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Key Events in Prehistoric Europe

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I’ve always believed the history of Europe really begins with prehistory, particularly as we trace the development of humanity through ages of technology and cultural development: not unlike history, but over a longer period. I have started this list with the development of the modern human.  ‘BP’ stands for Before Present, a term used in archaeology and other subjects to measure the past from 1950 CE.

1. c.40,000 – 35,000 BP Modern Humans arrive in Europe

Older forms of humanity, including Neanderthals, are replaced by humans biologically identical to our modern day selves. At the same time a behavioural revolution took place, with a proliferation of new tool making techniques, more prominent use of wood and bone, greater creativity, the first major creation of art and display artefacts and possibly much more involved language. The relationship between these cultural and physical changes, and how either occurred, remains controversial.

2. c.13,000 – 10,000 BP The End of the Last Ice Age Begins

Traces of warming across Europe have been detected from c. 13,000 BP and archaeologists have discovered the peak effects of the changes wrought by the end of the last ice age occurred c. 10,000 BP. Ice sheets retreated, sea levels rose and areas began to flood, especially the regions which connected Britain to the continent. In addition forests began to spread northward and the environment began to change, causing humans to modify their behaviour, especially hunting styles and associated technology. The first cemeteries were created. Population density fell but population grew and humans lived further north. These changes are ushered in the Mesolithic Era.

3. 7000 – 4000 BCE Introduction of Farming / The Neolithic Begins

The switch from predominantly hunter-gathering for subsistence to that of settled, deliberate farming in Europe took three thousand years to cross the whole continent in an era called the Neolithic. These early farming societies formed and spread slowly, starting in the south east and Balkans and only reaching North West Europe in the last thousand years of the period, all while competing with resistant hunters. Wheat, barley and legumes were grown while sheep, goats, cows and pigs were domesticated. Pottery, although present at the end of the Neolithic, became more abundant and decorated. The techniques of farming may have come from the Near East.

4. c.5500 – 5000 BCE Start of the Copper Age

Copper manufacture – and the start of the metal ages – came to Europe in the sixth century BCE, initially in the region of Greece and the Balkans. This development probably took place independently of similar developments in the Near East. Early working produced hooks and pins, but more sophisticated production using moulds and much greater extraction of the ore soon followed. By 3500 copper was still restricted to the south east. Gold was also produced, and both metals were used at first mainly for display items.

5. 3500 – 2500 Early Bronze Age Starts

As the very north and west of Europe still used stone tools, and the middle came to use copper, so the south and east adopted bronze technology by alloying copper and tin. These techniques were probably adopted from the Near East. At the same time the landscape was transformed by stone fortifications, while the quantity of metal produced rose. Olives and other new crops were also introduced.

6. 3000 – 2500 BCE Corded Ware Groups Change Western Culture

As the metal age developed in the south and east, so a revolution took place in the newly cleared forests of north-west Europe: cultures which had focused on megaliths and larger ceremonial groups changed. Named after its ‘corded’ ware – decorated drinking vessels – this culture saw a shift to a new materialism and the use of livestock to represent wealth. Burial was now about showing off the status of the person in life, not about connecting to ancestors. Settlement dispersed, and this culture spread over a large area. Much of the south remained focused on land as wealth, and a split emerged over the continent.

7. 2500 – 1300 BCE The Bronze Age Dominates Europe

The urban societies of the Palace Civilizations may have wrought large cultural changes (see below), but their urbanism remained largely absent from the rest of Europe. Instead the Bronze Age spread during this millennia among farming communities over ever increasing tracts of Europe until only the very north east remained without any bronze production. Bronze – whose production went through several key developments - became a symbol of wealth; tools and weapons were also produced. This, and the spread of the chariot from the east, led to new styles of warfare. Elites, leading many small, loose power blocs, engaged in long range trade.

8. 2000 – 1200 BCE The Palace Civilizations

The first major urban civilizations in Europe formed in Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece. Known as the ‘palace’ civilizations after their large, complex central buildings, these were advanced, literate societies producing a high level of art and other goods, including the earliest known European suit of armour. Minoan culture lasted until around c.1425 BCE, when earthquakes, invasion or some other disaster ruined the hubs and Mycenaean culture took its place and expanded around the Aegean. This was wealthy and comprised of small kingdoms. Mycenaean Greece collapsed between 1200 – 1100, possibly after attacks from a largely unknown enemy, and the region depopulated, going into a non-urban period commonly – if inaccurately - called the ‘Greek Dark Ages’.

9. 1300 – 700 BCE The Urnfield Revolutions

Around 1300 BCE a new style of funerary practice spread across much of Europe: where once corpses had been buried, now they were cremated and their ashes buried in urns, giving rise to the name ‘Urnfield Culture’. Along with this culture came revolutions in farming in the form of new crops; in bronze making in the form of greater production and more advanced techniques like lost wax; in habitation in the form of hill forts and in spirituality in whatever shift prompted the change from burial to cremation.

10. C. 1000 BCE The Iron Age Begins

Iron was harder and could be made sharper than bronze, and the raw material was plentiful across Europe, but was only produced in tiny quantities as an offshoot before 1000 BCE, when a revolution in use occured. The south east increased use and production first, and the Celtic Halstatt culture had it by 700, but by 600 BCE it was widespread across Europe. Culture had to change too as trade and both local and national relationships were altered by new demands in ore.

11. c.800 – c.500 BCE The Start of History

The era of prehistory is said to have come to an end when the era of ‘history’ began; this is currently defined as the start of written accounts of the past. The literate culture of the Greeks, which remerged as a major urban civilization c.800 was the first in Europe to usher in the ‘Classical’ era, before being subsumed by the Romans. Prehistory is thus often said to have ended by c.500, but the first millennia BCE is sometimes called a ‘protohistoric’ age to reflect the mixture of literate and illiterate cultures.

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