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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


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

This Southern European Epi-Palaeolithic (Late Palaeolithic) culture succeeded the Magdalenian in Spain and southern France, flanked to the east by the Epigravettian. The Magdalenian continued in Northern Europe to evolve into more than one regional type, including the Federmesser group of technological formats, plus the Hamburg culture, and also the Sauveterrian 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 which 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. They were characterised by their use of small silicon tools: insets of geometric contours (microliths), and flat harpoons from antlers of the red deer.

They are also known for 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 for now is 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. Eventually it faded out altogether. In northern Iberia the Asturian culture replaced it after perhaps a short gap, having been identified as a distinct culture after excavations in 1914.

British Mesolithic tool

(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.12,000 BC

A series of interesting Epi-Palaeolithic industries occur in the Mediterranean area during the Azilian. Their dates are generally conjectural but the most important of them include the Montadian which seems to be a development of the slightly earlier and similar Romanelli.

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

c.7000 BC

In Southern Europe, the Montadian and Romanelli and their associated industries fade out by or before about this date. One indirect successor - albeit confined entirely to Iberia - is the Asturian culture which is now only just getting started (see map link for a view of Europe at this time).

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 (although the main cultural period has by now been dominated and then replaced by the Epi-Palaeolithic (Late Palaeolithic) Sauveterrian which is identified by archaeologists in the 1920s).

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 discovers thirty-three human skulls in two dish-shaped pits, described as sitting there 'like eggs in flat baskets'.

Map of Mesolithic Europe 8000 BC
Although culturally and technologically continuous with Palaeolithic cultures, Mesolithic cultures quickly developed diverse local adaptations for special environments, as this map shows (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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.

c.6000 BC

The Montadian and Romanelli and their associated industries have already ended, along with smaller, more localised sister cultures such as the Valorguian. The Asturian culture in Iberia is an indirect successor of the Azilian, but the Sauveterrian precedes it across wide areas of central and Southern Europe.

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