Links on the Gravettians of the Ice Age

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Links on the Gravettians of the Ice Age

Gravettian Boy


My nephew, Michael McKinstry, is putting two legos together (not two action figures).   He is 11 years old.   He asked for a lego kit for Christmas; not random pieces, but specific kits.  I didn't get it.   "Do you want to biuld anything in particular?"   "Is there any sort of thing that you want?"  "Do you want people, animals, cars, in your kit?"   When I was Michael's age I liked to make entire towns and farms, with people (really blocks stood upright on other blocks), from Lincoln logs, but I had in mind what I wanted to do with what I was asking for and what I would specifically need to be able to make it.   Today I often enjoy making things, but they are intended for some specific purpose.  Finally I got Michael to explain.  He doesn't have in mind making anything in particular.  He just enjoys making things!    I got him and his brother to find a Lego toy and take it apart and make something.   I couldn't get Michael to work at the table; he wanted to slouch on the couch, bare feet in the air, and work at putting his lego blocks together.   While he was working, Michael explained still further.   Sometimes he and his brother make different things with their Lego kits than what the kit was intended to make!   They can get the mamimum creativity out of focused Lego sets.  So, in other words, Michael likes to make things, and he likes to be creative about it, thinking outside of the box and thinking of new things to make.   

Michael's father and grandfather are also very good at working with their hands.   I wish I could have gotten pictures of Phil figuring out how to get into my people-proof enclosed USB hard drives, or Phil and his father Theophilus making my loft bed, which they designed themselves (OK, so it looks rather like a bunk bed).  

Michael's paternal line ancestors of the Ice Age had a lot in common with him.   What is more, his mother's paternal line ancestors were the same Ice Age people.   

Actually, most people now living in Europe are descended in part from one group of people who selectively survived the last Ice Age in Europe.   


Haplogroup I corresponds to the Gravettian culture of what shows above as the Balkan region, and possibly to its forerunner the Aurignacian culture.  Both crossedEurope and had eastern and western branches. The most advanced part of haplogroup I was in centralEurope, where Czechoslavakia and Moravia now are.   

This culture wasvery technologically and culturally advanced for its time.    In their efforts to meet the challenges of living in the Ice Age, people of the Gravettian culture formed the first sizeable settled villages inEurope.   Most people at that time lived in small hunting and gathering bands of about 30 people each.   These bands migrated constantly, and lived in tee-pee-like structures.   When the climate deteriorated, these bands desperately fought each other and defended territory.   Conditions were so difficult that humans inEurope were pushed to the brink of extinction.   Such a severe population bottleneck gave a strong genetic advantage to the few people who managed to survive.   

TheGravettians thought they had a better chance if they formed large settled groups where everyone worked together.    This was a brand new idea in human history.   People specialized in particular tasks.   This meant that people developed true expertise at crafts, such as making weapons and making clothing.   Over time their technology dramatically improved..   People also had time on their hands for the first time in history, and this encouraged creativity.  The Gravettians made decorated ceramic statuettes from clay, and hardened them by baking them in fire.    Some of the statuettes appear to be figures of the Great Mother goddess, who was later associated with fertility and the ancient Near East.    Houses were very distinctive looking; they were built of huge mammoth bones held together by mud plaster, and covered with hides.   The new social organization was such an advantage that most Europeans living today are descended from the Gravettians (not necessarily through their direct paternal line).   

Here are maps of the Gravettian culture.


These maps are a bit deceptive, since the most advanced Gravettians consistently lived between the Ukraine and the Moravian Basin northwest of Italy and immediatley north of the Alps.   This was the location of the ancestors of today's haplogroup I.  It is possible that haplogroup I migrated into France earlier, but if so their descendants were numerically overwhelmed by Neolithic migration from the east.    It isn't actually known who lived in France and northern Spain during the last ice age.   Today's haplogroup I people have clear genetic roots in east central Europe.  It is most likely that the relatively small old stone age population was completely overwhelmed, atleast in Y DNA lineages, by migrating Neolithic farmers after 6000 BC.   The same amount of land can support far more farmers than hunterers and gatherers, and it is now clear that all of the major haplogroups in Europe but haplogroup I came from southeastern Europe and brought agriculture with them.


There is, however, controversy about whether people who did survive in the ice age refugia of southern France and northern Spain were Gravettians.   


Today, haplogroup I and haplogroup R1 dominate Europe.  Haplogroup R1 developed on the central Asian steppes and maybe also in the Fertile Crescent and Middle East, during the last ice age.  It moved into the areas where agriculture developed during or immediately after the last ice age.  Early farmers had a huge demographic advantage over stone age people; they quickly overwhelmed their numbers.   Farmers spread first through the river valleys of central Europe and along the Mediterranean Sea.   They had spread across nearly all of Europe by 5500 BC.   The first farmers and then the Indo-Europeans spread R1b1b2 and R1a through Europe.  Haplogroup I2b1 lived in the river valleys of central Europe and were well positioned to benefit from the spread of agriculture and from trade.   What we know as the large, homogenous clade Haplogroup I1 came from people who already lived in Denmark, but a single haplotype experienced some sort of founder effect around the time when proto-Indo-European steppe peoples invaded southern Scandinavia (and killed most of the people in their path).  

Haplogroup R people werent stupid.  They wove strips of linen, used mainly for decoration, on simple small looms in their caves in central Europe, though it's hard to say whether Europeans or central Asians had that idea first.   They lived in or just north of the Middle East during the last ice age, and were instrumental in both inventing farming and spreading it through Eurasia and Africa.   

