Earliest human evidence

While ongoing research and archaeology continues to change the story of early men, there are  some broad hypotheses that do seem to hold.

During the geological epoch of the Miocene (23-5 million years ago), the continents getting close to their current position, this allowed for the formation of ice on the north and south poles.  This started a gradual climate change which became more apparent around the Late Miocene, some 10 million years ago and as a result there was a significant change in habitat. Grasslands underwent a major expansion; forests fell victim to a generally cooler and drier climate overall.  Large sections of what had been tropical forests in Africa had changed into more open savanna.

We now enter the period in human history known as the Paleolithic (10 million- 10,000 years ago) an era that starts with the first very primitive stone tools.

Pilocene and Pleistocene

The climate of the Paleolithic Period spanned two geologic epochs known as the Pliocene (5.3-2.6 million years ago) and the Pleistocene (1.8 million – 12,000 years ago). Both of these epochs experienced important geographic and climatic changes that affected human societies. During the Pliocene, continents continued to drift from possibly as far as 250 km from their present locations to positions only 70 km from their current location

The current cycle of ice ages started around 2.5 million years ago, when the continental drift had pushed North America and Europe far enough north to create climatic change. Land mass started to occupy an area that up to that time had been covered by water. This created a drier atmosphere, snow on land did not melt and started to built up, this created a global cooling effect that led to the start of this period of ice ages.

The last ice age (Weichselien glacial 116,000 – 11,700 BCE) had its maximum roughly 20,000 years ago; approximately the area above the river Rhine in what is now the Netherlands was covered by ice. North-western Europe was a border region between ice and tundra.

Just before the end of the last ice age and during the short summers  large scale wind erosion took place , sand-drifts were blown from the poor soils on top of the permafrost.  This led to the deposit of thick sheets of  sand, especially just south of the ice layer (such as in Brabant and Twente).They formed often kilometer long sand dunes up to 100 meters high on the edges in north western Europe, where they are a unique feature in the landscape. After this period a  podzol cover formed from the vegetation that settled on top of this. This became attractive soil for the early farmers who settled here and who didn’t have the tools to work in the much heavier soils of the floodplains.

Interestingly for the current environmental debate is, that a massive climate changes took place during the so called Younger Dryas, a cold spell which took place between 11,000 and 10,000BCE. During this period the Gulf Stream stopped flowing and this caused – most likely within a short period of 50-100 years – a cooling of 6 degrees in northwest Europe, this certainly would have affected the hunters and gathering visiting the region. However, a thousand years later – as quickly as it started –  the Gulf Stream kicked in again which saw a rather rapid warming of the climate and heralded further human activity in this region.

Formation of  the Low Countries

In what is now the southern Netherlands was part of the mini-continent Avalonia. It became the northern edge of Gondwanaland when it broke free from the super-continent Pangaea, some 200 mya.

A key part of Avalonia is what is known as the London Brabant Massif.  This  coal rich area stretching from south England via Belgium (Brabant) to  Germany (Ruhr region). It was formed when what would become Avalonia was floating around the Equator some 400mya.

Avalonia in its turn was broken up and some parts sensed up in North America and other parts collided with another continent Baltica, basicaly what has become the rest of Europe.

Another major event in relation to north western Europe has been the Alpine Orogeny (mountain building). Orogenic force are caused by tectonic activities, deforms the earth crust.

In relation to the Alps this happened during the Late Mesozoic era (260– 65 million years ago). During the Triassic period (250-200 mya) the Tethys Ocean was formed when Pagaea split in two super continents Gondwana and Laurasia. The Mediterranean sea as wall as the Black, Caspian and Aral seas are remnant of this original ocean. During the following Jurassic period the plates reversed their direction and this led to the formation of the Alps, Pyrenees and the Anatolian plateau.

During the Oligocene (34-32 mya) the ongoing Alpine Orogeny created  north south rifts along the boarder of the London-Brabant Massif they are known as the Upper Rhine Graben and the Lower Rhine Graben (or Embayment). It was during this period that also the River Rhine started to flow.

The latter is of importance to our region and consists of the following geological formations:

• Krefeld Block which borders the subsiding area to the northeast,

• Venlo and Peel Blocks (including the Maashorst) which have an intermediate subsidence,

• Roer Graben and the Erft Block which correspond to central valleys and sites of strong subsidence; and

• Campine and the South Limburg Blocks of intermediate subsidence and the Brabant Block, bordering the subsiding area to the southwest.

Peel Boundary Fault

As mentioned, during the Later Permian, Early Triassic , seismic activity formed the early Alps and as a side effect of this natural spectacle, some 1000 kms to the north of this new mountain range, the Ruhr Valley Graben (RVG) was formed, which is still an active fault system – sinking at the rate of six millimeters a century. This fault system travels north-west along what is now the Peel region, as part of the RVG the Peel Boundary Fault (PBF) was formed. The higher laying grounds are known as the Peelhorst.

