Around 6,000 years ago, the most populous and materially sophisticated place on the planet wasn’t to be found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or one of China’s great river valleys; instead, it hugged the Danube River corridor of Europe and its environs in the northern Balkan and the Carpathian Mountains. A long-lasting and complex culture emerged here, where the great steppe grassland meets the fertile plains of eastern Europe along the shores of the Black Sea, one that has been almost entirely forgotten in the millennia since.
This was Old Europe, a truly lost civilization, the home of copper and gold metallurgy and some of - if not the - world’s first cities. Old Europe persisted for millennia, generation after generation living on the same spots in settlements that grew upward on artificial mounds, making the same kinds of beautifully decorated pottery and worshipping the same gods.
Then, quite suddenly, the heartland of Old Europe fell to pieces. Its descendants lasted a bit longer, but they too eventually disappeared, replaced by a much different way of life.
A little bit of chronological perspective is necessary to fully appreciate Old Europe: The European Neolithic lasted for a long, long time. The first farmers showed up on the shores of the Aegean Sea around 9,000 years ago, new arrivals from further east in Anatolia. Along with their crops and domesticated animals, they brought their way of life and beliefs with them. Within a few centuries, they had expanded outward from Greece and the Thessalian Plain into the Balkans and the great valley of the Danube River, all the way from the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria to the fringes of the Austrian Alps. Within another 2,000 years - by about 5,000 BC - the farmers had reached the western extremities of Atlantic Europe by two different routes, one by sea along the Mediterranean fringes and overland through the center of the continent. These people eventually built the megalithic monuments, the great constructions of earth and stone, that still dot the landscape of western and northern Europe today.
But even as these migrants brought farming further to the west, the Danube corridor and its environs remained the heartland of the European Neolithic. This was where the farmers had been established for the longest, where their connections to their ancestral homeland in Anatolia remained the strongest, where they thrived and multiplied and built the core of a new civilization: Old Europe.
Substantial differences marked off Old Europe - really a collection of related archaeological cultures spread over Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine from roughly 6000 BC to 3000 BC - from its farming neighbors further west. There were no longhouses or megaliths in Old Europe, nor were burials or cemeteries a particularly important part of their world. What mattered in Old Europe were settlements, special places in the landscape that belonged to particular communities for centuries or even millennia.
Most settlements in prehistory, or for most of the human past even after the advent of sedentary living, weren’t occupied for that long: a few generations, maybe a bit longer, often in non-continuous fashion. A group might show up, live on a particularly nice riverbank for 50 years, and then move elsewhere. But Old Europe was different. There, building on traditions that had begun with their farming ancestors in the Near East, they built upward: layer after layer of houses, one on top of the other, generation after generation after generation. When enough time had passed, this continuous occupation built an artificial mound called a tell.
This is Tell Yunatsite, in present-day Bulgaria, which was occupied for about a thousand years (c. 5000-4000 BC). It towers 40 feet above the surrounding landscape.
Hundreds upon hundreds of tells dotted the Danube corridor and the surrounding area. Each one belonged to a community that planted its crops and tended its animals in the surrounding fields and pastures. Their houses, modest rectangular constructions of mud-brick, dotted the artificial plateau in orderly rows or circles. Sometimes walls or ditches enclosed the site. The inhabitants of the tells regularly burned entire houses and even full layers of their home tells, often with their household goods still inside. This was an intentional act, perhaps one of ritual significance - purification or renewal - and then rebuilt right on top of the ashes.
This was how tells grew so tall: They literally embodied the communal activity of the group that chose to live on them, century after century. The thousand years of Tell Yunatsite’s occupation was far from uncommon. Others, like Karanovo (also in Bulgaria), were continuously inhabited for several thousand years without any breaks.
You can see this life in cross-section, layer after layer, at Karanovo. The lowest layers date from the Early Neolithic, the middle from the Chalcolithic or Copper Age, and those at the top - after a significant hiatus - from the early Bronze Age:
Tells weren’t the only settlements in Old Europe; there were also so-called “flat” sites that weren’t intentionally built up, even if they were occupied for centuries, and temporary camps for shepherds tending their flocks of goats and sheep. But the tells were the focus of the settlement pattern, the places around which life and activity revolved. They were home to innovative potters who created extremely fine and well-decorated ceramic items, like this painted bowl and ceramic figurines, with an exceptional level of skill:
The ceramic figurines, long thought to represent deities and in particular goddesses, are one of the defining characteristics of Old Europe. There were variations in form, size, shape, and decoration, but the tradition of making these figurines lasted for thousands of years. They were everywhere in the tell sites: in waste pits, built into the walls and roofs, placed in prominent places in the home, included in homes that were intentionally burned - simply everywhere.
