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European Kingdoms



Early Cultures IndexEarly Europe

The pre-history of Europe is a long and largely uncertain period in which small windows of opportunity to view events can be gained through archaeology. Masses of material are found each year by archaeologists, and a system was long ago needed to help organise all these findings. The system that evolved in the early twentieth century was one that involved cultures, with each culture being defined by distinct similarities in burials, settlements, technology, or objects in space and time. Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory.

These cultures are defined on the basis of pot sherds, grave types, architecture, and other material remains. They are meant to capture and define regional variation within a broad sweep of generally similar artefacts. They show the progress of cultural advancement, where such advancement usually means replacing one culture with another to highlight a marked progression. This practice tends to result in a profusion of cultural names, some of which refer to the same culture but which bear different names when they cut across modern national borders. Every attempt has been made here to combine different cultural names that refer to the same culture. The relationship between the archaeological cultures listed here and the living cultures which they represent may seem tenuous, but every attempt has also been made to link, where possible, perceived social and linguistic cultures with their matching archaeological cultures. The social and linguistic fields are more theoretical than the archaeological ones, and there is resistance on both sides by academics when it comes to accepting the other, but recent progress has shown that both disciplines can work well together.

Prehistory IndexEurope's earliest cultures are perhaps the easiest to catalogue and also amongst the most frustrating, the latter due to the relatively small number of artefacts (and also population figures) left behind to provide evidence of existence. These early cultures include the near-universally widespread Aurignacian and Gravettian (the latter with Venus figurines as one characteristic feature), and the Solutrean (which was characterised by finely-made microliths). The last two are especially interesting as they chart human progress after around 25,000 BC, roughly around the time at which the most recent Ice Age was building to a peak (much more severely in Europe than in Central Asia) and shortly after the last of Europe's Neanderthals had died out. Now humans had no cultural competition except from other humans, provided of course that they could survive another 15,000 years of Ice Age (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

Once the ice had retreated and Europe had become a much more hospitable place, human cultures became increasingly regionalised, or at least confined to areas less expansive than the entirety of Europe. The Magdalenian culture of circa 17,000 to 12,000 BC includes the well-known cave art of Lescaux (in France) and Altamira (in Spain), with the earliest dated sites being in France. These people were the classic 'reindeer hunters', although roe deer and horse among other animals were also hunted. However, this is where complexity begins to appear, with the uncertain Badegoulian interlude (around 18,000-14,000 BC) causing some debate. Such complexity only increases as human populations increase. Cultures become increasingly regional in order to define differences in archaeological terms. Sadly, identifying humans on ethnic and linguistic terms is even harder, if not entirely impossible before a certain level of recentness is reached. The linguistic side of identification really comes into its own with the appearance of proto-Indo-Europeans in the fifth and fourth millennia BC.

Cataloguing the vast range of human cultures is a complex process. It starts off reasonably easily, with the result that most early European cultures can be included on this page. As cultures become more numerous, and rival cultures spring up in different regions at the same time, listing them on one page becomes more complicated. Care has been taken to log rival and neighbouring cultures in each entry but, after a certain point, when the cultures become so regional that they can be located almost entirely within the borders of a single modern nation, then they will be shown in the relevant page rather than here. The easiest way to view it all is as the roots of a tree, with the main trunk starting here and heading down through the page (ie. into the soil) and the ever-smaller roots forking outwards to link into other pages.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, and Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds).)

Homo Neanderthalis

Early Cultures IndexChâtelperronian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.43,000 - 39,000 BC

Prehistory IndexThis was one of Europe's earliest cultures, set in the Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age). However, it isn't the earliest human culture overall, as it only succeeds a much broader one called the Afro-Eurasian Mousterian. Uncertainly (and some controversy) exists when it comes to assigning this culture entirely (or even at all) to anatomically-modern humans as there seems to have been heavy Neanderthal involvement (the Mousterian is certainly a Neanderthal culture). Given that there has also been some Neanderthal involvement in modern human reproduction in Europe (perhaps one to two percent overall as proven by DNA testing), then the controversy is easy to dismiss, The Neanderthals probably have as much right to be here as the modern humans who were arriving from the Middle East (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on Neanderthal existence, using the link on the right). In fact, the best solution may be to assign this culture to Neanderthals and say that humans inherited it at a late stage.

