Tribes – People of Lithuania Before Statehood

by Al (Alvydas) Karaša

2011-03-15-LHERITAGE 2

Who were the people that comprised the tribes which Mindaugas united and ruled as their first king?

BEFORE THERE WAS A LITHUANIA, AND BEFORE her first Christian king united her people in the 13th century, there were tribes. Made up of clans, and families extended to include kin by marriage or by inclination, these tribes already had well defined borders during the Iron Age. Not always respectful of one another’s territory, they lived apart, but cooperated when the need arose. They also robbed across borders of tribes which let their guard down. Although it wasn’t exactly a milk-and-honey existence, and pernicious open warfare never reared its ugly head among them, the later Scandinavian Vikings of the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries were a common enemy to all.

According to our best knowledge today, indigenous people of Lithuania already lived in the region 5000 years ago. Basic theories of ethnogeny applied to early inhabitants of Lithuania — autochthonic and migration — have been studied for generations, but only one has earned credence based on the latest findings.

Some of the tribes that inhabited the territory of what is present-day Lithuania. (Drawings by Algirdas Remeikis. ©Elektroninės leidybos namai.)
Some of the tribes that inhabited the territory of what is present-day Lithuania (Drawings by Algirdas Remeikis. ©Elektroninės leidybos namai.)

The migration theory, which claims that prior to the 5th century A.D., Lithuania was populated by FinnoUgrian people who were later ousted by the arrival of Aistian tribes, has very little to support it. Excavations in hundreds of cemeteries, scattered over several centuries, do not indicate any migration. Tribal borders did not change until King Mindaugas’ time — basic proof of stability of the Baltic tribes during the Iron Age.

The autochthonic theory, however, stands to prove that the pre-Indoeuropean component evolved from the Eurasian steppe barrow culture and was brought to Eastern Baltic shores around 2500 B.C. Finno-Ugrian incursions are certainly evident in Baltic lands, but they came later and were of comparatively short duration.

Baltic tribes gradually formed during the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., which may have led to the migration theory. But the people who formed them had already lived in Baltic lands for several thousand years. During the early Iron Age, they already shared similar (Baltic) languages: Curonian, Selian, Lithuanian, Lettish, Old Prussian, and Semigallian. Of those, only Lithuanian and Lettish (Latvian) survive as living languages. Others, if they were not Lithuanized or Lettonized, became extinct before the 17th century. Lands occupied by prehistoric Baltic tribes were six times larger than those occupied by Baltic speaking people today. Now Slavonized, hundreds of river and place names in Belarus, Ukraine, and other Slavic lands east and southeast of present day Lithuania have Baltic origins.

People of this tribal society were also united by common religion, common origin, and later by a common enemy. Cultural similarities among them varied only in minor differences of local tradition. Some neighboring tribes were so closely related that their dress, burial customs, and beliefs overlapped. Small wonder Mindaugas surmised success in uniting these people into a single nation of considerable size.

Much of our knowledge of these tribes comes from studies of archeological finds during the last 100 years. Information gained from excavated gravesites is a priceless resource. Differences in burial customs serve to define borders of the land each tribe occupied. Time datable ceramics, tools and weapons found in these graves serve to date other finds and also indicate changes in tribal culture over time. Space does not permit mention of every archeological discovery, but what we have learned from them can be adequately summarized to give a good picture of the people who lived along the eastern Baltic coast before Lithuania established statehood.

The impressive Stakliškės (Southern Lithuania) hoard from the 13th-14th centuries includes decorated silver brooches, elaborate necklaces, bracelets, and silver ingots (kapos) that were used as currency.
The impressive Stakliškės (Southern Lithuania) hoard from the 13th-14th centuries includes decorated silver brooches, elaborate necklaces, bracelets, and silver ingots (kapos) that were used as currency.

Although similarities among the tribes were many, distinct differences were just as numerous. Preferences in dress, decoration, and weaponry are evident in excavations of sites spread over the country where the tribes lived. These preferences reinforce border definitions shown in excavated burial grounds.

Baltic tribes enter into written histories, one by one, between the third and the eleventh centuries. It was the 4th century that brought the so-called “Golden Age” to the Baltic people. They enjoyed more metal products than ever before. Metal had become normal in commonly used objects, no longer in luxuries alone. Routes to the north and east opened to European trade and amber became wide spread. Unfortunately, the entire first millennium of these tribes is largely a mystery. Without records or monuments, way of life, social structure, customs and character of the people cannot be reconstructed. Tribes were ruled by powerful chieftains and, when feudalism arrived, by landlords. Their wars were against Scandinavian Vikings. Sudovian, Lithuanian, and Letgallian cavalry was strong enough to deal with them, but it was the Curonians (Kuršiai) who bore the full brunt of Swedish and Danish expansion. They were collectors and traders of amber and used river routes which were vulnerable to attack by Vikings.

