Marija Gimbutas

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Prof. Dr. Marija Gimbutas at the Frauenmuseum Wiesbaden, Germany 1993

Marija Gimbutas (Lithuanian: Marija Gimbutienė; January 23, 1921 – February 2, 1994), was a Lithuanian-American archaeologist known for her research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of "Old Europe" and for her widely accepted Kurgan hypothesis, which located the Proto-Indo-European homeland in the Pontic Steppe. Gimbutas asserted that Neolithic sites in Lithuania and across Europe provided evidence for pre-Indo-European societies that were neither matriarchal nor patriarchal, although she was later characterized in certain scholarly circles as having proposed that those societies were matriarchal.[1]

Early life[edit]

Gimbutas was born as Marija Birutė Alseikaitė to Veronika Janulaitytė-Alseikienė and Danielius Alseika in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Her parents were members of the Lithuanian intelligentsia.[2] Her mother received a doctorate in ophthalmology at the University of Berlin in 1908 and became the first female physician in Lithuania, while her father had received his medical degree from the University of Tartu in 1910. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Gimbutas' parents founded the first Lithuanian hospital in the capital.[2] During this period, her father also served as the publisher of the newspaper Vilniaus Žodis and the cultural magazine Vilniaus Šviesa and was an outspoken proponent of Lithuanian independence during the war against Poland.[3] Gimbutas' parents were connoisseurs of traditional Lithuanian folk arts and frequently invited contemporary musicians, writers, and authors to their home, such as Vydūnas, Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas, and Jonas Basanavičius.[4] With regard to her strong cultural upbringing, Gimbutas said:

I had the opportunity to get acquainted with writers and artists such as Vydunas, Vaižgantas, even Basanavičius, who was taken care of by my parents. When I was four or five years old, I would sit in Basanavičius's easy chair and I would feel fine. And later, throughout my entire life, Basanavičius's collected folklore remained extraordinarily important for me.[4]

Gimbutas settled in the temporary capital of Lithuania of Kaunas with her parents in 1931, where she continued her studies. That year, her parents separated and she lived with her mother and brother, Vytautas, in Kaunas. Five years later, her father died suddenly. At her father's deathbed, Gimbutas pledged that she would study to become a scholar: "All of a sudden I had to think what I shall be, what I shall do with my life. I had been so reckless in sports—swimming for miles, skating, bicycle riding. I changed completely and began to read."[5][6]

For the next few years, she participated in ethnographic expeditions to record traditional folklore and studied Lithuanian beliefs and rituals of death.[2] She graduated with honors from Aušra Gymnasium in Kaunas in 1938 and enrolled in the Vytautas Magnus University the same year, where she studied linguistics in the Department of Philology. She then attended University of Vilnius to pursue graduate studies in archaeology under Jonas Puzinas , linguistics, ethnology, folklore and literature.[2] In 1941, she married architect Jurgis Gimbutas. The following year, she completed her master's thesis, "Modes of Burial in Lithuania in the Iron Age", with honors.[2] She received her Master of Arts degree from the University of Vilnius, Lithuania in 1942.

During the Second World War, Gimbutas lived under Soviet and Nazi occupation from 1940–1941 and 1941–1943, respectively.[7] A year after the birth of their first daughter, Danutė, in June 1942, the young Gimbutas family fled the country in the wake of the Soviet re-occupation, first to Vienna and then to Innsbruck and Bavaria.[8] In her reflection of this turbulent period, Gimbutas remarked, "Life just twisted me like a little plant, but my work was continuous in one direction."[9] In 1946, Gimbutas received a doctorate in archaeology, with minors in ethnology and history of religion, from Tübingen University with her dissertation "Prehistoric Burial Rites in Lithuania" (in German), which was published later that year.[8] While holding a postdoctoral fellowship at Tübingen the following year, Gimbutas gave birth to her second daughter, Živilė. She received her PhD. from the University of Tübingen, Germany, in 1946. She did post-graduate work at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Munich 1947–1949. The Gimbutas family left Germany and relocated to the United States in 1949.[8][10][11]


After arriving in the United States, Gimbutas immediately went to work at Harvard University translating Eastern European archaeological texts. She then became a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. Her third daughter, Rasa Julija, was born August 1954 in Boston during this period. In 1955 she was made a Fellow of Harvard's Peabody Museum.

Kurgan hypothesis[edit]

In 1956 Gimbutas introduced her Kurgan hypothesis, which combined archaeological study of the distinctive Kurgan burial mounds with linguistics to unravel some problems in the study of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speaking peoples, whom she dubbed the "Kurgans"; namely, to account for their origin and to trace their migrations into Europe. This hypothesis, and the act of bridging the disciplines, has had a significant impact on Indo-European studies.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Gimbutas earned a reputation as a world-class specialist on the Indo-European Bronze Age, as well as on Lithuanian folk art and the prehistory of the Balts and Slavs, partly summed up in her definitive opus, Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe (1965). In her work she reinterpreted European prehistory in light of her backgrounds in linguistics, ethnology, and the history of religions, and challenged many traditional assumptions about the beginnings of European civilization.

