Where We Come From. The Origin of the Lithuanian People

Zigmas Zinkevièius

Aleksiejus Luchtanas

Gintautas Česnys

Science & Encyclopaedia

Publishing Institute

Vilnius, 2005


Books intended for the general reader are an area of publishing that has so far not been explored much by Lithuanian publishers. Foreign-language publishing here has generally been limited to coffee-table books or scholarly works. The former are well illustrated but not very informative; the latter are monographs with a thesis to propound, but of interest mainly to the authors’ fellow specialists.

Few publishers have managed to find the middle ground. What is missing is works like memoirs, novels and narrative history that an avid reader will happily read in preference to spending an evening watching television.

Of course, there have been some translations of Second World War memoirs, but readers may be getting weary of this subject. It is difficult to think of a single English translation of a Lithuanian novel, or even a volume of short stories. And in a culture where history is still seen as a complicated subject and therefore not one to be left to amateurs, there is little on history for the purely casual reader.

Thus, when the book Where We Come From appeared, which is specifically aimed at this group, it seemed that the gap was to be at least partly filled. It is about “ethnogenesis”, more commonly referred to as “ethnogeny”, which is the study of the origin of peoples.

This is not a very common field of research today. The book’s first chapter explains to the reader what it is, how it combines linguistics, archaeology and anthropology in order to create a field of research that is applied here to ascertaining the origins of the Lithuanian people. The authors are the country’s top authorities in these three fields, which probably accounts for the slight density of the writing. Afterwards, it moves on to describe at length the culture of the Balts, from whom the Lithuanians are descended.

Although some of the Baltic tribes were mentioned by Tacitus and Ptolemy in the first and second centuries AD, the term “Balt” was not used until the 19th century, in order to refer to various peoples who spoke languages included in the Baltic family of languages.

The Balts split into East and West Balts in the middle of the first millennium BC, of whom the West Balts are now extinct, and only East Balts remain, in the form of the Lithuanians and Latvians. We are told about the culture of the Balts, their stone and bone artefacts, pottery, deities and burial customs, and Baltic words and names in the Finnish and Slavic languages. This section forms the bulk of the book

The Lithuanian language is the oldest living Indo-European language. This is a much quoted fact, but we are seldom told why. What historical factors came together to make it so? The book tells us about the breaking off of relations with neighbouring groups and the isolation in the forests of northern Europe. “During long centuries in a closed society, the language of the Balts simply froze in the past.”

The language is not the only thing in Lithuania to have been well preserved. It is a fascinating country of untouched landscapes, unexplored archaeological sites and old-fashioned ways of life. Something that is quite evident from this book is how much interest there is today in “living” archaeology. We see lots of pictures of archaeologists, researchers and often children, sometimes dressed in period clothes, demonstrating ancient crafts and taking part in archaeological digs, and schoolchildren being shown around historic sites. It sometimes seems that everyone is enthusiastically recreating, reenacting and indulging in the past.

The problem with a multi­disciplinary approach to the past, though, is that it rules out a chronological one. As a result, it is all too easy to foster a vagueness towards time, and towards sequences of events in general. Thus, sometimes, it seems that everything good belongs to some other era, and often to a rather idealised one, and all the diversity, development and continuity of history are ignored. This, in turn, inevitably makes the past prone to a certain degree of romanticisation.

Where the book falls short is in finding the middle ground for the general reader that it set out to occupy. The coffee-table book layout (short chapters and plenty of colour illustrations) but weighty content (diagrams and lists of vocabulary) make it more like a school textbook than something you would want to spend the evening reading. It has also been published in Lithuanian, Russian and German. Why publish such a textbook in a foreign language at all? The inclusive “we” of the title, since here it clearly does not mean the whole of mankind, suggests that it is aimed at the descendants of emigres who have a poor knowledge of the mother tongue.