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Yamnaya - The Prehistoric Culture that Contributed to Europe's Genetic Ancestry

Yamnaya - The Prehistoric Culture that Contributed to Europe's Genetic Ancestry

Europeans are the descendants of at least three major migrations of prehistoric people.

"First, a group of hunter-gatherers arrived in Europe about 37,000 years ago. Then, farmers began migrating from Anatolia (a region including present-day Turkey) into Europe 9000 years ago, but they initially didn't intermingle much with the local hunter-gatherers because they brought their own families with them. Finally, 5000 to 4800 years ago, nomadic herders known as the Yamnaya swept into Europe.

They were an early Bronze Age culture that came from the grasslands, or steppes, of modern-day Russia and Ukraine, bringing with them metallurgy and animal herding skills and, possibly, Proto-Indo-European, the mysterious ancestral tongue from which all of today's 400 Indo-European languages spring. They immediately interbred with local Europeans, who were descendants of both the farmers and hunter-gatherers. Within a few hundred years, the Yamnaya contributed to at least half of central Europeans' genetic ancestry.

The finding that Yamnaya men migrated for many generations also suggests that all was not right back home in the steppe. "It would imply a continuing strongly negative push factor within the steppes, such as chronic epidemics or diseases," says archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, who was not an author of the new study. Or, he says it could be the beginning of cultures that sent out bands of men to establish new politically aligned colonies in distant lands, as in later groups of Romans or Vikings."


In the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age (ca. 3500 to 2300 BCE), people associated with what archeologists refer to as the “Yamnaya Horizon,” essentially a pastoralist kurgan culture, developed out of eastern origins in the steppes of the Don and Volga River regions.


The herding people or societies of this culture were most likely speakers of “classic Proto-Indo-European” and were the first in the Eurasian steppes to generate a pastoral economy requiring regular seasonal migrations to fresh grazing land. They used wagons pulled by cattle to carry their tents and supplies far into the steppes of Central Asia when necessary to graze their animals. They also used horses to survey huge amounts of territory and to drive their large herds of domesticated animals (Anthony 2007). Beginning about 3100 BCE, people associated with the Yamnaya herding culture spread swiftly across the steppes carrying Cannabis and its use with them, eventually broadening their range to include areas to the west in the Danube Valley and then into other areas of Eastern Europe including Serbia and Hungary, where they encountered settled farmers.

Yamnaya culture

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Even if the idea that the Yamnaya people were using hemp for fiber is speculative at this point, there is evidence that they and other contemporary peoples in the region used Cannabis for ceremonial purposes.

Indeed, a major characteristic of the Yamnaya cultural horizon was their funeral ritual and how this is manifested in their kurgans. For example, in Eastern Europe there are two sites that have yielded hemp seeds more than 4,000 years old. One is a grave at Gurbănesti, east of Bucharest in the Danube Valley region of Romania where a clay vessel (brazier or “pipe-cup”) with carbonized hemp seeds was discovered, perhaps the earliest evidence for the burning of Cannabis (Ecsedy 1979).


Central Eurasia’s Yamnaya people thought to be one of the three key tribes that founded European civilisation ­dispersed eastwards at this time and are thought to have spread cannabis, and possibly its psychoactive use, throughout Eurasia. The pollen, fruit and fibres of cannabis have been turning up in Eurasian archaeological digs for decades.


It is often assumed that cannabis was first used, and possibly domesticated, somewhere in China or Central Asia, the researchers say – but their database points to an alternative.

Some of the most recent studies included in the database suggest that the herb entered the archaeological record of Japan and Eastern Europe at almost exactly the same time, between about 11,500 and 10,200 years ago.

“The cannabis plant seems to have been distributed widely from as early as 10,000 years ago, or even earlier."


Early evidence for Cannabis reported from both "Frumușica" and "Gurbănești", two sites located in Romania (Home of De IONESCU) is probably associated with ancient Yamnaya cultures. 


The Yamnaya culture  was a late Copper Age to early Bronze Age archaeological culture of the region between the Southern Bug, Dniester, and Ural rivers (the Pontic steppe), dating to 3300–2600 BC. Its name derives from its characteristic burial tradition: Я́мная (romanization: yamnaya) is a Russian adjective that means 'related to pits (yama)', and these people used to bury their dead in tumuli (kurgans) containing simple pit chambers.

Yamnaya culture

The people of the Yamnaya culture were likely the result of a genetic admixture between the descendants of Eastern European Hunter-Gatherers and people related to hunter-gatherers from the Caucasus.

 They lived primarily as nomads, with a chiefdom system and wheeled carts and wagons that allowed them to manage large herds.

They are also closely connected to Final Neolithic cultures, which later spread throughout Europe and Central Asia.

The Yamnaya contribution in the modern populations of Eastern Europe ranges from 46.8% among Russians to 42.8% in Ukrainians. Finland has one of the highest Yamnaya contributions in all of Europe (50.4%).

The people represented by this culture spread rapidly across greater northern Europe, all the way from Ukraine to Belgium. 


This Article contains snippets from Cannabis Evolution & Ethnobotany - Clarke & Merlin - 2013

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