Prehistoric Europe

Prehistoric Europe

Prehistoric Europe refers to prehistorical period of the history of Europe.

Before the Upper Paleolithic, in the period of ca. 1 million to 40,000 years ago, Europe was populated by "Homo erectus" and "Homo neanderthalensis".

The Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic, from ca. 40,000 to 6,000 years ago, Europe had "Homo sapiens" hunter-gatherer populations. During the Last glacial maximum, much of Europe was depopulated and re-settled from about 15,000 years ago.

The European Neolithic begins about 8,000 years ago in southeastern Europe, and reaches northern Europe by about 5,000 years ago.

The European Bronze Age begins from about 4,800 years ago (2800 BC) with the Bell beaker culture.

The European Iron Age begins from about 2,800 years ago (800 BC), spreading to northern Europe by 2,500 years ago (500 BC). During the Iron Age, Europe gradually enters the historical period, the Mediterranean world from as early as the 8th century BC (Classical Antiquity), while eastern and northeastern Europe remain in the prehistoric period until as late as the Late Middle Ages or some 600 years ago (the Northern Crusades).


Through most of Earth's history, various subcontinental land masses such as Baltica and Avalonia that would later be part of Europe moved about the globe under the influence of plate tectonics, and took part in the formation and breakup of Pangaea.

Until the lower Oligocene period, about 32 million BP, the future lands of Europe were an island continent, separated from Asia by a shallow sea, but possessing intermittent land-bridge connections to North America via Greenland. Many animal species from the much larger North America colonized Europe during these times.

As sea levels changed and sediments accumulated, the sea between Europe and Asia gradually dried out and Europe became a western appendage of the Earth's largest land mass.


Lower Paleolithic:Europe was populated by species of "Homo" since c. 900,000 years ago ("Homo erectus"), associated with the "pebble-tools" technology and later to the Acheulean technology (since c. 300,000 BP).

Middle Paleolithic:Eventually these European "Homo erectus" evolved through a series of intermediate speciations including "Homo antecessor" and "Homo heidelbergensis" into the species "Homo neanderthalensis" (since c. 200,000 BP) associated with Mousterian technologies. It must be noted that our ancestors "Homo sapiens" also participated in this tool-making technique for a long time and they may have first settled Europe while this Mid-Paleolithic technique was still in use, though the issue is still unclear.

Upper Paleolithic:

· Ancient Upper Paleolithic:What is totally clear is that the bearers of most or all Upper Paleolithic technologies were "H. sapiens". Some locally developed transitional cultures (Szletian in Central Europe and Chatelperronian in the Southwest) use clearly Upper Paleolithic technologies at very early dates and there are doubts about who were their carriers: "H. sapiens" or Neanderthal man.

Nevertheless, the definitive advance of these technologies is made by the Aurignacian culture. The origins of this culture can be located in Bulgaria (proto-Aurignacian) and Hungary (first full Aurignacian). It is has been shown that the Aurignacian peoples were carriers of an early haplotype R1 y-chromosome and came to Europe by way of Central Asia. In any case by 35,000 B.C., the Aurignacian culture and its technology had extended through most of Europe. The last Neanderthals seem to have been forced to retreat during this process to the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula.

The first but scarce works of art appear during this phase.

· Middle Upper Paleolithic:Around 22,000 B.C. two new technologies/cultures appear in the southwestern region of Europe: Solutrean and Gravettian. The Gravettian technology/culture has been theorized to have come with migrations of people from the Middle East, Anatolia, and the Balkans carrying the haplotype I1 y-chromosome. They might be linked with the transitional cultures mentioned before, because their techniques have some similarities and are both very different from Aurignacian ones but this issue is thus far very obscure.

Though both cultures seem to appear in the SW, the Gravettian soon disappears there, with the notable exception of the Mediterranean coasts of Iberia. Nevertheless, it finds its way to other regions of Europe (Italy, Central and Eastern Europe), reaching even the Caucasus and the Zagros mountains.