The Châtelperronian period gained its name from the site of la Grotte des Fées in Châtelperron, Allier, in France It refers to one of five stone tool industries that have been identified for the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe (43,000-18,000 BC). Although it is generally assigned as the earliest of the five industries, the Châtelperronian is now recognised as being fairly equal with and perhaps even a little later than the Aurignacian period, although both are associated with the Middle Palaeolithic to Upper Palaeolithic transition, between around 43,000-31,000 BC. It has also been attached to the Perigordian, an attempt to join together several cultures or industries to show continuity within Europe. The attempt has largely been discredited or dismissed.

FeatureA little after the very end of that transition, the last Neanderthals in Europe died out (during the Gravettian period). They were in serious trouble from around 35,000 BC onwards, the result of a not-necessarily-peaceful cultural transition of European ownership from the long-established Neanderthal residents to the new influx of early modern humans from the Middle East. When first described and defined in the early twentieth century, the Châtelperronian was believed to be the work of early modern humans (then known as Cro-Magnon) who, it was thought, had descended directly from Neanderthals (a theory now completely quashed). The split between Middle and Upper Palaeolithic is a distinct one, with great advances in the range of stone tool types and also with raw materials - the Upper Palaeolithic has tools and objects that are made of bone, teeth, ivory, and antler, none of which were seen in the Middle Palaeolithic. The change in technology is now associated with the arrival of humans in Europe.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Who were the makers of the Châtelperronian culture? O Bar-Yosef & J-G Bordes (Journal of Human Evolution, 2010), from A Cognitive and Neurophysical Perspective on the Chatelperronian, F L Coolidge & T Wynn T (Journal of Archaeological Research, 2004), from Human Choices and Environmental Constraints: Deciphering the variability of large game procurement from Mousterian to Aurignacian times (MIS 5-3) in southwestern France, E Discamps, J Jaubert, & F Bachellerie (Quaternary Science Reviews, 2011), from Neanderthal Acculturation in Western Europe? A Critical Review of the Evidence and its Interpretation, F D d'Errico, J Zilhao, M Julien, D Baffier, & J Pelerin (Current Anthropology Supplement to 39, 1998), and from External Link: Neanderthals manufactured Châtelperronian amid cultural diffusion with humans, study finds (2012), and Science.)

c.43,000 BC

The Châtelperronian culture emerges as a western European expression of the previous pan-Afro-Eurasian Mousterian culture. It is centred primarily in central and south-western France and extends into northern Spain. Stone tools are produced in the same way as before but with ivory adornments. They appear to be part of the Aurignacian culture, and it has been suggested that nearby, newly-arrived groups of modern humans, are influencing Neanderthal groups. However, the finds predate the Aurignacian and quite possibly also the arrival of modern humans this far west.

Chatelperronian tools
Châtelperronian Neanderthal bone artefacts from the Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure, France), which experts suggest only became sophisticated after Neanderthals were influenced by early human arrivals in Western Europe

At about the same time, populations of Homo sapiens have already colonised areas of Siberia. The discovery in 2008 of fossilised human bones at Ust-Ishim leads to the oldest sequenced human genome to date (2016). Genetically he just barely postdates the Neanderthal introgression into modern humans (cross-breeding between the two species). Almost as soon as modern humans arrive in northern Eurasia, they clearly make themselves at home in harsh climates. Ust-Ishim is at about the latitude of Stockholm or Juneau in Alaska, and the temperature is comparable with that of today.

c.41,000 BC

FeatureStarvation and cannibalism could be part of everyday life for a population of Neanderthals living in northern Spain around this time. Eight Neanderthal skeletons are found in an underground cave system at El Sidron in Asturias, and bones and teeth found here bear the hallmarks of a tough struggle for survival. Signs of starvation or malnutrition in childhood are evident. Neanderthal Mousterian implements disappeared abruptly from Europe's archaeological record with the passing of Neanderthal man.

c.34,000 BC

The archaeological site of St Césaire (sometimes formerly known as La Roche-à-Pierrot) is a limestone rock shelter in the Charente-Maritimes département of south-western France (close to the Bay of Biscay). In one of the early levels (EJOP), a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton is discovered in 1979. It is apparently in direct association with a Châtelperronian tool kit, which has previously been considered a Homo sapiens construction alone. Some doubt is cast on the association by the realisation that the burial cuts across two layers, meaning that the tool kit could be a later addition to the site, perhaps left behind by a human group.

