Marija Gimbutas Triumphant: Colin Renfrew Concedes by Carol P. Christ

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.

* * *

a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverGoddess and God in the World final cover designCarol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is  Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

FAR Press recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess.

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Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

43 thoughts on “Marija Gimbutas Triumphant: Colin Renfrew Concedes by Carol P. Christ”

  1. WOW. Thank you for letting us know about this, Carol and Joan. Carol, I particularly appreciate your footnotes astutely deconstructing the subtle ways in which CR continues to try to dismiss or diminish MG while claiming to vindicate her theory. This just shows how the process of women finding and keeping a voice (and being heard) in male-dominated fields is not so simple. but how amazing that after such a long time there is this acknowledgment of the validity of her work.

    Like you, I hope CR’s (albeit reluctant and qualified) example can give ‘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.’

    And I wish the same for you, too, dear Carol, since you have often written (as in this post) about the strenuous efforts made by certain ‘gate-keepers’ of academia to keep you out and your work down. But they won’t succeed with that either. You and your ideas are known and loved by millions all over the world. Thank you, “grand lady” of feminist theology!

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Even though the DNA evidence confirming the Kurgan hypothesis has been known to Gimbutas’s supporters for several years, it is nice to see her main antagonist and powerful gatekeeper finally concede that her work has at least some value.

      The linguistic evidence also supports the Kurgan hypothesis over Renfrew’s Anatolian hypothesis, and this is why most linguists agree with some version of her theory. For example, the words for crops and farm implements are different in different Indo-European languages. Why? Because people speaking non-Indo-European languages already had words for wheat, barley, plant, sow, and the like, while the Indo-Europeans did not. On the other hand, the word for horse has an Indo-European root. There were no horses in Europe in 7000 BCE to let’s say 5000 BCE (and of course none earlier either). Thus it is clear that the Indo-European languages did not spread into Europe with early agriculture. There were people who spread into Europe from the middle east as well as earlier population groups already settled in Europe, but none of these spoke Indo-European languages. This is why there is shall I say “no chance” that Renfrew’s hypothesis will be confirmed.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. When I read this article of yours Carol I felt vindicated because in my bones and in my personal experience, as well as through scholarship I knew Marija had tapped into what simply is. The older I become the more difficult it is for me to tolerate these so called gatekeepers and the closed minds of academia… every issue seems to me to have a “both and” component.

    Thank goodness for your scholarship and courage to stand up for this remarkable woman and to demonstrate that you can effectively see and articulate both sides with such brevity and clarity…

    I am so grateful for this column..

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Hooray! Hooray!! Hooray!!! I heard her lecture several times and met her personally each time. I used to make little fat goddesses out of glow-in-the-dark Fimo (which is like modeling clay, only sort of plastic) and carve “the language of the Goddess” in them. I gave her one. She was gracious and wise and approachable, and it always made me very angry to read or hear the vile things some of “those people” said or wrote about her work. Good for Colin.

    Thanks for telling us about this important change in reality. It’s astonishing that men cannot take the work of serious and scholarly women seriously. Well, maybe they’re beginning to learn. And good for you for calling him by his first name. Sauce for the gander………

    Liked by 4 people

  4. What a great moment! I am so thrilled. Thank you so much, Carol, for bringing us this news so vividly. I have a strong memory of a trip to the Natural History Museum in Vienna, where the Willendorf figurine is housed. That day, she was in a small case, right inside the door of a large room. After her, case after case depicted the tools of food, life, jewelry– the decoration and enjoyment of her people. Then, WHAM! in the archaeological record, the horse-riders appeared. And the archaeological record dramatically changed to weapons and horse-gear and the machinery of war and killing. You could literally walk through prehistory and see it unfold. The Gimbutas “hypothesis” never seemed like a “hypothesis” after I had taken that walk.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Hi Carol,
        I have Wednesday December 27th available at 6PM Pacific and then it’s a long stretch until I have another opening – Wednesday March 21 at 6PM Pacific. If you’d like one of these dates, I’ll lock you in. If not, let’s chat by email.