Oss is on the far northern boarder of the PBF;  with the ‘new’  lower laying river plains of the Maas to the north and the higher sandy grounds to the south. As we will see below, this fault created its own ecological dynamics which was eagerly exploited by the people who would later – in the Bronze Age – settle the area. The lower grounds are known here as ‘slenken’ , the higher grounds ‘horsten’ and the faults ‘breuken’.  During those geological changes also the so called Maashorst was created,  125.000 ago The river  Maas, now received a higher border line to the south, that stopped the massive flooding from previous ages. This land feature was used in pre-historic times by the people who settled here. The low-lands were used for cattle growing and  on the higher grounds they had their farms and as we know from the burial mounds this is also where they buried their dead.

Lower Rhine Graben

The Rivers Rhine and Maas

During the Triassic and Jurassic periods – around 150 mya –  the North Sea Basin was formed. This started to receive the sediment from the Ardennes, Eifel and Taurus which had already been formed during the earlier Variscan Orogeny that happened during the Late Palaeozoic (350-250mya). The major river at this time however was the Eridanos, which started in what is now Lapland its course went through what is now the Baltic Sea and after some 2700 kms,  it ended in a gigantic delta on the edge of  the North Sea basin which at that time included a large proportion of the northern part of the Low Countries.

The fault system that were formed in conjunction with the Alps became the drainage systems for either surplus rainwater and/or melting ice and  snow from the Alpine mountain ranges. During the Miocene (23-5mya) the River Rhine still didn’t reach further than the Eifel, overtime the stream started to capture more and more tributes and started to drain into the same North Sea basin.

Next was climate change that started to have an effect on the rivers caused by the Ice Ages which started some 2,5 mya. In the early Pleistocene (2.5-0.7mya) the Rhine had further grown and flowed into the North Sea (in northern part of the Low Countries – now river Ems). This coincided with the ‘death’ of the now frozen Eridanos river.

Around a million years ago most of the northern Netherlands had become part of this gigantic delta, this included: most of what are now the provinces of Zeeland, Noord and Zuid Holland as well as parts of Friesland and Overijssel.

By now we had a more or less complete Netherlands, the southern part being part of the Avalonia mini continent and the norther part created by deposits from the Alps, delivered by the rivers.

During the ice ages the central fault – as mentioned above – became the course of the River Rhine. Around 450,000 years ago the river  started to take over the main drainage function and created its own riverbed towards the North Sea. During that period the river trajectories towards the North Sea in the north became blocked  and the Rhine was bent westwards and emptied into a lake that was formed in what is now the English Channel (northern part of France). During the glacial intervals the Rhine followed a more northern course and ended roughly what is the current Rhine Delta.

The name Rhine comes from the Celtic word renos, meaning raging flow.

Most of the western streams was captured by the Meuse River. For a while the River Meuse discharged, in its six time larger rival the Rhine, roughly where now the city of Aken is situated. Based on the above mentioned active geological activity, over the following 300,000 years , the course of  the Maas changed further eastwards creating its own current river bed .

Towards  the end of glacier periods the Low Countries plus large parts of the North Sea Basin fell dry and the Seine and Thames river became part of the Rhine drainage system. During the intergalactic periods much of the land flooded again, this also was the result after the last Ice Age, when modern man more prominent started to appear on the scene.

The climate events following the end of the last Ice Age resulted in a very dynamic delta, which became a massive floodplain and during this period the course of the rivers changed at least 80 times. The Waal and IJsel  rivers also merged into the delta  system. The area that before the event of the Ice Age was sea, turned into peat morass which only very gradually became habitable, some parts however, not until modern times.

The climate changes also resulted in large scale erosion and the River Maas started to transport large amounts of debris from the Jura and the Ardennes. When this reached the Low Lands and the power of the river disappeared, this rubble was dumped and as a consequence the main channels became blocked and numerous side channels were formed.

Further tectonic activity along the Peel Fault saw the Campina and Peel Blocks further lifted upwards and the Meuse was pushed further eastwards were it eventually reached it current course. Both the rivers Rhine and Meuse now started to form their own channels through the delta into the North Sea.

Man made changes since have seen the Rhine now discharging into the North Sea via the Meuse.

Hominini and Humans


At this time lived, as what is currently seen as the possible common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans, the Nakalipithecus. This animal still lived mainly in trees but started to adapt to its new environment. By around 8 million years ago the species started to split and regarding the human lineage the arrival of the Australopiths is important. Lucy is most probably one of its most famous descendants. They started to walk on two feet and lived most of the time on the ground, however it is envisaged that they still slept in the tress. There were a few separate lineages here. Standing up allowed our ancestors to stand up in the trees to reach edible fruits.

They were all mainly fruit and plant eating animals with perhaps also some meat on their menu. These animals were between 1.2 and 1.4 meters tall. Their brain capacity was rather small, 450 cc, however, despite this they also might have used some primitive tools to open nuts, dig into ants holes, etc., similar to tools that are used by modern apes.

Around 2.5 million years ago the Australopithecus Garhi is currently seen as the missing link between these animals and the species that from here on evolve into the Hominoids, our direct ancestors. By 1.2 million years ago all of the Australopiths subspecies had died out.

