The word “prehistory” refers to the earliest period of human development, up until the start of recorded events. But since the world evolved differently in terms of its humanity, prehistory starts and ends at different times, in different regions. Europe is no exception to this rule.
This, however, doesn’t mean that humanity hasn’t made many strides in terms of its development prior to the invention of writing, or that they lived only as hunter-gatherers throughout this time. This was never the case, since writing could only evolve in a sedentary society, where work efficiency made it possible for some members to specialize in additional fields, other than gathering or producing food. Today, we’ll be taking a look at Europe throughout its own prehistory and try to see what events took place there in this period of human evolution.
10. Early Humans in Europe
As most of us know, humanity has first evolved on the African continent, with the oldest stone tools found here dating back some 2.5 million years. Then around 200,000 years ago, the first Homo sapiens came into being, and 140,000 years later, they began migrating out of the continent. The earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe dates back to 37,800 years ago in present day southwest Romania, where several human skulls have been found in “The Cave with Bones”, or Pestera cu Oase. These remains indicate that these early people were interbreeding with the Neanderthals already present on the continent. However, it seems that these people left little to no distinctive genetic trace in contemporary Europeans, since they have no more Neanderthal DNA than any other humans who later came onto the continent.
Initially it was believed that the first route through which modern man entered Europe was the Middle East, and then present day Turkey. But more recent evidence seems to point to the actual route being through Russia. Some 36,000 year-old Homo sapiens remains were found in western Russia, which are more genetically related to present day Europeans. Moreover, some stone, bone and ivory tools were unearthed about 250 miles south of Moscow and are dated to around 45,000 years ago. Among these artifacts, there are bone and ivory needles which indicate that these people were able to tailor animal furs, giving them the ability to survive the harsh northern climate. They were also broadening their diet to include small mammals and fish, by using all sorts of traps and snares. All of these gave humans an edge when competing with Neanderthals, who weren’t able to live so far up north.
9. The Neanderthals and Their Habits
Neanderthals were a species (or subspecies) of human that lived throughout much of Europe and western Asia, and that went extinct between 40,000 and 28,000 years ago. It is no coincidence that their disappearance corresponds with modern man’s arrival into the region, as well as the start of a very cold period in the Northern Hemisphere. It is believed that the last members went extinct in southern Spain, being slowly pushed to the edges of the continent. Even if the two species branched off some 600,000 to 400,000 years ago from a common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, with the exception of people from Sub-Saharan Africa, all other modern day humans are a result of a mixing between Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
Archaeological evidence points out that, besides being able to fashion stone tools, Neanderthals also intentionally buried their dead, practiced cave-bear worship, and designed the earliest human building projects ever discovered, dating back 175,000 years within a French cave. More recent discoveries seem to point out that Neanderthals may have also practiced cannibalism, especially in periods of starvation or minimal nutrition. In present day Belgium (Goyet caves) and Spain (El Sidrón cave), Neanderthal remains have been found that show signs of the victims being skinned, cut up, and their bone marrow extracted. Moreover, their bones were then fashioned into all sorts of tools, similar to the many horse and reindeer bones also found there.
Doggerland, or “the British Atlantis” as some like to call it, is the land between modern day England and Denmark, now submerged under the North Sea. As the ice caps melted during the end of the last Great Ice Age around 6300 BC, massive amounts of water steadily poured into the oceans, raising sea levels by 400 feet across the globe. This time in history is also likely the period from which the many Great Flood myths around the world stem. During this time, the British Isles were part of the European mainland, and both humans and Neanderthals roamed across what is now the North Sea. The English Channel was dry land as well, and it is believed to have been a river valley where the Thames, the Rhine, and the Seine all combined to form a huge river system, somewhere between present day Cornwall Peninsula in England and Brittany in France.
Besides the many mammoth fossil occasionally scooped up by fishing boats in the North Sea, there were also some stone tools, a barbed antler point which was possibly used as a harpoon and dated to about 10-12,000 BC, from when Doggerland was a tundra. At one point, a 40,000 year-old Neanderthal skull fragment was brought up, originally located some 10 miles off of the Dutch coast, and the remains of a human settlement off the British coast. As the climate began to warm up, the sea level steadily rose by about 3-6 feet per century, slowly covering the gently sloping hills, swampy lagoons, and heavily wooded lowlands. Slowly but surely, the people living there were becoming trapped on the Dogger Bank, the highest point in the area, and which turned into an island up until about 6000 BC before it, too, flooded completely.
7. The Storegga Slide
In what can only be described as an apocalyptic event of biblical proportions, among the largest ever landslides in history took place not that far back into our own past. Sometime between 8,400 to 7,800 years ago and 60 miles off of the Norwegian coast, a huge chunk of land broke off from Europe’s continental shelf and spread itself over 1,000 miles into the abyssal plain of the Norwegian Sea below. The area covered by this “scar” on the sea floor is about 36,700 square miles and contains some 840 cubic miles of sediment. This would be the equivalent volume of debris roughly the area of Iceland, covered to a depth of 112 feet.
