|Cromlech of Almendres|
Naturally we are in a prehistoric era. This period in Europe sees no writing and the beginning of the period sees no readable writing on Earth. Also, the time period is so long ago that stories, legends and oral traditions are of little use to us.
|Jadeite axeheads imported from the Alps to Ireland|
Europe was also where archaeology and the study of the Stone Age was first developed. This, along with the fact that many areas of Europe had cultural traditions that preserved Stone Age sites, meant that there has been a great deal of study into the Neolithic period in Europe. I suspect that other parts of the world will become better known as human knowledge advances.
|General map of pottery cultures in Europe c. 4500BC|
Yet another issue of trying to understand Neolithic Europe is that often archaeologists will attach a culture name to a group of pottery. For example books will often speak of the Beaker People, referring to the Beaker type pottery and the graves where these pots were buried. But much in the same way as vastly different people groups will wear similar clothing or write with a similar script, it should not be taken to mean that there were homogenous people groups. The naming conventions are attached as a way of covering our own ignorance and should be treated as such.
|Cairn of Barnenez|
To give a prelude we must understand what came before this period. The retreating of the glaciers from the last glacial maximum was nearly complete at this point. Most of Europe was inhabited by humans, with the exception of some far off islands such as Iceland. In the previous millennia farming had spread by a process of either migration or cultural diffusion from the Middle East and by this period had reached all of Europe. This period, where agriculture is the main source of food but before the advent of writing or widespread working of non-precious metals, is known as the Neolithic and it lasts in Europe for about the next two millennia. The transition from hunter-gathering to farming (Mesolithic to Neolithic) was gradual but had nearly universally happened across Europe by 4000BC.
|Tumulus of Bougon|
Previously, while the glaciers had covered much of the land, there had been land bridges across many short straits, such as across the English Channel. But with the rising sea levels these had been flooded. The rising sea levels also covered over many pre-existing Mesolithic settlements that would have been along the coast lands of Europe. It has been hypothesised that there was a population crash in Europe around 4500BC but I am somewhat sceptical about how significant this was, despite the fact that the overall methodology seems sound. Fascinatingly there seems to have been a culture in the far north of Europe, called the Pit-comb culture that has similarities with the cultures across all of northern Eurasia. If so this would suggest some very early migrations in either direction across the Siberian taiga but it’s possible that the similarities are illusory. Perhaps comb patterned pottery is just an easy design to make and thus emerges, almost like convergent evolution?
With the rise of agriculture and Neolithic culture Europe seems to have developed relatively complex societies quite quickly. Their sites are less ancient than Jericho or Catal Huyuk but there are signs of quasi-urbanisation in the Transylvanian region from about the mid-5000’s to the mid 4000’s. This is known as the Vinca culture. They had some small villages that could be classed as towns or proto-cities, as well as some of the earliest usage of copper. Most mysteriously they also created small amulets covered in symbols that look suspiciously like writing. There is no evidence that they are anything more than shamanic symbols but there is the possibility that these were the first attempts at writing. They probably weren’t, but it does remain a possibility. For those who wish to know more about these, check out the Vinca Symbols and Tartaria Tablets for further details.
|Varna Necropolis Treasure|
|Broken Menhir of Er Grah|
Finally it is worth pointing out that the languages of Europe were different. There is considerable debate about the origins of Proto-Indo-European but practically all scholars are in agreement that Proto-Indo-European (or PIE) was not spoken in Europe at the time and that the European languages were of a different and probably unknown language family. It has been speculated that the Basque language is a tiny linguistic remnant from this time but this is unproven. The Proto-Indo-European speakers were probably living north of the Black Sea at this point in time.
Around 4000BC the great Menhir of Er Grah in Brittany was broken, probably by an earthquake. As mentioned previously, I am wary of the dates for this item but this is the conventional dating. On Sardinia, Monte d’Accoddi was begun to be occupied around this time by the Ozieri culture. This was a small step pyramid but the site was extended over the next millennium so it is hard to tell what the original structure was like.
|Computer reconstruction of Talianki, |
a massive temporary settlement of the
Around 3900BC there was the 5.9 Kiloyear Event. I dislike this naming convention, as it will be out of date and very misleading in around fifty years. However, it caused cooling over Europe at the same time as it contributed to desertification in the Sahara. It may have caused some migration into the Iberian Peninsula from Africa but apart from this it is likely that it simply made Europe a harsher and more difficult place to live in than it had previously been.
Around this time, the Ertebølle culture in Denmark, which was quasi-Mesolithic, seems to have come to an end, as better agricultural practices moved northwards. Up until this point, this culture appears to have known about farming but to have primarily used sea-fishing as its main source of food.
Around 3800 work began on the Windmill Hill complex structure around Avebury in what is now England. Malta was re-inhabited around this time as well. The previous population had over-farmed the land and had apparently abandoned the island.
|Reconstruction of the Sweet Track|
|Tomb from Carrowmore|
In the Caucasus area the Maykop culture began to flourish. This group used large mounds to bury their dead, which are sometimes referred to as kurgans. Some have identified these people are early Indo-European language speakers but this is speculative.The Maykop culture does seem to have been related to the steppe cultures further north however.
|Ggantija Temple in Malta|
Around this time the Baden culture in central Europe arose and has been treated by some as being an Indo-European culture. But this is speculative and I am unsure as to whether the members of this culture were primarily Proto-Indo-European speakers.
