The Most Ancient Population Of Latvia

by Raisa Denisova

The first arrival of people in the Eastern Baltic region (and in all of Northern Europe) was dependent upon the Scandinavian glacier. Its very slow retreat occurred as the result of climactic shifts which took place over the course of several millennia and were still ongoing in the late Paleolithic period.

At that time, the Scandinavian glacier still covered a fairly vast territory: the lowlands of Central Europe, Scandinavia, Finland, the Eastern Baltic region, and Northwestern Russia, including the Karelian peninsula and territories to its East. The melting of the Scandinavian glacier is divided into several climactic periods by specialists. The cold Driassian period was replaced two times by warmer periods (Belling and Allerod) which facilitated the gradual retreat and melting of the glacier.

In the population of Latvia and the rest of the Baltic region, the decisive factor was the ancient Europeans who first came into the Central European lowlands from which the glacier had retreated. This territory stretches from the Netherlands to the lower reaches of the Vistula and Niemen rivers and borders the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Further East the territory meets the Pripet basin, as well as the upper Dnieper and Daugava rivers.

During the Driassian period, the ice cover gradually retreated, and a unique world of flora emerged. Plants more commonly found in Arctic territories, the Alps and the continent's steppes -- plants which are tolerant to cold and which love the light -- appeared in the region to create a thick and high grass cover with occasional osieries or miniature birch trees. This ground cover has no analogue in the present-day world. In scientific literature, this Driassian ground cover is called a tundra steppe, and it stretched eastward to the Middle Russian and Valdai hills of Russia. Thanks to the low level of precipitation which was characteristic of the Driassian period, there was very little snow on the tundra steppe during the winter months. Above the snow there was still a high and dry cover of grasses. That led to the appearance of the region's first animals -- reindeer, which had a year-round food supply. The result was that in the latter years of the Ice Age, an ecological niche with a specific set of flora and fauna appeared in the area, and these proved to be appropriate for human inhabitation.

The first humans arrived in the Middle European lowlands in the late Paleolithic period, and over the course of many generations they gradually populated the farthest reaches of Northern Europe, including the Eastern Baltic. Several thousand years passed between the arrival of the first humans in the Middle European lowlands and the arrival of the first residents of the Eastern Baltic. This is particularly true of Latvia and Estonia, although the first humans arrived in southern and especially southeastern Lithuania much earlier than was the case in the rest of the Baltic region.

The first people to arrive in the Middle European tundra steppe (possibly from the West) were reindeer hunters who over the course of many generations had learned specific ways of hunting the beasts and who traveled along with reindeer herds in order to provide themselves with sustenance. As the tundra expanded to Northwestern Russia, the reindeer found fresh grazing grounds, and these were soon conquered by human inhabitants, as well.

In the tundra steppe there were several chronologically successive migrations of humans, and this has been proven through archaeological excavations. In the settlements left behind by ancient residents in Lithuania, for example, specialist R. Rimantiene has found traces of the cultural traditions of the Lingbi, Bromme, Arensburg and Svidrian people. These ancient settlements are found mostly in southeastern Lithuania and are dated to the late Allerod and the late Driassian periods (Rimantiene 1971, 1984). This territory is adjacent to the Pripet basin, where archaeologists have found a large number of settlements with evidence of tool manufacturing technologies typical of the aforementioned periods. Such settlements have also been found near the Upper Dnieper, as well as at the Soża and Desna river valley (these are left bank tributaries to the Dnieper) (Zaliznyak 1979, Kopytin 1979). Of special importance here is the Anosova flint workshop and settlement which has been found near the Upper Dnieper; there, the tool manufacturing technologies were typical of Lingbi and Arensburg traditions (Gurina 1965).

In the very last part of the Paleolithic period, archaeologists have found, there was a migration of people of the Svidrian culture who reached Lithuania and Northwestern Russia. It is usually believed that these people came from Poland. There is another notable school of thought, however, which holds that the Svidrian cultural traditions were actually established in the southeastern part of the Russian plains -- the valley of the Don river where a wealth of late Paleolithic artifacts has been found (Gurina 1965).

