Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • explain what life was like for post-Pleistocene Mesolithic foragers and understand the difference in subsistence strategies between mobile and semi-sedentary complex hunter-gatherers
  • describe the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in Europe, including the origin-point for the introduction of farming, and the likely routes and methods by which people and ideas travelled
  • understand the interaction between early agriculturalists and those who continued to hunt and gather, and the conditions under which people chose to change their economies from foraging to farming
  • demonstrate knowledge of how metallurgy came to Europe and its impact on society, both as a technology and a social marker
  • explain the growth of increasing social and political complexity, and its relation to internal processes within European societies and contact with non-European cultures, including sedentism, wealth accumulation, trade, warfare, and the elite quest for prestige and power.

Chapter Summary


Europe by nature is hard to define, due to diverse topography and climate, and the many routes into the region, leading to different cultural trajectories and social forms.

At the Pleistocene/Holocene transition, Europe lost its ice cover and rising sea levels transformed flat coastlines into estuaries, inlets, and bays, and a much broader range of plants and animals became available. Mesolithic foraging groups, descendants of Upper Paleolithic peoples, moved into these areas and exploited such rich environments throughout Europe. At one time, the European Mesolithic was seen as a dull intermediary period. Today, these ever larger and more complex social groups are seen as rich and diverse societies, who greatly influenced how and when farming was adopted

Farming spread to Europe from Southwest Asia where domesticated species originated. A major debate surrounding this development is whether it was people who moved, or only domesticated species and ideas about their use.

The first farming settlements date to c. 6500 bc, possibly founded by colonists from Anatolia settling in east-central Greece. Early farmers occupied light, easily worked soils. New generations, splitting off to settle the nearest, then next nearest areas of similar soils, may have caused the geographic spread of farming.

The use of clay for building led to the creation of tells throughout southeastern Europe, formed by the collapse and successive rebuilding of long-occupied sites. In Hungary, tells developed 1000 years later, while other regions of Europe with less substantial settlements had none.

Early farming communities had a rich material culture, which included painted pottery and figurines of humans, animals, and even houses, providing clues to daily life. Human figurines include genderless and male examples but most are female. The latter were once interpreted as “goddesses” of a pan-European cult, but this idea has largely been abandoned. Some may be fertility deities, but others probably represent living individuals or ancestors.

The Introduction of Metals

Copper was first worked in the Neolithic, and the term “Chalcolithic,” or “Copper Age” is sometimes used. Uplands provided stone and ore for prestige objects, which were highly sought-after, providing the means of emphasizing the era’s increasing social differentiation. Tracing products made of copper is a way of identifying the complex networks of exchange.


Similar conditions helped facilitate the spread of farming from Greece to the Balkans. Domestic plants and animals arrived in Italy by 6000 bc, perhaps from the Balkans. Here, Mesolithic and Neolithic areas are mutually exclusive, with farmers and foragers co-existing, supporting an “integrationist” model, in which Mesolithic communities adopted ideas and products from nearby farmers. This theory rests on the substantial difference between settlement forms.

Early Neolithic sites along the western Mediterranean are characterized by “cardial” pottery, elaborately decorated by impressing a cardium shell into the wet clay before firing. The sites of this farming “cardial culture” were established along a coastal route, perhaps as small seaborne colonizing populations, which later sent out a few individuals to found new settlements further off. Before long, farming spread to the interior. Local hunter-gatherers either adopted agriculture or integrated with expanding farming groups.

Complex societies developed as farming communities took hold. In the later 4th millennium bc, social complexity emerged in Spain, where in this arid environment those who controlled water supplies may have attained elite status.

The most notable insight into this era is probably provided by the Iceman, a single individual, preserved beneath an Alpine glacier, along with his clothing, equipment, and possessions, which shed light on his health, way of life, travels, and cause of death.


By the late 7th millennium bc, a second, different route spread farming up the Danube Valley and into central Europe. Lepenski Vir exemplifies the change that came to Mesolithic communities as farming groups moved closer. At some sites, hunting and fishing remained important, but during the late 6th and early 5th millennia bc others developed into substantial tells.

The Bandkeramik Culture

In the mid-6th millennium bc, the Linearbandkeramik cultural tradition emerged and spread, first appearing in Hungary and Austria c. 5600 bc, spreading rapidly into the Rhine area by 5300 bc and the Paris basin a century later, and also moving east to Ukraine and Moldavia. The uniform culture strongly suggests “colonizing farmers.” Bandkeramik settlements are characterized by distinctive features: pottery with incised banded decoration, massive longhouses in small forest clearings, polished stone “shoe-last” adzes, single grave burials grouped in cemeteries, and locations near water and easily tilled loess soils. Eventually Bandkeramik people came into contact with hunter-gatherer groups. Patterns of violence suggest hostility between neighboring Bandkeramik groups rather than conflict with hunter-gatherers.

