Life in Prehistoric Europe

By Tim Lambert

Prehistoric Hunters

Modern humans entered Europe about 35,000 BC at a time when the Earth was in the grip of the last ice age (which ended about 8,000 BC). They lived by hunting mammoths, reindeer, bison, and horses. They also hunted smaller animals like hares and arctic foxes. The Ice Age hunters were skilled at making stone tools but they also made tools from bone such as needles for sewing and harpoons. They even made musical instruments from bird bones.

Ice age humans lived in caves some of the time but they also made tents from mammoth skins. Mammoth bones were used as supports. They wore boots, trousers, and anoraks made from animal skins.

In the ice age, people also created art. They carved mammoth ivory and reindeer antlers. They also painted animals and occasionally humans on the walls of caves. Ice Age people also buried their dead with care. Sometimes the dead person was sprinkled with red ochre, perhaps to represent the blood of a living person. After the end of the ice age people in Europe hunted red deer, boar, and rabbits. They also fished and collected shellfish.

Stone Age Farmers

Farming began in the Middle East but thousands of years later it spread to Europe. By about 5,000 BC farming had spread to central Europe. By 4,000 BC it had reached northern Europe. People stopped living in tents made from animal skins and they began to live in huts made from stone or wattle and daub with thatched roofs. They also began making pottery. They grew crops of wheat and barley and they raised sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs. They also kept dogs. The farmers used oxen for pulling wooden ploughs and for pulling carts. By 4,000 BC chariots were in use in eastern Europe.

About 2,000 BC Stone Age hunters lived in a village at Sara Brae in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. They lived in stone huts with roofs of whalebone and turf. Inside they made stone furniture such as cupboards and beds. The Stone Age farmers also dug stone-lined communal graves called barrows. The Stone Age farmers also created megalithic (large stone) monuments across Europe. The farmers still used stone tools. They mined flint to make them using deer antlers as picks and ox shoulder blades as shovels.

About 4,500 BC people began making copper tools. However copper is a soft metal and the next step was to combine copper and tin to make bronze, a much harder and more useful metal. The technique of making bronze reached central Europe about 2,300 BC. It reached England about 2,000 BC. The ‘iceman’ who died on the border of Austria and Italy about 3,500 BC was carrying a copper-headed axe. He was wearing leather and fur clothes with a grass cloak.

In the bronze age, society became stratified. An upper class emerged. Communal graves were no longer made. Instead, people were buried in individual ones. People were buried with goods they would need in the afterlife. Some people owned much more than others. Also during the bronze age trade was carried out across Europe.

Meanwhile, clothes made from wool replaced ones made from animal skins. Weaving reached England about 2,000 BC. Furthermore, during the bronze age, people continued to build megalithic (large stone) monuments.

From about 1,000 BC iron was used in Europe. It reached England about 700 BC. By then Prehistoric Europe was drawing to a close. Civilizations had arisen in Greece and Italy. People from central and northern Europe traded with the people of the Mediterranean and in time they were conquered by Rome.