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 Palaeolithic

Lower Palaeolithic

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.[1]

5 prehistoric sites in France are dated from between 1 and 1.2 million years ago:[2]

None of these sites have thus far revealed any evidence of lithic industry which prevents identification of the human species responsible for them.[2]

France includes Olduwan (Abbevillian) and Acheulean sites from early or non-modern (transitional) Hominini species, most notably Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. Tooth Arago 149 - 560,000 years. Tautavel Man (Homo erectus tautavelensis), is a proposed subspecies of the hominid Homo erectus, the 450,000-year-old fossil remains of whom were discovered in the Arago cave in Tautavel.

The Grotte du Vallonnet near Menton contained simple stone tools dating to 1 million to 1.05 million years BC.[3] Cave sites were exploited for habitation, but the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic era also possibly built shelters such as those identified in connection with Acheulean tools at Grotte du Lazaret and Terra Amata near Nice in France. Excavations at Terra Amata found traces of the earliest known domestication of fire in Europe, from 400,000 BC.[3]

Middle Palaeolithic

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.[5]

Important Mousterian sites are found at:

The first identified Neanderthal burials were discovered at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908 (dating from 70 ka) then at La Ferrassie in 1909.[8] 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,[9] extending understanding of the human species beyond what had been hitherto assumed.[10]

Evidence of cannibalism has been found among Neanderthals at the sites of Moula-Guercy and Pradelles.[11][12]

Upper Palaeolithic

Venus of Laussel, Gravettian culture, c. 23,000 BC
Venus of Laussel, Gravettian culture, c. 23,000 BC

The earliest indication of Upper Palaeolithic early 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.[13] 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.[14]

European Palaeolithic cultures are divided into several chronological subgroups (the names are all based on French type sites, principally in the Dordogne region):[15]

The Mesolithic

See also: Mesolithic

Thaïs bone, Azilian culture, c. 10,000 BC.[16]
Thaïs bone, Azilian culture, c. 10,000 BC.[16]
Painted pebbles, Azilian culture
Painted pebbles, Azilian culture

From the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, the Magdalenian culture evolved. The Early Mesolithic, or Azilian, began about 14,000 years ago, in the Franco-Cantabrian region of northern Spain and Southern France. This was ahead of other parts of Western Europe, where the Mesolithic began by 11,500 years ago at the beginning of the Holocene. It ended with the introduction of farming.[17]

The Azilian culture of the Late Glacial Maximum co-existed with similar early Mesolithic European cultures such as the Tjongerian of North-Western Europe, the Ahrensburgian of Northern Europe and the Swiderian of North-Eastern Europe, all succeeding the Federmesser complex. The Azilian culture was followed by the Sauveterrian in Southern France and Switzerland, the Tardenoisian in Northern France, the Maglemosian in Northern Europe.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

The Neolithic

See also: Neolithic Europe and Neolithic Brittany

The Broken Menhir of Er Grah, 4500 BC. Originally 20.6m in height
The Broken Menhir of Er Grah, 4500 BC. Originally 20.6m in height

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).[21] 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.[22] 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.

Many European Neolithic groups share basic characteristics, such as living in small-scale family-based communities, subsisting on domestic plants and animals supplemented with the collection of wild plant foods and with hunting, and producing hand-made pottery (that is made without the potter's wheel).[citation needed] Archeological sites from the Neolithic in France include artifacts from the Linear Pottery culture (c. 5500-4500 BC), the Rössen culture (c. 4500—4000 BC), and the Chasséen culture (4,500 - 3,500 BC; named after Chassey-le-Camp in Saône-et-Loire), the name given to the late Neolithic pre-Beaker culture that spread throughout the plains and plateaux of France, including the Seine basin and the upper Loire valleys.[citation needed]

The 'Armorican' (Castellic culture) and Northern French Neolithic (Cerny culture) is based on traditions of the Linear Pottery culture or "Limburg pottery" in association with the La Hoguette/Cardial culture. The Armorican culture may also have origins in the Mesolithic tradition of Téviec and Hoedic in Brittany.[23]

It is most likely from the Neolithic that date the megalithic (large stone) monuments, such as the dolmens, menhirs, stone circles and chamber tombs, found throughout France, the largest selection of which are in the Brittany and Auvergne regions. The most famous of these are the Carnac stones (c. 3300 BC, but may date to as old as 4500 BC) and the stones at Saint-Sulpice-de-Faleyrens.[24]

The Copper Age

See also: Chalcolithic Europe

Gold lunula, Brittany, Bell Beaker culture

During the Chalcolithic or Copper Age, a transitional age from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, France shows evidence of the Seine-Oise-Marne culture and the Beaker culture.