A partial Neanderthal secondary burial (secondary meaning that the individual has died elsewhere and has been brought back to the cave for interment) is direct-dated to this period, making St Césaire one of the most recent Neanderthal sites outside of Spain, although not as recent as that of Gorham's Cave. Today, St Césaire is considered evidence of co-existence between modern humans and Neanderthals, a coexistence that isn't always consistently pleasant. Stable isotope analysis of the human remains suggests that the Neanderthal residents rely primarily on large-bodied herbivores, including woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and, to a lesser degree, reindeer.

Early Cultures IndexAurignacian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.38,000 - 29,000 BC

This Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) culture coincided with the last glaciation. It seems to be safe to assume that in this period Siberia and the sub-Arctic areas of Europe belonged to the same civilisation. The differentiation between Central Asia and neighbouring cultures did not begin until Neolithic times, and was marked by tremendous technical progress and a wide diversification of cultures. Prior to that, the Aurignacian covers all human settlement between Iberia and the Malta site, which is located forty-five kilometres (twenty-eight miles) to the north-west of Irkutsk - and quite possibly even further east than that. It is contemporary with the Baradostian culture of the Middle East.

FeatureThe Aurignacian succeeded the Neanderthal-led Châtelperronian culture. There may be some crossover finds that are assigned there but, essentially, that was the final expression of Neanderthal mastery of Europe. The humans of the Aurignacian displaced Neanderthals, consigning them to a slow extinction in southern Spain. It is the first human culture outside of the Middle East because it saw the first expressions of culture - the creation of artistic figurines and cave paintings, and possibly burials too.

The genetic features of Europeans in the Ice Age have been worked out in greater detail in the past few years by researchers. They have largely concluded that all Europeans are descended (in part) from an early founder population of Aurignacian humans who lived in what is now Belgium some 35,000 years ago (33,000 BC). The researchers further concluded that natural selection has played a role in making the Neanderthal ancestry of modern Europeans less prominent over time (it seems that Neanderthal DNA in Homo sapiens was rather unhelpful, and has been weeded out by nature). Patterns of migration were also revealed, suggesting that these movements were quite intricate, possibly as complex as modern migration patterns.

Analysis of genes carried by Ice Age Europeans shows, among other things, that they had dark complexions and brown eyes. Only after 14,000 years ago did blue eyes begin to spread, and pale skin only appeared across much of the continent after 7,000 years ago - borne by early farmers of the Sesklo culture. The early European populations of the Aurignacian and its immediate successors possessed more Neanderthal ancestry than present-day people, consistent with the idea that much of the DNA that has been inherited from Neanderthals had harmful effects. Scientists think this inheritance was progressively lost via natural selection.

The Aurignacian genetic signature disappeared from a broad sweep of Europe when the Gravettians arrived. The latter displaced them and seemed to replace them entirely. But Aurignacian culture resurfaced 15,000 years later in the 'Red Lady of El Mirón Cave' in northern Spain. This tall, robust woman was a member of the Magdalenian archaeological culture, which expanded northwards from south-western Europe as the ice sheets of the most recent Ice Age melted. In Central Asia the Aurignacian developed into the Mal'ta-Buret' culture, which witnessed the first true technological differences from the cultures of the west.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Makers of the Early Aurignacian of Europe, Steven E Churchill & Fred H Smith (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology Vol 43:61-115 (2000)), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016), and Anthropology.net, and Science, and Smithsonian.com, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

c.38,000 BC

Between this point and about 33,000 BC the Venus of the Hohle Fells is created. Also known as the Venus of Schelklingen, it is the oldest undisputed piece of human art. It is the figurine of a woman, designed primarily as a talisman connected with reproduction. It marks a milestone in human development, an intense flowering of creativity that begins (possibly) in the region of the Hohle Fells in south-western Germany. Within a few thousand years this impulse spreads to Stone Age France and Iberia, where it turns up in paintings of bison, rhinos, and lions on the walls of caves such as Chauvet and Altamira.

