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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Shpan Culture (Mesolithic) (Eastern Europe)
c.10,000 - 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 major Palaeolithic cultures.

On the Eastern European fringe of these advances there appeared a number of more or less contemporaneous Epi-Palaeolithic and early Mesolithic cultures. This mainly took place in the steppe zone across the northern Black Sea region. Each was somewhat limited in the territory it encompassed (perhaps the first time such varied localisation had appeared), but each used similar chipped-stone forms of industry, and each emerged by transforming local Epigravettian complexes.

The Dryas III-Preboreal period in the northern Black Sea region was characterised by aridisation - a general drying out and a resultant decrease in plant life. Within this background human groups survived in Mesolithic southern Ukraine as part of the Epigravettian-led Shpan culture. Many similar localised cultures also existed nearby, such as the Anetivka, Bilolissya, Molodova-Kichkine, Shan Koba, and Sursko-Dnieper. The broader Swiderian also had an impact in the earlier phases of these cultures.

Precise start and finish dates can vary slightly for this culture depending upon archaeological interpretation and discoveries. It continued into the Greenlandian early Holocene period (between about 8600-7100 BC), being influenced by steppe hunter migrations from the Crimean plains area. Its people hunted game which included animals of more open ecotopes.

As the Greenlandian eased into the Northgrippian (7000-5500 BC), broad-leaved woodlands appeared on the mountain edges in Crimea, alongside warmth-loving species such as Rhus coronaria, Cornus mas, and Hedera taurica. Mesolithic Europe was fast heading towards the earliest spread of Neolithic farming.

That connection with Crimea would be important. The coexistence there of several archaeological cultures during the Epi-Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, sometimes on the same territory - particularly in 'Mountain' Crimea - reflects complicated ethno-cultural processes. Cultures here were gradually transitioning from Mesolithic forager to early Neolithic forager before they eventually gave way to true farming cultures.

Some of the region's cultures have numerous sites, including the Shan Koba, Murzak-Koba, and Tash-Air of mountainous Crimea, and the Kukrek and Olexiivka cultures of plains Crimea. The Swiderian and Shpan cultures are represented by only a few sites. People from these cultures took part only in periodical migrations into Crimea from steppe Ukraine in their hunt for game.

Mesolithic stone tools

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by ChatGPT 3.5 (dates and base notes only), from The Magdalenian Settlement of Europe, Quaternary International Volumes 272-273 (2012), and from External Links: Mesolithic Settlements of the Ukrainian Steppes: migration as sociocultural response to a changing world, Olena Smyntyna (British Archaeological Reports, International Series, 2456, 93-98, January 2013, and available via ResearchGate), and Mesolithic Period (Science Direct), and Cultural resilience theory as an instrument of modelling human response to global climate change. A case study in the north-western Black Sea region: on the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, Olena Smyntyna (Odesa I I Mechnikov National University, January 2016, and available via ResearchGate), and Topography of Stone Age Sites of the North-West Black Sea Region, Igor Pistruil (Odessa Archaeological Museum, published by Eminak Scientific Quarterly Journal, No 1 (29), 2020), and Early Mesolithic (Indo-European.eu), and The Palaeolithic of the Western Steppe Zone, Karol Szymczak (Reference Module in Social Sciences, 2023, available via Science Direct), and Late glacial and Holocene vegetational and climate changes, Natalia P Gerasimenko (Lead Author, Quaternary International Volume 632, 20 September 2022, available via Science Direct).)

c.10,000 BC

Based on the available evidence it can be said that the Shpan culture emerges around this time. With origins in the Epigravettian, it exists on the southern steppe territory of what is now Ukraine, in areas of pine and birch woods which are populated by reindeer.

Shpan culture tools
Shpan culture - with some of its tools shown here - bore close connections with Mesolithic Crimea, as well as with the southern Ukrainian steppe

c.9000 BC

By this date, what will become the countries of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania, along with Prussia, are all being settled by hunter-gather tribes which all share the same cultural traces, with occupation coming as the ice sheets retreat northwards.

These people belong to two groups, one being the regionally-dominant Swiderian which is now entering the Baltics while leaving areas of Poland empty of humans for up to three hundred years.

Groups from the early Maglemosian culture eventually intrude to rediscover abandoned Swiderian resources. Swiderian hunters also enter the Ukraine of the Molodova-Kichkine and Shpan cultures, and also the Crimea of the Shan Koba culture in their search for game.

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.8000 - 7100 BC

The Preboreal period sees the climate become significantly warmer (notably in the Baltics). Birch and pine forests start to spread, and elk, bears, beavers, and various species of water birds migrate into the region from the south.

c.6400 BC

The Neolithic Farmers of the Criş / Körös culture have been heading northwards from the Middle Danube, following the Mureş and Körös rivers into Transylvania where they likely encounter Molodova-Kichkine foragers, possibly for the first time.

At least some of the people from the latter group eventually migrate away from this strange new people, heading for Crimea. To get there they may well cross paths with the hunting groups of the Shpan people.

Molodova canes in Ukraine
The Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic site of Moldova (sometimes shown as 'Molodovo') is located on the River Dniester in the Chernovtsy province of Ukraine (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 2.0 Deed)

c.6000 BC

The end date for the Eastern European Shpan falls around this point in time, alongside an equivalent fading for the Tsarinka-Rogalik, giving way to the Kukrek. The similar Shan Koba manages to continue for a while longer, and the Molodova-Kichkine for even longer.

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