The Solutrean culture, extended from northern Spain to SE France, includes not only a beautiful stone technology but also the first significant development of cave painting, the use of the needle and possibly that of the bow and arrow.

The more widespread Gravettian culture is no less advanced, at least in artistic terms: sculpture (mainly "venuses") is the most outstanding form of creative expression of these peoples.

· Late Upper Paleolithic:Around 17,000 B.C., Europe witnesses the appearance of a new culture, known as Magdalenian, possibly rooted in the old Aurignacian one. This culture soon supersedes the Solutrean area and also the Gravetian of Central Europe. However, in Mediterranean Iberia, Italy and Eastern Europe, epi-Gravettian cultures continue evolving locally.

With the Magdalenian culture, Paleolithic development in Europe reaches its peak and this is reflected in the amazing art, owing to the previous traditions: basically paintings in the West and sculpture in Central Europe.

(Links to Paleolithic santuaries:· [] · [] )

Epi-Paleolithic:Around 10,500 B.C., the Würm Glacial age ends. Slowly, through the following millennia, temperatures and sea levels rise, changing the environment of prehistoric people. Nevertheless, Magdalenian culture persists until circa 8000 B.C., when it quickly evolves into two "microlithist" cultures: Azilian, in Spain and southern France, and Sauveterrian, in northern France and Central Europe. Though there are some differences, both cultures share several traits: the creation of very small stone tools called microliths and the scarcity of figurative art, which seems to have vanished almost completely, being replaced by abstract decoration of tools. []

In the late phase of this epi-Paleolithic period, the Sauveterrean culture evolves into the so-called Tardenoisian and influences strongly its southern neighbour, clearly replacing it in Mediterranean Spain and Portugal.

The recession of the glaciers allows human colonization in Northern Europe for the first time. The Maglemosian culture, derived from the Sauveterre-Tardenois culture but with a strong personality, colonizes Denmark and the nearby regions, including parts of Britain.


European Neolithic comes from the Near East, via Asia Minor, the Mediterranean waterway and also through the Caucasus in what regards to the East. There has been a long discussion between "migrationists" (who claim that the Near Eastern farmers almost totally displaced the European native hunter-gatherers) and diffusionists (who claim that the process was slow enough to have occurred mostly through cultural transmission). Modern genetic studies seem to show that the truth is somewhere in the middle and that both processes took place, although the question is still open. (See Demic diffusion.)

There is also a possible relationship between the spread of agriculture and the diffusion of indoeuropean languages, with several models of migrations trying to stablish a relationship, like the Indo-Hittite hypothesis, which sets the origin of Indo-European agricultural terminology in Anatolia [The supposed autochthony of Hittites, the Indo-Hittite hypothesis and migration of agricultural "Indo-European" societies became intrinsically linked together by C. Renfrew. (Renfrew, C 2001a The Anatolian origins of Proto-Indo-European and the autochthony of the Hittites. In R. Drews ed., Greater Anatolia and the Indo-Hittite language. family: 36-63. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man).]

Ancient Neolithic

Apparently related with the Anatolian culture of Hacilar, the Greek region of Thessalia is the first place of Europe known to have developed agriculture, cattle-herding and pottery. These early stages are know as pre-Sesklo culture. The Thessalian Neolithic culture soon evolves in the more coherent culture of Sesklo (c. 6000 B.C.), which is the origin of the main branches of Neolithic expansion in Europe. Practically all the Balkans Peninsula is colonized in the 6th millennium from there. That expansion, reaching the easternmost Tardenoisian outposts of the upper Tisza gives birth to the proto-Linear Pottery culture, a significant modification of the Balkan Neolithic that will be in the origin of one of the most important branches of European Neolithic: the Danubian group of cultures. In parallel, the coasts of the Adriatic and southern Italy witness the expansion of another Neolithic current of less clear origins. Settling initially in Dalmatia, the bearers of the Cardium Pottery culture may have come from Thessalia (some of the pre-Sesklo settlements show related traits) or even from Lebanon (Byblos). They are sailors, fishermen and sheep and goat herders, and the archaeological findings show that they mixed with natives in most places. Other early Neolithic cultures can be found in Ukraine and Southern Russia, where the epi-Gravettian locals assimilated cultural influxes from beyond the Caucasus (culture of Dniepr-Don and related) and in Andalusia (Spain), where the rare Neolithic of La Almagra Pottery appears without known origins very early (c. 5800 B.C.).