  5. Wonderful! I remember when I first learned of Gimbutas’ work and how much sense it made to me. It is so gratifying to hear that Colin has finally come around. Thanks so much for letting us know!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I listened to Colin Renfew’s lecture last week (thanks, Joan Marler and Karen Tate!!) and was so happy to hear Gimbutas’ theory vindicated by one of her antagonists. I’ve been reading about the genetic work over the last few years and realizing that this turn-around was soon to happen. Of course, academic trendiness was a major problem for Gimbutas. But I believe that we Goddess scholars (who were not archaeologists) were a part of Gimbutas’ problem. It seemed to me when reading the opposition over the last 30 years that there was almost always a sentence or two about how we “ignorant” Goddess women and Pagans just wanted Gimbutas to be right, and therefore embraced her ideas. This was used to tarnish Gimbutas’ theory with our supposed “ignorance” and our unscholarly desire for a better world. Well, of course, we wanted her to be right. We wanted a (pre-)history that was peaceful, egalitarian, and possibly matriarchal (in the European sense), because we wanted that to be possible again for our species. But our desires didn’t make her wrong, anymore than the opposition’s patriarchal desire for their domination theory to be true (“war is the natural state of life”) made them right.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes Nancy I agree, The “scholars” didn’t know what to make of her popularity and all the women coming to them wanting to learn about the Goddess and a peaceful world. Equally important is the fact that she pulled the rug out from under their feet when she stated that what they thought of as civilization–wars, war heroes, conquest, etc–is not civilized at all. In other words she said and said it bluntly: everything you are studying and teaching has led to great suffering and in our time could lead to the end of life as we know it on this earth. It was too much for them! It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Scholars are not as thoughtful and open-minded as they like to believe they are!

      Liked by 4 people

  7. I was impressed by the review of THE LANGUAGE OF THE GODDESS by Marija Gimbutas.

    Here’s a quote — so sensitively:

    “In this pioneering and provocative volume, Marija Gimbutas resurrects the world of the Goddess-worshipping, earth-centered cultures, bringing ancient matriarchal society vividly to life. She interweaves comparative mythology, early historical sources, linguistics, ethnography, and folklore to demonstrate conclusively that Goddess-worship is at the root of Western civilization.”

    Liked by 2 people

  8. If you’re following the thread of this conversation, tune in to Voices of the Sacred Feminine radio on Blog Talk Wednesday, December 27th when I discuss with Carol Christ this important new development. Here is the link – if you’ve never listened before you should call a bit early to log in first. Show is on at a special time to accommodate the time difference between California and Greece – 9PM Pacific time. You can always tune in later from the archives. Thanks to Carol for taking to the airwaves with this important vindication for our beloved Marija… Show airs Wednesday nights for the last ten years and there is a treasure trove of academics, political leaders, feminists, spiritual leaders and social justice activists in the archives from Noam Chomsky and Richard Wolf to Phyllis Chessler, Riane Eisler, Jean Houston and Vandana Shiva.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is indeed good news. I find the give in this lecture heartening, though the lack of professional recognition in naming Gimbutas hints at the remaining power entrenchment. No matter how uncomfortable it might be for Renfrew, he could not help but admit Gimbutas was right. Though it might be tough to come out and say it, the growing pile of evidence would make it more embarrassing for him not to.

    The bias, as Nancy Vedder-Shults notes, has been on both sides. But the power has been on only one, yet another clear expression of the ongoing social domination model.

    About that, I disagree with the young female archaeologist who shouted at you. Obviously she was wrong about Gimbutas work being unscholarly. Beyond that, her feeling that we should reject Gimbutas’ theories to make our lives in academia easier is a mistake. Grow some backbone! Submitting to the status quo is what makes our lives harder in the long run. Isn’t it about objective truth, after all, and not sucking up to the profs? I grant that it’s not easy, but it’s important to do what is right.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This not only overturns Lord Renfrew on this subject, but it cuts the legs out from under Martin Bernal. Thanks for the wonderful news, and the link to the vid. BTW Carol, we recently read your, and Judith’s book, “Goddess and God in the World” for our Evolving-God Images class at Pacifica Graduate Institute. A great read. Thank You.


