New Finds in Turkey, Sweden and Spain Prove Prehistoric Europeans Were Smarter Than You’d Think

Here in Europe in the 21st century we like to think were pretty sophisticated. Yet, judging by a clutch of recent discoveries, our Iron Age, Bronze Age and even Stone Age ancestors werent so backward themselves. International trade? Social networking? Fancy gadgets? In every case, they went there, did that, bought the t-shirt (well, the animal hide). If theyd had a connection quicker than 28.8K dial-up, theyd probably have just blogged about it themselves, saved me the effort.

Take the recent research done at a temple dating back to circa 800 BC in the Tell Tayinat region of Turkey, by Professor Timothy Harrison and colleagues from the University of Toronto. It was built in what experts call a Dark Age, just after the collapse of several Bronze Age civilizations, which was believed to have been a grim period for relations between Greece and the Middle East. Trade was thought to have practically dried up altogether; the discovery of ivory carvings, precious metal foils, and pottery not native to the region would appear to contradict such a conclusion clearly a rich cultural and economic exchange existed at the time among cultures such as the Hittites, Aegeans and Semites. And without an eBay account in site.

Or what about looking back further still, to 2000 BC and early Bronze Age and late Neolithic settlements in Sweden? Most people then lived in small, scattered farmsteads that had little if anything to do with each other in a cooperative sense, right? Wrong, says archaeologist Magnus Artursson of the University of Gothenburg, who has examined graves and found wide variations in wealth, as well as the presence of imported high-status metals. Its his belief that these indicate contact between distant settlements, and that early Swedish societies formed hierarchical chiefdoms some 800 years earlier than such social structures were previously believed to have emerged. Reports that they used to mainly get together to wrangle over how the hell you put together a Billy shelve unit from IKEA remain unconfirmed.

As all-purpose tools, hand axes were used for everything from hacking away at plant roots to butchering animals. Does your iPhone have a Skin A Wild Boar app? Probably not.

Best of all, take Spaniards some 900,000 years ago, who were fashioning what have been described as Stone Age Swiss Army knives whittled-stone hand axes, a pair of which have recently been discovered at two sites in southern Spain. Analysed using an innovative technique called paleomagnetic dating, theyve been found to date from circa 780,000 and 900,000 years ago respectively making them the oldest artefacts of their type ever located in Europe.

The previously oldest-known examples of hand axes were thought to be at most 500,000 years old, suggesting Europeans lagged far behind Africans, who were known to have been using such things as late as 1.5 million years ago. These new finds narrow the time frame significantly. As all-purpose tools, they were used for everything from hacking away at plant roots to butchering animals. Does your iPhone have a Skin A Wild Boar app? Probably not.

Picture from University of Toronto Tayinat Archaeological Project.