Marija Alseikaite Gimbutas was born in 1921, in Vilnius, Lithuania. The Lithuanian spelling of her surname was Gimbutienė.
Gimbutas fled her homeland, Lithuania, during World War II, which at that time was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union.
In 1946, she earned a PhD in archaeology at Tübingen University in Germany. Her background was interdisciplinary and included a thorough grounding in linguistics, ethnology, and the history of religions, which was unusual for an archaeologist.
In 1949, she moved to the United States, where she would remain until her death four decades later.
With her extensive knowledge of European languages, Marija Gimbutas was employed by Harvard University in 1950. She was assigned the task of conducting research and writing texts regarding European prehistory. Gimbutas was able to read and translate the archaeological reports from Eastern Europe, which opened the American to new ideas on archeology. She remained at Harvard for thirteen years where she also became a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. In 1955 Marija Gimbutas was made a Fellow of Harvard’s Peabody Museum.
1956 brought an International conference at Philadelphia, and it was here that Marija Gimbutas introduced her “Kurgan Hypothesis,” which combined archaeological study of the distinctive “Kurgan” burial mounds with linguistics to unravel some problems in the study of the Proto-Indo-Europeans; namely, to account for their origin and to trace their migrations into Europe. The word “Kurgan” is a Russian word from Turkic describing the kind of graves and grave-barrows built by the people of this culture.
In 1963, Marija Gimbutas was invited to teach at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she remained a professor until her retirement in 1989.
In Southern California, she taught Baltic and Slavic studies. Gimbutas was appointed Chair of European Archaeology. She established the Institute of Archaeology and stimulated the development of Indo-European studies. She was the Curator of Old World Archaeology at the Cultural History Museum. She edited scholarly archeology related publications, and as well as her own published works while traveling and lecturing extensively throughout the world.
Gimbutas was co-founder of The Journal of Indo-European Studies. She contributed to Lithuanian journals and encyclopedias. Gimbutas was always an important figure in Baltic studies. Gimbutas earned a reputation as a world-class specialist on the Indo-European Bronze Age as well as on Lithuanian folk art, and the prehistory of the Balts and Slavs, partly summed up in the definitive Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe (1965).
Gimbutas’ archaeomythology scientifically analyzes the material database for Old Europe, it draws possible and probable inferences from these analyses to reconstruct the symbolic, religious ideology of Old Europe. Her work resulted in the publication ofThe Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, written while she wasin residence in Holland as a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (1973-74) .
After years of solitary research, the main themes of Old European art and religion were presented in The Language of the Goddess (1989).
Her final book The Civilization of the Goddess (1991), presented an overview of her theories about Neolithic cultures across Europe: housing patterns, social structure, art, religion and the nature of literacy. The book advanced what she saw as the differences between the Old European system, which she considered goddess-centered and matriarchal, and the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal cultural elements. According to her speculation, both systems fused to form the classical European societies.
In June of 1993, Marija Gimbutas received an honorary doctorate at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.
The enormous appreciation she received from the scholars, students and countless Lithuanian citizens was also repeated in America, the following year, when Marija Gimbutas died in Los Angeles, on February 2, 1994. Thousands of people came to express their love and respect for this great woman and Lithuanian scholar.