  11. Colin Renfrew is a respected archaeologist, but I think you may be making him out to be more of a grand old man than he really is. The scholarly world has been opposed to migration theories, especially when it comes to the Indo-Europeans, because somehow those theories got to be associated with Nazi ideologies. I think that was an important factor why many people were opposing, or just not very quick to accept, Marija Gimbutas’ Kurgan Hypothesis – that and the fact that they saw little evidence for her Goddess theory. I think the Goddess theory made her look unscientific, and it made it easier for people to dismiss the Kurgan Hypothesis.
    I am a historical linguist; I know that most of my colleagues immediately rejected Renfrew’s Anatolian Hypothesis, and I am not sure that the hypothesis ever had a great many supporters, even if it was initially said to revolutionize the way we see prehistory. Two years after Renfrew wrote his book, Jim Mallory published In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, and I believe it was all downhill for Renfrew from then on. Colin Renfrew is just a stubborn old man. That doesn’t make him a grand old man :-)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Linguists have accepted the Kurgan hypothesis, but it is a somewhat different story in the fields of classics and archaeology in Britain and the US. In any case, he gave up on the Kurgan hypothesis.


      1. What does “they saw very little evidence for her Goddess theory” mean in light of the massive amount of evidence she put forward in several books. They did not accept her theory, but I am not convinced evidence had a lot to do with it. I think what upset them was the idea that patriarchy as we know it from the Greeks to the present is not the only and not the highest form of civilization.

        For many scholars evidence equates to written records and they are willing to concede that we will never know anything about the spiritual views of “prehistoric” peoples. Gimbutas says that symbolic evidence can be analyzed and understood. Of course nothing is 100% sure, but neither is it 100% sure that writers of myths like Genesis 1-3 or Hesiod’s Theogony reflected the views of anyone other than themselves or their elite group.

        James M. Redfield challenges his colleagues to accept a theory when it is not “proved” beyond a doubt but rather when it explains evidence that would otherwise remain opaque. Such a theory should be rejected only when a better theory is proposed. This is a different way to access the value of a theory.


      2. Well, I am not an archaeologist, and I have not read her work on Goddess theory. All I know is that I have asked I think five different archaeologists how they feel about the subject, and they all said that there was a lack of evidence for her theory. Archaeologists have been biased against migration theories, so they might also be biased against the goddess theory, but I know these researchers well enough to think it unlikely that they consider patriarchy to be the highest form of civilization.
        From what I understand, Marija Gimbutas said herself that the reason archaeologists were reluctant to accept her theories was that she worked on intuition, which they did not. In my work as a linguist, I work on intuition too, and I have noticed that I generally don’t like the work of other linguists who do not seem to work on intuition. But as a researcher, you can never ever let your intuition be your evidence. To me it sounds as if that is what she did, which would explain the reactions.
        Anyhow, I am not an expert. And I really just wanted to make a point about the proposed gandeur of Colin Renfrew.


  12. I attended a lecture by David Anthony this month. He said at the end that Gimbutas had been proved right but for the wrong reasons…. He also stated that the lack of remains of the Yamnaya in the steppes means they didn’t stay anywhere long enough to leave traces of their material culture. (I wasn’t clear which particular period he had in mind). There is another case of a woman not getting the recognition she richly deserved. The woman who wrote “The Aquatic Ape’ . She was ignored for a long time as she hadn’t the right diplomas or whatever. Yet her work was both intuitive and factual. Sorry, forgot her name. Glad I found this site.
    Might it be the case that cognitive archaeology is seen as just another term for intuition?


    1. Anthony wrote a detailed book refining and providing linguistic and other than DNA evidence for her “Kurgan” theory. I suspect what he meant was that the DNA is not the only evidence that proves her theory and that his book should be mentioned.
      Gimbutas certainly used intuition but she believed her work was also scientific, in other words she did offer proof based on archaeological evidence,, linguistic evidence, and artifactual evidence.


      1. Yes indeed. But the point of his lecture was that the result of the great advances in DNA extraction and analysis since 2005 surprised him. He had not expected the Yamnaya to have penetrated so far and wide into Europe, covering the same area as the corded ware people. 75% of the DNA in that study was Yamnaya.
        At this point he stated that Gimbutas was right for the wrong reasons.


      2. Not sure what he meant? Maybe that he did not find the linguistic or other evidence she cited convincing but he did find the DNA evidence convincing. If so, he might have said that the DNA evidence provides convincing proof that the other lines of evidence Gimbutas cited were pointing in the right direction!!!