Homo Habilus

Around 2.3 million years ago – in one of the branches, Homo Habilus emerged and they dominated the humanoid landscape till approx 1.4 million years ago. Their arrival also roughly coincides with the start of the last ice age. When the climate was drier and the savannah became the new environment, replacing the forest. This forced our ancestors out of the trees and in the open savannah survival required them to outrun other animals in order to not become their prey.  This would have resulted in a hair loss and the development of the sweat glands that allowed them to get rid of excess heat while running.

Their brain capacity (600 cc) was larger than the Australopith and most likely because of that they were also using more sophisticated tools, known as the Oldowon culture, mainly for scraping, indicating that meat had become more prominent. This coincides with developments in our hands that first allowed us to make tools and next it is believed that the use of these tools created further enhancements to our body in particular to growth of the thumb.  While these tools might look rather unimpressive, they were highly functional and extremely well suited for the purposes they were made for.  The arrival of men and the start of the Stone Age are roughly taking place at the same time. It was truly a technological revolution of gigantic proportion,  and was separating our ancestors from their non-human cousins.

The early ‘people’ most likely they were scavengers rather than hunters. It is interesting that around that time the tread worm  adopted us something for example we share with the lion.

Homo Erectus

From here, they evolved into  Homo Erectus, with most probably the Homo Gautengensis ( 2 million – 600.000 years ago) being the missing link between the two species. Fossil material shows that Home Erectus was essential modern and would not have stand out in current crowds. They might have been a bit stockier, the head and face however, would have given them away. While less protruded that than of Homo Habilus, their forehead sloped backwards and they still had prominent brow-ridges.  Their brain capacity however, was still only 70% of modern humans. The marker for Home Erectus is the Acheulean tool technique that they deployed.

Most likely active hunting started to become more prevalent some one million to one and a half million years ago. As we know from the remaining hunter gatherers, well into modern times, it is highly likely that meat only accounted for 25% or less of their diet.  I had some first hand experience with this myself when I in 1988 spend some time with the Pitjantjantara people in Central Australia. Gathering fruits, edible plans and small animals like lizards and honey ants provided for the largest part of their food supplies; kangaroo and goanna were prized extra food sources.

Angatja - Aboriginal Cultural Exchange 1988

From Homo Habilus onwards, archeological evidence clearly shows signs of a mixed economy (hunting and gathering) and this would have required a new development in social behaviour, such an economy would require the sharing of food; something that doesn’t exist among non-human primates. Also food was collected to be eaten later ( in the animal world most food gets eaten immediately by the one who got it). This must have had a profound impact on the life style of these early ‘people’.  This far more complex social structure required more intellect and collaboration. Evolutionary developments – as so remarkably observed by Darwin – must have assisted in growing brain capacity as we see  in Homo Erectus (from 900 cc at the start of their arrival to 1100 cc at the end of their period)  and as a consequence they were increasingly  able to exploit more resources – through for example more specialised hunting –  in more environments than ever before.

The reduction in body hair is also linked to this period. The most likely explanation seems to be that their new lifestyle made them sweat more and that saw a replacement of hair by sweat glands. The lack of hair required protection against the UV rays and that resulted in  the light skin under the hair to become darker, only when moving northward did those people become lighter again.

Archaeological evidence again matches with what we observe in modern times, the ideal size of a hunter gathering group is around 30 people – some 6 families  (this was also my experience with the group of Pitjantjantara people that I joined). This was a very efficient economy as within a 4-6 hour working day, enough food calories (between 2000 and 3000) could be gathered to feed the tribe. There were no technical or social reasons to spend any additional hours to their daily labour budget. This left plenty of time for other social activities.  It is amazing that over the millenia the size of these groups remained more or less the same. This also required some form of birth control. It would not be possible for a women in the tribe to carry two babies around during their travels. Typically babies were breastfed for 3 to 4 years and this provided a natural contraception. By the time the first child could walk and participate in food gathering the next baby was underway. This only started to change when hunter- gathering economies started to change into agriculture societies.

Social relations were of critical importance to the functioning of the hunter gather society. Marriage would need to be arranged with people from outside the tribal household and relationships needed to be developed and maintained with that family. They needed to maintain contacts with other tribes in order to avoid conflicts, perhaps discuss hunting arrangements and make arrangements in times of food shortage, bad weather and so on. In other words these social relationships were a fundamental part of the survival of the tribe. These activities were all linked together in a range of ceremonies and as such was a currency used between the various groups and that currency needed to be kept in balance. All of this required significant time and effort.

Hunting and consequent sharing will also have been taken place along similar lines. Again I  had some first hand experience with this myself with the Pitjantjantara people when I participated in hunting activities with them, When we came back to the camp with two kangaroos there was lots of excitement amongst the women and children, but the men kept rather cool. Without saying anything the men started the ground fire to cook the animals. Once all of that was done they started to interact and talk to the rest of the tribe. Once the animals were cooked the women took over and the hunters first received the best part of the animal – the start of the tail – only after that was done,  were the others served.

There was no typical hierarchy, no tribal leaders the elders of the tribe made joined decisions but everyone seem to be able to participate in this process.

In general the hunt was a less economic efficient activity as the food gathering. Both however,  had very strong social functions of bonding, with the hunts that I participated tall stories and heroic events were boosted and sacred men’s  sites were visited.

