The prehistory of Italy began in the Paleolithic period, when species of Homo colonized the Italian territory for the first time, and ended in the Iron Age, when the first written records appeared in Italy.


Venere di Savignano.

In prehistoric times, the Italian peninsula was rather different from how it is now. During glaciations, for example, the sea level was lower and the islands of Elba and Sicily were connected to the mainland. The Adriatic Sea began at what is now the Gargano Peninsula, and what is now its surface up to Venice was a fertile plain with a humid climate.

The arrival of the first hominins was 850,000 years ago at Monte Poggiolo.[1]

The presence of Homo neanderthalensis has been demonstrated in archaeological findings dating to c. 50,000 years ago (late Pleistocene). There are some twenty such sites, the most important being that of the Grotta Guattari at San Felice Circeo, on the Tyrrhenian Sea south of Rome; another is at the grotta di Fumane (province of Verona) and the Breuil grotto, also in San Felice.

Homo sapiens sapiens appeared during the upper Palaeolithic: the earliest site in Italy dated 48,000 years ago is Riparo Mochi (Italy).[2] In November 2011 tests conducted at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in England on what were previously thought to be Neanderthal baby teeth, which had been unearthed in 1964 from the Grotta del Cavallo, dated teeth from between 43,000 and 45,000 years ago.[3]

In 2011 the most ancient Sardinian complete human skeleton (called Amsicora) was discovered at Pistoccu, in Marina di Arbus; scientists date it to 8500 years ago (the transition period between the Mesolithic and Neolithic).[4]


Further information: Neolithic Europe and Neolithic Italy

Cardium pottery is a Neolithic decorative style that gets its name from the imprinting of the clay with the shell of the Cardium edulis, a marine mollusk. The alternative name Impressed Ware is given by some archaeologists to define this culture, because impressions can be with sharp objects other than Cardium shell, such as a nail or comb.[5]

Circular graves of Li Muri at Arzachena, one of the oldest megalithic sites in Italy.
Circular graves of Li Muri at Arzachena, one of the oldest megalithic sites in Italy.

Impressed Ware is found in the zone "covering Italy to the Ligurian coast" as distinct from the more western Cardial beginning in Provence, France and extending to western Portugal.

This pottery style gives its name to the main culture of the Mediterranean Neolithic, which eventually extended from the Adriatic sea to the Atlantic coasts of Portugal and south to Morocco.[6]

Since the Late-Neolithic, Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany and Sardinia in particular were involved in the pan-Western European Megalithic phenomenon. Later, in the Bronze Age, megalithic structures were built also in Latium, Puglia and Sicily.[7] The latter region, about the end of the third millennium B.C. imported from Sardinia typical cultural aspects of Atlantic world, including the Culture of small dolmen-shaped structures that reached all over the Mediterranean basin.[8]

Copper Age

Gaudo culture pottery
Gaudo culture pottery

Further information: Chalcolithic Europe and Metallurgy during the Copper Age in Europe

The Remedello, Rinaldone and Gaudo cultures are late Neolithic cultures of Italy, traces of which are primarily found in the present-day regions of Lombardy, Tuscany, Latium and Campania. They are sometimes described as Eneolithic cultures, due to their use of primitive copper tools. Other important eneolithic cultures of the peninsula and the islands, often related to those previously mentioned, are the Laterza culture in Apulia and Basilicata, the Abealzu-Filigosa culture in Sardinia, the Conelle-Ortucchio culture in Abruzzo and Marche, the Serraferlicchio culture in Sicily, and the Spilamberto group in Emilia-Romagna.

The earliest Statue menhirs, frequently depicting weapons, were erected by the populations of northern Italy and Sardinia during this period. This sculptural tradition of possible steppe origin (Yamna culture),[9] lasted in some regions well into the Bronze Age and even into the Iron Age.[10]

The Beaker culture marks the transition between the Eneolitichic and the early Bronze Age.

