Pits and traces of houses are more common in Polish sites after 2600–2400 BC (although absent in Lesser Poland), and there is a clear correlation with light sandy soils, on sites usually spread on slightly exposed elevations within low relief, most often of river valleys and lake shores. In certain areas of the Northern European Lowland (such as Mecklenburg, Masuria, the Polish Lowlands, or the Baltic coast area) there is a trend to more spacious sites, a higher number of sunken features, and richer assemblages of movable items, as well as to multi-stage occupation of certain settlement sites on attractive land areas (Włodarczak 2017).
Around the mid–3rd millennium BC, the number of mounds built decreased, and the number of burials dug into existing mounds increased, at the same time as flat cemeteries emerged. Radiocarbon analyses indicate that the expansion of kurgans probably peaked ca. 2600/2500 BC, weakening afterwards, and disappearing completely after ca. 2400/2300 BC, probably representing the diminishing importance of ceremonial–funeral centres as regional landmarks organising the territory of a given group (Włodarczak 2017). Kurgans appearing later, in the Únětice or Strzyżów groups, represent a new, different tradition (see §VIII.8. Eastern EEBA province).
The expansion into the forest zone of eastern and north-eastern Poland changed the landscape from hunter-gatherer societies to an economy based primarily on large herds of animals, mainly cattle, while agriculture was hindered by the soils. Settlers occupied primarily the lower zones, often riverbank areas of river valleys, and most remains come from seasonal campsites, with a mix of CWC and Neman traditions. These settlers of the mid–3rd millennium BC were probably related to the Masurian lakeland. The emergence of an allocthonic population is marked by the rare graves of this area, showing infiltrations initially mainly from Lesser Poland, and later (after 2500 BC) from the western Baltic zone (Włodarczak 2017).
There is a strong connection between the rituals of the Single Grave culture and those of the west Baltic region, connected through the Northern European Plains. This relationship becomes clear from the younger phase of the CWC development (ca. 2600–2500 BC) and continues until the demise of the culture. It is marked by specific forms of graves (with implementation of stone structures), and by grave goods typical of the west Baltic region.
The origins of the Middle Dnieper culture should most likely be traced back to the forest-steppe area of the Dnieper Basin. Concentrated between the Berezina, Dnieper, and Sozh rivers, on the Desna and drainage basin of the Middle Dnieper (from the confluence with the Pripyat in the north to the confluence with the Ros in the south), there are dispersed findings as far as the Middle Pripyat, Upper Neman, and the Seym drainage basin. Most likely, the culture spanned a long period from ca. 2600–1800 BC (Krenke et al. 2013).
However, the earliest Middle Dnieper samples are related to CWC graves between the Upper Vistula and the Bug, containing pottery with Middle Dnieper traits, dated probably ca. 2650/2600 BC or earlier, which establishes the beginning of the culture probably to the west of its core area ca. 2700 BC, with the expansion of the A-horizon (Krenke et al. 2013).
The “Kyiv hoard” and other hoards (like Steblivka) of Corded Ware tribes that populated the Volhynia and western Podolia regions, of willow–leaf metallurgical industry, evidence also the direct connection of the Middle Dnieper peoples to these CWC groups. The battle–axes of the Ingush type, proper of the forest-steppe cultures east of the Vistula river, also mark a completely different direction of inspiration (Klochko and Kośko 2011).
In fact, during the period of ca. 2800–2400 BC, the area of Lesser Poland (with its numerous kurgans and catacomb burials) is considered the western fringe of an area spreading to the east, to the middle Dniester and middle Dnieper river basins, i.e. regions bordering the steppe oecumene. This ‘eastern connection’ of funeral ritual, raw materials, and stylistic traits of artefacts is also identified in some graves of the Polish Lowlands (Włodarczak 2017).
The Fatyanovo (or Fatyanovo–Balanovo) culture was the easternmost group of the Corded Ware culture, and occupied the centre of the Russian Plain, from Lake Ilmen and the Upper Dnieper drainage to the Wiatka River and the middle course of the Volga. From the few available radiocarbon dates, the oldest ones come from the plains of the Moskva river and from the late Volosovo culture containing also Fatyanovo materials, and in combination they suggest ca. 2700 BC for its appearance in the region, and ca. 2000 BC for their disappearance The Volosovo culture of foragers eventually disappeared (ca. 2300 BC) when the Fatyanovo culture expanded into the Upper and Middle Volga basin (Krenke et al. 2013).
The origin of the Fatyanovo culture is complicated, because it involves at its earliest stage different Corded Ware influences. This is evidenced in neighbouring sites on the Moskva river plains: one, potentially slightly older site, with some materials paralleling the Nida site, of Circum-Baltic and Polish features; and another site, 300 m. downstream, showing a connection with materials from the Khanevo cemetery, in turn a bridge to the Middle Dnieper culture. This suggests that groups belonging to different strands of the classic corded ware tradition penetrated the Moscow region. The Balanovo culture to the east seems to have been Fatyanovo’s metallurgical heartland, with the Sura–Sviyaga group surviving long after the demise of Fatyanovo (Krenke et al. 2013).
Just before 2500 BC, Corded Ware, Single Grave and Battle Axe, Rzucewo, Middle Dnieper and Fatyanovo–Balanovo cultures arrived at their peak of landscape occupation, domination and coherence. Fatyanovo is exemplified mainly by grave finds, featuring rectangular pits with single burials, with the dead positioned contracted lying on the side, or supine with raised knees, and grave goods of clay pots, animal-tooth pendants, and rarely bronze jewellery. Male graves are identified by stone battle–axes (Parzinger 2013).