If we look back to some of their achievements, be it cave paintings, myths and stories, villages, camp sites and so on  than many modern people will still feel a strong link with these people. My brief  experience with the Pitjantjatjara people clearly shows that very little material culture is needed to develop a strong culture simply based on a social code.

Against very strict tribal tradition I was  allowed – as an outsider, so I didn’t fall under their “Law” – to particulate in a food gathering activity with the women, here lots of chatting, laughing and lengthy stops-  for example to catch a lizard deep under the sand with their digging stick; collecting ants in their wooden coolamon containers or looking for very specific fruits that were seen as a a delicatessen. Non of this was a quick trip to the supermarket there was far more involved. They had the luxury of doing it this way as (even in the semi-dessert) there was plenty of food available for the tribe. Reading up on anthropological information from the early hunter gathers who lived well over a million years ago (thousands of kilometers away) its strikes who much of that culture – across the world – must have been the same and… remained largely the same over all those eons. I felt privileged that I was abale to make physical contact with that past. Interestingly while I as a man was allowed to join the women, western females were persistently refused to participate in the hunt with the men.

Home Erectus also became the first homo species to move out of Africa, this happened between 1 and 1.5 million years ago. They also arrived in north-western Europe, most likely during the inter-glacial intervals that occurred every 40,000 to 10, 000 years. For the first time our species moved out of their tropical environment and had to adapt to totally different foods, climates and changing seasons. However, until the next migration some 100,000 years ago most of our ancestors remained in Africa where approx 90% 0f Home Erectus lived.

This migration is linked to the so called Saharan Pump. Climate changes throughout the ages saw the Sahara, the Arabian Dessert and the Negev, sometimes turned into a more habitable region (savannah like), this because of more rainfall in Africa. This saw not just plants and animals moving into new regions, this time also humanoids. When Africa became drier again the ‘pump’ stopped.

Humanoid evidence in the Low Countries goes back to the Middle Palaeolithic, as far as 250,000BCE (near Maastricht) and 200,000BCE (Rhenen). They lived here during one of those relative warmer periods with average temperature similar or above those of present. Immediately after this period one of  most severe ice ages started set in the Wolstonian (Saalien). This brought the edge of the polar ice to the Low Countries as far as Nijmegen and Rhenen, that created the up to 70 meters high moraines ranges on which first the hunter gathers had their camps and later the first farming communities started to evolve after the last Ice Age. At Rhenen traces of hunter gather camps have been found with possible occupation indications from  between 8800 and 4900BCE.

Probably as a result of their migrations, Homo Erectus evolved in several sub species such as the Neanderthals, Java (Solo) and Peking men and possibly also Home Floresiensis. Perhaps with the exception of the latter, the earliest people within this species were more robust than modern men with a height of approx 1.8 meters, their brain capacity had increased to 850cc in the early species and  to 1100cc towards the end of their period, getting closer to the size of the brains of Modern Men (1360 cc). Interestingly some research indicates that the human brain actually started to decrease over the last 20 thousand years or so.

Homo Sapiens

Around 200,000 years ago Homo Sapiens evolved from them –  around 70,000 – 50,000 years ago – Modern Man (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) arrived and eventually became the only surviving Homo species.

The common ancestor of Homo Sapiens Sapiens and Home Sapiens Neanderthalensis is perhaps Homo rhodesiensis (Rhodesian man). In the end they couldn’t compete with Homo Sapiens Sapiens and around 24,000 years ago this branch of the family died out. They are linked to the Mousterian culture as mentioned below.

Neanderthal men in Den Bosch

There is also, throughout the region, ample evidence of the Neanderthal men (Low Countries: 57,000BCE). Their ancestors start to evolve around 600,000 to 350,000 years ago and by 130,000 – 70,000 years ago they had fully developed. They were most likely also the first people who practiced ritual burials. They were well adapted to the colder climate in Europe. They were rather small, strong and muscular. They are increasingly seen as part of the Homo Sapiens family and it is estimated that interbreeding has taken place with 1-4% of our DNA perhaps been provided by these cousins, we share between 99.5% and 99,9% of our DNA with them.

In 2013  archaeologists discovered a Neanderthal site right in the city centre of Den Bosch. Since there are stone tools and animal remains are found together this find exceptional. also in Northwest European context.

The finds date from the Palaeolithic period (last ice age) the Old Stone Age, some 40,000 to 70,000 years ago. There are stone tools and animal bone remains found among others from mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, horses, giant deer, reindeer and foxes. The pieces are between 40,000 and 60,000 years old and found at a level of seven meters below sea level. The Neanderthals who lived here are hunters / gatherers who roamed through this area. This shows that they had a temporary camp in what is now Den Bosch. When they went on again, they left behind their materials.

What was significant different between the brains of the early humans and that of for example the apes is that the mapping of the brain is rather different, some parts are bigger, other parts are smaller smaller, this is closely linked with the functions of the brain, while size does matter the mapping seems to be at least  of equal importance.

Despite this there was little change in the developments of their tools  (Acheulean, see below) but there was a more diverse usage of them.

