Yamnaya culture

The Yamnaya culture (/ˈjamnaja/), also known as the Yamnaya Horizon,[2] Yamna culture, Pit Grave culture or Ochre Grave culture, was a late Copper Age to early Bronze Age archaeological culture of the region between the Southern Bug, Dniester, and Ural rivers (the Pontic steppe), dating to 3300–2600 BC.[3] Its name derives from its characteristic burial tradition: Я́мная (romanization: yamnaya) is a Russian adjective that means 'related to pits (yama)', and these people used to bury their dead in tumuli (kurgans) containing simple pit chambers. The people of the Yamnaya culture were likely the result of a genetic admixture between the descendants of Eastern European Hunter-Gatherers[lower-alpha 1] and people related to hunter-gatherers from the Caucasus.[4] People with this ancestral component are known as Western Steppe Herders.[5] Their material culture was very similar to the Afanasevo culture, and the populations of both cultures are genetically indistinguishable.[1] They lived primarily as nomads, with a chiefdom system and wheeled carts and wagons that allowed them to manage large herds.

Yamnaya culture
Alternative names
  • Pit Grave culture
  • Yamna culture
  • Ochre Grave culture
  • Yamnaya Horizon
Geographical rangeEurasia
PeriodBronze Age
Datesc. 3300–2600 BC
Preceded bySamara culture, Khvalynsk culture, Dnieper–Donets culture, Sredny Stog culture, Repin culture, Maykop culture
Followed by
  • West: Catacomb culture
  • East: Poltavka culture, Srubnaya culture
  • North: Corded Ware culture (derived from Yamnaya culture)[1]

They are also closely connected to Final Neolithic cultures, which later spread throughout Europe and Central Asia, especially the Corded Ware people and the Bell Beaker culture, as well as the peoples of the Sintashta, Andronovo, and Srubnaya cultures. Back migration from Corded Ware also contributed to Sintashta and Andronovo.[6] In these groups, several aspects of the Yamnaya culture are present.[lower-alpha 2] Genetic studies have also indicated that these populations derived large parts of their ancestry from the steppes.[1][7][8][9]

The Yamnaya culture is identified with the late Proto-Indo-Europeans, and the Pontic-Caspian steppe is the strongest candidate for the Urheimat (original homeland) of the Proto-Indo-European language.


Corded ware pot, Yamnaya culture
Largest expansion of the Yamnaya culture. Ca. 3500 origins of Usatovo culture; 3400 origins of Yamnaya; c.3400-3200 expansion of Yamnaya across the Pontic-Caspian steppe; c.3000 end of Tripolye culture, and transformation of Yamnaya into Corded Ware in the contact zone east of the Carpatian mountains; 3100-2600 Yamnaya-expansion into the Danube Valley.[10][11][12]

According to Pavel Dolukhanov (1996) the emergence of the Pit-Grave culture represents a social development of various local Bronze Age cultures, representing "an expression of social stratification and the emergence of chiefdom-type nomadic social structures", which in turn intensified inter-group contacts between essentially heterogeneous social groups.[13]

According to Mallory (1999), "The origin of the Yamnaya culture is still a topic of debate," with proposals for its origins pointing to both Khvalynsk and Sredny Stog.[14] The Khvalynsk culture (4700–3800 BCE)[15] (middle Volga) and the Don-based Repin culture (ca.3950–3300 BCE)[16] in the eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe, and the closely related Sredny Stog culture (c. 4500–3500 BCE) in the western Pontic-Caspian steppe, preceded the Yamnaya culture (3300–2500 BCE).[17][18]

According to Anthony (2007), the Yamnaya culture (3300–2600 BCE) originated in the Don–Volga area at ca. 3400 BCE,[19][3] preceded by the middle Volga-based Khvalynsk culture and the Don-based Repin culture (c. 3950–3300 BC),[16][3] arguing that late pottery from these two cultures can barely be distinguished from early Yamnaya pottery.[20] Earlier continuity from eneolithic but largely hunter-gatherer Samara culture and influences from the more agricultural Dnieper–Donets II are apparent.

