History Files


European Kingdoms





Early Cultures IndexEarly Europe

The pre-history of Europe is a long and largely uncertain period in which small windows of opportunity to view events can be gained through archaeology. Masses of material are found each year by archaeologists, and a system was long ago needed to help organise all these findings. The system that evolved in the early twentieth century was one that involved cultures, with each culture being defined by distinct similarities in burials, settlements, technology, or objects in space and time. Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory.

These cultures are defined on the basis of pot sherds, grave types, architecture, and other material remains. They are meant to capture and define regional variation within a broad sweep of generally similar artefacts. They show the progress of cultural advancement, where such advancement usually means replacing one culture with another to highlight a marked progression. This practice tends to result in a profusion of cultural names, some of which refer to the same culture but which bear different names when they cut across modern national borders. Every attempt has been made here to combine different cultural names that refer to the same culture. The relationship between the archaeological cultures listed here and the living cultures which they represent may seem tenuous, but every attempt has also been made to link, where possible, perceived social and linguistic cultures with their matching archaeological cultures. The social and linguistic fields are more theoretical than the archaeological ones, and there is resistance on both sides by academics when it comes to accepting the other, but recent progress has shown that both disciplines can work well together.

Prehistory IndexEurope's earliest cultures are perhaps the easiest to catalogue and also amongst the most frustrating, the latter due to the relatively small number of artefacts (and also population figures) left behind to provide evidence of existence. These early cultures include the near-universally widespread Aurignacian and Gravettian (the latter with Venus figurines as one characteristic feature), and the Solutrean (which was characterised by finely-made microliths). The last two are especially interesting as they chart human progress after around 25,000 BC, roughly around the time at which the most recent Ice Age was building to a peak (much more severely in Europe than in Central Asia) and shortly after the last of Europe's Neanderthals had died out. Now humans had no cultural competition except from other humans, provided of course that they could survive another 15,000 years of Ice Age (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

Once the ice had retreated and Europe had become a much more hospitable place, human cultures became increasingly regionalised, or at least confined to areas less expansive than the entirety of Europe. The Magdalenian culture of circa 17,000 to 12,000 BC includes the well-known cave art of Lescaux (in France) and Altamira (in Spain), with the earliest dated sites being in France. These people were the classic 'reindeer hunters', although roe deer and horse among other animals were also hunted. However, this is where complexity begins to appear, with the uncertain Badegoulian interlude (around 18,000-14,000 BC) causing some debate. Such complexity only increases as human populations increase. Cultures become increasingly regional in order to define differences in archaeological terms. Sadly, identifying humans on ethnic and linguistic terms is even harder, if not entirely impossible before a certain level of recentness is reached. The linguistic side of identification really comes into its own with the appearance of proto-Indo-Europeans in the fifth and fourth millennia BC.

Cataloguing the vast range of human cultures is a complex process. It starts off reasonably easily, with the result that most early European cultures can be included on this page. As cultures become more numerous, and rival cultures spring up in different regions at the same time, listing them on one page becomes more complicated. Care has been taken to log rival and neighbouring cultures in each entry but, after a certain point, when the cultures become so regional that they can be located almost entirely within the borders of a single modern nation, then they will be shown in the relevant page rather than here. The easiest way to view it all is as the roots of a tree, with the main trunk starting here and heading down through the page (ie. into the soil) and the ever-smaller roots forking outwards to link into other pages.

(Additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, and Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds).)

Homo Neanderthalis

Early Cultures IndexChâtelperronian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.43,000 - 39,000 BC

Prehistory IndexThis was one of Europe's earliest cultures, set in the Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age). However, it isn't the earliest human culture overall, as it only succeeds a much broader one called the Afro-Eurasian Mousterian. Uncertainly (and some controversy) exists when it comes to assigning this culture entirely (or even at all) to anatomically-modern humans as there seems to have been heavy Neanderthal involvement (the Mousterian is certainly a Neanderthal culture). Given that there has also been some Neanderthal involvement in modern human reproduction in Europe (perhaps one to two percent overall as proven by DNA testing), then the controversy is easy to dismiss, The Neanderthals probably have as much right to be here as the modern humans who were arriving from the Middle East (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on Neanderthal existence, using the link on the right). In fact, the best solution may be to assign this culture to Neanderthals and say that humans inherited it at a late stage.

