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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Early Iberia

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).

FeatureIberia is the ancient name for the sun-drenched south-western peninsula of Europe. It comprises the modern countries of Portugal and Spain, plus the principality of Andorra and the British crown colony of Gibraltar. The peninsula's role in human development can first be charted through the story of Homo Neanderthalis - the Neanderthals. The early stages of this species living in Europe are still being pinned down (see feature link), with previously Homo Heidelbergensis remains currently being re-evaluated and sometimes reclassified as Neanderthals. A population seems to have been in place by about 600,000 BC though, with its final appearance being on Gibraltar around 24,000 BC.

Modern Europeans in the form of Homo sapiens first appeared in the Balkans around 47,000 BC, largely through the transitional Bohunician culture. The Magdalenian culture of circa 17,000 to 12,000 BC was the last major pan-European expression of early human spread. Once the most recent ice age had retreated, human cultures became increasingly regionalised, initially divided here between Northern Europe and Southern Europe.

The first modern humans arrived in Iberia by about 24,000 BC, immediately preceding the start of the Solutrean culture. There may have been earlier arrivals but evidence is still being assessed before any definitive statement can be made. More specific occupation zones for the peninsula's regions is also still somewhat open to debate. Conditions on the southern side of the Pyrenees were harsh at the time, away from the coastal regions, but older theories which held this as a reason to count against a human presence have now been discounted.

Iberia experienced the long-lived Azilian culture shortly after that first occupation by modern humans, but it was the European Bell Beaker horizon which really put it on the archaeological map as far as modern cultural development was concerned. The people of this horizon are the likely ancestors of the pre-Carthaginian tribal peoples of Iberia, especially of the Turdetani, possibly the Iberian tribes such as the Edetani, and possibly also the Aquitani to the north.

It was also this period which saw the first peopling of the Early Balearic Islands, and which led into the Iberian Iron Age of the first millennium BC. This in turn generated the related Castro culture in the north and Tartessian culture in the south.

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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: Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and The Mesolithic of Iberia (Encyclopaedia.com), and First modern human settlement recorded in the Iberian hinterland (Scientific Reports).)

Asturian Culture (Epi-Palaeolithic / Mesolithic) (Iberia)
c.7250 - 4500 BC

The Asturian is a late Epi-Palaeolithic and Mesolithic stone and bone industry which is linked to the shell-midden sites of northern Iberia (modern Spain). The Asturian lithic industry is crude and has a high proportion of heavy duty tools, including a unifacial pick. When compared to the preceding Azilian, it exhibits a relatively high proportion of serrated artefacts and a relatively low proportion of backed bladelets.

The Asturian was identified as a distinct culture after excavations by Vega del Sella at the cave of El Penicial in Asturias in Spain in 1914. It was a highly localised culture, specifically in the central part of the Bay of Biscay's southern coast, while the former Azilian had encompassed a greater area of the same coastline. There was some initial debate about whether Asturian chronology even post-dated that of the Azilian, but agreement that it does now seems to be virtually universal. The transition between the two is still unclear, with a potential gap of up to half a millennium or down to almost nothing (circa 7250 BC is the mid-point between these two dating extremes).

In Cantabrian Spain the cultural transition from Azilian to Asturian stone tools takes place throughout the post-ice-age, preboreal period (up until about 7000 BC), accompanying the transition from glacial to fully temperate climatic conditions. Research in recent years has provided more information about the economy of these hunter-gatherer societies. However, key aspects are still little understood, such as the use of wild plants. The latest finds of lithic hunting weapons and shells which were used as tools do, though, open up new perspectives in the study of the Asturian.

The role played by the shell-middens in their cultural context is still one of the key issues which needs to be fully addressed. Recent excavations have confirmed that there were occupations inside the middens, which at other times were mere accumulations of waste. Open-air settlements outside the caves also existed.

Towards the end of the Asturian, the Neolithic farming revolution was being introduced into eastern Iberia. A southern strand of this revolution was introduced into the western Mediterranean by island-hopping and coastal-hugging migrants from the Illyrian coast and Italy, all part of the Linear Pottery culture. They entered Early France from the Mediterranean coast and also expanded from there into eastern Iberia by about 4700 BC.

