The origin and the ethnic history of the Slavs



The question concerning the time and place of Slavonic language-cultural community is one of the dilemmas, which has occupied an important place in the historians’, philologists’, archeologists’, ethnologists’ and anthropologists’ works for several centuries. All the researchers agree in the point that the community must have been formed long before the second half of the 1st century, when the first true and grounded facts about the Slavs appeared on the pages of Byzantine chronicles.

The basis of modern ideas about the historical sources of the Slavs was formed by the Czech Slavist L. Niderle at the turn of the 20th century. He thought that their „motherland” stretched over the territories of Eastern Poland, Polissya, Podillya, Volhynia, and the Kyiv region, including the basin of Desna. The researcher made his conclusions on the basis of written data sources, linguistics (reference to the oldest Slavonic hydrology and real landscapes, flora and fauna of the ancient Slavonic area), archeology.[1] Apart from the conception presented by Niderle, which was called the Vistula-Dnieper theory, a dozen of others were proposed, the most wide-spread among them are the Danube, the Vistula-Oder, and the Dnieper-Oder one.

The Danube conception was first formulated briefly by the monk of Kyiv-Pecherska Lavra Nestor – the chronologist active at the beginning of the 12th century. „After a long time the Slavs settled on the Danube, where Hungarian and Bulgarian lands are now. From there these Slavs spread over the whole Earth and got their own names, (from the place) where they settled,” wrote Nestor on the pages of the chronological work known as „The story of the past years”.[2] At the beginning of the 19th century the theory was supported by the prominent Czech and Slovak scientist Safarik – the author of the so-called Carpathian-Danube theory of the Slavic origin[3], which has its followers even among contemporary Russian scientists.[4]

According to the Vistula-Oder conception, which was promoted by Polish scientists – the archeologist U. Kostrzevsky[5] and the linguists T. Lehr-Splavinsky[6] and S. Rospand[7] – the ancient Slavs’ community identified with the representatives of the Lusatian culture at the end of the Bronze epoch, and at the beginning of early Metal Age. This culture dominated the area of a bigger part of the modern Poland, partially spread over the neighboring territories as well: Eastern Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Western Ukraine. The Russian archeologists – I. Rusanova, V. Sedov – who connected the sources of early Slavs’ life style with the monuments of the Vistula-Oder territory of the previous historical epochs[8] had the same opinion.

In the second half of the 20th century Russian archeologists (M. Artamonov, P. Tretyakov, B. Rybakov) and the Polish scientist W. Hensel published a range of works, which represent different variants of the Dnieper-Oder conception, in which the area of ancient Slavs’ motherland extends from the Dnieper to the Oder.[9]

Each of these conceptions has its right to exist, completing each other in some way. Still, the most grounded is the Vistula-Dnieper conception. It seems that with time this theory got more and more support, having significantly expanded its basis due to new linguistic and especially, archeological findings, which are the main source of ethno-genetic information concerning distant historical epochs. The search for the motherland of the Slavs was held with the help of retrospective method, which mostly consists in finding out the sources of the Slavonic culture on the basis of their genetic relations with ancient life style of the early Metal period, Bronze period, and even the Neolithic period.[10] These genetic relations were found out through comparison of ethnographic markers, on the basis of which different archeological cultures are distinguished: the peculiarities of the burial ceremony, the shapes of pottery, the size and planning of the dwellings, the location of settlements and so on. At the same time data from parallel scientific domains were widely used, including anthropology.[11]

Many modern researchers connect the most distant historical sources of the Slavs with the homogenous German-Veneto-Baltico-Slavonic community, whose archeological equivalent a number of rope ceramic cultures of the Bronze period, which lived 32 thousand years B.C. in the vast territories from the Rhine in the west, to the Volga in the east, Jutland in the north, to the Alps and the Carpathians in the south. It was also claimed that within this culture smaller homogenous ethnolinguistic sub-groups formed. These first and foremost included Proto-Germanic tribes of Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia, the Vistula Proto-Veneti; the Proto-Baltic on the vast territories of forests in Middle and Eastern Europe, from the Lower Vistula River and the Baltic Sea to the Volga-Oka area; the Proto-Slavs of Volhynia, Pre-Carpathian region and the Middle Dnieper area.[12] The consolidation of the Proto-Slavonic group lead up to the formation of the Trzciniec community at the end of the second century B.C. It was wide-spread in the upper regions of the Vistula, in Pollisya, Volhynia, and the Middle Dnieper area.[13] Its area corresponds to the hypothetic motherland of the Slavs, described by L. Niderle.

