Neolithic Europe is the period when Neolithic technology was present in Europe, roughly between 7000 BCE (the approximate time of the first farming societies in Greece) and c. 1700 BCE (the beginning of the Bronze Age in northwest Europe). The Neolithic overlaps the Mesolithic and Bronze Age periods in Europe as cultural changes moved from the southeast to northwest at about 1 km/year - this is called Neolithic Expansion.
The duration of the Neolithic varies from place to place, its end marked by the introduction of bronze implements: in southeast Europe it is approximately 4,000 years (i.e. 7000 BCE–3000 BCE) while in Northwest Europe it is just under 3,000 years (c. 4500 BCE–1700 BCE).
Basic cultural characteristics
Regardless of specific chronology, many European Neolithic groups share basic characteristics, such as living in small-scale, family-based communities, subsisting on domesticated plants and animals supplemented with the collection of wild plant foods and with hunting, and producing hand-made pottery, that is, pottery made without the potter's wheel. Polished stone axes lie at the heart of the neolithic (new stone) culture, enabling forest clearance for agriculture and production of wood for dwellings, as well as fuel.
There are also many differences, with some Neolithic communities in southeastern Europe living in heavily fortified settlements of 3,000-4,000 people (e.g., Sesklo in Greece) whereas Neolithic groups in Britain were small (possibly 50-100 people) and highly mobile cattle-herders.
The details of the origin, chronology, social organization, subsistence practices and ideology of the peoples of Neolithic Europe are obtained from archaeology, and not historical records, since these people left none. Since the 1970s, population genetics has provided independent data on the population history of Neolithic Europe, including migration events and genetic relationships with peoples in South Asia.
A further independent tool, linguistics, has contributed hypothetical reconstructions of early European languages and family trees with estimates of dating of splits, in particular theories on the relationship between speakers of Indo-European languages and Neolithic peoples. Some archaeologists believe that the expansion of Neolithic peoples from southwest Asia into Europe, marking the eclipse of Mesolithic culture, coincided with the introduction of Indo-European speakers, whereas other archaeologists and many linguists believe the Indo-European languages were introduced from the Pontic-Caspian steppe during the succeeding Bronze Age.
Archeologists believe that food-producing societies first emerged in the Levantine region of southwest Asia at the close of the last glacial period around 12,000 BCE, and developed into a number of regionally distinctive cultures by the eighth millennium BCE. Remains of food-producing societies in the Aegean have been carbon-dated to around 6500 BCE at Knossos, Franchthi Cave, and a number of mainland sites in Thessaly. Neolithic groups appear soon afterwards in the Balkans and south-central Europe. The Neolithic cultures of southeastern Europe (the Balkans and the Aegean) show some continuity with groups in southwest Asia and Anatolia (e.g., Çatalhöyük).
Current evidence suggests that Neolithic material culture was introduced to Europe via western Anatolia, and that similarities in cultures of North Africa and the Pontic steppes are due to diffusion out of Europe. All Neolithic sites in Europe contain ceramics, and contain the plants and animals domesticated in Southwest Asia: einkorn, emmer, barley, lentils, pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle. Genetic data suggest that no independent domestication of animals took place in Neolithic Europe, and that all domesticated animals were originally domesticated in Southwest Asia. The only domesticate not from Southwest Asia was broomcorn millet, domesticated in East Asia. The earliest evidence of cheese-making dates to 5500 BCE in Kujawy, Poland.
Archaeologists seem to agree that the culture of the early Neolithic is relatively homogeneous, compared both to the late Mesolithic and the later Neolithic. The diffusion across Europe, from the Aegean to Britain, took about 2,500 years (6500 BCE - 4000 BCE). The Baltic region was penetrated a bit later, around 3500 BCE, and there was also a delay in settling the Pannonian plain. In general, colonization shows a "saltatory" pattern, as the Neolithic advanced from one patch of fertile alluvial soil to another, bypassing mountainous areas. Analysis of radiocarbon dates show clearly that Mesolithic and Neolithic populations lived side by side for as much as a millennium in many parts of Europe, especially in the Iberian peninsula and along the Atlantic coast.