Archaeologists have also noted a migration of Maglemosian people during the early Mesolithic period in an eastward direction to the northwestern part of Russia. Testimony of this is provided both by settlements of these tribes which have been found in Lithuania (Rimantiene 1971, 1984) and by the effect which the Maglemosian culture had on the territory which lies adjacent to the southwestern shores of the Oneg lake. In the early Mesolithic period, things were manufactured of bone in a method that was completely identical to that used by Maglemosian people in Denmark at the same time (Oshibkina 1983).

Thus archaeological data indicate that the migration of the Maglemosian people concluded several chronologically successive migrations of late Paleolithic peoples from the West to the East. This suggests that at the end of that period, a genetic fund was being established in populations resident in the territory that is southwest of Latvia -- the Pripet basin and the Upper Dnieper valley. This genetic fund was part of a larger genetic system of late Paleolithic residents in Northern Europe. For that reason, people who settled on lands around the Upper Dnieper and the Upper Daugava during the late Paleolithic period had close genetic links to the most ancient populations of the Middle European lowlands. That could mean that during the Mesolithic period, an anthropologically similar group of peoples lived from the Netherlands in the West to the Middle Russian highlands to the East. Local residents may have been possessed of the morphological elements of ancient Northern European peoples, whose roots were linked to the late Paleolithic populations of Europe.

Even though the Niemen and the Daugava are separated only by a few hundred kilometers of dry land, the territory between the two rivers remained uninhabited for quite a long time. The most ancient settlements in southern Lithuania are some 2,000 years older than the first settlements on the shores of the Daugava. Moreover, the first residents in Latvia arrived not through Lithuania, as would seem logical, but rather from the Southeast, using the Dnieper river and the Upper Daugava for this purpose.

Evidence of this is provided by the fact that the most ancient settlements in Latvia are found mostly in the eastern part of the country -- near the Dviete river, along the Aiviekste river, near Lake Lubāns, and on the shores of the Daugava (at Sēlpils, Ikšķile and Salaspils-Laukskola). In all of these places archaeologists have found various man-made artifacts of bone and horn, as well as nests of flint antiquities which suggest that the earliest populations arrived in Latvia at the very end of the late Paleolithic period (Zagorska 1992).

This early Latvian residents gradually moved across the eastern part of the country and then moved northward into the Lubāns lowlands, the Vidzeme region and Estonia (Jaanits 1990). As was mentioned previously, however, the first residents of Lithuania arrived considerably earlier. Moreover, Lithuania was directly affected by several population migrations from the West in the late Paleolithic period.

Specialists feel that because of these circumstances, two different cultural regions were established in the Baltic during the early Mesolithic period. One conformed to the Niemen Mesolithic culture of Lithuania, while the other involved the Kundian culture in Latvia and Estonia. This cultural division persisted throughout the Stone Age in the Baltic region (Denisova 1994).

Several generations of archaeologists have worked in specifying the genesis of the Kundian culture. Currently specialists are working with a completely new range of archaeological materials from the very last part of the late Paleolithic period (Zagorska 1974) and from the early Mesolithic period (K. Jaanits 1990). The pre-Boreal period is represented through settlements in Estonia (Pulli, Lepakose) and Latvia (Zvejnieki II) (Zagorska 1981, 1992; K. Jaanits 1990). For the first time, archaeologists have also found well-preserved human skeletons (the Zvejnieki burial ground in northern Latvia) which are dated to the Boreal and Atlantic period (Denisova 1994, 1996). These data allow specialists to gain a much better understanding of the genesis of the Kundian culture.

The flint industry at the Pulli, Lepakose and Zvejnieki II settlements bore distinct characteristics of post-Svidrian culture (Zagorskis, Zagorska 1977; Jaanits 1990). The flint artifacts which have been found at these settlements, moreover, are quite similar to artifacts which have been obtained in late Paleolithic and early Mesolithic settlements in northern Belarus. Of particular importance in this respect is an early Mesolithic settlement, Krumpleva, that was found near the Belarussian section of the Upper Daugava (Gurina 1960). Flint objects which were found there are completely identical to the same objects found at the Pulli settlement, and the flint used in both locations is precisely of the same color and quality. These facts have justifiably allowed Dr. K. Jaanits to describe the Krumpleva settlement as a monument to the early phase of the development of Kundian culture and the Daugava river as an important transportation route via which the most ancient populations arrived in Latvia and Estonia (K. Jaanits 1990).

