Among the world's continents, Europe might be the one most thoroughly excavated by archaeologists. Prehistory is usually defined as the time before local written records, 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, who 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.
European prehistory and early history are commonly periodized by the material of locally found artifacts. The stone age is divided in the paleolithic (Old Stone Age) which began with the first human ancestors millions of years ago, mesolithic (from around 15,000 BC, defined by crafts such as pottery and textiles) and the neolithic (from around 5,000 BC, usually defined by crop and animal farming). The bronze age began around 3300 BC, and the iron age around 1200 BC. These dates are for the Eastern Mediterranean; the materials, technologies and social customs which defined an age, took thousands of years to propagate to northern Europe.
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 parts of Europe to be settled by humans. The Atlantic coast still became ice-free and settled quite early. There is 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.
Rise of Mediterranean civilizations
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. The Homeric texts about the Trojan War reflect at least in part genuine historical memory of roughly that era (for example, a list of cities lists places that were no longer important or even extant at the time the works were written down) but is also full of later alterations and an authorial voice that clearly does not understand certain aspects of that earlier era.
The Mediterranean civilizations had much exchange with ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and the Holy Land, and most of the preserved written records about Europe from before 1000 BC are from these regions.
The rise of classical Greece around the 9th century BC marked the beginning of European history, and a continuity of Western civilization through the Roman Empire and its successors. Most written sources of other ancient nations in Europe, such as the Celts, are Graeco-Roman.
- 1 Neanderthal Museum (Mettmann, 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 (wolf cave) (Karijoki, Finland). Pre-Ice Age cave, probably inhabited by Neanderthals
- 4 Chauvet Cave (Ardèche, France). Around 30,000-years-old cave paintings. The cave is closed to the public, but there's a replica a few kilometres from the actual cave, making it the world's largest replica of any kind.
- 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 are thought to be 8 to 10 thousand 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 (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology) (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 (Wiltshire, England). Arguably the most notable megalithic stone circle construction in Europe, erected between 2500 and 2000 BC. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 12 Avebury (Wiltshire, England). Listed as part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site as Stonehenge, this has the world's largest stone circle.
- 13 Kokino (Staro Nagoričane, North 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.
- 14 Brú Na Bóinne (County Meath, Ireland). A UNESCO World Heritage Site with many tombs, plus other structures thought to have had ritual uses.
Neolithic and Bronze Age
- Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps a world heritage site of 111 archaeological sites of Neolithic and Bronze Age dwellings.
- 15 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").
- 16 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.
- 17 Archaeological Museum, 41 Maria Luisa Blvd (Varna, Bulgaria). The museum's collection covers many periods, from the Early Paleolithic (100 000 BC), through ancient Greece and Rome, to the Middle Ages and later. The most important finds are those from the Varna Necropolis (burial site), including some of the earliest known gold artifacts in the world (4600-4200 BC). The museum also manages two open-air archaeological sites, the large Roman baths in the city centre and the medieval grotto of Aladzha Monastery at Golden Sands Nature Park.
Bronze and Iron Age
- 18 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.
- 19 Uppland history tour. The cradle of the Swedish nation around Uppsala, Birka and Sigtuna.
- 20 Tollense battlefield (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania). A site of a battle involving thousands of warriors.