From Archaeology Magazine Online
Archaeologists digging a Bronze Age site on the Russian steppes are using evidence from language and mythology to understand a remarkable discovery
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Nerissa Russell, the project’s archaeozoologist, says, “I remember saying early on in the dig that we were finding a lot of dog bones. But I had no idea how important they would turn out to be.” When the team got to work analyzing all the animal bones in the lab, they identified the remains of about 51 dogs and seven wolves, as well as six canines that could not be classified as either. At other Timber Grave sites, dog and wolf bones never make up more than 3 percent of the total animal bones found. At Krasnosamarskoe, they made up more than 30 percent. “I don’t know of any other site in the world with such a high percentage of dog bones,” says Russell. She and her team found that most of the dogs were unusually long-lived, up to 12 years old in some cases, which meant they were probably not raised for food. “Were they treasured pets, hunting dogs, or pariahs? We don’t know,” she says. “But they are so old that these were dogs that had been around for a while and had some kind of relationship to these people.”
|Pieces of dog skull from the site were cut into small, standardized pieces that may have had ritual significance.|
To add to the mystery, the bones were cut in unusual, systematic ways that did not resemble ordinary butchering practices. Snouts were divided into three pieces and the remainder of the skulls were broken down into geometrically shaped fragments only an inch long. No one would have made these cuts to simply get meat off the bones. [Might the meticulously cut-up skull bones have been used in some kind of divination ceremonies before being buried? They rather remind me of ancient knucklebones.]
Anthony and his wife, archaeologist Dorcas Brown, knew it was a unique discovery. Brown, in particular, suspected the canines were probably sacrificed there as part of a ritual and decided to examine the research literature broadly on the subject of rituals involving dogs. What she discovered was that there was indeed a body of work on just such ancient practices. In an unusual move for prehistoric archaeologists, they decided to consult historical linguistics and ancient literary traditions to better understand the archaeological record. [But this was the key to understanding what they had excavated!]
They knew that the people who lived at Krasnosamarskoe almost certainly spoke an Indo-European language. This huge language family today consists of most of the European languages including English, and many spoken in Asia, such as Hindi. All these languages are “daughters” of one language, which was probably spoken on the Eurasian steppes between 4500 and 2500 B.C.. Historical linguists call it Proto-Indo-European (PIE). By comparing words across all the ancient and modern Indo-European languages, they have been able to reconstruct a great deal of the lexicon of this long-dead language. Not only have they reconstructed—and traced across these ancient Indo-European cultures—terms as varied as the words for bee, wheel, and snore, but linguists can also make inferences about these cultures from this vocabulary.
Despite the rich picture of ancient life that can be drawn of ancient life in this way, many archaeologists are hesitant to trust reconstructed PIE word roots and concepts. “This is the kind of information that prehistoric archaeologists would normally kill to have,” says Anthony, “but they generally distance themselves from Indo-European linguistics because they can’t really see how the two sets of data can be combined.” [Duh!] Anthony has spent much of his career trying to convince his colleagues that the efforts of linguists and mythologists shouldn’t be ignored. “I’m interested in combining linguistic and mythological evidence with archaeological evidence,” he says. “These roots contain information about kinship, systems of honor, systems of debt, lordship, and feasting. We ought to be mining this vocabulary to figure out what was going on in their minds.”
So, without consulting these linguistic sources, many archaeologists would have been satisfied simply knowing the dogs were sacrificed. But Brown and Anthony’s passion for bringing linguistic evidence to bear on archaeological discoveries made them go deeper. “I think it’s lucky that we were the ones who excavated the site,” says Anthony.
Brown continued to search the literature on Indo-European ceremonies for information on dogs that might yield clues about what kind of ritual was being practiced at the site. She found that historical linguists and mythologists have long linked dog sacrifice to an important ancient Indo-European tradition, the roving youthful war band.
