Where Are The Roots Of Today’s Nations ? We Know Nothing Without Written Sources
Every human group has had its identity since ancient times. However, in order to examine the past of the identity of present nations , it is necessary to first clarify the terms ethnicity and ethnic identity.
This identity is about the feeling of belonging, the individual’s belonging to the group – we are talking about group identity. This feeling has its basis in the principle of “us and them”. These are deep-rooted opposites expressing the attitudes of the individual (individuals) to their own group and to strangers. Of course, strangers are always considered worse than “us”.
These contradictions originated in the period of hunters and gatherers in the Paleolithic, when each foreign group posed a threat to its own gang in the daily procurement of food. The identity of a group can also be emphasized by various features – whether material (clothing, daily necessities, housing, method of burial, etc.) or immaterial (name, language, myths about common origin, religion, songs, etc.).
We do not know on the basis of which characters the prehistoric groups were singled out. There could be several, or only one dominant feature played an important role. Social anthropologists have proved that identity is only significantly manifested when a group interacts with another. If a group lives relatively in isolation, it does not need to express its distinctness so clearly, its latent awareness of belonging is enough.
However, there are currently very few isolated human groups, and we do not even know whether their isolation has a newer origin (the gang could have closed from the environment only a few decades ago) or has persisted since very ancient times. So we encounter the expression of group identity practically all over the world.
Ethnic identity is not fundamentally different from group identity, it is mainly about size – we tend to talk about ethnicity if the group is large enough. And, of course, there may have been other features that make them different from other ethnicities. The same is true of the nation, which is, however, a name associated with the emergence of modern states and nations.
Today, the main criterion for the separation of a nation in our country is mainly language, which, however, is not such a general feature as it seems. Germans, Englishmen or Spaniards cannot base their identities on the language spoken by other and often very numerous nations.
Usually, the territory where the nation in question lives is added to the criteria, but often even that is not enough. In the civil war in Bosnia at the end of the 20th century, three groups (nations?) Fought against each other, speaking practically one language – Serbo-Croatian. Their identity was based mainly on a different religion (Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks).
It is difficult to establish a fixed and unchanging criterion for expressing identity. Modern ethnological research says that the basis is the sense of belonging I mentioned in the introduction. However, the identity (individual or group) is not given once and for all, it can change. An individual does not become a member of an ethnic group or nation as soon as he or she is born.
He acquires his identity during his life on the basis of various criteria. The decisive criterion seems to be the environment in which it is born. By environment I also mean territory, education in the family and school, etc. For example, if a child is born in Slovakia, speaks Slovak at home, goes to Slovak schools, then he will probably consider himself a Slovak without any problems.
However, it is enough if he is born into a mixed family and may have problems with his identity. It can be even more problematic if it is born to parents – albeit Slovak – abroad. He also starts going to school there, adapting to the cultural habits of the country. Will he still be Slovak?
Today, we choose our ethnic identity, mostly unconsciously (if it is unproblematic). Other times we have to decide where to go. I will not deal now with conscious changes of identity on the basis of politics (change of borders, etc.). In prehistoric times, it was probably less complicated, but even then there were changes in identity.
For example, different friendly groups have married each other, conflicts have subjugated one ethnic group to another, a large group may have split over time, smaller groups may have merged, and all of this may have led to the emergence of new ethnic groups.
This introduction was necessary so that we could approach the question of ethnogenesis of (not only) Slavs. Researchers began to deal with ethnogenesis more significantly in the 19th century in connection with the then widespread nationalism, which led to the emergence of modern nations. Scholars began to search for the roots of their nation and tried to prove its antiquity. It was also related to the claim to a certain territory.
If a nation has inhabited a certain area since time immemorial, it seemed to have a natural claim to it. If another part of the “historical” territory was already inhabited by another nation, it could also lead to military conflicts. In addition to justifying territorial claims, ethnogenesis has been an important means of creating national consciousness, which in fact persists to this day.
Initially, ethnogenesis was dealt with by historians or linguists, later archaeologists also tried to provide evidence. A well-known example of the misuse of archaeological facts took place in Germany. Archaeologist Gustaf Kossina expressed the thesis at the beginning of the 20th century that sharply demarcated prehistoric archaeological cultures represent individual ethnic groups. However, he developed this, essentially still legitimate, scientific hypothesis into an unacceptable form.
In northern Germany and Denmark – the territory where Germanic tribes later appeared, he documented cultural continuity from the end of the Stone Age to the period when written sources first mention the Germans (end of the 2nd century BC). He deduced from this fact that the Germans existed in the mentioned area as early as the end of the Stone Age or the beginning of the Bronze Age, and are therefore the oldest European nation.