The Venus of Hohle
The earliest undisputed human sculpture was designed to be worn as an amulet and is small enough to be enclosed by a fist - it clearly represents a woman, with ballooning breasts and elaborately carved genitalia, whilst head, arms and legs are merely suggested

c.37,000 BC

The latter part of the Interpleniglacial (or Middle Würm glaciation) is marked by the Hengelo/Denekamp temperate period between 37,000-27,000 BC. It is during this relatively warm and wet interval that the Mousterian culture and Neanderthals disappear, Initial Upper Palaeolithic (IUP) cultures proliferate and then also disappear, and the Aurignacian/Baradostian cultures emerge. Modern humans now enter Europe from the Middle East and become established there.

c.35,000 BC

FeatureA reconstructed cranium - known as Oase 2 - originates in Pestera cu Oase, in western Romania from this time. Whilst undeniably a Homo sapiens specimen, it has some traits that are normally associated with more ancient species of human. The fossil may suggest that the first modern humans to enter Europe continue to evolve after they settle, but may instead may be due to interbreeding between H Sapiens and Neanderthals.

c.34,000 BC

A 2014 study is based on ancient DNA that has been extracted from the fossilised skeleton, Kostenki 14 (abbreviated to K-14). This is a short, dark-featured man of around the middle Aurignacian culture who dies around this time on the middle River Don, at Kostenki-Borshchevo (in Russia). His DNA likely includes a large number of errors and gaps, but it is the second-oldest whole human genome to be sequenced at this time.

Aside from his dark features, he also has about one percent more Neanderthal DNA than modern Europeans and Asians. This confirms what another, even older human from Siberia had shown, that humans and Neanderthals mix early, before about 43,000 BC, perhaps in the Middle East. Also, his DNA reveals genes from all three of the migratory groups that make up modern Europe's population - the first wave of hunter-gatherers of the Aurignacian, the Neolithic farmers of the Sesklo, and the Indo-Europeans of the Yamnaya. This means that his ancestors had already intermixed with the same Middle Eastern population that later turns into farmers and itself migrates into Europe, and with the rather shadowy western Asians who leave a DNA fingerprint in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. However, K-14 shares very few of the genetic hallmarks and variants that are associated with East Asian and Native American populations, suggesting that East Asians and Eurasians diverge very early on.

c.30,000 BC

FeatureSix bones from this period are found by archaeologists in the Pestera Muierii cave (which translates as 'The Women's Cave'), Romania. The bones have the diagnostic features of modern humans but they also display features that are characteristic of Neanderthals. Some of these 'archaic' traits may indeed be Neanderthal in origin but they may also be human, passed down through the shared ancestor of both H sapiens and Neanderthals, and now largely but not completely disappearing in H sapiens. In fact, the the evolution of modern humans in Europe is still poorly understood.

Pestera Muierii cave in Romania
The Pestera Muierii cave complex in Romania has yielded a number of highly interesting finds that relate to the earliest period of human habitation in Europe, when small groups of Homo sapiens integrated themselves into Neanderthal hunting territories and out-competed them to the point of the latter's near extinction

c.29,000 BC

The Aurignacian genetic signature disappears from a broad sweep of Europe when the Gravettians arrive. This new culture of humans displaces them and seems to replace them entirely. But Aurignacian culture resurfaces 15,000 years later in the 'Red Lady of El Mirón Cave' in northern Spain - a member of the Magdalenian archaeological culture.

Early Cultures IndexGravettian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.29,000 - 22,000 BC
Incorporating the Pavlovian Culture

An Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) culture, this succeeded the Aurignacian to dominate much of Europe from around 29,000 BC. In fact the Gravettian apparently replaced the Aurignacian almost entirely. The Aurignacian genetic signature disappeared from a broad sweep of Europe once Gravettian groups arrived. However, Aurignacian culture did resurface around 15,000 years later in the 'Red Lady of El Mirón Cave' in northern Spain - a member of the Magdalenian archaeological culture. The Gravettian gained its name from the La Gravette site in France's Dordogne.