Alternatively, Parpola (2015) relates both the Corded ware culture and the Yamnaya culture to the late Tripolye culture.[21] He hypothesizes that "the Tripolye culture was taken over by PIE speakers by c. 4000 BCE,"[22] and that in its final phase the Tripolye culture expanded to the steppes, morphing into various regional cultures which fused with the late Sredny Stog pastoralist cultures. This gave rise to the Yamnaya culture.[23]

According to Anthony (2007), the early Yamnaya horizon spread quickly across the Pontic–Caspian steppes between c. 3400 and 3200 BC:[19]

The spread of the Yamnaya horizon was the material expression of the spread of late Proto-Indo-European across the Pontic–Caspian steppes.[24]
[...] The Yamnaya horizon is the visible archaeological expression of a social adjustment to high mobility – the invention of the political infrastructure to manage larger herds from mobile homes based in the steppes.[25]

The Yamnaya (Pit-grave) culture was succeeded in its western range by the Catacomb culture (2800–2200 BC); in the east, by the Poltavka culture (2700–2100 BC) at the middle Volga. These two cultures were followed by the Srubnaya culture (18th–12th century BC).


Yamnaya culture grave, Volgograd Oblast

Yamnaya culture was semi-nomadic, with some agriculture practiced near rivers and a few hillforts.[26]

Mallory and Adams suggest that Yamnaya society may have had a tripartite structure of three differentiated social classes, although the evidence available does not demonstrate the existence of specific classes such as priests, warriors, and farmers.[27]

Characteristic for the culture are the burials in pit graves under kurgans (tumuli), often accompanied with animal offerings. The dead bodies were placed in a supine position with bent knees and covered in ochre. Multiple graves have been found in these kurgans, often as later insertions.It has been argued that kurgan burials were rare, and reserved for special adults, who were predominantly, but not necessarily, male.[28] Status and gender are marked by grave goods and position, and in some areas, elite individuals are buried with complete wooden wagons.[29] Grave goods are more common in eastern Yamnaya burials than in western areas.

In the northern Pontic steppes were excavated the oldest wheels in the world, which may tentatively be associated with the Indo-Europeans.[30] The Yamnaya culture possessed and utilized both two-wheeled carts and four-wheeled wagons, which are thought to have been oxen-drawn at this time, and there is evidence that they practised horse riding.[31]

Anthony[32] speculates that the Yamnaya ate a diet consisting of meat, milk, yogurt, cheese, and soups made from seeds and wild vegetables, and probably consumed mead.

Metallurgists and other craftsmen are given a special status in Yamnaya society, and metal objects are sometimes found in large quantities in elite graves. New metalworking technologies and weapon designs are used.[33]


According to Jones et al. (2015) and Haak et al. (2015), autosomal tests indicate that the Yamnaya people were the result of a genetic admixture between two different hunter-gatherer populations: distinctive "Eastern Hunter-Gatherers" (EHG) with high affinity to the Mal'ta–Buret' culture or other, closely related people from Siberia[7] and a population of "Caucasus hunter-gatherers" (CHG) who probably arrived from the Caucasus or, less probably, what is now Iran.[34][4] Each of those two populations contributed about half the Yamnaya DNA.[8][4] This admixture is referred to in archaeogenetics as Western Steppe Herder (WSH) ancestry.

Admixture between EHGs and CHGs is believed to have occurred on the eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe starting around 5,000 BC, while admixture with Early European Farmers (EEF) happened in the southern parts of the Pontic-Caspian steppe sometime later. As Yamnaya Y-DNA is exclusively of the EHG and WHG type, displaying genetic continuity from the paternal lineages of the Dnieper-Donets culture, the admixture appears to have occurred predominately between EHG males, and CHG and EEF females.

Haplogroup R1b, especially subclades of R1b-M269, is the most common Y-DNA haplogroup found among both the Yamnaya and modern-day Western Europeans.[1][7] Additionally, a minority are found to belong to haplogroup I2.[8] They are found to belong to a wider variety of mtDNA haplogroups, including U, T, and haplogroups associated with Caucasus Hunter-Gatherers and Early European Farmers.[35][36]

About a quarter of ancient DNA samples from Yamnaya sites contain an allele associated with lactase persistence (conferring lactose tolerance into adulthood); it has been hypothesized that the spread of lactose tolerance in Europe began there.[37]

Physical characteristics

The peoples of the Yamnaya culture are believed to have been light-skinned and dark-eyed, and genetic selection for stature is very high.[38] An allele for blond hair has also been found in some samples and it has been suggested that Yamnaya-related migrations played a role in the lightening of the skin and hair color of modern Europeans.[39]