Bronze Age

Early Bronze Age daggers from Italy
Early Bronze Age daggers from Italy

Further information: Bronze Age Europe

The Italian Bronze Age is conditionally divided into four periods:

The Early Bronze Age 2300–1700 B.C
The Middle Bronze Age 1700–1350 B.C
The Recent Bronze Age 1350–1150 B.C
The Final Bronze Age 1150–950 B.C

The Early Bronze Age shows the beginning of a new culture in Northern Italy and is distinguished by the Polada culture. Polada settlements were mainly widespread in wetland locations such as around the large lakes and hills along the Alpine margin. The cities of  Toppo Daguzzo and La Starza were known as the center of the Proto-Apennine stage of Palma Campania culture spread in southern Italy at this time.[11]

The Middle Bronze Age known as the Apennine Bronze Age in Central and Southern Italy was the period when settlements were established both on lowland and upland areas. Hierarchy among the social groups were experienced during this period according to the tombs. The two-tier grave found at Toppo Daguzzo is an example of elite groups growth. On the top level, nearly 10 fractured skeletons have been found without any grave objects, while at the lower level eleven burials were found accompanied by different valuable pieces: 6 males with bronze weapons, 4 females with beads and a child.[11][12]

The Recent Bronze Age known as the Sub-Apennine period in Central Italy is a frame of time when sites relocated to defended locations. At this time settlement hierarchy obviously appeared in cities such as Latium and Tuscany.[11]

The Final Bronze Age. During this period, the majority of the Italian peninsula was united in the Protovillanovan culture.  Pianello di Genga is an exception to the small cemeteries characterized for the Protovillanovan culture. More than 500 burials were found in this cemetery which is known for its two centuries of usage by different communities.[11][13]

Polada culture

Main article: Polada culture

The Polada Culture (a location near Brescia) was a cultural horizon extended from eastern Lombardy and Veneto to Emilia and Romagna, formed in the first half of 2nd millennium BC perhaps for the arrival of new people from the transalpine regions of Switzerland and Southern Germany.[14]

The settlements were usually made up of stilt houses; the economy was characterized by agricultural and pastoral activities, hunting and fishing were also practiced as well as the metallurgy of copper and bronze (axes, daggers, pins etc.). Pottery was coarse and blackish.[15]

It was followed in the Middle Bronze Age by the facies of the pile dwellings and of the dammed settlements.[16]

Nuragic civilization

Main articles: Nuragic civilization and Torrean civilization

Nuraghe village of Su Nuraxi
Nuraghe village of Su Nuraxi
A Sardinian bronze statuette, perhaps portraying a tribal chief. Cagliari, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
A Sardinian bronze statuette, perhaps portraying a tribal chief. Cagliari, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

Located in Sardinia (with ramifications in southern Corsica), the Nuragic civilization, who lasted from the early Bronze Age (18th century B.C.) to the second century A.D. when the island was already Romanized, evolved during the Bonnanaro period from the preexisting megalithic cultures that built dolmens, menhirs, more than 2,400 Domus de Janas and also the imponent altar of Monte d'Accoddi.

It takes its name from the characteristic Nuraghe. The nuraghe towers are unanimously considered the best-preserved and largest megalithic remains in Europe. Their effective use is still debated; while most scholars considered them as fortresses, others see them as temples.

A warrior and mariner people, the ancient Sardinians held flourishing trades with the other Mediterranean peoples. This is shown by numerous remains contained in the nuraghe, such as amber coming from the Baltic Sea, small bronze figures portraying African beasts, Oxhide ingots and weapons from Eastern Mediterranean, Mycenaean ceramics. It has been hypothesized that the ancient Sardinians, or part of them, could be identified with the Sherden, one of the so-called People of the Sea who attacked ancient Egypt and other regions of eastern Mediterranean.[17]

Other original elements of the Sardinian civilization include the temples known as "Holy wells", dedicated to the cult of the holy waters, the Giants' graves,[18] the Megaron temples, several structures for juridical and leisure functions and numerous bronze statuettes, which were discovered even in Etruscan tombs, suggesting a strong relationships between the two peoples. Another important element of this civilization are the Giants of Mont'e Prama,[19] perhaps the oldest anthropomorphic statues of the western Mediterranean sea.


