Prehistory of France

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Prehistoric France is the period in the human occupation (including early hominins) of the geographical area covered by present-day France which extended through prehistory and ended in the Iron Age with the Celtic "La Tène culture".

Stone tools indicate that early humans were present in France at least 1.57 million years ago.[1]

The Palaeolithic[edit]

Lower Palaeolithic[edit]

Stone tools discovered at Lézignan-la-Cèbe in 2009 indicate that early humans were present in France at least 1.57 million years ago.[1]

France includes Olduwan (Abbevillian) and Acheulean sites from early or non-modern (transitional) Hominini species, most notably Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. The Grotte du Vallonnet near Menton contained simple stone tools dating to 1 million to 1.05 million years BC.[2] Cave sites were exploited for habitation, but the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic era also possibly built shelters such as those identified in connection with Acheulean tools at Grotte du Lazaret and Terra Amata near Nice in France. Excavations at Terra Amata found traces of the earliest known domestication of fire in Europe, from 400,000 BC.[2]

Middle Palaeolithic[edit]

The Neanderthals, the earliest human species to occupy Europe, are thought to have arrived there around 300,000 BC, but seem to have died out by about by 30,000 BC, presumably unable to compete with modern humans during a period of cold weather. Numerous Neanderthal, or "Mousterian", artifacts (named after the type site of Le Moustier, a rock shelter in the Dordogne region of France) have been found from this period, some using the "Levallois technique", a distinctive type of flint knapping developed by hominids during the Lower Palaeolithic but most commonly associated with the Neanderthal industries of the Middle Palaeolithic. Importantly, recent findings suggest that Neandertals and modern humans may have interbred ("The date of interbreeding between Neandertals and modern humans" http://arxiv.org/abs/1208.2238).

Upper Palaeolithic[edit]

The earliest modern humans – Cro-Magnons – were present in Europe by 43,000 years ago during a long interglacial period of particularly mild climate, when Europe was relatively warm, and food was plentiful.[3] When they arrived in Europe, they brought with them sculpture, engraving, painting, body ornamentation, music and the painstaking decoration of utilitarian objects. Some of the oldest works of art in the world, such as the cave paintings at Lascaux in southern France, are datable to shortly after this migration.

European Palaeolithic cultures are divided into several chronological subgroups (the names are all based on French type sites, principally in the Dordogne region):

  • Aurignacian (c. 38,000 - 23,000 BP) – responsible for Venus figurines, cave paintings at the Chauvet Cave (continued during the Gravettian period).
  • Périgordian (c. 35,000 - 20,000 BP) – use of this term is debated (the term implies that the following subperiods represent a continuous tradition).
    • Châtelperronian (c. 39,000 - 29,000 BP) – culture derived from the earlier, Neanderthal, Mousterian industry as it made use of Levallois cores and represents the period when Neanderthals and modern humans occupied Europe together.
    • Gravettian (c. 28,000 - 22,000 BP) – responsible for Venus figurines, cave paintings at the Cosquer Cave.
  • Solutrean (c. 22,000 - 17,000 BP)
  • Magdalenian (c. 17,000 - 10,000 BP) – thought to be responsible for the cave paintings at Pech Merle (in the Lot in Languedoc, dating back to 16,000 BC), Lascaux (located near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne, dating back to somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 BC, and perhaps as far back as 25,000 BC), the Trois-Frères cave and the Rouffignac Cave also known as The Cave of the hundred mammoths. It possesses the most extensive cave system of the Périgord in France with more than 8 kilometers of underground passage ways.

Experts sometimes refer to the "Franco-Cantabrian region" to describe this densely populated region of southern France and northern Spain in the late Palaeolithic.

The Mesolithic[edit]

From the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, the Magdalenian culture evolved. In South-West France and Spain, one finds the Azilian culture of the Late Glacial Maximum which co-existed with similar early Mesolithic European cultures such as the Tjongerian of North-Western, the Ahrensburgian of Northern and the Swiderian of North-Eastern Europe, all succeeding the Federmesser complex. The Azilian culture was followed by the Sauveterrian in Southern France and Switzerland, the Tardenoisian in Northern France, the Maglemosian in Northern Europe.

Archeologists are unsure whether Western Europe saw a Mesolithic immigration. If Epipaleolithic or Mesolithic immigrants to Europe were indeed Indo-European, then populations speaking non-Indo-European languages are obvious candidates for Paleolithic remnants. The Vascons (Basques) of the Pyrenees present the strongest case, since their language is related to none other in the world, and the Basque population has a unique genetic profile[citation needed]. Some archeologists however situate the arrival of Vascons in the Mesolithic or the Neolithic[citation needed]. The Ligures is another possible substrate people of an early recolonization. The disappearance of the Doggerland had an impact on the surrounding territories. The most part of the Doggerland population had to go as far as northern France and eastern Ireland to escape from the floods.

The Neolithic[edit]

The Menec alignments, the most well-known megalithic site amongst the Carnac stones.

The Neolithic period lasted in northern Europe for approximately 3,000 years (c. 4500 BC–1700 BC). It is characterised by the so-called Neolithic Revolution, a transitional period that included the adoption of agriculture, the development of tools and pottery (Cardium Pottery, LBK), and the growth of larger, more complex settlements. There was an expansion of peoples from southwest Asia into Europe; this diffusion across Europe, from the Aegean to Britain, took about 2,500 years (6500 BC–4000 BC). Some archaeologists believe that this expansion, marking the eclipse of Mesolithic culture, coincided with the introduction of Indo-European speakers, whereas linguists prefer to see Indo-European languages introduced during the succeeding Bronze Age. Within the framework of this latter theory (the Kurgan hypothesis), which remains the most commonly accepted model of Indo-European expansion, Neolithic peoples in Europe are called "Pre-Indo-Europeans" or "Old Europe".

