The Battle-Axe Culture

Who were the Indo-Europeans? Studies shed light on one of archeology’s greatest mysteries.


The battle-axe head is about six inches long, hewn from dense fine-grained dark-gray igneous rock. It was made in Denmark, some 2000 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. 

I’m at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, along with Noel Broadbent, Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Outside an icy rain is pouring, but here inside it’s warm and dry. Dr. Broadbent is in his seventies, soft-spoken, with thinning gray hair and a closely-trimmed white beard. He explains to me that this particular type of stone was selected to make the axe head for good reasons: the fine grain made it easy to grind and polish with precision, while the density gave it added heft. 

Attached to the end of a wooden pole, the center of mass would have been located very close to the head, creating enormous leverage. Swung in a mighty arc overhead, this would have delivered a tremendous amount of force to the tiny area constituting the cutting edge, enabling the user to split the skull of an opponent with aplomb.

The battle-axe has other advantages. It can be used to hook around an opponent’s ankle or neck, knocking him down or forcing him to move in a direction he doesn’t want to go. It can also be used to hook around an opponent’s weapon or shield, depriving him of his means of offense or defense. 

A couple of weeks prior to my visit to the Center, I spoke by telephone with John Clements, the Director of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, who explained that  compared to other types of weapons such as swords or spears, the battle-axe does not require a lot of finesse. “Its advantage is in that initial clash, that powerful blow,” he told me. “Generally, a stronger, larger guy is going to prefer that weapon as opposed to a spear. If you’re on a chariot or riding on a horse, where you’re flying past someone on the ground, you get that chop, that slice. That’s where the axe comes into play.”

Dr. Broadbent opens another drawer and shows me a flint dagger, also about six inches in length, also from Denmark, and made about the same time as the battle-axe head. The battle-axe head and the dagger both were crafted by artisans working to copy weapons cast from bronze, which at the time was still a rare and esoteric technology. The dagger even has fake mold marks carved into it. These weapons, mementos of some titanic struggle in the mists of prehistory, may provide us with a clue to solving one of archaeology’s greatest mysteries. 



 Stone battle-axe head, Denmark, c. 2000 BC. Photo image Patrick Hahn



 Stone dagger, Denmark, c. 2000 BC. Photo image Patrick Hahn




Sir William Jones was an eighteenth-century jurist, linguist, and hyperpolyglot. While serving as a judge for the British East India Company in the eighteenth century, he took up the study of the ancient Hindu texts, and in 1784 he founded the Asiatick Society. In his 1786 address to the Society he noted:

“The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”

Later scholars came to realize that this common source language gave rise to most of the major living languages spoken throughout a wide area stretching from the Indian subcontinent all the way through the British Isles. In 1813, Thomas Young, the English medical doctor who is best remembered for having demonstrated the wave nature of light, coined the term “Indo-European” for this family of languages. Today, nearly half of the world’s population are native speakers of an Indo-European language. 

Linguists believe they have reconstructed the last common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. The reconstructed language contains terms for family members, body parts, numbers, heavenly bodies, the seasons of the year, wild and domestic animals, crockery, and agricultural products, including beer and pot – helud, from which we get the word “ale,” and kannabis – indicating that the enjoyment of these commodities goes back a long way. 

PIE gave rise to two branches: Anatolian IE, which in turn led to Hittite and some related languages, all long gone; and Post-Anatolian IE. The latter split into the Tocharian languages, again all now extinct; and what is called Late IE, which gave rise to all living Indo-European languages, including Baltic, Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, and Italic tongues. 

Who were the Indo-Europeans? This question is one of the greatest mysteries in archaeology. Now, evidence obtained from DNA studies is combining with linguistic and archaeological evidence to shed new light on this question.



 Indo-European languages in Europe. Note that the borders are not country borders. lolaafi, Wikimedia Commons



Distribution of Indo-European languages across the world.  Industrius, deriv: Radosław Botev Wikimedia Commons 




Scientists have identified three major population shifts that occurred in prehistoric Europe. The first one took place over 40,000 years ago, when the first anatomically modern humans entered Europe from Africa and moved westward, gradually though arguably eliminating the Neanderthals over the next twenty thousand years. (A small amount of Neanderthal DNA still remains in the genome of modern Europeans, indicating that these archaic hominins did not die out completely without issue.)

The next population shift took place within the last eight thousand years, after the invention of agriculture in southeast Anatolia. People learned to cultivate wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and broad beans, and to raise cattle, sheep, and pigs. This package of innovations, along with some of its practitioners, spread from Anatolia throughout much of Europe. 