Middle Neolithic

This phase, starting in 5000 B.C. is marked by the consolidation of the Neolithic expansion towards western and northern Europe, but also by the irruption of a new culture that, probably through violence, occupies most of the Balkans, substituting or rather subjugating the first Neolithic settlers. This is the culture of Dimini (Thessalia) and the related ones of Vinca-Turdas (Serbia and Macedonia) and Karanovo III-Veselinovo (Bulgaria and nearby areas), this last one more hybrid than the other two. Meanwhile, the tiny proto-Linear Pottery culture has given birth to two very dynamic branches: the Western and Eastern Linear Pottery Cultures. The latter is basically an extension of the Balkan Neolithic, but the more original western branch expands quickly, assimilating what today is Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland and even large parts of western Ukraine, Moldavia, the lowlands of Romania, and regions of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. This was all achieved in less than one thousand years. With expansion comes diversification and a number of local Danubian cultures start forming at the end of the 5th millennium. In the Mediterranean, the Cardium Pottery fishermen show no less dynamism and colonize/assimilate all of Italy and the Mediterranean regions of France and Spain. Even in the Atlantic, some groups among the native hunter-gatherers start slowly incorporating the new technologies. Among those, the most noticeable regions seem to be the southwest of Iberia, influenced by the Mediterranean but specially by the Andalusian Neolithic, which soon develops the first Megalithic burials (dolmens) and the area around Denmark (culture of Ertebölle), influenced by the Danubian complex.

Late Neolithic

This period occupies the first half of the 4th millennium B.C. and is rather quiet. The tendencies of the previous period consolidate, so we have a fully formed Neolithic Europe with five main cultural regions:
#Danubian cultures: from northern France to Western Ukraine. Now split into several local cultures, the most relevant ones being: the Romanian branch (culture of Boian) that expands into Bulgaria, the culture of Rössen that is preeminent in the west, and the culture of Lengyel of Austria and western Hungary, which will have a major role in the upcoming periods.
#Mediterranean cultures: from the Adriatic to eastern Spain, including Italy and large portions of France and Switzerland. These are also diversified into several groups.
#The area of Dimini-Vinca: Thessalia, Macedonia and Serbia, but extending its influence also to parts of the mid-Danubian basin (Tisza, Slavonia) and southern Italy.
#Eastern Europe: basically central and eastern Ukraine and parts of southern Russia and Belarus (culture of Dniepr-Don). Apparently these people were the ones who first domesticated horses (though some Paleolithic evidence could disprove it).
#Atlantic Europe: a mosaic of local cultures, some of them still pre-Neolithic, from Portugal to southern Sweden. Since around 3800 B.C. the western regions of France incorporate also the Megalithic style of burial.

There were also a few independent areas, including Andalusia, southern Greece and the western coasts of the Black Sea (culture of Hamangia).


Also known as Copper Age, European Chalcolithic is a time of changes and confusion. The most relevant fact is the infiltration and invasion of large parts of the territory by people originating from Central Asia, considered by mainstream scholars to be the original Indo-Europeans, although there are again several theories in dispute. Other phenomena are the expansion of Megalithism and the appearance of the first significant economic stratification and, related to this, the first known monarchies in the Balkan region.