Although they carried distinct genetic signatures, the Gravettians and Aurignacians were descended from the same ancient founder population. The Gravettian was characterised by a stone tool industry with small pointed blades being used for big-game hunting, such as bison, horse, reindeer, and mammoth. It is divided into two regional groups: the western Gravettian, mostly known from cave sites in France, and the eastern Gravettian, with sites for mammoth hunters on the plains of central Europe and Russia. The Gravettian people are famous for the many Venus figurines they created, which are widely distributed across Europe and into Siberia where the Mal'ta-Buret' was an Asiatic expression of the Gravettian. Another famous prehistoric discovery of this period are the hand stencils in Cosquer Cave close to Marseilles.

Standing at around 1.82 metres tall (six feet), the Gravettian men of Europe were by far the tallest humans of the prehistoric era. Even today, Europe contains some of the tallest men in the world, along with European-descended former colonies around the world. Findings by researchers have suggested that this impressive stature may be a 'genetic legacy' of the Gravettian people. Their specialisation in hunting big game meat would have left them with a surplus of high-quality proteins, and the low population density of the period created environmental conditions which lead to the selection of exceptionally tall males. The large height of Gravettian men is believed to be linked in part to a group of genes called the Y haplogroup I-M170. Remarkably, despite later populations arriving in Europe - notably the Neolithic farmers of Old Europe and the Indo-Europeans - the inherited tallness of the males of Herzegovina especially has survived. In the end, the widespread Gravettian technological complex was largely displaced in southern France by the Magdalenian cultures.

The Pavlovian culture was an eastern sub-set of the Gravettian which can be placed between 27,000-23,000 BC. It has been found in central and Eastern Europe, with the type site at Pavlov in southern Moravia in the Czech Republic. There, a large settlement of Upper Palaeolithic mammoth-hunters left skeletal remains, hut plans, and numerous art objects. The late Gravettian period, labelled 'Final Gravettian', was generally expressed through the Solutrean culture.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Settlement of the European North: Possible Linguistic Implications, Christian Carpelan, and from External Links: The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016), and People ate mammoth; Dogs got reindeer (Science Daily), and Tallness in Herzegovinian Men (Phys.org).)

28,000 BC

FeatureGravettian people at the Předmostí site in central Europe (now in the Czech Republic, close to Brno) use the bones of more than a thousand mammals to build their settlement, as well as creating incredible ivory sculptures. The meat is used to feed them while reindeer meat is generally saved for local dogs which may or may not be partially domesticated but which are clearly being supported by the humans. Gravettian people are also creating superb figurines by this time, such as the Venus of Willendorf, and other items such as the Hohle Fells phallus (see feature link, right).

Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf is perhaps one of the best known of all the Venus figurines which were created by the people of the Gravettian culture, with this one being produced around 24,000 BC

26,000 BC

FeatureNeanderthals still survive in Europe but in very low numbers by now. Research published in 2006 shows that they have managed to hold on in Europe's far south long after the arrival of Homo sapiens. Communities exist on Gibraltar, possibly the very last of their kind as they have already vanished from the Middle East. Ancient hearths deep inside Gorham's Cave on Gibraltar include datable charcoal. The earliest samples date to 31,000 BC, while the youngest date to 22,000 BC. But evidence for a presence around 22,000 BC is limited, so researchers can only say with confidence that Neanderthals live in the cave until 26,000 BC.

22,000 BC

The third oldest-discovered Homo sapiens genome (by 2016) comes from a boy who dies around this time, near the Siberian village of Mal'ta. Generally part of the Gravettian, this boy also belongs to the more regionally-specific Mal'ta-Buret' culture of Siberia.

FeatureAround the same time, a sharp freeze could be responsible for dealing the dwindling Neanderthal populations in Europe a killer blow that finishes them off. A climate downturn may cause a drought, placing pressure on the last surviving Neanderthals by reducing their supplies of fresh water and killing off the animals they hunt. The cause of this chill may be cyclical changes in the Earth's position relative to the sun - so-called Milankovitch cycles. The resultant cold event seems to be pretty severe and also quite short.