With some exceptions, population levels rose rapidly at the beginning of the Neolithic until they reached the carrying capacity. This was followed by a population crash of "enormous magnitude" after 5000 BCE, with levels remaining low during the next 1,500 years. Populations began to rise after 3500 BCE, with further dips and rises occurring between 3000 and 2500 BCE but varying in date between regions. A study of twelve European regions found most experienced boom and bust patterns and suggested an "endogenous, not climatic cause."
Genetic studies since the 2010s have identified the genetic contribution of Neolithic farmers to modern European populations, providing quantitative results relevant to the long-standing "replacement model" vs. "demic diffusion" dispute in archaeology. The component due to Mesolithic European hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers expanding from the Near East were called "Western Hunter-Gatherers" (WHG) and "Early European Farmers" (EEF, also "First European Farmers" FEF), respectively, in the seminal 2014 study which first identified the contribution of three main components to modern European lineages (the third being "Ancient North Eurasians", associated with the later Indo-European expansion). The EEF component was identified based on the genome of a woman buried c. 7,000 years ago in a Linear Pottery culture grave in Stuttgart, Germany.
The 2014 study found evidence for miscegenation between WHG and EEF throughout Europe, with the largest contribution of EEF in Mediterranean Europe (especially in Sardinia, Sicily, Malta and among Ashkenazi Jews), and the largest contribution of WHG in Northern Europe and among Basque people.
Since 2014, further studies have refined the picture of interbreeding between EEF and WHG. In a 2017 analysis of 180 ancient DNA datasets of the Chalcolithic and Neolithic periods from Hungary, Germany and Spain evidence was found of a prolongued period of interbreeding. Admixture took place regionally, from local hunter-gatherer populations, so that populations from the three regions (Germany, Iberia and Hungary) were genetically distinguishable at all stages of the Neolithic period, with a gradually increasing ratio of WHG ancestry of farming populations over time. This suggests that after the initial expansion of early farmers, there were no further long-range migrations substantial enough to homogenize the farming population, and that farming and hunter-gatherer populations existed side by side for many centuries, with ongoing gradual admixture throughout the 5th to 4th millennia BC (rather than a single admixture event on initial contact). Admixture rates varied geographically; in the late Neolithic, WHG ancestry in farmers in Hungary was at around 10%, in Germany around 25% and in Iberia as high as 50%.
There is no direct evidence of the languages spoken in the Neolithic. Some proponents of paleolinguistics attempt to extend the methods of historical linguistics to the Stone Age, but this has little academic support. Criticising scenarios which envision for the Neolithic only a small number of language families spread over huge areas of Europe (as in modern times), Donald Ringe has argued on general principles of language geography (as concerns "tribal", pre-state societies), and the scant remains of (apparently indigenous) non-Indo-European languages attested in ancient inscriptions, that Neolithic Europe must have been a place of great linguistic diversity, with many language families with no recoverable linguistic links to each other, much like western North America prior to European colonisation.
Discussion of hypothetical languages spoken in the European Neolithic is divided into two topics, Indo-European languages and "Pre-Indo-European" languages.
Early Indo-European languages are usually assumed to have reached Danubian (and maybe Central) Europe in the Chalcolithic or early Bronze Age, e.g. with the Corded Ware or Beaker cultures (see also Kurgan hypothesis for related discussions). The Anatolian hypothesis postulates arrival of Indo-European languages with the early Neolithic. Old European hydronymy is taken by Hans Krahe to be the oldest reflection of the early presence of Indo-European in Europe.
Theories of "Pre-Indo-European" languages in Europe are built on scant evidence. The Basque language is the best candidate for a descendant of such a language, but since Basque is a language isolate, there is no comparative evidence to build upon. Theo Vennemann nevertheless postulates a "Vasconic" family, which he supposes had co-existed with an "Atlantic" or "Semitidic" (i. e., para-Semitic) group. Another candidate is a Tyrrhenian family which would have given rise to Etruscan and Raetic in the Iron Age, and possibly also Aegean languages such as Minoan or Pelasgian in the Bronze Age.
