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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Bug-Dniester Culture (Neolithic Foragers) (Eastern Europe)
c.6500 - 5000 BC

The crossover between the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic in Europe (and more specifically Northern Europe) took place about a millennium after the wide-ranging Magdalenian had faded. The later Swiderian culture which was so important in this specific instance was centred around modern Poland, with extensions both eastwards and southwards.

On the Eastern European fringe of the Swiderian, and of the Epigravettian which was initially so strong in Southern Europe, there appeared a number of more or less contemporaneous Epi-Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) and early Mesolithic cultures. This mainly took place in the steppe zone across the northern Black Sea region, but activity was also taking place between the Vistula and the Ural mountains. In time, creeping pastoralism would initiate a Neolithic introduction into this region.

The Bug-Dniester culture of Neolithic foragers emerged between the two rivers of that name, the Bug in today's western Ukraine and the Dniester in eastern Moldova and the westernmost parts of Ukraine. It was concentrated largely along the riverbanks where food was plentiful. In part it succeeded the more northerly Elshanka culture on the Volga, and the Kizil-Koba (I) in Crimea. It emerged at the same time as the broadly similar Dnieper-Donets I culture on the other side of the Dnieper.

Early Bug-Dniester flint tools also showed similarities with, and a degree of descent from, coastal steppe cultures such as the Grebeniki (which it absorbed) and the Kukrek (which was absorbed by its later neighbour, the Dnieper-Donets II). It also showed similarities with northern forest groups such as the older Dnieper-Desna, which may also have provided an input into the Dnieper-Donets I.

While English-language texts invariably use the name Bug-Dniester for this culture, Ukrainian texts (and Eastern European texts in general) prefer the Ukrainian-form Boh-Dnister or Buh-Dnister. The word 'bug' or boh' is Slavic for a god. In Russian it is 'bug/bog' and in Ukrainian it is 'boh', with the 'g' seemingly becoming softened to an 'h'. The 'g' is also present as 'bug' in English, which initially referred to a demon or monster, but is now assigned to creepy-crawlies.

While being labelled foragers, the people of the Bug-Dniester knew how to make fired clay pottery vessels. This was a skill they inherited from the Elshanka culture, taking it on board around 6200-6000 BC. This was a good two-to-four centuries prior to the arrival on their western flank of Neolithic Farmers who were advancing towards the Pontic-Caspian region from the Balkans.

However, they soon found themselves buffered up against the newly-arriving people of the Criş culture, from about 5800 BC. The dividing line between the two groups became a long-term cultural (and almost certainly linguistic) barrier which did not shift.

In the end, after extensive resistance, the people of the Bug-Dniester accepted the new farming culture. The cultural barrier which had existed between them for so long (nearly a millennium) was suddenly ended. They were assimilated into the Neolithic farming Cucuteni-Tripolye culture while the Bug-Dniester disappeared, probably taking with it the language of its people. However, its close relative survived to the east in the form of the Dnieper-Donets II culture.

The 'Ratniv 2' site - and many other locations - which represent the beginnings of a Neolithic emergence within the Bug-Dniester and Linear Pottery cultures have produced dates of 5471-5239 BC and 5341-5215 BC for the beginnings of an advanced productive farming economy. Clearly there was a period of up to half a millennium in which Neolithic farming practices started to reach across the cultural divide to be picked up by the pottery-making foragers of the Bug-Dniester. In the end it was the start of the powerful Cucuteni which saw them switch fully to farming in favour of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer traditions.

The culture was first discovered in 1949 by the Kyiv-based archaeologist, Valentyn Danylenko. Over sixty small settlements have been located in Ukraine while more remain to be found in Moldova. Remains have been unearthed of ground and semi-pit dwellings, farming implements such as bone-made hoes, stone and wooden sickles, and pottery.

Neolithic forager territory

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Proto-Indo-European Language and Society: Late Neolithic in the Pontic-Caspian Region, Rolf Noyer, from Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Settlement of the European North: Possible Linguistic Implications, Christian Carpelan, from The Magdalenian Settlement of Europe, Quaternary International Volumes 272-273 (2012), and from External Links: North-Eastern Technocomplex (Indo-Europeans and Uralic Peoples), and Neolithic Map (Eupedia), and Boh-Dnister Culture (Encyclopaedia of Ukraine), and Maps of Neolithic & Bronze Age migrations around Europe (Eupedia), and Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and Steppe Ancestry Chronology (Indo-European.eu), and The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016).)

c.6500 BC

The Bug-Dniester and Dnieper-Donets I forager cultures both emerge across Ukraine's Pontic steppe, at least partially succeeding the Elshanka culture of the Volga, and the more localised Grebeniki, Kukrek, and Kizil-Koba (I) cultures.

Map of Mesolithic Europe 8000 BC
Although culturally and technologically continuous with Palaeolithic cultures, Mesolithic cultures quickly developed diverse local adaptations for special environments, as this map shows (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.6200 - 6000 BC

The Bug-Dniester folk take on board the process of producing fired clay pottery vessels, acquiring it from the more northerly Elshanka culture. Much of this pottery has pointed bottoms, designed for cooking over a fire, and is often decorated with wavy lines.

c.6200 - 5800 BC

Early Neolithic pottery of the Bug-Dniester culture appears in this period on Surskii Island in the Dnieper rapids, an area which is dominated by Dnieper-Donets I culture. It has been tempered with vegetal material and crushed shells in a style which has been diffused throughout the northern forager cultures since being created by the people of the Elshanka to the north.

Other pottery items and styles subsequently appear in the Lower-Don river valley culture between about 6000-5600 BC, and at Kair Shak III on the lower Volga between about 5700-5600 BC.

