Prehistoric Europe - First Europeans

Prehistoric Europe refers to the prehistorical period of Europe, usually taken to refer to human prehistory since the Lower Paleolithic, but in principle also extending to the geological time scale -for which see Geological history of Europe.

From the Lower Paleolithic, approximately 1.8 million years ago, and far into the Upper Paleolithic or 20,000 years ago, Europe was populated by Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. In the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic, from about 43,000 to 6,000 years ago, Europe had Homo sapiens hunter-gatherer populations. During the last glacial maximum, much of Europe was depopulated and re-settled, about 15,000 years ago. The European Neolithic began about 9,000 years ago in southeastern Europe, and reached northern Europe by about 5,000 years ago.

The forerunner to the Bronze age was the Chalcolithic or Copper age; an archaeological site in Serbia contains the worlds oldest securely dated evidence of copper making at high temperature, from 7,500 years ago. The European Bronze Age begins from about 3200 BC in Greece. The European Iron Age begins from about 1200 BC, spreading to northern Europe by 500 BC. During the Iron Age, Europe gradually enters the historical period. Literacy came to the Mediterranean world from as early as the 8th century BC (Classical Antiquity), Northern Europe, including Northern Russia, remained in the prehistoric period until as late as the Late Middle Ages, around AD 1400, with the Northern Crusades. Thus, much of Europe was in a stage of proto-history for a long period. Read more ...

In the News ...

Evidence of the oldest hunter-gatherer basketry in southern Europe discovered   PhysOrg - September 28, 2023

A team of scientists has discovered and analyzed the first direct evidence of basketry among hunter-gatherer societies and early farmers in southern Europe, (9,500 and 6,200 years ago).

Europe's 1st humans were likely wiped out by a sudden freeze 1.1 million years ago   Live Science - August 15, 2023
Europe's first humans, a population of the archaic human species Homo erectus, were probably wiped out by an "extreme cooling event" about 1.1 million years ago, a new study finds. The previously unknown temperature downturn coincides with what's known about human habitation of the continent, the researchers suggest. Fossils and stone tools show that Homo erectus arrived in Europe from Asia between 1.8 million and 1.4 million years ago, previous research has found, but they seem to have died out throughout Europe about 1.1 million years ago.

Europe's First Hunter-Gatherer People May Not Have Vanished Like We Thought   Science Alert - March 1, 2023

Hunter-gatherers took shelter from the ice age in Southwestern Europe, but were replaced on the Italian Peninsula according to two new studies. Modern humans first began to spread across Eurasia approximately 45,000 years ago, arriving from the near east. Previous research claimed these people disappeared when massive ice sheets covered much of Europe around 25,000–19,000 years ago. By comparing the DNA of various ancient humans, we show this was not the case for all hunter-gatherer groups. Our new results show the hunter-gatherers of Central and Southern Europe did disappear during the last ice age. However, their cousins in what is now France and Spain survived, leaving genetic traces still visible in the DNA of Western European peoples nearly 30,000 years later.

500,000-Year-Old Signs of Extinct Human Species Found in Poland Cave   Science Alert - February 28, 2023
Prehistoric stone tools found in a cave in Poland 50 years ago were recently identified as some of the oldest ever discovered in the region. The tools from the Tunel Wielki cave in Malopska are between 450,000 and 550,000 years old. This dating may allow scientists to learn more about the humans who made them, and their migration and habitation in Central Europe across prehistory.

This May Be The Oldest Fragment of Modern Humans in Europe, Or Something Even Rarer   Science Alert - December 7, 2022
An ancient jawbone previously thought to have belonged to a Neanderthal may force a rethink on the history of modern humans in Europe. A new analysis of the broken mandible reveals that it has nothing in common with other Neanderthal remains. Rather, it could belong to a Homo sapiens - and, since it's dated to between 45,000 to 66,000 years ago, might be the oldest known piece of our species' anatomy on the European continent.

1.4 Million-Year-Old Fossil Hints Modern Human Faces Were Present Earlier Than Thought   Science Alert - July 18, 2022

An ancient upper jawbone discovered in Spain reveals the unique facial features of an individual who may be the oldest known ancient human relative in Europe. A team of paleonthropologists unearthed the fossil in June at Sima del Elefante (Spanish for "Pit of the Elephant"), an archeological site in the Atapuerca Mountains near the city of Burgos in northern Spain that's known for its rich fossil record. The fragmented skull is believed to be the oldest of its kind ever found in Europe and includes part of the upper jawbone (maxilla) and a tooth of a hominid who lived approximately 1.4 million years ago, the researchers said in a translated statement.