Among the Ukrainian experts dominating was the opinion about pro-Slavonic character of Bilogrudivska and Chornoliska archeological types of culture of Proto-Scythian period (forest-steppe and bordering with them forest regions of the Dnieper right bank, Poddilya, and Eastern Volhynia) and Scythes-farmers of the forest-steppe line of the Middle Dnieper.[14] Polish and some Russian scientists focus their attention on Proto-Slavonic character of the Lusatian culture, and the Przeworsk culture – genetically connected with the former.[15] It is underlined that in Silesia and Little Poland tight contacts of Proto-Slavonic and Celtic tribes took place. The Celtic influences manifest itself in both material and spiritual culture (pottery manufacturing, metallurgy, forging, burial ceremony, and so on) of the Przeworsk culture, which formed in the northern regions of the Vistula-Oder area.[16] Celtic monuments are also known in the territories of contemporary Ukraine: in the Carpathians, the Pre-Carpathian region, and Volhynia.[17]

According to comparative linguists, the oldest – Proto-Slavonic – stage of the Slavic ethnogenesis, came to its end in the 1st century B.C. At that time, the basis of the Slavonic language system finally formed, which reflected the contacts and common influences of neighboring ethnic groups – Germans, Celts, Balts, Iranians and Thracians.[18]

At the verge of new era (A.D.), a new stage of the Slavonic ethnogenetic process began, when the common Slavonic language was first divided into two big groups: the north-western, and the south-eastern. Later on, dialects of separate tribal groups formed.

In the 1st2nd centuries already the first written records about the Slavs appeared, in which they are called „the Veneti”. This name, for the first time, can be encountered in the encyclopedic „Historia naturalis”, written by the Roman historian Pliny the Older (23/2479 A.D.). In one of the chapters he locates the Veneti in the vicinity of the Vistula river, between the Sarmatians, whose language belonged to the Iranian group of the Indo-European family, and the Hirrians, whom scholars count among German tribes. Information about the Veneti is also contained in the work of another Roman author – Tatcitus’ „Germania”, completed in 98 A.D. He reported that he had no knowledge whether the Veneti belonged to the Germans, and noted that „they spread all over the forests and mountains from the Peukini [one of Germanic tribes – S. S.] to the Fens [that is the Finnish – S. S.], and they”. Records about the Veneti are also found in the work of Ptolemy, a Greek geographer and astronomer. In his „Introduction to Geography” (the third quarter of the 2nd century A.D.) he counted the Veneti among the „great nations of Sarmatia”, and located them in the upper Vistula region, along the Venetian Channel.[19]

In the work of Ptolemy the tribe of Stavanoi is also mentioned, which he locates between the western Baltic tribes of the Galindai and Soudinoi, in the area of the Vistula and the Niman and the Alans – one of the Sarmatian tribal groups of the steppe zone in the north of the Black Sea. Many linguists, archeologists, medieval historians tend to identify this name with the ethnonym for „The Slavs”.[20] The opinion that tribal territory of the Stavanoi covered the Middle Dnieper area and the Lower Desna area. The information about them could be brought to Ptolemy by merchants, who had trade relationships with the tribes of the Southern Baltic region and of the South of Eastern Europe.[21]

One more source of information about the Veneti is a Roman road map of the 3rd century A.D., which was given a name „Tabula Peutingeriana” in historical literature. The tribes are placed in two places on this map: on the North of the Carpathians and between the Lower Dniester and the Danube.