As a Professor of European Archaeology and Indo-European Studies at UCLA from 1963 to 1989, Gimbutas directed major excavations of Neolithic sites in southeastern Europe between 1967 and 1980, including Anzabegovo, near Štip, Republic of Macedonia and Sitagroi and Achilleion in Thessaly (Greece). Digging through layers of earth representing a period of time before contemporary estimates for Neolithic habitation in Europe — where other archaeologists would not have expected further finds — she unearthed a great number of artifacts of daily life and of religious cults, which she researched and documented throughout her career. A statement made by Marija Gimbutas during her successful career states that : After a millennium when the Hun Empire collapsed, a distinct Slavic culture re-emerged and spread rapidly. Gimbutas wrote: "Neither Bulgars nor Avars colonized the Balkan Peninsula, after storming Thrace, Illyria and Greece they went back to their territory north of the Danube. It was the Slavs who did the colonizing.[12]

Late archaeology[edit]

Marija Gimbutas by Kerbstone 52, at the back of Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland, in September 1989.

Gimbutas gained fame — and notoriety — with her last three books: The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974); The Language of the Goddess (1989), which inspired an exhibition in Wiesbaden, 1993/94; and her final book, The Civilization of the Goddess (1991), which based on her documented archeological findings presented an overview of her conclusions about Neolithic cultures across Europe: housing patterns, social structure, art, religion, and the nature of literacy.

The Civilization of the Goddess articulated what Gimbutas saw as the differences between the Old European system, which she considered goddess- and woman-centered (gynocentric), and the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal ("androcratic") culture which supplanted it. According to her interpretations, gynocentric (or matristic) societies were peaceful, they honored women, and they espoused economic equality.

The "androcratic", or male-dominated, Kurgan peoples, on the other hand, invaded Europe and imposed upon its natives the hierarchical rule of male warriors.

Gimbutas' work, along with that of her colleague, mythologist Joseph Campbell, is housed at the Joseph Campbell and Marija Gimbutas Library on the campus of Pacifica Graduate Institute OPUS Archives and Research Center, in Carpinteria, California. The library includes Gimbutas' extensive collection on the topics of archaeology, mythology, folklore, art and linguistics. The Gimbutas Archives house over 12,000 images personally taken by Gimbutas of sacred figures, as well as research files on Neolithic cultures of Old Europe.[13]


In 1993, Marija Gimbutas received an honorary doctorate at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. On 2 February 1994, Gimbutas died in Los Angeles, aged 73. Soon afterwards she was interred in Kaunas' Petrašiūnai Cemetery.


Gimbutas's theories have been extended and embraced by a number of neopagan authors. Gimbutas did identify the diverse and complex Paleolithic and Neolithic female representations she recognized as depicting a single universal Great Goddess, but also as manifesting a range of female deities: snake goddess, bee goddess, bird goddess, mountain goddess, Mistress of the Animals, etc., which were not necessarily ubiquitous throughout Europe.

In a tape entitled "The Age of the Great Goddess," Gimbutas discusses the various manifestations of the Goddess which occur, and stresses the ultimate unity behind them: all of the Earth as feminine.

In 2004, filmmaker Donna Read and neopagan author and activist Starhawk released a collaborative documentary film about the life and work of Gimbutas, Signs Out of Time.


Marija Gimbutienė commemorative plaque in Kaunas, Mickevičius Street

Joseph Campbell and Ashley Montagu[14][15] each compared the importance of Marija Gimbutas' output to the historical importance of the Rosetta Stone in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. Campbell provided a foreword to a new edition of Gimbutas' The Language of the Goddess (1989) before he died, and often said how profoundly he regretted that her research on the Neolithic cultures of Europe had not been available when he was writing The Masks of God.


Anthropologist Bernard Wailes (1934–2012) of the University of Pennsylvania commented to The New York Times that most of Gimbutas's peers[16] believe her to be "immensely knowledgeable but not very good in critical analysis. ...She amasses all the data and then leaps from it to conclusions without any intervening argument." He said that most archaeologists consider her to be an eccentric.[15]

David Anthony has disputed Gimbutas's assertion that there was a widespread peaceful society prior to the Kurgan incursion, noting that Europe had hillforts and weapons, and presumably warfare, long before the Kurgan.[15] A standard textbook of European prehistory corroborates this point, stating that warfare existed in neolithic Europe, and that adult males were given preferential treatment in burial rites.[17]

Two early critics of the "Goddess" theory were Andrew Fleming and Peter Ucko. Ucko, in his 1968 monograph Anthropomorphic figurines of predynastic Egypt warned against unwarranted inferences about the meanings of statues. Ucko, for example, notes that early Egyptian figurines of women holding their breasts had been taken as "obviously" significant of maternity or fertility, but the Pyramid Texts revealed that in Egypt this was the female sign of grief.[18] Fleming, in his 1969 paper "The Myth of the Mother Goddess", questioned the practice of identifying neolithic figures as female when they weren't clearly distinguished as male, and took issue with other aspects of the "Goddess" interpretation of Neolithic stone carvings and burial practices.[19]