In the north, a similar scenario to Indo-European is thought to have occurred with Uralic languages expanding in from the east. In particular, while the Sami languages of the indigenous Sami people belong in the Uralic family, they show considerable substrate influence, thought to represent one or more extinct original languages. The Sami are estimated to have adopted a Uralic language less than 2,500 years ago. Some traces of indigenous languages of the Baltic area have been suspected in the Finnic languages as well, but these are much more modest. There are early loanwords from unidentified non-IE languages in other Uralic languages of Europe as well.
List of cultures and sites
- Early Neolithic
- Middle Neolithic
- Vinča culture (6th to 3rd millennia)
- Linear Ceramic culture (6th to 5th millennia)
- Cardium Pottery Culture (Mediterranean coast, 7th to 4th millennia)
- Pit–Comb Ware culture, a.k.a. Comb Ceramic culture (Northeast Europe, 6th to 3rd millennia)
- Cucuteni-Trypillian culture (Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, c. 5200 to 3500 BC)
- Ertebølle culture (Denmark, 5th to 3rd millennia)
- Cortaillod culture (Switzerland, 4th millennium)
- Hembury culture (Britain, 5th to 4th millennia)
- Windmill Hill culture (Britain, 3rd millennium)
- Pfyn culture (Switzerland, 4th millennium)
- Globular Amphora culture (Central Europe, 4th to 3rd millennia)
- Horgen culture (Switzerland, 4th to 3rd millennia)
- Eneolithic (Chalcolithic)
- Lengyel culture (5th millennium)
- A culture in Central Europe produced monumental arrangements of circular ditches between 4800 BCE and 4600 BCE.
- Varna culture (5th millennium)
- Funnelbeaker culture (4th millennium)
- Baden culture (Central Europe, 4th to 3rd millennia)
- Corded Ware culture, a.k.a. Battle-axe or Single Grave culture (Northern Europe, 3rd millennium)
- Gaudo culture (3rd millennium, early Bronze Age, in Italian)
- Beaker culture (3rd to 2nd millennia, early Bronze Age)
Some Neolithic cultures listed above are known for constructing megaliths. These occur primarily on the Atlantic coast of Europe, but there are also megaliths on western Mediterranean islands.
- c. 5000 BCE: Constructions in Portugal (Évora). Emergence of the Atlantic Neolithic period, the age of agriculture along the fertile shores of Europe.
- c. 4800 BCE: Constructions in Brittany (Barnenez) and Poitou (Bougon).
- c. 4000 BCE: Constructions in Brittany (Carnac), Portugal (Lisbon), Spain (Galicia and Andalusia), France (central and southern), Corsica, England, Wales, Northern Ireland (Banbridge) and elsewhere.
- c. 3700 BCE: Constructions in Ireland (Carrowmore and elsewhere).
- c. 3600 BCE: Constructions in England (Maumbury Rings and Godmanchester), and Malta (Ġgantija and Mnajdra temples).
- c. 3500 BCE: Constructions in Spain (Málaga and Guadiana), Ireland (south-west), France (Arles and the north), north-west and central Italy (Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta, Liguria and Tuscany), Mediterranean islands (Sardinia, Sicily, Malta) and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Belgium (north-east) and Germany (central and south-west).
- c. 3400 BCE: Constructions in Ireland (Newgrange), Netherlands (north-east), Germany (northern and central) Sweden and Denmark.
- c. 3200 BCE: Constructions in Malta (Ħaġar Qim and Tarxien).
- c. 3000 BCE: Constructions in France (Saumur, Dordogne, Languedoc, Biscay, and the Mediterranean coast), Spain (Los Millares), Belgium (Ardennes), and Orkney, as well as the first henges (circular earthworks) in Britain.
- c. 2800 BCE: Climax of the megalithic Funnel-beaker culture in Denmark, and the construction of the henge at Stonehenge.
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