Increased migration activity

Another ‘out of Africa’ movement occurred around 125,000 years ago with finds in Israel such as Skhul  (Mt Carmel) and Qafzef (Galilee).  These people had both modern features as well as those of the Neanderthal men and are currently seen as a  separate branch. They seem to have died out here out around 80,000 years ago.

According to DNA research from Spencer Wells  – as described in his book “The Journey of Men”  –  the next migration occurred between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, this time it were the ancestors of modern man who took on the journey.  These were  the ancestors of the San people – who still live in the Kalahari dessert – as other Out-of-Africa groups before them they also faced dramatic climate changes . The Saharan Pump started to work again. Because of an increase in Ice Age activity, the climate in Africa became drier, people were forced to move to the eastern edges of the  continent and eventually were forced out of Africa.

The first wave went through southern India and ended up in Australia and the Aboriginals are the direct descendants of this wave (evidence uncovered in 2017 might indicate that the Aboriginal people might have arrived here as early as 65,000 years ago).

Later a second wave moved into Central Asia  where DNA samples in Kazakhstan also  provided a direct link with the San people, from here these people  moved into Western Europe where they are known as the  Cro-Magnon, they started  to populate this continent from some 40,000 years ago onward. A second group moved from Central Asia further eastwards through Siberia were DNA samples from the Chukchi people – living north of  the pole circle – provided the next match – a small group of these nomad reindeer herders still live here in a way that hasn’t changed all that much from their ancestors who from here moved – during the heights of the Ice Age when there was a land-bridge between Siberia and Alaska – into North America around 20,000 years ago.

Amazingly at the end these highly sophisticated hunter gathers reached every corner of the earth. Cultural elements such as their stone tools and belief systems show high levels of similarity clearly indicating that they are basically all of the same people. Also indicating that their history is a subset of  biology and that it was not specific different sets of intellect or knowledge that created largely different cultures. Elements such as cultural expression in cave paintings also developed more or less  simultaneously throughout their societies around the globe.  Later on we see that these hunter gathers also roughly around the same time independently from each other moved form hunter gatherers to farmers, also this time driven by climate change, the warmer of the planet after the last Ice Age.

Homo Erectus was the first to use  fire, perhaps as early as 1 million years ago. This of course made cooking and the provision of heating possible. This was a critical time in our evolution. By cooking food they could eat the same amount of calories in half the time, this greatly improved the efficiency; fewer calories were needed to eat,  more time was available for other activities and there are even indications that it assisted in quite spectacular  brain growth.

More widespread use of fire however,  only started to emerge some 125,000 years ago.

Oldowon, Acheulean, Levallois, Mousterian, Aurignacian, Gravettian and Magdalenian Stone Age Cultures

Amazingly the Oldowon stone tools as they were used 2.5 million years ago changed relatively little for most of the following period and were even used amongst some of the hunter-gatherers that lived in modern times. Tools might have remained the same but the life of the hunter gathers depended more on their knowledge of their environment and on their skill and that made it possible to maintain a sustainable and mostly comfortable lifestyle for millennia.

As mentioned above  change occurred around 1.5 million years ago which is known as the Acheulean Culture of Homo Erectus, with larger tools arriving such as hand-axes and cleavers. This allowed for increased productivity (the job could be done faster). From here on a further refined and more economic  technique known as Levallois developed. A slight variant known as Mousterian culture was most probably used by the Neanderthals as well as with the early Modern Men from around 100,000 to 40,000 years ago. We now also see for the first time a markable increase in the number of tools. The early Modern Men increased the number of stone tools from around 60 to over 100. Also from here on regional cultures started to occur.

Perhaps these relative small changes during the period before 40,000 years ago are an indication of a lack of skills,  imagination and innovation in comparison to that of Homo Sapiens. Art also started to occur around 40,000 years ago, known as the Aurignacian Culture (Grotte Chauvet – with perhaps the first pornographic images of female genitalia) this art is indeed primitive in comparison of that of later periods.  The consequent Gravettian culture (28,000 – 22,000 years ago), is well known for their ‘Venus figures’. The art of the hunter gatherers peaked at the end of the last Ice Age with for example the most beautiful cave art of the Magdalenian people (see below). Their art was markedly different from those from previous times, it was far more vibrant with dynamic images of animals, it ended abruptly around 10,000 years ago.

Homo Sapiens in Europe

According to Professor Bryan Sykes the DNA expert at the University of Oxford,  one of the thirteen African Homo Sapiens clans – some 70-50,000 ago – started to move out of Africa (probably from Kenya or Ethiopia). He called the common mother of that clan Lara and it is astonishing to realise that she is truly the ‘Eve’ of all modern humans. From a pre-historic perceptive it can thus be claimed that all people who currently inhabit the earth all share a common heritage with each other. Later DNA research – as from Spencer Wells mentioned above – is now disputing some of this earlier DNA research.

Those who moved to Europe will have done so via Asia, they were most likely not more than a few thousand people.