The domestic cattle brought to Europe mated with the native wild cattle, the giant aurochs, possibly bestowing the offspring of these unions with resistance to local pathogens. The remains of the domestic cattle of these early European farmers contains Y-chromosome DNA from the aurochs, but no mitochondrial DNA, indicating that the gene flow between the two populations was effected by wild bulls mating with domestic cows, never the reverse. 

Over the millennia, these early European farmers created a graceful and elegant civilization, with burnished clay vessels fired by masters of pyrotechnology and painted in a variety of colors; exquisite figurines; sturdily built timber-frame multi-room houses, some of them two stories high; temples dedicated to the worship of a fertility goddess; and abstract linear symbols some have interpreted as writing, although no one has been able to decipher their meaning. Later, they began using copper to make jewelry as well as tools and a variety of household implements – awls, needles, fishhooks, and wedges. They also crafted figurines and jewelry from gold. 

Until twentieth-century archaeological excavations revealed its existence, this civilization of Old Europe had been utterly forgotten – truly a lost civilization. 

Meanwhile, to the east of Old Europe lay the Pontic Steppes north of the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine and Russia, at the time still thinly populated by bands of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. We may imagine that they spoke a variety of languages, perhaps related to each other, perhaps not. Sometime in the sixth millennium BC, these hunter-gatherers acquired herds of sheep and cattle from their civilized neighbors to the west, and became pastoral herders.

Probably sometime in the fifth millennium BC, men learned that by alloying copper with other elements, such as arsenic or tin, they could create a new type of metal, which we call bronze. The oldest arsenical bronzes yet found are from the Caucasus Mountains, just south of the Pontic Steppes. This new technology spread rapidly. Stronger and more durable than mere copper, the new metal could be fashioned into defensive armor as well as a variety of lethal offensive weapons – halberds, daggers, battle-axes.

The new metal also could be used to make better tools, which in turn enabled the development of more precise woodworking techniques, which in turn enabled the manufacture of the world’s first wheeled vehicles. The oldest evidence of such vehicles, in the form of wheeled animal-shaped cups and model houses, appears in the archaeological record in the late fifth millennium BC—in the Pontic Steppes.

It was about that same time, or perhaps even earlier, that some of those steppe people, who had been following herds of wild horses for millennia, tamed some of those beasts and began riding them, as evidenced by the first cheek pieces and bridle bits that appear in the archaeological record at this time, along with sculptures of horses wearing bridles, and bit-wear marks on the teeth of the horses themselves. The first traces of horse milk fats in pottery sherds are also found around this time. 

Ritual sacrifice of horses and interment of the heads and hooves in human graves was practiced ever farther back than that. Domestic sheep and cattle were also sacrificed and interred in the same manner, although their wild relatives almost never were, providing circumstantial evidence for the domestication of horses as far back as the sixth millennium BC. This practice continued into historic times – Herodotus, dubbed by Cicero “The Father of History,” noted that the Scythians would sacrifice as many as 50 horses and riders to be interred in the graves of their kings. 

Geneticists have found the Y-chromosome DNA of modern-day horses to be remarkably uniform, indicating that perhaps only a single stallion contributed his Y-chromosome to the domestic horse gene pool, while there is tremendous diversity in their mitochondrial DNA. This indicates that while early horse breeders felt free to incorporate wild mares into their herds, they were loathe to do the same for wild stallions – the exact opposite of the pattern seen with cattle. 

We don’t know much about these early steppe horsemen themselves, although archeologist Marija Gimbutas of UCLA called them the Kurgan culture, owing to their habit of interring their chieftains in giant earthen tumuli (the word kurgan comes from a Turkish word meaning “burial mound”). Contemporary archaeologists prefer the term Yamnaya culture, after the Russian word for “pit grave.”

We may imagine the domestication of the horse was the final ingredient in a package of innovations that enabled the creation of something the world had never seen before: highly mobile, mounted warriors on horseback, shielded in bronze armor and wielding terrifying new weapons of bronze, with logistical support provided by wheeled wagons. 

We may imagine these ancient road warriors came storming westward, and the old order fell before their onslaught. In some sites, houses were burned down, and the skeletons found inside seem to tell a tale of a massacre. A seismic shift in culture followed. The fertility goddesses were replaced by the new sky gods, the exquisite burnished pottery was replaced by crude pitted clay vessels, the meanings of the ancient inscriptions were forgotten, and the old temples fell into disrepair or were knocked down, to be replaced by Europe’s first military fortifications. 

