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I am a Ukrainian high school student. Recently we were told by a teacher that Proto-Ukrainians, the people who lived in the modern territory of Ukraine and ancestors of modern Ukrainians, once conquered a lot of territory. This included most of Europe and much of Asia, including Turkey, India and Iran.

She even claimed that the names of European gods like Zeus and Jupiter came from the name of the gods venerated formerly in the territory of modern-day Ukraine.

I wonder to what extent it is true?

  • 7
    If you squint hard enough, at least some of this claim is somewhat true: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumans . Calling them Proto-Ukrainians is a bit of a stretch, IMHO. Ethnically, they were Turcic, not Slavic. That Wiki link has a good map of controlled territory. – DVK Dec 5 '14 at 2:05
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    Also, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kipchaks (same ruling confederation, slightly different tribes and territories). Crymean Tatars probably originated there. – DVK Dec 5 '14 at 2:09
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    Ukraine is in dangerous neighborhood, with strong and fight-ready neighbors. After Kievan Rus (9 to 13 century) it was never again independent regional power, was mostly conquered. Which is understandable, given the neighbors (Golden Horde, Russian, Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, etc). Even name suggest "borderland" in any Slavic language. Just a thought. Nothing to be ashamed of, but inventing history will not make it happen. – Peter M. Dec 5 '14 at 23:27
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    You mean the Polish? I don't want to be mean, but "people lived in the territory of modern-day Ukraine" is not a really a well defined concept. The country border itself is not well defined, the people in the broader area were never ethnically homogeneous, and were several times whipped out. Even now Ukraine has several minorities with rather different background. So any kind of claim like "ancestors of modern Ukrainians" is kind of BS. – Greg Aug 13 '15 at 22:05
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    Zeus, was born on the island of Crete, probably dating to Minoan times. I am unaware of any ancient Ukrainian historical connection with the Cretan/Hellenic God Zeus. The evidence for such a connection, is very far reaching. – user26763 Oct 22 '17 at 18:22
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Based on what you've told us, your teacher is most likely thinking of the Proto-Indo-European people (Note: I am NOT saying it is accurate to call the PIE people "Proto-Ukrainians"). According to the most mainstream theory, the Kurgan hypothesis, these speakers of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language emerged from the Pontic-Caspian steppes some 6-8,000 years ago. This was fairly close to modern Ukrainian borders, and might even have included parts of eastern Ukraine.

Subsequently, the Proto-Indo-Europeans dispersed throughout Eurasia in a series of migrations (probably intermarrying with existing locals as they went). By about 1,000 B.C., the Proto-Indo-Europeans have spread from their Urheimat to much of Europe as well as Iran and India, which matches what your teacher says. Wikipedia has a map charting these movements:

enter image description here

Naturally, these early Indo-Europeans carried their culture with them as they moved, including religion. The ancient Proto-Indo-European pantheon developed into Greek, Roman, Germanic, Slavic, and Indo-Aryan gods. Your teacher's example was in fact their prehistoric god of the sky and chief deity, Dyēus ph2ter. He went on to become:

Another notable aspect was language. The divergence of Indo-European tongues at each region created far and away the largest language family in the world. It includes major modern languages such as German, English, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Iranian, and the various (non-Dravidian) Indic languages. It does also include the Slavic languages such as Ukrainian.


If I am correct that by "proto-Ukrainians", your teacher actually meant the Proto-Indo-Europeans, then their claims are not wholly baseless. However it is misleading to the point of being deceptive. It'd be like an Ethiopian claiming their "Proto-Ethiopian" ancestors conquered Europe, on the basis that Homo Sapiens left Africa through what is now modern Ethiopia.

Strictly speaking, the Proto-Indo=Europeans probably were (at least some of the) ancestors of the modern Ukrainian people. And it is true that the Proto-Indo-Europeans occupied most of Europe and large parts of Iran and India. But they are not really "Proto-Ukrainians" in any meaningful sense. Modern Ukrainians, or even Slavs in general, are but one of the many descendants of Proto-Indo-Europeans.

Similarly, Dyeus did become Zeus and (probably) was venerated in prehistoric Ukraine. But there's nothing particularly Ukrainian about him, or the other Proto-Indo-European gods that went on to become Graeco-Roman/German/Slavic deities. Ukraine was simply one of the many regions (albeit probably an early one) where the ancient Indo-Europeans lived.