In the ancient Celtic, Germanic, Greek, and Indo-Iranian traditions, young men often left their families to form warrior societies. “These were young guys on the edge of society who occasionally would steal cows, and you’d rather they were off stealing someone else’s cows,” says Anthony. “So they were expelled from their social groups and told to raid other communities.” In Germanic traditions, these bands of young warriors thought of themselves as wolf packs. A famous myth about the hero Siegfried has him donning a dog skin to go raiding with his nephew, whom he is training to become a warrior. In the Rigveda, an ancient Sanskrit text composed sometime before 1000 B.C., young men can only become warriors after sacrificing a dog at a winter ceremony and wearing its skin for four years, which they burn upon their return to society. [The Rigveda was compiled from extremely old oral tales -- just how far back they go I don't know but they certainly predate circa 1000 BCE].
The institution of youthful war bands that go on seasonal raids is so widespread in Indo-European cultures that historical linguists and mythologists concluded that it had to be a long-standing PIE tradition, and that these young men became warriors during a mid-winter ritual that involved dog sacrifice. Linguists even reconstructed the PIE word for these warrior bands: koryos. But, as with many reconstructed PIE words and ideas, physical proof that koryos actually roamed the Eurasian steppes thousands of years ago had been lacking. Anthony and Brown, however, because of the sheer number of dog and wolf bones at the site, strongly suspected Krasnosamarskoe might indeed be a site of one of these midwinter koryos initiations. But they needed to prove that this reconstructed tradition existed 4,000 years ago.
Once they sent the canine teeth from the site to archaeozoologist Anne Pike-Tay, who studies incremental growth bands on teeth to determine what season an animal died in, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. She was able to determine the season of death for 17 of the canines and found that 16 of them were killed in the wintertime. Cows sacrificed at the site, by contrast, were killed year-round. For Anthony and Brown, this was a powerful piece of evidence that koryos existed hundreds of years before they were first mentioned in the Rigveda.
Just as roving bands of youthful raiders played an important role in later Indo-European societies, Anthony thinks they would have been critical to the Timber Grave people. “It was an organized way of not just controlling potentially dangerous young men,” he says, “but it was a way of expanding and gaining wealth.” Indeed, Anthony thinks koryos could help explain why Indo-European languages spread so successfully. Previous generations of scholars imagined hordes of Indo-Europeans on chariots spreading their languages across Europe and Asia by the point of the sword. But Anthony thinks Indo-European spread instead by way of widespread imitation of Indo-European customs, which included, for example, feasting to establish strong social networks. The koryos could have simply been one more feature of Indo-European life that other people admired and adopted, along with the languages themselves. [Fascinating!]
Since he and Brown have begun following the linguistic trail of the koryos, Anthony has come across other puzzles in both the archaeological record and in texts that could potentially be solved in similar ways. In particular, he thinks a possible association of warrior bands with the number eight might be significant, since it occurs frequently. “In Iron Age Indian texts, boys are eight years old when they first begin training, then at 16 they are initiated into warriorhood,” says Anthony. “In the Siegfried myth,” he continues, “the hero tells his nephew not to call for him unless attacked by more than seven men ... which is eight.” At a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age tomb in Kivik, Sweden, stelae lining the inside of the grave chamber depict eight figures in hoods following a leader.
(© Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis)
“That could be a depiction of an initiation ceremony,” says Anthony. At a Celtic settlement in France that dates to about A.D. 100, eight horses and eight men were buried together. Perhaps, posits Anthony, koryos were ideally groups of eight young men, and that fundamental unit of warriors endured into later times. [The significance of the number 8 -- for one thing, turned on its side, it is the symbol for "infinity"...]
Anthony is now looking ahead to a time when archaeologists will be willing to use linguistic and literary evidence to understand the prehistoric past in much more subtle ways than they do now. He notes, as an example, that koryos is not the only term for warrior band in reconstructed PIE. There is another word that was apparently used to refer to a larger group of warriors that included all the grown men of a community—surely a very different kind of grouping. “These kinds of distinctions,” he says, “are impossible to dig up with a trowel. We have only barely begun to use the information in the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to understand the people who spoke it.”
