, rather than settle with similar Indo-European groups along the Danube or in Romania, the Mycenaeans keep moving, descending into what is now Greece (the modern E4 walking route along the western edge of Romania and through Bulgaria offers one potential path of least resistance through the mountains). There they intermingle with and dominate the Neolithic locals of the former farming cultures of 'Old Europe' to create a new, unique Greek culture. Naturally, as the new dominant force in the region, their language also dominates.

1200 - 1140 BC

The international system in the Near East has recently been creaking under the strain of increasing waves of peasants and the poor leaving the cities and abandoning crops. Around the end of the thirteenth century the entire region is also hit by drought and the loss of surviving crops. Food supplies dwindle and the number of raids by various patchwork groups such as the habiru and other peoples who have banded together greatly increases until, by about 1200 BC, this flood has turned into a tidal wave of destruction, abandonment, and migration.

The same climate-induced hardships also hit the descendants of Indo-European settlers along the Danube and in Romania, descendants who have already expanded into the northern Balkans. They begin to migrate southwards in search of food and better circumstances, perhaps also helped on by the growing dominance of the Urnfield culture (in the local form of the Gava culture) to their north.

The proto-Illyrians and proto-Epirotes head towards the western Balkan coast. Labelling all the people of this long and interesting coastline as Illyrians though would be to miss out on a more accurate portrait of them as a new social layer which assumes a position atop previous ones, mostly involving Neolithic farmer communities of the former 'Old Europe'. The Illyrians themselves are far from being one single group of people who are all the same - many regional and cultural variations exist amongst them, not least those involving which have been more heavily influenced by the proto-Italics and which, perhaps, by the proto-Mycenaeans or Dorians who may have left some influence of their own.

Map of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Greece 1200 BC
Climate-induced drought in the thirteenth century BC created great instability in the entire eastern Mediterranean region, resulting in mass migration in the Balkans, as well as the fall of city states and kingdoms further east (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The proto-Thracians take the south-eastern corner of the Balkans, covering everything between the Balkans Mountains (which run through the centre of modern Bulgaria) to the area around Thessalonica. The proto-Dacians - closely related to the Thracians at least - take (or remain in) territory to the north of the Thracians, in Romania and Moldova. The proto-Phrygians and possibly also the proto-Armenians take a similar route but carry on going until they have crossed into Anatolia. The proto-Macedonians take the bulk of the territory between the Thracians and the Epirotes, while the proto-Dorians continue on into Mycenaean Greece, seemingly in superior numbers and with aggression enough to see off even the Mycenaeans.

c.900 BC

Iron Age burials from this point onwards, in the Kerameikos and other locations, are often richly provided for and demonstrate that Athens has already become one of the leading centres of trade and prosperity in former Mycenaean lands. This may be due to its secure stronghold on the Acropolis and its access to the sea which give it a distinct advantage over inland cities such as Sparta and Thebes.

The beginnings of Classical Greece can be pinpointed to about this time, although it will take at least two more centuries before it properly realises its potential. To the north, the Illyrians have already found good reason to send some of their number across the Adriatic at its narrowest point to secure a foothold in south-eastern Iron Age Italy and to create (or perpetuate) the tribe of the Iapyges. The Chaonians may have done the same, becoming the Chones tribe of Italy. The Macedonians, Dacians, and Thracians remain uncultured and somewhat wild for several more centuries before developing recognisable kingdoms of their own. The bulk of the Balkans remains largely unexplored by literate people until the coming of the Romans.