Most likely caused by an earthquake which in turn generated a rapid release of massive amounts of methane hydrates trapped on the ocean floor, it destabilized this large chunk of the headwall to break off and plummet into the depths of the sea. The ensuing tsunami wreaked utter havoc upon all the landmasses surrounding the natural incident. Sediment deposits from this event have been found 50 miles inland in some places, and 20 feet above current tide levels. Keeping in mind that the sea level back then was 46 feet lower than it is today, these waves exceeded 80 feet in height in some places. Present day Scotland, England, Norway, Iceland, the Faroe, Orkney and Shetland Islands, Greenland, Ireland, and the Netherlands were all severely affected by this event. Most affected of all was what remained of Doggerland at that time, which many scientists believe was completely covered in one fell swoop by the Storegga Slide induced tsunami. Anything or anyone alive on the Dogger Bank at that time would have been simply washed out to sea.
Today, companies engaged in petroleum and gas exploration exercise great caution in the region, careful not to trigger another such terrifying event, since this was just one of several other similar, but smaller landslides occurring there between 50,000 and 6,000 years ago.
6. The First Europeans in North America
By now many of us know – or at least believe – that the first Europeans in the Americas weren’t the Spanish, lead by Christopher Columbus at the end of the 15th century, but rather the Vikings lead by Leif Eriksson, some four centuries earlier. Newer evidence, however, points out that not even the Norse were the first Europeans onto the New World, but rather a stone-age people from present day France and northern Spain, known as the Solutreans. It is believed they reached North America sometime around 26,000 years ago, during a period of glaciation, following the Arctic ice that connected the two continents at the time. Most likely on boats, they kept close to the ice and hunted seals and birds, similar to the Inuit people of today.
The first evidence of this theory came in 1970 when a scallop trawler brought up an 8-inch stone blade and a 22,700 year old mastodon tusk and molar 60 miles off of Virginia. What was particularly interesting about this blade is the technique in which it was made, having a striking resemblance to the style used by the Solutrean tribes in Europe. Since then other artifacts have been found in six other sites across the East Coast. The rarity of these finds is attributed to the fact that sea levels were far lower at that time, and stone-age people lived mostly on the coasts, leaving few archeological finds above the surface today.
Though still not completely proven and with many missing gaps, the Solutrean hypothesis is also backed by an 8,000 year-old skeleton found in Florida, whose genetic markers are found only in Europeans, and not Asian populations. Also, some Native American tribes have languages which seem to not be related to Asian-originating American Indian peoples.
5. History of Blue Eyes and Light Skin
Scientists have concluded that blue eyes have originated somewhere north of the Black Sea some 10,000 years ago. Before this occurrence, all humans had brown eyes. The oldest remains of a person with blue eyes date back to 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, and were found in present day northwest Spain, in a cave system near the city of Leon. But while this 30-35 year-old man had blue eyes, as revealed by DNA analysis, he most definitely had a dark skinned complexion, similar to the people living in Sub-Saharan Africa today. Its DNA was compared to other hunter-gatherer burials in Sweden, Finland, and Siberia as well as 35 modern day Europeans. The results show that this Stone Age culture, which spread from Spain to Siberia, and which are also famous for the “Venus” figurines found alongside their bodies, are partly the ancestors of many Europeans today.
Further research conducted on 800 blue-eyed people from all across the world, from Turkey, to Denmark, to Jordan, indicate that this trait can be traced back to a single individual, as compared to brown-eyed people, who cannot. The reason why people in Europe went from no one having blue eyes to 40% in just 10,000 years is still something of a mystery. The best answer so far is that this gene mutation made them have more kids, because they were seen as being more attractive by their peers.
Similar to eye color, skin complexion changed on the European continent, but at a later date. Alongside agriculture, the genes responsible for a lighter skin color came from the Near East, and only about 5,800 years ago did Europeans start to resemble the people living there today. Both of these new traits were an advantage when living at higher latitudes, where sunshine is not as prevalent as in the tropics, allowing for a greater vitamin D intake. While dark skin and brown eyes protect a person from UV radiation thanks to the higher levels of melanin, these become a disadvantage where sunshine is not as prevalent.
4. The Cucuteni-Trypillian Culture and the Wheel
In a period when Europe was comprised of hunter-gatherer tribes and used stone tools to hunt and survive, a civilization located in what are now Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine flourished for a period of some 3,000 years. Sometime between 5500 and 2750 BC, the Cucuteni civilization built some of the largest communities in the world at that time, home to more than 15,000 people, and comprised of some 2,700 structures. Spanning over an area roughly 140,000 square miles, they lived in a sort of confederacy of settlements around 2-4 miles apart, and most likely had a matriarchal society. Just recently Romanian archeologists have discovered a huge, 7,000 year-old temple complex about 10,700 square feet in area, and part of a 62 acre settlement, making it the largest yet unearthed.
