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.

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Categories: Academics, Archaeology, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Goddess

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22 replies

  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 6 people

    • 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 2 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 3 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 3 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 3 people

  5. Carol, Would love to have you come discuss this on Voices of the Sacred Feminine Radio if you have time. Important information, vindication, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. 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 2 people

  7. 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

    • 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

  8. Thank you so much for this, Carol. Very well-written and we’ll-thought-out.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I was impressed by the amazon.com 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

  10. 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….www.blogtalkradio.com/voicesofthesacredfeminine 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.

    Like

  11. Thank you so much Carol, Joan and you all! This feels so good..

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Very exciting news! Thank you.!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. 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.

    Like

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