Main articles: Castelluccio culture and Thapsos culture

Thapsos culture pottery
Thapsos culture pottery
Dolmen located in Monte Bubbonia Sicily
Dolmen located in Monte Bubbonia Sicily

Among the most important cultural expressions born in Sicily during the Bronze Age the cultures of Castelluccio (Ancient Bronze Age) and of Thapsos (Middle Bronze Age) are worth noting. Both originated in the southeastern part of the island. In these cultures, in particular in the Castelluccio phase, there are obvious influences from the Aegean Sea, where the Helladic civilization was flourishing.

Village of Capo Graziano, Filicudi
Village of Capo Graziano, Filicudi

Some small monuments date back to this phase, used as tombs and found almost everywhere, both inland and along the coasts of this region.[20]

Belonging to a western (Iberian-Sardinian) type is the Bell Beaker culture known from sites on the northwestern and southwestern coasts of Sicily, previously occupied by the Conca d'Oro culture, while in the late Bronze Age there are signs in northeastern Sicily of cultural osmosis with the people of the peninsula that led to the appearance of Proto-Villanovan culture at Milazzo, perhaps linked to the arrival of Sicels.[21]

The nearby Aeolian Islands hosted the flourishing of the Capo Graziano and Milazzo cultures in the Bronze Age, and subsequently that of Ausonio (divided into two phases, I and II).[22]

Palma Campania culture

Palma Campania culture takes shape at the end of the third millennium BC and is representative of the Early Bronze Age of Campania. It owes its name to the locality of Palma Campania where the first findings were made.

Many villages of this culture were buried under volcanic ash after an eruption of the Mount Vesuvius that took place in the 2000 BC or shortly later.[23]

Apennine culture

Main article: Apennine culture

The Apennine culture is a cultural complex of central and southern Italy that, in its broadest sense (including the preceding Protoapennine B and following Subapennine facies), spans the Bronze Age. In the narrower sense more commonly used today, it refers only to the later phase of the Middle Bronze Age in the 15th and 14th centuries BCE.[24]

The people of the Apennine culture were, at least in part, cattle herdsmen grazing their ungulates over the meadows and groves of mountainous central Italy, including on the Capitoline Hill at Rome, as shown by the presence of their pottery in the earliest layers of occupation. The primary picture is of a population that lived in small hamlets located in defensible places. There is evidence that herdsmen, when traveling between summer pastures, built temporary camps or lived in caves and rock shelters. However, their range was not confined to the hills, nor was their culture confined to herding cattle, as shown by sites like Coppa Nevigata, a well-defended and somewhat sizeable coastal site where a variety of subsistence strategies were practiced alongside advanced industries such as dye production.


Illustration of a Terramare settlement
Illustration of a Terramare settlement

Main article: Terramare

The Terramare was a Middle and Recent Bronze Age culture, between the 16th and the 12th centuries B.C., in the area of what is now Pianura Padana (specially along the Panaro river, between Modena and Bologna).[25] Their total population probably reached an impressive peak of more than 120,000 individuals near the beginning of the Recent Bronze Age.[26] In the early period they lived in villages with an average population of about 130 people living in wooden stilt houses: they had a square shape, built on land but generally near a stream, with roads that crossed each other at right angles. Over the lifetime of the Terramare culture, these settlements developed into stratified zones with larger settlements of up to 15-20Ha (approximately 1500-2000 people) surrounded by smaller villages. Especially in the later period, the proportion of settlements that were fortified approaches 100%.

