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Civilization to Europe, and a Dark Age

Civilization came to Europeans later than it did to people in West Asia, North Africa, India and China. It was preceded by agriculture and the raising of animals, which appeared in sunny Greece as early as 6000 BCE -- around the time that people there built stone walls around their villages, presumably to protect themselves from wild animals and marauding outsiders. A debate exists as to whether the move to agriculture was an internal cultural development or it was introduced to Europe by migrants from the Near East and Asia Minor.

An online article in Science Daily (February 22, 2011) reads:

Results provide evidence that indigenous hunter-gatherers in central Europe were largely replaced or assimilated by incoming Near-Eastern farmers in the core region of Southeast and Central Europe. However, hunter-gatherer populations survived in outlying regions and adopted some of the cultural practices from neighboring farming communities.

After 6000 BCE, farming spread from Greece into the colder southern Balkans. Between 5000 and 4000 BCE it spread up the Danube River into central Europe, along the Rhine River, the Netherlands, Gaul and finally into what is now Switzerland. During these years, Europeans used digging sticks and hoes made of wood. They had stone axes with a sharpened and polished edge, and they had stone knives for reaping their crops. They used ornamented pottery. And where wood was plentiful they built log homes – as large as thirty by forty meters.

map of Europe

Map of Europe map of Europe, enlarged

By 4000 BCE, Europeans were using a wooden plow. And sometime after 4000, farming spread to people around the Vistula River and into Scandinavia, while people in Finland bred pigs and hunted seals. Farming spread to Britain as people with farming skills crossed the English Channel in boats made of skins and wood. And, sometime between 4000 and 3000 BCE, farming spread along the Dnieper, Bug and Dniester rivers.

Humanity likes to tinker and, like others, the Europeans did much of this. To make it easier for their oxen to transport their loads they hitched the oxen to carts with solid wooden wheels. They began weaving and embroidering. They made skis for hunting during winter. In southern Britain, southern Scandinavia and in what is now Russia, people built mineshafts to follow seams of flint. They used fire to loosen the flint and shovels made from the shoulder blades of cattle. And along the western coast of Spain they built great stone monuments to their dead, a practice that soon spread to Scandinavia.

In Europe, copper had been picked from the ground and used as jewelry. The Europeans shaped the copper by pounding it cold. Then someone discovered that heating copper made it more malleable. Working with metals had begun in southeastern Europe as early as around 4600 BCE – almost a thousand years before it reached Asia Minor. Around 3300 BCE, flint tools were still widely used in Europe – while copper, silver and lead were being smelted in Spain. But soon the working of copper spread through much of Europe. Copper workers made plaques, wires, copper punches, axe and adze heads, pins, and jewelry such as spiral armbands. They crafted copper and gold to adorn their religious idols and as offerings to their gods. Those working copper sought to maintain a supply of the ore, and after the year 3000 prospectors looking for copper ore were combing Europe and creating copper mines.


Stonehenge, England, click for description and to enlarge.


Scandinavia (specifically Finland)
without its snow and ice

Danube River

The Danube River, cutting through
northeastern Romania


Ruins of Mycenae

Lion's Gate, Mycenae

The Lion's Gate, Mycenae

External links to interactive maps:
The Minoan World
Mycenaean Greece
The Bronze Age Collapse

Europe remained less densely populated than West Asia and Egypt, but a great migration into Europe began as warrior-herding peoples from farther east moved into Eastern Europe searching for pasture for their animals. Sometime after 3000 BCE an Indo-European people called Balts – including Lithuanians – and a Finnic people called Estonians settled along the Baltic Sea, near the West Dvina River. From Asia came more Indo-Europeans, who would be called Slavs, and they settled around the Vistula, Bug and Dnieper rivers. Between 2900 and 2700 BCE more Indo-Europeans came, and they settled in and around what are now Belgium and the Netherlands, near where the Rhine River runs into the sea. They brought to Western Europe a new kind of husbandry of animals, and they brought individual burial as opposed to the group burials practiced by Europeans before them.

Around 2500 BCE, small communities of metal working tradesmen from Spain began peaceful migrations. They are called Bell Beakers after their pottery, and they too buried their dead individually. Europe was rich in the deposits of tin needed for making bronze, and the Bell Beakers exploited local sources of copper and tin. The Bell Beakers began trading in bronze, in addition to gold, amber and perhaps furs. By around 2000 BCE the Bell Beakers had traveled as far as what is today the Czech Republic in central Europe, as far as Corsica, Sicily and North Africa, and they had entered Britain as far north as Scotland.

In Britain the Bell Beakers played a major role in the birth of Wessex culture of southern Britain - where people grew barley, wheat and raised sheep and cattle. Wessex became a prosperous area that benefited from the commercial talents of its chiefs, who acted as middlemen in trade with Cornwall, Ireland, Central Europe and the Balkans. And with the rise in population and prosperity from trade, Wessex began to take on the characteristics of civilization, including distinctions between aristocrats and commoners.

Mycenae Greeks, Minoans and a Dark Age

Between the years 2300 and 2000, Indo-Europeans moved south into Greece. Around 1500 BCE those called Mycenae Greeks established fortifications on a hilltop overlooking fresh water – about 90 kilometers south of what is today Athens. From there they dominated much of southern Greece, making themselves an aristocracy over those who had migrated there many centuries before. They had gods similar to other Indo-Europeans, including a father god of the sky called Zeus, whom they believed held power over the entire world.

The Mycenae Greeks came into contact with sea-going tradesmen, the Minoans of Crete – an island one hundred miles south of Greece. Minoan civilization was about as old as Egypt's. It was a commercial society with people differing greatly in wealth, with rule by the wealthy and a government with a well-organized bureaucracy. Workmen in Crete produced fine vases, sheet metal, tweezers, stonework and other artifacts. Wealthy Minoans lived in palaces with plastered walls, which they decorated with art, palaces that show the influence of Hittites and Mesopotamians.

From the Minoans the Mycenae Greeks acquired their alphabet and learned to write – the first Europeans other than the Minoans known to do so. From the Minoans they also learned seafaring, shipbuilding and other crafts. And, with land suitable for agriculture (scarce in mountainous Greece) some Mycenae Greeks took to the sea, became pirates and traded in slaves and other goods.

Sometime around 1400 BCE, after an earthquake on Crete had perhaps weakened the Minoans, Mycenae aristocrats, clinging to their warrior heritage, invaded and conquered Crete. Also they went east and colonized the island of Cyprus. They established themselves on islands such as Ceos, Melos, Paros, Delos, Naxos, Rhodes and Cos. They settled on the shores of Asia Minor. They sought trade in spices, tin, copper and amber and maintained a luxurious way of life that included objects laid with imported gold. They journeyed as far as Italy, the Black Sea, and up the Danube River into central Europe. Looking for loot or perhaps land, they raided the city of Troy – a wealthy, metalworking, trading center in western Asia Minor near the straits that led to the Black Sea.

A Dark Age Descends upon Greece

Around 1200 BCE, Dorian Greeks, who spoke a dialect different from Mycenae Greeks and had been living just north of what is today Greece, began to move southward into Greece. They bypassed some areas but overran much of the Mycenae civilization that had spread into the central part of the Greek mainland. They looted and destroyed palaces and sent people fleeing, some eastward to Asia Minor, some southeast to nearby islands and to Cyprus.

In the mid-1100s, after decades of respite, came more Dorian invasions. In Ithaca, an island off the western coast of Greece, Mycenae Greeks made common cause with people native to the area, and there the Mycenae were able to maintain a semblance of their way of life. So too were some others who remained on the Greek mainland. The city of Athens and cities in Euboea survived, but the Dorians pushed countless Greeks to a new exodus. Legend tells of a well-organized exodus from Athens to the island of Lesbos off the coast of Asia Minor. Other migrants from Greece fled to Asia Minor and mixed with local peoples, and with this western Asia Minor became a mixture of peoples speaking a variety of Greek dialects.

Mycenae Greeks fled to Crete, and soon the Dorians overran that island, as people were fleeing from there to Cyprus. The Dorians moved eastward to the southwest shores of Asia Minor, island hopping by way of Melos, Thera and Rhodes. On the coast of Asia Minor they destroyed Miletus and other cities, and some Mycenae Greeks migrated from the coast of Asia Minor farther inland.

The Dorian invasions destroyed the prosperity and cohesion of Greece. There was a sharp drop in agricultural production and in population. Greek cities became villages, and writing declined or was lost. Trade between Greece and elsewhere disappeared as the Dorian Greeks had no desire for contact with foreign peoples, believing that beyond them lived only strange people and monsters.


Farms, Villages and Cities: Commerce and Urban Origins in Late Prehistoric Europe, by Peter S Wells, 1984

The Greek Dark Ages, by VRd'A Desborough, 1972

Greeks and the Irrational, by ER Dodds, 1951

The Bronze Age in Barbarian Europe: from the Megaliths to the Celts, by Jacques Briard, 1979

"The First Farmers of Europe, Linearbandkeramik Culture," online at

The Prehistory of Europe, by Patricia Phillips, 1980

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, Chapter 1, "Science in the Ancient World," by Sir William Dampier, 1948

Encylopedias Britannica and Wikipedia

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