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The Samara culture was a Neolithic culture of the late 6th and early 5th millennium BC at the Samara bend region of the middle Volga, discovered during archaeological excavations in 1973 near the village of Syezzheye (Съезжее) in Russia. The valley of the Samara river contains sites from subsequent cultures as well, which are descriptively termed "Samara cultures" or "Samara valley cultures". Some of these sites are currently under excavation. "The Samara culture" as a proper name, however, is reserved for the early Eneolithic of the region.
"Eneolithic" has a similar equivocal meaning. The Samara culture is considered the eneolithic culture of the region, along with the subsequent Khvalynsk culture and the still later early Yamna culture. These are termed the early, middle (or developed), and late Eneolithic, respectively, with the substitution of period for culture; e.g., the Samara period. "Eneolithic" as a common name refers to any culture in the eneolithic stage of tool development. It does not refer to a timeframe.
Samara culture sites
In addition to the name site mentioned above, other sites are Varfolomievka (on the Volga, actually part of the North Caspian culture) and Mykol'ske (on the Dnieper). Varfolomievka is as early as 5500 BC.
These three cultures (the Samara, and successors the Khvalynsk and early Yamna) have roughly the same range. Marija Gimbutas was the first to regard it as the Urheimat (homeland) of the Proto-Indo-European language and to hypothesize that the Eneolithic culture of the region was in fact Proto-Indo-European. If this model is true, then the Samara culture becomes overwhelmingly important for Indo-European studies.
Most Indo-europeanists before Gimbutas had hypothesized these stages of development:
- formation in a homeland on the steppes.
- diaspora into Europe, the middle east, and the central Asian subcontinent.
- formation of daughter languages over the now far-flung range.
Gimbutas applied the term kurgan ("mound") to the cultures of the diaspora phase. Developed kurgans do not appear in the Eneolithic culture, but there are signs of their development occurring.
- See also Domestication of the horse.
The Samara period is not as well excavated or as well known as the other two. Gimbutas dated it to 5000 BC. The archaeological findings seem related to those of the Dnieper-Donets culture, with the noteworthy exception of horse burials, the earliest in the Old World. Grave offerings included ornaments depicting horses. The graves also had an overburden of horse remains; it cannot yet be determined decisively if these horses were ridden or not, but they were certainly used as a meat-animal.
The range of the Samara culture is the forest-steppe terrain of the middle Volga, but the North Caspian culture of the lower Volga is early Eneolithic as well. In the context of the Kurgan hypothesis, this range is regarded as a convenient place for speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language to have exchanged some lexical items with Uralic-language-speakers. As a cross-roads between east and west, north and south, it must have received influences and stimulation from many peoples. Moreover, such a location would require a value orientation toward war and defense, which we know the Indo-Europeans had. They were a warrior culture. They invaded cultures that Gimbutas claims were not bellicose in nature, despite non-hunting weapons found in graves.
Pottery consists mainly of egg-shaped beakers with pronounced rims. They were not able to stand on a flat surface, suggesting that some method of supporting or carrying must have been in use, perhaps basketry or slings, for which the rims would have been a useful point of support. The carrier slung the pots over the shoulder or onto an animal. Decoration consists of circumferential motifs: lines, bands, zig-zags or wavy lines, incised, stabbed or impressed with a comb. These patterns are best understood when seen from the top. They appear then to be a solar motif, with the mouth of the pot as the sun. Later developments of this theme show that in fact the sun is being represented. The religion even from the outset worshipped the light.
Graves are shallow pits for single individuals, but two or three individuals might be placed there. Some of the graves are covered with a stone cairn or a low earthen mound, the very first predecessor of the kurgan. The later, fully developed kurgan was a hill on which the deceased chief might ascend to the sky god, but whether these early mounds had that significance is doubtful.
The culture is characterized by the remains of animal sacrifice, which occur over most of the sites. Typically the head and hooves of cattle, sheep and horses are placed in shallow bowls over the human grave, smothered with ochre. Some have seen the beginning of the horse sacrifice in these remains, but this view has not been more definitely substantiated. We know that the Indo-Europeans sacrificed both animals and people, but so did many other cultures.
The graves yield well-made daggers of flint and bone, placed at the arm or head of the deceased, one in the grave of a small boy. Weapons in the graves of children are common later.
Other weapons are bone spearheads and flint arrowheads.
Other grave gifts
Other carved bone figurines and pendants were found in the graves. Most controversial are bone plaques of horses or double oxen heads. They are pierced. There is no indisputable evidence of riding. However, the large numbers of horse bones from later in the Eneolithic resemble a kill site, but the sites are settlement sites.
- J. P. Mallory, "Samara Culture", Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.
- Marija Gimbutas, "The Civilization of the Goddess", HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, ISBN 0-06-250368-5 or ISBN 0-06-250337-5
- The Horse in Mortuary Symbolism...
- Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse
- Widespread Origins of Domestic Horse Lineages
- Factual archaeological description of Samara culture (in Russian)