What is Wielbark Culture?
The short answer is it’s the Goths and Gepids. It is a material culture from the 1st to 5th century in Northern Poland. In the 5th century, it was replaced by early Slavic culture. The story goes that the Goths moved southeast out of Scandza and set up shop for a few hundred years in what is now Northern Poland. As time went on, they moved further southeast from the Baltic coast, incorporating the Vandals into their culture. It is described as a rapid migration, putting pressure on other tribes in the area. The movement of the Goths is associated with the Marcomannic wars with Rome.
Here is a map from Cambridge.org showing the archeological site that gives the culture its name:
Who are the Goths?
Based on the writings of Jordanes, the Goths at the time believed they were from an Island, and either the Island is called Scandza or it was part of that area, sometimes called Scandia. It’s all fuzzy and hearsay, with some games of telephone going on for multiple generations because Jordanes is writing in the 6th century, referencing lost historical works and maybe some tribal tradition. At a minimum, they believe they left Scandza for Northern Poland. Given the similarities in naming, people associate them with the Island of Gotland or the area in Southern Sweden called Gotaland. Here’s a map of Gotaland, including the Island of Gotland, lovingly borrowed from Wikipedia:
You may recognize it as the home of the Geats in this map I borrowed of Beowulf’s world and you see Gotland and then southeast of that the Gifths near Wielbark and the Vistula river.
We catch up the Goths in the context of the Roman Empire. The descriptions of them are from the perspective of the Roman world. That leads to a lot of good theories about their origins that are hard to substantiate. What we have going for us in the world of genetics is that they buried some of their dead so we can extract DNA from their bones and get an idea of familial relationships.
Some Baseline Readings
Family Tree DNA estimates that Mr. R-Z18 was born around 2250 BCE in an unknown location. The oldest ancient DNA sample for R-Z18 is Madesø 752 (AKA NEO752), who died between 1864 and 1533 BCE. Roughly 400 to 800 years away from the source. There is a lot of travel time in there.
Madesø 752’s dates span Scandinavia’s late Neolithic and early bronze age. FTDNA places him in the Neolithic cultural group. He was buried in what is now Madesø, Zealand, Denmark. Madesø is a lake, so the burial is probably near the lake.
The next oldest listed by the U106 group is NEO946. His dates are between 1322 and 967 BCE, a little more firmly in the Nordic Bronze Age. NEO946 is listed as buried in Hove Å, Zealand, Denmark. Hove Å is a stream, so the burial is probably near the stream.
Here is my google walking map of those two earliest R-Z18 locations:
By the time we pick up NEO946, greater R-U106 had been settled in a broad swath of Northern Europe. Here are selected samples, PNL1 in Plotiště nad Labem, Chechia, is the current oldest U106 sample at roughly 2900 BCE. The second oldest is Rise98 in Lilla Beddinge, part of the same Neolithic culture as the earliest R-Z18 find near Madesø 752. At roughly 2200 BCE Rise98 is close to the suspected age of the birth of R-Z18, but is down a different branch of U106. Then on to the Netherlands and back to Chechia for I13788 in Chouč, Czechia, who would be close in timing to our second oldest R-Z18 man, NEO946.
Given the range of R-U106 there are lots of possibilities for an origin for R-Z18. It just happens that the earliest known R-Z18 sample is from Neolithic Denmark, not too far from Lilla Beddinge, Sweden, where there is evidence of R-U106 in a similar time period.
I’m connecting them here with a walking path to illustrate the proximity in space and time between two different branches of R-U106 in the context of that big patch of Northern Europe that R-U106 inhabited.
R-Z18 has been in the neighborhood for roughly 1000 years before we picked it up again in Wielbark DNA studies. Two R-Z18 men and a third R-U106 man (down a different branch) are found in Wielbark graves in the Stolarek et al. 2023 study. Our two R-Z18 men are PCA0485, listed as Pruszcz Gdański 485 at FTDNA, and PCA0531, listed as Czarnówko 531 at FTDNA.
Here is a map of the Wielbark sites in Northern Poland that produced the R-Z18 and R-U106 samples circa 100 to 300 CE. These are the next earliest R-Z18 samples to those found in Denmark roughly 1600 to 1000 years earlier. It is a large gap of time.
Water is not a Barrier. It is a Road
I am not a sailor, or I would think this stuff would come easier to me. I’ve lived around lakes, rivers and water my whole life and never really picked up a fondness for boats. I wanted to take a look at the currents in the Baltic to get an idea of what would help or hinder a group leaving some Island and heading for the coast of modern Poland. I’m an overly simple person so I have a map that I could understand pretty well, that I have stolen from this publication. From the perspective of the water rather than from the land.
The red lines are dominant surface movement currents, and the yellow lines are deep water movement. There is Gotland with a nice path down around southern Sweden and over to Denmark and surface currents that travel back North from the area of the Wielbark grave sites. It seems like Pruszcz Gdański might be a natural place to set up shop for continental trade.
Here is another version of the map that includes the North Sea. Dotted lines are the bottom current, and solid black lines are the surface current. I’ve stolen this map from this recent publication. I’m cherry-picking a less complex image because of my limited understanding, but you get the idea. To a layperson, it looks like nature could help you out. The route may not be straight, but it could be faster.
It looks like Gotland is positioned to be a northern trade hub with a gyre down to the continent and back and easy access to the rest of Sweden and Denmark. You could make a decent loop. If you were tired of some other group being a middleman in Northern Poland, you could attempt to take over some territory in the Southern Baltic to give yourself easy ports..and maybe just keep working your way south and east. Bornholm is another well-positioned Island to take advantage of trade. Again, I’m taking the Goths at their word that they’re from some Scandinavian island. Islands also become overpopulated when they prosper. Another good reason to colonize new areas.
I found a couple of studies from Stolarek et al. when I was researching. One is a bit older and focused on matrilinear DNA, and the other is the source for the R-Z18 Y DNA. I want to spend some more time with them and make notes on their conclusions.