Most of the hypothesised Indo-European Urheimat lays outside of Ukraine, anyway. It might have included parts of Ukraine, but Ukraine was really not a meaningful territorial designation at that time.

enter image description here

If I'm wrong and your teacher meant something other than the Proto-Indo-Europeans, then their claims would be even more unsustainable.

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    I think Kurgan hypothesis mostly deals with 4000-3000 BC, so 6000-5000 ago, not 8000. – Anixx Dec 5 '14 at 3:05
  • @Anixx Yeah, I was tracing their origins to the Bug-Dniester, hence the 8,000 figure. Admittedly controversial. – Semaphore Dec 5 '14 at 3:26
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    +1. On same wikipedia page you linked is also map of density of haplogroup R1a1a, which shows interesting islands, but biggest one is much more north-east from current Ukraine territory. – Peter M. Dec 5 '14 at 23:17
  • According to this site, the origin was near Samara which is in nowadays Russia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Indo-European_Urheimat_hypotheses. – jjack Aug 11 '15 at 19:32
  • @jjack No, it doesn't say that at all. It gives a broad area which includes parts of eastern Ukraine, as my answer already states. Hence why I referenced that exact same article and used the exact same map it provided. – Semaphore Aug 11 '15 at 19:42
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First off, I think Semaphore's answer has it right (which is why I upvoted it). Your teacher is almost certainly thinking of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

"Proto-" is a prefix commonly used to talk about the theoretical common ancestors of several seemingly related languages. Thus "Proto-Indo-European" would refer to the ancestors of all Indo-European speakers. Ukrainians of course speak an Indo-European language, but so do Russians, Iranians, English, and Hindi speakers in India. All are equally Indo-European.

"Proto-Ukrainians" would properly refer to the ancestoral speakers of all today's Ukrainian dialects when they first broke off from their common ancestor language, Old East Slavic. Its sibling languages could be called "Proto-Belorusian" and "Proto-Russian". This is figured to have happened somewhere between 800 and 1300 AD (depending on who you talk to). During most of this period, the area of modern Ukraine was under the control of Kievan Rus. While this state has an interesting history, it didn't do any conquering of Western Europe or India.

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This is not really true because there is no such thing as "proto-Ukrainian people". Both Ukrainians and Russians were invaders who came to their current homelands between 350 AD and 1000 AD. In other words, they were relatively recent immigrants, certainly long after any invasion of India took place.

When the Ukrainians originally invaded the area was occupied by various Slavic tribes who are of uncertain origin. Before them, the area was occupied by various Finnic, Turkic and and Caucasian tribes, some nomadic, others indigenous. For example, one major ethnic group in the area was the Scythians, and particularly a subgroup of Scythians known as Sarmatians. The Sarmatians are believed to have come from what is now Iran.

Pre-historic migrations from Europe into Persia and India which predate these peoples may have occurred, but it is difficult to know what they were because we have little physical evidence of such events.

In any case, the appearance of the Ukrainian people in what is now the Ukraine occurred long, long after such invasions and modern Ukrainians are more or less a completely different people than those who conducted such invasions.

I am not going to comment on alleged pre-historic precursors to Zeus etc, other than to say such theories are highly conjectural.

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What your teacher teaches you is unfortunately a complete nonsense and political propaganda. There were no "Ukrainians" until the 17 century, and the notion of "proto-Ukrainians" (as people who lived of this territory) is unscientific.

This is a good example of the use of history for political propaganda.

Very many different peoples lived on the territory of current Ukraine in the past. Descendants of some of those peoples are called "Poles" now. Where the ancestors of modern Poles "proto-Ukrainians" because they lived on the territory of modern Ukraine ? Why not "proto-Poles"?

Consider the Jews living in the US now. Most of their ancestors lived on the territory of modern Ukraine. Were they "proto-Ukrainians"? Then why these Jews are not called "ukrainians"?

There was no Ukrainians before 17 century. And there was no such thing as "proto-Ukrainians". All these are projections to the past of modern political realities.

The distinction between Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians and Lithuanians was established only AFTER the final partition of Rzeczpospolita in 1795. Actually much later.