It should be taken into consideration, that the term the Veneti could be used in the ancient sources not only with reference to the Slavs, but also to tribes which belonged to other ethnic groups. This is explained by several circumstances: the weak source of information available to Roman and Greek authors about the ethnical status of the territories between the Oder, the Vistula and the Dnieper; the absence of natural borders between the areas of the Germans, the Baltic tribes, and Slavs, who often used to lived as neighbours; the spreading of the ethnonym „the Veneti”, among those ethnical communities, which originated from the single northern-western group of tribes of Indo-Europeans in the Bronze period (for instance, the Veneti were also present among the Celtic tribes of Breton, conquered by the Roman Emperor Cesar during his trip to Gallia in the 50s of the 1st century B.C.). However, the fact that the majority of the Veneti were Slavs, particularly in their northern-western group, is beyond doubt. It is interesting to note that the Germans still call „the Veneti” the Slavs in Lusatia, while the Baltic Finnish call the Veneti the Estonians. Finally the Finns, Carrels, and Veps refer by „the Veneti” to all the Slavs.[22]

In the last centuries of the 1st century B.C. in the area occupied by the Veneti the Przeworsk archeological culture formed. The new types of culture formed at that time and a little later on the territories of Ukraine: the Zarubintsy culture (the end of the 3rd century B.C.–the 1st century A.D.), the representatives of which occupied the Middle Dnieper area and Prypyatske Pollisya; Kyiv (the end of the 2nd–the middle of the 5th century), the monuments of which were located in the lower part of the Dniester, the Danube, the Prut etc. All of them were created with the participation of the Slavs – the Veneti, though they also include non-Slavonic elements.[23]

In the 2nd century eastern German tribes – the Goths, who left monuments of the Wielbark archeological culture on the territories of modern Poland. They moved from the Southern Baltic to the territories in the northern part of the Black Sea. This caused the formation of a new type of the ancient life style, united by a common name – the Chernyahivska culture, the area of which during its prosperity (3rd4th centuries) covered Southern East of Poland, the bigger part of modern Ukrainian and Moldavian lands and the bordering with them regions of Romania, and Russia. The members of the Chernyahivska culture had many common features, but differed from each other in the particulars of their burial ceremonies, house-building and the line ceramics.[24] These differences are explained by a variety of ethnical roots of the Chernyahivska people. Among them were the newcomers from the eastern German tribes, whose visit there left traces in the Danube area and in the lower Dnieper area. The Slavonic tribes, which inhabited the forest-steppe zone of Ukraine; Iranian speaking Scythes and Sarmatians, who prevailed in the north of the Black Sea; tribes of Thracian origins – Getons and Dacians, who inhabited on the area of the Danube and Dniester, where the Sarmatian impact was strong.

On the basis of the Wielbark cultural element present on the Chernyahivska culture’s monuments, it was established that in the upper area of the Southern Bug Goths were divided: one group moved towards the Black Sea and the Azov Sea area, the second one turned south-west. Those who lived west of the Dnieper, were called the Tervingi, or the Visigoths. Those who moved to its left bank were called the Greutungs and the Ostrogoths. At different stages of the development of the Chernyahivska culture the Goths actively interacted with the other German tribes, in particular: the Heruli, the Vandals, the Taifals, the Burgundes, the Peukini or the Boranes.

For some time the Gothes headed big military-political unions, occurring in the Chernyahivska culture, uniting the late Scythes, Sarmatians, Getons and Dacians, and the Slavs. The Goths reached the biggest power during the reign of the Greutung king – Ermanaric (330375 A.D.). In 375 A.D. the Goths’ state was defeated by the Huns. Afterwards the majority of the Greutungs were forced back to the west bank of the Dniester. Soon afterwards, under pressure of the Hun conquest, the Goths’ left the area of the Chernyahivska culture (in Southern, Central, and Western Europe, and even in Northern Africa, where through the Biskaysky channel the fighting tribe of vandals moved), the rest was dissolved among the local people of different tribes, having left no significant impact on its material and spiritual culture. The Goths stayed in Crimea for the longest period of time. The last records were Crimean Goths – the inhabitants of cave cities Mangup-Kale, Eski-Kermen and others – were mentioned in the written sources of the 17th century.