The economy of the Chalcolithic, even in the regions where copper is not used yet, is no longer that of peasant communities and tribes: now some materials are produced in specific locations and distributed to wide regions. Mining of metal and stone is particularly developed in some areas, along with the processing of those materials into valuable goods.

*Ancient ChalcolithicFrom c. 3500 to 3000 B.C. copper starts to be used in the Balkans, and Eastern and Central Europe. However, the key factor could be the use of horses, which would increase mobility. From c. 3500 onwards, Eastern Europe is apparently infiltrated by people originating from beyond the Volga (Yamna culture), creating a plural complex known as Sredny Stog culture, that substitutes the previous Dnieper-Donets culture, pushing the natives to migrate in a NW direction to the Baltic and Denmark, where they mix with natives (TRBK A and C). This may be correlated with the linguistic fact of the spread of Indo-European languages; see Kurgan hypothesis. Near the end of the period, another branch will leave many traces in the lower Danube area (culture of Cernavoda culture I), in what seems to be another invasion.

Meanwhile the Danubian Lengyel culture absorbs its northern neighbours of the Czech Republic and Poland for some centuries, only to recede in the second half of the period. In Bulgaria and Wallachia (Southern Romania), the culture of Boian-Marica evolves into a monarchy with a clearly royal cemetery near the coast of the Black Sea. This model seems to have been copied later in the Tiszan region with the culture of Bodrogkeresztur. Labour specialization, economic stratification and possibly the risk of invasion may have been the reasons behind this development. The influx of early Troy (Troy I) is clear in both the expansion of metallurgy and social organization.

In the western Danubian region (the Rhine and Seine basins) the culture of Michelsberg displaces its predecessor, Rössen. Meanwhile in the Mediterranean basin, several cultures (most notably Chassey in SE France and La Lagozza in northern Italy) converge into a functional union, of which the most significant characteristic is the distribution network of honey-coloured silex. Despite this unity, the signs of conflicts are clear, as many skeletons show violent injuries. This is the time and area where Ötzi, the famous man found in the Alps, lived. Another significant development of this period is that the Megalithic phenomenon starts spreading to most places of the Atlantic region, bringing agriculture with it to some underdeveloped regions there.

*Middle ChalcolithicThis period extends along the first half of the 3rd millennium B.C. Most significant is the reorganization of the Danubians in the powerful Baden culture, that extends more or less to what would be the Austro-Hungarian empire in recent times. The rest of the Balkans is profoundly restructured after the invasions of the previous period but, with the exception of the culture of Cotofeni in a mountainous region, none of them show any "eastern" (or presumably Indo-European) traits. The new Ezero culture, in Bulgaria, shows the first traits of pseudo-bronze (an alloy of copper with arsenic). So does the first significant Aegean group: the Cycladic culture after 2800 B.C.

In the North, for some time the supposedly Indo-European groups seem to recede temporarily, suffering a strong cultural "danubianization". In the East, the peoples of beyond the Volga (Yamna culture), surely eastern Indo-Europeans, ancestors of Scythians, Iranians and Aryans, take over southern Russia and Ukraine. In the West the only sign of unity comes from the Megalithic super-culture, which extends now from southern Sweden to southern Spain, including large parts of southern Germany as well. But the Mediterranean and Danubian groupings of the previous period appear fragmented into many smaller pieces, some of them apparently backward in technological matters. From c. 2800 B.C., the Danubian Seine-Oise-Marne culture pushes directly or indirectly southwards, destroying most of the rich Megalithic culture of western France. After c. 2600 several phenomena will prefigure the changes of the upcoming period:

Large towns with stone walls appear in two different areas of the Iberian Peninsula: one in the Portuguese region of Estremadura (culture of Vila Nova de Sao Pedro), strongly embedded in the Atlantic Megalithic culture; the other near Almería (SE Spain), centred around the large town of Los Millares, of Mediterranean character, probably affected by eastern cultural influxes ("tholoi"). Despite the many differences the two civilizations seem to be in friendly contact and to have productive exchanges. In the area of Dordogne (Aquitaine, France), a new unexpected culture of bowmen appears: it is the culture of Artenac, that soon takes control of western and even northern France and Belgium. In Poland and nearby regions, the putative Indo-Europeans reorganize and consolidate again with the culture of the Globular Amphoras. Nevertheless, the influence of many centuries in direct contact with the still-powerful Danubian peoples has greatly modified their culture.

