History Files

European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Early France

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 feature link, right).

The territory of Western Europe which today is contained within the borders of France had seen several phases of hominid settlement before anatomically modern humans arrived in the form of Homo sapiens. Long glacial periods tended to end each phase of habitation before a marine climate could return to improve circumstances.

The first Homo sapiens arrivals have been dated to about 40,000 BC and the late Châtelperronian period, around eight millennia after the earliest habitation sites appeared in the south-eastern Europe of the Bohunician culture. These arrivals were exclusively hunter-gatherer nomads who existed in small groups, albeit with some level of networking.

The Neolithic farming revolution arrived towards the end of the sixth millennium BC. This arrival came from two strands of Neolithic migration and culture, with both arriving at roughly the same time, around 5000-4700 BC. The northern strand was part of the Cardium Pottery culture which stretched across northern Central Europe and into the eastern Balkans.

The southern strand was introduced by island-hopping and coastal-hugging migrants from the Illyrian coast and Italy, all part of the Linear Pottery culture. They entered France from the Mediterranean coast and also expanded from there into eastern Early Iberia. Only the Bell Beaker culture in the third millennium BC would exhibit a similar expansive spread prior to the arrival of the Celts.

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Trish Wilson and Edward Dawson, 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), from Who were the makers of the Châtelperronian culture? O Bar-Yosef & J-G Bordes (Journal of Human Evolution, 2010), and from Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol 3, Issue 1, James Cowles Prichard.)

c.2200 - 1800 BC

Bell Beaker culture gradually fades in mainland Europe as it is replaced by successor cultures (largely the Unetice in Central Europe, the Atlantic Bronze Age in the west, and the Terramare culture in Italy). Its progression westwards and subsequent dissipation can be seen as a wave-front effect, sweeping all before it but not able to maintain such a dramatic dominance behind that wave-front.

Completed by Bell Beaker folk, Stonehenge was probably abandoned in the seventeenth century BC as an anachronism that was no longer part of the lives of the people

Atlantic Bronze Age (Late Bronze Age) (France & Atlantic Coast)
c.1300 - 700 BC

This late Bronze Age metalworking industry (or 'tradition') developed in Europe on the western coast of France (specifically between Brittany and Gironde). Dates are somewhat movable, with a start of about 1300 BC or 1000 BC being offered, and a concluding date of about 700 BC or 500 BC. It quickly expanded from its core to reach southern Britain and Iberia.

It was an umbrella tradition rather than a specific single culture, but it did generate or influence several regional cultures within its maximum area of expansion. It was preceded by the European Bell Beaker culture, the Bell Beaker in Britain, the Armorican Tumulus culture, and the Wessex culture. All of these were replaced by the Atlantic Bronze Age (ABA), with its arrival in Britain notably seeming to coincide with the arrival of the earliest wave of early Celtic settlers to create the origins of Prydein.

The unifying factor within these areas was very active trading along the Atlantic seaways. A large number of hoards have been found for this tradition, with typical products being the carp's tongue sword, end-winged axe, hog-backed razor, and a bugle-shaped object of uncertain function. The tradition flourished between the Atlantic coast and the various Central European Urnfield cultures which presaged the appearance of true Celts of the Hallstatt culture.

The ABA is marked by economic and cultural exchange which led to the high degree of cultural similarity which has been exhibited by coastal communities from as far afield as central Portugal and Spanish Galicia, Armorica, Cornwall, and Scotland, including the frequent use of stones as chevaux de fries, the establishment of cliff castles, or the domestic architecture which is sometimes characterised by roundhouses. Commercial contacts extended from Sweden and Denmark to the Mediterranean.

The period was defined by a number of distinct regional centres of metal production, unified by a regular maritime exchange of some of their products. The major centres were southern England and ancient Ireland, north-western France, and western Iberia (in northern and western areas of Portugal, south-western Spain, and Galicia in the north-west). As one historian has remarked, this only happened at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Many items which relate to this period have been found in what are termed ritual areas, usually bearing watery contexts, such as rivers, lakes, and bogs. Comprising the more noted items which belong to this cultural complex are weapons such as the socketed and double-ring bronze axes, sometimes having been buried to form large hoards in Brittany and Galicia, plus lunate spearheads, v-notched shields, and a variety of bronze swords - with carp's-tongue swords included here - usually to be found in lakes, rivers, or rocky outcrops.

In addition there is the feasting gear of the elites, which includes articulated roasting spits, cauldrons, and flesh hooks which are to be found as far afield as central Portugal and Scotland.

Over recent years there has been much scholarly debate regarding this period, including contentious and highly-inaccurate claims that the West Indo-European proto-Celtic language began along the Atlantic coast and moved inland by way of Europe's major rivers. Such claims are not supported by the majority of scholars, or even by basic language analysis.

Even despite this unnecessary layer of confusion, historians are having a degree of difficulty in providing a precise and consummate picture of the ABA. This is primarily due to it not being politically structured, with trade being carried out between Atlantic-based communities on an ad hoc basis.

