History Files

European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Gravettian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic) (Europe)
c.29,000 - 22,000 BC
Incorporating the Pavlovian Culture

An Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) culture, this succeeded the Aurignacian and Szeletian cultures (and perhaps the Uluzzian too) to dominate much of Europe from around 29,000 BC. In fact the Gravettian apparently replaced the Aurignacian almost entirely. The Aurignacian genetic signature disappeared from a broad sweep of Europe once Gravettian groups arrived.

However, Aurignacian culture did resurface around fifteen thousand years later in the 'Red Lady of El Mirón Cave' in northern Spain - a member of the Magdalenian archaeological culture. The Gravettian gained its name from the La Gravette site in France's Dordogne.

Although they carried distinct genetic signatures, the Gravettians and Aurignacians were descended from the same ancient founder population. The Gravettian was characterised by a stone tool industry with small pointed blades being used for big-game hunting, such as bison, horse, reindeer, and mammoth. Despite appearances however, the Gravettians were not a single people. A report of 2023 reveals striking diversity. Gravettians in France and Spain were genetically distinct from groups living in what is now Czechia and Italy.

The culture can be divided into two regional groups: the Western Gravettian, mostly known from cave sites in France (and with the earliest-known migrants reaching Early Iberia), and the Eastern Gravettian, with sites for mammoth hunters on the plains of Central Europe and Russia.

The Gravettian people are famous for the many Venus figurines they created, which are widely distributed across Europe and into Siberia where the Mal'ta-Buret' was an Asiatic expression of the Gravettian. Another famous prehistoric discovery of this period are the hand stencils in Cosquer Cave, close to Marseilles.

Standing at around 1.82 metres tall, the Gravettian men of Europe were by far the tallest humans of the prehistoric era. Even today, Europe contains some of the tallest men in the world, along with European-descended former colonies around the world.

Findings by researchers have suggested that this impressive stature may be a 'genetic legacy' of the Gravettian people. Their specialisation in hunting big game meat would have left them with a surplus of high-quality proteins, and the low population density of the period created environmental conditions which led to the selection of exceptionally tall males.

FeatureThe large height of Gravettian men is believed to be linked in part to a group of genes called the Y haplogroup I-M170. Remarkably, despite later populations arriving in Europe - notably the Neolithic farmers of Old Europe and the Indo-Europeans - the inherited tallness of the males of modern Herzegovina especially has survived (and see feature link for more).

In the end, the widespread Gravettian technological complex was largely displaced in southern France by the Magdalenian cultures.

The Pavlovian culture was an eastern sub-set of the Gravettian which can be placed between 27,000-23,000 BC. It has been found in central and Eastern Europe, with the type site at Pavlov in southern Moravia in Czechia. There, a large settlement of Upper Palaeolithic mammoth-hunters left skeletal remains, hut plans, and numerous art objects. The late Gravettian period, labelled 'Final Gravettian', was generally expressed through the Solutrean culture.

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Settlement of the European North: Possible Linguistic Implications, Christian Carpelan, and from External Links: The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016), and People ate mammoth; Dogs got reindeer (Science Daily), and Tallness in Herzegovinian Men (Phys.org), and Ancient DNA upends European prehistory (Science).)

28,000 BC

As the successors to the Aurignacian and Szeletian cultures, Gravettian people at the Předmostí site in Central Europe (now in Czechia, close to Brno) use the bones of more than a thousand mammals to build their settlement, as well as creating incredible ivory sculptures.

FeatureThe meat is used to feed them while reindeer meat is generally saved for local dogs which may or may not be partially domesticated but which are clearly being supported by the humans. Gravettian people are also creating superb figurines by this time, such as the Venus of Willendorf, and other items such as the Hohle Fells phallus (see feature link, right).

Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf is perhaps one of the best known of all the Venus figurines which were created by the people of the Gravettian culture, with this one being produced around 24,000 BC

27,000 BC

The Pavlovian culture is an eastern sub-set of the Gravettian. It has been found in central and Eastern Europe, with the type site at Pavlov in southern Moravia in Czechia. There, a large settlement of Upper Palaeolithic mammoth-hunters leaves skeletal remains, hut plans, and numerous art objects.

26,000 BC

FeatureNeanderthals still survive in Europe but in very low numbers by now (see feature link). Research published in 2006 shows that they have managed to hold on in Europe's far south long after the arrival of Homo sapiens. Communities exist on Gibraltar, possibly the very last of their kind as they have already vanished from the Near East.

Ancient hearths deep inside Gorham's Cave on Gibraltar include datable charcoal. The earliest samples date to 31,000 BC, while the youngest date to 22,000 BC. But evidence for a presence around 22,000 BC is limited, so researchers can only say with confidence that Neanderthals live in the cave until 26,000 BC.

Neanderthals' last outpost
Neanderthals' last outpost - (top) Gibraltar today with a series of caves at its base. Gorham's is second from the left. (Bottom) a reconstruction of late Neanderthal times. The sea is down by 80-120m. Exposed is a marshland, plains environment, rich in food resources which the Neanderthals exploited

22,000 BC

The third oldest-discovered Homo sapiens genome (by 2016) comes from a boy who dies around this time, near the Siberian village of Mal'ta. Generally part of the Gravettian, this boy also belongs to the more regionally-specific Mal'ta-Buret' culture of Siberia.

FeatureAround the same time, a sharp freeze could be responsible for dealing the dwindling Neanderthal populations in Europe a killer blow which finishes them off (see feature link).

A climate downturn may cause a drought, placing pressure on the last surviving Neanderthals by reducing their supplies of fresh water and killing off the animals they hunt. The cause of this chill may be cyclical changes in the Earth's position relative to the sun - so-called Milankovitch cycles. The resultant cold event seems to be pretty severe and also quite short.

Mal-ta-Buret' boy
DNA from the skeleton of a boy of the Mal'ta-Buret' culture in Siberia offers clues to the first Americans, with this culture being the first to the east of the Ural Mountains to show differences from its European counterparts, albeit before any admixture from East Asians had taken place

c.22,000 BC

The same climate downturn is likely to be responsible for the end of the Gravettian and its gradual replacement by amended versions of itself.

The late Gravettian period, labelled 'Final Gravettian', is generally expressed through the Solutrean culture (and possibly in the Volga's Seroglazovka). The slightly later-appearing Magdalenian cultures come to dominate in the west, while the Epigravettian soon emerges in Southern Europe.

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