*Late ChalcolithicThis period extends from c. 2500 B.C. to c. 1800 or 1700 B.C. (depending on the region). The dates are general for the whole of Europe, and the Aegean area is already fully in the Bronze Age. ca. 2500 B.C. the new Catacomb culture (proto-Cymmerians?), whose origins are obscure but who are also Indo-Europeans, displaces the Yamna peoples in the regions north and east of the Black Sea, confining them to their original area east of the Volga. Some of these infiltrate Poland and may have played a significant but unclear role in the transformation of the culture of the Globular Amphorae into the new Corded Ware culture.

Whatever happened, the fact is that c. 2400 B.C. this people of the Corded Ware replace their predecessors and expand to Danubian and Nordic areas of western Germany. One related branch invades Denmark and southern Sweden (Scandinavian culture of Individual Sepultures), while the mid-Danubian basin, though showing more continuity, shows also clear traits of new Indo-European elites (Vučedol culture). Simultaneously, in the west, the Artenac peoples reach Belgium. With the partial exception of Vučedol, the Danubian cultures, so buoyant just a few centuries ago, are wiped off the map of Europe. The rest of the period is the story of a mysterious phenomenon: the Beaker people. This group seems to be of mercantile character and to like being buried according to a very specific, almost invariable, ritual. Nevertheless, out of their original area of western Central Europe, they appear only inside local cultures, so they never invaded and assimilated but rather went to live among those peoples, keeping their way of life. This is why they are believed to be merchants.

The rest of the continent remains mostly unchanged and in apparent peace. From c. 2300 B.C. the first Beaker Pottery appears in Bohemia and expands in many directions but particularly westward, along the Rhone and the sea shores, reaching the culture of Vila Nova (Portugal) and Catalonia (Spain) as their limits. Simultaneously but unrelatedly, c. 2200 B.C. in the Aegean region, the Cycladic culture decays, being substituted by the new palatine phase of the Minoan culture of Crete.

The second phase of Beaker Pottery, from c.2100 B.C. onwards, is marked by the displacement of the centre of this phenomenon to Portugal, inside the culture of Vila Nova. This new centre's influence reaches to all southern and western France but is absent in southern and western Iberia, with the notable exception of Los Millares. After c. 1900 B.C., the centre of the Beaker Pottery returns to Bohemia, while in Iberia we see a decentralization of the phenomenon, with centres in Portugal but also in Los Millares and Ciempozuelos.

Bronze Age

Though the use of bronze started much earlier in the Aegean area, it is not before 1800 B.C. that it reaches southern Spain, while Central Europe will wait another century (c. 1700 B.C.) and the Atlantic region will remain Chalcolithic until 1300 B.C. (noticeably Egypt remained in the same "backward" technological state until much later). In any case, the date of 1800/1700 B.C. can be considered typical for the start of this stage in Europe in general, although some scholars claim earlier dates for the introduction of bronze (this may be caused by the slim barrier between copper and bronze, an alloy of the former).
*c. 1800 B.C., the culture of Los Millares in SW Spain is substituted by that of El Argar, fully of the Bronze Age, which may well have been a centralized state.
*c. 1700 B.C., the Central European cultures of Unetice, Adleberg, Straubing and pre-Lausitz start working the Bronze, a technique that reached them through the Balkans and Danube.
*c. 1600 B.C. is considered a good approximate date to place the start of Mycenean Greece, after centuries of infiltration of Indo-European Greeks from an unknown origin.
*c. 1500 B.C., most of these Central European cultures are unified in the powerful Tumulus culture. Simultaneously but unrelatedly, the culture of El Argar starts its phase B, characterized by a detectable Aegean influence ("pithoi" burials). About this time, it is believed that Minoan Crete fell under the rule of the Mycenean Greeks.
*c. 1300 B.C., the Indo-European cultures of Central Europe (among them Celts, Italics and certainly Illyrians) change the cultural phase conforming to the expansionist Urnfield culture, starting a quick expansion that brings them to occupy most of the Balkans, Asia Minor, where they destroy the Hittite Empire (conquering the secret of iron smelting), NE Italy, parts of France, Belgium, the Nederlands, NW Spain and SW England.

