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Prehistoric Europe

Belgium's Prehistory

by William Willems, 8 January 2021

Belgium has a long and rather complicated history that goes back farther than may be imagined. Beyond even the complexity of recorded human history, there is its part in the earliest phases of modern human prehistory in Europe.


Fossilised remains of Neanderthals were being found (and understood to an extent) in the nineteenth century, located in several caves in the Meuse-Sambre basins in southern Belgium.

In 1829, in Engis, part of the skull of a Neanderthal child was found in a cave near Engis and was dated to about 29,000 BC - a very late date for Neanderthals in Northern Europe. It was the first Neanderthal fossil ever to be found, although the skull was not recognised as belonging to a Neanderthal until a century later!

At the end of the nineteenth century two skeletons were discovered in Spy, being dated to about 40,000 BC (late Neanderthal specimens). The remains from Spy definitively influenced the concept of Neanderthals as archaic fossil humans in relation to modern human populations.

In Goyet a large collection of Neanderthal fossils was found, and their condition suggests cannibalism. Such extremes of behaviour always point to times of extreme hardship and minimal food supplies. They have been dated to between 45,000-40,000 BC.

Not so long ago, in 1993, the jawbone of a Neanderthal child was found at Sclayn, and almost all the missing teeth were also uncovered during later excavations. These remains have been dated to about 127,000 BC, possibly the oldest fossilised Neanderthal bones to be found in Belgium at the time of writing.

Homo sapiens

Homo sapiens was in the process of gradually out-competing and replacing Neanderthals in Europe at between 40,000-24,000 BC, a process that is mostly categorised as part of the Aurignacian culture (see sidebar links).

This culture was the first in Europe to be expressed by anatomically modern humans. It corresponds to the first stages of migration by Homo sapiens out of Africa and the Near East (as part of the Afro-Eurasian Mousterian culture). Remains of anatomically modern Homo sapiens have been discovered in several caves in the Meuse-Sambre region, such as those at Furfooz which have been dated at 18,000-13,000 BC), and at Goyet where Neanderthal remains have also been found.

Europe's ice ages
This map depicts Europe when the ice sheets were not at their fullest extent, but when conditions were colder than those of the present day (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The earliest Neolithic farming technology in Northern Europe - part of the Linear Band Ceramics culture of about 5500-4500 BC - had its origins in south-eastern Europe where it had evolved out of the Sesklo culture. It reached the Hesbaye region in the east of Belgium where its expansion stopped at about 5000 BC. This culture was notable for the use of defensive walls around villages.

There was a long gap before a new farming culture appeared and became widespread: the Michelsberg culture of the first half of the fourth millennium BC.

From the beginning of the third millennium BC a typical funeral practice, that of collective tombs in a cave, became widespread throughout the Meuse basin. Together with about ten megalithic monuments such as those at Wéris, these form the sole testimonies of the intense occupation of the Seine-Oise-Marne culture (SOM) in Belgium. The SOM supplies a transition between the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, and managed to spread into northern France and the Ardennes.

The population of Belgium started a steady and permanent increase from the middle Bronze Age at around 1750 BC, and with the Urnfield culture from about 1300 BC (shown by tumuli found at Ravels and Hamont-Achel in northern Belgium). That was followed by the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures from the Iron Age (from around 800 BC onwards).

From around 500 BC, Belgic tribes followed up the importation into the region of these three Celtic-related cultural expressions by settling in person and trading with the Mediterranean world.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click or tap on map to view full sized)



Text and maps copyright © William Willems & P L Kessler respectively. An original feature for the History Files.