This was entirely unlike Phoenicia and its colonies, which became prominent towards the later centuries of the ABA in places such as Gadir and which was much more highly organised. It is interesting to note that the creation of more permanent Phoenician colonies in Iberia happened soon after the collapse of the Atlantic Bronze trade, although the Urnfield iron culture was also beginning to make its presence felt.

This was a period which, following the development of Urnfield culture in Central Europe, saw the appearance there of the armoured warrior, and the emergence in central and Atlantic Europe alike of high-profiled fighting and feasting societies. Iberia is considered something of latecomer in the matter of Atlantic Europe, although at the same time Iberia became more open to outside influences.

Much of the trade consisted of metalware, involving resources such as torques, or tin and copper weaponry, with hoards of the latter being found in what historians describe as 'waterlogged locations' although one of the best hoards was found in Huelva in south-western Spain. This was also the period which saw a change in domestic arrangements, with people moving from the flat lowland agricultural areas to more secure settlements, usually fortified, and usually hill forts in Iberia which formed part of the Castro culture which succeeded the ABA here.

One final point to make here is that, in the view of the Galician historian, Florentino Lopez Cuevillas, the Iberian tribe which dealt primarily with other Atlantic traders was the Oestrimni, part of the Urnfield culture, but a part which had migrated into Iberia towards the end of the Late Bronze Age and was therefore somewhat detached from the main Urnfield area of influence.

Towards its end, the ABA was succeeded by Iron Age Britain, Iron Age Ireland, Iron Age France which was characterised by the Gauls, and Iron Age Iberia (which involved the aforementioned Castro culture in the north-west, and the Tartessian culture in the south-west which may in part have been informed by surviving impressions of the lost Agaric culture).

Caves and cliffs of south-western France

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information by Peter Kessler, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol 3, Issue 1, James Cowles Prichard, from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), from Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, from Atlantic Seaways, Barry Cunliffe, and from External Links: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature), and Spaniards search for legendary Tartessos (UNRV Ancient Roman Empire Forums), and European trade was thriving in Bronze Age (The Telegraph, via the Web Archive), and Bronce Final Atlántico (Wiki, in Spanish), and Idade do Bronze Atlântica (Wiki, in Galician), and Idade do Bronze Atlântica (Wiki, in Portuguese), and Iberia, The Atlantic Bronze Age and the Mediterranean, Colin Burgess (available as a PDF from Academia.edu), and The Iberian Peninsula during the Bronze Age, Vicente Lull, Rafael Micó, Cristina Rihuete, & Roberto Risch (available as a PDF from ResearchGate), and First bronzes of North-West Iberia: the data from Fraga dos Corvos habitat site, Joao Carlos Senna-Martinez, Elsa Luís, Maria Fátima Araújo, & R J C Silva (available as a PDF from ResearchGate), and Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (in Spanish), and Atlantic Bronze Age (Archaeologs).)

c.1250 BC

One of the earliest proto-Celtic cultures has already started to appear in Central Europe, this being the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture, which replaces the preceding, indigenous Tumulus culture. Q-Celtic-speaking proto-Celtic groups also migrate outwards.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The rapid expansion of Urnfield means that it almost literally engulfs Central Europe and even impacts upon the Baltic culture, very quickly taking over the entire south-western corner of Baltic dominance - central, eastern, and southern Poland - via the associated Lusatian culture. Whether it also informs or inspires the Atlantic Bronze Age which appears at this time is far less certain.

c.1200 BC

Bell Beaker culture in Britain is disrupted. The Atlantic Bronze Age arrives, possibly being transported by Q-Celtic-speaking proto-Celtic settlers during a period of intense disruption which is taking place as far afield as the Near East. There, the collapse of the Hittite empire is a major act in a century of turmoil.

c.900 BC

In Iberia the Iron Age Castro culture emerges in the north-western regions of the peninsula, including northern Portugal and northern Spain. Its appearance is the result of the autonomous evolution of Atlantic Bronze Age communities, following the local collapse of the long range Atlantic trading network in luxury items. In the south-west the replacement is the Tartessian culture while the Talaiotic begins on the Balearics.

Castro de Viladonga, Galicia, Spain
Castro de Viladonga reveals its surviving earthworks, part of a 'castle'-building culture which emerged in Iberia out of the collapse of the Atlantic Bronze Age trading links

Such a change in settlement locations may be triggered by the arrival of Urnfield culture proto-Celts, potentially in the form of the Cempsii, Cynetes, Dragani, Oestrimni, and Saefes. All of these early arrivals are later submerged within the Gallaeci mass of small tribes.

In south-western France the Aquitani tribe of the Tarbelli is likely to be equally affected by the downturn in trade, although their descendants survive to battle Rome in the first century BC.

Elsewhere the Atlantic Bronze Age gives way to Iron Age communities in Britain, Ireland, and Gaul (today's France), which in time becomes the final stronghold of continental Celtic culture.

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