The Châtelperronian period gained its name from the site of la Grotte des Fées in Châtelperron, Allier, in France It refers to one of five stone tool industries that have been identified for the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe (43,000-18,000 BC). Although it is generally assigned as the earliest of the five industries, the Châtelperronian is now recognised as being fairly equal with and perhaps even a little later than the Aurignacian period, although both are associated with the Middle Palaeolithic to Upper Palaeolithic transition, between around 43,000-31,000 BC.

FeatureA little after the very end of that transition, the last Neanderthals in Europe died out. They were in serious trouble from around 35,000 BC onwards, the result of a not-necessarily-peaceful cultural transition of European ownership from the long-established Neanderthal residents to the new influx of early modern humans from the Middle East. When first described and defined in the early twentieth century, the Châtelperronian was believed to be the work of early modern humans (then known as Cro-Magnon) who, it was thought, had descended directly from Neanderthals. The split between Middle and Upper Palaeolithic is a distinct one, with great advances in the range of stone tool types and also with raw materials - the Upper Palaeolithic has tools and objects that are made of bone, teeth, ivory, and antler, none of which were seen in the Middle Palaeolithic. The change in technology is now associated with the arrival of humans in Europe.

(Additional information from Who were the makers of the Châtelperronian culture? O Bar-Yosef & J-G Bordes (Journal of Human Evolution, 2010), from A Cognitive and Neurophysical Perspective on the Chatelperronian, F L Coolidge & T Wynn T (Journal of Archaeological Research, 2004), from Human Choices and Environmental Constraints: Deciphering the variability of large game procurement from Mousterian to Aurignacian times (MIS 5-3) in southwestern France, E Discamps, J Jaubert, & F Bachellerie (Quaternary Science Reviews, 2011), from Neanderthal Acculturation in Western Europe? A Critical Review of the Evidence and its Interpretation, F D d'Errico, J Zilhao, M Julien, D Baffier, & J Pelerin (Current Anthropology Supplement to 39, 1998), and from External Link: Neanderthals manufactured Châtelperronian amid cultural diffusion with humans, study finds (2012), and Science.)

c.43,000 BC

The Châtelperronian culture emerges as a western European expression of the previous pan-Afro-Eurasian Mousterian culture. It is centred primarily in central and south-western France and extends into northern Spain. Stone tools are produced in the same way as before but with ivory adornments. They appear to be part of the Aurignacian culture, and it has been suggested that nearby, newly-arrived groups of modern humans, are influencing Neanderthal groups. However, the finds predate the Aurignacian and quite possibly also the arrival of modern humans this far west.

Chatelperronian tools
Châtelperronian Neanderthal bone artefacts from the Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure, France), which experts suggest only became sophisticated after Neanderthals were influenced by early human arrivals in western Europe

At about the same time, populations of Homo sapiens have already colonised areas of Siberia. The discovery in 2008 of fossilised human bones at Ust-Ishim leads to the oldest sequenced human genome to date (2016). Genetically he just barely postdates the Neanderthal introgression into modern humans (cross-breeding between the two species). Almost as soon as modern humans arrive in northern Eurasia, they clearly make themselves at home in harsh climates. Ust-Ishim is at about the latitude of Stockholm or Juneau in Alaska, and the temperature is comparable with that of today.

c.41,000 BC

FeatureStarvation and cannibalism could be part of everyday life for a population of Neanderthals living in northern Spain around this time. Eight Neanderthal skeletons are found in an underground cave system at El Sidron in Asturias, and bones and teeth found here bear the hallmarks of a tough struggle for survival. Signs of starvation or malnutrition in childhood are evident. Neanderthal Mousterian implements disappeared abruptly from Europe's archaeological record with the passing of Neanderthal man.