Around the 12th century BC the Terramare system collapsed, the settlements were abandoned and the populations moved southward, where they mingled with the Apennine peoples.[25] The influence of this population abandoning the Po valley and moving south may have formed the basis of the Tyrrhenian culture, ultimately leading to the historic Etruscans, based on a surprising level of correspondence between archeological evidence and early legends recorded by the Greeks.[25]


Castelliere of Monkodonja, Croatia
Castelliere of Monkodonja, Croatia

Main article: Castellieri culture

The Castellieri civilization developed in Istria during the Mid-Bronze Age, and later expanded into Friuli, the modern Venezia Giulia, Dalmatia and the neighbouring areas.[27] It lasted for more than a millennium, from the 15th century BC until the Roman conquest in the 3rd century BC. It takes its name from the fortified boroughs (Castellieri, Friulian cjastelir) which characterized the culture.

The ethnicity of the Castellieri civilization is uncertain, although it was most likely of Pre-Indoeuropean stock, coming from the sea. The first castellieri were indeed built along the Istrian coasts and present the same Megalithic appearance characterizing in the Mycenaean civilization at the time. Hypotheses about an Illyrian origin of the people are not confirmed.

The Castellieri were fortified boroughs, usually located on hills or mountains or, more rarely (such as in Friuli), in plains. They were constituted by one or more concentric series of walls, of rounded or elliptical shape in Istria and Venezia Giulia, or quadrangular in Friuli, within which was the inhabited area.

Some hundred castellieri have been discovered in Istria, Friuli, and Venezia Giulia, such as that of Leme, in west-central Istria, of Elerji, near Muggia, of Monte Giove near Prosecco (Trieste) and San Polo, not far from Monfalcone. However, the largest castelliere was perhaps that of Nesactium, in southern Istria, not far from Pula.

Canegrate culture

Main article: Canegrate culture

The Canegrate culture developed from the mid-Bronze Age (13th century BC) till the Iron Age in the Pianura Padana, in what is now western Lombardy, eastern Piedmont and Ticino. It takes its name from the township of Canegrate where, in the 20th century, some fifty tombs with ceramics and metal objects were found. It represents the first migratory wave of the proto-Celtic[28] population from the northwest part of the Alps that, through the Alpine passes, had already penetrated and settled in the western Po valley between Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (Scamozzina culture). They brought a new funerary practice—cremation—which supplanted inhumation.[29]

Canegrate terracotta is very similar to that known from the same period north to the Alps (Provence, Savoy, Isère, Valais, the area of Rhine-Switzerland-eastern France). The members of the culture have been described as a warrior population who had descended to Pianura Padana from the Swiss Alps passes and the Ticino.

Proto-Villanovan cinerary urn from Allumiere
Proto-Villanovan cinerary urn from Allumiere

Proto-Villanovan culture

Main article: Proto-Villanovan culture

It was a culture of the end of the Bronze Age (12th-10th century BC), widespread in much of the Italian peninsula and north-eastern Sicily (including the Aeolian Islands), characterized by the funeral ritual of incineration. The ashes of the deceased were placed into biconical urns decorated with geometric patterns. Their settlements were often located on the top of the hills and protected by stone walls.[30]

Luco-Meluno culture

Main article: Luco-Meluno culture

The Luco-Meluno culture originated in the transition period between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age and occupied Trentino and part of South Tyrol. It was succeeded, in the Iron Age, by the Fritzens-Sanzeno culture.

Iron Age

Further information: Iron Age Europe

Villanova culture

Villanovan Tomb from the 9th century BC.
Villanovan Tomb from the 9th century BC.

Main article: Villanova culture

The name of this Iron Age civilization derives from a locality in the frazione Villanova of Castenaso, Città metropolitana di Bologna, in Emilia, where a necropolis was discovered by Giovanni Gozzadini in 1853-1856. It succeeded the Proto-Villanovan culture during the Iron Age in the territory of Tuscany and northern Lazio and spread in parts of Romagna, Campania and Fermo in the Marche

The main characteristic of the Villanovans (with some similarities with the so-called Proto-Villanovan period of the late Bronze Age) were the cremation burials, in which the deceased's ashes were housed in bi-conical urns and buried. The burial characteristics relate the Villanovan culture to the Central European Urnfield culture (c. 1300–750 BC), and Hallstatt culture (which succeeded the Urnfield culture).

