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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Early European Neolithic Farmer Cultures
Incorporating Danubian Culture & Old 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 Palaeolithic cultures were widespread, including the last great one, Europe's Magdalenian culture of circa 17,000 to 12,000 BC. 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.

With the arrival of the first wave of Near Eastern Neolithic Farmers into Southern Europe in the seventh millennium BC, the continent underwent its first major cultural change since the people of the Aurignacian had ventured there thirty thousand years beforehand. The Ahrensburg and related Bromme cultures of about 12,000 BC also seemingly represent something of a mass influx of migrants (albeit on a much smaller scale), but their people carried on in much the same way as those they supplanted.

FeatureNeolithic farmers were migrants into Europe from Anatolia (or at least via Anatolia and, probably, its north-western Fikirtepe culture), thereby potentially making them ancient cousins of the people of the later indigenous city states of Anatolia, those of the Hatti and their peers. It was these arrivals, with their revolutionary approach to growing their own foodstocks, who formed the earliest European farming cultures in Greece and the Balkans. These were the Sesklo and Karanovo cultures (see feature link for more on Neolithic migration).

There are indications of environmental decline in the southern Levant about this time, between 6500-5750 BC. This was being fuelled by a combination of intense human Neolithic farmer activity, a climatic trend which tended to veer towards aridity, and by continuously-rising sea levels which would not balance out in the Mediterranean until about 5000 BC.

Many Near East Pre-Pottery Neolithic B sites gradually shrunk or were eventually abandoned by the start of the succeeding Pottery Neolithic period, but with no great calamity to signal a dramatic ending. They simply faded and changed or were finally abandoned after some attempts at clinging on proved pointless. Migration to Europe would certainly have been one way out of this situation.

That Balkans farming cultural zone for the early arrivals formed what was collectively referred to by archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe as the Danubian Culture, although this term covers several specific regional cultures along with later expansion into central and Eastern Europe. The Fikirtepe culture of western Anatolia was likely formed by migrants who decided not to continue heading into Europe.

That same Danubian cultural zone was termed 'Old Europe' by the Lithuanian archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas. She theorised a relatively homogeneous settlement of similar people speaking a similar language and with similar customs. This zone would later expand into the western Ukrainian steppe and Carpathians. The term 'Old Europe' remains relatively popular as a method of describing the Neolithic farmer settlement of south-eastern and Eastern Europe even if the concept may only have held true for the first few steps of migration and settlement.

Influences from the Neolithic farmer cultures of Old Europe can also be seen in the archaeology of western Anatolia, specifically in the Troad and Dardania. But the task of covering those cultures is a complex business.

Almost as soon as Neolithic farmers were flooding into Greece, further groups of Anatolians were migrating along the northern Mediterranean coastline to reach Iberia, either island hopping in boats or by hugging the coastline. Along the way they founded a widespread farmer culture, the Cardial Pottery, as they largely replaced local Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups.

From there a further migration took place around two or three thousand years later - around 4000 BC. These Iberian Neolithic migrants travelled through France and largely ended up in southern Ireland. Based on DNA evidence, they also entered mainland Britain, probably via south-western Britain or Wales.

Farming did not instantly sweep across Europe to convert all before it, however. Farming cultures existed side-by-side with forager cultures for up to four thousand years, with a cultural barrier seemingly being formed at an early stage between the two, at least in western Ukraine. Only when climate change intervened did that barrier begin to break down, and the people of the farmer cultures were forced to intermingle with the people of former forager - and now largely animal-keeping - cultures: Indo-Europeans.

That meant the end both of European farmer cultures and forager cultures, but the beginning of something blended which was more advanced, heralding the start of the Bronze Age.

At roughly the same time as farming first reached Europe, around 7000 BC onwards, early Chinese communities also saw the development of farming under the Yangshao culture, a development which appears to have taken place internally rather than being introduced from the Near East.

The progression of European farming cultures is being treated separately here from the indigenous European forager cultures, and also from those cultures of the Near Eastern regions from which the farmers originated, largely through the widespread Pre-Pottery Neolithic B.

Henge-building traditions

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC, David W Anthony (Princeton University Press, 2009), from The Lost World of Old Europe The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC, Douglass Whitfield Bailey (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2010), and from External Links: Archaeobotany: Plant Domestication, Chris Stevens & Leilani Lucas (Reference Module in Social Sciences, 2023, available via Science Direct), and When the First Farmers Arrived... (Scientific American), and Neolithic Europe (Eupedia).)

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