What is “Old Europe”?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)


Detail from map by Jonathan Corum, published in the New York Times here.

The phrase “Old Europe” refers to Neolithic Europe, or the portions of the European continent inhabited by people who made pottery and lived in small villages, ate domesticated and wild plant foods, between about 7000 BC and around 1500 BC (when the Bronze Age began in parts of Europe).

Data on these ancient peoples is sketchy, in part because their populations were relatively low, and in part because this whole region has had many settlements and sometimes intensive land use, which damaged and sometimes obliterated the ancient, Neolithic remains.

The word Neolithic translates as New Stone Age, and was originally used to denote peoples who used ground stone tools instead of only those stone tools made through percussion techniques. In the context of early Europe, Neolithic refers to the first agriculturalists who occupied the area. Many archaeologists believe their ancestors emmigrated into the area from the Near East (aka the Levant), bringing both their knowledge of farming and their Indo-European languages with them.

In a recent article dated 30 November 2009 in the New York Times discussing a recent exhibit at New York University called “The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.,” John Noble Wilford notes:

New research, archaeologists and historians say, has broadened understanding of this long overlooked culture, which seemed to have approached the threshold of “civilization” status. Writing had yet to be invented, and so no one knows what the people called themselves. To some scholars, the people and the region are simply Old Europe.

Actually, most archaeologists use the phrase Neolithic Europe, rather than “Old Europe.” The Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994) coined the term “Old Europe.” Gimbutas theorized that the people native to Old Europe, the non-agriculturalists, had a goddess-centric belief system and were peaceful peoples. Those arriving from the Levant had a patriarchal and hierarchical society, and, she said, the men were warriors. Her interpretation is based in part on what she saw as the absence of fortified settlements prior to the arrival of the invading groups.

Whatever term you use and whatever interpretation you follow, some artifacts from Neolithic Europe required careful craftsmanship to manufacture. Wilford continues:

At its peak, around 4500 B.C., said David W. Anthony, the exhibition’s guest curator, “Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world” and was developing “many of the political, technological and ideological signs of civilization.”

Wilford also notes:

The story now emerging is of pioneer farmers after about 6200 B.C. moving north into Old Europe from Greece and Macedonia, bringing wheat and barley seeds and domesticated cattle and sheep. They established colonies along the Black Sea and in the river plains and hills, and these evolved into related but somewhat distinct cultures, archaeologists have learned. The settlements maintained close contact through networks of trade in copper and gold and also shared patterns of ceramics.

For more information, here’s a link to the exhibit catalog.

Food for thought

Does the terminology you use, for example Old Europe instead of Neolithic Europe, telegraph certain meanings to your audience? Is this good or bad?

Suggested reading

These are all recent single-author volumes, which tend to be more comprehensive than edited volumes. They tend to have an academic style and vocabulary.

Anthony, David W.
2007 The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Beckwith, Christopher I.
2009 Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Bernstein, William J.
2008 A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.

Earle, Timothy K.
2002 Bronze Age Economics: The Beginnings of Political Economies. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.

Harding, A.F.
2000 European Societies in the Bronze Age. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kristiansen, Kristian
1998 Europe before History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Maisels, Charles Keith
1999 Early Civilizations of the Old World: The Formative Histories of Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Routledge, New York.