Approximately in the middle of the 1st century A.D. the last stage of the Slavonic ethno-genesis started. It was facilitated by the participation of the Slavs in the Migration Period and their wide inhabitance in the endless areas of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, during which big unions of tribes were formed and more stable political formations, known from sources as „Slaviyas” and the process of early Slavonic nations began.[25]

In this historical period different groups of the Slavs were already known under their own names, or ethnonyms. Byzantine authors of the 4th century A.D. – Prokopiy Kesariysky, Yordan, Menadr Protector, Feofilact Symokkyta, Mavrykiy Strategist – know them under the name the Veneti, the Antes, and the Sclavi, stressing their roots according to language, customs, beliefs. „These tribes, the Slavs and Antes – Prokopiy Kesariysky wrote – are not ruled by one man, but they live according to the laws of people, and that is why happiness and unhappiness are considered to be a common case. In all the rest both of these barbarian tribes have the same life style and customs. They think that only one god, the creator of lightnings is the master above everything and he is given bulls as sacrifices and they perform other sacred ceremonies. […] They respect rivers and mermaids, and other divinities, bring them all sacrifices, and with the help of these sacrifices they perform fortune-telling. […] They have the same language, varvars’ one, and according to their appearance they don’t differ. They are very tall, and extremely strong.”[26] According to Yordan, the Veneti lived on the east to the upper area of the Vistula („starting from the birth place of Vistula on the endless areas the numerous tribe of the Veneti was located”[27]); the Sclavi – „from the city of Novoyientuna and the lake, which is called Marsian, to the Danastra, and to the north – the Viksly”; the Antes – in the area of the Dniester (The Danastra) to the Dnieper, to „that place, where the Pontiyske [the Black sea – S. S.] sea forms the curve”[28]. From this we conclude that, at the beginning of the second half of the 1st century B.C. the Slavs occupied a huge area from the Vistula on the West, the Baltic and Upper Dnieper area on the north to the pool of the Dniester on southern west, the Lower Dnieper and the coast of the Black sea on southern east. The eastern border of the Slavs spreading was not known by Byzantine authors.

Four archeological types of culture are connected with Slavonic tribes of the Veneti, Sclavi, and the Antes, in particular: Prague or Prague-Korchatska, Dzedzitska, or Sukovska-dzedzytska, Penkivska and Kolochynska, which had much in common in the topography of the settlements, dwelling construction, the burying ceremony, ceramics, labor tools, jewelry and so on.[29] This is proved by the words of Yordan, who was writing that: „[…] These Veneti […] come from the same root and today are known under three names: the Veneti, Antes, Sclavi”.[30] Besides this, each archeological culture of the earliest Slavs has own ethnographical features, which refer to the shapes and co-relation of different types of ceramics, clothes and dwelling elements.

In the area of Prague-Korchatska culture (the 6th7th century), which occupied the huge territory from the Elba, Oder and Vistula on the west to the pool of the Danube on the south, Pollisya on the north, Prykarpattya and Volhynia on the west, more than 500 monuments have been researched, most of which are not big (12 hectares) of the open type town. Only insignificant part of them are protected towns (for instance near v. Zymne on the Luga river, the right side of the Western Bug river). The dwellings – square half-underground with cut and girder construction of the walls and compulsory fire-place. The basis of the economy was farming, cattle farming, had craft and forgery (including metal processing manufacturing, forgery and furnace melting) and domestic craft, potter’s craft. The burring ceremony is characterized by burning of corps, the remnants of the dead were buried in small holes at the cemeteries not far from the settlements. Among the researchers-archeologists almost the same opinion dominates that the creators of Prague-Korchatska culture were the Sclavi. The majority of them think that it was formed on the basis of the Przeworsk, Kyiv, the Late Zarubynetska, and the Chernyahivska cultures.[31]

Dzedzitska archeological culture (the 6th7th century) was wide spread on northern territories of the Vistula-Oder pool, and is characterized by a special shape of ceramics, and burring ceremony (the throwing of the cremated remnants on the surface of the ground).[32] On the researcher’s opinion, the monuments of this culture were left by the Veneti, among which the Slavs were present as well as the local slovan-like people – the followers of ancient Indo-Europeans, not differentiated in the language criterion.

