The First to Arrive
The human maternal gene tree suggests a 50,000-year-old origin for the oldest European ancestors, starting from the Pakistani Gulf region. To travel further north to Asia Minor at that time, these people would have had to skirt the Libyan and Arabian deserts by traversing the legendary Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates. Between 65,000 and 55,000 years ago, the world descended into an Ice Age. During this time ice sheets rendered the Fertile Crescent corridor impassable. Then, starting 51,000 years ago, a warm and wet period lasting nearly 5,000 years provided a suitable climate for population growth in South Asia and migration. This seems to coincide with the movement of the so-called Aurignacians into Europe.
The Aurignacian culture, characterized by its distinctive style of stone tools, first appeared in Europe in Bulgaria perhaps 50,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that these people moved up the Danube to Hungary then west to Austria. They also spread south from Austria into northern Italy and then rapidly westward along the Mediterranean coast, across the Pyrenees, and finally reaching the Portuguese Atlantic coast by 38,000 years ago. There is no clearly dated archaeological source for Aurignacian tools outside of Europe before 47,000 years ago; however the Belgian archaeologist Marcel Otte has identified the Zagros Mountains in Iran and Iraq as a the likely origin of this culture.
“The Lion Human,” (right) found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave of Germany’s Swabian Alb and dated at 32,000 years old, is associated with the Aurignacian culture and is the oldest known anthropomorphic animal figurine in the world.
The Second Wave
Around 33,000 years ago the big game hunters of the Don River, north of the Black Sea in the Ukraine, developed what archaeologists call the Gravettian culture, characterized by new technology for survival in the frigid north. The Gravettians are known for their large skin tents which were constructed over frameworks of mammoth bones as a substitute for wood on the treeless steppes. Among their other advances were their highly sophisticated stone working techniques and their use of spear throwing tools for improved distance and accuracy.
While the Gravettian culture was emerging in the Ukraine, Europe was still dominated by the Aurignacians. However 30,000 years ago the climate began falling back into extreme Ice Age conditions. Gravettian culture, with its many specialized adaptations to the steppes, extended its range into central Europe around 29,000 years ago and was well established throughout the continent by 26,000 years ago. That Gravettian lineages provide well over half the genetic endowment of present-day Europeans, while the Aurignacian lines account for only about 10%, gives an indication of the survival advantages of the Gravettians.
The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) 18,000 years ago was the first to affect modern humans in Europe. Huge areas of land were rendered totally uninhabitable by vast ice caps, some 5 km thick. These ice sheets did not evenly cover the northern hemisphere. In Europe they mainly affected the central and northwest regions. The British Isles, then part of the European mainland, were nearly frozen completely. Glaciers formed the crustal depression now known as the Baltic Sea. Farther south in Europe, mountainous regions such as the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, and the Alps were ice-bound.
Sea levels during the LGM were approximately 125m lower than today, and the coastline differed proportionately. The air would have been on average 10 to 12 degrees cooler and much more arid. In between the ice and the tree line, drought-tolerant grasses and dunes would have dominated the landscape. Eastern Europe came off rather more lightly than the west. Most of Northern Europe was unoccupied.
There were three main refuge areas in Southern Europe to which the Palaeolithic peoples retreated. The first lay partly in France and Spain on either side of the Pyrenees in the Basque country. The people of this refuge were characterized by the finely knapped stone ‘leaf points’ of their Solutrean culture. Receiving, perhaps, their technology from northwest Europe, this refuge was culturally distinct from the others, where stone technology was more generally Gravettian.
The second refuge area was the Balkans. The third was in the Ukraine, a large area north of the Black Sea defined by two great rivers, the Dnepr and the Don, and separated from the rest of Europe by the Carpathian Mountains, which were partially glaciated.
14,500 years ago the ice retreated again and the land became much more hospitable to life and at 13,500 years ago it was at least as warm and humid as our modern climate. The three groups of modern European humans had taken refuge for so long that their DNA had naturally developed separate mutations, and these can be defined as different types known as haplogroups. As these people left their refuges, Haplogroups R1b, I and R1a propagated across Europe. The map below shows the original refuge of each haplogroup.
Haplogroup R1b is common on the western Atlantic coast as far as Scotland.
These three major haplogroups account for approx 80% of Europe's present-day population.
This warm period was followed by a severe freeze known as the Younger Dryas which lasted from about 12,800 to 11,500 years ago. There was yet another cold, dry period, not as severe as the Younger Dryas, which lasted only about 200 years ending around 8,200 years ago. Around this time the Neolithic peoples of the Middle East, who had developed the new technology of agriculture, also began moving into Europe. They carried with them their own were haplogroups, named E3b, F, J2 and G2
These Neolithic haplogroups arrived in several waves over time and are found predominantly along the Mediterranean coast. Around 20% of the present-day population are from these Neolithic haplogroups. It is interesting to note that their agricultural technology spread much further than the people who first developed it.