A Summary of European Pre-History
If we look at Europe at around 6000 bc, we find several cultural
groupings. Although we will never know what languages they spoke, we
might make a few guesses:
- In Greece, we find the earliest Neolithic culture in Europe,
called the Sesklo culture. This culture probably derived from
similar ancient cultures in Anatolia, and in turn influenced
the Balkan cultures and possibly the Cardium Pottery culture as well.
The Sesklo people probably spoke an "Aegean" language, none of
which survive, but which may have included Minoan and
- In Epirus and Corfu (northwestern Greece, southern Albania)
was the Cardium Pottery culture, which reached Italy by 6000
bc. It probably originated in the Levant, but
skipped over Crete and Greece and left the rest of the Balkans
untouched. It is possible that this culture was adopted by the
non-Proto-Indo-European people who would eventually become the
- In western Europe, most particularly in what is now France, was
the ancient Tardenosian culture. It is possible that these people
included the ancestors of the Aquitanians and the modern Basques.
- In northwestern Russia was the Kunda culture, which may
have been a proto-Uralic people.
- In southern Russia, there was the Samara culture. Although many
believe this was home to proto-Indo-Europeans, it may have been
home to another people altogether, perhaps proto-Uralic or a mixture of peoples, as is not uncommon in
- In the Balkans, there was a cluster of cultural groups that were
fairly advanced, including the Starçevo-Körös-Cris culture in Dacia
and Karanova culture in Thrace. These were followed by the
Vinça-Turdas in Dacia and the Hamangia in Thrace. Following Igor M. Diakonov, I believe
these represent the core of the neolithic Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE)
- And to the north, in parts of Germany, Poland, Czechia,
Slovakia, and Hungary, there were hunter-gatherer tribes who were either PIE or pre-PIE. Similar people inhabited the
By 5000 bc, the PIE people of the Balkans, benefiting from the
farming techniques learned from the people of Greece and Anatolia,
began to expand their range. Farming permitted larger collections of
people in villages, and in turn could support larger populations
overall. The hunter-gatherers of Europe were probably pushed
further east, west, and north, or absorbed by the PIE farmers.
Conflicts between bands and tribes were also likely.
Around 4000 bc, we see the following cultures:
- In the Ukraine, there was the Dnieper-Donets culture, which may
have included the ancestors of the Indo-Iranians,
the Hittites, and the Tokharians.
- In the north, there was the Ertebolle culture of southern
Scandinavia, and the related Ellerbek and Swifterbant cultures
in northern Germany and the Netherlands respectively. These
cultures may represent the earliest ancestors of the Germanic
people, or non-PIE hunter-gatherers later absorbed or displaced.
- In the eastern Baltic area was the Narva culture, which
was likely proto-Uralic.
- In central Europe were the Danubian cultures, starting
with the Linear Pottery culture (or LBK). We also find the
Eastern LBK (or Bükk) culture in Hungary. And there was the
Rössen culture from the Netherlands and western Germany south to
north-eastern France, Switzerland, and western Austria. I
believe that these all represent the proto-Celtic people, beginning to differentiate themselves from the broader PIE collection of dialect.
- And we see a Stroked Pottery culture (STK) in eastern Germany,
much of Poland, and northern Czechoslovakia, which may have included
the earliest ancestors of the Balto-Slavic people and, possibly, the Germanic people as well.
- In the Balkans, we find the sophisticated Vinça-Turdas and
Hamangia cultures mentioned above.
Around 3000 bc, we see the following cultures develop:
- Along the Atlantic coast, from England down to Portugal, were the Megalithic cultures, creators of giant stone edifices
such as Stonehenge. These are still likely pre-PIE, including
the ancestors of the Aquitanians and the Basques.
- In the Ukraine, there was the Sredny Stog culture. These people
may have been the first horse breeders. By 3600, they were
replaced by the Yamna (or Pit Grave) culture, a cattle-herding
culture which may represent the first signs of the
proto-Indo-Iranians. The proto-Tokharians apparently moved further
east, where they would create the Afansevo culture by 3300.
