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Early Southern 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.

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right). Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory.

Europe's earliest cultures which came out of Africa via the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue. These early cultures include transitional ones such as the Bohunician, which covers part of the earliest occupation of modern humans in Europe. 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. Subsequently, cultural complexity appears and increases as human populations increased. What had been a single human culture across Europe eventually divided in two which - at least at first - can be equated to Northern Europe and Southern Europe.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with 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

Azilian Culture (Epi-Palaeolithic / Upper Mesolithic)
c.17,000 - 7500 BC

This Epi-Palaeolithic (Late Palaeolithic) culture succeeded the Magdalenian in Spain and southern France. The Magdalenian continued in the north to evolve into more than one regional type, including the Federmesser group of technologies, and the Hamburg and Sauveterrian cultures (which stretched from northern France and into Central Europe). The Azilian was a much simplified form of the Magdalenian with nowhere near the richness of Magdalenian culture (especially its art). The latter's success seems to have been built on an abundance of food, allowing time for leisure and the development of religion and aesthetics. The Azilian existed in a region and during a period in which resources seem to have been tougher to access. The more time that had to be spent on hunting and gathering, the less there was to spend on creating art.

Discovered by French archaeologist E Piette in 1887-1889, the culture was named after the Mas-d'Azil cave in the department of Ariège in southern France. It was found primarily on the territory of France and the then-Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The people of this culture formed tribes of hunters (hunting red deer, roe, and wild boar), fishermen, and gatherers. It was characterised by small silicon tools: insets of geometric contours (microliths), flat harpoons from antlers of the red deer, and the so-called Azilian pebbles (small flat river pebbles, mainly of quartzite, painted in conventional patterns with red ochre). More than two hundred such pebbles have been found in the Mas-d'Azil cave. They are considered to be close to the Australian churinga and are believed to have had religious and magical significance.

Two interesting localised cultures emerged during the Azilian, seemingly after about 12,000 BC although dating is for now conjectural. The Montadian and Romanelli cultures were localised in Southern Europe around the edges of France and northern Italy, apparently as parallel evolutions of the Azilian. In time the Azilian itself, weak as it already was, came to be influenced by the Sauveterrian - and then dominated by it. In northern Iberia the Asturian appeared after perhaps a short gap.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Pervobytnoe obshchestvo, P P Efimenko (Third Ed, Kiev, 1953), from Istoriia pervobytnogo obshchestva, V I Ravdonikas (Part1, Leningrad, 1939), from Préhistoire de France, F Bourdier (Paris, 1967), from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Moravia, Martin Oliva (Moravian Museum, 2005), from Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds, A W R Whittle (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and from The Origins of European Thought, R B Onians (Cambridge University Press, 1988).)

c.6000s BC

Although placed well beyond the end of the Azilian, a find which is dated to the seventh millennium BC is ascribed to that culture (by now dominated and being replaced by the Sauveterrian). The Ofnet Caves on the edge of the Nördlinger Ries in Germany are the remnants of an underground karst system.

A 1908 discovery by R R Schmidt turns up thirty-three human skulls in two dish-shaped pits, described as sitting there 'like eggs in flat baskets'. The larger of the pits contains twenty-seven of the skulls. Each has been arranged so that it faces towards the setting sun before being covered with a thick layer of red ochre. The removal and positioning of the heads is presumed to be linked to religious overtones.

Azilian culture pebbles
Azilian pebbles have been found in large numbers, and the prevailing theory is that they provided some form of religious and/or magical relevance

Montadian & Romanelli Cultures (Epi-Palaeolithic)
c.12,000 - 7000 BC
Incorporating the Valorguian Culture

The Epi-Palaeolithic (Late Palaeolithic) Azilian culture succeeded the Magdalenian in Spain and southern France, although the Magdalenian continued in Northern Europe. The Azilian was a much simplified form of the Magdalenian with nowhere near the richness of Magdalenian culture (especially its art). Resources seem to have been tougher to access during this period than previously. The more time that had to be spent on hunting and gathering, the less there was to spend on creating art.

A series of interesting Epi-Palaeolithic industries occurred in the Mediterranean area during the Azilian. Their dates are generally conjectural. However, they can generally be positioned with some certainty between the Younger Dryas cold snap (which ended around 9700 BC) and the Preboreal period (which began around 8000 BC), even if their start and finish dates may extend some way on either side of those dates. The most important of them are the Romanelli (and the seemingly associated Valorguian) which emerged in Italy. And then the Montadian which seems to be a development of the Romanelli.