The part of the Veneti group in the 5th6th centuries moved to the North of Eastern-European plain, where Baltic and Finnish tribes were living. As a result of inter-ethical interaction, which lasted for several centuries, the local people became Slavonic.[33] Moving into eastern direction, the small group of the Slavs occupied the coast of the Baltic channel, where their remnants under the name „the Veneti” were found at the beginning of the 12th century by Henrich Lithuanian.[34]

The ancient life style of Penkivska archeological culture (the 6th7th centuries) was found on the territories of Romania, the Prut-Dniester area, the Southern Bug area, the Middle Dnieper area, forest-steppe zone of the Dnieper left bank up to the Siversky Donets. The specific features of its material culture was a square shape of dwelling and open fire-place instead of the furnace. In Nadporizhya and Priorel the round-shaped dwellings were also wide-spread, borrowed from the nomads of the Black sea area and the Azov sea area. Among the burying ceremonies were as corps burning as underground burying. On scientists’ opinion, the monuments of Penkivska culture left by Antes, the significant part of which were Slavonic-like followers of Iranian speaking tribes of Southern-Eastern Europe.[35]

The monuments of Kolochynska archeological culture (the second half of the 5th–the second half of the 7th centuries) are known in the Upper Dnieper area, the Desna area and the Semya area. The typical feature of this culture was the presence of central girder for the roof in the square shaped half-underground dwelling, near which there was a fire-place.[36] The basis of the economy was farming. On scientists’ opinion, this historical-cultural formation was created on the basis of Kyiv culture.[37]

At the end of the 5th–at the beginning of the 6th century Slavonic groups, among which a special role was given to the Antes, made first military trips to Byzantium, (493, 499, 502 years).[38] They became regular afterwards. Beginning from the times of the Emperor Yustynian (527656 years), the Antes, the Sclavi and the Huns almost every year made military trips to the Balkans, inhabited by the Illyrians, Thracians and the Dacians. One of the results of these military excursions was massive migration of Slavonic farming people here, which changed the ethnical situation in the region: local and new-come Turkish-speaking people were almost Slavonic-like. The basic centers of the Slavonic migration was the Danube area, the Carpathians, and the Black sea area. The people from distant northern lands and the Middle Dnieper area also participated in this movement: on the general map of Slavonic people’s movement the names of tribes appear, which double each other (for example the Lusatia Serbians, the Balkan Serbians, the Severians on the Desna, and the Severians behind the Danube, the Baltic Obodrites and the Danube Obodrites, etc.). It is obvious that a part of the tribe left on the old place, and the other one participated in the colonization of the Balkans.[39]

From 578581 years the Slavs penetrated in Greece, and in the 7th century – in the islands of the Egan and the Mediterranean seas and even in some regions of Asia Minor. However, here they were assimilated by the local population.

The participation of western and eastern Slavonic tribes in the colonization of Balkan peninsula facilitated the split of the Stone age and the deepening of property and social unequality in their environment. This strengthened the role of tribal authority in social life and prepared the ground for the state formation. The migration of the Veneti, Antes, and the Sclavi in Central, Eastern, and Sothern Europe caused the mixing of the Slavs with the local population, which was accompanied with changes in material culture, customs, ceremonies, and even the anthropological features of the Slavs on these regions.[40] The conditions are formed for deepening the differences between dialects of ancient Slavonic language and for formation of separate languages.[41] The new stage of Slavonic history begins.

[1] Л. Нидерле, Славянские древности, Москва 1956, p. 33.

[2] Літопис Руський, за Іпатієвським списком, Л. Махновець translated, Київ 1989, p. 2.

[3] P. Šafárik, Slovanské starožitnosti, P. 1, 2, Praga 1837.

[4] О. Н. Трубачев, Этногенез и культура древнейших славян. Лингвистические исследования, Москва 2003.

[5] J. Kostrzewski, Pradzieje Polski, Poznań 1949.

[6] T. Lehr-Spławinski, O pochodzeniu i praojczyźnie Słowian, Poznań 1949; The same: Rozmieszczenie geograficzne prasłowiańskich nazw wodnych, „Rocznik slawistyczny”, XXI, 1960, p. 522.

[7] S. Rospand, Prasłowianie w świetle onomastyki, [In:] I Międzynarodowy Kongres archeologii słowiańskiej, Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków 1968, P. 1, p. 109170.

[8] И. П. Русанова, Славянские древности в VIVIІ вв., Москва 1976; В. В. Седов, Происхождение и ранняя история славян, Москва 1979.

