The Vaccaei were probably largely of Celtic descent and probably related to the Celtiberians. Their name may be derived from the Celtic word vacos, meaning a slayer, since they were celebrated fighters although some scholars reasoned that the name ‘Vaccaei’ may actually derive from ‘Aued-Ceia’, a contraction of Ceia, the presumed ancient name of the modern river Cea prefixed by the Indo-European root *aued- (water).
They often acted in consort with their neighbours, the Celtiberi, suggesting they may have been part of the Celtiberian peoples. They had a strict egalitarian society practising land reform and communal food distribution. This society was part of an Hispano-Celtic substrate which explains the cultural, socio-economic, linguistic and ideological affinity of the Vaccaei, Celtiberians, Vettones, Lusitani, Cantabri, Astures and Callaeci. The Vaccean civilization was the result of a process of local evolution, importing elements from other cultures, whether by new additions of people or cultural and trading contacts with neighbouring groups. It is also believed that it was from the Vaccei that the warlike Arevaci stemmed from around the late 4th Century BC to conquer the eastern meseta.
Archeology has identified the Vaccei with the 2nd Iron Age ‘Duero Culture’ – which evolved from the previous early Iron Age ‘Soto de Medinilla’ (c. 800-400 BC) cultural complex of the middle Duero basin –, being also affiliated with the Turmodigi. This is confirmed by the statigraphic study of their settlements, where have been found elements of the Vaccean culture on top of the remains of earlier cultures. For example, at Pintia (modern-day Padilla de Duero–Valladolid), there is evidence of continuous human settlement since Eneolithic times to the Iron Age, when the Vaccean period arose. The necropolis at Pintia is currently being excavated by an international field school students’ team every summer under the supervision of the University of Valladolid and the Federico Wattenberg Center of Vaccean Studies.
They were distinguishable by a special social structure of collectivist type which enabled them to exploit successfully the wheat- and grass-growing areas of the western plateau
The Vaccean homeland extended throughout the center of the northern Meseta, along both banks of the Duero River. Their capital was Pallantia (either Palencia or Palenzuella) and Ptolemy lists in their territory some twenty towns or Civitates, including Helmantica/Salmantica (Salamanca), Arbucala (Toro), Pincia or Pintia (Padilla de Duero – Valladolid), Intercantia (Paredes de Nava – Palencia), Cauca (Coca – Segovia), Septimanca (Simancas), Rauda (Roa), Dessobriga (Oserna) and Autraca or Austraca – located at the banks of the river Autra (Odra), seized from the Autrigones in the late 4th century BC – to name but a few. Although its borders are difficult to define and shifted from time to time, it can be said to have occupied all of the province of Valladolid, and parts of León, Palencia, Burgos, Segovia, Salamanca and Zamora. By the time of the arrival of the Romans, the Cea and Esla rivers separated the Vaccaei from the Astures in the northeast, while a line traced between the Esla and the Pisuerga rivers was the border with the Cantabri. To the east, the Pisuerga and Arlanza rivers marked the frontier with the Turmodigi, and a little farther south, the Arevaci were their neighbors and allies. On the south and southeast lay the Vettones in an area that roughly corresponds to the distribution of verracos around the highlands of Ávila and Salamanca and Aliste (Zamora), between them and the Lusitanians. It is likely that there was some contact with the latter to the west of Zamora.
They enter the historical record around the late 3rd century BC, when the historians Polybius and Livy relate – though neither witnessed the event – the capture of the Vaccean cities of Helmantica (Salamanca) and Arbucala (Zamora) by Hannibal in 220 BCE. The Basques came to be called mistakenly Vaccaei and Vacceti by several early medieval chronicles and authors.
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