Derivations of this sudden expansion are the Sea Peoples that attacked Egypt unsuccessfully for some time, including the Philistines and the Dorians, most likely hellenized members of this group that ended invading Greek itself and destroying the might of Mycene and, later, Troy.

Simultaneously, around this date, the culture of Vila Nova de Sao Pedro (that lasted 13 centuries in its urban form) vanishes into a less spectacular one but finally with bronze. The centre of gravity of the Atlantic cultures (Atlantic Bronze complex) is now displaced towards Great Britain.

Also about this date, the culture of Villanova, clear precursor of the Etruscan civilization, appears in central Italy (possibly with an Aegean origin).

Iron Age

Though the use of iron was known to the Aegean peoples about 1100 B.C., it didn't reach Central Europe before 800 B.C., giving way to the Hallstatt culture, an Iron Age evolution of the culture the Urn Fields. Probably as by-product of this technological superiority of the Indo-Europeans, soon after, they clearly consolidate their positions in Italy and Iberia, penetrating deep inside those peninsulas (Rome founded in 753 B.C.).

Around that time the Phoenicians, benefitting from the disappearance of the Greek maritime power (Greek Dark Ages) founded their first colony at the entrance of the Atlantic Ocean: in Gadir (modern Cádiz), most likely as a merchant outpost to covey the many mineral resources of the Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles.

Nevertheless, from the 7th century B.C. onwards, the Greek nation recovers its power and starts its own colonial expansion, founding Massalia (modern Marseilles) and its Iberian outpost of Emporion (modern Empúries). This last thing wasn't done before the Iberians could reconquer Catalonia and the Ebro valley from the Celts, separating physically the Iberian Celts from their continental neighbours.

The second phase of the European Iron Age is defined particularly by the Celtic La Tène culture, that starts near 400 B.C., followed by a large expansion of this people into the Balkans, the British Isles (where they assimilated druidism) and other regions of France and Italy.

The Celtic debacle under the expansive pressure of Germanic tribes (originally from Scandinavia and Lower Germany) and the forming Roman Empire, in the last century B.C., is also that of the end of Prehistory properly speaking; though many regions of Europe remained yet illiterate and therefore out of written history for many centuries yet, we must place the boundary somewhere and this date, near the start of our calendar, seems quite convenient. The remaining is regional prehistory (or in most cases protohistory) but no longer European prehistory as a whole.

See also

*List of archaeological sites sorted by continent and age
*European Megalithic Culture
*Prehistoric Britain
*Prehistory of Brittany
*Prehistoric Cyprus
*Prehistoric France
*Prehistoric Georgia
*Prehistoric Hungary
*Prehistoric Iberia
*Prehistoric Ireland
*Prehistory of Poland (until 966)
*Prehistoric Romania
*Prehistoric Scotland
*Synoptic table of the principal old world prehistoric cultures


External links

* [ Neolithic and Chalcolithic Artifacts from the Balkans]
* [ Central European Neolithic Chronology]
* [ South East Europe pre-history summary to 700BC]
* [ Prehistoric art of the Pyrenees]

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