The early, skilfully made Corded Ware culture pots found in Sweden were both imported (in Southern Sweden from north-eastern Estonia and possibly Finland) and made with local clays by skilled potters (in Central Sweden), which supports the relocation of CWC potters from a place where the craft was already well established, namely the eastern part of the Baltic around the Gulf of Finland. The arrival of grog from Sweden at Finnish and Estonian sites may suggest a two-way movement across the Baltic Sea, although it probably represents the tempering of new pots with old ones, either brought to the region through migration or intermarriage, or by commercial contacts (Holmqvist et al. 2018). The CWC seemingly reached east-central Sweden from regions further to the east, where there is evidence of animal husbandry, but only very few signs of plant cultivation (Vanhanen et al. 2019).
The so-called Middle or Intermediate Zone ceramics, attributed to a 2nd wave of Corded Ware migrants from Estonia into Finland, has been recently proposed to be the result of a hybridisation that began soon after the arrival of Corded Ware, at least on the south-eastern coast and the Karelian Isthmus, with influences transmitted towards the inland and the middle-zone. Furthermore, most CWC materials associated with this hybrid pottery come from mixed, multi-period settlement contexts, and also include organic tempers in local groups, which are similar to the so-called Estonian (or late) Corded Ware (Nordqvist 2018). Late Estonian CWC remains show continuity of the preference for terrestrial foodstuffs in the eastern Baltic region, based on domestic animals complemented with agriculture, in contrast with the earlier hunter-gatherer diet (Varul et al. 2019).
There is a close connection of the Corded Ware tradition of the Karelian Isthmus pottery with the central Russian Fatyanovo culture, as well as between the eastern Gulf of Finland and Russian battle axe culture (Nordqvist 2018). These contacts and interactions between eastern CWC groups points to the close cultural connection between them.
There are hundreds of Corded Ware settlements identified to date in eastern Fennoscandia—most of them residential, recurrent activity or camp sites—and thousands of remains, more than in other Scandinavian territory. While the central area of Corded Ware habitation does not seem to include the inland or the northern territories, scattered findings of Corded Ware materials to the east, north, and north-east of these core territories (Nordqvist and Häkälä 2014) may point to isolated vanguard settlers or to imitations of indigenous groups.
In Finland, Corded Ware vessels are associated with beaker-type ‘drinking’ vessels, often in grave deposits, as well as amphorae and S-shaped pots. Corded Ware settlements, even coastal ones, show reliance on terrestrial ruminants, which could be either domesticated (e.g. cattle) or wild (e.g. elk, forest reindeer), although milk fat residues must have originated from domesticated stock. Therefore, the introduction of animal domestication as a new subsistence strategy can be traced back to at least ca. 2500 BC in Finland (Cramp et al. 2014).
Later samples of the Single Grave culture include six individuals from Esperstedt, Saxony-Anhalt (dated ca. 2500–2050 BC), of hg. R1a1a1-M417 (possibly xR1a1a1b-Z645), and one outlier (ca. 2560–2300 BC), with a mean of ca. 71% Steppe ancestry (Mathieson et al. 2015). The outlier has what appears to be a recent contribution from Yamna, clustering closer to Yamna samples than any other Corded Ware sample (except for the Baltic outliers), probably due to exogamy with nearby late Yamna settlers of Hungary or early East Bell Beakers. Five males among them have been inferred to be relatives via paternal line (Monroy Kuhn, Jakobsson, and Günther 2017), and one of these, the outlier, is a second-degree relative to the other four.
This interpretation of a recent contribution from Yamna in central Europe is supported by samples of the Corded Ware group from Brandýsek, Bohemia (ca. 2900–2500 BC), which show diminished Steppe ancestry (ca. 40%), and two samples of hg. R1a1a-M198 together with one I2a1b1b-Y6098 (Olalde et al. 2018). The resurgence of this typically Neolithic haplogroup with a marked increase in NWAN ancestry (ca. 45%) seems to suggest a resurgence of local Neolithic groups, which supports the nature of the Esperstedt outlier as an exception among late Corded Ware samples.
Four late Corded Ware samples (ca. 2570–2340 BC) from double burials of related people, among fourteen individuals of a multiple burial in Pikutkowo, Poland, show that they are genetically significantly closer to WHG than to steppe individuals (especially one of the investigated pairs), and can be modelled as an admixture between Corded Ware and local Neolithic populations with hunter-gatherer affinities (such as TRB, ca. 63%). Two samples are of hg. I2a1b1a2b1-L801 (Fernandes et al. 2018), which appeared earlier on GAC samples from Poland (see §v.6. Late Uralians), support the resurgence of local lineages among different central European groups at the end of the Corded Ware period.
One sample from Spiginas, Lithuania (ca. 2130–1750 BC) of hg. R1a1a1b1a2b-CTS1211 (of the R1a1a1b1a2-Z280 trunk), of the Battle Axe culture (Mittnik, Wang, et al. 2018), evidences the continuity of typical Corded Ware lineages in the area. Based on later Baltic and Poland Bronze Age samples, this precise subclade probably expanded from this and neighbouring southern areas, or resurged from previous populations of the area (see §viii.8. Balto-Slavs).