- In the north-east (northern Russia, northern Scandinavia,
Finland), there developed the Pit-Comb Ceramics culture, which is
- West of this culture was the Funnelbeaker culture (TRB), the
first farming culture of northern Europe, ranging from the
Netherlands, to Poland, which likely encompassed both the proto-Germanic and
- In central and western Europe, the Danubian culture continued,
especially the Michelsberg culture of southern Germany and
northern France , which were likely proto-Celtic, and the
Globular Amphora culture of eastern Germany and Hungary, which
may be an indication of an early proto-Balto-Slavic presence.
- In the Balkans were the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture in
Moldova and western Ukraine, and the Varna culture in Bulgaria.
We also see the Boian (or Marita) culture in Romania, which was
an extension of the Danubian culture. By 3500, the Balkan Bronze
Age begins. Some portion of these may have been ancestors of
- Towards the end of this millenium, the Cycladic civilization
developed on the Greek islands. It likely represented a pre-PIE
- Finally, in this time period, we assume that the Hittites and
their relations have at least begun to split from the rest of
the PIE languages. Guesses vary as to where they originated:
Thrace, the Ukraine, or the Caucasus. Perhaps the best guess is
that they originated in the Maykop culture of the north-west
Caucasus, south of the Yamna culture.
Following 2000 bc, the following cultures evolved:
- The Minoan civilization developed in Crete. This culture
was probably Aegean and not PIE.
- The Poltavka culture, an offshoot of the Yamna, moved east
into southern Russia. This was probably a proto-Indo-Iranian
- The Corded Ware (or Battle Ax) culture took over northern
Europe. This culture likely represented the proto-Germanic and
proto-Balto-Slavic speaking peoples.
- The Windmill culture entered eastern Britain, probably the
first infiltration of the proto-Celts into the British Isles.
- On the continent, we see expansion of the Bell-Beaker culture.
This culture originated in Portugal and moved northward along
two paths. One was into southern France, up the Loire River
valley, to Germany and Austria. The other was along the Atlantic
coast of France, up to the lower Rhine River valley and across
the Channel to England and Ireland. This may have been a non-PIE
cultural innovation that was adopted by the proto-Celts.
- The Hittites and their relations entered Anatolia. The Hittite
Empire controlled most of Anatolia from 1650 to 1200 bc.
- The Sintashta culture of the southern Urals area was likely
Indo-Iranian, and the home of the earliest known chariots. It was
followed by the Andronovo culture in 1800. The Indic and Iranian
languages began to split and, around 1500, Vedic Sanskrit began
in northwestern India.
- At the same time, the Srubna culture of the Ukraine and
southern Russia - possibly Cimmerian - retreated under pressure
from the Indo-Iranian Scyths.
- The Mycenaean civilization of mainland Greece began around
1600 bc. This is believed to be proto-Greek.
- Also around 1800 was the beginning of the Nordic Bronze age -
clearly proto-Germanic. Contact or mixing with Celtic tribes may have been the source of some of the distinctive qualities of Germanic, relative to its relations among the Balto-Slavic group.
- And also at this time the first proto-Italic tribes crossed into
Italy, either via the northeast or across the Adriatic, and
developed the Terramare culture.
- By 1600, the Tumulus culture developed in southern Germany and
spread across western Europe, from Britain to Iberia. This culture,
again, represents the Celts.
- The Trzciniec culture developed in eastern Germany, Poland, and
Belarus, and the Baltic and Slavic languages began to
- Around 1300, the Urnfield culture developed. Clearly Celtic, it
ranged from Austria, through Germany and the Netherlands, to
eastern and southern France, and Catalonia. It would be succeeded
by the Halstatt culture.
- Also at this time, the Lusatian culture flourished in Poland,
Czechia, Slovakia, and parts of Germany and the Ukraine. It was
most likely Slavic.
- In 1100, the Villanovan culture, a branch of the Urnfield
culture and the first Iron Age culture of Italy, developed. It may have been passed from the Celts of Austria to the non-PIE Raeti and then on to their Etruscan relatives. Its
range was nearly identical to the home of the Etruscans.