The Villanovans were initially devoted to agriculture and animal husbandry, with a simplified social order. Later, specialized craftsmanship activities such as metallurgy and ceramics created an accumulation of richness, which caused the appearance of social stratification.

Latial culture

Main article: Latial culture

The Latial culture ranged approximately over ancient Old Latium. The Iron Age Latial culture coincided with the arrival in the region of a people who spoke Old Latin. The culture was likely therefore to identify a phase of the socio-political self-consciousness of the Latin tribe, during the period of the kings of Alba Longa and the foundation of the Roman Kingdom.

Este culture

Main article: Este culture

The Este culture or Atestine culture was an Iron Age archaeological culture existing from the late Italian Bronze Age (10th-9th century BC, proto-venetic phase) to the Roman period (1st century BC). It was located in the present territory of Veneto in Italy and derived from the earlier and more extensive Proto-Villanovan culture.[31] It is also called "civilization of situlas", or paleo-venetic.

Golasecca culture

Pottery of the Golasecca culture.
Pottery of the Golasecca culture.

Main article: Golasecca culture

The Golasecca culture developed starting from the early Iron Age in the northwestern Po plain. It takes its name from Golasecca, a locality next to the Ticino where, in the early 19th century, abbot Giovanni Battista Giani excavated its first findings (some fifty tombs with ceramics and metal objects). Remains of the Golasecca culture span an area of c. 20,000 square kilometers south to the Alps, between the Po, Sesia and Serio rivers, dating from the 9th to the 4th century BC.

Their origins can be directly traced from that of Canegrate and to the so-called Proto-Golasecca culture (12th-10th centuries BC). The Golasecca culture traded with the Etruscans and the Halstatt culture on the north, later reaching the Greek world (oil, wine, bronze objects, ceramics and others) and northern Europe (tin and amber from the Baltic coast).

In a Golasecca culture tomb in Pombia has been found the oldest known remain of common hop beer in the world.

Rock drawings in Val Camonica.

Fritzens-Sanzeno culture

Main article: Fritzens-Sanzeno culture

The Fritzens-Sanzeno culture is attested in the late Iron Age, from the sixth to the first century BC, in the Alpine region of Trentino and South Tyrol; in the period of maximum expansion it reached also the Engadin region.

The Camuni

The Camuni were an ancient people of uncertain origin (according to Pliny the Elder, they were Euganei; according to Strabo, they were Rhaetians) who lived in Val Camonica – in what is now northern Lombardy – during the Iron Age, although human groups of hunters, shepherds and farmers are known to have lived in the area since the Neolithic.

They reached the height of their power during the Iron Age due to the presence of numerous iron mills in Val Camonica. Their historical importance is, however, mostly due to their legacy of carved rocks, c. 300,000 in number, which date from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages.

Pre-Roman period

Further information: Ancient Italic peoples, Ancient peoples of Italy, Etruscan civilization, Magna Graecia, Roman kingdom, and Italic peoples

Etruscan fresco from Tarquinia
Etruscan fresco from Tarquinia

Among the populations of pre-Roman Italy, the most notable were the Etruscans who, starting from the 8th century BC, created a refined civilization which largely influenced Rome and the Latin world. The origins of this non-Indo-European people, which first settled on the Tyrrhenian coast of central Italy and later expanded to northern Italy (Emilia in particular) and Campania, are uncertain.