Early Cultures IndexSolutrean Culture (Upper Palaeolithic)
c.22,000 - 17,000 BC

This Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) European culture is sometimes also labelled Epipalaeolithic, a terms sometimes used amongst archaeologists and scholars for Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) sites that are located outside Europe. Also labelled an industry instead of a culture in its own right, it appeared as an advanced form of the late Gravettian culture (labelled the 'Final Gravettian'). It was named for its type site, the Rock of Solutré, a limestone escarpment which lies eight kilometres to the west of Mâcon in central eastern France.

The tools of the Solutrean employed techniques that had not been seen before and which apparently were not discovered by other groups (or rediscovered) for millennia. They exhibit finely worked, bifacial points which were produced with lithic reduction percussion and pressure flaking rather than the cruder flint-knapping method. Knapping was carried out using antler batons, hardwood batons, and soft stone hammers. This method allowed delicate slivers of flint to produce lightweight projectiles and even elaborate barbed and tanged arrowheads. In time the culture was replaced by the Magdalenian.

The Solutrean hypothesis puts forward the idea that it was people of this culture who migrated to North America from Europe. It suggests that they did so by travelling by boat, following the edges of the pack ice across the North Atlantic Ocean. This is not in opposition to the general view that the Americas were populated from Asia via the Bering Straits but is instead a further route of ingress. The Solutrean people would have brought with them their methods of making stone tools, providing the basis for the later Clovis technology which spread throughout North America. The hypothesis was suggested by comparing Solutrean and Clovis lithic (stone) technologies. Originally proposed in the 1970s, the theory still has some support, although its detractors point out the large gap between the two cultures and the lack of European DNA in indigenous North American populations. It is also seen as being a tool of white nationalists who wish to devalue Native American claims to be the continent's indigenous people, and is further discredited due to this association.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from European Prehistory: A Survey, Suranas Milesaukas (Chapter 4: The Upper Paleolithic, Michael Jochim (Berlin, 2012)), from Does Mitochondrial Haplogroup X Indicate Ancient Trans-Atlantic Migration to the Americas? A Critical Re-Evaluation, Jennifer A Raff & Deborah A Bolnick (PaleoAmerica, 2015), from Solutrian Epoch, Hugh Chisholm (Ed, Encyclopædia Britannica, Cambridge University Press, 1911), and from External Links: Rejecting the Solutrean hypothesis: the first peoples in the Americas were not from Europe, Jennifer Raff (The Guardian), and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

22,000 BC

The Solutrean stone-working technique first appears in the Dordogne region of France. How it gets there is somewhat disputed by scholars. Most of the evidence indicates that it is a regional invention, which would seem to be the most likely explanation. Opposing this are a few scholars who attribute its swift appearance to the arrival of a new people and its equally swift disappearance to destruction of the Solutrean people by another newly-arrived group. How these new arrivals are able to cross much of Europe before leaving any sign of their new industry is not explained.

The Solutrean can be sub-divided into three periods: early, middle, and late. In the early period, unifacial points (flaked on only one side) are common. Evidence exists to show the use of ornamentation, with bracelets, bead necklaces, pendants, bone pins, and coloured pigments all likely to be used for personal adornment. Stone friezes, bas-reliefs, and paintings on stone plaques and cave walls are known. Even the stone that is to be used for tool-making is chosen for its beauty, including coloured quartz and jasper flints.

Solutrean tools
Solutrean stone tools exhibit finely worked, bifacial points which were produced with lithic reduction percussion and pressure flaking rather than the more crude flint-knapping method (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 3.0 Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Unported

Early Cultures IndexBell Beaker Culture (Europe) (Chalcolithic Age / Bronze Age)
c.2800 - 1800 BC

The Bell Beaker started out as an horizon 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.

Bell Beaker society expanded to cover all of Iberia, reaching most of modern Germany when it met the newly-arriving West Indo-European groups which had just migrated into southern Germany and northern Italy as part of the Yamnaya horizon. When they took it up it became a true culture as many of them continued to migrate - into what is now France (excluding the Central Massif) and into the British Isles. Bell Beaker introduced a patriarchal society in which the individual warrior-chieftain became the most important and powerful figure. This governing structure had been a key feature of the later Indo-European cultures during their time on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, so it seems that they retained it here, adding it to their version of Bell Beaker. This reinvigorated culture replaced the existing Mesolithic egalitarian societies that it met, perhaps most notably the people who built the earlier stages of Stonehenge in ancient Britain.

