Indo-Europeans and the first slaves

by Edward Pegler on 29 August, 2010

Were the ‘Proto Indo-Europeans’ involved in the first slave trade? I think we should be told.

Slavery is not something you come across much in prehistoric archaeology books. The fourth edition of Renfrew and Bahns ‘Archaeology’ mentions it in passing just three times, all in the context of the early modern African slave trade.

One of the reasons for this lack of a mention is that slavery is rarely visible in the archaeological record (exceptions including the Bigbury iron chain). Slavery was probably there all the same, as mention of slaves comes pretty much with the first writing in the third millennium BC.

In this post I want to suggest a possible early occurrence of slavery, dating back to the sixth millennium BC. The location is the Pontic Steppe, just north of the Black Sea, an area that consisted of blasted grasslands and sheltered valley forests seemingly unlimited in extent… and hence containing many people.

Pontic slavery in history

Map of the black sea and the cultures discussed in the post

Map of the sites and cultures discussed

The Pontic steppe has a long history of slavery. During the Middle Ages this slave trade was largely controlled by the Venetians, who grew rich on the sale of ‘godless’ steppe heathens to religiously misguided Egyptians.

But they were not the first. Greek settlements such as Olbia on the Black Sea coast also received a plentiful supply of slaves from Scythian middlemen back in the first millennium BC. These slaves were transported on to locations like the Greek island of Chios. In return the Scythian middlemen received valuables such as gold, wine and oil.

The methods used to obtain these slaves were presumably familiar enough to those who know about the West African slave trade. Merchants would purchase slaves off local middlemen. These middlemen would have in turn got them from slave raiders inland.

The Balkan/Pontic Steppe frontier

David Anthony, in his excellent book ‘The Horse, the Wheel and Language‘, deals at some length with the frontier between agriculture and pastoral steppe culture in the Pontic Steppe of the late sixth and the fifth millennium BC.

To the west of this frontier, in the Balkans, was what is sometimes called ‘Old Europe’ (including cultures such as Vinča, Varna and Gulmeniţa). Old Europe was a highly advanced culture for the time. People here farmed in rapidly expanding clearings within the forested valleys and plains.

The people of Old Europe lived in walled towns with two-storey houses, had beautiful, expressive pottery and the earliest solid evidence for gold and copper smelting anywhere in the world. This region is popularly known through the writings of Marija Gimbutas, who painted an image of a spiritual, peaceable and matrilinear culture.

To the east of Old Europe the steppe was inhabited by groups of pastoralists. Beyond them, to the east and in the woods to the north, lived hunter-gatherers.

At the frontier of the two realms was the Cucuteni-Trypillian (or Cucuteni-Tripolye) culture, the most easterly culture of Old Europe. A steady flow of animals, stone beads and luxury items of shell, gold and copper went east from the Balkans through this culture and out into the steppe.

Cucuteni-Trypillian slavery?

But if this flow is evidence of trade to the east, then what went west? Furs perhaps? Maybe horses, but this is possibly still too early for horses to have been a useful trade item.

But humans would have been useful. This was, after all, the time when the mining of copper ores became a significant feature of Balkan life. So it’s possible to picture a slave workforce, derived from the steppe, in those mines.

Marija Gimbutas’ spiritual Old Europe may or may not have existed. But Old Europe’s often walled towns tell a story of human conflict. The addition of slavery to their sins would make Old Europeans less lovable still.

Maikop culture slavery?

Interestingly, the collapse of Old Europe at the end of the fifth millennium did not end the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture. This lasted another few hundred years. But it’s final demise did coincide with the appearance of the Maikop culture, just to the north-west of the Caucasus, in the middle of the fourth millennium.

This culture is known to have had strong connections with cultures to the south, including the first (‘Uruk’) Mesopotamian city states. Maikop culture shows its riches in the burial mounds of its princes.

Like the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, the Maikop culture saw the movement of gold, copper and precious stones into the steppe. Perhaps slaves were being traded the other way here too, providing the workforce for the Anatolian mines that provided much of Mesopotamia’s metals.

Indo-European slavery

There are a number of  homelands suggested for the original speakers of Proto Indo-European (the ancestor of most European and many Asian languages). Strangely, two of them sit on either side of the frontier I’m discussing here.

Marija Gimbutas, followed more recently and carefully by David Anthony, argued for the Pontic steppe as a homeland for the Indo-European language family. Their suggested dates were in the late fifth to early fourth millennium BC, at the end of the period I’m discussing.

Igor D’iakonov argued for Balkan homeland for the Proto Indo-Europeans, followed in 2003 by Colin Renfrew in a modification of his Anatolian homeland theory. The dates suggested here were the sixth to fifth millennium, the beginning of the period I’m discussing.

If slavery really was being practised during the period then either theory paints the proposed Proto Indo-Europeans in less than a good light. If the Proto Indo-Europeans were the steppe pastoralists then they were probably involved in rounding up slaves for sale. If the Proto Indo-Europeans were Old European then they were probably involved in buying them.

So if either of the homeland theories is right (and that’s a big ‘if’) then perhaps linguists should be looking rather more carefully for a PIE linguistic root meaning ‘slave’.


Anthony, D. W. 2007 The Horse, the Wheel and Language: how Bronze-age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world. Princeton, pp553.

D’iakonov, I.M. 1985 On the Original Home of the Speakers of Indo-European. Journal of Indo-European Studies 13, p92.

Gavriljuk, N. A. 2003 The Graeco-Scythian Slave-trade in the 6th and 5th Centuries BC, p75-85. In Bilde, G.P. et al. (eds) The Cauldron of Ariantas, Aarhus University.

Gimbutas, M. 1991 The civilization of the goddess: the world of Old Europe, Harper, pp529.

Lane, F. C. 1973 Venice, a maritime republic, Johns Hopkins, pp528.

Renfrew, C. & Bahn, P. 2004 Archaeology: theories, methods and practice (4th edition). Thames and Hudson, pp640.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

MOSEYMANN November 5, 2013 at 6:20 am

After much reading and even more pondering, it seems quite obvious that hunter/gatherers had little use for captives or POW’s or slaves. The expenditure of resources that would be required in possessing a hostile captive would be greater than the slave was worth. So these people were used as sacrifices to the gods of the slaves captors. Many were beaten and released as a warning to others. Slavery slowly became an institution as agrarianism progressed into ever larger groups and the shortage of labor. Finally, I submit that raids from the earliest “civilizations” became no longer for goods, but to steal and enslave for labor and brutalization for order..


Edward Pegler November 17, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Dear M

This is a sensible point. To be fair to me the people that I was talking about in the article (which I have to admit I wrote a long time ago) who I argued were collecting slaves were farmers, not hunter-gatherers (at least as far as the evidence goes). The people who were collected may well have been hunter-gatherers or farmers. I guess h-gs would run out if you collected too many of them, however. An interesting comparison is the slave trade in Africa where at least some historians argue that two contrary trends were influencing population in west Africa: 1) depopulation as a result of slavery and 2) increasing population density as a result of the introduction of new crops. A more simple version of this may have taken place on the northern Black Sea coast with farming increasing population and slaving doing the reverse. The inevitable outcome of such a scenario is that hunter gatherers, at least near the coast, would have disappeared, either due to taking up farming or due to the depradations of slavery. And, now that you come to mention it, this actually puts an interesting spin on the spread of farming through the whole of Europe and the simultaneous collapse of farming (although disease may well have played a part).


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