Searching for indications of Kundian culture in the late Paleolithic period, Dr. Jaanits has pointed to two possible conclusions. First of all, distinct post-Svidrian traditions in the Kundian culture can be interpreted as pointing to a direct genetic link with Svidrian culture in Poland. Secondly, characteristics of the Svidrian culture flint artifacts are typical of the late Paleolithic period across a fairly vast section of Eastern Europe (including the Dnieper-Don-Desna, the Volga and the Oka regions). This allows specialists to see roots of the Kundian culture in the late Paleolithic period in Eastern Europe (K. Jaanits 1990).

Unfortunately, no skulls have been found of the late Paleolithic residents who migrated from the Middle European lowlands to the Pripet basin and the regions of the Upper Dnieper and Daugava. Specialists do, however, have anthropological data about the Mesolithic period population of these territories, and these inhabitants can to a certain extent be viewed as successors to the previous populations. This is indirect evidence, to be sure, but it nevertheless allows us to draw some conclusions about the characteristics of residents in the late Paleolithic period.

Our main source of information about the residents of the Mesolithic period and the early Neolithic period in Latvia is the Zvejnieki burial ground (archaeological excavations done by Dr. F. Zagorskis). Approximately 300 Stone Age graves were discovered (Denisova 1975; Zagorskis 1985). The Zvejnieki burial ground is located in northern Latvia, on the northern shore of the Burtnieks lake and approximately 100 kilometers from the early Mesolithic Pulli settlement of Estonia. Along with the burial ground, the Zvejnieki site also boasts Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements (Zvejnieki II and Zvejnieki I respectively).

The most ancient burial sites in the Zvejnieki area can be dated to the end of the Boreal and the beginning of the Atlantic period (6300 - 5800 BC), and archaeologists have found several individual graves. These graves yielded the most ancient skulls which have ever been found in the Baltic region (Denisova 1994, 1996). The people who left individual graves here cannot be linked genetically, because 14C dating indicates that the age of the various graves differs by several hundred years. This means that each person buried at the site can be evaluated separately.

In approximately 5000 BC, people at the Zvejnieki site began to bury their dead systematically, and over the course of some 200 years, a late Mesolithic graveyard was established (Denisova 1996). The people buried here can be seen as a paleopopulation with the succession of several generations that is typical of such populations.

When we look at the most ancient residents of Latvia from an anthropological standpoint, we must remember the anthropological data of Mesolithic and early Neolithic populations in those territories which are adjacent to Latvia. This helps to provide a more objective understanding of the origins of Latvia's most ancient peoples.

Latvia's most ancient inhabitants tended to be large in size, with large skulls, a distinctly oblong head shape, a broad, high face and a distinctly protruding nose (Denisova 1975). Looking at this data in the context of synchronous populations elsewhere in Europe, we can find specific geographic differentials. This is especially true of the facial width of residents, a factor which has great weight in the specification of race (Denisova 1978). Differences in facial width in Europe became particularly distinctive at the beginning of the Atlantic period, when farming was begun in Europe. At this time, facial width distinctly separated morphological forms in Northern Europe from those in the Mediterranean region -- two distinct geographic regions. Massive, broad-faced morphological forms dominated in northern and northeastern Europe, while gracile, narrow-faced forms are found most often in Middle Europe and the continent's southeastern reaches. During the Atlantic period, narrow-faced populations gradually moved in the northerly and northeasterly direction. They reached the Baltic region only during the Bronze Age. For this reason, during the Mesolithic and Neolithic period, people in the Baltic region (and surrounding regions) had broad faces, a fact which affirms their links to the late Paleolithic populations of Europe. This does not by any means suggest, however, that all of the Mesolithic and early Neolithic populations of Northern Europe were identical from the anthropological standpoint. At least two gradations of facial width (135-142 mm in one group and 144-150 in the other) can be found in this territory. Other characteristics for race specification, moreover, suggest that the most ancient residents of Latvia had several different morphological forms.

