VII.5. The Balkans

The population of Bronze Age tell settlements from the Carpathian Basin show ritual practices in common with the Mycenaean world, with an official cult practised in specific buildings, like temples destined to serve the entire community, complemented by a family cult, represented by fireplaces and small altar pieces or miniature wagons made of clay (Gogaltan 2012).

There were a potential solar cult (reminiscent of the Zeus/Apollo cult) before its appearance later in the Urnfields culture and in the Nordic Bronze Age; human sacrifices potentially addressed to a deity of war (such as Ares); food offerings potentially for some deity of fertility (like the “Great Mother”); animal idols and drinking vessels; a “hero cult” with weapons and other metal objects, etc. (Gogaltan 2012). All of this strengthens the idea of a common Balkan community, in contact with central European cultures during the Bronze Age.

The peripheries from the Aegean Early Bronze Age developed a dynamic new social and economic system through contacts with the core areas, by way of imitation and innovation. The direct exchange network included the eastern Balkans (northern Aegean), with Bulgaria and western Anatolia; the western Balkans, with the eastern Adriatic coast as well as the inland; and the south-central Mediterranean area, particularly Sicily, Malta, and Apulia, which were eventually under the expansion of Bell Beakers (Heyd 2013).

After west Yamna groups lost their internal coherence and direct contacts with the north Pontic homeland in the mid–3rd millennium, the Aegean became the new cultural model for the Balkan population (Heyd 2013):

From the East Thracian Plain to Troy, after ca. 2500 BC, local cultures become more complex, with graves of local leaders and elites; ritual sites and buried hoards, imports including jewellery of gold and silver, weaponry, and thousands of large and varied golden artefacts; a new dress code that came with widespread dress pins; etc.

In the west the Aegean influence is felt earlier in graves from the East Adriatic coast up to the Danube, perhaps even earlier than 2750 BC, judging by a hierarchically structured settlement of Vučedol and similar sites along the Danube. A trade connection is created between local elites in the Adriatic (including south-eastern Italy) that persists after the demise of the previously dominant Vučedol complex, as witnessed in prestige object imports in regional groups such as Vinkovci in Slavonia and Syrmia, Bubanj Hum III and Armenochóri in eastern Serbia and Macedonia, Belotić-Bela Crkva in Central Serbia, and Cetina along the Adriatic coast.

Overall, a “chiefdom” system based on prestige goods comes into being in both territories, In the east along the Adriatic coast, a maritime trade system develops, as well as local concentration, cultural regionalisation (where rather small areas develop a cultural identity), and a wave of centralisation. Cetina, however, under the influence of the Bell Beaker culture (see §VIII.9.1. Cetina), remains apart from these social changes, as evidenced by the absence of prestige goods and its drive to expand to the south in Albania and then in the Peloponnese during the Early Helladic II to III (i.e. ca. 2200 BC).

vii.5. Palaeo-Balkan peoples

One west Yamna individual from Mednikarovo in Bulgaria (ca. 2950 BC), of hg. I2a1b1a2a2a-L699, shows contributions of NWAN-related ancestry, with a clear ‘southern’ drift in the PCA towards Balkan populations (Mathieson et al. 2018). A similar ancestry (and shift in PCA) is found in a sample of the Vučedol culture from Beli Manastir (ca. 2775 BC), of hg. R1b1a1b1a-Z2103, contrasting with the other available Vučedol sample, which clusters closely to other Balkan Bronze Age populations, in turn clustering closely to Anatolian farmers (see §viii.11. Thracians and Albanians).

Other investigated individuals from this period with contributions of Steppe ancestry (general mean ca. 30%) include: two from the EBA barrow necropolis of Beli Breyag (ca. 3400–1600 BC), with hg. I-M170 and I2a1b-M436; two from the same grave-pit, of five tall individuals laid extended on their backs, east–west orientated, head to the East and ochre-stained, from Smyadovo (ca. 3300–3000 BC), of hg. I2a1b1a2-CTS10057 and 12a1b1a2a-L701; one from the Ezero culture in Sabrano (ca. 3100–2900 BC); one from the Kairyaka necropolis under a mound in Merichleri (ca. 3000–2900 BC), buried in a small pit head to the East and ochre-stained, with legs bent at the knees, of hg. I2a1b1a2a2-Y5606; and two from Dzhulyunitsa (ca. 3300–2700 BC), one in a flexed position, of hg. G2a2a1a2-L91 and H2-P96 (Mathieson et al. 2018).

The high NWAN-related ancestry in populations from the Eastern Balkans is explained by the admixture of expanding Yamna settlers with Balkan farmer communities, which had the highest population density of Europe in this period (Müller and Diachenko 2019). While the presence of 12a1b1a2a-L701 in one sample of the LBK from Hungary (ca. 5300–4900 BC) makes this identification unclear, it seems that the simultaneous emergence of I2a1b1-M223 samples in different sites of the Eastern Balkans after the Yamna expansion in the north-west Pontic area must be related to the spread of I2a1b1a2a2a-L699 lineages from Yamna (see§vi.1. Disintegrating Indo-Europeans). The lack of this haplogroup in previous samples from the region supports this as the most likely explanation.

The modern distribution involving early R1b1a1b1b-Z2103 lineages includes R1b1a1b1b3-Z2106 subclades R1b1a1b1b3a-Z2108 (formed ca. 3600 BC, TMRCA ca. 3600 BC), and further R1b1a1b1b3a1-Z2110 (formed ca. 3600 BC, TMRCA ca. 3400 BC), found in modern populations from the Balkans and Central Europe; R1b1a1b1b2-L277.1 (formed ca. 2100 BC, TMRCA ca. 2100 BC), also found in the Balkans; and R1b1a1b1b1-L584 (formed ca. 3200 BC, TMRCA ca. 2900 BC), found in Armenian and other Central European populations. The early split of R1b1a1b1b-Z2103, found widespread also among ancient and modern Indo-Iranians, makes a proper identification of certain lineages with the spread of certain peoples (and specific routes of expansion) difficult without ancient samples.