By 5000 bc the Bandkeramik was replaced by regional groups with differing ceramic and house styles that developed in situ. Late in the 5th millennium bc, a new type of ceramic appeared. These funnel-shaped beakers gave their name – Trichterbecher – to a new culture. This phenomenon appears in an interaction zone that shared ideas, materials, and artifacts; trade networks were already extensive. The plow was introduced in the 5th millennium bc, bringing new areas into cultivation. Wooden wheels and ceramic models of wheeled vehicles appear in the 4th millennium bc. Plowing, animal traction, milk, and wool may have been adopted gradually or together in a “secondary products revolution” among European farming societies.


Unlike central-southern Europe, western and northern Europe had dense Mesolithic populations, and farmers and hunters had to co-exist. These Mesolithic communities are categorized as “complex hunter-gatherers,” with specialized foraging strategies, semi-sedentary settlements, and evidence of social differentiation. In the Atlantic region, they remained strong for 1000 years after farmers were established nearby.

Megalithic Monuments

Atlantic Europe is home to many megalithic monuments. One type comprises stone settings, such as circles and avenues. The most famous is England’s Stonehenge. Single “menhirs,” or standing stones, are also ubiquitous, some carved with symbols. Chambered tombs are another type, consisting of chambers of stone or wood, accessed by a portal or long passage, covered by an earth mound, and filled with burials of hundreds of individuals.


In northern Europe, farmers lived near well-established and populous Mesolithic communities stretching from Karelia to Britain.

By the mid-6th millennium bc, southern Scandinavia was occupied by complex hunter-gatherers of the Ertebølle-Ellerbek culture, inhabiting large, permanently occupied coastal settlements, and smaller, seasonal camps for hunting specific species. Sedentism led to cemeteries, which display social ranking. Contact with farmers is seen in the use of ceramics. Shortly before 4000 bc this culture was replaced by the Trichterbecher farming culture, with whom they had traded with for centuries.

Earthen long mounds, covering timber mortuary houses were a type of monument first built at the northern and western margins of the Bandkeramik zone. They may have mimicked the shape of longhouse dwellings, even though the Bandkeramik people did not practice mound burial. Southern Sweden and Denmark have a high density of megalithic tombs built during the 4th millennium bc. During the 3rd millennium bc, polished stone shaft-hole “battle axes” became important for display and prestige, as did the burial of individuals beneath circular mounds. This break from “communal” burials reflects the growth of individual status, also associated with a new kind of drinking vessel, the corded-ware beaker.


After the introduction of metallurgy, European societies continued to develop in material culture, size, and social complexity. At the end of the 3rd millennium bc, bronze-working stimulated new long-distance trade with distant communities for copper and tin. These networks also carried amber, finished ornaments, and other valuables. In the early 1st millennium bc, Europe entered the Iron Age. Iron was more abundant so less costly, and came from different sources, so opened new trade routes. Its greater hardness enhanced tools and weapons and facilitated plowing on heavier soils. The Etruscans, Greeks and Phoenicians established the first city-states in the western Mediterranean. Contact between Europe and the Mediterranean is seen in presence of Mediterranean artifacts throughout the region. Mediterranean sources also made the first written references to the Scythians and Celts.


In the mid-3rd millennium bc a distinctive ceramic vessel, the bell beaker, appeared in western and northern Europe. Probably drinking vessels, they are usually found as grave offerings, along with other luxuries, such as copper daggers, gold ornaments, stone archers’ wrist-guards.

Settlements remained small, but were often long-lived. Over time, villages became more permanent, and developed field systems. During the Hallstatt Iron Age (700–480 bc) named after the Austrian type-site, political entities emerged, focused on “princely centers” with rich graves in massive burial mounds, such as Vix in Burgundy, France, near hilltop enclosures, such as the Heuneburg in Bavaria. Mediterranean contact is seen in imported Greek and Etruscan prestige grave goods. Early in the 5th century bc, the Hallstatt centers were abandoned, and new sets of richly furnished graves occur further north, associated with a new style, named after the La Tène site in Switzerland. La Tène culture is associated with the peoples referred to as Celts.


In eastern Europe, similar long-distance trends and contacts occurred. Ore was mined in the Carpathian range, made into swords, axes, and vessels that displayed individual status, indicating the rise of a warrior elite, and many settlements became fortified. Easterly connections to the Russian steppe brought horse-drawn chariots to eastern Europe, and horses became another outlet for displaying wealth and status

After 1300 bc a new ritual spread from eastern to western Europe, with cremation ashes being buried in pottery urns. Cremation became more common even beyond this “Urnfield” culture area, continuing into the 1st millennium bc and the Early Iron Age. Such cemeteries could contain several thousand burials with little status difference, perhaps suggesting common religious beliefs. Some large, rich mound burials were constructed. Despite uniform burials, elites possessed elaborate bronze helmets and breastplates, probably for display, while heavy-bladed bronze swords were probably used in fighting, echoed in the continued fortification of settlements with ditches, ramparts, or stockades.


