Physical Anthropology

An Overview of Prehistoric Europe

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"An Overview of Prehistoric Europe"
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Prehistoric Europe is an enormous subject encompassing such a large period of time and several different cultures. I am going to break it down to Pre- Pleistocene, the Paleolithic, the Neolithic, the Chalcolithic ,the Bronze Age & the Iron Age.


A number of Pre-Pleistocene climate records exhibit significant fluctuations in global ice volume, this led to a change in sea levels and in a nut shell caused the continents into the configuration we are familiar with today. Therefore Europe completely broke away from North America and attached itself to Asia.


This era saw Homo erectus arrive in Europe, it is generally believed that these people originated in Africa before making their way north and into Europe. By the end of the Paleolithic period the Homo erectus had evolved into Homo sapiens or Neanderthal man. The Paleolithic period shows evidence that Neanderthal man used caves as a form of shelter and the first signs of art we have is from this era. The Lascaux cave is probably the most famous example of Paleolithic cave art.

During this era, small groups of people lived together and survived by scavenging, hunting & fishing. There is evidence of the use of crudely made tools fashioned with stone and also bones. There has been evidence that they used needles fashioned from bone to sew, fashioning clothes from animal skins. There is even evidence that they made crude musical instruments from bird bones.


During this period people still used tools made from stones, but they moved from caves into huts. Although in some area's people still lived in small groups in other parts of Europe larger communities existed, largely based on families. The remains of Europe's most complete Neolithic village can be found at Skara Brae in Orkney (Scotland).

There was also a shift away from hunting and gathering and towards the beginnings of agriculture. Although no one is really sure why the change occurred there is evidence that they grew crops of wheat & barley and that they kept livestock. Man's best friend, the dog, was also first domesticated during the so called Neolithic Revolution.

This era is also responsible for the impressive stone monuments such as Stonehenge and the Tarxien Temple in Malta. On a smaller scale we see hand made pottery emerging.


The Chalcolithic period was also known as the Copper Age. It is from this era that we have evidence of the first known monarchies in the Balkan region of Europe. An economic change was taking place and there is evidence that trade started with the mining and processing of metals and stone taking place in some parts of Europe. Copper started to be used in this period, which is where the Copper Age nametag comes from, and it is believed that the use of this metal began in the Balkans.

Horses also started to be used as a form of transport, allowing greater movement in this era. This helped to spread the Neolithic agricultural methods to spread to the more under-developed areas of Europe.

This period also sees the emergence of large towns with stone walls; two large ones are in the Portuguese region of Estremadura and the Spanish area of Almeria. There is evidence of a number of different cultures residing in Europe, but on the whole they seemed to get on well and trade with each other.

The Neolithic era saw them bury their dead in stone lined communal graves, during the Chalcolithic era the catacomb culture made its way to Europe.

The Bronze Age

Carrying on with the burial theme of the above paragraph, the burial process evolved further with the Bronze Age and developed into individual graves. People were also buried with goods that they would need to take with them into their next life. This in itself shows something about their beliefs.

Trade continued to exist across Europe and we start to see a class system begin to emerge. The class system is very evident by the articles buried with different people.

The use of animal skins as clothing gradually gave way to woolen garments.

Huge advances in metal work were made during this period with evidence of smelting and alloying copper and tin together to form Bronze, hence the Bronze Age. Sheet metal workmanship was progressing and we start to see the production of larger objects such as shields and cauldrons. They also developed mold systems which allowed them to mass produce and also to produce much more elaborate things.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age we see the development of the Warrior with armour, shields and swords developed honing their metal workmanship. We have also discovered more fortified settlements around this time suggesting that warfare was occurring. There were also fortified sites set up at strategic places, a good example is the site at Spissky Stvrtok in Slovakia which was set up to control trade routes along the Hornad River and through a mountain pass in the Carpathians.

The development of the warrior and the formulization of aggression led to opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop power holds leading into the Iron Age.

The Iron Age

The technological advances of this era were centered around the use of iron, hence the Iron Age. Coinage was also introduced during this period as was wheel thrown pottery.

During this era the practice of human sacrifice seems to have taken place, there is evidence of this at several pre-historic burial sites throughout Europe with bodies found in England, Denmark, Russia, Czech Republic and Italy all suggesting this, although as with a lot of things from this era there is hot debate about this topic. Alternative theories being that mass burials occurred due to an outbreak of disease or that it was a result of cannibalism in the case of Southern Russia.

This era saw the rise of the consolidation of power between regions and the beginning of the rise in foundation of empires. The Celts played a big role, they also practiced Druidism, which laid the foundations for the Catholic Church of the future. The Phonecians also founded their first colony, initially as a merchant outpost for trade. The Greeks also started forming their empire. Eventually the Roman Empire was formed which brought an end to the Iron Age.

In the graves of Iron Age chieftains there have been a lot of feasting and drinking equipment found which seems to indicate that large feasts took place accompanied by vast quantities of alcohol. Feasting equipment found in Iron Age burial sites around Europe show a range of equipment from cauldrons, pitchers and single serving cups to ladles and even sieves. The two types of alcohol drunk during the Iron Age in Europe were beer and mead.

Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Brittanica, British Archaeology Magazine, Prehistoric Europe by Tim Lambert, Sci-Tech Today Magazine, Tigertail Virtual Museum

More about this author: Louanne Cox

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