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Early Ukraine

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

Literally 'the borderland' for much of its existence - the meaning behind its name - Ukraine has long been a meeting point for east and west. It has witnessed the flourishing of tribal states which originated in Central Asia and medieval European principalities which ventured eastwards from the Vistula and the mouth of the Danube. Western Ukraine was the meeting point between the Neolithic farmer cultures (beginning with the Sesklo culture and ending with the Cucuteni-Tripolye around 3000 BC) and the forager cultures of the Pontic-Caspian steppe which flourished under the Yamnaya horizon.

Partly counted as Scythia by ancient authors (a designation which mostly included central and eastern Ukraine), the south-western areas could be included as domains of the various Thracian tribes and peoples, most notably the Getae. Study of Slavic languages has produced no clear area of origin for the Slavs who occupied much of Ukraine, but a general consensus agrees that western and central Ukraine could be included in this region.

There is no archaeological evidence of a Scandinavian origin for the Przeworsk culture to the north of western Ukraine, but there is some evidence of an undetermined connection between north-western Europe (Jutland, Holstein, Mecklenburg) and central Poland, western Ukraine, and Moldova at the crossover from Early Pre-Roman Iron Age into the late period, during the second half of the third century BC. The nature of this connection is still the subject of study by a good many scholars from many northern and Eastern European countries, but it would seem to offer tentative support for a migration of early Germanic tribes from Jutland and surrounding environs. In time some of them would filter down towards western Ukraine - most especially the mighty Goths who would control a vast swathe of Ukraine for a couple of centuries (albeit under Hunnic control for approximately half that time).

Following the twilight of the Gauls (whose easternmost remnants survived in Galicia) and the 'Migration Period' which covered Gothic control, Ukraine was certainly home to some of the earliest Slav states, and the flourishing grand principality of Kyiv in the tenth and eleventh centuries made it an important focus of East Slavic cultural development. Fragmentation in the thirteenth century saw it divided and contested by various states, and the Cossack Hetmanate republic emerged in central Ukraine in the seventeenth century. The region only gained more permanent borders during the Soviet period, and independence as a sovereign nation of Ukraine followed in 1991 upon the collapse of that regime.

Steppe plains of Ukraine

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Jes Martens and Edward Dawson, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, from the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopaedic Dictionary (1906), from History of the World: Volume 7, Arthur Mee, J A Hammerton, & Arthur D Innes (1907), from The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, Jordanes, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, and from External Links: Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe (Nature.com), and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny.)

c.3000 BC

A date of around 3000 BC is generally used as the probable point at which Indo-Europeans begin to separate into definite proto languages which are not intelligible to each other. A western group will evolve into Celtic, Italic, and other possible minor branches, while a proto-Germanic branch heads towards the north-west and the Baltic coastline.

Perhaps initially part of the same movement, or a second wave of movement, the proto-Balts and proto-Slavs form a 'North Indo-European' group which largely remains in what is now Ukraine and south-western Russia.

Central Asia Indo-European map 3000 BC
By around 3000 BC the Indo-Europeans had begun their mass migration away from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, with the bulk of them heading westwards towards the heartland of Europe (click or tap on map to view full sized)

An eastern branch - or perhaps a branch which remains on its steppe homeland for another millennium or so and which therefore becomes an eastern branch by default because the rest have headed off west - who apparently call themselves Arya or something similar eventually form the ancestors of much of India's modern population, plus the various branches of Indo-Iranians.

1100s BC

Iron appears in Central Europe, but not until the eighth century does it revolutionise men's lives and only then does it reach Northern Europe. Even then iron is still extremely rare in the Baltic area (until the sixth century BC), and the general cultural level continues to have an almost pure Bronze Age character. The dividing line at about the end of the eighth century BC signifies a change in culture due not so much to technological innovations as to new historical events - the Scythians suddenly expand out of the Pontic steppe region.

The Bronze Age is still a rather obscure period in the area between eastern Lithuania and Latvia and the Oka river basin in central Russia. From pottery remains in fortified hill top villages it can be seen that, during the end of the second millennium BC and the beginning of the first, a cultural differentiation gradually takes place, and before the beginning of the Early Iron Age several local groups have formed.