In southern Europe during the 1st millennium bc the Etruscans, Greeks, and Phoenicians developed urban centers along the western Mediterranean and Black Sea. From here, new concepts and techniques spread to indigenous peoples. Imported products, prized by local elites, might have been diplomatic gifts.

The Mediterranean impact on Europe should not be seen as a one-way process. The Scythians were a complex society with administrative districts under a king. Elite graves under large mounds known as “kurgans” included sacrifices of horses and strangled servants. Impressive fortified settlements with permanent residences inside are exemplified at Bel’sk near Kharkov. Similar large settlements rose in western and south-central Europe during the last centuries bc, such as the urban-like “oppida” sites. By the late 2nd century bc, states probably emerged, such as the kingdom of Noricum in Austria. Polities in central and eastern France minted coins bearing the names of individual rulers and their peoples. The nearby Mediterranean urban zone may have influenced them, though local people transformed foreign ideas into indigenous forms.

The So-called “Celtic” Societies

Western European societies of the 1st-millennium bc are traditionally labeled “Celtic,” from references by Classical writers, although the idea that “Celts” shared a uniform ethnic identity, language, and art has recently been questioned. From the 3rd century bc until ad 43, Mediterranean urban societies expanded their territories into Celtic regions, but attempts to expand north of the Rhine and beyond the Danube were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Roman provinces and the territories beyond participated in trade, cultural and technological borrowing, diplomatic exchange, and military action until the Roman Empire dissolved in the 4th and 5th centuries ad.

Box Features

Key Controversy: Dairying and the Domestication of Humans

Key Controversy: Stonehenge: Symbolism and Ceremony

Key Controversy: Rock Art – Representation of Myth or Reality?

Key Controversy: Who Were the Celts?

Key Discovery: The Demographic History of Early Postglacial Europe

Key Discovery: The “Iceman”

Key Discovery: The Talheim Death Pit

Key Site: Star Carr: A Mesolithic Campsite in Northeast England

Key Site: The Varna Cemetery

Key Site: The Bandkeramik Longhouse

Key words and terms

Artifacts, materials & technology:

  • Ertebølle pottery
  • figurines
  • Cardial ware
  • Linear pottery
  • flint
  • antler
  • polished stone axes
  • corded ware
  • copper
  • metallurgy
  • bronze
  • amber, copper, tin
  • iron working
  • rock art, cult objects
  • horse and chariot
  • cremation
  • shoe-last adze
  • archer’s wrist-guard
  • bell beaker


  • Post-Pleistocene
  • Holocene
  • Mesolithic
  • Neolithic
  • Chalcolithic
  • Bronze Age
  • Iron Age

Concepts & terms:

  • sedentism
  • complex hunter-gatherers
  • social complexity
  • craft specialization
  • social differentiation
  • selective adoption of Neolithic culture
  • colonist farmers
  • population replacement, population genetics
  • feasting
  • mortuary rituals
  • the Iceman
  • social status
  • Bell Beaker phenomenon
  • internationalism
  • long-distance trade networks
  • state formation
  • bog bodies


  • Maglemosian culture
  • Ertebølle-Ellerbek culture
  • Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture
  • Battle Axe culture
  • Trichterbecher or Funnel-Beaker culture
  • Scythians, Celts
  • Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians
  • Urnfield culture
  • Celts
  • Roman Empire

Sites & regions:

  • princely centers, graves
  • Oleneostrovski Mogilnik
  • Skateholm
  • Vedbaek
  • Star Carr
  • Karanovo
  • Nea Nikomedeia
  • Varna
  • Passo di Corvo
  • Los Millares
  • Zambujal
  • Lepenski Vir
  • Rössen
  • Michelsberg
  • Lengyel
  • Bygholm
  • Talheim
  • Téviec
  • Stonehenge
  • Newgrange
  • Grimes Graves
  • Barkaer
  • Mitterberg
  • Great Orme
  • Bresinchen
  • Trundholm
  • Vix
  • Heuneberg
  • Hallstatt
  • La Tène
  • Biskupin
  • Noricum
  • Manching
  • Mont Beuvray
  • Oppida

Structures & features:

  • shell middens
  • cemeteries
  • chambered tombs, passage graves
  • bog bodies
  • field systems, Celtic fields
  • loess
  • longhouse
  • ritual enclosure
  • long mound
  • causewayed camps
  • megalith
  • cromlech
  • menhir
  • henge
  • tell