Prehistoric France is the period in the human occupation (including early hominins) of the geographical area covered by present-day France which extended through prehistory and ended in the Iron Age with the Roman conquest, when the territory enters the domain of written history.
The Pleistocene is characterized by long glacial periods accompanied by marine regressions , interspersed at more or less regular intervals by milder but shorter interglacial stages. Human populations during this period consisted of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Several human species succeeded each other in the current territory of France until the arrival of modern humans in the Upper Palaeolithic .
The first trace of human occupation in France is dated more 1.57 million years ago. The earliest known fossil man is Tautavel Man, dating from 570,000 years ago. Neanderthal Man is attested in France from about 335,000 years before present. Homo sapiens, modern humans, are attested from 42,000 years ago.
In the Neolithic , which begins in the south of France in the middle of the 6th millennium BC, the first farmers appeared. The first megaliths were erected in the early 5th millennium BC.
The lower paleolithic period began with the first human occupation of the region. Stone tools discovered at Lézignan-la-Cèbe indicate that early humans were present in France from least 1.57 million years ago.
5 prehistoric sites in France are dated from between 1 and 1.2 million years ago:
the Bois-de-Riquet , in Lézignan-la-Cèbe , in the Hérault (1.2 Ma), discovered in 2008
the Vallonnet cave , in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin , in the Alpes-Maritimes (1.15 Ma), discovered in 1958
Terre-des-Sablons, in Lunery-Rosières , in Cher (1.15 Ma),
Pont-de-Lavaud, at Éguzon-Chantôme , in Indre (1.05 Ma),
Pont-de-la-Hulauderie, in Saint-Hilaire-la-Gravelle , in Loir-et-Cher (1 My).
None of these sites have thus far revealed any evidence of lithic industry which prevents identification of the human species responsible for them.
The Neanderthals are thought to have arrived earlier than 300,000 BC,[a] but seem to have died out by about by 30,000 BC, presumably unable to compete with modern humans during a period of cold weather. Numerous Neanderthal, or "Mousterian", artifacts (named after the type site of Le Moustier, a rock shelter in the Dordogne region of France) have been found from this period, some using the "Levallois technique", a distinctive type of flint knapping developed by hominids during the Lower Palaeolithic but most commonly associated with the Neanderthal industries of the Middle Palaeolithic. Importantly, recent findings suggest that Neanderthals and modern humans may have interbred.
The first identified Neanderthal burials were discovered at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908 (dating from 70 ka) then at La Ferrassie in 1909. The identification of burial practices in Neanderthals at these sites led to new insights concerning the capacity of Neanderthals to develop spiritual or metaphysical beliefs, extending understanding of the human species beyond what had been hitherto assumed.
Evidence of cannibalism has been found among Neanderthals at the sites of Moula-Guercy and Pradelles.
The earliest indication of Upper Palaeolithicearly modern human (formerly referred to as Cro-Magnon) migration into France, and indeed in the whole of Europe, is a series of modern human teeth with Neronian industry stone tools found at Grotte Mandrin Cave, Malataverne in France, dated in 2022 to between 56,800 and 51,700 years ago. The Neronian is one of the many industries associated with modern humans classed as transitional between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. When they arrived in Europe, they brought with them sculpture, engraving, painting, body ornamentation, music and the painstaking decoration of utilitarian objects. Some of the oldest works of art in the world, such as the cave paintings at Lascaux in southern France, are datable to shortly after this migration.
European Palaeolithic cultures are divided into several chronological subgroups (the names are all based on French type sites, principally in the Dordogne region):
Périgordian (c. 35,000 - 20,000 BP) – use of this term is being debated (the term implies that the following subperiods represent a continuous tradition).
Châtelperronian (c. 39,000 - 29,000 BP) – culture derived from the earlier, Neanderthal, Mousterian industry as it made use of Levallois cores and represents the period when Neanderthals and modern humans occupied Europe together.
Magdalenian (c. 17,000 - 10,000 BP) – thought to be responsible for the cave paintings at Pech Merle (in the Lot in Languedoc, dating back to 16,000 BC), Lascaux (located near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne, dating back to somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 BC, and perhaps as far back as 25,000 BC), the Trois-Frères cave and the Rouffignac Cave also known as The Cave of the hundred mammoths. It possesses the most extensive cave system of the Périgord in France with more than 8 kilometers of underground passageways.
Archeologists are unsure whether Western Europe saw a Mesolithic immigration. Populations speaking non-Indo-European languages are obvious candidates for Mesolithic remnants. The Vascons (Basques) of the Pyrenees present the strongest case, since their language is related to none other in the world, and the Basque population has a distinct genetic profile. The disappearance of Doggerland affected the surrounding territories and the hunter gatherers living there are believed to have migrated to northern France and as far as eastern Ireland to escape from the floods.
The Neolithic period lasted in northern Europe for approximately 3,000 years (c. 5000 BC–2000 BC). It is characterised by the so-called Neolithic Revolution, a transitional period that included the adoption of agriculture, the development of tools and pottery (Cardium pottery, LBK), and the growth of larger, more complex settlements. There was an expansion of peoples from southwest Asia into Europe; this diffusion across Europe, from the Aegean to Britain, took about 2,500 years (6500 BC–4000 BC). According to the leading Kurgan hypothesis, Indo-European languages were introduced to Europe later, during the succeeding Bronze Age, and Neolithic peoples in Europe are called "Pre-Indo-Europeans" or "Old Europe". Nevertheless, some archaeologists believe that the Neolithic expansion, and the eclipse of Mesolithic culture, coincided with the introduction of Indo-European speakers. In what is known as the Anatolian hypothesis, it is postulated that Indo-European languages arrived in the early Neolithic. Old European hydronymy is taken by Hans Krahe to be the oldest reflection of the early presence of Indo-European languages in Europe.
