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Early Baltics

FeatureThe system that has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one that involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East 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).

The first inhabitants arrived in the territory of the present Baltic states between about 10,000-9000 BC. They were following the migrating reindeer after the continental glacier had retreated northwards. The ethnic origin of the first settlers has not yet been established but they were most likely of a generalised European origin, one of the pockets of humans that had survived the recent ice age by taking refuge in Southern Europe.

At the beginning of the third millennium BC, tribes of Ugric-speaking people migrated from the east and soon became dominant. These peoples originated in Uralic-speakers around the Ural Mountains, but groups had been slowly migrating outwards for centuries. They quickly came to dominate a vast swathe of territory between modern Finland and the eastern side of the Urals, although in general they were peaceful foragers rather than kingdom-builders. Those who settled between Lake Peipsi and the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland provided the ancestors of the Finno-Ugric Estonians.

Between around 3000-2500 BC, another new wave of migrant tribes arrived in the Baltics, generally buffering the Estonians to their south. They were the ancestors of the Baltic tribes and they brought with them cattle breeding and tillage skills. The cultivation of fields, however, only started to flourish in the sixth or fifth century BC when iron was brought into use and it became easier to clear the land. Together, these generally peaceful peoples formed regions which would become Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Glacier ice retreat

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Gediminas Kiveris and Merit Pai, from Life in Estonia, from The History of the Baltic Countries, Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds, Estonia 2008), from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), and from External Links: The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click or tap on link to download or access it), and Rurik of Novgorod and the Varangian DNA, and Kaali Meteorite Crater Field.)

c.12,000 BC

The glacial ice sheet retreats from territory which will later form southern and north-eastern Lithuania. The retreat is slow but constant, so that Lithuania is entirely free of the ice sheet by about 10,500 BC. Lakes and valleys have been formed by the meltwater, and the landscape is littered with heaps of gravel and sand-layered hills which have been pushed up by the glacier, along with boulders from the Scandinavian mountain ridges.

Retreating ice sheet
The retreat of the glacial ice sheet allowed first plants and then animals to migrate into the region, closely followed by the first hunter-gatherers

Areas of coastal Lithuania remain under the waters of the Baltic ice lake (the Yoldia Sea, the modern Baltic Sea), and a severe sub-Arctic climate prevails, making the spread of the first lichen, dwarf birch, and dwarf willow a slow process. The first hunters probably arrive within a millennium, following the last of the mammoths.

c.10,000 BC

The glacial ice sheet continues its slow northwards retreat, now uncovering territory which will later form Latvia. The region is entirely free of the ice sheet by about 9,500 BC. As with Lithuania's lands, areas of coastal Latvia remain under the waters of the Yoldia Sea, the modern Baltic Sea).

9000s BC

By this date, what will become Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Prussia are being settled by hunter-gather tribes which all share the same cultural traces. They belong to two groups, one being the regionally-dominant Baltic Kunda culture which is a development of the earlier Swiderian culture that is located to the south. The other is the Magdalen-Ahrensburg culture which is located in north-western Germany and Denmark, which probably enriches the Kunda culture.

FeatureTraditional scholarly belief has these hunter-gatherers migrating from the southern Baltics and farther east, but a more recent idea suggests that while this is correct for the Baltics, Finland and northern Scandinavia are also first inhabited via the sweeping grass plains of Doggerland (now under the North Sea - see feature link) and its dominant Federmesser culture, of which the Tarnowian and Witowian are Early Poland's regional expressions.

Map of Scandinavia 9000 BC
This map shows the approximate location of the ice sheet at this time and approximate routes of migration for the first human populations to live here (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Settlements at Eiguliai and Puvotsiai among others testify to the fact that hunter-gathers are present in Lithuania from as early as the eleventh millennium. Settlements in Estonia remain unlocated, but these nomad encampments are extremely temporary in nature and leave a very thin archaeological layer in the soil, making them very hard to find. The earliest Estonian settlement found to date can be placed in the middle of the eighth millennium.

c.8200 BC

The waters of the ice-damned Baltic Ice Lake penetrate the region of the Billingen Mountains to form a link with the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, the Yoldia Sea drops rapidly, by about thirty metres. This retreat is so sudden that it is known as the Billingen Catastrophe. It probably also has a profound effect on the early inhabitants of the Baltic area.

c.8000 - 7100 BC

The Preboreal period sees the climate become significantly warmer 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.

