- See also: European history
Among the world's continents, Europe might be the the one most thoroughly excavated by archaeologists. Prehistory is usually defined as the time before written language, which spread with Ancient Greece, and later the Roman Empire. Most of northern and eastern Europe got their first domestic written records in the Middle Ages, in many cases with the arrival of Christianity. Even after writing was introduced to an area, usually only a small elite could write, and as they wrote mostly about themselves, written sources to life of common people are scarce before the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some ancient societies such as the Roman Empire had high literacy, but on the other hand, much pre-modern writing has been lost.
For some areas and times on the other hand we do have what appears to be writing but still can't make any sense of them. In Europe this is most famously the case for Linear A on Crete. This means that our knowledge of such cultures is the same as if we had no writing at all.
The Neanderthal man, Homo neanderthalensis, was endemic to Europe since around 200,000 BC. The modern human species, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe around 45,000 BC through the Middle East, and displaced the Neanderthals, which became extinct around 30,000 BC. While Neanderthals and Homo sapiens lived side by side for millennia, we know few details about how they interacted. Genetic research has confirmed that the two types of humans could produce fertile offspring and some Neanderthal genes are still present in some modern day populations, but whether or not this type of interaction was common or more common than violence is not yet known.
Caves are often mistaken for the regular dwellings of prehistoric people ("cavemen") and while they may have served as shelter, ritual places or even permanent dwellings in some cases, it is more likely that the only reason we have found more and better preserved objects from the Paleolithic in caves is because of their unique climate that conserves things better than huts of wood, skin, or other soft materials.
The Nordic countries were covered by an ice sheet until around 10,000 BC, and were among the last part of Europe to be settled by humans. There is however some remaining evidence of pre-glacial population in Karijoki. As the ice pushed down Earth's crust, the land has been rising from the sea since the ice melted, so that many coastal plains in Sweden and Finland were once part of the seafloor. See Vikings and the Old Norse for more about prehistoric Scandinavia. Conversely, the English Channel used to be dry land and parts of the North Sea appear to have been grazing grounds for mammoths, but as the seas have now swallowed those areas, little is known about their prehistory.
The first known European Bronze Age civilization, with metal-working, urban settlements and written records, was the Minoan culture, which appeared on Crete in the 26th century BC. In the 16th century BC it was displaced by the Mycenaean civilization, which collapsed around 1000 BC. The historical memories of these societies have not survived until today, in part because their written records still remain undecipherable.
- 1 Neanderthal Museum (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany). A museum dedicated to the Neanderthal Man, Homo neanderthalensis, which populated much of Europe and the Middle East until it was displaced by Homo sapiens, and became extinct around 30,000 BC.
- 2 Museum of Human Evolution (Burgos, Spain). On the archaeological site of Atapuerca (UNESCO listed). Exceptional paleontologic and archeological finds with remains of at least three distinct species of Hominini.
- 3 Susiluola (Karijoki, Finland). Pre-Ice Age cave, probably inhabited by Neanderthals
- 4 Chauvet Cave (Ardèche, France). Around 30,000-years-old cave paintings
- 5 Lascaux (Dordogne, France). A breathtaking display of upper paleolithic cave paintings. Visitors can only access a modern recreation of the original caves. There are numerous other caves with paintings in the Dordogne department, many of which are fully accessible to visitors.
- 6 Altamira (Cantabria, Spain). Upper paleolithic cave paintings
- 7 Niaux (Ariège, France). Upper paleolithic cave paintings of bison, deer and cuneiform symbols of unknown meaning, 800 metres deep inside the Pyrenees.
- 8 Magura Cave (out of Rabisha, near Belogradchik, Bulgaria). One of the most important painted caves in Europe. The paintings, which number about 750, date back to the late Neolithic and thought to be 8-10,000 years old.
- Ggantija Temples and Hagar Kim & Mnajdra, Malta — collectively listed as "the Megalithic Temples of Malta" by UNESCO, these are some of the oldest free-standing man-made structures in Europe (3600 to 3000 BC)
- 9 Ötzi Museum (Bolzano, Italy). Dedicated to the extraordinarily well-preserved glacier mummy found in the Ötztal Alps. The man likely fell victim to a homicide in the 34th to 32nd century BC.
- 10 Skara Brae (Orkney, Scotland). One of the best preserved neolithic villages in Europe. A group of nine stone houses, inhabited over 5,000 years ago.
- 11 Stonehenge (England). Arguably the most notable megalithic stone circle construction in Europe, erected between 2500 and 2000 BC.
- 12 Kokino (near Kumanovo, Macedonia). An almost 4000-year-old megalithic observatory on a hilltop where markers showing the position of the sun during the solstices and the equinoxes were drawn by the ancients. The site probably had a spiritual significance as well.
Neolithic and Bronze Age
- 13 Himmelswege ("sky paths") (Southern Saxony-Anhalt, Germany). Tourist route that links different, historically unrelated, sites of protohistoric astronomy/astrology: the Nebra Ark Visitor Centre (where the Nebra sky disk dating from 1600 BC was discovered), Halle Museum of Prehistory (where the sky disk is exhibited now), Goseck solar observatory (49th-century BC neolithic circular enclosure) and megalithic tomb Langeneichstädt (c. 3000 BC, with a tall menhir sculpture depicting a "dolmen goddess").
- 14 Stilt-house museum Unteruhldingen, Uhldingen-Mühlhofen (on Lake Constance, Germany). Archaeological open-air museum that presents reconstructions of one of the many prehistoric (neolithic to Bronze-age) lakeside pile dwellings in Central Europe, 111 of which are listed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage.
Bronze and Iron Age
- 15 Minorca. On this Balearic island, an outstanding number of prehistoric sites from different eras can be found, most notably remains of the early Iron Age Taloyot culture (13th to 2nd century BC). There are different types of megalithic structures that can be found all over the island: Navetas (burial sites that are shaped like bottom-up ship hulls, therefore called "ships of the death", from the 12th to 9th century BC), Talayots (thick-walled towers that probably served for sentry, or perhaps even a form of distance communication from tower to tower), cyclopean walls, and Taulas (up to 5-metre-high T-shaped stone tables from the 6th to 4th century BC). Even older are the Bronze-age artificial caves (Cuevas), some of them as old as the 3rd millenium BC, that likely served in part as dwellings, while others are assumed to be sanctuaries.