The Yamnaya culture is identified with the late Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) in the Kurgan hypothesis of Marija Gimbutas. The Pontic-Caspian steppe is the strongest candidate for the Urheimat (original homeland) of the Proto-Indo-European language, and evidence from linguistics[40] and genetics[7][41] suggests that the Yamnaya culture may be the homeland of the core Indo-European languages, excluding the Anatolian languages.[42]

According to David W. Anthony, the genetic evidence suggests that the leading clans of the Yamnaya were of EHG and WHG paternal origin[43] and implies that the Indo-European languages were the result of "a dominant language spoken by EHGs that absorbed Caucasus-like elements in phonology, morphology, and lexicon."[44]

Western Europe

Expansion of Yamnaya-related people, according to Anthony (2007),[40] 2017;[45][note 1] Narasimhan et al. (2019);[46] Nordqvist and Heyd (2020):[11]
* 3000 BC: Initial eastward migration initiating the Afanasievo culture, possibly Proto-Tocharian.
* 2900 BC: North-westward migrations carrying Corded Ware culture, transforming into Bell Beaker; according to Anthony, westward migration west of Carpatians into Hungary as Yamnaya, transforming into Bell Beaker, possibly ancestral to Italo-Celtic (disputed).
* 2700 BC: Second eastward migration starting east of Carpatian mountains as Corded Ware, transforming into Fatyanovo-Balanova (2800 BCE) → Abashevo (2200 BCE) → Sintashta (2100–1900 BCE) → Andronovo (1900–1700 BCE) → Indo-Aryans.

Haak et al. (2015) conducted a genome-wide study of 69 ancient skeletons from Europe and Russia. They concluded that Yamnaya autosomal characteristics are very close to the Corded Ware culture people, with an estimated 73% ancestral contribution from the Yamnaya DNA in the DNA of Corded Ware skeletons from Germany. The same study estimated a (38.8–50.4 %) ancestral contribution of the Yamnaya in the DNA of modern Central, and Northern Europeans, and an 18.5–32.6 % contribution in modern Southern Europeans; this contribution is found to a lesser extent in Sardinians (2.4–7.1 %) and Sicilians (5.9–11.6 %).[47][41][9] Haak et al. also note that their results state that haplogroup R-M269 spread into Europe from the East after 3000 BC.[48] Studies that analysed ancient human remains in Ireland and Portugal support the thesis that R-M269 was introduced in these places along with autosomal DNA from the Eastern European steppes.[49][50]

Autosomal tests also indicate that the Yamnaya are the most likely vector for "Ancient North Eurasian" admixture into Europe.[7] "Ancient North Eurasian" is the name given in literature to a genetic component that represents descent from the people of the Mal'ta–Buret' culture[7] or a population closely related to them. That genetic component is visible in tests of the Yamnaya people[7] as well as modern-day Europeans, but not of Europeans predating the Bronze Age.[51]

Eastern Europe and Finland

In the Baltic, Jones et al. (2017) found that the Neolithic transition – the passage from a hunter-gatherer economy to a farming-based economy – coincided with the arrival en masse of individuals with Yamnaya-like ancestry. This is different from what happened in Western and Southern Europe, where the Neolithic transition was caused by a population that came from the Near East, with Pontic steppe ancestry being detected from only the late Neolithic onward.[52]

Per Haak et al. (2015), the Yamnaya contribution in the modern populations of Eastern Europe ranges from 46.8% among Russians to 42.8% in Ukrainians. Finland has one of the highest Yamnaya contributions in all of Europe (50.4%).[53][lower-alpha 3]

Central and South Asia

According to Allentoft (2015), the Sintashta culture probably derived from the Corded Ware Culture.
Map of the approximate maximal extent of the Andronovo culture. The formative Sintashta-Petrovka culture is shown in darker red. The location of the earliest spoke-wheeled chariot finds is indicated in purple. Adjacent and overlapping cultures (Afanasevo, Srubna, Bactria-Margiana Culture are shown in green.
Archaeological cultures associated with Indo-Iranian migrations and Indo-Aryan migrations (after EIEC). The Andronovo, BMAC and Yaz cultures have often been associated with Indo-Iranian migrations. The GGC, Cemetery H, Copper Hoard and PGW cultures are candidates for cultures associated with Indo-Aryan migrations.