Within the previously described morphological form that was characteristic of early Mesolithic inhabitants in Latvia, we can find two different anthropological types which must be linked to inhabitants of different backgrounds. One of these anthropological types is characterized by a large skull and a very broad (149 mm) face.

The fact that this broad-faced morphological form was typical of Mesolithic populations is affirmed by the fairly large territory over which this form is found. Anthropologically similar Mesolithic populations have been found in two burial grounds in the northwestern part of Russia. One of them, the Popov burial ground, is found to the East of the Oneg lake (Ošibkina 1994) and contains individual Mesolithic graves. The second is the widely known Olenij Ostrov burial ground, which contains a wide variety of anthropological types (Yakimov 1960). Only some of the individuals found in these burial grounds had massive, distinctly broad-faced morphological forms. Very similar populations of the same background also inhabited the region around the Middle Dnieper river (the Vasiljevka III burial ground) (Gohman 1966) The graves of these inhabitants date back to the very earliest part of the Mesolithic period (8130 - 8000 BC) (Hedges et al 1995), but basically they are representative of the transitional period between the late Paleolithic and the Mesolithic period. The most ancient broad-faced Mesolithic inhabitants have been found near the Middle Dnieper, and it is possible that they had contacts with late Paleolithic inhabitants in the area. In Latvia, too, these inhabitants are among the most ancient (Boreal period). From the anthropological viewpoint, completely similar Mesolithic inhabitants also populated Scandinavia -- Stangenas, Korsor, Vedbaek, Ravnstrup, Koelbjerg (Broste, Jorgensen et al 1956; Asmus 1973).

Naturally the description provided here is incomplete, because the number of skulls which have been found from the Mesolithic period is not very large. Nevertheless it seems that the territory which in the Mesolithic period was populated by distinctly broad-faced individuals can be defined quite specifically. These inhabitants did not disappear over time. Their successors continued to inhabit Eastern Europe in the early Neolithic period, although their territory, possibly, diminished considerably. It is thought, for example, that these people were no longer present in Latvia during the Atlantic period.

During the early Neolithic period, similar residents populated the Upper Volga and Upper Oka, the area in which the Upper Volga culture prevailed (unpublished data by the author). The same anthropological type was also found among early Neolithic residents of the Dnieper-Donetz culture of Ukraine (Gohman 1996;Konduktorova 1973). The large number of skulls found in this region provide a very complete understanding of the anthropological type of the massive, broad-faced (145-153 mm on average) inhabitants of the region, and they allow us to conclude firmly that such inhabitants existed in the Mesolithic and early Neolithic period. It is possible that residents of the same background also continued to populate Denmark (Stasevang, Kolderod, Dojringe) during the same period.

The morphological type described here is quite unique and is easily distinguished from any other type. The very informational nature of this article does not allow me to discuss other anthropologically important characteristics of the distinctly broad-faced populations. Compared to the inhabitants of the Boreal period, however, they had considerably (by 10 mm!) narrower faces, even though the faces were still quite broad (140 mm on average). A second important difference lay in the horizontal profile of the face. It had a crass profile at both facial levels, which unquestionably pointed to a European belonging. These people continued to inhabit ancient fishing territories until the end of the Mesolithic period, but in Latvia, this complex of anthropological characteristics remained characteristic in other times, too. During the Mesolithic period, anthropologically similar peoples inhabited Normandy (Hoedik) (Vallois 1957) and the Middle European lowlands (Vianen, Hengelo, Bottendorf) (G. Asmus 1973). The most ancient similar morphological form was prevalent among inhabitants of France's Madlein culture.

These analogies point to the origins of the Mesolithic period inhabitants of Latvia and to the fact that they arrived in Latvia from the West. Archaeological evidence points to the same facts.

During the Atlantic period, there were two culminations of warmer weather (Khotinsky et al 1991) which were separated by a brief period of considerably cooler weather. In the northwestern part of Russia, this cooler period lasted from 6200 to 6000 BC (Dolukhanov et al 1989). In Latvia, the first warmer period took place from 6600 to 6400 BC and coincided with the transfer from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic period. During this time, the prevalence of broad-leaf trees in Latvia forests increased considerably. Most prevalent was the oak tree; its incidence increased fourfold (Lyevkovskaya 1987).