There is still a good deal of debate about just what propelled the expansion of the Bell Beaker culture, but the view outlined above is certainly a favourite. 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, excluding migration as an important mechanism of spread between these two regions and therefore classifying this first stage as an horizon, which doesn't require physical migration. However, migration was found to have had a key role in the further dissemination of the Beaker complex, most clearly in Britain, where the spread of the Beaker complex introduced high levels of steppe-related ancestry and was associated with the replacement of approximately ninety percent of Britain's gene pool within a few hundred years, continuing the east-to-west expansion that had brought steppe-related ancestry into central and northern Europe over the previous centuries.

This replacement of much of the Neolithic population by one with a steppe-related ancestry also changed the language. The previous language may plausibly have been related to Basque, and possibly even Kvenish, the remnants of a European-wide post-ice age language which had been shared across southern Europe while its speakers were sheltering from the worst of the ice. This new language seems most likely to have been of a Q-Italic type, similar in many respects to that spoken by the Latins of Italy. When the Bell Beaker folk carried on migrating westwards after reaching central Europe, the Latins and other Proto-Italics stopped and developed in a different direction. What seems to have been a later migratory Indo-European group speaking Q-Celtic joined these proto-Italics to become the Proto-Celts. By around 1200 BC the first Q-Celtic speakers were arriving in Britain, and they may well have been able to comprehend much of what the descendants of the Bell Beaker folk were saying.

(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 Link: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature).)

2800 - 2000 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. 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 Bell Beaker horizon. They do so enthusiastically, turning it into a true culture, and they continue their migration westwards into France while others of their number remain in northern Italy as the Proto-Italics. As Bell Beaker is also introduced into northern Italy, it must be through these proto-Italic people.

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

c.2700 - 2500 BC

The Beaker culture begins to arrive in Britain in this period, intermingling fairly peacefully with the existing Neolithic culture and adopting its henges. The Beaker folk bring new burial practices with them so that Neolithic long barrows or cairns are replaced by smaller barrows or tumuli. They also bring new metalworking techniques with them, in copper and gold, heralding the start of the Chalcolithic age.

from c.2500 BC

Central Europe's Bronze age (2500-900 BC), which flourishes around 1700 BC, marks the approximate beginning of the Unetice culture (which emerges out of the Beaker group). This is found on both sides of the Elbe and northwards to the Baltic Sea in what is today the Czech Republic, western Poland and Germany. It represents a fusion of the Corded Ware and Beaker traditions and is considered by many to be Proto-Celtic.

It is this Unetice group which introduces bronze objects into the region and makes prestigious objects mainly for the elite of the area and mainly as status symbols. Many of these bronze objects end up as votive offerings in bogs. It is not clear whether these people are ancestors of the eastern Hallstatt and La Tène Celts, but they may be cousins, and may also lay the grounds for a later possible presence of Belgae in the northern central European region.

One of the better-documented sites of this period is Auvernier on Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. Radiocarbon and dendochronological dates suggest two occupations, in 2350 BC and 1950 BC (Suess and Strahm, 1970). There are remarkable similarities between sites in France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and Italy (particularly around Lake Garda) at this time which shows extensive contact between the trans-Alpine and southern Alpine areas.

2200 - 1800 BC

Bell Beaker culture gradually fades in mainland Europe as it is replaced by successor cultures. In Italy this could be by the Terramare culture. 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

c.1200 BC

MapBell Beaker culture in Britain is disrupted, possibly by the arrival of Q-Celtic-speaking Proto-Celtic settlers during a period of intense disruption that is taking place as far afield as the Middle East, where the collapse of the Hittite empire is a major act in a century of turmoil. Although many Bell Beaker people will remain where they are and accept their new Celtic overlords, some will migrate westwards to avoid them, or are already in the west. Here they remain safe from Celtic domination for much longer, and when that domination finally comes, it may only be through the imposition of a warrior elite.