[9] М. И. Артамонов Происхождение славян, [In:] Сценография публичной лекции, прочитанной в Ленинграде в 1950 г., Ленинград 1950; П. Н. Третьяков Восточнославянские племена, Москва 1953; П. Н. Третьяков, Финно-угры, балты и славяне на Днепре и Волге, Москва–Ленинград 1966; Б. А. Рыбаков, Древняя Русь и Русские княжества в ХI–ХIII ст., Москва 1982, c. 1146; W. Hensel, Skąd przyszli Słowianie, Wrocław 1984.

[10] Д. Я. Телегін, Про роль носіїв неолітичних культур дніпро-двинського регіону в етногенетичних процесах балтів і слов’ян, „Археологія”, № 2, 1996, p. 3245.

[11] S. Segeda, Najstarsze słowiańskie materiały antropologiczne. Wstęp do problematyki, [In:] Przez pradzieje i wczesne średniowiecze, Lublin 2004, p. 279, 288.

[12] Ю. В. Павленко, Передісторія давніх русів у світовому контексті, Київ 1994, p. 316.

[13] More detailed about this archeological culture see: Первобытная археология, [In:] Археология Украинской ССР, P. 1, Киев 1985, p. 428445.

[14] Етнічна історія давньої України, Київ 2000, c. 8496.

[15] И. П. Русанова, Славянские древности в VIVIІ вв…; В. В. Седов, Происхождение и ранняя история

[16] The same source.

[17] See: Г. Козакевич, Кельти: традиційна культура та соціальні інститути, Київ 2006, p. 2831.

[18] Ф. П. Филин, О происхождении праславянского языка и восточнославянских языков, „Вопросы языкознания”, № 4, 1980.

[19] More detailed about this see: Свод древнейших письменных известий о славянах, Москва 1991, p. 2425, 39, 5156.

[20] В. Д. Баран, Етнокультурні процеси на території України у першій половині І тис. н. е., [In:] Етнічна та етнокультурна історія України, Київ 2005, p. 195.

[21] H. Łowmiański, Początki Polski, P. 1–3, Warszawa 1964, p. 1844.

[22] More detailed about this see: В. В. Седов, Этногенез ранних славян, „Вестник Российской Академии наук”, P. 73, 2003,7, p. 594605.

[23] В. Д. Баран, Етнокультурні процеси на території України, p. 197.

[24] В. Д. Баран, Черняхівська культура: за матеріалами Верхнього Дністра і Західного Бугу, Київ 1981.

[25] М. О. Чмихов, Н. М. Кравченко, І. Т. Черняхов, Археологія та стародавня історія України, Київ 1992, p. 303304.

[26] Extract: Прокопій Кесарійський, Готська війна, [In:] В. В. Крисаченко Хрестоматія-посібник (in 2 books), The 1st book, Київ 1996, p. 103104.

[27] Иордан, О происхождении и деяниях готов, Москва 1960, p. 7172.

[28] The same source, p. 90.

[29] Етнічна історія давньої України…, p. 99.

[30] Иордан, О происхождении и деяниях готов, p. 90.

[31] М. О. Чмихав, Н. М. Кравченко, І. Т. Черняхов, Археологія та стародавня історія України, Київ 1992, p. 314.

[32] В. В. Седов, Восточные славяне в VIVIII вв., p. 10.

[33] В. В. Седов, Славяне. Историко-археологическое исследование, Москва 2002.

[34] В. В. Седов, Этногенез ранних славян, „Вестник Российской Академии наук”, P. 73,7, 2003.

[35] В. В. Седов, Анты, [In:] Проблемы советской археологии, Москва 1979, p. 164173; О. М. Приходнюк, К вопросу о присуствии антов в Карпато-Дунайских землях, [In:] Славяне на Днестре и Дунае, Киев 1983, p. 180191.

[36] Етнічна історія давньої України, p. 178.

[37] М. О. Чмихав, Н. М. Кравченко, І. Т. Черняхов, Археологія та стародавня історія, p. 322.

[38] История Византии (in 3 parts), P. 1, Москва 1967, p. 216.

[39] Б. А. Рыбаков, Киевская Русь и русские княжества, Москва 1982, p. 54.

[40] С. Сегеда, Деякі питання походження та етнічної історії населення Русі-України за даними антропології, [In:] Ruthenica, P. 1, Київ 2002, p. 94.

[41] Ф. П. Филин, О происхождении праславянского языка.