Icelandic and Norwegian sagas of the 13th century speak of their conquests of eastern Baltic lands. There is a detailed account of Curonian wars against the Norsemen in Rimbert’s Vita sancti Anscarii. Upwards of 20,000 men were involved in the fighting. The Curonians prevailed in the long run, and the Vikings were driven northward into Finno-Ugrian lands. Scandinavian presence there is evident in excavated weapons of undeniably Viking origin.

Curonians eventually became Baltic “Vikings” themselves as they took the offensive in the war of piracy with the Scandinavians. It turns out they were the most restless and richest of the Baltic tribes of this period due, in no small degree, to their raids of the Danish and Swedish coasts. Most of these were small scale raids by bands of twenty or thirty men. Curonian finds are common along those coasts as well as on the island of Gotland. Trade and piracy between the Baltic and the Scandinavian Vikings continued on and off during the 10th and 11th centuries. To protect them, larger Curonian towns and villages were located up to 25 kilometers from the coast.

There is an interesting description of Curonians in the Icelandic Egils-saga which Marija Gimbutas mentions in her book The Balts. A detailed account of how Egil and Thorolf harried Curonia in 925, it contains precious fragments illuminating details in the life of a Curonian feudal lord. We read of fighting in which clothes were thrown over the enemy’s weapons, of captured enemies being tortured and held in dungeons for years. We read of the lord’s castle which contained many houses, surrounded by ramparts. Houses were built of timber logs and had stairs leading to attics where weapons and chests full of silver were stored. The chambers were paneled or had wainscots. Servants made the beds, and the lord slept in the attic. The lord and his men feasted in a hall, which was probably the largest room in the largest building.

Ornaments from the burial grounds of coastal, lowland, central, and northern Lithuania are displayed at the archaeology exhibition of the Lithuanian National Museum in Vilnius.
Ornaments from the burial grounds of coastal, lowland, central, and northern Lithuania are displayed at the archaeology exhibition of the Lithuanian National Museum in Vilnius.

Southward along the coast were lands occupied by Lamatians, Skalvians, and Prussians. Some of these tribes, along with the Sudovians (Sūduviai or Jotvingiai), sometimes referred to as Prussian tribes, did not become part of Mindaugas’ unified state. In his Chronicon terrae Prussiae Duisburg, the Teutonic Order chronicler, lists at least five more tribes he considers Prussian. The more northern Letgallians expanded into what is present day Latvia, which had previously been occupied by Finno-Ugrian tribes later found in Estonia. Prussians and Curonians were the predominant coastal tribes and still played the leading role in the 10th century. Curonians remained after the Teutonic Order invaded Prussia and the Sudovians and Lithuanians survived in their own lands.

Prussians, as described by Archbishop Adam of Bremen in 1075, were humane people who helped those in peril at sea. He praised their morality, but called them “stubborn pagans” for their unwillingness to embrace Christianity. They were conquered by the crusading Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. In the course of the next 500 years, Prussians were absorbed by the Germanic people and the crimes and atrocities committed by the conquerors were forgotten.

In lands not reached by Slavic expansion, development of Baltic culture laid its foundations during the first century A.D. Tribal units remained the same as did their physical borders. The easternmost of these was to become the most powerful. The people who later gave their tribe’s name to Mindaugas’ united country were the Lithuanians (Lietuviai). They lived in the southeastern and eastern part of the country, the farthest inland area occupied by the early tribes.

The Lithuanians, as well as the Sudovians to their south, were constantly being harassed by the neighboring Kievan Rus for land acquisition, or demands of tribute for occupying land the Rus considered theirs. This led to endless warfare between them from the 10th to the 13th century. With the exception of later wars against the Teutonic order, this was probably the longest lasting, continuous conflict with the same, single neighbor of any Baltic tribe.

The Lithuanian tribes faced constant danger from the west and the east, but their military structure and defensive planning proved successful.
The Lithuanian tribes faced constant danger from the west and the east, but their military structure and defensive planning proved successful.

As the 1219 treaty of Volhynia proves, Lithuania was ruled by a confederation of the most powerful chieftains. They were already known as dukes, and one among them — Mindaugas — extended his power over the greater part of the country between 1236 and 1248, united the tribes, and was crowned the first Christian King of Lithuania.

Among the major tribes which comprised the new Kingdom of Lithuania were the Lamatians, Skalvians, Samogitians, Highlanders, Semigallians, Selians, Sudovians, Lithuanians, and Curonians. There were probably additional, minor, clan groups which also joined.

Highlanders (Aukštaičiai) were the Lithuanians’ closest western neighbors. They were also the next largest tribe and the most centrally located. This enabled them to influence all the tribes around them, and help gain support for Mindaugas’ unification ideas.

Semigallians (Žiemgaliai) and Selians (Sėliai) lived along the northern edge of tribal territory and spilled over into what is now Latvia.

