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Estonia and the Estonians
By Toivo U. Raun
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2001 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
1 The Prehistoric Era
The prehistoric era — from the first signs of human habitation to the emergence of written records — in the region that would become modern Estonia lasted nearly nine millennia. Little is known about this long period; however, a growing number of archaeological finds and evidence from other disciplines provide the basis for cautious generalizations. Before turning to such issues as the origins of the Estonians and the arrival of their ancestors in the Baltic, it will be useful to make some brief geographical comments.
The area populated by the Estonian people and their ancestors has not changed appreciably in the last 1500 years. Twentieth-century Estonia is approximately the size of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. In comparison to other European states, it is larger than Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, or Belgium. To the west and north, Estonia borders on the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, affording an avenue of contact with Central Europe and Scandinavia. Other nationalities located on the Baltic, especially the Germans, Swedes, and Danes, have used this open waterway to penetrate Estonian territory. To the east, Lake Peipsi has formed a natural dividing line between Slavic and Finnic worlds for centuries. Only in the twentieth century has the Slavic element moved significantly farther west into traditionally Estonian areas. To the south, Estonia has a land border with the Latvians that gradually moved north until it stabilized in early modern times.
Geographically, Estonia is part of the great East European plain and can be divided into two major regions. Lower Estonia consists of the western and northern coastal regions, including the islands as well as the areas around Lakes Peipsi and Vorts (the two largest inland bodies of water). Upper Estonia includes the central and southern regions, excluding the lake districts, and is perhaps best pictured as the areas surrounding the urban centers of Rakvere (Wesenberg), Paide (Weissenstein), Viljandi (Fellin), Tartu (Dorpat), and Peru (Werro). Ninety percent of the country is less than 100 meters above sea level, although the higest point in Estonia at Suur Munamagi in the extreme southeast reaches nearly 318 meters. Whereas Lower Estonia is almost completely flat and often marshy, Upper Estonia is characterized by a more varied landscape and, as a result of glacial deposits, is by far the more agriculturally fertile of the two regions. Estonia possesses no great natural resources. The only mineral wealth of note is oil shale and phosphorite; abundant supplies of limestone and dolomite are available as building materials.
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Estonia's climate is characteristic of the continental mixed forest zone, but it is tempered in the winter by the Baltic Sea and the Gulf Stream. The vegetation period (average temperature above 5°C) ranges from 145 to 165 days per year, and the active growing season (average temperature above 10°C) is 110-135 days per year. The warmest areas of the country are the western coastal regions and accompanying islands; there the nights are frost free from four to six months of the year. Average annual precipitation ranges from 21.7 to 25.6 inches.
THE ORIGINS OF THE ESTONIANS
The Estonian language belongs to the Uralic or FinnoUgric linguistic groups. Uralic, the broader of the two terms, subsumes both FinnoUgric and the Samoyed languages of western Siberia. The Ugric branch of Finno-Ugric includes Hungarian and the Ob-Ugric subgroup (Vogul [Mansi] and Ostyak [Khanty]), while the Finnic category consists of Perm-Finnic (Votyak [Udmurt] and Zyrian [Komi and Komi-Permiak]), Volga-Finnic (Mordvin and Cheremis [Mari]), Lapp (Sami), and Balto-Finnic. Estonian belongs to the Balto-Finnic subgroup, which can be divided into the two following branches:
Ingrian (or Izhorian)
It should be noted that there is disagreement among linguists with regard to distinguishing among dialects and languages in the Balto-Finnic group. For example, Soviet Estonian linguists recognize Izhorian (Est. isuri) as a language spoken in Ingria. Among the Balto-Finns, only the Finns and Estonians have achieved modern cultures. Of the others, only Livonian has a written language, but in the mid-1980s only some 90-100 Livonian speakers (all of them elderly) still remained.
The origins of the Uralic and Finno-Ugric peoples are obscure, but linguistic, archaeological, and anthropological evidence provide important clues upon which credible theoretical constructions can be based. The first major theory on this question was offered by the Finnish scholar M. A. Castren in the mid-nineteenth century. His so-called Altaic theory postulated a common homeland for the Uralic and Altaic (Turco-Tatar, Mongol, Tungus) peoples in the Altaic mountains of southeastern Siberia. This view is now obsolete, since the alleged connections between Uralic and Altaic have proved problematic. The nineteenth-century mind equated language and race and thus reached the unwarranted conclusion that the Finno-Ugrians were anthropologically Mongoloid. In the 1870s a counterargument to that of Castren appeared and was later forcefully expounded by the Finnish linguists E. N. Setala and Heikki Paasonen. Known as the Uralic theory, this view placed the original homeland of the Finno-Ugrians and Samoyeds in the middle Volga region between the Kama and Oka rivers. Gradually the various subgroups broke off: the Samoyeds left first, followed by the Ugrians, Perm-Finns, and Balto-Finns. With certain significant modifications, the Uralic theory has been accepted by most twentieth-century scholars. The archaeologist Richard Indreko has argued that the Finno-Ugrians originated in Western Europe, but his views have not found appreciable acceptance.
