Prehistoric Italy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Part of a series on the
History of Italy
Emblem of Italy
Portal icon Italy portal
A Sardinian bronze statuette, perhaps portraying a tribal chief. Cagliari, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

The territory of what is now Italy was settled by the Neanderthal man in the Lower Palaeolithic, roughly 500,000 years ago. As elsewhere in Europe, the Neanderthals co-existed with Homo sapiens for some time after their arrival ca. 40,000 years ago.

Italian cultures of the Bronze Age include the Terramare culture, the Villanovan culture and the Castellieri. Other prehistoric civilizations are the culture of Canegrate and that of Remedello.


In prehistoric times, the Italian peninsula was rather different from how it is now. During glaciations, for example, the islands of Elba and Sicily were connected to the mainland. The Adriatic Sea began at what is now the Gargano peninsula, and what is now its surface up to Venice was a fertile plain with a humid climate.

The presence of Homo neanderthalensis has been demonstrated in archaeological findings dating to c. 50,000 years ago (late Pleistocene). There are some twenty such sites, the most important being that of the Grotta Guattari at San Felice Circeo, on the Tyrrhenian Sea south of Rome. Other are the grotta di Fumane (province of Verona) and the Breuil grotto, also in San Felice.

The first Cro Magnon inhabitants of Italy, perhaps coming from a migration started from Apulia, moved across the peninusula, establishing themselves in small settlements far from each one, most on high areas. In November 2011 tests conducted at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in England on what were previously thought to be Neanderthal baby teeth, which had been unearthed in 1964 from the Grotta del Cavallo, were identified as the oldest modern human remains discovered anywhere in Europe, dating from between 43,000 to 45,000 years ago.[1] Around 12,000 years ago, the diminishing number of big game forced their descendants to populate the coast areas.


Cardium Pottery is a Neolithic decorative style that gets its name from the imprinting of the clay with the shell of the Cardium edulis, a marine mollusk. The alternative name Impressed Ware is given by some archaeologists to define this culture, because impressions can be with sharp objects other than Cardium shell, such as a nail or comb.[2] Impressa is found in the zone "covering Italy to the Ligurian coast" as distinct from the more western Cardial beginning in Provence, France and extending to western Portugal. This pottery style gives its name to the main culture of the Mediterranean Neolithic, which eventually extended from the Adriatic sea to the Atlantic coasts of Portugal and south to Morocco.[3]

The Gaudo culture is a late Neolithic culture in Southern Italy, primarily in the region of Campania, active at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, whose typesite necropolis is located near Paestum, not far from the mouth of the river Sele. It is sometimes described as an Eneolithic culture, due to its use of primitive copper tools.

Bronze Age[edit]

Nuragic civilization[edit]

Located in Sardinia and Corsica, the nuraghe civilization lasted from the early Bronze Age (18th century BC) to the 2nd century AD, when the islands were already Romanized. They take their name from the characteristic nuragic towers, which evolved from the pre-existing megalithic culture, which built dolmens and menhirs.

The nuraghe towers are unanimously considered the best preserved and largest megalithic remains in Europe. Their effective use is still debated: some scholars considered them as monumental tombs, others as Houses of the Giants, other as fortresses, ovens for metal fusion, prisons or, finally, temples for a solar cult.

A warrior and mariner people, the ancient Sardinians held flourishing trades with the other Mediterranean peoples. This is showed by numerous remains contained in the nuraghe, such as amber coming from the Baltic Sea, small bronzes portraying African apes and animals, copper nuggets and weapons from Eastern Mediterranean, Mycenaean ceramics. It has been hypotized that the ancient Sardinians, or part of them, could be identified with one of the so-called Peoples of the Sea (in particular, the Sherden) who attacked ancient Egypt and other regions of eastern Mediterranean.

Other original elements of the Sardinian civilization include the temples known as "Sacred Pits", perhaps dedicated to the holy water related to the Moon and astronomical cycles, the Giants' graves, the Megaron temples, several structures for juridical and leisure functions, and some refined statuettes. Some of them have been discovered in Etruscan tombs, suggesting a strong relationships between the two peoples.

