4,000 years ago in the northern steppes of Eurasia, in the shadow of the Ural Mountains, a tiny settlement stood on a natural terrace overlooking the Samara River. In the late twentieth century, a group of archaeologists excavated the remains of two or three structures that once stood here, surrounded by green fields where sheep and cattle grazed. But the researchers quickly discovered this was no ordinary settlement. Unusual burials and the charred remains of almost fifty dogs suggested this place was a ritual center for at least 100 years.
Hartwick College anthropologist David Anthony and his colleagues have excavated for several years at the site, called Krasnosamarskoe, and have wondered since that time what kind of rituals would have left this particular set of remains behind. Anthony and his Hartwick College colleague Dorcas Brown offer some ideas in a paper published recently in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
The people who lived at Krasnosamarskoe were part of an Indo-European cultural group called Srubnaya, with Bronze Age technology. The Srubnaya lived in settlements year-round, but were not farmers. They kept animals, hunted for wild game, and gathered plants to eat opportunistically. Like many Indo-European peoples, they did not have what modern people would call an organized religion. But as Krasnosamarskoe demonstrates, they certainly had beliefs that were highly spiritual and symbolic. And they engaged in ritualistic practices over many generations.
Graves upon graves
Perhaps the first unusual feature of Krasnosamarskoe is that the people who lived here chose to build on top of an abandoned settlement that was about 1,000 years gone when the Srubnaya moved in. That previous settlement left behind three large kurgans, or burial mounds. Excavating one of these kurgans revealed a couple of 5,000-year-old skeletons from the first group, surrounded by 4,000-year-old remains from the Srubnaya. The people of Krasnosamarskoe obviously knew these were ancient grave mounds when they moved in, and chose to keep using them.
After exhaustively cataloguing dozens of burials in and around the kurgans, Anthony and his colleagues discovered a few patterns. First of all, most of the Srubnaya remains were of children. One showed signs of a degenerative disease, but the others appear to have died of illnesses that didn’t leave clear marks on their skeletons. None showed any signs of violent death or abuse. It seems likely that people brought their sick children to this place, perhaps seeking ritual medicine. The archaeologists also found pollen from a medicinal plant, Seseli, in one of the structures. Seseli is a mild sedative and muscle relaxant that could have been used to calm the suffering children. Those who did not survive were laid to rest in the ancient cemetery.
There were also the remains of five adults, two men and two women plus the leg bones of a third person. Perhaps these were two generations of people who ran the settlement, Anthony and Brown suggest. The men both had matching skeletal injuries that showed extreme wear and tear in their lower backs, knees, and ankles. Most likely, these injuries were from doing a lot of physical labor, possibly from a very young age. Though the lower back injury wasn’t particularly unusual, the knee and ankle injuries were very rare and suggested “twisting,” as if the men were engaging in unusual physical activities associated with rituals.
The dog sacrifices
The most obvious sign of ritual activity at Krasnosamarskoe was a pit full of bones from about 50 different dogs. Located inside one of the settlement structures, the pit had been filled with carefully butchered, chopped, and cooked dog bones. There were many signs that these dogs had been killed in rituals rather than for food. Perhaps most importantly, the Srubnaya people did not eat dogs as a regular part of their diets. In fact, dogs would have likely been beloved hunting companions.
Anthony and Brown write in their paper that rituals are often associated with an inversion or alteration of typical eating practices. The dogs were always killed in winter, then carefully chopped into small pieces, their skulls sliced in the same specific places. Knife marks and charring on the bones suggest they were filleted and cooked. It appears this ritual happened regularly, perhaps annually in winter, for at least two generations.
To figure out what kind of ritual this might have been, Anthony and Brown looked to what we know of Indo-European culture, whose distinctive symbolic practices were common across south Asia and Europe during the Bronze Age. Dogs are sometimes associated with death in these cultures, and there are representations in various Indo-European cultures of puppies drawing diseases out of people. Perhaps the dogs were sacrificed to save the lives of the sick children whose bodies they found buried next to the kurgans?
That could have been the answer, except for the fact that most of the sacrificed dogs were fairly old. This was their first hint that these dogs might have been sacrificed as part of a rite of passage ritual for boys becoming warriors. Write the authors:
The shock attached to such an act in a culture that did not eat dogs was increased by the intentional selection of older dogs for more than 80% of the victims: familiar, well-treated, human-like companions and therefore perhaps stand-ins for human victims; rather than young dogs, more suitable if starvation explained the behavior. Old, familiar dogs, possibly even their own dogs, might have represented an emotionally significant first death for boys learning to become killers of men.
Indo-European culture is full of stories about men becoming wolves or dogs—literally or symbolically—in order to become fighters. In ancient Greece, men sometimes donned wolf pelts in warrior rituals. Anthony and Brown conclude that the remains were from warrior transformation rituals. At Krasnosamarskoe, boys killed and ate their dogs in order to symbolically merge with them, taking on their fierceness in battle. This would also explain why many of the dogs in the pit came from far away. Boys must have come with their dogs from settlements throughout the region for this winter ritual of manhood.
Looked at from this perspective, the Srubnaya sacrifices were to honor dogs by absorbing their spirits. It would have been a ritual where boys learned to be killers, but also to respect their adversaries and feel their loss.
Werewolves among men
Other scholars have suggested that this kind of Indo-European ritual is connected to the werewolf myths that still haunt South Asia and Europe. Over the thousands of years since the events at Krasnosamarskoe, stories of men becoming dogs have evolved. The role of warrior transformed dramatically after the rise of city-states. Warriors were no longer the familiar men of the village; instead, they were soldiers, agents of a bureaucratic state. Perhaps that’s why a coming-of-age ritual among villagers became a terrifying story of people whose violent, wolflike impulses are uncontrollable and dangerous.
At the Krasnosamarskoe site, we have a chance to consider ritual life before modern religion, and warrior identity before modern politics. What’s remarkable is how complex the symbolism is already. The people participating in these rituals already had a sense of deep history, which is why they located their ritual center next to 1000-year-old kurgans. Their rituals were elaborate, with layers of meaning.
4,000 years ago in the northern steppes of eastern Europe, men were learning that being a warrior meant sacrifice. Boys had to kill beloved friends, and murder a part of themselves to become the dogs of war. Hidden in the violence of this ancient ritual was a profound message of sorrow and loss that can still strike a chord today.
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2017.07.004
Listing image by Journal of Anthropological Archaeology
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