Oldest European human fossil possibly found in Spain   PhysOrg - July 9, 2022
A jawbone fragment discovered in northern Spain last month could be the oldest known fossil of a human ancestor found to date in Europe, Spanish paleontologists said Friday. The researchers said the fossil found at an archaeological site on June 30 in northern Spain's Atapuerca mountain range is around 1.4 million years old. Until now, the oldest hominid fossil found in Europe was a jawbone found at the same site in 2007 which was determined to be 1.2 million years old. Atapuerca contains one of the richest records of prehistoric human occupation in Europe.

Faces Re-Created of Ancient Europeans, Including Neanderthal Woman and Cro-Magnon Man   Live Science - January 29, 2019
About 5,600 years ago, a 20-year-old woman was buried with a tiny baby resting on her chest, a sad clue that she likely died in childbirth during the Neolithic. This woman and six other ancient Europeans - including a Cro-Magnon man, a Neanderthal woman and a man-bun-sporting dude from 250 B.C. - are on display at a museum in Brighton, England, now that a forensic artist has re-created their faces.

Face of the first Briton is revealed: DNA analysis shows 10,000-year-old man had 'dark to black' skin with blue eyes and curly hair - and is related to one in 10 of today's Brits   Daily Mail - February 7, 2018
The first ancient Britons had black skin, dark curly hair and blue eyes, according to DNA tests. The ‘extraordinary’ findings were made by cutting-edge genetic tests and facial reconstruction techniques carried out for the first time on the bones of Cheddar Man who died 10,000 years ago. The bones, found in Somerset's Cheddar Gorge, are the oldest near-complete human skeleton ever found in Britain and scientists said they were surprised to discover that the earliest Briton would be considered black if he lived today. The research suggests the first inhabitants of the British isles developed white skin later on than previously thought.

DNA secrets of Ice Age Europe unlocked   BBC - May 2, 2016
A study of DNA from ancient human bones has helped unlock the secrets of Europe's Ice Age inhabitants. Researchers analyzed the genomes of 51 individuals who lived between 45,000 years ago and 7,000 years ago. The results reveal details about the biology of these early inhabitants, such as skin and eye color, and how different populations were related. It also shows that Neanderthal ancestry in Europeans has been shrinking over time, perhaps due to natural selection.

Why Did Ancient Europeans Just Disappear 14,500 Years Ago?   Live Science - March 2, 2016
Some of Europe's earliest inhabitants mysteriously vanished toward the end of the last ice age and were largely replaced by others, a new genetic analysis finds. The finds come from an analysis of dozens of ancient fossil remains collected across Europe. The genetic turnover was likely the result of a rapidly changing climate, which the earlier inhabitants of Europe couldn't adapt to quickly enough, said the study's co-author, Cosimo Posth, an archaeo-genetics doctoral candidate at the University of Tubingen in Germany.

Europe's fourth ancestral 'tribe' uncovered   BBC - November 16, 2015
Geneticists have detected a fourth ancestral "tribe" which contributed to the modern European gene pool. Research shows Europeans are a mixture of three major ancestral populations - indigenous hunters, Middle Eastern farmers and a population that arrived from the east during the Bronze Age. DNA from ancient remains in the Caucasus has now revealed a fourth population that fed into the mix.

'Fourth strand' of European ancestry originated with hunter-gatherers isolated by Ice Age   PhysOrg - November 16, 2015
The first sequencing of ancient genomes extracted from human remains that date back to the Late Upper Paleolithic period over 13,000 years ago has revealed a previously unknown "fourth strand" of ancient European ancestry. This new lineage stems from populations of hunter-gatherers that split from western hunter-gatherers shortly after the 'out of Africa' expansion some 45,000 years ago and went on to settle in the Caucasus region, where southern Russia meets Georgia today.