Eric A. Powell is online editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
************************************************************Want to read some interesting stuff about the number eight? Check out:
September 8, 2007:
The Eight: The Attorney's Tale - as Told by Robespierre (from Katherine Neville's novel "The Eight")
There are several excerpts related to the number eight from Neville's novel. The one cited above has a map drawing you may find of interest.
I've long been fascinated by the origins of words. Tonight, for instance, while reading through this article once again and my eyes alighted upon koryos, a word came to mind: cur. In English a "cur" is a derogatory term for a dog or canine often applied to undesirable types of males. Out of curiosity (no pun intended, har!), I did a quick search for the origins of the word "cur" and found this at Wikipedia:
In general, modern contexts, the term Cur is a slang term for mongrel dogs with a distinct negative connotations. ...
The derivation of the word "cur" dates from the 13th century. It is thought to be short for the Middle English "curdogge", which derives from the word "curren", meaning "to growl". According to the Dictionary of True Etymologies the original root of the word may be Germanic, possibly from the Old Norse "kurra" meaning "to grumble". If so, the word may be onomatopoeic.
Another plausible derivation is the Gaelic word "cu" meaning "hound".
The article goes on to discuss specific American bred dogs who specialized in treeing their prey for their hunter-masters. Remember an early hit recording by Elvis Presley called "Hound Dog?" Some of the lyrics: "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog ... you ain't never caught no rabbit... ." In the context of the origins of the song in the culture of the deep south of the United States, my guess is that this is a not particularly flattering reference to the specially bred "cur" dog who assists a hunter by "treeing" its prey, as opposed to a regular hunter's dog that would chase after and catch a ground-dwelling rabbit.
I do not believe that the actual origins of the word cur date back only to the 13th century! That is not nearly old enough. Take a look at the closely-affiliated words from "sister" Indo-European languages: curdogge, derived from curren (curdogge from Middle English, a language originating from Germanic); and kurra (Germanic, possibly from Old Norse). Does that ring any bells (Hint: One of the graphics in the article at Archaeology Magazine Online that is not included in this post is of a horned figure who is possibly Odin dancing with a warrior wearing a wolf mask -- how much more Norse can you get?)
The reconstructed proto-Indo-European word for "dog" is something like *kuon. We reconstruct this form from attested (actually recorded) forms like Greek kuon, Sanskrit shvan, and German hund by asking what proto-form would yield the attested forms after undergoing the sound changes observed in the various languages, and also taking into account changes in word-formation. The direct descendant of this word in English is hound. But at some point the common Germanic word for "dog" took on a more specialized meaning and was replaced, as the general term, by dog, a word whose origin we do not know. Source.
[About the Source: The origins of various words for "hound" from the P-I-E word *kuon are fairly attested and I copied the commentary here for convenience; the rest of the essay, I leave it to others to debate -- and the debate is still raging]. Interesting information about various derivatives for "dog" from the P-I-E word can be found here.
One's imagination needn't run very far to identify the wolf-masked warrior/marauder, perhaps representative of one known to belong to a cult or group that sacrificed dogs and wolves during the winter -- possibly at a full moon near or around the Winter Solstice -- with the origins of werewolf legends. Check out this post I did on January 29, 2010: The Wolf Moon. Unfortunately, I did not cite a source for this particular full moon being called the Wolf Moon. Bad Jan, bad Jan! I found this reference tonight: See the Farmer's Almanac for a North American explanation of where the term "Wolf Moon" came from. Yes, I certainly agree that it can be traced to North American native-American (Indian) tribal traditions, but perhaps they brought those old legends along with them as they cross from the Old World into the New World 14,000 or 15,000 or even more years ago.
And that horned figure tentatively identified as the god Odin? I think it might actually be a representation of a horned Goddess, because horns were a symbol of goddesshood as well as godhood, a symbol of rulership and authority, at least as far back as Sumeria, and perhaps even older than that. What about all of those female fertility figures, for instance, carved out of animal's antlers and horns??? Think about the underlying age of the symbolism, and how it may have become inherent in later representations of the Goddess. I think those "horns" could also be serpents on her headpiece. How many horns have you seen that have heads and eyes and representations of mouths?
