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 influence the
Balkan cultures and, possibly, the Cardium Pottery culture. The
Sesklo people probably spoke an "Aegean" language, none of which
survive, but which may have included Minoan and Eteocretan.
- In Epirus and Corfu (northwestern Greece, southern Albania),
we find the Cardium Pottery culture, which reaches Italy by 6000
bc. It probably originated in the eastern Mediterranean, but
skips over Crete and Greece and leaves 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, is
the ancient Tardenosian culture. It is possible that these
include the ancestors of the Aquitanians and the modern Basques.
- In northwestern Russia, we have the Kunda culture, which may
have been a proto-Uralic people.
- In southern Russia, we find 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
proto-Turkic, or even a mixture of people, as is not uncommon in
- In the Balkans, there is a cluster of cultural groups that are
fairly advanced. They include the Starčevo-Körös-Cris in Dacia
and Karanova culture in Thrace. These are followed by the
Vinča-Turdas in Dacia and the Hamangia in Thrace. I believe
these represent the core of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE)
- And to the north, in parts of Germany, Poland, Czechia,
Slovakia, and Hungary, there were less developed tribes who were
also probably proto-Indo-European. 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 both pushed
further east, west, and north, or absorbed by the PIE farmers.
Conflicts between bands and tribes are also likely.
Around 4000 bc, we see the following cultures:
- In the Ukraine, there is the Dnieper-Donets culture, which may
have included the ancestors of the Indo-Iranians and possibly
the Hittites and Tokharians.
- In the north, there is 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
- In the eastern Baltic area, we have the Narva culture, which
is likely proto-Uralic.
- In central Europe, we have the Danubian cultures, starting
with the Linear Pottery culture (or LBK). We also find the
Eastern LBK (or Bükk) culture in Hungary. And there is 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.
- And we see a Stroked Pottery culture (STK) in eastern Germany,
much of Poland, and northern Czechoslovakia, which may include
the earliest ancestors of the Balto-Slavic people.
- In the Balkans, we find the sophisticated Vinča-Turdas and
Hamangia cultures mentioned above.
Around 3000 bc, we see the following cultures develop:
- Along the Atlantic coast, from England down to Portugal, we
see 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 is 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 Tokharians apparently moved further
east, where they would create the Afansevo culture by 3300.
- In the north-east (northern Russia, northern Scandinavia,
Finland), there develops the Pit-Comb Ceramics culture, which is
- West of this culture is the Funnelbeaker culture (TRB), the
first farming culture of northern Europe, ranging from the
Netherlands, to Poland, encompassing both proto-Germanic and
- In central and western Europe, the Danubian culture continues,
especially the Michelsberg culture of southern Germany and
northern France , which are 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, we have 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 is
an extension of the Danubian culture. By 3500, the Balkan Bronze
Age begins. Some portion of these are likely the ancestors of
- 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 evolve:
- The Minoan civilization develops in Crete. This culture
is probably not PIE.
- The Poltavka culture, an offshoot of the Yamna, moves east
into southern Russia. This is probably a proto-Indo-Iranian
- The Corded Ware (or Battle Ax) culture takes over northern
Europe. This culture likely represents the proto-Germanic and
proto-Balto-Slavic speaking peoples.
- The Windmill culture enters 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 originates in Portugal and moves northward along
two paths. One is into southern France, up the Loire River
valley, to Germany and Austria. The other is 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 enter Anatolia. The Hittite
Empire controls most of Anatolia from 1650 to 1200.
- The Sintashta culture of the southern Urals area is likely
Indo-Iranian, and the home of the earliest known chariots. It is
followed by the Andronovo culture in 1800. The Indic and Iranian
languages begin to split and, around 1500, Vedic Sanskrit begins
in northwestern India.
- At the same time, the Srubna culture of the Ukraine and
southern Russia - possibly Cimmerian - retreats under pressure
from the Indo-Iranian Scyths.
- The Mycenaean civilization of mainland Greece begins around
1600 bc. This is believed to be proto-Greek.
- Also around 1800 is the beginning of the Nordic Bronze age -
- And also at this time the first proto-Italic tribes cross into
Italy, either via the northeast or across the Adriatic, and
develop the Terramare culture.
- By 1600, the Tumulus culture develops in southern Germany and
spreads across western Europe, from Britain to Iberia. This,
again, represents the Celts.
- The Trzciniec culture develops in eastern Germany, Poland, and
Belarus, and the Baltic and Slavic languages begin to
- Around 1300, the Urnfield culture develops. Clearly Celtic, it
ranges from Austria, through Germany and the Netherlands, to
eastern and southern France, and Catalonia. It will be succeeded
by the Halstatt culture.
- Also at this time, the Lusatian culture flourishes in Poland,
Czechia, Slovakia, and parts of Germany and the Ukraine. It is
- In 1100, the Villanovan culture, a branch of the Urnfield
culture and the first Iron Age culture of Italy develops. It's
range is nearly identical to the home of the Etruscans.
- The Balkan Iron Age begins around 1100, and we see several
"Paleobalkan" Indo-European languages. Venetic and Liburnian are
possible relatives of Italic. Illyrian and its relative
Messapian across the Adriatic are also possible relatives of
Italic. Daco-Thracian (and possibly Mysian) are 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 begin 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 (Italy
and the east coast of the Adriatic), the Aegean area (Greece,
Crete, Cyprus), 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 - but not yet Anatolia).
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 areas and modern yDNA: The Atlantic area is
predominantly R1b; the Cardial area is predominantly E1b1b in the
Epirus-Corfu area, and R1b in Italy; the Aegean area is E1b1b
(common in much of the Middle East); the proto-Uralic is mostly N;
and the PIE area is composed of I2 in the Balkans, I1 in
Scandinavia, and R1a in eastern Europe. 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!
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
R1b, I2, I1, N, and R1a yDNA, i.e. go well beyond any hypothetical
range of PIE tribes.
© 2013, C. George Boeree