c.34,000 BC

The archaeological site of St Césaire (sometimes formerly known as La Roche-à-Pierrot) is a limestone rock shelter in the Charente-Maritimes département of south-western France (close to the Bay of Biscay). In one of the early levels (EJOP), a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton is discovered in 1979. It is apparently in direct association with a Châtelperronian tool kit, which has previously been considered a Homo sapiens construction alone. Some doubt is cast on the association by the realisation that the burial cuts across two layers, meaning that the tool kit could be a later addition to the site, perhaps left behind by a human group.

A partial Neanderthal secondary burial (secondary meaning that the individual has died elsewhere and has been brought back to the cave for interment) is direct-dated to this period, making St Césaire one of the most recent Neanderthal sites outside of Spain, although not as recent as that of Gorham's Cave. Today, St Césaire is considered evidence of co-existence between modern humans and Neanderthals, a coexistence that isn't always consistently pleasant. Stable isotope analysis of the human remains suggests that the Neanderthal residents rely primarily on large-bodied herbivores, including woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and, to a lesser degree, reindeer.

Early Cultures IndexAurignacian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.38,000 - 29,000 BC

This Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) culture coincided with the last glaciation. It seems to be safe to assume that in this period Siberia and the sub-Arctic areas of Europe belonged to the same civilisation. The differentiation between Central Asia and neighbouring cultures did not begin until Neolithic times, and was marked by tremendous technical progress and a wide diversification of cultures. Prior to that, the Aurignacian covers all human settlement between Iberia and the Malta site, which is located forty-five kilometres (twenty-eight miles) to the north-west of Irkutsk - and quite possibly even further east than that. It is contemporary with the Baradostian culture of the Middle East.

FeatureThe Aurignacian succeeded the Neanderthal-led Châtelperronian culture. There may be some crossover finds that are assigned there but, essentially, that was the final expression of Neanderthal mastery of Europe. The humans of the Aurignacian displaced Neanderthals, consigning them to a slow extinction in southern Spain. It is the first human culture outside of the Middle East because it saw the first expressions of culture - the creation of artistic figurines and cave paintings, and possibly burials too.

The genetic features of Europeans in the Ice Age have been worked out in greater detail in the past few years by researchers. They have largely concluded that all Europeans are descended (in part) from an early founder population of Aurignacian humans who lived in what is now Belgium some 35,000 years ago (33,000 BC). The researchers further concluded that natural selection has played a role in making the Neanderthal ancestry of modern Europeans less prominent over time (it seems that Neanderthal DNA in Homo sapiens was rather unhelpful, and has been weeded out by nature). Patterns of migration were also revealed, suggesting that these movements were quite intricate, possibly as complex as modern migration patterns.

Analysis of genes carried by Ice Age Europeans shows, among other things, that they had dark complexions and brown eyes. Only after 14,000 years ago did blue eyes begin to spread, and pale skin only appeared across much of the continent after 7,000 years ago - borne by early farmers of the Sesklo culture. The early European populations of the Aurignacian and its immediate successors possessed more Neanderthal ancestry than present-day people, consistent with the idea that much of the DNA that has been inherited from Neanderthals had harmful effects. Scientists think this inheritance was progressively lost via natural selection.

The Aurignacian genetic signature disappeared from a broad sweep of Europe when the Gravettians arrived. The latter displaced them and seemed to replace them entirely. But Aurignacian culture resurfaced 15,000 years later in the 'Red Lady of El Mirón Cave' in northern Spain. This tall, robust woman was a member of the Magdalenian archaeological culture, which expanded northwards from south-western Europe as the ice sheets of the most recent Ice Age melted.