  13. I believe others tried to discredit her ideas as being motivated by, or at least for being superficially supportive of, white supremacist ideology. I saw one quote linking her to Hitler, and another suggesting a link between her ideas and Baltic Nationalism. Both criticisms commit the informal fallacy known as the “genetic fallacy”. Even if her Kurgan Hypothesis were motivated by, or suggestive of, some sort of self-interested racism or nationalism (which I have no reason for believing it was), such considerations have absolutely zero relevance to the truth or falsity of the Kurgan Hypothesis itself. Any idea, hypothesis, theory, mathematical formula/equation, or any other sentence/expression capable of being true or false, is true or false on its own. The best person in the world, with the best possible motives, cannot make “2+2 = 5” true, and the worse person, with the worse possible motives, cannot make “2+2 = 4” false. That being said, I happen to admire Marija Gimbutas. As I understand it, she formulated one of the most impressive theories of our time, which has been vindicated in the highest order, despite receiving unfair and unequal treatment based on her biological sex. And in the interviews I see of her on YouTube, she never seemed one bit discouraged.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Blanket charges of European nationalism are sometimes lobbed at anyone who attempts to uncover European pagan past because the Nazis admired their pre-Christian German past. Others find studying the European past but not other pasts is nationalist. However, Marija stuck with what she knew. I believe her hypotheses about Europe can help to unlock the pasts of other cultures that had a Neolithic past followed by patriarchal warlike invasions. Gimbutas herself could not do this work as she was not a specialist in the languages and anyway had her hands full with her research on Europe.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. “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.”

    Yet it was Renfrew who clung to “the theory that cultures change through processes of internal evolution” and that IE languages disseminated “through the spread of agriculture” rather than through invasion and conquest.


    1. You point out an interesting contraction in patriarchal thought. On the one hand defenders of patriarchy assume that patriarchy and war are universal or at least universal in “civilized” as opposd to “primitive” societies. On the other they are sometimes unwilling to accept that war and conquest have decimated and transformed societies from Biblical and classical Greek times on through the colonial period and up to the present day. If someone criticizes warlike male dominant societies they say, but there are no alternatives. But if someone says your colonial forebears destroyed the Indians or some other group, they will try to provide others reasons, such as that the group was not destroyed, rather it became civilized.


  15. Before I graduated from UCLA’s school of engineering, I was required to take a few courses in the Humanities to round out my rather focused education. I chose anthropology and in 1965 I took a course on the technology of the Chalcolithic give by Professor Gimbutas, then a visiting professor at UCLA.. I was fascinated by the course material and greatly admired her as a teacher. I am delighted to see that see achieved a position of prominence in her field.


  16. Renfrew’s theory of the expansion of the Indo-European languages with the spread of farming has been shown to be incorrect. This does not make Gimbutas, whose explanation has also been shown to be incorrect in most details, ‘triumphant’.


    1. Not sure which details you are talking about. The new DNA research does prove G’s general theory concerning IE invaders to be correct. As I said it does not prove every detail of her theories, but it does make her “triumphant” overall.


      1. ‘New DNA research’… would that be Haak et al 2015 and their “steppe migrants replaced ~75% of the ancestry of central Europeans” again? :-/

        Anyway, I’m happy to accept the ‘general theory’ that IE languages were brought to Europe by Yamnaya settlers, or perhaps invaders, from the Pontic steppe. Not particularly convinced by the chronology or migration model that Gimbutas proposed, is all.

        Still, a lot better than Renfrew’s ‘out of Anatolia’ model. That should have been abandoned a *long* time ago…


    2. Her explanation is excellent, even if some lesser corners do need to be polished and updated, notably her inclusion of the sequence Baalberge > Lubon > Globular Amphorae (East Germany, Poland) in the kurgan or Indoeuropean group seems now to be wrong, as people from Polish Globular Amphorae are clearly pre-Indoeuropean in their genetics (EEF or Sardinian-like instead). This detail was a contested issue before the advent of archaeogenetics but it’s a lesser detail wen compared with the overall kurgan expansion pattern and only makes the sudden irruption of Corded Ware much more dramatic and decisive, more so as it is the core group behind most European Indoeuropean.


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