Other peoples living in northern Italy include the Ligurians (an Indo-European people who lived in what is now Liguria, southern Piedmont and the southern French coast), the Lepontii, Insubres, Orobii and other Celtic tribes in Piedmont and Lombardy, the Veneti of north-eastern Italy. In the peninsula, alongside the Etruscans, lived numerous tribes, mostly of Indo-European origin: the Umbri in Umbria and northern Abruzzo, the Latins, who created the Roman civilization, Sabellians, Falisci, Volsci and Aequi in the Latium; Piceni in the Marche and north-east Abruzzo; Samnites in southern Abruzzo, Molise and Campania; Daunians, Messapii and Peucetii (forming the Apulian or Iapygian confederation) in Apulia; Lucani and Bruttii in the southern tips of the peninsula. In Sicily lived the Sicels, Elymians and Sicani[32] while Sardinia was still inhabited by the Nuragic peoples.

Later, other peoples settled in the Italian territory, cohabiting with the previous inhabitants: new tribes of Celts in the north (Senones, Boii, Lingones etc.), the Greeks and the Phoenicians in the south and in part of Sicily and Sardinia.

See also


  1. ^ National Geographic Italia – Erano padani i primi abitanti d’Italia Archived 2019-06-26 at the Wayback Machine(in Italian)
  2. ^ 42.7–41.5 ka (1σ CI). Katerina Douka et al., A new chronostratigraphic framework for the Upper Palaeolithic of Riparo Mochi (Italy), Journal of Human Evolution 62(2), 19 December 2011, 286–299, doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.11.009.
  3. ^ John Noble, Wilford (2 Nov 2011). "Fossil Teeth Put Humans in Europe Earlier Than Thought". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  4. ^ Found Amsicora: the oldest Sardinian
  5. ^ "Impressed Ware Culture". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
  6. ^ A. Gilman, 1974, Neolithic of Northwest Africa, Antiquity,vol 48, no. 192, pp 273-282.
  8. ^ S. Piccolo, Ancient Stones..., op.cit., pp. 31 onwards.
  9. ^ Francesco Fedele - La società dell’età del Rame nell’area alpina e prealpina(in Italian)
  10. ^ Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianesi - Le statue stele in Italia e in Europa Archived 2014-05-13 at the Wayback Machine(in Italian)
  11. ^ a b c d ANCIENT EUROPE 8000 B.C.–A.D. 1000, ANCIENT EUROPE 8000 B.C.–A.D. 1000 (2003). Ancient Europe 8000 B.C.-A.D.1000: Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World (PDF). Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0684806681. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-01-09. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
  12. ^ "The Italian Bronze Age |". Retrieved 2019-02-06.
  13. ^ "ITALIA".
  14. ^ Bietti Sestieri 2010, p. 21.
  15. ^ Enciclopedia dell'arte antica , Polada- P.Palmieri(1965)
  16. ^ Bietti Sestieri 2010, p. 31.
  17. ^ Delia Guasco 2006, p. 118.
  18. ^ Delia Guasco 2006, p. 66-67.
  19. ^ Delia Guasco 2006, p. 69.
  20. ^ Salvatore Piccolo: The dolmens of Sicily, World History Encyclopedia (2017)))
  21. ^ - Siculi
  22. ^ Sicilia-Enciclopedia italiana (1981)
  23. ^ Facies culturale di Palma Campania(in Italian)
  24. ^ Bietti Sestieri 2010, p. 128.
  25. ^ a b c Andrea Cardarelli - The collapse of the Terramare culture and growth of new economic and social system during the late Bronze Age in Italy
  26. ^ Bietti Sestieri 2010, p. 78.
  27. ^ Bietti Sestieri 2010, p. 60.
  28. ^ Venceslas Kruta: La grande storia dei celti. La nascita, l'affermazione e la decadenza, Newton & Compton, 2003, ISBN 88-8289-851-2, ISBN 978-88-8289-851-9
  29. ^ Di Maio, 1998.
  30. ^ Treccani, Protovillanoviano
  31. ^ J.P.Mallory, D.Q. Adams - "Encyclopedia of Indo-European culture" pg.183-184 "Este culture".
  32. ^ Delia Guasco 2006, p. 64.