Polished stone mace heads, often in the shape of horse heads, appear in the archaeological record for the first time. Unlike an axe, which can be used to chop wood, a mace does not really have any function other than cracking heads. At this same time, the number of projectile points increases sharply, but the abundance of wild animal bones does not, indicating that these points were being used for warfare, not hunting.

The new rulers advertised their potency by erecting stone stelae engraved with images of battle-axes, spears, arrowheads, and daggers, and were interred in increasingly elaborate pit-graves alongside offering of weapons, along with drinking cups and jewelry. These alpha males usually are found lying alongside the bodies of several other men, women, children, who may have been slaves or wives or children of the departed ruler, sacrificed in order to accompany their patron into the afterlife. (The frequency of such multiple interments rules out the possibility that these deaths were co-incidental). 

The result was a hybrid civilization, created by the fusion of Yamnaya culture with the civilization of Old Europe. Was this effected through population replacement or by the indigenous people adopting the ways of the invaders? No doubt it was some of both. The resulting hybrid culture is known by a variety of names. In northern Europe, this culture sometimes is referred to as the Battle Axe Culture, although it is more often known by the more prosaic term Corded Ware Culture, owing to their practice of manufacturing textured pottery vessels by wrapping rope around the wet clay. 


Which of these population shifts was correlated with the ascendency of the Indo-European languages? The first one – the entry into Europe by the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic Era – is definitely out, as demonstrated by the presence in PIE of words for pottery, domestic animals, and crops, indicating that the Indo-European languages must have arisen sometime after the development of settled life. That leaves us with two possibilities – that the Indo-European languages were brought to Europe from Anatolia along with the development of agriculture (the Anatolian hypothesis) or from the Pontic steppes after the beginning of the Bronze Age by nomadic pastoralists (the Steppe Hypothesis). Linguistic evidence clearly supports the latter view. 

Late IE contains roots for a number of words associated with wheeled transport, indicating that Late IE still was a single language at the time when such vehicles were invented. These words include terms for thill, wheel, axle, and wagon. Of these, only the word for thill is found in Anatolian IE. A thill is a pole that can be used to attach draft animals to a plough as well as to a cart. This suggests that Anatolian IE and Late IE split from each other after the invention of the plough but before the invention of wheeled carts. 

In fact, Late IE has two words for wheel – keklos, from which we get the word “axle,” and rota, from which we get the word “rotate.” Keklos is derived from Indo-European roots meaning “the thing that turns.” The fact that the Indo-Europeans made up their own word for “wheel” suggests that they themselves were the inventors of the wheel – had they obtained the wheel from some other culture, we might expect them to have borrowed the word for wheel from them as well.

The development of a highly mobile mounted warrior caste on these Eurasian steppes divided humanity into the rulers and the ruled, and Late IE reflects this new reality. Words for “king,” “client,” “wealth,” “service” “glory,” “victory,” and “booty” all can be found in Late IE. 

Late IE also contains a number of words we would expect to find in the language of mounted steppe pastoralists, including terms for horses, cows, sheep, pastures, wool, and dairy products.

Other words for things that were invented only after the migration of the Yamnaya peoples into Europe, such as spoke, iron, tin, and glass, have no roots in Late IE; they are given different names in the different descendants of that language. 

By contrast, PIE contains few words borrowed from other known non-Indo-European languages native to Anatolia, such as Hattic and Hurrian. There also are no words for such staple commodities as figs or olives, as might be expected if the Indo-Europeans languages were introduced to Europe along with the spread of agriculture from the Anatolia. 

More evidence for the idea that PIE comes from the Pontic steppes comes when we look at loan words the Indo-Europeans borrowed from or gave to other language families. The boreal forests north of the Pontic steppes were the home to the speakers of Proto-Uralic, which gave rise to Finn, Sami, Magyar, and related languages. From this family of languages the Indo-Europeans acquired words for “sell,” “price,” “wash,” and “to draw” or “to lead.” The mountainous regions to the south of the Pontic steppes were the home of Proto-Kartvelian, which gave rise to Georgian and related languages. Proto-Kartvelian contains a number of loanwords from PIE, including words for “warm” and “breast” or “heart.” All this places the home of PIE squarely between the Caucasus Mountains and the woodlands north and west of the Urals.

Comparative mythology also helps cement the case for the steppe origins of the Indo-European languages. Ancient myths in a variety of Indo-European languages, including Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Greek, and Vedic, tell of roving gangs of violent, thieving, promiscuous young men operating on the margins of society, wearing skins to make themselves look like wild animals, and adopting monikers containing the words for “dog” or “wolf.” They would remain in these gangs for several years before returning to larger society to take their places as respectable men. 