Most European men descended from just three ancestors   Telegraph - May 20, 2015
Almost two out of three modern European men (64 per cent) were descended from just three Bronze Age males. DNA evidence has shown that most men in Europe descend from just three Bronze Age males. Archaeologists have been puzzled about whether European populations started to surge in the stone age or later. But the new research appears to suggest that there was a rapid expansion of communities in the succeeding Bronze Age. It appears that that between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago there was a raid explosion in the size of populations from the Balkans to the British Isles. Y-chromosome DNA sequences from skeletal remains are becoming available, and this will help us to understand what happened, and when.

Analysis of bones found in Romania offer evidence of human and Neanderthal interbreeding in Europe   PhysOrg - May 14, 2015
DNA testing of a human mandible fossil found in Romania has revealed a genome with 4.8 to 11.3 percent Neanderthal DNA—its original owner died approximately 40,000 years ago, Palaeogenomicist Qiaomei Fu reported to audience members at a Biology of Genomes meeting in New York last week. She noted also that she and her research team found long Neanderthal sequences. The high percentage suggests, she added, that the human had a Neanderthal in its family tree going back just four to six generations. The finding by the team provides strong evidence that humans and Neanderthals continued breeding in Europe, long after their initial co-mingling in the Middle East (after humans began migrating out of Africa.)

Ancient Europeans intolerant to lactose for 5,000 years after they adopted agriculture   PhysOrg - October 21, 2014
By analyzing DNA extracted from the petrous bones of skulls of ancient Europeans, scientists have identified that these peoples remained intolerant to lactose (natural sugar in the milk of mammals) for 5,000 years after they adopted agricultural practices and 4,000 years after the onset of cheese-making among Central European Neolithic farmers.

Human fossils from 'oldest Parisian'   BBC - October 9, 2014
Scientists have unearthed rare, ancient human remains in silts close to the River Seine in France. The left arm bones are dated to about 200,000 years ago, and look to be Neanderthal - although the researchers say that with no other fossils it is impossible to make a full description. There is little Neanderthal material of this age in northwest Europe.

Europeans drawn from three ancient 'tribes'   BBC - September 18, 2014
The modern European gene pool was formed when three ancient populations mixed within the last 7,000 years. Blue-eyed, swarthy hunters mingled with brown-eyed, pale skinned farmers as the latter swept into Europe from the Near East. But another, mysterious population with Siberian affinities also contributed to the genetic landscape of the continent. The findings are based on analysis of genomes from nine ancient Europeans. Agriculture originated in the Near East - in modern Syria, Iraq and Israel - before expanding into Europe around 7,500 years ago.

New branch added to European family tree: Europeans descended from at least 3, not 2, groups of ancient humans   Science Daily - September 17, 2014
Previous work suggested that Europeans descended from two ancestral groups: indigenous hunter-gatherers and early European farmers. This new study shows that there was also a third ancestral group, the Ancient North Eurasians, who contributed genetic material to almost all present-day Europeans. The research also reveals an even older lineage, the Basal Eurasians. The setting: Europe, about 7,500 years ago. Agriculture was sweeping in from the Near East, bringing early farmers into contact with hunter-gatherers who had already been living in Europe for tens of thousands of years.

Hunter-gatherer European had blue eyes and dark skin   BBC - January 27, 2014
Scientists have shed light on what ancient Europeans looked like. Genetic tests reveal that a hunter-gatherer who lived 7,000 years ago had the unusual combination of dark skin and hair and blue eyes. It has surprised scientists, who thought that the early inhabitants of Europe were fair. Two hunter-gatherer skeletons were discovered in a cave in the mountains of north-west Spain in 2006. The cool, dark conditions meant the remains (called La Brana 1 and 2) were remarkably well preserved. Scientists were able to extract DNA from a tooth of one of the ancient men and sequence his genome. The team found that the early European was most closely genetically related to people in Sweden and Finland. But while his eyes were blue, his genes reveal that his hair was black or brown and his skin was dark. This was a result that was unexpected.

Spanish hunter-gatherer had blue eyes and dark skin   PhysOrg - January 27, 2014
La Brana 1, name used to baptize a 7,000 years old individual from the Mesolithic Period, whose remains were recovered at La Brana-Arintero site in Valdelugueros (Leon, Spain) had blue eyes and dark skin. The Mesolithic, a period that lasted from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago (between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic), ends with the advent of agriculture and livestock farming, coming from the Middle-East. The arrival of the Neolithic, with a carbohydrate-based diet and new pathogens transmitted by domesticated animals, entailed metabolic and immunological challenges that were reflected in genetic adaptations of post-Mesolithic populations. Among these is the ability to digest lactose, which La Brana individual could not do.

