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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Mariupol Culture (Neolithic Foragers / Chalcolithic) (Eastern Europe)
c.6500-3250 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 Mariupol group or culture emerged in the region around the modern south-eastern Ukrainian city of the same name. It is the subject of some variable dating and apparent uncertainty over whether it should be classified as a local group or a full culture in its own right.

Within that uncertainty it is also sometimes combined with or assigned to the wider Dnieper-Donets culture (I and II) which emerged in late Neolithic Ukraine and flourished into the start of the Chalcolithic (Eneolithic, or Copper Age). That took in the steppe region around the Dnieper, areas of Crimea, and areas closer to the Sea of Azov.

With that greater territory in mind, the Dnieper-Donets appears to act as an umbrella label for the region as a whole, including the Mariupol group or culture and the similar Azov-Dnieper group or culture. This 'umbrella' practice seems largely limited to older works however. Upon initial discovery by archaeologists in the 1960s, and prior to detailed analysis, Mariupol finds were also assigned to the Dnieper-Donets.

The Mariupol's dating can see it placed anywhere between 6500-3250 BC. It is more usually dated to about 4500-4000 BC, although some push it out to about 5200-3800 BC. Both the Mariupol and Azov-Dnieper could in theory have emerged individually to later become broadly aligned with the Dnieper-Donets as an umbrella label for the region as a whole.

Over six hundred skeletons from numerous Neolithic cemeteries are known from the Pontic steppe. They came from the Lower-Don, Azov-Dnieper, and Surskaja cultures, each with different sets of adornments on their burial clothing. The disposition of adornments provides valuable information on some items of burial clothing: caps, long-sleeved shirts, loincloths, and moccasins. These people were fishing foragers, who became familiar with pastoralism through contacts and trade networks.

The Azovstal Iron and Steel Works was constructed in 1930, during which process Mykola Makarenko unearthed a burial site on the banks of the River Kalmius. The site was located on a natural elevation over the surrounding marshland, and it contained one hundred and twenty-two burials, seemingly in one long trench which was extended as required. Burials included stone tools such as microliths, flint axes, bone beads, and bone or animal teeth necklaces. Pottery was very limited.

Other potential Mariupol sites are disputed between the Dnieper-Donets, Azov-Dnieper, or Lower-Don cultures. Those sites include Deriivka I, Vasylivka, and Vovnigi (along the Dnieper), Dolinka (in Crimea), Staronizhesteblievskaya (in the Kuban region), and more than a few others.

Neolithic forager territory

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Small Dictionary of the History of Ukraine, Valeriy Smoliy (Senior Ed, Libid, 1997), from Burial clothing in Neolithic cemeteries of the Ukrainian steppe, Nadezhda Kotova (Kiev Institute of Archaeology, Documenta Praehistorica XXXVII, 2010), 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: The Palaeolithic of the Western Steppe Zone, Karol Szymczak (Reference Module in Social Sciences, 2023), and Butovo Culture (Oxford Reference), and Maps of Neolithic & Bronze Age migrations around Europe (Eupedia), and Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and North-Eastern Technocomplex (Indo-Europeans and Uralic Peoples), and Early Mesolithic (Indo-European.eu), and Steppe Ancestry Chronology (Indo-European.eu), and The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016).)

c.6500 BC

The most extreme or generous dates for the emergence of the Mariupol culture place its start around now. Its territory is located in the south-eastern corner of Ukraine, perhaps reaching to the Sea of Azov.

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)

There is also a school of opinion which has it being more widespread, penetrating both the Volga of the Skelya culture, and the Caucasus of the late Mesolithic cultures there such as the Chokh.

c.6050 BC

The Azov-Dnieper culture emerges around this point, based on the broadest acceptable dating for it. This is during the regionally-dominant Dnieper-Donets I culture which itself is contemporary with the emergence of the Bug-Dniester culture to the immediate west.

c.5200 BC

From around this point in time the Dnieper-Donets I people begin keeping cattle, sheep, and goats, perhaps thanks to influences reaching them from the more advanced Bug-Dniester culture. They also adopt the keeping of pigs, horses, and dogs.

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.

This is an early date for classifying the transition between Dnieper-Donets I and Dnieper-Donets II cultures, although around 5000 BC is a more reliable cut-off point. Clearly the culture is undergoing a gradual transition from this point onwards as it turns from early Neolithic foraging to an animal-husbandry-based economy.

c.5000 - 4900 BC

The fishers and foragers of the Dnieper-Donets II may be feeling the pinch of growing population figures. Those who have been living for centuries by the rich resources of the Dnieper rapids may have become relatively sedentary, and sedentary women tend to have more children.

Around this period they start to adopt cattle and sheep herding from the farmers of the Cucuteni-Tripolye societies to the immediate west. In the subsequent two or three centuries, domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats are walked and traded from the Dnieper valley eastwards to the post-Seroglazovka Volga-Ural steppe (where they arrive around 4700-4600 BC).

The lower Volga homeland of the Seroglazovka
The course of the Volga is divided into four sections, starting from its source and the confluence with the Oka (the upper Volga), the middle Volga which runs to the confluence with the Kama, and then the lower Volga

c.4500 BC

This is the more widely-accepted date of emergence for the Mariupol culture. It certainly flourishes to about 4000 BC, probably to 3800 BC, and possibly as far as 3250 BC, with its later stage being known as 'post-Mariupol'. This infers that it is already fading or transitioning into a successor culture.

c.4250 BC

This is the more widely-accepted date of emergence for the Azov-Dnieper culture, and it certainly flourishes to about 3225 BC. Probably coincidentally, evidence emerges of the real adoption of cereal cultivation for the first time in the region. There may have been some minor experimentation with it in the previous two or three centuries.

c.4000 - 3800 BC

The complex agrarian society of Old Europe disappears in the southern Balkans and northern Greece in this period. This effect spreads across the entire chain of farmer cultures as far as the Cucuteni-Tripolye which wraps around the north-western coast of the Black Sea.

Mariupol culture burial and grave goods
A burial and associated grave goods are shown here as excavated from the Mariupol cemetery in 1933 by Mykola Makarenko, including the burial itself, Burial 109, and porphyr decorations

Warfare is triggered in some places. Some farmer villages are burned and their populations killed (bones have been found on site). Other villages see their inhabitants flee, leaving behind caches of valuable objects, while other sites have been heavily fortified in the period between 4300-4000 BC.

3300 BC

The Tripolye C1 supertowns of the steppe border region near the South Bug have failed. All of them are now gone, and in a very short space of time. Tripolye farmers evacuate the entire South Bug valley, presumably in the face of a hopeless situation in which they are unable to farm enough to sustain them.

Quite possibly they are also facing increasing steppe raids now that these pastoralists are mounted on horses. Most likely to be responsible are the people of Mikhailovka I or late Sredni Stog.

Cucuteni-Tripolye supertown
This artist's reconstruction depicts the Neolithic farming Cucuteni-Tripolye culture supertown of Maidanetske in what is now Ukraine (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 4.0 International)

c.3250 BC

Contact between people of the Skelya and Azov-Dnieper cultures around the former Dnieper-Donets II region has already led to the formation of the Chalcolithic post-Mariupol culture in Eastern Europe.

Following that, and more generally, the post-Mariupol and Azov-Dnieper are both gradually absorbed by the Tripolye and Sredni Stog cultures.

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