The headress worn by the figure could also represent a shamanic figure representing the Goddess. Because, with the exceptions of some switcheroos (as Isis called them), dogs were always companions of the Goddess. Where a dog is, the Goddess is never far away.
The ancient Egptians (of course!) give us Wepawet, a form of wolf/jackal/dog/man hybrid that dates back to pre-dynastic times. I wrote about Wepawet in this post from December 29, 2009: Wepawet -- Sacred Opener of the Way. It just occurred to me tonight that the name of Wepawet may have eventually given us the term for a certain breed of dog -- the Whippet Hound, which bears an uncanny resemblance to some dogs depicted in paintings in early dynastic Egyptian tombs.
As a final wrap-up for tonight (but by no means the end of this discussion), please check this out, I posted it back on December 27, 2009: Dogs in Myth and Legend:
... in Barbara Walker's The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets:
Dog-faced Furies of the Earth Mother Demeter, giving rise to the Latin name of the same Goddess, Ceres. Like most other versions of the Great Goddess's death-hounds, the Keres visited battlefields and ate the dead to carry their souls to glory. They were another aspect of the frightening female psychopomps otherwise called Valkyries, dakins, harpies, Nekhbet-vultures, she-wolves, or sacred bitches.(1)
(1) Larousse, 166.
Keres, an ancient Greek word for a DOG-FACED 'FURY' OF THE MOTHER/EARTH GODDESS CERES, whom we somehow ended up naming "cereal" after, and koryos, the reconstructed P-I-E word for those dog-packs of roving young men, who were raiders, marauders and, ultimately, became warriors, quite possibly after sacrificing their faithful canine companions who had travelled with them from boyhood to manhood. Okay - is it only me? Am I the only one to see the connections here? For one thing, that's why I haven't eaten cereal since I was 13 years old and spent a lot of time reading ancient history texts in the local public libraries!
Because of the unfortunate tendency in certain societies (India, for one, a definite P-I-E derived society) to prefer sons over daughters, it is quite possible that ancient nomadic tribes and later, those who more or less settled into tiny enclaves to begin animal husbandry and farming, found themselves with an excess of -- let's put it bluntly -- horny young men. Now let me tell you, as we know today all too well, horny young men cause TROUBLE, and lots of it. When there are not enough young women to go around to hook-up (modern terminology) with all those horny young men, all Hell Breaks Loose!
This is not a new phenomenon by any means, but we are so damn stupid, still, and we are so ignorant of our own long history as human beings, that we refuse to learn the lessons from the past -- and I'm not talking Nazi Germany, although that is a very good example, actually.. . And so we, as a world, just keep dealing with the same old problems over and over and over again. Holy Hathor, how stupid can we get? Okay, don't answer that...
Letting my imagination roam about a bit, here is a possible thesis:
Initiation was quite possibly over an eight-year period (age 8 to age 16) and the "packs" of boys who were sent off into the wilderness or otherwise banished from the homes and settlements into which they had been born were comprised of eight boys each. But they were not sent out on their own. They were under the leadership of a "werewolf" or shaman [some of whom might have been females] who would guide them and teach them the ways of how to survive in the wilderness, teach them discipline, and the concepts of honor, loyalty, brotherhood and, ultimately, manhood.
What is the average number of wolves who run in a pack? Don't know - do you?
What about those carefully cut up pieces of canine skulls found buried at Krasnosamarskoe? You know, back in the day (the way ancient days), some cultures called their board game pieces "dogs" or otherwise named their games after canines, such as the ancient Egyptian game "Hounds and Jackals." What is that all about? Is it so far fetched to see a connection between the ancient times of these "packs" of boys sent off to learn how to become disciplined men and warriors, who sacrificed their dogs (OH GODDESS!), the slicing and dicing up of their doggies' skulls (OH GODDESS!) into bits and pieces, and possibly doing divination with them by tossing them onto a grid drawn into the ground?
Think about it.