The 2009 book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism by Cathy Gere examines the political influence on archaeology more generally. Through the example of Knossos on the island of Crete, which had been misrepresented as the paradigm of a pacifist, matriarchal and sexually free society, Gere claims that archaeology can easily slip into reflecting what people want to see, rather than teaching people about an unfamiliar past.[20]


  • Gimbutas, Marija (1946). Die Bestattung in Litauen in der vorgeschichtlichen Zeit. Tübingen: In Kommission bei J.C.B. Mohr.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1958). Ancient symbolism in Lithuanian folk art. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, Memoirs of the American Folklore Society 49.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1961). "Notes on the chronology and expansion of the Pit-grave culture", in J. Bohm & S. J. De Laet (eds), L’Europe à la fin de 1’Age de la pierre: 193-200. Prague: Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1963). The Balts. London : Thames and Hudson, Ancient peoples and places 33.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1965). Bronze Age cultures in Central and Eastern Europe. The Hague/London: Mouton.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1971). The Slavs. London : Thames and Hudson, Ancient peoples and places 74.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1974). The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe
  • Gimbutas, Marija (ed.) (1976). Neolithic Macedonia as reflected by excavation at Anza, southeast Yugoslavia. Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Monumenta archaeologica 1.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1977). "The first wave of Eurasian steppe pastoralists into Copper Age Europe", Journal of Indo-European Studies 5: 277-338.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1980). "The Kurgan wave #2 (c.3400-3200 BC) into Europe and the following transformation of culture", '’Journal of Indo-European Studies 8: 273-315.
  • Gimbutienė, Marija (1985). Baltai priešistoriniais laikais : etnogenezė, materialinė kultūra ir mitologija. Vilnius: Mokslas.
  • Renfrew, Colin, Marija Gimbutas and Ernestine S. Elster (1986). Excavations at Sitagroi, a prehistoric village in northeast Greece. Vol. 1. Los Angeles : Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Monumenta archaeologica 13.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1989). The Language of the Goddess.
  • Gimbutas, Marija, Shan Winn and Daniel Shimabuku (1989). "Achilleion: a Neolithic settlement in Thessaly, Greece, 6400-5600 B.C." Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles. Monumenta archaeologica 14.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1991). The Civilization of the Goddess
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1992). Die Ethnogenese der europäischen Indogermanen. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft, Vorträge und kleinere Schriften 54.
  • Dexter, Miriam Robbins and Karlene Jones-Bley (eds) (1997). The Kurgan culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe. Selected articles from 1952 to 1993 by M. Gimbutas. Journal of Indo-European Studies monograph 18, Washington DC: Institute for the Study of Man.
  • Gimbutas, Marija, edited and supplemented by Miriam Robbins Dexter (1999) The Living Goddesses. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Dexter, Miriam Robbins and Edgar C. Polomé, eds. (1997). "Varia on the Indo-European Past: Papers in Memory of Gimbutas, Marija." Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph #19. Washington, DC: The Institute for the Study of Man.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ C. Spretnak (2011). "Anatomy of a Backlash: Concerning the Work of Marija Gimbutas", The Journal of Archaeomythology, vol. 7.
  2. ^ a b c d e Ware & Braukman 2004, p. 234.
  3. ^ Marler 1998, p. 114.
  4. ^ a b Marler 1998, p. 115.
  5. ^ Marler 1998, p. 116.
  6. ^ Marler 1997, p. 9.
  7. ^ Ware & Braukman 2004, pp. 234–235.
  8. ^ a b c Ware & Braukman 2004, p. 235.
  9. ^ Marler 1998, p. 118.
  10. ^ Chapman 1998, p. 300.
  11. ^ Marler 1998, p. 119.
  12. ^ History And Archaeology Through Laboratory Examinations, Tome Egumenoski & Aleksandar Donski, 2012 pp.8.
  13. ^
  14. ^ "According to anthropologist Ashley Montagu, "Marija Gimbutas has given us a veritable Rosetta Stone of the greatest heuristic value for future work in the hermeneutics of archaeology and anthropology." [1]
  15. ^ a b c Peter Steinfels (1990) Idyllic Theory Of Goddesses Creates Storm. NY Times, February 13, 1990
  16. ^ The New York Times book of science literacy: what everyone needs to know from Newton to the knuckleball, page - 85, Richard Flaste, 1992
  17. ^ S. Milisauskas, European prehistory (Springer, 2002), p.82, 386, etc. See also Colin Renfrew, ed., The Megalithic Monuments of Western Europe: the latest evidence (London : Thames and Hudson, 1983).
  18. ^ P. Ucko, Anthropomorphic figurines of predynastic Egypt and neolithic Crete with comparative material from the prehistoric Near East and mainland Greece (London, A. Szmidla, 1968). See also Charlotte Allen, "The Scholars and the Goddess: Historically speaking, the 'ancient' rituals of the Goddess movement are almost certainly bunk", The Atlantic Monthly, January 1, 2001.
  19. ^ A. Fleming (1969), "The Myth of the Mother Goddess", World Archaeology 1(2), 247-261.
  20. ^ Cathy Gere (2009), Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, University of Chicago Press, pp. 4 - 16ff.