Herodotus tells of a people living on the Pontic steppes, called the Neuroi, who once a year turned themselves into werewolves for a few days. Herodotus himself was skeptical of this story, but archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College has uncovered evidence of massive mid-Winter sacrifices at the ancient settlement of Krasnosamarskoe, located in that same region, sometime between 1900 and 1700 BC. Dozens of dogs and wolves were deliberately butchered and eaten in what may have been an initiation rite into manhood, the echoes of which may have found their way into the writings of Herodotus. Professor Anthony suggests that the spread of Yamnaya culture may have been facilitated by a kind of protection racket, in which the Yamnaya warriors would offer settled communities protection from gang activity, in exchange for their vassalage. 



 Map showing the homeland of the Indo-European language family according to the steppe hypothesis (dark green), within the approximate present-day distribution of Indo-European languages in Eurasia (light green). Dotted/striped areas indicate where multilingualism with Non-Indo-European languages is common.  Joe Roe, Wikimedia Commons



 Indo-European hypothetical homeland > Yamna culture. Wikimedia Commons 



 Indo-European hypothetical expansian from the Pontic steppes. Wikimedia Commons 




New DNA evidence appears to clinch the case for the steppe origin of the Indo-Europeans. The first anatomically modern human left Africa no later than 48,000 years ago. By 40,000 years ago the western European hunter-gatherers had differentiated from all other non-African humans. 

Around 8,000 years ago, there was a massive influx of genetic material from the Near East into Europe, along with the introduction of farming. The European hunter-gatherers appear to have retreated to the western fringes of the continent, but over the centuries they resurged and migrated eastward, mixing their DNA with that of the Near Eastern migrants. 

At the start of the Bronze Age, there is another massive influx of genetic material, this time from the Pontic Steppes, the epicenter of Yamnaya culture. This included a massive influx of Y-chromosomes, with as many as 14 male migrants for every female, suggesting the subjugation of the peoples of Old Europe by a group of male warriors. At this point the genetic composition of the European people became more or less what it was at the beginning of the modern era. 

Bastien Llamas is a Senior Research Associate for the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide and one of the authors of a recent paper appearing in Nature titled “Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe.” In a telephone interview Dr. Llamas stated “For a long long time Europe was thought to be colonized by two populations. One arrived in Europe more than 35,000 years ago, and those people were sharing the landscape with Neanderthals, actually. 

“Later on a new kind of people started to develop agriculture in the Near East. That’s what we call the early farmers, and so ten thousand years ago there was this migration wave of people with very advanced technology sweeping through Europe. 

“So that’s what people thought was the picture up until three or four years ago. And then with the results that we now have, that picture has to change.”

Indeed. The archaeological, linguistic, and mythological evidence, along with the new data showing a massive influx about four thousand years ago of genetic material from the Pontic Steppes, along with a disproportionately large influx of Y-chromosomes, combine to make an overwhelming case that the Indo-European languages were brought to Europe by highly mobile pastoral warriors from the Eurasian steppes some four thousand years ago. 

Did this conquest take the form of a single, unstoppable wave? Certainly not. This was a process effected in a piecemeal fashion, over the course of millennia, as shown by the fact that a few pre-Indo-European languages survived into historic times. Our friend Herodotus noted that the original inhabitants of Greece were not the Greeks but rather a people called the Pelasgians, pockets of whom still survived into his day. Other pre-Indo-European languages include Basque, Sami, Etruscan, and Minoan. Of these, only Basque and Sami still are living languages. Other non-Indo-European languages, such as Finn, Magyar, and Turkish, arrived within recorded history.  



 Indo-European Migrations. Source David Anthony (2007), The Horse, The Wheel and Language.  Joshua Jonathan, Wikimedia Commons




After we finish viewing the artifacts, Dr. Broadbent and I retire to the lunchroom. Over tacos he explains to me that the Indo-European migrations were fueled by climate change. 

During the Sub Boreal Period (Middle Neolithic) the Eurasian Steppes were turning into semi-deserts,  and the Indo-Europeans, in search of greener pastures, dispersed in every direction– north, south, east, and west. 

Afterwards we exit the Museum Support Center to wait for the shuttle bus that will return us to the Smithsonian. The rain has stopped, but outside it’s still cold and damp. Dr. Broadbent notes that, like the Indo-European invasion, the current migration crisis in Europe is fueled by climate change as well. 

“Why don’t we learn from history?” he wonders aloud. “Why don’t we see the larger picture? Because when we look at the past, it’s all been done before.”


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