EDIT. Let me give two concrete randomly chosen examples. There is a city of Lviv (Lwow, Lvov, Lemberg, Lemberk) in the current territory of Ukraine. It was founded by prnice/king Danila/Danylo in 13-th century. According to your teacher this Danylo was a "proto-Ukrainian". But every high school teacher in Moscow will teach that he was "proto-Russian", or simply "Russian"

Now, in 19-th century Lwow was a part of Austria. Should Danilo be called a "ptoto-Austrian" because of this? In the first half of 20-th century Lwow was in Poland. Is Danylo a proto-Pole? What can the other criteria be? Language? You can say that Danylo probably spoke "proto-Ukrainian". But a Moscow teacher who will say that he spoke "proto-Russian" will be equally right. Besides the Moscow teacher will have the advantage of saying that Danila was a blood relative of a Yuri (from the same family) who founded Moscow.

Religion? Danylo was probably brought up Greek-Orthodox. But they say he converted to Catholicism. Is he a "proto-Pole" because of that?

What else permits to quality him as "proto-Ukrainian"? Only the fact modern Ukrainians like him.

Second example. The great poet of 19-th century Adam Mickiewicz. He wrote in Polish, but his most famous poem (Pan Tadeusz) begins with the words: "Lithuania! My Fatherland!" He was born and brought up on the territory of modern Belorussian state. Is he a "proto-Pole", a "proto-Lithuanian", or a "proto-Belorussian"?

Ask you teacher. High school teachers in Warsaw, Vilnius and Minsk will give you 3 different answers: all of them count him as "theirs". (Ukrainians usually don't. But a famous monument to him stands in the center of Lviv).

These little examples are given to show that there is no reasonable notion of proto-Ukrainian. This is a meaningless word. And a high school teacher prescribes a meaning to it, depending on the MODERN political division (or to her own political affiliation).

That's why I called all this business political propaganda.

Suppose that tomorrow Russia invades and annexes the whole of Ukraine (God forbid!!). Then teachers in Lviv (which will become "Lvov" again), will teach you that "Dan-e-e-la-ah" was a proto-Russian, (or simply Russian, as they teach in Moscow nowadays).

These examples were related to 13-th and 19-th centuries. But speaking of "proto-Ukrainians" earlier than that is even more nonsensical.

Of course you are not advised to contradict your teacher:-) What I recommend is to use some criticism to what you are taught, and read Sienkiewicz novels, for example, to complement what they teach you at school. Just try Sienkiewicz. You will not regret. Most of the action is on the territory of the modern Ukraine. This is a fiction, of course, but this is much closer to history than what they teach in the modern high schools. And then just think yourself: who are his heroes: "proto-Ukrainians", "proto-Poles" or "proto-Lithuanians"?

Who were Adam Kisiel, Jeremia/Yarema Wisniowiecki, Ivan Bogun and Bogdan Khmielnicki? All proto-Ukrainians? Or some of them were Proto-Poles? And why?

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    This seems kind of rant-like. How is this "political propaganda"? – HDE 226868 Dec 9 '14 at 3:37
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    @HDE 226868: I edited my answer to address your comment. – Alex Dec 9 '14 at 21:17
  • I think it's really good now. – HDE 226868 Dec 9 '14 at 21:24
  • @Alex Very good answer! My understandning is that people just spoke various dialects which varied analogly from village to village, and modern Polish, Ukrainian, Russian etc... just happened to be dialects that have been standardized by someone. The same can be said for Italian, French, Spanish, etc... And holy damn, this Sienkiewicz guy died in my town, and I didn't even knew he existed! I'm glad I can learn new things everyday. – Bregalad Aug 12 '15 at 10:40
  • @Bregalad: you are right, but take into account that modern nations are the result of political divisions and wars, not based on the language. For example, "Ukrainians" and "Lithuanians" lived in one state for most of their history, but their languages are not much related. Ancestors of modern Ukrainians spoke many different and sometimes non-related languages. – Alex Aug 12 '15 at 19:12
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You could argue that the 'proto-ukrainians' did not conquer much of the world, but rather were conquered. According to wikipedia Cucuteni-Trypillian culture resided in Ukraine around 6000 to 3500 BC. Archaeological records suggest that they were conquered by the Yamna/Corded Wear culture from further East (the same culture Semaphore does a great job of breaking down) wiki: Decline_and_end_of_the_Cucuteni_Trypillian_culture (I can only post two links)

Additionally, I would like to note that a new (2015), comprehensive genetic study by Harvard researchers backs the fact that a group of peoples came in from the Steppe in a mass migration ~4.5kya

Actual Article: https://genetics.med.harvard.edu/reich/Reich_Lab/Welcome_files/nature14317.pdf Simpler Read: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/03/150303-human-dna-europe-language-archaeology/

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