According to Skykes, all modern Europeans can be traced back to seven (real) mothers Sykes has also given them names:

  • Velda – she lived 17,000 years ago in the Pyrenees (Cantabria), 5% of Europeans are her direct descendants a small band made it all the way to the north and can now be found amongst the Saami of Finland.
  • Tara – she lived 17,000 years ago in the hills of Tuscany, Italy she accounts for 9% of current Europeans, mainly in the Mediterranean but also in the west of Britain and Ireland.
  • Katrina – she lived 15,000 years ago, south of the Alps towards the bight in the Adriatic in what is now Italy and Croatia. 6% of Europeans can be linked back to her, mainly in the Mediterranean. The famous ‘Ice Man is one of her descendants.
  • Ursula -– she lived 45,000 years ago somewhere in the middle of modern Greece – see below.
  • Xenia – she lived 25,000 years ago with other mammoth hunters in the Pontic-Caspian region – 6% of European are her descendants. As we will see later a branch moved west into the Balkans and Western Europe.
  • Jasmine – she lived 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and was the first to live in the relative luxury of a settlement, where the first agricultural experiments started to bear fruits. The importance of this new ‘invention’ saw these peoples but perhaps their ideas rapidly spreading over Europe, just under a 5th of Europeans are direct descendants of Jasmine, however, their agriculture endeavours have touched close to 100% of all Europeans. One distinct branch can be traced to Spain and Portugal, another one to Cornwall, Wales and the west of Scotland and another branch still lives very close along the agriculture migration route in central Europe.
  • Helena – she lived 20,000 ago in the Rhône Valley in France, a staggering 47% of Europeans can trace their DNA ancestry back to her.

It is estimated that this some some 10,000 homo sapiens lived in what is now the Netherlands, around 80,000 are estimated to have lived in  what is now Dogger Bank (Doggersbank)  the land that – till approx 6500 years ago – existed between the Netherlands and England.


Based on DNA research from Oxford University I am a descendant from Ursula. The first tribe that spread through Europe, 11% of all Europeans are direct maternal descendants of Ursula (Latin for she-bear). As the ‘mother’ of this branch of the Cro-Magnon family she lived about 45,000 years ago in what is now northern Greece. She was among the first arrivals of a new, modern human to set foot in Europe. She was slender and graceful, in marked contrast to the thickset Neanderthals with whom she and her clan shared the land for another 20,000 years. Her kind brought with them a new and more sophisticated type of stone tool with which to hunt and butcher the abundant game, animals that soon appeared on the walls of limestone caves as the first expression of human art. They spread right across Europe, west across France and north as far as the British isles; they are especially well represented in Scandinavia and England. There were and still are lots of Budde’s living around the Baltic Sea, I have come across my earliest name sakes in Stralsund and on the island of Rügen around 1,100AD.

There would of course have been more ‘European mothers’, but it are these seven mothers that have provided an unbroken lineage into modern times.

Conscious humans

It are the mental faculties of the homo sapiens that created a common set of behaviour that we are finding back in cultures all over the world.  Human conscious is not simple a set of rational behaviours but also allows for imagination. One of the results of this, anthropologists believe, saw mythological systems  developed which in urban  agriculture societies started to grow into religious systems. Many scientific discoveries are born when humans  imagine situations and solutions. The earliest tangible expressions of this comes to us in their visual arts (from 45,000 years ago onward)  and most likely did have symbolic significance. Early beliefs, pagan religions and myths from around the world all have common elements. Most have similar creation stories and many have migration as a part of that story, they all are in one way or another superior, unique or chosen by the gods to be what they are and where they are.

What  started  as small hunter gathers family groups formed tribes which – through combinations of self-interest and coercion – grew into the medieval kingdoms. While force was a key issue in this process, civilisation was an equally powerful attribute to the human success.

For the  information on the conscious mind  below, I have used information from Piero Scaruffi’s book The Nature of Consciousness, he quotes several leading researchers and authors on this subject such as the American psychologist Julian Jayens and the British archaeologist Steven Mithen.

Consciousness is more of a process than a physical attribute. Animals also have some level of consciousness but it applies only to the here and now. Consciousness in its full meaning indicates a true understanding of ‘self’ and the ability to place it outside reality, both in the past and the future. Also consciousness – as a neurology process – is capable of growth, as can be seen in the early years of babies and toddlers.

Environmental changes  would have resulted in the development of tribal ‘information systems’, rules and tribal law. Tribes were divided in clans and totems each with their own rituals, rules, privileges and responsibilities. Within such a complex society there was not a hard line between the mythical world and the outside/natural world. Furthermore, a person could belong to a number of mutual exclusive associations based on positions and functions e.g.:  brothers, sisters, work, religion, leadership.  Together the tribes had ‘all’ the knowledge, this was not in the hands of a single person. Knowledge required education which was partly embedded in the clan and totem system, but this might also be one of the reasons behind rock art; the world’s first ‘knowledge based system’ and an ideal tool for education. Interestingly, unlike in other parts of the world, it seems that in Europe totem groups haven’t played a significant role in society.