- The Balkan Iron Age began around 1100, and we see several
"Paleobalkan" Indo-European languages differentiated. Venetic and Liburnian were
possible relatives of Italic. Illyrian and its relative
Messapian across the Adriatic were also possible relatives of
Italic. Daco-Thracian (and possibly Mysian) were Satem languages,
probably akin to Balto-Slavic. Experts disagree as to whether
modern Albanian is a descendant of Illyrian or Daco-Thracian.
Macedonian, Phrygian, and possibly Armenian may be related to
- Around 1200 bc, in Greece, we see the Homeric (or "Dark") Age,
presumably due to the invasion of the Dorian Greeks from the
- The Medes, Parthians, and Persians began to move into the
Iranian plateau from around 800 bc.
The relationships among culture, language, and genetics are not
terribly strong. I believe that groups of people picked up
technologies from other groups without reservations, and probably
weren't too hesitant to try out new stylistic changes either.
Language is not so easily shared, but the constant exchange of
spouses (predominantly women) among bands and tribes probably lead
at least to changes in language, if not straight-forward adoption.
And genetics is susceptible to a variety of influences such as the
founder effect, bottlenecks, genetic drift, and sexual selection,
that can easily lead to a detachment of genetic heritage from
cultural or linguistic heritage.
There are many theories about the evolution of language in Europe:
- The most common one (focused on the proto-Indo-European
languages which today dominate the continent) suggests that
there was a multitude of languages in Europe after the ice age
(say 8000 bc), which was then overwhelmed by powerful
militaristic PIE tribes from the steppes of the Ukraine and
southern Russia. This is Marija Gimbuta's Kurgan theory.
- A second major theory suggests that the PIE languages
originated in Anatolia, then expanded to the Balkans, and spread
with the spread of farming into the rest of Europe. This is
Colin Renfrew's Anatolian theory.
- A less-accepted theory holds that the PIE languages have
dominated much of Europe continuously from the end of the ice
age on. This is Mario Alinei's Paleolithic Continuity theory.
- And another less-accepted theory says that Europe was divided
into three linguistic areas - the ancestors of the Basques, the
Uralic languages, and the PIE languages - which each expanded
from three "refuges" - Spain, the Ukraine, and the Balkans,
respectively. This is Kalevi Wiik's Refuges theory.
My theory (admittedly that of an amateur!) is that all of these
are, in part, correct. I suggest that there were actually five
linguistic areas at the end of the ice age: the Atlantic area
(Spain, Portugal, France), the area of the Cardial pottery (from the east coast of the Adriatic, into Italy, and on to the Mediterranean coasts of France and Catalonia), the Aegean area (Greece,
Crete, Cyprus, and much of Anatolia), the Proto-Uralic area (Finland, the Baltic area,
and northern Russia), and the PIE area (central Europe, from the
Balkans to Denmark, and the Ukraine).
The PIE people were among the earliest to domesticate the horse,
adopt farming from the Middle-East, and adopt metal-working. The
combination of these probably allowed them to expand,
demographically and culturally, at the expense of the other
As far as genetics is concerned, there is some overlap between
these linguistic and cultural areas and modern yDNA:
mtDNA in Europe shows rather little in the way of
clustering. Unfortunately, what little is known about ancient DNA
suggests that early Europeans didn't really have that much in
common with modern Europeans!
- The Atlantic
area is predominantly R1b;
- Mediterranean Europe was originally predominantly G, still common in the Caucasus and Sardinia;
- The Cardial area may have begun with
the E haplogroup in northern Greece and southern Albania, and may
have originated in the area around Lebanon;
- The Aegean area is J2
(common in much of the Middle East, including the Caucasus and
- The proto-Uralic is mostly N;
- And the PIE area is
composed of I2 in the Balkans, I1 in Scandinavia, and R1a in
Turning to general physical characteristics, the ancient people of
the Mediterranean, who represented themselves as having
predominantly light brown skin, dark hair, and dark eyes,
repeatedly comment on the pale skin, blond and red hair, and blue
eyes of their northern neighbors. But before anyone is tempted by
theories of an "Aryan" people, these qualities are common among
most of the European yDNA haplogroups, i.e. go well beyond any hypothetical
range of PIE tribes. None are carried by the Y chromosome (nor in
© 2013, C. George Boeree