Ancient European Farmers and Hunter-Gatherers Coexisted, Sans Sex   Live Science - October 10, 2013
Neolithic hunter-gatherers and farmers lived side by side without having sex for more than 2,000 years, new research suggests. Analysis of fossil skeletons unearthed in a cave in Germany revealed that the two populations remained mostly separate for two millennia, despite living in the same region.

Prehistoric Europeans spiced their cooking   BBC - August 22, 2013
Europeans had a taste for spicy food at least 6,000 years ago, it seems. Researchers found evidence for garlic mustard in the residues left on ancient pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. The spice was found alongside fat residues from meat and fish.

Prehistoric Europeans Liked Spicy Food, Study Suggests   Live Science - August 22, 2013

A piece of an ancient cooking pot with some blackened foodresidue on it. The pottery shard, excavated from an archaeological site in northern Europe, is more than 6,000 years old.

Oldest Poison Pushes Back Ancient Civilization 20,000 Years   Live Science - July 30, 2012
The late Stone Age may have had an earlier start in Africa than previously thought - by some 20,000 years. new analysis of artifacts from a cave in South Africa reveals that the residents were carving bone tools, using pigments, making beads and even using poison 44,000 years ago. These sorts of artifacts had previously been linked to the San culture, which was thought to have emerged around 20,000 years ago. "Our research proves that the Later Stone Age emerged in South Africa far earlier than has been believed and occurred at about the same time as the arrival of modern humans in Europe," study researcher Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said in a statement.

Later Stone Age Got Earlier Start in South Africa Than Thought   Science Daily - July 30, 2012
The Later Stone Age emerged in South Africa more than 20,000 years earlier than previously believed - about the same time humans were migrating from Africa to the European continent, says a new international study led by the University of Colorado Boulder. The study shows the onset of the Later Stone Age in South Africa likely began some 44,000 to 42,000 years ago, said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and lead study author. The new dates are based on the use of precisely calibrated radiocarbon dates linked to organic artifacts found at Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains on the border of South Africa and Swaziland containing evidence of hominid occupation going back 200,000 years.

Teeth and jaw are from 'earliest Europeans'   BBC - November 2, 2011
Worn ancient teeth and a jaw fragment unearthed in the UK and Italy have something revealing to say about how modern humans conquered the globe. The finds in Kents Cavern, Devon, and Grotta del Cavallo, Apulia, have been confirmed as the earliest known remains of Homo sapiens in Europe. Careful dating suggests they are more than 41,000 years old, and perhaps as much as 45,000 years old in the case of the Italian "baby teeth".

Early human fossils unearthed in Ukraine   BBC - June 21, 2011
Ancient remains uncovered in Ukraine represent some of the oldest evidence of modern people in Europe, experts have claimed. Archaeologists found human bones and teeth, tools, ivory ornaments and animal remains at the Buran-Kaya cave site. The 32,000-year-old fossils bear cut marks suggesting they were defleshed as part of a post-mortem ritual.

Archaeologists discover Britain's 'oldest house'   BBC - August 11, 2010
The circular structure, found at a site near Scarborough, North Yorkshire, has been dated as being made in 8,500 BC. Described as a "sensational discovery" by archaeologists, this is 500 years earlier than the previous oldest house. The teams from the universities of Manchester and York are also examining a nearby wooden platform, which is being claimed as the oldest example of carpentry in Europe. Nicky Milner, an archaeologist from the University York, says such sites are "incredibly rare" - and that finding such early evidence of settled living gives a new insight into hunter gatherers.

Humans' early arrival in Britain   BBC - July 8, 2010
Stone Age Europeans Get Older and Colder   Wired - July 8, 2010

Europe's Ancestors: Cro-Magnon 28,000 Years Old Had DNA Like Modern Humans Science Daily - July 16, 2008
Some 40,000 years ago, Cro-Magnons -- the first people who had a skeleton that looked anatomically modern -- entered Europe, coming from Africa. A group of geneticists, coordinated by Guido Barbujani and David Caramelli of the Universities of Ferrara and Florence, shows that a Cro-Magnoid individual who lived in Southern Italy 28,000 years ago was a modern European, genetically as well as anatomically.

