Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
The Slavs: prehistory
The Slavs, according to archaeological and linguistic evidence, can be traced back to around 4000 bc. At this time the Great Eurasian Plain was inhabited by the people (or peoples) whom we now know by the name “Indo-Europeans”. Our factual knowledge of this distant period of European pre-history is sketchy and partly conjectural. Although we can only guess how far their territory extended, it is possible that at least the European center of the Indo-European homeland – if not the original homeland itself (on one widely held view) – was in what is now Western Ukraine, and that they spoke a fairly homogeneous language.
By about 3000 bc the Indo-Europeans had occupied most of Europe. What had previously been local dialect variations in the Indo-European language would have begun to diverge in the direction of separate languages (based on linguistic difference), which led ultimately to the now familiar Indo-European language families.
The emergence of Proto-Slavic occurred around 2000–1500 bc. This is the period of Proto-Slavic unity, when the Slavs inhabited a broadly coherent land area, though its exact location remains a matter of some controversy. According to Birnbaum's (1979: ch. 1) summary of the then current state of play, the Slavs’ first homeland was north of the Carpathian Mountains, and possibly to the east of the Carpathians’ westernmost extremity in the Sudeten Mountains, both of which approximately mark the border between present-day Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics.