Guide to Prehistoric Europe: Lower Paleolithic to Mesolithic

Stonehenge, Amesbury, Salisbury, Wiltshire, England
joe daniel price / Getty Images

Prehistoric Europe covers at least one million years of human occupation, starting with Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia. This guide to prehistoric Europe skates the surface of the vast amount of information generated by archaeologists and paleontologists over the past couple of centuries; be sure to dig deeper where you can.

Lower Paleolithic (1,000,000–200,000 BP)

There is sparse evidence of the Lower Paleolithic in Europe. The earliest inhabitants of Europe identified so far were Homo erectus or Homo ergaster at Dmanisi, dated between 1 and 1.8 million years ago. Pakefield, on the North Sea coast of England, is dated to 800,000 years ago, followed by Isernia La Pineta in Italy, 730,000 years ago and Mauer in Germany at 600,000 BP. Sites belonging to archaic Homo sapiens (the ancestors of the Neanderthal) have been identified at Steinheim, Bilzingsleben, Petralona, and Swanscombe, among other places beginning between 400,000 and 200,000. The earliest use of fire is documented during the Lower Paleolithic.

Middle Paleolithic (200,000–40,000 BP)

From Archaic Homo Sapiens came Neanderthals, and for the next 160,000 years, our short and stocky cousins ruled Europe, such as it was. Sites showing the evidence of Homo sapiens to Neanderthal evolution include Arago in France and Pontnewydd in Wales. Neanderthals hunted and scavenged meat, built fireplaces, made stone tools, and (maybe) buried their dead, among other human behaviors: they were the first recognizable humans.

Upper Paleolithic (40,000–13,000 BP)

Anatomically modern Homo sapiens (abbreviated AMH) entered Europe during the Upper Paleolithic from Africa by way of the Near East; the Neanderthal shared Europe and parts of Asia with AMH (that is to say, with us) until about 25,000 years ago. Bone and stone tools, cave art and figurines, and language developed during the UP (although some scholars put language development well into the Middle Paleolithic). Social organization began; hunting techniques focused on a single species and sites were located near rivers. Burials, some elaborate are present for the first time during the Upper Paleolithic period.

Azilian (13,000–10,000 BP)

The end of the Upper Paleolithic was brought about by a severe climate change, warming over a fairly brief period that brought immense changes to the people living in Europe. Azilian people had to deal with new environments, including newly forested areas where savanna had been. Melting glaciers and rising sea levels obliterated ancient coastlines; and the main source of food, large-bodied mammals, disappeared. A severe human population drop is in evidence as well, as the people struggled to survive. A new strategy of living had to be devised.

Mesolithic (10,000–6,000 BP)

The increasing warmth and rising sea levels in Europe led people to devise new stone tools to handle the new plant and animal processing that was required. Large game hunting concentrated on a range of animals including red deer and wild pig; small game trapping with nets included badgers and rabbits; aquatic mammals, fish, and shellfish become part of the diet. Accordingly, arrowheads, leaf-shaped points, and flint quarries appeared for the first time, with a wide range of raw materials evidence of the beginning of long-distance trade. Microliths, textiles, wicker baskets, fish hooks, and nets are part of the Mesolithic toolkit, as are canoes and skis. Dwellings are fairly simple timber-based structures; the first cemeteries, some with hundreds of bodies, have been found. The first hints of social ranking appeared.

First Farmers (7000–4500 BC)

Farming arrived in Europe beginning ~7000 BC, brought in by waves of migrating people from the Near East and Anatolia, introducing domesticated wheat and barley, goats and sheep, cattle and pigs. Pottery first appeared in Europe ~6000 years BC, and the Linearbandkeramic (LBK) pottery decorating technique is still considered a marker for first farmer groups. Fired-clay figurines become widespread.

First Farmer Sites: Esbeck, Olszanica, Svodin, Stacero, Lepenski Vir, Vinca, Dimini, Franchthi Cave, Grotta dell' Uzzo, Stentinello, Gazel, Melos, Elsloo, Bylansky, Langweiler, Yunatzili, Svodin, Sesklo, Passo di Corva, Verlaine, Brandwijk-Kerkhof, Vaihingen.

Later Neolithic/Chalcolithic (4500–2500 BC)

During the later Neolithic, also called Chalcolithic in some places, copper and gold were mined, smelted, hammered and cast. Wide trade networks were developed, and obsidian, shell, and amber were traded. Urban cities began to develop, modeled on Near Eastern communities beginning about 3500 BC. In the fertile crescent, Mesopotamia rose and innovations such as wheeled vehicles, metal pots, plows, and wool-bearing sheep were imported into Europe. Settlement planning began in some areas; elaborate burials, gallery graves, passage tombs, and dolmen groups were built. Malta's temples and Stonehenge were built. Houses during the late Neolithic were primarily built of timber; the first elite lifestyles appear in Troy and then spread westward.

Later Neolithic Sites in Europe include: Polyanitsa, Varna, Dobrovody, Majdanetskoe, Dereivka, Egolzwil, Stonehenge, Malta Tombs, Maes Howe, Aibunar, Bronocice, Los Millares.

Early Bronze Age (2000–1200 BC)

During the Early Bronze Age, things really get started in the Mediterranean, where elite lifestyles expand into Minoan and then Mycenaean cultures, fueled by extensive trade with the Levant, Anatolia, North Africa, and Egypt. Communal tombs, palaces, public architecture, luxuries and peak sanctuaries, chamber tombs and the first 'suits of armor' are all part of the lives of Mediterranean elites.

All of this comes crashing to a halt ~1200 BC, when Mycenaean, Egyptian and Hittite cultures are damaged or destroyed by a combination of intensive raiding by the "sea peoples", devastating earthquakes and internal revolts.

Early Bronze Age sites include: Unetice, Bihar, Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, Mycenae, Argos, Gla, Orchomenos, Athens, Tiryns, Pylos, Sparta, Medinet Habu, Xeropolis, Aghia Triada, Egtved, Hornines, Afragola.

Late Bronze/Early Iron Age (1300–600 BC)

While in the Mediterranean region complex societies rose and fell, in central and northern Europe, modest settlements, farmers and herders led their lives comparatively quietly. Quietly, that is, until an industrial revolution began with the advent of iron smelting, about 1000 BC. Bronze casting and smelting continued; agriculture expanded to include millet, honeybees, and horses as draft animals. A great variety of burial customs were used during the LBA, including urnfields; the first trackways in Europe are built on the Somerset Levels. Widespread unrest (perhaps as a result of population pressure) leads to competition among communities, leading to the construction of defensive structures such as hill forts.

LBA Sites: Eiche, Val Camonica, Cape Gelidonya shipwreck, Cap d'Agde, Nuraghe Oes, Velim, Biskupin, Uluburun, Sidon, Pithekoussai, Cadiz, Grevensvaenge, Tanum, Trundholm, Boge, Denestr.

Iron Age (800–450 BC)

During the Iron Age, the Greek city-states began to emerge and expand. Meanwhile, in the Fertile Crescent, Babylon overruns Phoenicia, and concerted battles over control of Mediterranean shipping follow between Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Tartessians, and Romans began in earnest by ~600 BC.

Farther away from the Mediterranean, hillforts and other defensive structures continue to be built: but these structures are to protect cities, not elites. Trade in iron, bronze, stone, glass, amber, and coral continued or blossomed; longhouses and ancillary storage structures are built. In short, societies are still relatively stable and fairly secure.

Iron Ages Sites: Fort Harraoud, Buzenol, Kemmelberg, Hastedon, Otzenhausen, Altburg, Smolenice, Biskupin, Alfold, Vettersfeld, Vix, Crickley Hill, Feddersen Wierde, Meare.

Late Iron Age (450–140 BC)

During the late Iron Age, the rise of Rome began, in the midst of a massive fight for supremacy in the Mediterranean, which Rome eventually won. Alexander the Great and Hannibal are Iron Age heroes. The Peloponnesian and Punic Wars affected the region deeply. Celtic migrations from central Europe into the Mediterranean region began.

Later Iron Age Sites: Emporia, Massalia, Carmona, Porcuna, Heuenberg, Chatillon sur Glane, Hochdorf, Vix, Hallstatt, Tartessos, Cadiz, La Joya, Vulci, Carthage, Vergina, Attica, Maltepe, Kazanluk, Hjortspring, Kul-Oba, La Tene.

Roman Empire (140 BCA–D 300)

During this period, Rome transitioned from a republic to an imperial force, building roads to connect its far-flung empire and maintaining control over most of Europe. About AD 250, the empire began to crumble.

Important Roman Sites: Rome, Noviodunum, Lutetia, Bibracte, Manching, Stare, Hradisko, Brixia, Madrague de Giens, Massalia, Blidaru, Sarmizegethusa, Aquileia, Hadrian's Wall, Roman Roads, Pont du Gard, Pompeii.


  • Cunliffe, Barry. 2008. Europe between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD 1000. Yale University Press.
  • Cunliffe, Barry. 1998. Prehistoric Europe: an Illustrated History. Oxford University Press.
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Hirst, K. Kris. "Guide to Prehistoric Europe: Lower Paleolithic to Mesolithic." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Guide to Prehistoric Europe: Lower Paleolithic to Mesolithic. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Guide to Prehistoric Europe: Lower Paleolithic to Mesolithic." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).