Studies also point to the strong presence of Yamnaya descent in the current nations of South Asia, especially in groups that are referred to as Indo-Aryans.[46][54]

According to Pathak et al. (2018), the "North-Western Indian & Pakistani" populations (PNWI) showed significant Middle-Late Bronze Age Steppe (Steppe_MLBA) ancestry along with Yamnaya Early-Middle Bronze Age (Steppe_EMBA) ancestry, but the Indo-Europeans of Gangetic Plains and Dravidian people only showed significant Yamnaya (Steppe_EMBA) ancestry and no Steppe_MLBA. The study also noted that ancient south Asian samples had significantly higher Steppe_MLBA than Steppe_EMBA (or Yamnaya). The study infers, "The Rors stand out in South Asia as the population with the highest proportion of Steppe ancestry".[54]

Lazaridis et al. (2016) notes "The demographic impact of steppe related populations on South Asia was substantial, as the Mala, a south Indian population with minimal ANI (Ancestral North Indian) along the 'Indian Cline' of such ancestry is inferred to have a minimum~ 18 % steppe-related ancestry, while the Kalash of Pakistan are inferred to have ~ 50 % steppe-related ancestry."[55] Lazaridis et al.'s 2016 study estimated (6.5–50.2 %) steppe related admixture in South Asians.[56][lower-alpha 4]

Lazaridis et al. (2016) further notes that "A useful direction of future research is a more comprehensive sampling of ancient DNA from steppe populations, as well as populations of central Asia (east of Iran and south of the steppe), which may reveal more proximate sources of the ANI than the ones considered here, and of South Asia to determine the trajectory of population change in the area directly."[56]

According to Unterländer et al. (2017), Iron Age Scythians from the southern Ural region, East Kazakhstan and Tuva can best be described as a mixture of Yamnaya-related ancestry and an East Asian component, the latter occurring at only trace levels – if at all – among earlier steppe inhabitants.[57]

According to Narasimhan et al. (2019), the Yamnaya-related ancestry, termed Western_Steppe_EMBA, that reached central and south Asia was not the initial expansion from the steppe to the east, but a secondary expansion that involved a group possessing ~67% Western_Steppe_EMBA ancestry and ~33% ancestry from the European cline. This group included people similar to that of Corded Ware, Srubnaya, Petrovka, and Sintashta. Moving further east in the central steppe, it acquired ~9% ancestry from a group of people that possessed West Siberian Hunter Gatherer ancestry, thus forming the Central Steppe MLBA cluster, which is the primary source of steppe ancestry in South Asia, contributing up to 30% of the ancestry of the modern groups in the region.[46]


See also

  • Kurgan
  • Kurgan stelae
  • Cucuteni–Trypillia culture
  • Butmir culture
  • Vinča culture
  • Beaker culture
  • Baden culture
  • Botai culture
  • Khvalynsk culture
  • Mamai-Hora
  • Samara culture
  • Sintashta culture
  • Yersinia pestis
  • Proto-Indo-Europeans


  1. The Eastern European hunter-gatherers were themselves mostly descended from ancient North Eurasians, related to the palaeolithic Mal'ta–Buret' culture.
  2. Yamnayan cultural aspects, for example, were horse-riding, burial styles, and to some extent the pastoralist economy.
  3. Per Haak et al. (2015), adding a north-Siberian people as a fourth reference population improves residuals for northeastern European populations. This accounts for the higher than expected Yamnaya contribution and brings it down to expected levels (67.8–50.4 % in Finns, 64.9–46.8 % in Russians).
  4. Lazaridis et al. (2016) Supplementary Information, Table S9.1: "Kalash – 50.2 %, Tiwari Brahmins – 44.1 %, Gujarati (four samples) – 46.1 % to 27.5 %, Pathan – 44.6 %, Burusho – 42.5 %, Sindhi – 37.7 %, Punjabi – 32.6 %, Balochi – 32.4 %, Brahui – 30.2 %, Lodhi – 29.3 %, Bengali – 24.6 %, Vishwabhramin – 20.4 %, Makrani – 19.2 %, Mala – 18.4 %, Kusunda – 8.9 %, Kharia – 6.5 %."


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  6. Novembre 2015, "evidence to support theories of a back-migration from Corded Ware-related populations that contributed to the origins of the Sintashta culture in the Urals and their descendants, the Andronovo."
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  8. Mathieson, et al. 2015.
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  21. Parpola 2015, p. 49.
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  1. See also Eurogenes Blog (December 18, 2017), Corded Ware as an offshoot of Hungarian Yamnaya (Anthony 2017)


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