Many European Neolithic groups share basic characteristics, such as living in small-scale family-based communities, subsisting on domestic plants and animals supplemented with the collection of wild plant foods and with hunting, and producing hand-made pottery (that is made without the potter's wheel). Archeological sites from the Neolithic in France include artifacts from the Linear Pottery culture (c. 5500-4500 BC), the Rössen culture (c. 4500—4000 BC), and the Chasséen culture (4,500 - 2500 BC; named after Chassey-le-Camp in Saône-et-Loire), the name given to the late Neolithic pre-Beaker culture that spread throughout the plains and plateaux of France, including the Seine basin and the upper Loire valleys.

"Armorican" (Brittany) and Northern French neolithic culture is based on traditions of the Linear Pottery culture or "Limburg pottery" in association with the La Hoguette culture.

It is most likely from the Neolithic that date the megalithic (large stone) monuments, such as the dolmens, menhirs, stone circles and chamber tombs, found throughout France, the largest selection of which are in the Brittany and Auvergne regions. The most famous of these are the Carnac stones (c. 3300 BC, but may date to as old as 4500 BC) and the stones at Saint-Sulpice-de-Faleyrens.

The Copper Age[edit]

During the Chalcolithic or Copper Age, a transitional age from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, France shows evidence of the Seine-Oise-Marne culture and the Beaker culture.

The Seine-Oise-Marne culture or "SOM culture" (c. 3100 to 2400 BC) is the name given by archaeologists to the final culture of the Neolithic in Northern France around the Oise River and Marne River. It is most famous for its gallery grave megalithic tombs which incorporate a port-hole slab separating the entrance from the main burial chamber. In the chalk valley of the Marne River rock-cut tombs were dug to a similar design.

Beginning about 2600 BC, the Artenacian culture, a part of the larger European Megalithic Culture, developed in Dordogne, possibly as a reaction to the advance of Danubian peoples (such as SOM) over Western France. Armed with typical arrows, they took over all Atlantic France and Belgium by 2400 BC, establishing a stable border with the Indo-Europeans (Corded Ware) near the Rhine that would remain stable for more than a millennium.

In the Southeast, several groups whose culture had evolved from Chasséen culture also built megaliths.

The Beaker culture (c. 2800–1900 BC) is a wide phenomenon that expanded over most of France, excluding the Massif Central, without significatively altering the pre-existing cultures.

Europe in c. 4500-4000 BC
Europe in c. 4000-3500 BC
Extent of the Beaker culture (c. 2800–1900 BC)

The Bronze Age[edit]

The early Bronze Age archeological cultures in France include the transitional Beaker culture (c. 2800–1900 BC), the Tumulus culture (c. 1600-1200 BC) and Urnfield culture (c. 1300-800 BC). Bronze Age sites in Brittany are believed to have grown out of Beaker roots, with some Wessex culture and Unetice culture influence. Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family (see Proto-Celtic). This culture was preeminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age; the Urnfield period saw a dramatic increase in population in the region, probably due to innovations in technology and agricultural practices.

A simplified map, ca 1200 BC, showing the central Urnfield culture (red), the northern Urnfield culture (orange), the Knoviz culture (blue-gray), the Lusatian culture (purple), the Danubian culture (brown), the Terramare culture (blue), the West European Bronze Age (green) and the Nordic Bronze Age (yellow).

Some archeologists date the arrival of several non-Indo-European peoples to this period, including the Iberians in southern France and Spain, the Ligures on the Mediterranean coast, and the Vascons (Basques) in southwest France and Spain.

The Iron Age[edit]

The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture (c. 700 to 500 BC) directly from the Urnfield. Proto-Celtic, the latest common ancestor of all known Celtic languages, is generally considered to have been spoken at the time of the late Urnfield or early Hallstatt cultures, in the early 1st millennium BC.

The Hallstatt culture was succeeded by the La Tène culture, which developed out of the Hallstatt culture without any definite cultural break, under the impetus of considerable Mediterranean influence from Greek, and later Etruscan civilizations. The La Tène culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (from 450 BC to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BC) in eastern France, Switzerland, Austria, southwest Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Farther to the north extended the contemporary Pre-Roman Iron Age culture of Northern Germany and Scandinavia.

The green area suggests a possible extent of (proto-)Celtic influence around 1000 BC. The orange area shows the region of birth of the La Tène style. The red area indicates an idea of the possible region of Celtic influence around 400 BC.

In addition, Greeks and Phoenicians settled outposts like Marseille in this period (c. 600 BC).

By the 2nd century BC, Celtic France was called Gaul by the Romans, and its people were called Gauls. The people to the north (in what is present-day Belgium) were called Belgae (scholars believe this may represent a mixture of Celtic and Germanic elements) and the peoples of the south-west of France were called the Aquitani by the Romans, and may have been Celtiberians or Vascons.

Timeline[edit]

Prehistoric and Iron Age France - all dates are BC

See also[edit]

Sources and citations[edit]

External links[edit]