Tribal borders changed little, but Samogitians (Žemaičiai) considered themselves independent and held to their own leadership. For the good of the country, Mindaugas did not officially oppose them and, in fact, supported them in their war against the Teutonic Knights. The Samogitians, in turn, contributed to Lithuania’s security by their close proximity to areas under Teutonic Order occupation and by their determination and their legendary military might. Samogitians checked Teutonic expansion into their own lands long before Mindaugas came to power. When Mindaugas ceded part of their land to the Order to keep the Knights out of the rest of Lithuanian territory, it caused the rift between the Samogitians and the crown which lasted many years. But they eventually joined the union and Samogitia became part of Lithuania.

To get a clearer view of tribal culture and industry, we must look to excavated discoveries. Villages were small settlements with perimeters fortified with ramparts and ditches and containing up to a dozen houses. A 1957 discovery of an entire village protected by stone ramparts shows houses with indoor hearths. Villages which were not fortified, grew around hillforts and contained more houses. Chroniclers already called them “towns” before the 9th century. It is clear that feudal castles came into existence at the same time. The Anglo-Saxon traveler Wulfstan saw many such towns with their own “kings”. In his 876 codex Vita sancti Anscarii, Rimbert, a disciple of the Archbishop of Bremen, also writes of an established feudal system in the Baltics.

Early Lithuanians worshiping fire and snakes, as shown in this woodcut which appeared in a 16th century book.
Early Lithuanians worshiping fire and snakes, as shown in this woodcut which appeared in a
16th century book.

Hill-forts were predecessors of the later medieval castles. Baltic architecture, as well as that in all northern Europe, was constructed entirely of wood. Castles were periodically burned down and rebuilt when they became outdated and indefensible. Wooden temples and sanctuaries of the 7th century, excavated in 1955- 1957, were also built in the form of hill-forts. The largest and strongest castle with a town was both the civic and military administrative center of the tribal district. The “kings” or chieftains who owned these castles ruled the tribes under their protection.

Fortifications saw considerable enlargement over time. Many new ones were also built and grew loftier. Some castle walls were ten meters high. Ramparts reached more than forty meters across. Within these ramparts were wooden buildings set atop rectangular, log or stone foundations. Rivers and streams were diverted to guard at least two of the fort’s sides and moats were dug to surround the remainder.

Large trading towns were already in existence prior to these dates. Truso on the river Elbing is the earliest known in the Baltics and one of the largest. Another was Wiskiauten (Viskiautai) at the southwestern tip of the Curonian Lagoon. This was the gateway to traffic eastward along the Nemunas river through the lands of Curonians, Prussians, Lithuanians, and other Baltic tribes. Trade with Vikings and the Rus flourished along this route until the militant threat from Scandinavia began to mount.

Currency did not replace barter until the 10th century, when trading of fur, amber, jewelry, and larger goods became inconvenient. Early currency took the form of finger-like silver bars weighing 100 or 200 grams. They are found in rich graves or large hoards along the many river trade routes active through the 14th century.

Cultivation of land is evident in the multitude of farm tools common to all the tribes. Rye, oats, and wheat were grown. Stone paved grain storage pits indicate that grains were mixed together, perhaps even sown this way, and bread was made of multi-grain flour. There is proof that some fields were left fallow, as in a two-field system of rotating crops, alternating hemp and flax.

The most numerous domestic animals were cattle, followed by sheep, horses, and pigs. Raising livestock was more prominent than hunting. Only 30 percent of bones excavated on farm sites were wild animal bones. Clay ovens for iron smelting were not uncommon in villages. Hammers, anvils, chisels, and similar smithing tools were also found. Weapons, tools, and pottery had acquired a purely Baltic character well before 300 A.D.

Fortifications were built on top of hill-forts, and towns began forming around them. (Reconstruction of how Kernavė may have looked in the 13th-14th centuries.)
Fortifications were built on top of hill-forts, and towns began forming around them. (Reconstruction of how Kernavė may have looked in the 13th-14th centuries.)

Amber still kept alive the long standing trade routes south and west to central Europe. Baltic jewelry, including enameled ornaments, was dispersed throughout Europe before the 5th century. Glass found in East Prussia was unmistakably made by Curonians, Lithuanians, and Sudovians — known producers of the finest jewelry traded in the Baltics.

The influence of Viking art is conspicuous in many ornamental motifs used by the Baltic tribes. This characteristic is reciprocal in that there is much in Viking art obviously originated by Curonians. As we move farther away from coastal communities, these similarities become scarce. But finds of jewelry, fragments of linen and wool garments, and various details of dress allows a full reconstruction of people’s costumes from the 9th century on. It is evident, for example, that a woman’s headdress denoted her wealth and social station, as a man’s belt did his. Elaborate neck ornaments were also common throughout the Baltic tribes.

Another art form related to dress is found in horse harnesses and saddles. These were also distinctive from one tribe to another, as burial grounds’ excavations show where horses were buried with their owners.

We know a great deal more about the tribes which Mindaugas forged into the Lithuanian nation than I have included here. Space does not permit description of pagan religious beliefs and their variations from one tribe to another, nor their similarities, or burial customs beyond the more common cremation by the earliest tribes. I have touched only briefly on this vast subject of our predecessors who became the first Lithuanians as a single group.