Marriage and kinship

Already in the very early stages of the arrival of homo sapiens, very close knit family groups were totally depended on each other for their survival and their very existence. In these early societies it is likely that ‘marriages’ were based on endogamy (within their clan). Once these groups became more established it became more opportune to move towards exogamy (outside the clan). The latter was biological more productive but also allowed to maintain good relations with the wider group of people. Kinship was at least partially separate from biological connections. I noticed with the above mentioned Pitjantjatjara people in Central Australia that the children had ‘several mothers and fathers’. The same name was used for all ‘mothers’, they were the actual mother plus all her sisters. Fathers were the brothers of the mother. While other kinship relations exist(ed) elsewhere, for example where the brothers of the father were the fathers. All of these societies had far less divided connections than current societies. Also in most societies there was a far more important role for the brothers of the mother. The words ‘uncle’ comes from the Latin name  ‘avunculus’ which is the name for ‘mother’s brother’. ‘Aunt’ comes from the Latin name ‘amita’ what means ‘father’s sister’.

From the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages and even beyond that, most of the small farming communities (often not more than one or two farms) consisted of the patriarch of the family plus his sons and their sons and all of their wives. Together they would cooperate with farming and all other local community activities.  However, in cases of conflict and serious problems the kinship group known in anthropology as ‘the sib’ took prevalence. The ‘sib’ can include all the relatives of the patriarch on both side of the family up to the sixth degree.  In this context ‘weregild/wergeld’ or ‘blood money’ arranged the retributions in case of conflicts, eventually this started to form the basis of the justice system.

The development of language

Consciousness requires language, and it has therefore been argued that language was (at least so far) the last element in the process of the development of human consciousness, this happened around 70,000 years ago.  Language is a tool it comes to children from the outside, once language – as in different bits and pieces during the learning process – comes together it start forming the child’s mind from the inside through remembering, perception and cognition [2. Mind a BBC broadcast by Meyer Fortes, Primitive Society, 1963]

The development of language  was preceded by the ability to deal with other humans, to deal with the environment, and to utilise tools. Together with language these skills ‘fused together’ in the modern mind. This led among other things  to the development of art (45,000BCE), the needle (25,000BCE), agriculture (10,000BCE), organised religion (4,000BCE) and more sophisticated tool-making.

Most likely language developed from songs, motheres and grunting sounds. Very similar to other animals. This doesn’t require the cerebral cortex. The social structure and the need for communication saw language developing in the expanding brain of modern humans.

Spencer Wells suggests that it was the ability to speak that sped up the other development of these people that allowed them to move out of Africa around that same time. Most likely climate change forced these African people to band together and work out  ways to survive (teamwork). The shock from the results of climate change might well have contributed to the (speeding up) of the development of language.

Human development now started to accelerate. A more decorative art form started  by the hunter gathers in the Upper Paleolithic (45,000 to 35,000 years ago), a clear indication that these people became more self aware [3. Going Inside: A tour round a single moment of consciousness, John McCrone, 1999].  These symbolic expressions clearly shows feelings, beliefs and a social system around all of this.

An interesting discovery was made in 2013, suggesting that there was a proto-Eurasiatic language some 15,000 years that covered an area from the highlands of Scotland to western China and the southern tip of India. They have created a list of words that all can be traced back to that period, that all of these people would have understood they include: “you”, “I”, “not”, “mother”, “man”, “what”, the verbs:  “to give”, “to hear”, “to spit”, “to flow”. and nouns such as: “worm”, “bark”, “ashes”.

Art – the start of the communications revolution

It has been argued [4. Glut, Alex Wright, 2007] that this explosion of art around the end of the last  Ice Age  coincides with environmental changes, this triggered people to retreat to more habitual places, this in turn led to higher concentration of people, they had to live together and assist each other in order to survive, this in turn might have triggered the emergence of those symbolic expression.

What we now describe as art will most probably not have been seen as such by the originators, nor can we properly understand this art. It had huge mythical and cultural importance and could only be understood based on full insights in all elements of their society, furthermore specific ‘art’ could only be understood by those for who it was produced (only men, only women, certain clans, and so on). Rather than what now is seen as art, these early expressions and special form of communication would most likely be highly traditional and conservative and it is highly unlikely that they would claim it as ‘original’. That certainly seems not to have been the purpose of it.

The first rock paintings in the Low Countries are dating back to the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000BCE and were found in St Odilienberg in Limburg, perhaps one of the closest liveable areas on the edge of the ice covered plains to the north. This also basically heralds the end of Paleolithic cave art.

Early artefacts such as jewellery also indicate that these people might have used symbols to communicate certain information. They might have indicated their, tribe, totem,  gender, their status with their tribe, their coming of age, marital status, etc.

After the last Ice Age there is good evidence that there was a lot of interaction and communication  between these tribes and their sub branches that had started to evolve when the climate started to become more hospitable and more conducive for the growth of the population.

It is hard to draw any conclusions from the archaeological evidence about the tribal structures of these people. However, based on the quality of some of the cave art, stone artefacts and pottery there seems to have been a level of specialisation. The hunting and the coordination of the tribes covering large areas, would also have required some form of authority or leadership. However, there is for example very little evidence from burials to indicate that there was an upper class in these tribal societies.