Map of Scythian Lands around 500 BC
Scythian warriors
The appearance of ferocious mounted Scythian warriors in the lands to the south of the Balts must have instilled a sense of worry and fear in many groups, but the Balts always managed to remain independent of their control (although armour such as that pictured here certainly did not appear so early), while above is a map showing the Scythian lands at their greatest extent (click or tap on map to view full sized)

One of these is closely related to the Brushed Pottery culture in the form of the Milograd group of southern Belarus and the northern fringes of what is now western Ukraine. Another is the Plain Pottery group which occupies the Desna, upper Dnieper, upper Oka, and upper Don basins in central Russia. The last of those, in the basins of the Desna and upper Don, is known more specifically as the Bondarikha for the Late Bronze Age centuries and Jukhnovo for the Early Iron Age and the first centuries AD.

c.400 BC

The Celts of the La Tène culture arrive in Bohemia and southern Poland, the northern limit of Celtic expansion, although there remains the question of where the Belgae and Venedi are located. The same expansion also stops the Pomeranian Face-Urn culture from expanding any further south. Western and southern Poland have also been disrupted by Scythian raids, but these suddenly drop off around 400 BC, leaving the Face-Urn culture free to expand instead across the entire Vistula basin and to reach the upper Dniester in Ukraine, thereby bypassing the La Tène Celts.

c.250 BC

Germanic settlements have spread only a little farther south-westwards along the North Sea coastline, and eastwards into the heart of modern Poland and northern Germany. One exception to this is the tribe of the Bastarnae. They have already reached the Balkans by this time.

Between this point and the beginning of the first century AD, Germanic expansion and migration continue this slow progression, extending into modern Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, and southwards towards modern Switzerland, central Germany, and Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary. All the while, Celtic tribes are being edged out or absorbed.

Belgae
Many Belgic groups showed marked Germanic influences, so were they Celts with German words and warriors, or Germans with Celtic words and warriors? The truth probably lies somewhere in between

c.AD 225 - 250

During this period the Goths continue a long, slow migration south-eastwards from the southern Baltic coastline, entering what is now Moldava and western Ukraine. Defeating the Spali, the Goths form a loose hegemony over the tribes of the region, almost certainly including the Bastarnae, and can perhaps include the nearby Gepids as allies, or at least friendly neighbours.

It is only at this time, once the tribe has wandered into a Roman sphere of influence, that the Goths begin to enter the historical record in any great depth. Archaeology supports the migration if not the name of its leader, showing a southwards drift for the Willenberg culture until it merges with the indigenous Zarubintsy culture in Ukraine to form the Chernyakhiv culture.

270s

The death of Cannabaudes of the Goths precipitates a major shift in the balance of power in Eastern Europe. The appearance of the Gepids to fill the vacuum drives a wedge between the Tervingi branch of the Goths (led by the Balti Goths), west of the Dniester, and the Greutungi (led by the Amali Goths), east of the Sea of Azov. The Tervingi consolidate their realm between the Dniester and the Danube in modern western Ukraine, and become known to the Romans as the Visigoths. The Greutungi, or Ostrogoths, remain to the east of the Dniester, in eastern Ukraine and southern Russia.

375

The invading Huns subjugate the Ostrogoths and Heruli in the vast territory they occupy in what is now Ukraine and areas of southern Russia, creating a vast kingdom of their own which survives until the death of Attila in 453.

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)

453 - 456

The death of Attila in 453 leads to his sons fighting each other for control, and the Hun confederation begins to dissolve as a cohesive entity. The following year, the core Hunnic lands are conquered by the Gepids, scattering them, and within two years Attila's sons have been routed by the Ostrogoths. The Slavic tribes, liberated by this victory and militarised by the Huns, begin an outwards expansion.

Two main branches emerge: the Kutrigurs and the Utigurs, A third grouping, the Altyn Ola, may be a division of the Kutrigurs. It is referred to in some sources but its existence cannot be fully confirmed, so perhaps it is merely a more westerly extension of the Kutrigurs. It remains on the northern side of the Black Sea, in modern Ukraine, and west of the River Don.

5th century

The strong cultural centre of the Baltic tribes comes under threat from around the end of the fourth century or in the early part of the fifth century, as eastern Slav expansion reaches them in what is now western Russia. The gradual influx of Slavs continues right up until the twelfth century and onwards.

It seems that the area between Kyiv and Novgorod is occupied in consecutive waves by different tribal groups between the fifth and eighth centuries. Early traces of Slavs - identified with the Krivichis Slavics - in the north are found in the area of Pskov, east of Estonia and Latvia and south of Lake Peipus in the basin of the River Velikaja.

Szybowcowa Hill in Lower Silesia
Slavs occupied areas of Europe that had previously been home to the Germanic Vandali and the Celtic Naharvali before them, including the rolling hills of Silesia

856 or 860

In the fourteenth year of the reign of Michael III of the Byzantine empire (although this produces at least two different dates), Constantinople is attacked by a new enemy - the Rus.

The attack comes as a complete surprise to the Byzantines, but it is a clear sign that a new power in Eastern Europe is flexing its muscles. The Russian Primary Chronicle states that the Byzantines are only saved because the weather turns against the Rus fleet and scatters it. The attack has been ascribed to Askold and Dir of Kyiv but without any firm foundation.

c.862?

The aforementioned Askold and Dir are, according to the Russian Primary Chronicle (RPC), with Rurik at Novgorod. They obtain permission to go to Constantinople with their families, but instead settle at Kyiv where they aspire to become princes. Their actions end up making Kyiv the mother city of the Rus.