The Gravettians were truly remarkable.   Two things stood out about them.  One was that they were the first people on the planet to live together in sizeable permanent villages.   They were able to divide the labor, cooperate to mass produce food, and develop specialties, such as the ability to make stone tools, or the ability to make clothing.   They also wove textiles from plant fibers, in 27,000 BC, making them the first people to weave.   They were weaving plant fibers into decorative strips for their clothing in the same Moravian communities that first produced ceramic figurines

The other thing that was remarkable about the Gravettians was their creativity.   The Gravettians were craftsmen.   Their culture was descended from the earlier, slightly more widespread Aurignacian, which consisted of people who made wonderful realistic cave paintings.   Gravettians liked to work with their hands, purely for its own sake, rather than necessarily to make something specific.  They made beautiful artwork.  They left carvings and stick markings in wood, and they made the world's first ceramic figurines, dating to 29,000 to 25,000 BCE, which they hardened in fire or kiln-like structures.   The ceramic figurines were preceded by stone ones, such as the Venus figures found all over Europe from this time period.  

The ancestors of haplogroup I1 (my Smith line) were already in northern Europe when, after a break in the weather, the ice age returned for its last, most severe stage, from 12,000 BC to 10, 000 BC.   While previous people had been driven from northern Europe when the ice age began, these people were better adapted and were able to hang on.   

The first two figurines are carved stone; the last is fired ceramic.   They are all female figures and probably represent belief in a Great Mother goddess.

Fired Ceramic Animal Figurines - mammoth, ?, lioness, horse

One theory is that the Gravettians' specialization both gave them more free time, and helped them advance their skills.  The fact that they lived in large groups meant that technological advances were more likely to be passed on to new generations than had once been the case.   Previously the more important technological advances, like the spear thrower, were passed from group to group at large regular gatherings and through trade.   However the Gravettians seem to have experienced a great sea change in both mode of living and culture.   

Here is a recreation of one of their villages.  Gravettians used mammoth bones for building materials, and this particular village located itself near a mammoth graveyard, which they scavenged for food, hides and building materials.   


Screen Shots from Ice World recreation of a Gravettian village in East Central Europe

Gravettian boy and girl, reconstructed from skulls and clothing found in graves

Gravettian family at home

Here are some web sites on the Gravettian, many of them illustrated.   Some of the web sites are easy to understand, and others are technical.   

Origins, age, spread and ethnic association of European haplogroups and subclades  (Eupedia) 

Gravettian Wikipedia article   

Dolni Vestonice Ceramics  The Gravettians made figurines of animals and of the female body with exaggerated female characteristics and female organs (which probably represented fertility).   They also did beautiful abstract art.  They made much of their artwork from clay ceramic, and fired it, though they did not make pottery. 

The Gravettian on the Middle Danube (technical) 

The World of Gravettian Culture - Lots of cool graphics of how Gravettian people lived, what they wore and what they looked like. 

The Gravettian of Moravia - Pavlovian - Part of above web site 

Dolni Vestonicci jewelry, tools and other artifacts.

Paleolithic Indo-Europeans - more accurate on Gravettians and Aurignacians than on Indo-Europeans.   

The Indo-Europeans trace to the Eurasian steppes of the Black Sea/ Ukraine region from 4400 BC to 1500 BC.  In their classic form they came off the steppes or split up between 2200 BC and 1500 BC.   The problem has always been that their history appears to be older and more complex, especially when it comes to their languages.    The shaft hole battle axe/ corded ware peoples swept across central and northern Europe in successive waves from 3500 to 1500 BC, and these originated in the Black Sea/ Ukraine region.   The Neolithic was also carried across central Europe, eventually to northwestern Europe, by people from the Black Sea/ Ukraine region.   The Neolithic was carried by haplogroup R1b1b2, and its southern/ Mediterranean branch was also carried by haplogroup I2a.  Later Indo-European migrations added R1a, which is a classical Indo-European marker.   R1b1b2 was thought until recently to have spent the last ice age in western European refugia, but it is younger than that, it and parent clade R1 dispersed from central Asia and secondarily from the Black Sea region much later than that.   R1b1b2, or its immediate forerunner, spent the last ice age in Central Asia east of the cultural region of the Gravettians, and north of the Fertile Crescent, and maybe also in the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent. Physically they may not have been very different from the central European Gravettians, whose cultural center and region of dispersion was the western part of what eventually became the Indo-European homeland.  Since the two peoples did combine in the Ukraine/ western Black Sea region during or just before the Neolithic, it is hard to know.  The extreme demographic advantage of R1b1b2 in central, northern and western Europe was the Neolithic itself, not an ice age founder effect.  The fewer people already living where the first farmers migrated, and the less technologically advanced those people were, the greater the farmers' demographic advantage, so as they crossed Europe, they became more numerous relative to teh rest of the population.   This is all such new news, that one can read practically everything else in literature that is very recent.   

 Gravettian and Aurignacian culture, Ice Age refugia, and Slavic roots.  Probably not the most accurate or specific ideas on Slavic roots.  

The history of the Gravettian culture 

Gravettian Art of Pavlov I and VI Technical, but cool photos of Gravettian artwork.   

Game version of the Discovery Classics dvd "Ice World", about the Gravettian transformation of how people lived.  How well would decisions that you made help you to survive during an ice age?

Aurignacian culture and map  The Aurignacians were the pan-European culture that preceded the Gravettians.  They lived in Europe before the last ice age.   They were also advanced for their time; they left beautiful artwork, especially cave drawings, and they made important advances in their tools and weapons.    It is unclear if they evolved into the Gravettian or were replaced by it.   One reason for the puzzle is that both archeology and Y DNA tell us that the ancestors of the Gravettians came from the Middle East.   The Aurignacians were not equipped for the challenge of surviving the ice age.