Marija Gimbutas identified the "Kurgan" culture, as Proto-Indo-Europeans who were a patrilineal, patrilocal, pastoral and semi nomadic group of peoples, who, she believed, originated in the steppes of Russia. They were militaristic, produced weapons, and rode horses, and their religion centered upon male gods. Their agriculture was rudimentary, although as they came into greater contact with the Old Europeans, they domesticated more plants and developed metallurgy. The ceramic art these peoples were poorly developed, and they buried their dead in pit graves covered with a cairn or an earthen mound, or kurgan.
Gimbutas traced their migrations from an area north of the Caucasus, in the Russian steppes, to their new homelands. Their new homelands encompassed the geographic areas that became Greece, Italy, Britain, Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Germany, Scandinavia, Anatolia, India, Iran and Chinese Turkestan. There were three migrations:
- Wave 1, c. 4400 - 4200 B.C. (Kurgan I-II, the Khvalynsk and Srednij Stog cultures);
- Wave 2, c. 3400 - 3200 B.C. (Kurgan III, the Maikop culture); and
- Wave 3, c. 3000 - 2800 B.C. (Kurgan IV, the Yamna or Pit-grave culture).
When the Proto-Indo-Europeans arrived at their new homelands, they met groups of indigenous peoples who were relatively peaceful, agragarian, artistically creative, probably equalitarian in social structure, and goddess worshipping. The indigenous peoples had an advanced aesthetic: they built two-story houses and beautiful temples, of which we have clay models, and they produced beautiful painted ceramic ware. They were sometimes assimilated, and sometimes destroyed, by the Kurgan peoples, whose domestication of the horse and military ability gave them a strong advantage. The Proto-Indo-Europeans imposed both language and religion on the indigenous peoples, although traces of both indigenous language and religion remained as a sub-stratum in the resulting "Indo-European" language and culture. Thus Indo-Euorpean is a merging of Kurgan peoples with Old Europe.
The Old Europeans worshipped the full circle of birth, death, and rebirth in the form of a "great"-goddess. Unlike the early historical cultures, most of which venerated the givers of life (for example, the Greek Aphrodite), while dishonoring those who brought death (for example, the Greek Medusa), the Old Europeans did not divide the great-goddess into fragments of "good" and "bad". The goddess was one and many, a unity and a multiplicity. The hybrid bird-and-snake goddess was the great-goddess of the life continuum, the goddess of birth, death and rebirth; she was the creator and the destroyer, the maiden, the crone, and the goddess in the prime of life who mated with the young god in hieros gamos, the "sacred marriage," and gave birth - again and again - to creation.
Although translatable written language did not appear until the advent of Sumerian cuneiform writing and Egyptian hieroglyphics, both around the beginning of the third millennium B.C., signs dating to the Old European Neolithic, and even earlier to the Upper Paleolithic, have been recovered, carved on various objects, such as figurines and bowls. Excellent examples of Old European script are to be found on figurines from the Vinca culture, in the northwest Balkans.
In Old Europe the tomb is also the sacred place from which life emanates. The tomb is the womb of the goddess; the two are, in Old European religion, inextricably interconnected. There are many examples in iconography showing this interconnectedness. Many tombs, as well as shrines, celebrating rituals of death and regeneration, have ritual shapes: in Lepenski Vir, a site on the Danube River in the Iron Gates region, Gimbutas found small triangular-shaped structures containing statues and altars, which were associated with burials; caves such as Scaloria cave in southeast Italy contained evidence of ritual: pottery sherds with regenerative designs, and skeletons of mostly young women and children. The rock-cut tombs of Malta are egg-shaped, whilst the Maltese Hypogeum an underground temple, consists of thirty-four interconnected egg-shaped chambers; approximately seven thousand human bones were found there, mostly in egg-shaped niches in the lower chambers. In Sardinia as well, tombs consisted of rock-cut egg or kidney-shaped chambers. Megalithic monuments, which served as places of both ritual and burial, flourished throughout Western Europe. Many of these monuments were anthropomorphic in shape, representing the full figure of the goddess. Many, such as Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland and the Maltese Hypogeum, were decorated with regenerative symbols such as the spiral and coiled snake. These tombs, shaped like the goddess of death and regeneration, were the womb of the goddess.
Marija Gimbutas excavated many temples - generally these were found within the community, an integral part of it. In these temples or "house shrines," the hearth was often central, and home-related tasks such as baking were aligned with the sacred. Some of the real temples seem to be dedicated to a bird goddess, to a snake goddess, or to a pregnant goddess of vegetation. The horselike temples of southeast Europe contained altars, statues (some life-sized), figurines (many bearing markings that indicate clothing, headgear, and medallions), miniature furnishings, incense burners, and human or animal-shaped vases. tThey contained the technology of everyday life: domed ovens, grinding stones, and storage jars. That they contained looms may be inferred from ceramic loom weights and spindle whorls (the wooden looms were destroyed by time). Gimbutas believed that the Old Europeans wove cloth, baked bread, and created pottery as sacred acts: that the ancient temples were centers of a holistic spiritual life.
Not all Old European temples were built structures, some were roundels, square enclosures, and causewayed enclosures: sacred outdoor precincts built of wood and stone and often surrounded by ceremonial ditches. In Britain, roundels such as the famous Stonehenge, Woodhenge, and Avebury in County Wiltshire date from the third millennium B.C. Earlier roundels (from c. 5000 - 3000 B.C., perhaps less well known, were built by the Lengyel and other cultures of Central Europe. These structures served religious, not military, purposes, since the artifacts found within them, including human skeletons (buried along with ritual objects), animal bones, vases, and figurines, indicate feasting and ritual burial. The enclosures usually opened to the four cardinal directions, and they probably served seasonal rituals. They reflect cooperative work, and they served the collective community.
Marija Gimbutas believed that the peoples of Old Europe handed down their goods through the female line: a matrilineal inheritance. In matrilineal societies, women are economically viable since they are able to inherit goods. This leads to greater female autonomy and greater respect for the female. Gimbutas relates social respect for the female to religious respect for the female - the worshipping of goddesses - and states that Old European matrilineal societies therefore honored both mortal females and female deities. Consequently, in her opinion these cultures were equalitarian in social structure, honoring both women and men.