Dnieper rapids in Ukraine
The first relatively detailed description of the Dnieper rapids was given by the Eastern Roman emperor, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, in his tenth century AD work, On the Administration of the Empire, while they are also mentioned by the author of the Rus-orientated The Tale of Igor's Campaign.

c.5800 BC

The new Criş farmer arrivals are different from their neighbours in many, strange ways, not least in the language they probably speak. They occupy river valleys in the transitional ecological zone in which rainfall is sufficient for the growth of forests but where there are still open meadows and some pockets of steppe.

The native foragers of the Bug-Dniester have for generations hunted red deer, roe deer, and wild boar here, and have caught riverine fish. Their Elshanka-derived pottery, however, begins to show Criş influences even if they largely shun the new farming revolution. The rudimentary use of wild grasses is abandoned in favour of einkorn, emmer, and spelt, while cattle-breeding is also adopted.

The advance of the Criş farmer culture reaches the Prut-Dniester watershed, a little way to the north of the Danube delta in the north-western corner of the Black Sea. There it stops, never to advance further, apparently held in check by the dense population of the native Bug-Dniester forager culture.

Bug-Dniester wooden hoe
This early farming instrument is a hoe, made from animal horn, and used by the people of the Bug-Dniester culture as they gradually adopted farming

However, the latter becomes the filter through which farming and stock-breeding economies are introduced to the Pontic-Caspian societies farther east, including the Dnieper-Donets I by about 5200 BC. At least some of those foragers 'farther east' are the ancestors of the proto-Indo-Europeans.

The people of the Bug-Dniester forager culture find that these new arrivals are different in many ways: they use large flint blades and few scrapers, and their villages occupied better-drained soil of the second-level terrace in opposition to Bug-Dniester seasonal residences along river banks (convenient for fishing).

They also use polished stone axes against the foragers' chipped flint axes, their pottery is distinctively made and decorated, and they eat exotic foods, including mutton (an alien food to the foragers of Europe). Their herds of cultured animals wander up into the hills to mingle with the deer which are hunted by the Bug-Dniester people.

Cris culture figurine
People of the Criş farmer culture moved up the Black Sea coast from the Danube to meet a hard border with the people of the Bug-Dniester, a border which lasted for centuries

The foragers in the Dniester valley quickly acquire at least some domesticated cereals, pigs, and cattle but, away from this narrow frontier, Bug-Dniester people remain primarily foragers at heart.

c.5500 BC

This process of absorption is somewhat exaggerated on the cultural frontier between the two groups, but the Bug-Dniester is clearly successful as it absorbs the remaining folk of the fading Grebeniki Mesolithic culture.

c.5200 - 5000 BC

After several centuries of resistance, and only gradual acceptance of a limited number of domesticated animals to supplement the forager diet or use in rituals, a new herding economy is adopted by the Bug-Dniester from the Criş and its successor, the Cucuteni-Tripolye.

The Thinker Sculpture of the Hamangia Culture
The Cucuteni-Tripolye culture developed on plains around the Carpathian Mountains - continuing into eastern Romania and south-western Ukraine, with both areas having extremely fertile soil - and the culture was next door to the Hamangia, which produced artistic marvels such as 'The Thinker', dated to around 4000 BC (click or tap on image to view full sized)

It then diffuses very rapidly across most of the Pontic-Caspian steppe as far east as the Volga and Ural rivers. This revolutionary event transforms not just the economy but also the rituals and politics of the steppe societies which include the pre-proto-Indo-Europeans.

Possibly not coincidentally this shift occurs at the height of Earth's post-glacial thermal maximum, the Atlantic period. This phase lasts between 6000-4000 BC, and is at its warmest during the Late Atlantic (palaeo-climactic zone A3) beginning around 5200 BC.

Riverine forests in the steppe valleys contract due to increased levels of warmth and dryness, and grasslands expand. In the forest-steppe uplands, majestic forests of elm, oak, and lime trees spread from the Carpathians to the Urals by 5000 BC.

Central Asia Indo-European map 6000 BC
The northern edge of the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is the most probable homeland for the proto-Indo-Europeans (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The people of the Bug-Dniester culture struggle to cope with these changes, and the farmer-forager barrier begins to buckle. The little-known Molodova-Kichkine is probably also disrupted by this to a degree.

Some 'Tripolye A' settlements in the Southern Bug river valley (Lugach and Gard 3) contain sherds of Bug-Dniester pottery, while others contain a few microlithic blades which resemble Bug-Dniester forms.

These traces suggest that some late Bug-Dniester people are absorbed into 'Tripolye A' villages in the Southern Bug valley, probably around the time that Cucuteni-Tripolye migrants are moving into former Bug-Dniester hunting grounds.

c.5000 BC

FeatureUntil now the post-Glacial Black Sea has been a vast freshwater lake which is about two-thirds the size of its modern counterpart. Around this time, thanks to steadily rising water levels, the Mediterranean Sea breaks through the barrier posed by the Bosporus and floods the lake (see feature link).

Great waterfalls
While the proposed Black Sea flood event of about 5000 BC may have submerged coastal Neolithic communities of its time, the Bible's flood story originates from Mesopotamia around 2900-2750 BC, around two thousand years after the Black Sea event

A giant waterfall exists on the other side of the barrier until the water levels equalise, and the freshwater lake becomes a salt water sea. Settlements all around the coastline are submerged, possibly not resulting in deaths but certainly displacing some thousands of people.

c.5000 BC

Eastern Europe's Bug-Dniester culture of Neolithic pastoralists disappears under the wave of incoming Cucuteni-Tripolye immigrants. The farmer-forager frontier recedes eastwards to the borders of Dnieper-Donets II territory where it survives for two thousand years, until the collapse of the Tripolye culture.

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