The disdain with which the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas has been held in the field of classics and archaeology was shown to me when I stated quietly at a cocktail party at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens that I was interested in her work. This comment, tentatively offered, unleashed a tirade from a young female archaeologist who began shouting at me: “Her work is unscholarly and because it is, it is harder for me and other women scholars in the field to be taken seriously.”
Responding to the backlash against her theories, Gimbutas is said to have told a female colleague that it might take decades, but eventually the value of her work would be recognized. It is now more than twenty years since Marija Gimbutas died in 1994, and the value of her work is beginning to be recognized by (at least some of) her colleagues—including one of her harshest critics. In a lecture titled “Marija Rediviva: DNA and Indo-European Origins,” renowned archaeologist Lord Colin Renfrew (allied with the British Conservative Party**), who had been one of Gimbutas’s most vociferous antagonists and a powerful gate-keeper, concluded the inaugural Marija Gimbutas Lecture at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago with these words: “Marija [Gimbutas]’s Kurgan hypothesis has been magnificently vindicated.”
In the lecture, Colin* explains Gimbutas’s Kurgan hypothesis about the spread of Indo-European languages from the steppes north of the Black Sea by invaders she called “Kurgans,” from a word of Slavic origin which refers to their characteristic burial mounds. Gimbutas spoke of these as “big man” graves, arguing that they marked the appearance of a new cultural group into Europe—one that was patriarchal, patrilineal, and warlike. Before their arrival, the people Gimbutas called “Old Europeans” buried their dead in communal graves, with grave offerings indicating no great difference in wealth or status and no domination of one sex over the other. Gimbutas argued that the “Kurgan” people introduced Indo-European languages into the lands they conquered, as well as new cultural systems based on domination of warriors and kings over the general populace and the domination of men over women. She stated that the Kurgan invasions of Europe began about 4400 BCE and lasted for several millennia.
Colin* dismissed the Kurgan theory, advancing his alternative hypothesis that Indo-European languages were introduced into Europe through the spread of agriculture from the Middle East after 7000 BCE. While Gimbutas spoke of a “clash of cultures” between the peaceful, sedentary, matrifocal cultures of Old Europe and the new culture of the Kurgan warriors, Colin* preferred the theory that cultures change through processes of internal evolution, rather than by violent overthrow.
In his lecture, Colin* discussed the different theories about the diffusion of the Indo-European languages across most of Europe and large parts of the Middle East and South Asia. He cited new evidence based on analysis of DNA in ancient bones that has been published in the last several years, acknowledging that this evidence definitively proves that a group called the “Yamnaya” people entered Europe in large numbers from their homeland north of the Black Sea. Colin* stated that he believed this evidence to be scientifically valid and thus to have proved Gimbutas’s Kurgan hypothesis. Stating that little work had been done on DNA of ancient bones from the area of modern Turkey he postulated as the Indo-Eurpoean homeland, he said that his hypothesis had not been disproved and held out the hope that it too might be proved to be correct. (Most scholars consider this unlikely.)
It is important to note that when Colin* said that Gimbutas’s Kurgan hypothesis has been proved, he was saying only that there is now convincing DNA evidence to uphold her idea that a new population element most likely speaking an Indo-European language entered into Europe at the times she postulated. He did not evaluate or endorse Gimbutas’s theory of a “clash of cultures” between peaceful, sedentary, matrifocal cultures of Old Europe and invading nomadic, warlike, patriarchal cultures of the Indo-Europeans. Nonetheless, in declaring Marija Gimbutas’s Kurgan hypothesis “magnificently vindicated,” Lord Colin Renfrew, considered by many to be “the grand old man” of his field, opened the floodgates. He implicitly gave permission to other scholars to reconsider all of Gimbutas’s theories and perhaps eventually to restore her to her rightful place as one of the most–if not the most–creative, scientific, ground-breaking archaeologists of the twentieth century, “the grand old lady” of her field.
*In the title of his lecture and within it, Colin Renfrew refers to Marija Gimbutas as “Marija.” Though he acknowledged her as a personal friend, I found his use of her first name in a scholarly lecture to be a subtle way of separating a female archaeologist from the company of male archaeologists referred to using first and last names or last names only. So I decided to put the shoe on the other foot. I also note that the title of the lecture could have been “Marija Gimbutas Triumphant,” while the use of the Latin for “Reborn” obfuscates its meaning for those not fluent in Latin.
**Yes this is relevant, because conservatives are more likely to believe that patriarchy and war are universal, normative, and the only way to organize societies.
Thanks to Joan Mahler for informing me about the lecture.
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