Beginning about 2600 BC, the Artenacian culture, a part of the larger European Megalithic Culture, developed in Dordogne, possibly as a reaction to the advance of Danubian peoples (such as SOM) over Western France. Armed with typical arrows, they took over all Atlantic France and Belgium by 2400 BC, establishing a stable border with the Indo-Europeans (Corded Ware) near the Rhine that would remain stable for more than a millennium.
In the Kurgan Hypothesis, Indo-European languages spread to Europe in the Bronze Age. The culture of the Kurgans is also known as Yamnaya Culture and recent results from acheaogenetics have linked this culture with genetic ancestry components of the Western Steppe Herders, and it has been possible to reconstruct migrations of these people across Europe co-extensive with the arrival of the Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures.
In France, the first studies on the Bronze Age date from the 19th century. The "Manuel d'archéologie préhistorique, celtique et gallo-romaine," (Manual of Prehistoric, Celtic and Gallo-Roman Archaeology), by Joseph Déchelette, published in 1910, was for a long time the reference for the study of this period. In the 1950s, Jean-Jacques Hatt proposed a subdivision of the French Bronze Age, and in 1958 he published a tripartate division. This model divided the Bronze Age into three parts, Early Bronze, Middle Bronze and Late Bronze Age and serves as a reference for the majority of subsequent studies on the Bronze Age in France.
The Bronze Age archeological cultures in France include the transitional Beaker culture (c. 2800–1900 BC), the Early Bronze Age Rhône culture (c. 2300-1600 BC) and Armorican Tumulus culture (c. 2200-1400 BC), the Middle Bronze Age Tumulus culture (c. 1600-1200 BC), and the Late Bronze Age Atlantic Bronze Age (c. 1300-700 BC) and Urnfield culture (c. 1300-800 BC). Early Bronze Age sites in Brittany (Armorican Tumulus culture) are believed to have grown out of Beaker roots, with some Wessex culture and Unetice culture influence. Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family (see Proto-Celtic). This culture was preeminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age; the Urnfield period saw a dramatic increase in population in the region, probably due to innovations in technology and agricultural practices.
The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture (c. 700 to 500 BC) directly from the Urnfield. Proto-Celtic, the latest common ancestor of all known Celtic languages, is generally considered to have been spoken at the time of the late Urnfield or early Hallstatt cultures, in the early 1st millennium BC.
The Hallstatt culture was succeeded by the La Tène culture, which developed out of the Hallstatt culture without any definite cultural break, under the impetus of considerable Mediterranean influence from Greek, and later Etruscan civilizations. The La Tène culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (from 450 BC to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BC) in eastern France, Switzerland, Austria, southwest Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Farther to the north extended the contemporary Pre-Roman Iron Age culture of Northern Germany and Scandinavia.
By the 2nd century BC, Celtic France was called Gaul by the Romans, and its people were called Gauls. The people to the north (in what is present-day Belgium) were called Belgae (scholars believe this may represent a mixture of Celtic and Germanic elements) and the peoples of the south-west of France were called the Aquitani by the Romans, and may have been Celtiberians or Vascons.
The green area suggests a possible extent of (proto-)Celtic influence around 1000 BC. The orange area shows the region of birth of the La Tène style. The red area indicates an idea of the possible region of Celtic influence around 400 BC.
Prehistoric and Iron Age France - all dates are BC
^"The Thaïs Bone, France". UNESCO Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy. The engraving on the Thaïs bone is a non-decorative notational system of considerable complexity. The cumulative nature of the markings together with their numerical arrangement and various other characteristics strongly suggest that the notational sequence on the main face represents a non-arithmetical record of day-by-day lunar and solar observations undertaken over a time period of as much as 3½ years. The markings appear to record the changing appearance of the moon, and in particular its crescent phases and times of invisibility, and the shape of the overall pattern suggests that the sequence was kept in step with the seasons by observations of the solstices. The latter implies that people in the Azilian period were not only aware of the changing appearance of the moon but also of the changing position of the sun, and capable of synchronizing the two. The markings on the Thaïs bone represent the most complex and elaborate time-factored sequence currently known within the corpus of Palaeolithic mobile art. The artefact demonstrates the existence, within Upper Palaeolithic (Azilian) cultures c. 12,000 years ago, of a system of time reckoning based upon observations of the phase cycle of the moon, with the inclusion of a seasonal time factor provided by observations of the solar solstices.
Champagne, Fernand; Champagne, Christian; Jauzon, Pierre; Novel, Philippe (1990). "Le site préhistorique des Fieux à Miers (Lot) [Etat actuel de la recherche]: Etat actuel de la recherche". Gallia préhistoire. 32 (1): 1–28. doi:10.3406/galip.1990.2275.
Defleur, Alban R.; Desclaux, Emmanuel (April 2019). "Impact of the last interglacial climate change on ecosystems and Neanderthals behavior at Baume Moula-Guercy, Ardèche, France". Journal of Archaeological Science. 104: 114–124. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2019.01.002. S2CID133992282.