Mesolithic stone tools

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and The Mesolithic 'Asturian' culture (North Iberia), one century on, Miguel Ángel Fano (Science Direct, as published in Quaternary International, Vol 515, 10 May 2019), and The Mesolithic of Iberia (Encyclopaedia.com).)

c.6000 - 5000 BC

One set of Asturian burials are dated to the sixth millennium BC. An elderly female is excavated from the Molino de Gasparín shell midden in in 1926. She is found in an extended position, with three picks laid on stones by her head. A mound, on top of which a fire had been lit, covers the body.

Asturian stone tool
Pottery was used in this region from about 4900 BC, and stone tools throughout, such as the example shown here

Between 1985-1990 seven people, buried in three features, are excavated in the Los Canes cave (Asturias in modern Spain). The cave contains no traces of habitation from this period, suggesting that it has been used only for funerary purposes.

One of the bodies - a very gracile female - offers an extensive picture of dental problems, with caries, abscesses, and alveolar resorption (receding gums) affecting the upper jaw. The suggestion is that towards the end of the period diets become richer in carbohydrates, specifically plant foods.

5000 - 4700 BC

As the Asturian appears to begin to fade in the north-west, the Neolithic farming revolution is being introduced into the east of Iberia. The Linear Pottery culture enters the western Mediterranean through island-hopping and coastal-hugging migrants from the Illyrian coast and Italy. They enter France from the Mediterranean coast and also expanded from there into eastern Iberia by about 4700 BC.

Bell Beaker Horizon (Chalcolithic / Bronze Age) (Iberia)
c.2800 - 2300 BC

The Bell Beaker started out as an horizon in Early Iberia rather than an archaeological culture. A horizon is different from a culture because it is less robust - it is defined on the basis of just a few traits - and is often superimposed on local archaeological cultures as a kind of trend. The Bell Beaker in Late Neolithic Europe is defined primarily by a widespread style of decorated drinking cup (beakers), this being the source of the culture's name (whose practitioners can also be labelled as 'Bell Beaker Folk').

Burials with these pots alongside the dead have been used by archaeologists to chart the growth and expansion of the Beaker folk. In many places the culture also introduced a few new weapon types (such as copper daggers and also including polished stone wrist-guards) which diffused through Europe alongside a new fashion in social drinking. In most places these styles were superimposed upon pre-existing archaeological cultures: this being the definition of an horizon, which did not involve large-scale migration.

Bell Beaker society expanded to cover all of Iberia and the Early Balearic Islands before subsequently reaching most of modern Germany when it met the newly-arriving West Indo-European groups to create the far more expansive Bell Beaker culture. There is still a good deal of debate about just what propelled the expansion of the Bell Beaker culture, but DNA research published early in 2018 in Nature did a lot to seal the argument.

Limited genetic affinity was detected between Beaker-complex-associated individuals from Iberia and those in Central Europe. Migration was excluded as an important mechanism of spread between these two regions. Instead this first, Iberian, stage was classified as an horizon, which does not require physical migration. Once out of Iberia and in collision with newly-arrived groups, it certainly did encounter physical migration.

Chalcolithic pot found in Hebron, Israelinhabitation on Cyprus

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from The Celts, TGE Powell, and from External Links: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature), and Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish), and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Lista de pueblos prerromanos de Iberia (in Spanish, Hispanoteca.eu), and Euskomedia (in Spanish).)

c.2800 - 2300 BC

A shift to drier conditions has been taking place since about 3300 BC. Pollen core samples from across Eastern Europe - notably across the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the Don and the Irtysh (in Kazakhstan) - show that forests sharply decline and Artemisia (an arid herb indicator) increases.

Bell Beaker pots
Shown here is a selection of highly distinctive bell-shaped pots which were created by the Bell Beaker folk between around 2900-1800 BC in Europe and the British Isles

As a result the steppe has been growing and the steppe people have kept on increasing their herds, feeding them by moving them more often, and their new wagons help them to do this almost constantly.

This has resulted in a flood of migration into Central Europe and northern Italy, part of the Yamnaya horizon. It is these West Indo-Europeans who now pick up the influence of the originally-Iberian and Balearic Islands Bell Beaker horizon. They do this enthusiastically, turning it into a true Bell Beaker culture.

c.900 - 800 BC

In Iberia, towards the end of the Bell Beaker, the Atlantic Bronze Age arrives from the north, having developed in France. This late Bronze Age metalworking industry quickly expands from its core to reach southern Britain and Iberia.

When that eventually collapses, the peninsula enters the Iberian Iron Age with the advent of the Castro culture which dominates in the north, and the Tartessian culture which dominates in the south.

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