Preboreal hunting lands in Europe
The Preboreal period is a formative stage of the early Holocene which lasted between 9000-4000 BC, one in which the post-glacial world of Northern Europe was warming to temperatures that were very close to those of the twentieth century

c.7100 - 5800 BC

The Boreal period sees the climate continue to warm and become drier. Pine forests decrease, allowing deciduous trees to gain a firmer foothold and become prevalent. The animal population thrives, with red deer, roe deer, and hares increasing considerably.

c.5800 - 2800 BC

The Atlantic period is characterised by a climate that is warmer than that of the present day. New species migrate into the Baltic region, including Baltic aurochs and wild boar, which inhabit forests of broad-leaved trees. Water chestnuts grow in the many lakes, and the bountiful life draws hunter-gatherers into the area. The warmness fails towards the end of this period, causing the disappearance of aurochs, wild horses, and water chestnuts.

c.3000 BC

The Comb Ceramic culture reaches Prussia, plus Estonia and Finland as new peoples arrive from the east, almost certainly the Finno-Ugric tribes who form the later core of Finland and Estonia (Estonians, Finns, Livs, Karelians, Wots, Weps, and Ingrians).

This Neolithic culture seems to form on the basis of the previous Mesolithic cultures, but uses a greater variety of bone, antler and stone implements, and employs boring, drilling, and abrading skills. There is circumstantial evidence that the territory of the earlier Kunda culture and the replacement Neolithic Narva culture are pretty much identical. The Mesolithic Nemunas culture of southern Lithuania is replaced by the Neolithic Nemunas culture.

Comb Ceramic pottery
The pottery of the Comb Ceramic culture (also known as Pit-Comb Ware) - a widespread cultural expression of far north-eastern Europe's foragers between the Baltic Sea and the Ural Mountains - shows the typical comb imprints that gave the its name

Proto-Lapponoid skeletons from this period have been found by archaeologists, showing that these blended Mongoloid/Europeans live alongside the new arrivals and bear a certain similarity to Siberian Finno-Ugric peoples. It has been suggested that they originate around the region of Lake Ladoga and disperse over a wide area. In Estonia they eventually merge into the Narva culture.

c.2500 BC

The Corded Ware culture (or Boat Axe culture) arrives in southern Finland, along the coastal regions, as well as in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, western Russia, Poland, northern Germany, Denmark, and southern Sweden. These new, probably early Indo-European, arrivals also have some domesticated animals and bring agriculture with them, although they continue to exist alongside universally-practised hunter-gather activities for some time. Both of these groups - foragers and farmers - form the proto-Baltic ancestors of the later Latvians and Lithuanians.

c.650 BC

By the middle of the first millennium BC, Estonians have strong connections with Scandinavia. Modern excavations yield remarkable gilded objects ornamented with animal figures which mirror Scandinavian finds from the graves of the wealthy. The creation of the Kaali meteorite craters in Estonia probably catch the eye of hunter-gatherers for tens of kilometres.

Kaali meteorite crater, Saaremaa
The Kaali meteorite craters were created around 650 BC on the island of Saaremaa (although that dating has more recently been contested as not being old enough), the most-recent such giant meteorite impact to occur in a densely-populated region on Earth - the largest of the Kaali meteorite craters is a hundred metres in diameter

1st century AD

MapThe Roman Iron Age is a relatively peaceful period in Estonia and Latvia. Only a few hill forts of later periods have yielded some finds which date to this period, suggesting the few strongholds are used rarely and only in times of need. At this time, Germanic tribes are settled along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, with the Gepids lying closest, to the east of the Vistula, and the Goths below them, while the Venedi lie to the south.

These Germanics eventually migrate towards the Roman empire, leaving tracts of land either depopulated for a time or entirely empty. In succeeding centuries the Finnic-speaking tribes of the Baltic coast begin to change. They share the strong trading connections of their Baltic neighbours (such as Lats and Lithuanians), but possibly experience some conflict as a result. The process of nation-building begins which in time will form Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as a similar process continuing for the doomed Prussians.