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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Iron Gates Culture (Epi-Palaeolithic / Mesolithic) (Eastern Europe)
c.13,000 - 6000 BC

The Upper Palaeolithic and Upper Mesolithic Epigravettian culture was one which emerged in Southern Europe shortly before the Solutrean was succeeded across much of the north by the Magdalenian culture. To its west was the Azilian, with these all forming some of the last of Europe's Palaeolithic cultures.

The Iron Gates culture appeared at the very start of the Mesolithic, around 13,000 BC, in the Iron Gates region of the Danube, one of the earliest specifically Eastern European cultures (alongside the Shan Koba). Today its territorial spread falls largely within Romania and Serbia. Its people were hunter-gatherers, either deliberately hunting game or gathering local materials along the river.

Although dating for it is somewhat contentious, the culture's major archaeological locations include the type site of Lepenski Vir. Despite its people pursuing a forager economy, later occupation here between about 6300-6000 BC has been described as 'the first city in Europe' thanks to its permanency, organisation, and its sophisticated architecture and construction. The site consists of a large central settlement with about ten satellite villages. Numerous piscine sculptures and some fairly peculiar architecture has been found here.

During the construction of the two Danubian 'Iron Gates' hydro-electric dams between 1964 and 1984 by Yugoslavia and Romania, archaeologists discovered more than fifty caves and other sites in the vicinity. Many more finds were later uncovered, including burials and art. Unfortunately most of those sites are now under water.

The culture is divided into three stages: early, middle, and late. Across this span, hunter-gatherer sites show an increasing trend towards sedentary living, especially from about 7600 BC. People who had previously lived in caves and rock shelters began to spread out into more permanent communities along the Danube.

Fish became a much stronger part of the everyday diet, but winters could still be difficult. The solution was to domesticate large numbers of dogs to provide an alternative foodstock when other supplies were low. Some experts consider these general changes to be the the true start to the Mesolithic, with the earlier period being labelled Epi-Palaeolithic.

The people here bore a close relationship with other Western European hunter-gatherers, but there was some additional affinity towards Eastern European hunter-gatherers and, later, people of Anatolian Neolithic Farmer cultures. Primary inhumations involved a person being laid in a supine position, hands at their sides or on their chest. Burials of a similar style have been found at Lepenski Vir, Padina, and Vlasac.

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: Microbotanical evidence for the spread of cereal use, Jelena Jovanović (Lead Author, Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 125, January 2021, available via Science Direct), and Dietary Change from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages in the Iron Gates, C Bonsall (Lead Author, Cambridge University Press, 18 July 2016), and The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016), and The Epigravettian chronology and the human population of eastern Central Europe during MIS2, György Lengyel (Lead Author, Quaternary Science Reviews Volume 271, 1 November 2021, available via Science Direct), and Early Mesolithic (Indo-European.eu).)

c.13,000 BC

With a type site at Lepenski Vir, the Iron Gates culture emerges out of the regional domination of the Epigravettian culture. In time it evolves fascinating local developments which are generated through increasing habitation along the Danube.

c.10,000 BC

FeatureThe most recent ice age is now fast fading in its intensity. As the ice recedes northwards, the people of the Magdalenian expand to follow it (see feature link). Those of the Epigravettian who are centred in their abundant Carpathian Basin territory do not.

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)

c.6300 BC

Lepenski Vir contains several trapezoidal building shapes, with plaster floors, and with the general site revealing a good deal of information in regards to other settlements in the area. Related sites at Schela Cladovei and Vlasac show the same building styles.

From this point onwards, the developing settlement can be described as 'the first city in Europe' thanks to its permanency, organisation, and its sophisticated architecture and construction. It has contact with people from other nearby cultures, such as in the Aegean and around the Adriatic, but there are also some signs of violence, possibly also in relation to external groups.

Iron Gates culture settlement, Lepenski Vir
The Iron Gates after which this culture is named are a series of gorges which funnel travellers (and armies) into narrow passes, while the type site of Lepenski Vir (shown here) has been uncovered and preserved for visitors

c.6000 BC

The Iron Gates culture of the Eastern European Mesolithic gives way to the spreading influence of the First Temperate Neolithic, a series of the earliest Neolithic Farmer cultures in Europe. Specifically it is the Criş and Starčevo cultures which take control here.

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