This region and its very localised industries appear to have developed solely from local Palaeolithic traditions without any outside influence. There is little evidence to provide a dating for them, apart from the fact that they have some slight resemblances to Azilian efforts, although these are suspected to be the product of parallel evolution. The Montadian is one of a wider series of cultures (along with the Azilian, Tardenoisian, and Sauveterrian, amongst others) which furnish evidence of the deliberate and organised exploitation of forest resources, including acorns, hazelnuts, wild cattle, boar, fallow deer, red deer, and ibex.

Mesolithic stone tools

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Pervobytnoe obshchestvo, P P Efimenko (Third Ed, Kiev, 1953), from Istoriia pervobytnogo obshchestva, V I Ravdonikas (Part1, Leningrad, 1939), from Préhistoire de France, F Bourdier (Paris, 1967), from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Moravia, Martin Oliva (Moravian Museum, 2005), from Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds, A W R Whittle (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and from The Origins of European Thought, R B Onians (Cambridge University Press, 1988), and from External Links: Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and The Mesolithic Period in South and Western Britain, Geoffrey John Wainwright (University of London, Faculty of Arts thesis submission, 1961, available to download as a PDF).)

c.8000 - 7100 BC

The Preboreal period sees the climate become significantly warmer in Northern Europe, especially in the Baltics. Birch and pine forests start to spread, and elk, bears, beavers, and various species of water birds migrate into the region from the south. In Southern Europe, the Montadian and Romanelli and their associated industries fade out by or before about 7000 BC. One indirect successor - albeit confined entirely to Iberia - is the Asturian culture which is now only just getting started.

Preboreal hunting lands in Europe
The Preboreal period is a formative stage of the early Holocene which lasted between 9000-4000 BC, one in which the post-glacial world of Northern Europe was warming to temperatures that were very close to those of the twentieth century

Bell Beaker Culture (Europe) (Chalcolithic / Bronze Age)
c.2800 - 1800 BC

The Bell Beaker started out as an horizon rather than an archaeological culture. A horizon is different from a culture because it is less robust - it is defined on the basis of just a few traits - and is often superimposed on local archaeological cultures as a kind of trend. The Bell Beaker in Late Neolithic Europe is defined primarily by a widespread style of decorated drinking cup (beakers), this being the source of the culture's name (whose practitioners can also be labelled as Bell Beaker Folk). Burials with these pots alongside the dead have been used by archaeologists to chart the growth and expansion of the Beaker folk. In many places the culture also introduced a few new weapon types (such as copper daggers and also including polished stone wrist-guards) which diffused through Europe alongside a new fashion in social drinking. In most places these styles were superimposed upon pre-existing archaeological cultures.

Bell Beaker society expanded to cover all of Iberia, reaching most of modern Germany when it met the newly-arriving West Indo-European groups which had just migrated into southern Germany and northern Italy as part of the Yamnaya horizon. When they took it up it became a true culture as many of them continued to migrate - into what is now France (excluding the Central Massif) and into the British Isles. Bell Beaker introduced a patriarchal society in which the individual warrior-chieftain became the most important and powerful figure. This governing structure had been a key feature of the later Indo-European cultures during their time on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, so it seems that they retained it here, adding it to their version of Bell Beaker. This reinvigorated culture replaced the existing Mesolithic egalitarian societies that it met, perhaps most notably the people who built the earlier stages of Stonehenge in ancient Britain.

There is still a good deal of debate about just what propelled the expansion of the Bell Beaker culture, but the view outlined above is certainly a favourite. DNA research published early in 2018 in Nature did a lot to seal the argument. Limited genetic affinity was detected between Beaker-complex-associated individuals from Iberia and those in central Europe, excluding migration as an important mechanism of spread between these two regions and therefore classifying this first stage as an horizon, which doesn't require physical migration. However, migration was found to have had a key role in the further dissemination of the Beaker complex, most clearly in Britain, where the spread of the Beaker complex introduced high levels of steppe-related ancestry and was associated with the replacement of approximately ninety percent of Britain's gene pool within a few hundred years, continuing the east-to-west expansion that had brought steppe-related ancestry into central and Northern Europe over the previous centuries.