The prehistoric society relied heavily on agriculture an animal husbandry, but also practiced regular hunting. Archaeological evidence points to these people being highly skilled pottery, jewelry, and textile craftsmen. Both the swastika and yin-yang symbols appear in their designs 1,000 years before the Indian or Chinese cultures, respectively. About 70% of the European Neolithic heritage, in terms of ceramics, can be traced here. Moreover, many of their structures were two story, and it seems that they had the habit or tradition of burning their entire settlements down every 60 to 80 years, only to rebuild them on the exact same spot, in a sort of cycle of death and rebirth and as a sacrifice to the spirits.
This culture could also be responsible for the invention of the wheel. Even though the oldest wheel ever found dates back to 5,150 years ago, and was discovered in Slovenia, a clay toy resembling a bull on wheels was discovered in Ukraine, appearing to be several centuries older. Though not definitive proof, chances are high that the Cucuteni civilization was the inventor of the wheel. The theory behind their eventual disappearance in now strongly linked to climate change, spelling disaster for an agrarian civilization.
3. Turdas-Vinca culture and the oldest Writing in the World
Both the Turdas-Vinca culture and Cucuteni-Trypillian culture above, among a few others, are collectively known as the Danube Valley Civilization, being so closely linked with the fertile banks of the mighty Danube River. While the Cucuteni civilization was more to the north, Vinca culture spread over what is now Serbia and parts of Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Greece, between 5700 and 3500 BC. Their form of government is still unknown, and it is quite possible that they weren’t politically unified. Regardless, a high degree of cultural uniformity was seen throughout the entire region, facilitated through long distance exchange.
Similar the Cucuteni culture, the Turdas-Vinca was highly advanced for their time, being the first in the world to create copper tools, spin fabrics, and construct furniture. Their heritage, however, is still largely debated, with some believing them to be of Anatolian origin, while others put forward the idea of them developing locally from the preceding Starcevo culture. Whatever the case, it is certain that they boasted an impressive ceramic art form found all throughout their territory, and are quite possibly the inventors of the first written language. Three small tablets were discovered in 1961 in what is now Transylvania in Romania belonging to this culture, which are dated to sometime around 5500 BC. Mesopotamian scholars reject the idea that these tablets and indeed the symbols engraved on them are any form of written language, and insist them being mere decoration.
Many other scholars and linguists don’t share their opinion and believe that the first ever writing in the world originated here, in the Balkans, almost 2,000 years before the Cuneiform script in Sumer. Today, more than 700 characters are known to belong to the Danube script, similar to the number of hieroglyphs used by the Ancient Egyptians. If this theory is accepted, then it would be safe to say that the cradle of civilization would no longer be in Mesopotamia, but in the Balkans.
2. The Varna Man and the Wealthiest Grave in Prehistory
During some excavations during the 1970s, near the port city of Varna in east Bulgaria, archaeologists stumbled upon a vast necropolis dating back to the 5th millennium BC. But when they reached grave no. 43, they realized that they just discovered the largest ever hoard of gold in the world dated to that period. The treasure was comprised of some 3,000 gold artifacts weighing in at a total of 13.3 pounds; more gold artifacts found than in the rest of the world combined up to that point. The site also offers the oldest known burial evidence of an elite male, being the time when male dominance began to appear in Europe. Before this, it was the women and children who received the most elaborate burials.
The Varna civilization, as it became known, went on to prominence between 4600 and 4200 BC, when they started smiting gold, becoming the first civilization to do so. Located on the banks of the Black Sea, and with some extremely valuable materials to trade like gold, copper, and salt, the civilization, and especially the elite, was able to amass wealth very quickly. Archaeological evidence suggests it was highly structured, forming a basis for the first monarchical society, and coming about predominantly with the ever increasing amount of riches unevenly distributed.
Their demise, however, came about in a rather similar way. The ever larger wealth and abundance drew the attention and incursion of horse-riding warriors from the steppes. Evidence of the first man-to-man weapons was also found within these burial sites, confirming the emergence of conflict closely tied to material gains. These, coupled with the climatic changes happening at the time, lead to this culture’s disappearance.
1. Domestication of the Dog
We couldn’t properly end this list without talking about man’s best friend, and when this friendship came into being. So far scientists and archaeologists can confirm that the domestication of the dog took place in different places of the world at once, and from different species of wolf, depending on the region. And while people have domesticated animals for their own betterment, none happened as fast as with the dog. This kind of makes sense given that the domestication of animals came about only with a sedentary lifestyle, while the dog had the advantage of aiding people while hunting during a nomadic lifestyle.
But the really surprising thing here is just how early man was able to domesticate the fierce wolf. Previous estimates based on the oldest dog fossils ever found date back to around 14,000 years ago. But more recently dog fossils have been found in both Belgium and Central Russia, dating back to 33,000 and 36,000 years ago, respectively. This discovery astounded archaeologists, since it placed the domestication of the dog 20,000 years earlier than previously believed.