In the Eastern Baltic region during this time, there were several early Neolithic permanent settlements (Zagorskis 1967; Loze 1988). During the early Neolithic period in the Baltic region, inhabitants began to fashion dishes out of clay. Osa and Zvidze have used 14C dating to conclude that the oldest clay ware was made between 4600 and 4500 BC (Loze 1988).

During the late Mesolithic period, there was a fairly lengthy suspension of new burials in the Zvejnieki burial ground. This suspension began around 4800 BC (during the culmination of transgression?), and the appearance of new graves in the burial ground bean only after a fairly lengthy pause. Sometime between 4500 and 4400 BC, a new and compact group of graves appeared here. Burial traditions which were unlike those of the late Mesolithic period also appeared (Denisova 1994, 1996).

Judging from anthropological data, there was no direct continuity between those communities which left their graves at this location around the mid-5th century BC and the late Mesolithic populations; distinct anthropological differences existed. This suggests that around the mid-5th century BC there was a new migration of people into Latvia, people who were characterized by the metisized anthropological type. An analysis of anthropological elements in these inhabitants points to distinctly eastern components. Skulls of anthropologically similar inhabitants have been found in the Olenij Ostrov Mesolithic burial ground, where some of the buried individuals unquestionably had typical eastern components.

Even though no ceramics have been found in the Zvejnieki burial grounds (mid-5th century BC), there is no reason to doubt that the burial grounds belonged to the early Neolithic period. Evidence of this is given by other early Neolithic graves in the Zvejnieki burial grounds (4500-3000 BC), where there was also no tradition of placing clay pots in people's graves.

Currently available data indicate that the most ancient ceramics in the Baltic region can be found in Latvia. In Neolithic settlements, clay ware has become a very typical discovery. The manufacturing of clay vessels in Lithuania began considerably later -- at the beginning of the 4th century BC. It appears that clay ware came to Scandinavia around the same time.

In the territory around the Baltic region, the most ancient clay vessels have been found in the region which is bordered by the upper Lovate and Daugava rivers. Early Neolithic inhabitants arrived here in the early 5th century BC. It seems that it may well have been from this territory that skills in manufacturing clay vessels may have come specifically from this territory. Several 14C datings indicate that the genesis of the early Neolithic Upper Volga culture occurred at the same time. According to Mikļajevs, the manufacturing technology and ornamentation of the most ancient clay vessels found in the upper Lovate and Daugava region indicates links to the southeastern regions of the Russian plains, where the most ancient early Neolithic culture with clay vessel manufacturing traditions inhabited the area around the upper and middle Don (Miklayev 1995).

To sum up, new facts which have been obtained as the result of archaeological research of the early Mesolithic period in Estonia and Latvia, as well as anthropological data about the most ancient inhabitants of Latvia have allowed specialists to analyze the issue of the most ancient inhabitants of Latvia in a considerably broader context than has been the case until now. Unquestionably, analogous research in neighboring territories has helped to specify the linked events in the late Paleolithic period which later affected the most ancient population of the Latvian territory.

It appears that we can speak with some certainty of two major directions of ancient migration which during the change from the late Paleolithic to the Mesolithic period reached the Upper Daugava. Moving along the river, these ancient people came into Latvia. One of these migration directions moved along the southern shore of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea to reach the Pripet basin and the upper Dnieper and Daugava rivers. Movement of populations occurred a number of times over the course of several millennia -- in the late Paleolithic period and in the early Mesolithic period. The second migration wave, it seems, involved the Don river basin, the site of lasting late Paleolithic, Eastern European settlements. As the result of climactic changes, inhabitants moved Northwest along the Dnieper river at the end of the late Paleolithic period. This direction of movement, which appears only at the end of the late Paleolithic period and the early Mesolithic period, almost certainly appeared in the early Neolithic and Aeneolithic period, too. It is possible that even in the Stone Age this direction of movement, the main phase of which involved the Dnieper river but which later also reached the Daugava, played an important role in establishing a communications network between the Baltic and the external world, both to the East and the West.

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