This replacement of much of the Neolithic population by one with a steppe-related ancestry also changed the language. The previous language may plausibly have been related to Basque, and possibly even Kvenish, the remnants of a European-wide post-ice age language which had been shared across Southern Europe while its speakers were sheltering from the worst of the ice. This new language seems most likely to have been of a Q-Italic type, similar in many respects to that spoken by the Latins of Italy. When the Bell Beaker folk carried on migrating westwards after reaching central Europe, the Latins and other Proto-Italics stopped and developed in a different direction. What seems to have been a later migratory Indo-European group speaking Q-Celtic joined these proto-Italics to become the Proto-Celts. By around 1200 BC the first Q-Celtic speakers were arriving in Britain, and they may well have been able to comprehend much of what the descendants of the Bell Beaker folk were saying.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from The Celts, TGE Powell, and from External Link: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature).)

c.2800 - 2000 BC

A shift to drier conditions has been taking place since about 3300 BC. Pollen core samples from across Eastern Europe - notably across the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the Don and the Irtysh (in Kazakhstan) - show that forests sharply decline and Artemisia (an arid herb indicator) increases. As a result the steppe has been growing and the steppe people have kept on increasing their herds, feeding them by moving them more often, and their new wagons help them to do this almost constantly.

This has resulted in a flood of migration into Central Europe and northern Italy, part of the Yamnaya horizon. It is these West Indo-Europeans who now pick up the influence of the originally-Iberian Bell Beaker horizon. They do so enthusiastically, turning it into a true culture, and they continue their migration westwards into France while others of their number remain in northern Italy as the Proto-Italics. As Bell Beaker is also introduced into northern Italy, it must be through these proto-Italic people.

Bell Beaker pots
Shown here is a selection of highly distinctive bell-shaped pots which were created by the Bell Beaker folk between around 2900-1800 BC in Europe and the British Isles

c.2700 - 2500 BC

The Beaker culture begins to arrive in Britain in this period, intermingling fairly peacefully with the existing Neolithic culture and adopting its henges. The Beaker folk bring new burial practices with them so that Neolithic long barrows or cairns are replaced by smaller barrows or tumuli. They also bring new metalworking techniques with them, in copper and gold, heralding the start of the Chalcolithic period.

from c.2500 BC

Central Europe's Bronze age (2500-900 BC), which flourishes around 1700 BC, marks the approximate beginning of the Unetice culture (which emerges out of the Beaker group). This is found on both sides of the Elbe and northwards to the Baltic Sea in what is today Czech Republic, western Poland and Germany. It represents a fusion of the Corded Ware and Beaker traditions and is considered by many to be Proto-Celtic.

It is this Unetice group which introduces bronze objects into the region and makes prestigious objects mainly for the elite of the area and mainly as status symbols. Many of these bronze objects end up as votive offerings in bogs. It is not clear whether these people are ancestors of the eastern Hallstatt and La Tène Celts, but they may be cousins, and may also lay the grounds for a later possible presence of Belgae in the northern Central European region.

One of the better-documented sites of this period is Auvernier on Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. Radiocarbon and dendochronological dates suggest two occupations, in 2350 BC and 1950 BC (Suess and Strahm, 1970). There are remarkable similarities between sites in France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and Italy (particularly around Lake Garda) at this time which shows extensive contact between the trans-Alpine and southern Alpine areas.

c.2200 - 1800 BC

Bell Beaker culture gradually fades in mainland Europe as it is replaced by successor cultures. In Italy this could be by the Terramare culture. Its progression westwards and subsequent dissipation can be seen as a wave-front effect, sweeping all before it but not able to maintain such a dramatic dominance behind that wave-front.

Stonehenge
Completed by Bell Beaker folk, Stonehenge was probably abandoned in the seventeenth century BC as an anachronism that was no longer part of the lives of the people

c.1200 BC

MapBell Beaker culture in Britain is disrupted, possibly by the arrival of Q-Celtic-speaking Proto-Celtic settlers during a period of intense disruption that is taking place as far afield as the Near East, where the collapse of the Hittite empire is a major act in a century of turmoil. Although many Bell Beaker people will remain where they are and accept their new Celtic overlords, some will migrate westwards to avoid them, or are already in the west. Here they remain safe from Celtic domination for much longer, and when that domination finally comes, it may only be through the imposition of a warrior elite.