Unfortunately, he continued his reflections and considered the Germans to be the most important nation that carried the ancient culture. His ideas were later adopted by the German National Socialists and, based on them, developed their dangerous racist ideas.
Kossin’s student was the Polish archaeologist Józef Kostrzewski, who in the period between the two world wars sought the homeland of the Slavs in Poland. Based on Kossin’s theses, he documented the cultural continuity in the territory of Greater Poland from the Late Bronze Age (the so-called Lusatian culture) to the early Middle Ages. According to him, the Slavs lived in Poland from the end of the 2nd millennium BC The identification of archaeological cultures with ethnic groups was officially rejected after the Second World War, but in fact it lived and continues to live.
At present, most researchers consider parts of Ukraine and Belarus to be the homeland of the Slavs. Archaeologists there (and not only them) are again trying to search for various older archaeological cultures, from which the
Slavs eventually formed. (More precisely, the individual tribes, as they probably did not yet have any “Slavic” consciousness at that time. Their identity was rather tribal, which ancient historians could not recognize and chose the unifying name Sclavi.)
Archaeologists oriented in this way therefore work practically similarly to Gustaf Kossin. They are only more moderate in their conclusions and do not consider these cultures directly Slavic and use the somewhat vague term “ancestors” of Slavs. But who are the ancestors and how deep into prehistory are the ancestors? If every Slovak knew all his ancestors, where could it lead? That the ancestors of the Slovaks already lived in the Paleolithic? However, the same applies to Hungarians, Germans and all nations in general.
Some historians and linguists also join this hypothesis. Various tribes, whose names appear in ancient written sources, are considered by some historians to be Slavs only because where they locate them, Slavs later appeared. Some linguists, on the other hand, try to prove the antiquity of the Slavic language (Proto-Slavic), including Slavs, already in the Stone Age.
However, the language is a continuum and most of today’s languages have very old roots, perhaps even in the Stone Age. But this does not mean that the people of the Stone Age spoke Proto-Slavic. Languages evolve and always at one time another language, although similar, arises from one language.
For example, it is questionable when it is possible to speak of the Slovak language and not of Old Slavonic, as we do not have enough written documents. Old Slavonic has also originated, and it is useless and frivolous to call its predecessors Proto-Slavic or Proto-Slavic. We are not even sure on the basis of which the Old Slavic-speaking inhabitants of Great Moravia defined their identity. Language alone was probably not enough. Only we rely on language as an ethnoidentification criterion. Since we can no longer ask the Slavs about this, it must be enough for us that written sources refer to them as Slavs (respectively in Latin Sclavi).
What their “pre-Slavic” identity was, can also no longer be documented, and the cultural continuity in their homeland (Kossinism) will not help us either. Cultural continuity, and even linguistic continuity, does not overlap with ethnic continuity. Cultures and ethnicities arise and disappear, and we usually do not know what mechanisms cause this. It is very probable that the bearers of various “Proto-Slavic cultures” did not consider themselves Slavs, in short, the Slavs probably originated just before they were registered under this name by written sources.
Genetic research has brought great hope in the field of ethnogenesis for certain researchers. Especially in the last two decades, geneticists have focused more on research into DNA obtained from the skeletal remains of past populations. However, it has been shown that there are no genes characteristic of an ethnic group. European populations have a similar genetic structure, and the closer they are geographically, the more genetically similar they are. Simply put, Slovaks are genetically closer to the Austrians than to the English or the Portuguese.
About ten years ago, Associate Professor V. Ferák from the Faculty of Science, Charles University in Bratislava published the results of his research, where he stated that about 80% of the genes of the Slovak population still come from the Paleolithic. Amateur pseudo-historians immediately seized it and concluded that the Slavs (or even Slovaks) already existed in the Stone Age. However, as I said, genes are not an ethnic trait and genetic continuity is not ethnic continuity. We have the genes of Paleolithic hunters and gatherers in us, but that says nothing about their ethnicity. Although today less than 80% of the genetic “contribution” in the current Slovak population is already being considered.
So even Hungarians are not so genetically different from us. By the way, they can serve as a nice example of the complexity of the issue of ethnic identity. According to contemporary written sources, the Old Hungarian tribal union consisted of seven tribes. They spoke a Finno-Ugric language, which includes today’s Hungarian. However, some tribes probably used Turkish dialects.
Finno-Ugric prevailed, according to which Hungarian linguists are looking for the origin of the Hungarians somewhere outside the Urals (even in the Late Stone Age). So are the Turkish tribes, located in the south, not part of Hungarian ethnogenesis? According to language and probably culture, Hungarians have two roots – which one is the real one? Again, it should be pointed out that linguistic continuity does not equal ethnic continuity.