(Additional information from Makers of the Early Aurignacian of Europe, Steven E Churchill & Fred H Smith (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology Vol 43:61-115 (2000)), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016), and Anthropology.net, and Science, and Smithsonian.com, and from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

c.38,000 BC

Between this point and about 33,000 BC the Venus of the Hohle Fells is created. Also known as the Venus of Schelklingen, it is the oldest undisputed piece of human art. It is the figurine of a woman, designed primarily as a talisman connected with reproduction. It marks a milestone in human development, an intense flowering of creativity that begins (possibly) in the region of the Hohle Fells in south-western Germany. Within a few thousand years this impulse spreads to Stone Age France and Iberia, where it turns up in paintings of bison, rhinos, and lions on the walls of caves such as Chauvet and Altamira.

The Venus of Hohle
The earliest undisputed human sculpture was designed to be worn as an amulet and is small enough to be enclosed by a fist - it clearly represents a woman, with ballooning breasts and elaborately carved genitalia, whilst head, arms and legs are merely suggested

c.37,000 BC

The latter part of the Interpleniglacial (or Middle Würm glaciation) is marked by the Hengelo/Denekamp temperate period between 37,000-27,000 BC. It is during this relatively warm and wet interval that the Mousterian culture and Neanderthals disappear, Initial Upper Palaeolithic (IUP) cultures proliferate and then also disappear, and the Aurignacian/Baradostian cultures emerge. Modern humans now enter Europe from the Middle East and become established there.

c.35,000 BC

FeatureA reconstructed cranium - known as Oase 2 - originates in Pestera cu Oase, in western Romania from this time. Whilst undeniably a Homo sapiens specimen, it has some traits that are normally associated with more ancient species of human. The fossil may suggest that the first modern humans to enter Europe continue to evolve after they settle, but may instead may be due to interbreeding between H Sapiens and Neanderthals.

c.34,000 BC

A 2014 study is based on ancient DNA that has been extracted from the fossilised skeleton, Kostenki 14 (abbreviated to K-14). This is a short, dark-featured man of around the middle Aurignacian culture who dies around this time on the middle River Don, at Kostenki-Borshchevo (in Russia). His DNA likely includes a large number of errors and gaps, but it is the second-oldest whole human genome to be sequenced at this time.

Aside from his dark features, he also has about one percent more Neanderthal DNA than modern Europeans and Asians. This confirms what another, even older human from Siberia had shown, that humans and Neanderthals mix early, before about 43,000 BC, perhaps in the Middle East. Also, his DNA reveals genes from all three of the migratory groups that make up modern Europe's population - the first wave of hunter-gatherers of the Aurignacian, the Neolithic farmers of the Sesklo, and the Indo-Europeans of the Yamnaya. This means that his ancestors had already intermixed with the same Middle Eastern population that later turns into farmers and itself migrates into Europe, and with the rather shadowy western Asians who leave a DNA fingerprint in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. However, K-14 shares very few of the genetic hallmarks and variants that are associated with East Asian and native American populations, suggesting that East Asians and Eurasians diverge very early on.

c.30,000 BC

FeatureSix bones from this period are found by archaeologists in the Pestera Muierii cave (which translates as 'The Women's Cave'), Romania. The bones have the diagnostic features of modern humans but they also display features that are characteristic of Neanderthals. Some of these 'archaic' traits may indeed be Neanderthal in origin but they may also be human, passed down through the shared ancestor of both H sapiens and Neanderthals, and now largely but not completely disappearing in H sapiens. In fact, the the evolution of modern humans in Europe is still poorly understood.

Pestera Muierii cave in Romania
The Pestera Muierii cave complex in Romania has yielded a number of highly interesting finds that relate to the earliest period of human habitation in Europe, when small groups of Homo sapiens integrated themselves into Neanderthal hunting territories and out-competed them to the point of the latter's near extinction

c.29,000 BC

The Aurignacian genetic signature disappears from a broad sweep of Europe when the Gravettians arrive. This new culture of humans displaces them and seems to replace them entirely. But Aurignacian culture resurfaces 15,000 years later in the 'Red Lady of El Mirón Cave' in northern Spain - a member of the Magdalenian archaeological culture.