We have no idea what the figurines meant to the people who made them and incorporated them into their daily lives. Even their identification as feminine isn’t certain.
Maybe they were goddesses. Maybe they weren’t. What’s clear is that they mattered to the people who made them, and that they were a sign of cultural belonging in some basic way.
The potters of Old Europe experimented with new pigments and vessel designs, not to mention their delicate figurines, but their real breakthroughs came with hotter kilns capable of higher firing temperatures. These innovations led directly to the development of copper metallurgy, the first metal used on a significant scale.
Copper-working probably hadn’t been invented in Old Europe, though the evidence for it there is nearly as early as the first documented sites from the Near East. What’s unquestionable is the fact that the high-temperature kilns that allowed the people of Old Europe to make such fine pottery were also perfectly suited to producing fires hot enough to smelt copper. The first high-quality metal tools in the world were made here, like this copper axe:
Copper metallurgy led to some of the earliest experiments with gold-smelting, like these spectacular items from a necropolis near Varna, in Bulgaria, that date to 4600-4200 BC:
The Varna necropolis is incredible in its display of wealth and especially of hierarchy. These were elite burials, like this man with his copper and stone weapons and jewelry (don’t miss the gold penis-sheath):
But the Varna burials are an exception in Old Europe for their open display of hierarchy. In general, the tell settlements show only a little social differentiation - some houses are a bit bigger than others - but nothing like these incredible displays of wealth and power. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that the Varna burials come from the end of the golden age in the Old European heartland.
In the two centuries following 4200 BC, the tell settlements lining the Danube corridor were abandoned: every single one of them, places that had been inhabited for two millennia, was left devoid of occupation for centuries to come. At most, some shepherds grazed their animals amid the tumbled-down ruins of mud-brick houses.
This was not some reorganization of the settlement pattern, where people moved to other sites because of a shift in technology or land-use; it was a collapse. Many of the tells show evidence of burning and other violence. At Tell Yunatsite, for example, the final layer from this period is full of skeletons scattered among the houses, the corpses apparently left there in the aftermath of a brutal massacre. This skull from Tell Yuntatsite shows evidence of multiple traumas:
It wasn’t just the tells; the “flat” sites in between were likewise depopulated, again with plenty of evidence for violence. But who had inflicted this violence, and why?
It’s possible that Old Europe simply tore itself apart; perhaps some combination of environmental degradation after thousands of years of occupation or a shift in climate put some unmanageable stress on this ancient culture. It’s also possible that the kinds of emerging elites buried at Varna with their weapons and gold penis-sheaths turned competition into full-scale internal warfare. Or those two factors could have interacted in destructive ways.
There’s another possibility, though: invasion.
In the vast grasslands to the east of Old Europe - the great Eurasian Steppe - the hunter-gatherers who had lived along the river valleys had changed their way of life over the preceding centuries. They adopted herding, building flocks of sheep and cattle, and soon domesticated the horse as well. Their society transformed as their mode of subsistence shifted, becoming more hierarchical and probably more war-like as well. They started to build prominent graves for their leaders, important men - almost always men - buried with weapons and treasures. These graves usually took the form of earthen mounds, called kurgans, and they started to dot the otherwise flat and featureless landscape of the steppe.
Around the time the tells were abandoned, after 4200 BC, kurgans started to appear along the Black Sea coast of Old Europe. The burials here, known as the Suvorovo Culture, contained artifacts that were extremely similar to what the herders of the steppe were placing in their kurgans at the same time hundreds of miles away. This certainly represents a migration of some kind, and the fact that it happened at roughly the same time as Old Europe fell apart doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Did these steppe people move in after Old Europe fell apart? Were they brought in as allies in some terrible internal conflict? Or were they genuine invaders who were responsible for the destruction of the Old European heartland?
We don’t know. Old Europe didn’t completely disappear; in fact, its final phase - the Cucuteni-Trypillia Culture, out on the forest-steppe of Ukraine, to the east of the old heartland - produced some of the first urban sites in the world. Thousands of people - perhaps as many as 15,000 - gathered together in two-story timber houses, ring after ring built up in concentric circles around a central meeting place. Talianki, around 4000 BC, is typical of the type:
Again, as with the tells of Old Europe (and in contrast to the steppe people), there’s no evidence of real hierarchy at these places. We don’t know what these sites were for; people don’t seem to have lived there year-round. Maybe they came seasonally, for particular rituals or festivals, and then departed back to their home communities. Again, we don’t know.
But these mega-sites, as they’re known, were the final flowering of Old Europe. They disappeared after about 3500 BC, as a new culture appeared on the steppes to the east: the Yamnaya, probably the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the language from which English - and many others, spoken by billions of people across the world - are descended.