Apennine culture[edit]

The Apennine culture (also called Italian Bronze Age) is a technology complex of central and southern Italy spanning the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age proper.

The people of the Apennine culture were alpine cattle herdsmen grazing their animals over the meadows and groves of mountainous central Italy. They lived in small hamlets located in defensible places. On the move between summer pastures they built temporary camps or lived in caves and rock shelters. Their range was not necessarily confined to the hills; their pottery has been found on the Capitoline Hill at Rome as well as on the islands mentioned above.


The Terramare was a Bronze Age culture in the area of what is now Pianura Padana (northern Italy) before the arrival of the Celts, as well as in other parts of Europe. They lived in villages constituted of wooden stilt houses: they had a square shape, built on the mainland but generally near a stream, with roads that crossed each other at right angles. The whole complex denoted the nature of a fortified settlement. The Terramare were widespread in the Pianura Padana (specially along the Panaro river, between Modena and Bologna) and in the rest of Europe. The civilization developed in the Middle and Recent Bronze Age, between the 17th and the 13th centuries BC.

It has been suggested that the Terramare of Emilia acted as stores and starting points for trades of the Baltic amber and the tin from Erzgebirge through the Val Camonica and the Po River, towards the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and Greece.

Villanovan Tomb from the 9th century BC. Museo Guarnacci, Volterra.


The name of this Iron Age civilization derives from a locality in the frazione Castenaso of Bologna, in Emilia, where a necropolis was discovered by Giovanni Gozzadini in 1853-1856.

The main characteristic of the Villanovans (with some similarities with the so-called Proto-Villanovan epoch of the late Bronze Age) were the incinerated sepultures, in which the dead's ashes were housed in double-cone shaped urns.

The Villanovan were initially devoted to agriculture and breeding, with a simplified social order. Later, specialized craftmanship activities such as metallurgy and ceramics created an accumulation of richness, which caused the appearance of social stratification.


The Castellieri civilization developed in Istria during the Mid-Bronze Age, and later expanded into Friuli, the modern Venezia Giulia, Dalmatia and the neighbouring areas. It lasted for more than a millennium, from the 15th century BC until the Roman conquest in the 3rd century BC. It takes its name from the fortified boroughs (Castellieri, Friulian cjastelir) which characterized the culture.

The ethnicity of the Castellieri civilization is uncertain, although it was most likely of Pre-Indoeuropean stock, coming from the sea. The first castellieri were indeed built along the Istrian coasts and present the same Megalithic appearance characterizing in the Mycenaean civilization at the time. Hypotheses about an Illyrian origin of the people are not confirmed.

The Castellieri were fortified boroughs, usually located on hills or mountains or, more rarely (such as in Friuli), in plains. They were constituted by one or more concentric series of walls, of rounded or elliptical shape in Istria and Venezia Giulia, or quadrangular in Friuli, within which was the inhabited area.

Some a hundred of castellieri have been discovered in Istria, Friuli and Venezia Giulia, such as that of Leme, in the central-western Istria, of the Jelarji, near Muggia, of Monte Giove near Prosecco (Trieste) and San Polo, not far from Monfalcone. However, the largest castelliere was perhaps that of Nesactium, in the southern Istria, not far from Pula.


The Canegrate culture developed from the mid-Bronze Age (13th century BC) till the Iron Age in the Pianura Padana, in what is now western Lombardy, eastern Piedmont and Ticino. It takes its name from the township of Canegrate where, in the 20th century, some fifty tombs with ceramics and metal objects were found.

Canegrate terracotta is very similar to that known from the same period north to the Alps (Provence, Savoy, Isère, Valais, the area of Rhine-Switzerland-eastern France). The members of the culture have been described as a warrior population who had descended to Pianura Padana from the Swiss Alps passes and the Ticino.


Situation of the Golasecca culture to the south of the Hallstatt culture.