These interactions and the resulting expressions in symbols, rock paintings, jewellery, mythology, stories and music became all building blocks of what we now call culture. Each society slowly but surely started to create its own culture and this culture in turn shaped these people [5. Consilience: The unity of knowledge, Edward O. Wilson, 1999].

Consciousness increasingly became a more important element of the unconscious mind that constituted the earlier phases of the evolutionary process. As less time became needed by the brain to sort out how to struggle through life (food, sex, shelter) more was available for the development of consciousness.

It has been argued that truly conscious humans only emerged after writing was invented – some 3,000BCE, perhaps as late as 1,000BCE (see below). Certainly the development of the ability to create written records produced a level of consciousness in humans that was different from that of their forebears and enormously increased their capacity to communicate over larger distances.

It is interesting to note that a lack of consciousness does not mean a lack of intelligence – some impressive cultures were built well before this time. The people that lived 45,000 years ago were intellectually not different from us.

However, during earlier stages, instead of having a fully-developed understanding of ‘self’, people relied on ‘voices’ to guide their decisions. Shamans and priests received messages in visions, while they were in a trance state. For them it was not possible to differentiate between real and imagined events. This process became more and more sophisticated and increased the power of the priest class in several of the city states in the Near and Middle East. To a certain extend this is still an integral part of large sections of modern societies.

Astrology became another important  element in all of this. The sun influences the seasons but perhaps more interesting where the stars. Because of place and position the position of Sirius at dawn in Egypt heralds the arrival of the Nile floods, cults started to develop around such stars and priests played a key role in linking such a position in time with a causal effect.

Homer’s Iliad is perhaps one of the first written records where there is an indication of humans acting independently of the voices that still feature very prominently in this writing from approximately 900BCE. Also the latter part of the Bible includes more and more conscious decisions. And similar shifts occur in the Chinese and Indian literature of that time.

In more recent western history these developments are very noticeable. Significant progress was made during the Greek and Roman civilisations where more emphasis was placed on reason rather revelation (Aristotle) and a rather free flow of knowledge was possible and all authority was open to question. However, this was based on philosophy and not founded on scientific research.  This easily allowed Platonic philosophy to bounce back towards the supernatural. This was also embraced by the Catholic Church who proclaimed that all the knowledge needed by humanity was within their dogmas and teaching, consequently in order to maintain their control over knowledge the acquisition of new knowledge was suppressed.  Some such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) tried to reinstate logic,  however reason only started to re-emerge during the Age of Enlightenment. The Inquisition – that was established to forcefully implement faith – still exists at the Vatican as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, be it with significant less violent procedures.

It is interesting to note that even in modern times we still see remnants of that proto-conscious process in religious and government structures, where ‘authoritative’ guidance is needed for important decisions.

But the more sophisticated societies became, the more knowledge was acquired, and, after writing was invented, better records could be used to guide the decision-making process. Visions-based processes were becoming less relevant. People with conscious minds also have the ability to advance their societies much more quickly. Ever since science has progressed it has led to religious adjustments, the opposite has never happened.

See also: Early beliefs, paganism and religion

Developments in north western Europe

Archaeological and historical cultural periods north western Europe

Time periods Dates Cultures
Paleolithic Old 2,500,000 – 300;000
Middle 300,000 – 30,000 Finds near Maastricht and RhenenNeanderthal men(Ice Age 110,000 -11,000). Den Bosch (40,000/60,000)
Late 30,000 – 9,500 Hamburg 13,000- 10,000Federmesser 10,000-9,000Magdalenian 18,000-10,000Ahrensburg 11,200-9,200(Younger Dryas 11,000-10,000)
Mesolithic Early 9500 – 7100 Maglemosian 9500–6000
Middle 7100-6450 Kongemose culture 6000-5200
Late 6450-5500 Tardenoisian 6000-4000
Neolithic Early 5500-4500 Swifterbant 5400-4300Linear Bandkeramiek 5200-4700
Middle 4500-3500 Rössen culture 4600-4300Michelsberg culture 4400-3500Funnelbeaker 4000-2700
Late 3500-2000 Vlaardingen culture 3500-2500Stein Group 3450- 2500Corded Ware 3200-2300Bell Beaker 2800 – 1900
Bronze Age Early 2000-1800 Únětice culture Central Europe 2,300-1,600
Middle 1800-1100 Nordic Bronze Age 1700-500Tumulus and urnfields 1800-1100Hilversum Culture 1800 – 1100
Late 1100-700
Iron Age Early 700-600 Hallstat 800-600
Middle 600-350 Jastorf 600-100 (Germanic)
Late Late 350-100 La Tene 450 – 100 (Celts)
Roman 100-250AC
Middle Ages Early 300- 950 Merovingian and Carolingian
High 950- 1270 Holy Roman Empire
Late 1270-1500 Proto nations

The dates of these periods are highly selective, the earlier the period, the more debatable the dates are. This table is based on the region we covered – north-western Europe and in particular the Low Countries and the neighbouring Rhineland in Germany and northern France. They reflect as much as possible the start and ending of these periods based on archaeological findings, indicating the sort of tools used. Sometimes these older dates are based on single findings. New findings quite often results in a review of these dates.


The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)