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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Early Cultures IndexEarly Northern 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 one 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, Europe can be divided up into increasingly smaller regions, starting with the north/south divide used 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 IndexSauveterrian Culture (Epi-Palaeolithic / Upper Mesolithic)
c.8500 - 6500 BC

This Epi-Palaeolithic (Late Palaeolithic) culture succeeded the Magdalenian in northern France and across into Central Europe. The Azilian had formed in Southern Europe as a simplified form of the Magdalenian during a period in which food was more scarce and there was less time available for exploring the expanding boundaries of art and early religion. Alongside it, in the north, the Magdalenian continued to evolve into more than one regional type, including the Hamburg and Sauveterrian cultures, the latter of which began to push down into Azilian territories.

The Sauveterrian was at first identified and described in southern France during the 1920s. Following the discovery of similar lithic assemblages in north-eastern Italy (in the Adige Valley), during the 1970s it was proposed that this culture had developed over a large territory whose central areas are represented by southern France and northern Italy. The presumed uniformity of this complex was based, in particular, on the presence in both regions of needle-like backed points (Sauveterre points) and triangular microliths. Within the context of the important environmental changes that characterised the Late Glacial and Early Holocene periods, Sauveterrian technology was fundamental in allowing the development of a complex settlement structure, one which was characterised by a mobility system that was based on relatively short distances and with a strong logistic component.

In time the Sauveterrian came to exhibit - or archaeology came to realise it was exhibiting - two styles or technical variations which can be characterised as western ('Sauveterrien') and eastern ('Sauveterriano'). There was also a 'British Sauveterrian' which existed in the west of England, with those industries that exhibited the clearest affinities with the continental Sauveterrian occurring there and in Wales. Strangely no examples have been identified in southern and eastern England, making its appearance farther west a bit of a mystery. Other minor regional cultures existed simultaneously across the south so it is possible that its entry point has been masked.

In time the Azilian, weak as it already was, came to be influenced by the Sauveterrian - and then dominated by it in the Iberian peninsula. The Sauveterrian itself was succeeded across most of France and western Central Europe by the Tardenoisian, although the relationship between the two is open to interpretation.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Préhistoire de France, F Bourdier (Paris, 1967), from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Moravia, Martin Oliva (Moravian Museum, 2005), from Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds, A W R Whittle (Cambridge University Press, 1996), from The Origins of European Thought, R B Onians (Cambridge University Press, 1988), from Sauveterrian hunter-gatherers in Northern Italy and Southern France, Davide Visentin (Doctoral thesis, Università degli Studi di Ferrara & Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès, 2014/2016), and from External Links: Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and Technological continuity and discontinuity in the Romagnano Loc III rock shelter (NE Italy) Mesolithic series, Federica Fontana, Elisabetta Flor, & Rossella Duches (ResearchGate).)

c.8000 BC

The first human occupants of the post-glacial Northern European plains - especially those of the Ahrensburg and Hamburg cultures - had continued late-glacial hunting adaptations that focussed on reindeer and elk. The later North European groups, such as those of the Maglemosian, had increasingly focused their efforts on red deer, wild cattle, and marine mammals.

Sauveterrian tools
A selection of two cores from the Sauveterrian sequence of Romagnano Loc III (Italy), both showing on-edge exploitation

Cultures in the temperate forests of Europe, such as the Azilian, Tardenoisian, Sauveterrian, and Montadian, furnish evidence of the deliberate and organised exploitation of forest resources and at a much improved and more intensive rate than ever before. Harvested resources include acorns, hazelnuts, wild cattle, boar, fallow deer, red deer, and ibex. Sauveterrian assemblages are generally thought to post-date the Maglemosian culture, or to be contemporary with the later Maglemosian.