Circa 3500 the wheel seems to have been invented, possibly independently by the Sumerians in the Near East, by the Maykop culture of the Caucasus and by the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture in what is present-day Romania or the Funnel-Beaker culture of what is now Poland. This would have far-reaching consequences for humanity but it would take time for wheels to attain their full utility. The earliest known representation of what may be a wheel can be seen in the Bronocice Pot that has what may possibly be proto-writing, as well as what appears to be a picture of a wheeled cart drawn upon it.
|Ceide Fields in Ireland|
|Passage Grave in Carrowkeel|
In what is now Ukraine, the Sredny Stog culture began to come to an end and seems to have been replaced by the Yamna culture. The Yamna culture buried their dead in large mounds, known as kurgans, and may have been Indo-European. In what is probably not a coincidence, the horse appears to have been domesticated in Central Asia around this time, although these were possibly not the ancestors of modern horses. We should not imagine cavalry being used by these cultures. Early horses probably did not have the size to carry a human on their backs. But with the twinning of the wheel and the horse crude carts could have been made that would allow the cultures using this much greater mobility than their contemporaries and would have given them a substantial advantage in competing for resources.
The Globular Amphora culture stretching across what is now Poland, may have been related to the Yamna culture, or to have taken some of their burial practices from them. These too begin to appear in the archaeological record from about this point onwards. It took over from the older Lengyel culture in the region, who had been some of the first to use copper in Europe.
|Stone alignment in Carnac|
|Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni|
Further south of Europe the desertification of the Sahara was continuing and Europe must have become rather similar climactically to what it is today. Possibly as a result of this climate change the Yamna culture, now equipped with wheeled vehicles and small, recently-domesticated horses, began to expand westwards into what is now Ukraine. There does seem to have been some conflict between the pastoral peoples living at the western edge of the Yamna culture and the large cities of the Cucuteni-Tripyllia culture.
|Passage Grave at Loughcrew Ireland|
|Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman's clothes|
We will never know who the man was, or who his enemies were. But his death has shed new light on the period. His body was preserved in the ice of the high Alps, where he may have fled to escape his pursuers. His partially preserved body was discovered in the twentieth century by climbers and the archaeologists have been puzzling over his remains ever since. The body was given the name Ötzi the Iceman, named after the region where his body was discovered but no one knows his name. The discovery has allowed scientists to find the earliest known evidence of tattoos on humanity and the possibility that he underwent a type of acupuncture on the lower spine. His stomach contents were analysed to show that he had eaten meat recently, probably earlier that day.
|Passage at Knowth|
There was considerable Neolithic complexity all around the edges of Europe, with the Neolithic village of Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands beginning roughly around this time. The Orkney Islands are sparsely populated today but seem to have been quite important in the Neolithic period. Or perhaps the lower population has led to better preservation of the monuments. It is hard to know why the edges of Europe sometimes seem to have more items from this time period.
|Wheel at Ljubljana|
In what is now southern Spain, the site of Los Millares was founded roughly around this time. This settlement would grow later but was not really more than a village at this point. However, it is proof that there was a trend towards urbanisation in Europe as well as in the river valley cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley.Unlike the temporary cities of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, the site of Los Millares was occupied for centuries.
|Carvings at Tarxien|
|Carvings at Newgrange|
The tunnel was aligned to the rising of the sun on the Winter Solstice and once a year, on the shortest day, the sun was enter the roofbox and strike the far wall of the innermost chamber, illuminating the room. In the side chambers there would be the remains of cremated bodies in stone depressions. It would appear that there were never many remains at any one time and it is possible that after the rituals surrounding the solstice were complete, that the remains were removed again. The inner chamber was corbelled into a primitive small dome, but done in such a way that it would bear the weight of the large earthen mound placed above it. The front level of the mound was covered with white quartz that would have gleamed in the sun.
Newgrange has been reconstructed in the 1970’s AD but its reconstruction is very controversial. The façade is too steep and is currently held in place by concrete. It is more likely that the façade was shallower and covered over the great stone edges of the mound. But the interior is entirely ancient and is certainly worth a visit if people have an opportunity.
Around last century of the millennium, around 3000BC, the Maykop culture in the Caucasus and the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture in Romania, came to an end. These may have been affected by the expanding Yamna culture. The step pyramid site in Sardinia, Monte d’Accoddi, was also burned or destroyed around this time, but this is highly unlikely to have been related to the demise of the afore-mentioned cultures.
In England, the large megalithic complex of Avebury was begun around this period but would not have reached its present form until later. Later generations would add more stone circles and alignments and banks of earth to the site until it reached the impressive proportions that it has today.
|Monument at the finding place of |
Ötzi the Iceman
I’ve previously written in other posts about bad theories, about how aliens certainly did not build ancient stone circles in South Africa, or the pyramids in Egypt. The theory of Old Europe is not a theory such as this one. In many ways it’s a really good theory and I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. Certainly, at some point, the Indo-European languages came into Europe and that this probably was part of an overall cultural shift, and a certain amount of population movement.
|Yamna culture burial|
I like the idea of Old Europe. In fact, as a theory it probably is right in many aspects. But to generalise across a whole continent for several thousand years is problematic. The behaviour of peoples change over time and considering the complexity of the Late Neolithic, I would be shocked if European culture could be summed up so easily. Future historians will doubtless refine the idea to make it watertight but for now, be wary of any dichotomies between egalitarian Old Europe and hyper-patriarchal kurgan cultures. History is never so simple.
|Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman's|