Clues found for early Europeans BBC - January 13, 2007
An archaeological find in Russia has shed light on the migration of modern humans into Europe. Artifacts uncovered at the Kostenki site, south of Moscow, suggest modern humans were at this spot about 45,000 years ago. The first moderns may have entered Europe through a different route than was previously thought, the international team reports. This reflects an entry from the Levant (eastern shores of the Mediterranean) just before 44,000 years ago.

DNA Study Traces European Ancestors to 10 Men

November 10, 2000 - AP

About 80 percent of Europeans arose from primitive hunters who arrived about 40,000 years ago, endured the long ice age and then expanded rapidly to dominate the continent, a new study shows. Researchers analyzing the Y chromosome taken from 1,007 men from 25 different locations in Europe found a pattern that suggests four out of five of the men shared a common male ancestor about 40,000 years ago.

Peter A. Underhill, a senior researcher at the Stanford Genome Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., and co-author of the study, said the research supports conclusions from archaeological, linguistic and other DNA evidence about the settlement of Europe by ancient peoples. When we can get different lines of evidence that tell the same story, then we feel we are telling the true history of the species. The researchers used the Y chromosome in the study because its rare changes establish a pattern that can be traced back hundreds of generations, thus helping to plot the movement of ancient humans. The Y chromosome is inherited only by sons from their fathers. When sperm carrying the Y chromosome fertilizes an egg it directs the resulting baby to be a male. An X chromosome from the father allows a fertilized egg to be female.

The Y chromosome has about 60 million DNA base pairs. Changes in those base pairs happen infrequently, but they occur often enough to establish patterns that can be used to trace the ancestry of people. Researchers looking at the 1,007 chromosome samples from Europe identified 22 specific markers that formed a specific pattern of change. Underhill said the researchers found that about 80 percent of all European males shared a single pattern, suggesting they had a common ancestor thousands of generations ago.

The basic pattern had some changes that apparently developed among people who once shared a common ancestor and then were isolated for many generations. This scenario supports other studies about the Paleolithic European groups. Those studies suggest that a primitive, stone-age human came to Europe, probably from Central Asia and the Middle East, in two waves of migration beginning about 40,000 years ago. Their numbers were small and they lived by hunting animals and gathering plant food. They used crudely sharpened stones and fire. About 24,000 years ago, the last ice age began, with mountain-sized glaciers moving across most of Europe. The Paleolithic Europeans retreated before the ice, finding refuge for hundreds of generations in three areas: what is now Spain, the Balkans and the Ukraine.

When the glaciers melted, about 16,000 years ago, the Paleolithic tribes resettled the rest of Europe. Y chromosome mutations occurred among people in each of the ice age refuges, said Underhill. He said the research shows a pattern that developed in Spain is now most common in northwest Europe, while the Ukraine pattern is mostly in Eastern Europe and the Balkan pattern is most common in Central Europe.

About 8,000 years ago a more advanced people, the Neolithic, migrated to Europe from the Middle East, bringing with them a new Y chromosome pattern and a new way of life - agriculture. About 20 percent of Europeans now have the Y chromosome pattern from this migration. Archaeological digs in European caves clearly show that before 8,000 years ago, most humans lived by gathering and hunting. After that, there are traces of grains and other agricultural products. Earlier studies had traced European migration patterns using the DNA contained in the mitochondria, a key part of each cell. This type is DNA is passed down from mother to daughter."

Antonio Torroni, a researcher at the University of Urbino, Italy, who first proposed that early humans retreated to Spain during the ice age, said in a separate Science report that the Y chromosome study fits completely' with the mitochondria studies. The Y chromosome studies are also consistent with genetic studies showing a broader picture of human migration. In general, studies show that modern humans first arose in Africa about 100,000 years ago and thousands of years later began a long series of migrations, he said. Some groups migrated eastward and humans are known to have existed in Australia about 60,000 years ago. Other groups crossed the land bridge into the Middle East. Humans appeared in Central Asia about 50,000 years ago. From there, the theory goes, some migrated west, arriving in Europe about 40,000 years ago. Later, some migrated east, across the Bering Straits, to the Americas.