The Seine-Oise-Marne culture or "SOM culture" (c. 3100 to 2400 BC) is the name given by archaeologists to the final culture of the Neolithic in Northern France around the Oise River and Marne River. It is most famous for its gallery grave megalithic tombs which incorporate a port-hole slab separating the entrance from the main burial chamber. In the chalk valley of the Marne River rock-cut tombs were dug to a similar design. In the Southeast, several groups whose culture had evolved from Chasséen culture also built megaliths.[27]

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.[citation needed]

The Bell Beaker culture (c. 2800–1900 BC) was a widespread phenomenon that expanded over most of France, excluding the Massif Central, in the third and early second millennia BC.[citation needed]

The Bronze Age

See also: Bronze Age Europe

Avanton gold hat, Tumulus culture, 1400 BC

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.[citation needed]

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.[28] In the 1950s, Jean-Jacques Hatt proposed a subdivision of the French Bronze Age, and in 1958 he published a tripartate division.[29] 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.[30]

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.[citation needed]

Some archeologists date the arrival of several non-Indo-European peoples to this period, including the Iberians in southern France and Spain, the Ligures on the Mediterranean coast, and the Vascons (Basques) in southwest France and Spain.[citation needed]

The Iron Age

See also: Iron Age Europe

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.[34]

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.[34][35]

In addition, Greeks and Phoenicians settled outposts like Marseille in this period (c. 600 BC).[36]

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.[citation needed]


Europe in c. 5500-4500 BC
Europe in c. 5500-4500 BC
Europe in c. 4500-3500 BC
Europe in c. 4500-3500 BC
Extent of the Beaker culture (c. 2800–1900 BC)
Extent of the Beaker culture (c. 2800–1900 BC)
Europe in the Middle Bronze Age
Europe in the Middle Bronze Age
Europe c. 1200 BC, showing the central Urnfield culture (red), the northern Urnfield culture (orange), the Lusatian culture (purple), the Danubian culture (brown), the Terramare culture (blue), the Atlantic Bronze Age (green) and the Nordic Bronze Age (yellow).
Europe c. 1200 BC, showing the central Urnfield culture (red), the northern Urnfield culture (orange), the Lusatian culture (purple), the Danubian culture (brown), the Terramare culture (blue), the Atlantic Bronze Age (green) and the Nordic Bronze Age (yellow).
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.
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

See also


  1. ^ The oldest known Neanderthal fossil in France was found in 1998 in the cave of Pradayrol, in Caniac-du-Causse, in Lot-et-Garonne. A Neanderthal incisor has been dated there to 335,000 years.[4]
  2. ^ Provence stelae with chevron ornamentation are relatively well dated. They have always been dated to the Middle Neolithic, and more exactly to the Late Chasséen.[26]


  1. ^ a b Jones 2009.
  2. ^ a b Airvaux et al. 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Lumley 2009.
  4. ^ a b Dufau, Favarel & Séronie-Vivien 2004.
  5. ^ Sankararaman et al. 2012.
  6. ^ Champagne et al. 1990.
  7. ^ Bourguignon et al. 2008.
  8. ^ Nougier 1963.
  9. ^ Les Sépultures néandertaliennes 1976.
  10. ^ Postel 2008.
  11. ^ Defleur & Desclaux 2019.
  12. ^ Savatier 2022.
  13. ^ Slimak, Zanolli & Higham 2022.
  14. ^ Dickson 1992.
  15. ^ a b Klein 2009.
  16. ^ "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.
  17. ^ Conneller et al. 2016.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Rozoy 1998.
  19. ^ Flores-Bello et al. 2021.
  20. ^ National Geographic 2022.
  21. ^ Barras 2019.
  22. ^ Haak et al. 2019.
  23. ^ Thorpe 2015.
  24. ^ a b Alexander 1978.
  25. ^ Cassen et al 2014.
  26. ^ d'Anna et al. 2015.
  27. ^ Jossaume 1988.
  28. ^ a b Déchelette 1910.
  29. ^ Hatt 1958.
  30. ^ Gascó́ 2000.
  31. ^ Chopin, Jean-François; Gomez de Soto, José (2014). "Fragment de lame d'épée ou de poignard du type de Tréboul-Saint-Brandan du site du Perrou 2 à Maillé (Indre-et-Loire)". Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française. 111 (3): 530–533. doi:10.3406/bspf.2014.14439. The technostylistic origin of the swords of Tréboul and Le Cheylounet types has been widely debated elsewhere. For the former, J. Briard (1965) favoured an evolution from the Armorican Tumulus daggers; for the latter, J.P. Daugas and D. Vuaillat (2009) highlight a Unétician tradition, but the strong technostylistic kinship between the two sword types suggests a complex interplay of influences. Their chronological position is clearly established: Middle Bronze Age 1, from about 1550 to 1450 BC according to the latest available chronological details. (Translated from French)
  32. ^ "Le dépôt de Blanot". Retrieved 9 April 2022.
  33. ^ Armbruster, Barbara (2013). "Gold and gold working of the Bronze Age". The Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age. pp. 454–468.
  34. ^ a b c d Anthony 2022.
  35. ^ Fischer et al. 2022.
  36. ^ a b c d e f g h Ebel 1976.
  37. ^ Bindon 1995, p. 137.
  38. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o STD 2016.