The Golasecca culture developed starting from the late Bronze Age in the Po plain. It takes its name from Golasecca, a locality next to the Ticino where, in the early 19th century, abbot Giovanni Battista Giani excavated its first findings (some fifty tombs with ceramics and metal objects). Remains of the Golasecca culture span an area of c. 20,000 square kilometers south to the Alps, between the Po, Sesia and Serio rivers, dating from the 9th to the 4th century BC.

Their origins can be directly traced from that of Canegrate and to the so-called Proto-Golasecca culture (12th-10th centuries BC). Recent excavations have proved the continuity of the culture after the Celtic invasion from France around 390/380 BC. The Golasecca culture traded with the Etruscans and the Halstatt culture on the north, later reaching the Greek world (oil, wine, bronze objects, ceramics and others) and northern Europe (tin and amber from the Baltic coast).

In a Golasecca culture tomb in Pombia has been found the oldest known remain of common hop beer in the world.

Indo-European migration[edit]

At the time of the appearance of metalwork, Indo-European speakers might have migrated to Italy. Approximately four Bronze Age waves of population from north to the Alps have been identified:

  • a first Indoeuropean migration occurred around the mid-3rd millennium BC, from population who imported copper smithing
  • a second wave occurred from the late 3rd to early 2nd millennium BC, with tribes identified with the Beaker culture and by the use of bronze smithing, in the Padan Plain, in Tuscany and on the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily.
  • in the mid-2nd millennium BC, a third wave associated with the Terramare and, according to some scholars, to the Latin-Faliscan civilization spread the use of iron and cremation
  • from the late 2nd millennium to the early 1st millennium BC, a fourth wave, associated to the Urnfield culture, can be perhaps identified with the Oscan-Umbrians and with the Latin-Faliscan tribes, the Lepontii and the Veneti.

Iron Age[edit]

The Camuni were an ancient people of uncertain origin (according to Pliny the Elder, they were Euganei; according to Strabo, they were Rhaetians) who lived in Val Camonica – in what is now northern Lombardy – during the Iron Age, although human groups of hunters, shepherds and farmers are known to have lived in the area since the Neolithic.

They reached the height of their power during the Iron Age due to the presence of numerous iron mills in Val Camonica. Their historical importance is, however, mostly due to their legacy of carved rocks, c. 300,000 in number, which date from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages.

Among the populations of pre-Roman Italy, the most notable were the Etruscans who, starting from the 8th century BC, created a refined civilization which largely influenced Rome and the Latin world. The origins of this non-Indo-European people, which originated from the Tyrrhenian coast of central Italy and later expanded to Emilia and Campania, are uncertain.

Other peoples living in northern Italy include the Ligurians (an Indo-European people who lived in what is now Liguria, southern Piedmont and the southern French coast), and the Veneti of north-eastern Italy, who probably came from Illyria or, according to other studies, Asia Minor. In the peninsula, alongside the Etruscans, lived numerous tribes, mostly of Indo-European origin: the Umbri in Umbria, Latins, Sabellians, Falisci, Volsci and Aequi in the Latium; Piceni in the Marche and northern Abruzzo; Samnites in southern Abruzzo, Molise and Campania; Daunians, Messapii and Peucetii (forming the Apulian or Iapygian confederation) in Apulia; Lucani and Bruttii in the southern tips of the peninsula; Sicels, Elymians and Siculi in Sicily. Sardinia, since the 2nd millennium BC, was still inhabited by the Nuragic people. Apart from the Latins (who created the Roman civilization), the most successful were perhaps the Samnites, who were able to create a large federation across the central Apennines and effectively opposed the Roman expansions until the Samnite Wars.

Some of these peoples, living in southern Italy and Sicily from the 8th to the 3rd century, lived alongside new colonies founded by the Phoenicians and Magna Graecia, and were later absorbed into the Roman state.


  1. ^ Wilford, John Noble (2 Nov 2011). "Fossil Teeth Put Humans in Europe Earlier Than Thought". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-19. 
  2. ^ "Impressed Ware Culture". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. Retrieved 2008-05-11. 
  3. ^ Antonio Gilman, Neolithic of Northwest Africa, Antiquity,vol 48, no. 192 (1974), pp 273-282.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]