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Northern Europe

An Introduction to Estonia

by Peter Kessler, 11 September 2021

The first inhabitants to arrive in the territory of what is now Estonia did so around 9000 BC, following the migrating reindeer.

The early Baltics as a whole were gradually recovering from the retreat of the continental glaciers at the end of the most recent ice age. Habitation for several millennia proved to be sparse and temporary. The land was largely icy tundra which was only slowly reclaimed to become heavily forested, with large numbers of bogs which survive to this day.

At the beginning of the third millennium BC, tribes of Ugric-speaking people migrated in from the east. These people were descendants of Uralic-speakers of the heavily forested northern areas of the Ural Mountains.

Generally peaceful foragers rather than kingdom-builders, they quickly came to dominate a swathe of territory between modern Finland and the eastern side of the Urals. Those who settled between Lake Peipsi and the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland provided the ancestors of today's Finno-Ugric Estonians.

Indo-European arrivals

Between around 2500-2000 BC, another wave of migrant tribes arrived in the region, entering the Finno-Ugric hunting lands from the south.

These people were the Indo-European proto-Balts, ancestors of the Balt tribes which came to dominate the south-eastern corner of the Baltic Sea and a swathe of territory which stretched over to the east towards what is now Moscow.

They brought with them cattle breeding and tillage skills, although the cultivation of fields only flourished from the sixth or fifth century BC, when the use of iron entered the region and it became easier to clear the land.

It may not have been long after the arrival of the Balts that more Indo-Europeans found the River Vistula, probably at its southern end in what is still a very poorly-understood migration. What is known is that they began making the entire course of the river their domain as the Vistula Venedi (see Who were the Venedi? via the 'related links', in the sidebar).

The Finno-Ugric tribes were becoming increasingly contained to the north of these waves of migration.

Tallinn (Reval)
Unlike this much later representation of pre-industrialisation Tallinn, the early city was little more than a defensive structure on the dome hilltop and a small settlement at its base

First millennium AD problems

During the first centuries BC and AD, the Estonians were not directly effected by Germanic tribes migrating to the southern Baltic coast from Scandinavia. But their arrival did push the Balt tribes further northwards and eastwards and this impacted somewhat on the Estonian tribes.

In the first century AD, Roman writers referred to the people of the eastern Baltic Sea as Aestii, meaning 'east men'. There is a likelihood that the name was in fact being applied to Indo-European groups (see the main introduction on the Estonia page), but the name Aestii is frequently attached to the early Estonians and would seem to be the origin of 'Estonia'.

With Baltic tribes pushing in from the south and Scandinavian seafarers threatening from the west in the first millennium AD, three important cultural regions emerged: northern Estonia, southern Estonia, and western Estonia, together with the islands.

Some of today's Estonian counties appeared in their earliest form during this period, and each of those regions maintained their own security and looked after their own interests.

The main county in the north was Rävala (now Harjumaa). Its main settlement was near a castle called Lindanise (Kolyvan in Rus sources) which was used mainly as a defensive refuge. Given the formation of the later town of Tallinn, the settlement was probably located here, at the foot of the 'dome hill' (Toompea in Estonian). The settlement may have traded with Scandinavian and Russian states from around AD 1000 onwards.

Seto people in traditional costume
Today the ethnic minority Seto group of Estonians are fighting hard to preserve their ancient customs and beliefs, despite a swathe of their traditional territory now been enforcably contained within the Russian federation (north-west Pskov Oblast)

Estonia's Lake Peipsi

Lake Peipsi has long provided a buffer between Estonians and states to the east of them, whether other Finno-Ugric tribes, Balts, Rus, or the Russian empire


Once Christianity arrived in the country (borne at the point of a crusader sword), the Dome Church (Toomkirik) was built as the mother church of the country's official (post-Reformation) Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church body.

The invading Danes probably built the original, temporary wooden, church on the spot on Toompea hill, shortly after their conquest of North Estonia in 1219. There were already some Christianised elements in Estonian lands before that date, but their church organisation is entirely unknown (see the Churches of Estonia link, right, for much more history of the various church buildings in the country).

With Germanic conquest, the Estonian lands were divided for centuries. North Estonia was held by the Danes, and then the Livonian Knights, and then the Swedes, with southern and central Estonia being organised into a German Crusader state known as Livonia.

It would be the collapse of imperial controls in 1918 which finally saw Estonia emerge as a modern sovereign state which was in charge of its own future.


Main Sources

Anderson, Ants (Ed) - 15th Yearbook of the Estonian Learned Society in Sweden, 2010-2014 (Eesti Teadusliku Seltsi Rootsis aastaraamat XV. 2010-2014, Stockholm, 2015)

Kiaupa, Zigmantas; Mäesalu, Ain; Pajur, Ago; Straube, Gvido (Eds) - The History of the Baltic Countries (Estonia 2008)

Taagepera, Rein - Estonia: Return to Independence (Westview Press, 1993)

Online Sources

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Life in Estonia website

Visit Estonia website



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler, with Maret Tamjärv, Katrin Kimmel, and Kersti Hansen. An original feature for the History Files.