There is substantial agreement among Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian scholars that the original homeland of the Finno-Ugrians is to be found in the forest zone of Eastern Europe west of the Ural mountains. The Hungarian linguist Peter Hajdu places the Uralic homeland on the eastern side of the Urals (6000-4000 B.c.), and he suggests that the Finno-Ugrians crossed over to the European side by 3000 B.c. while the Samoyeds remained in Siberia. The major differences of opinion today concern how and when the Finno-Ugrians split apart and finally reached their later destinations. In particular, archaeologists have tended to push the stages of migration much farther back in time than linguists. However, in recent decades Soviet Estonian scholars from various disciplines have agreed that the ancestors of the Balto-Finns were already in the Baltic area during the third millennium B.C.
It must be remembered that the notion of a compact original homeland with later neat severances by various subgroups is only a theoretical construct based on linguistic data and hardly does justice to the complexity of actual events. The Finnish ethnologist Kustaa Vilkuna has suggested that the concept of an original homeland is itself obsolete and that attempts to locate one are pure speculation. If the idea of a narrow homeland is abandoned, it becomes possible to postulate the Finno-Ugrian region as a long band of thinly populated settlements, perhaps stretching from the Urals to the Baltic area in northeastern Europe. It is also probable that the westward migration of the Finno-Ugrians took place gradually in small waves rather than in any large single movement. Although the Ob-Ugrians show strong Mongoloid characteristics, an anthropological study by the Estonian scholar Karin Mark indicates that the Balto-Finns have overwhelmingly Caucasoid physical features.
The northeastern Baltic area was freed from the last Ice Age in the period 10,000-8000 B.c., and the first signs of human life appear to date from about 7500 B.c. The oldest archaeological find to date is located at Pulli on the Pa'rnu River. However, the Kunda culture, named for a north Estonian coastal settlement of this period, left few clues about the origins of its founders. It seems reasonable to assume that these early inhabitants, who were hunters and fishermen, came from the south and were probably later assimilated by Finnic elements. The prehistoric era in Estonian history can be divided as follows:
Early Stone Age: 7500-4000 B.c.
Late Stone Age: 4000-1500 B.c.
Bronze Age: 1500-500 B.c.
Pre-Roman Iron Age: 500 B.c.-Birth of Christ
Roman Iron Age: Birth of Christ-400 A.D.
Middle Iron Age: 400-800 A.d.
Late Iron Age: 800-1200 A.d.
Although any such periodization remains artificial to a degree, these approximate dates clearly indicate that the northern Baltic region lagged centuries behind developments in the more favorable climates of Asia, northern Africa, and southern Europe.
The Late Stone Age is the first period for which large numbers of artifacts are available. The greater part of this era was dominated by the so-called combceramic culture, named for the distinctive pottery decorations that suggest the use of a comb-like tool. Today there is substantial agreement that the bearers of this culture were ancestors of the Balto-Finns and that the spread of the combceramic culture all over northeastern Europe to the Urals is likely to be associated with Finno-Ugrian elements. The nomadic nature of the life of the inhabitants, who lived by hunting, fishing, and plant gathering, would also explain the wide geographical spread of the comb-ceramic culture. Around 2000B.c. a new wave of settlers appears to have entered the Baltic area from the southwest; their most distinctive feature was the use of a previously unknown ax-head in the shape of a boat. Although some linguists have argued that BalticFinnic linguistic contact began much later (perhaps 500 B.c.), the Estonian archaeologists Harri Moora and Lembit Jaanits feel that the boat-ax culture was borne by Indo-European or, more specifically, Baltic tribes, who were the ancestors of the Latvians and Lithuanians. Soil cultivation and cattle raising appeared for the first time toward the end of the Late Stone Age and received a major impulse from the boat-ax culture.
The traditional term "Bronze Age" is something of a misnomer when applied to the northern Baltic area. The elements for making bronze — copper and tin — are not native to the region, and few bronze objects have been found from this period. Stone, bone, and wood continued to prevail as the sources for implements and building materials. The period from 1500 B.c. to the birth of Christ was one of a long, gradual transition from nomadic hunting and fishing to agriculture; neither the new nor the old economic system dominated. By the middle of the first millennium B.C., two distinct cultural and ethnic regions had emerged in the area through the process of gradual assimilation. North of the Daugava (Diina, Russ. Dvina) River were the Balto-Finns; to the south were the ancestors of the Latvians and Lithuanians.
