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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Aurignacian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic) (Europe & Asia)
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 Mal'ta site (Mal'ta-Buret'), which is located forty-five kilometres to the north-west of Irkutsk - and quite possibly even farther east than that. It is contemporary with the Baradostian culture of the Near East, and may have developed (at least in part) out of the earlier Ahmarian of the Levant as further groups of modern humans penetrated into Europe from the Near East.

The Aurignacian succeeded the Neanderthal-led Châtelperronian culture and the human transitional Bohunician industry. There may be some crossover finds which are assigned there but, essentially, that was the final expression of Neanderthal mastery of Europe.

FeatureThe humans of the Aurignacian displaced Neanderthals, consigning them to a slow extinction in southern Spain. This was the first fully-fledged modern human culture outside of the Near East because it saw the first true expressions of culture: the creation of artistic figurines and cave paintings, and possibly burials too (see the Hominid Chronology link, right). The highly similar Levantine Aurignacian is closely related to it.

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 around 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.

FeatureAnalysis of genes carried by Ice Age Europeans shows, among other things, that they had dark complexions and brown eyes. Only after about 12,000 BC did blue eyes begin to spread, and pale skin only appeared across much of the continent after about 5000 BC - borne by the early Neolithic farmers of the Sesklo culture (see feature link).

The early European populations of the Aurignacian and its immediate successors possessed more Neanderthal ancestry than do present-day people, consistent with the idea that much of the DNA which 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 fifteen thousand 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.

Aurignacian culture also survived in early Italy through its local form, the Grimaldian. In Central Asia the Aurignacian developed into the aforementioned Mal'ta-Buret' culture, which witnessed the first true technological differences taking place in the region, distinct from those of the west.

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with 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, Qiaomei Fu & Others (Nature 2016), and Anthropology.net, and Science, and Smithsonian.com, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

c.38,000 BC

As the Aurignacian takes over from the Châtelperronian culture, 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 involves a figurine of a woman, designed primarily as a talisman connected with reproduction.

It marks a milestone in human development, an intense flowering of creativity which begins (possibly) in the region of the Hohle Fells in south-western Germany. Within a few thousand years this impulse spreads to Old 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 Aurignacian, designed to be worn as an amulet and small enough to be enclosed in 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 both 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 Near East and (this time at least) become established there, possibly using the Emireh culture of the Levant as an access corridor.

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 which are normally associated with more ancient species of human (see feature link).

South Struma Valley
Western Bulgaria's South Struma Valley, shows the kind of territory early modern humans had to pass through during their integration into Europe

The fossil may suggest that the first modern humans to enter Europe continue to evolve after they settle, but this may instead be due to interbreeding between H Sapiens and Neanderthals.

c.34,000 BC

A 2014 study is based on ancient DNA which 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 Near East.

An artist's depiction of Aurignacian people
This artist's recreation of people of the Aurignacian - one of a series by Tom Björklund - includes some guesswork regarding hair styles and ornamentation, while even the precise skin tone is still a matter of debate although all his choices are reasonable and with some small connection at least to the available evidence in cave paintings and archaeology

(Skin tone is unlikely to have changed much at all this close to man's first departure from the Near East into Europe, although perhaps ten or twenty thousand years of Near East habitation may already have lightened it beyond this level)

Also, his DNA reveals genes from all three of the migratory groups which make up modern Europe's population - the first wave of hunter-gatherers of the Aurignacian, the Neolithic Near East farmers of the much later Sesklo (prior to their own migration, of course), and the Indo-Europeans of the Yamnaya horizon.

This means that his ancestors had already intermixed with the same Near Eastern population which later turns into farmers and itself migrates into Europe, and with the rather shadowy West Asians who leave a DNA fingerprint on the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

However, K-14 shares very few of the genetic hallmarks and variants which 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 which are characteristic of Neanderthals (see feature link).

Pestera Muierii cave in Romania
The Pestera Muierii cave complex in Romania has yielded a number of highly interesting finds which 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

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 evolution of modern humans in Europe is still poorly understood.

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.

However, Aurignacian culture resurfaces fifteen thousand years later in the 'Red Lady of El Mirón Cave' in northern Spain - a member of the Magdalenian culture.

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