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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Early Poland

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 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).

Poland occupies a large area of Central Europe, bordering the southern Baltic Sea and the Early Baltics. The region's history prior to colonisation by West Slavic Polans is a long one. It starts with the Palaeolithic Tarnowian and Witowian cultures of Tarnów and Witów, part of the Federmesser group, while the later-starting Hamburg culture also had links.

The later Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures contained several distinct cultural periods and links with Poland, starting with the Lusatian culture. Those of the latter period saw the settlement or through-migration of various Belgic groups, northern or eastern Celts or Celtic-influenced people with an additional Germanic influence from southern Scandinavia, while the eastern Venedi may also have played a part here from their settlements along the Vistula.

In the last two centuries BC direct Germanic settlement from Scandinavia formed minor (tribal) states on the southern Baltic coast and west bank of the Vistula. Of these, the Buri and Lugii occupied areas of southern Poland, the Burgundians and Goths were located centrally, while the Gepids and Rugii were on the northern coast.

These states were fairly ephemeral. Once outward migration had depleted most of them, they were replaced by Slavic settlements which eventually coalesced into the early Polish states and then the modern state of Poland.

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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 Link: Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

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, with occupation coming as the ice sheets retreat northwards.

They belong to two groups, one being the regionally-dominant Kunda culture of the Early Baltics which is a development of the earlier Swiderian culture which is located to the south. The other is the Magdalenian-driven 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 regional expressions.

Map of Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea about 9000 BC
The Baltic Ice Lake on Poland's northern border was entirely cut off from the Atlantic Ocean until the ice began to recede and rising water levels broke through around 8200 BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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, and probably has such a profound effect on the early inhabitants of the Baltic area, that it is known as the Billingen Catastrophe.

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.

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.

Boreal forest
The Boreal period of a little over a thousand years witnessed a post-glacial warming climate and the spread of deciduous trees at the expense of the pines shown here which retreated northwards

c.5800 - 2800 BC

The Atlantic period is characterised by a climate which 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 what will become the lands of the Prussias, plus what is now Latvia, 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).

The early 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. The Mesolithic Nemunas culture of southern Lithuania is replaced by the Neolithic Nemunas culture.

c.2500 BC

The Corded Ware culture (or Boat Axe culture) arrives in what is now southern Finland, along the coastal regions, as well as in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, western Russia, Poland, northern Germany, Denmark, and southern Sweden.

Central Asia Indo-European map 3000 BC
By around 3000 BC the Indo-Europeans had begun their mass migration away from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, with the bulk of them heading westwards towards the heartland of Europe (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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. Later cultures appear during the Bronze Age which are almost or entirely specific to the territory which will later form Poland.


King list Lusatian Culture
(c.1300 - 500 BC)

The Late Bronze Age Lusatian culture incorporated elements of earlier cultures, and also served as a replacement for the eastern edges of Unetice culture.

King list Pomeranian Culture
(c.650 - 200 BC)

The Iron Age Pomeranian culture is often linked to the Nordic Bronze Age, which appeared late in Scandinavia in comparison to the continental Bronze Age.

King list Oxhöft & Przeworsk
(c.200 BC - AD 200)

The Oxhöft formed around the Oder and Vistula thanks to new arrivals, while the Przeworsk was a continuation of the Pomeranian culture to the north.

King list Willenberg Culture
(c.AD 50 - 200)

The Willenberg was intrusive into territory of the earlier twin cultures, and it quickly spread outwards from an initial base on the southern Baltic coast.

King list Vidivarii Culture
(c.AD 200 - 500)

Fragments of tribes which were nearer the Baltic coast tended to band together for strength and security, forming a Germanic culture of their own.

King list Western Polans
(5th Century AD - AD 962)

The Slavic Polans began ariving in the fifth century AD to form small tribal units and then a larger early state in ths region which became Poland.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.