Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Wolves, Dogs, and Warbands: Archaeology at Krasnosamarskoe

Young men are a lot of trouble. Left to their own devices, they are always fighting, stealing, drinking too much, trampling the flowers, harassing girls, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Settled, peaceful societies have generally tried to control their young men and direct their excess energy into work or dancing. But people who lived in a constant state of war could not afford to gentle their young men; they needed to keep their ferocity honed sharp, their blood boiling. So they raised their boys on a steady diet of rough play, tales of martial glory, sado-masochistic initiations, and dangerous training like dancing with sharp swords. Men raised in this way made fearless warriors, but you did not necessarily want them in the house. So sometimes they were sent away:
In the ancient Celtic, Germanic, Greek, and Indo-Iranian traditions, young men often left their families to form warrior societies. “These were young guys on the edge of society who occasionally would steal cows, and you’d rather they were off stealing someone else’s cows,” says [archaeologist David] Anthony. “So they were expelled from their social groups and told to raid other communities.”
In Ireland, Finn and his Fenians were the archetypal band of young male warriors, living by hunting and fighting, never sleeping in a house. At Sparta these warrior societies survived into historical times; the classical Greeks believed that this way of living had been introduced a few centuries earlier by the lawgiver Lycurgus, but actually this was an ancient inheritance from the Bronze Age or even earlier.

For people who lived close to the wild, one obvious analogy to these bands of young men was the wolf pack:
In Germanic traditions, these bands of young warriors thought of themselves as wolf packs. A famous myth about the hero Siegfried has him donning a dog skin to go raiding with his nephew, whom he is training to become a warrior. In the Rigveda, an ancient Sanskrit text composed sometime before 1000 B.C., young men can only become warriors after sacrificing a dog at a winter ceremony and wearing its skin for four years, which they burn upon their return to society.
In a fascinating bit of convergent cultural evolution, the plains Indians of North America had similar institutions, the Soldier Societies, and some of them were known as the Wolf Soldiers or Dog Soldiers. (Note that 4,000 years ago dogs looked a lot more like wolves than most dogs do now, and they were generally thought of as domesticated wolves, no more different from the wild version than horses or hawks. So in stories and rituals, dogs and wolves are often interchangeable.)

All of this was discovered by nineteenth-century historians, and it was commonly taught to undergraduates and put in history texts. Then came the Nazis. The Nazis of course loved all this stuff, loved to imagine their tank battalions and u-boat convoys were wolf packs, that they themselves were wild warriors like their ancient ancestors. As a undergraduate I looked up one of the classic German texts of this school -- Wald- und Feldkulte by Wilhelm Mannhardt, 1877 -- and discovered that Yale's copy was a 1930s edition published by the Nazi party, the title page lavishly decorated with swastikas.

So for about 50 years after World War II, no scholar in Europe or America would touch this subject. Indeed the whole notion of Indo-European peoples was widely dismissed, and archaeologists tried to imagine ways that the languages could have spread without invasions or even warriors. Peace was in fashion, and if you wanted to get a job you wrote your dissertation about grandmothers, not war bands.

But my generation, with no memories of the war and more afraid of atomic scientists than violent young men, has not felt the same need to stay away from history's dark corners. So as we have moved into the leadership of archaeology departments and the like, these topics have reemerged. One of the leaders of the new wave of Indo-European studies is American archaeologist David Anthony. From 1999 to 2002 Anthony co-directed excavations at the site of Krasnosamarskoe in Ukraine. Krasnosamarskoe is a settlement of the Timber Grave or Srubna Culture, which dominated the Black Sea steppes between about 1800 and 1200 BCE.
Anthony hoped that by excavating the site he might learn why people in this region first began to establish permanent households. But he and his team have since discovered that Krasnosamarskoe has a much different story to tell. They found that the site held the remains of dozens of butchered dogs and wolves—vastly more than at any comparable site. Nerissa Russell, the project’s archaeozoologist, says, “I remember saying early on in the dig that we were finding a lot of dog bones. But I had no idea how important they would turn out to be.” When the team got to work analyzing all the animal bones in the lab, they identified the remains of about 51 dogs and seven wolves, as well as six canines that could not be classified as either. At other Timber Grave sites, dog and wolf bones never make up more than 3 percent of the total animal bones found. At Krasnosamarskoe, they made up more than 30 percent. “I don’t know of any other site in the world with such a high percentage of dog bones,” says Russell. She and her team found that most of the dogs were unusually long-lived, up to 12 years old in some cases, which meant they were probably not raised for food. “Were they treasured pets, hunting dogs, or pariahs? We don’t know,” she says. “But they are so old that these were dogs that had been around for a while and had some kind of relationship to these people.” Pieces of dog skull from the site were cut into small, standardized pieces that may have had ritual significance.To add to the mystery, the bones were cut in unusual, systematic ways that did not resemble ordinary butchering practices. Snouts were divided into three pieces and the remainder of the skulls were broken down into geometrically shaped fragments only an inch long. No one would have made these cuts to simply get meat off the bones. 
Well that is certainly puzzling. Why would people raise dozens of dogs with the sort of care that enables them to live into old age, then cut their dead bodies into pieces that look nothing like any other sort of butchery? Not only that, but canine teeth have annual growth rings like trees, from which you can sometimes tell in what season they were killed, and all of the dogs were killed in winter. (The cows showed no such pattern.) Anthony and his wife, Dorcas Brown, went searching in the ethnographic literature for parallels. And they found them in that old literature about Indo-European war bands:
The institution of youthful war bands that go on seasonal raids is so widespread in Indo-European cultures that historical linguists and mythologists concluded that it had to be a long-standing tradition, and that these young men became warriors during a mid-winter ritual that involved dog sacrifice. Linguists even reconstructed the proto-Indo-European word for these warrior bands: koryos.
Anthony and Brown believe that Krasnosamarskoe was the site of initiations into an ancient koryos, and they have spent years trying to convince the rest of the archaeological world.

And maybe it was. But one thing we know about our species is that once we hit on a good idea, we tend to use it over and over again in diverse situations, and something like that could have happened with the mid-winter dog sacrifice. Maybe it was sometimes used for warrior initiations, but if so then at some point in the 1500-year-long Bronze Age it was almost certainly used in other ways as well. Except for the dog bones Krasnosamarskoe looks like a pretty ordinary place, not the sort of isolated male bastion where I imagine these initiations taking place. Still, it is fascinating to think that by combining archaeology with bits of folklore collected all across Eurasia we might get so close to the lives of ancient warriors.

Images: top, Viking plaque depicting Odin and a man in a wolf suit; painted grave stelae from Kvik in Sweden that some people think represent ancient initiations -- notice the groups of eight hooded figures, a number that seems significant in our legends of the koryos; bit of rock art from the Italian Alps that may represent Bronze Age sword dancing; bronze axes from the Timber Grave Culture; directly above, grave from Celtic Gaul containing eight men and eight horses. 

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