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« Tuna 4 / 2019

How Curonians became a Baltic People

The early history of the people that lived on the Courland Peninsula has not been passed on to us by them themselves. Similarly, texts in the Curonian language, or even samples of the language, which was prohibited in the 16th century by the authorities of that time, do not exist, aside from place names, personal names and a few technical terms found in medieval legal documents. This article examines earlier interpretations of the information that has been gathered on the inhabitants of the Courland Peninsula and attempts to answer questions such as: 1) What did contemporaries imagine regarding the linguistic kinship of the Curonians? 2) What did 18th and 19th century linguists think about the linguistic kinship of the Curonians? 3) Has anything concerning the ethnic origin of the Curonians been successfully ascertained by way of the archaeological method, and if so, then what? 4) How were Curonians lumped in with the Baltic peoples?

The answer to the first question has remained indirect namely for the reason that the concept of nationality and its topicality in the Middle Ages differed from that of today. The only thing about their language that has been firmly expressed is that it differed from both Latvian and Livonian. However, 18th and 19th century linguists looked for the proportion of just those languages in Curonian according to place names and personal names. They started a dispute on whether it belonged to the Baltic or Finno-Ugric linguistic tree. Along with the question of the origin of the Curonians, the question of whether primarily one people or several different peoples lived in Courland in ancient times and the Middle Ages has remained a theme of academic dispute. The change in Courland’s archaeological culture that took place in the 10th century, the attributes of which (the remains of both cremations and objects considered to resemble objects of Baltic origin found in the cultural stratum along with finds that are considered to resemble Baltic-Finnic objects) spread to the northern part of the peninsula starting in the 11th century, has been interpreted to this day in accordance with the theory of identifying cultural regions, a theory that dates from the start of the 20th century. The research task had apparently been set as finding a suitable people for every archaeological culture, categorising the inhabitants of that region as ‘Kurs’ of Baltic origin and ‘Livonians’ of Baltic-Finnic origin, or introducing some third designation, even though distinguishing designations referring to inhabitants of the Courland Peninsula have not been recorded in the oldest written sources from the Viking era or in the 13th century. The fourth theme regarding classifying the Curonians among the Baltic peoples is directly connected to nationality studies that arose in the first half of the 20th century. These inevitably brought themes of linguistic kinship into the sphere of influence of political objectives featured by nation-states, where what nationalities living within the borders of a single nation-state shared in common was emphasised, and not vice versa. This can be seen more clearly in retrospect and in the paradigm of our contemporary time, where science aspires more to cross-border cooperation instead of delineating various kinds of spheres of influence.

Thus the answers to the in and of itself rather interesting question of the linguistic kinship of the Curonians, as a people that has played an active and important part in the history of the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, have largely remained at the level that researchers were able to develop in the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, the research methods of the historians of the Baltic states have been significantly augmented over the past couple of decades and they also make it possible to evaluate the results of the research that has been conducted thus far. Undoubtedly, one of the weak points is difficulties arising from the small number of DNA samples from earlier times and from nowadays. On the background of the similar genetic database of today’s inhabitants of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, first of all a larger amount of such samples are required, and secondly very precise formulations of topics are needed in order to carry out productive analyses. Yet the methodical arsenal of archaeologists, linguists and historians can also be augmented, and this should be preceded by the evaluation of the results that have been obtained thus far. The objective of this article is to describe the history of the definition of Curonians up to the point when they were classified as Balts, and for this reason, the final ascertainment of the linguistic kinship of the Curonians is beyond the article’s narrow framework. The future should show whether this is still scientifically possible at all on the basis of existing data, or what initial results are obtained from continuing research.