Like bronze, iron generally had to be imported to the Baltic region, although a certain amount was produced locally. It was only around the birth of Christ that iron replaced stone as the primary material for implements. The Roman Iron Age witnessed a definite surge in economic activity and was substantially aided by commercial contacts with the south and west. At the same time the process of gradual change to agriculture as the dominant economic system finally reached culmination. This shift can be documented in part by the movement of population centers to the more fertile Upper Estonia and by evidence of more numerous and sophisticated agricultural tools. Before agriculture could dominate in the relatively infertile soil and harsh northern climate, sturdy ploughing implements and some knowledge of fertilizer were necessary. Linguistic evidence indicates that barley was probably the main crop in the first centuries after the birth of Christ. Wheat was also cultivated to a degree, but rye, the later staple crop of Estonia, appears to have played only a minor role.
The Middle Iron Age is generally regarded as a period of economic decline. Previous contacts with the West were then hampered by the unsettling effects of the great European migrations. Whereas earlier contacts had been with Baltic and Germanic peoples to the south and west, toward the middle of the first millennium A.d. Slavs appeared for the first time on Estonia's southeastern border. At the same time, Baltic tribes to the south were pushing the cultural dividing line farther north, perhaps very close to the modern Estonian-Latvian border. An economic upturn began at the start of the last prehistoric period, the Late Iron Age, in the ninth century. The major causal factor was a revival of commercial contacts with the West, especially with Scandinavia. Estonia became an important transit station on the Varangian (or Viking) trade route through Russia to Byzantium in the ninth and tenth centuries. The most important imports were iron, copper, bronze, precious metals, and finished products; the major exported items were bearskins, wax, grain, and cattle. In the twelfth century (and perhaps already in the eleventh), when the Varangian route to the east fell into disuse, the Estonians pursued an active trading and plundering policy to the west on the Baltic Sea. At the same time Estonia retained its importance in the transit trade between Novgorod and the West.
THE ECONOMY AND SOCIAL ORGANIZATION
Due to the paucity of sources, Estonian social and economic life in the prehistoric era remains relatively obscure. Although agriculture was the dominant economic way of life for some 1,200 years before the German conquest in the thirteenth century, it is not clear what level of technology was achieved by the Estonian farmers and their ancestors. Traditionally, both Baltic German and pre-Soviet Estonian scholars have posited the prevalence of the two-field system and the use of rather primitive implements in this period. However, recent work by Soviet Estonian archaeologists and historians suggests that the more advanced three-field system predated German control in the Baltic. The thirteenth century may well have been a transition period to the new method of cultivation. Furthermore, agricultural implements were not as rudimentary as was once believed; for example, iron ploughshares probably dominated in the Baltic from the eleventh century onward. The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, the unparalleled source for the German conquest of Estonia in the early thirteenth century, suggests the existence of significant expanses of permanent agricultural fields as well as large herds of cattle. Nevertheless, in comparison to the areas populated by the emerging Latvian and Lithuanian nations to the south, where more favorable agricultural conditions prevailed, Estonia was no doubt less developed economically.
Estonian farmsteads in prehistoric times were almost never individual ones, but instead were grouped in two types of villages. On the island of Saaremaa (Osel) and the western coastal region of Laanemaa (Wiek), a circular or bunched village (sumbkula) prevailed. Elsewhere in Estonia row villages were typical — that is, rows of dwellings all located on one side of a road. Whereas the cultivated land was probably divided into irregular patches by household, the meadow, forest, and pasture lands were held in common. Little is known for certain about rural dwellings in this period, but two noted scholars, Gustav Rank and Harri Moora, both argue that the distinctive Estonian barn-dwelling (rehielamu or rehetare) was used even before the thirteenth century. In contrast to the rural housing of neighboring peoples (usually smoke huts), the Estonian rehielamu was a much larger structure (about 20 meters long) that served as both living and working quarters. The building consisted of three main parts: (1) the threshing room, which also served as a granary and, in winter, as a livestock barn; (2) the drying room, located in the middle of the house, which was the only heated room and used for drying grain and for housing the family during the colder months; and (3) the smaller living chambers used during the warmer months. The development of this form of rural housing probably began at least by the twelfth century. With the transition to a more sedentary population, some villages began to be fortified around 750-500B.c. and others built special fortresses to which the villagers could retreat in times of trouble. Urban life appears to have been in the early stages of development, although it is now known that an Estonian village and trading center existed on the site of the future city of Tallinn at least two centuries before the Danish conquest of 1219.
Excerpted from Estonia and the Estonians by Toivo U. Raun. Copyright © 2001 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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