Baltic Prehistory

Marisa Hougardy

Map:     Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929



By definition, the period before recorded history is prehistory. However, groups of different areas identify the margins of prehistory differently. To the Baltics, prehistory could be the time before the natives recorded history, which is around the early 16th century, or it could include the time before others recorded information about the Baltics and its inhabitants. All this stated, how does one differentiate between the prehistory of the Baltics, meaning the territory along the Baltic Sea coast, and the group of inhabitants? Knowingly aware of these confusions with the definition of prehistory in the Baltics, to choose a particular time period and limit prehistory to only that interval is difficult; however, as discussing "Baltic prehistory," one must limit the time period to that of before anyone recorded information regarding the Baltic area, including its inhabitants in each subsequent period. Therefore, prehistory in the Baltics begins around 10,000 BC, when the last ice sheets retreated, and continues to the Iron Age around the 5th century AD, when others began to write about the Baltic.

Divisions in prehistory revolve around climatic changes, as well as the changes occurred when a new group of peoples and their culture is introduced in a particular territory. To describe Baltic prehistory, it is best to begin with the Paleolithic period, which lasts, roughly, from 10,000 – 6800 BC. However, the best evidence describing the oldest cultures living in the Baltic lands is evidenced from the Mesolithic period, which lasts from c. 6800-4500 BC. By describing each culture in chronological order from the Paleolithic through the Neolithic (4500-2000 BC), one can grasp the changes from simple to complex cultures and understand the evolution of processes in the Baltic.

Baltic lands prior to inhabitants and the earliest signs of man

Prior to the arrival of the first peoples in the Baltic, the entire Baltic area was covered by an enormous ice cap, which receded from c. 15,000 BC to the Post-Glacial around 6,800 BC. Much of the Baltic territory and Russia was freed from ice during the second stage of the retreat called the Gotiglacial at about 15,000-8,300 BC. The retreat of the ice cap created floral changes, which introduced tundra and cold steppe forms and small patches of birch and pine forests into the area. Some dominant faunal types inhabiting these areas were mammoth, rhinoceros, reindeer, marmot, beaver and musk shrew (Gimbutas 9).

Before the ice age, an early hominid Homo erectus lived in Europe. Following Homo erectus, the typically ice-age neandertals inhabited the area from 70,000 – 30,000 BC. However, before the end of the ice age around 30,000 BC in Europe, the early Neandertal co-existed simulatenously with the Cro-Magnon human, which came in from Asia (Krūmiņš, 52). It is these earliest remains of the Cro-Magnon in the Baltic that archaeologists associate with the first humans in the area.

First cultures in the Baltic


The end of the ice age, approximately 10,000 BC, is seen as the first period of development of Indo-European society in the Baltic area (Krūmiņš 8). During the early stages in the retreat of the last ice sheets, around 10,000-8,000 BC in the area southeast of the Baltic Sea, a reindeer-hunter culture arose (Gimbutas 11). These "reindeer hunters" followed herds of reindeer northward, as herds always stayed near the edge of the receding inland ice, and arrived in East Baltic around 7000 BC. Having already lived in central and western Europe during the early Stone Age, these original Europeans, the Cr?-Magnon men, already possessed an advanced and multifaceted culture (Uustalu 13). The remains of humans of this period were like the Cro-Magnon men and, more importantly, the first people in the Baltic.

Because of the milder climate and the abundance of animals in the forests, hunters no longer followed reindeer, and subsequently remained in the Baltic, where they turned fishermen in order to provide an alternative food source to hunting. However, during this Sub-Arctic climatic period the reindeer was still the dominant animal, as many deposits of grooved reindeer antlers from this period have been found (Gimbutas 25). Moreover, the Late Glacial period introduced a new type of flint technology known as Swiderian, which previously existed between the Oder and upper Volga. This type of flint, characterized by tanged point and elongated scrapers, continued in the Baltic for a prolonged amount of time "as thousands of flints discovered without association in Baltic resemble Swiderian type" (Gimbutas 27-28, fig. 2).

However, no indisputably related physical remains have been found that could be associated with the "reindeer hunters," but a skull accidentally discovered in Kebeliai, western Lithuania, may belong to this period. "This upper part of the skull was massive, dolichocephalic, with strong proclivity of the forehead, prominent and massive brow ridges and a narrow forehead. The traits suffice to show that the Kebeliai man was sapiens, but had Neanderthaloid elements, in other words, was a Neanderthal-sapiens hybrid" (Gimbutas 28). Thus, the excavator associates the dates of this "reindeer hunter" culture on stratagraphic position, assuming that the oldest time limit of the Kebeliai man may reach the Mesolithic (c. 6800-4500). "From this we can deduce that the Kebeliai skull probably belongs to the period between the last glaciation and the Baltic-Boreal culture" (Gimbutas 28).

BALTIC FOREST CULTURE – remnants of the reindeer hunters

When the iceage climate became more temperate around 7500 BC, in the place of reindeer horses arrived. In this Boreal period (6800-5600 BC) that followed, a relatively uniform culture of hunters and fishers extended from the western Baltic to southwestern Finland (Gimbutas 11). Hunters and fishers living in small groups on the banks of streams and lakes remained in the Baltic to hunt elk, the most predominant faunal type (Vasks 15). These hunters and fishers of a identified as a forest culture is known by two names: the Maglemose culture of the western Baltic area and the Kunda culture of the eastern Baltic area (Gimbutas 30).

Exemplary of the Maglemose type is the most ancient burial site in the East Baltic found at Zvejnieki in Latvia near the Burtnieks lake, and dates to around 6300 BC (Vasks 15). From the massivity of the bones, it can be concluded that this human was like that of the Scandinavian type, which belongs with the Maglemose and Ertebeles cultures (Vasks 15). Early and Middle Mesolithic types of bone objects of the Kunda type show influence of the Arensburg-Swidrian culture, but, however, also evidenced new motifs in bone objects that attest to the arrival of new inhabitants (Vasks 17).

This community of "fishermen-hunters" near the lake by Kunda evidences the first traces of human life in Estonia. Their stone age equipment of bone and stone tools dates back to 6500 BC, and it is reasonable to assume that the culture lasted up through 4500 BC until some sort of sudden catastophe dried up the lake. Noteworthy is that this Stone Age equipment resembles contemporary Stone Age tools found in other areas of the Baltic -- "a fact which leads us to the conclusion that the first inhabitants of Estonia probably immigrated from the south" (Uustalu 15). As for archaeological evidence, the only skull of the Kunda type was found in southern Lithuania and is associated with the site material containing bone harpoons, points with flint inserts. This period continued on in hunting-fishing tradition, yet introduced new fishing implements including harpoons, bone points, and fish-hooks (Gimbutas 31; Vasks 16). Moreover, traces of seal hunting indicate that these Boreal hunters in Estonia journeyed to the sea in autumn and spring, since seals approach the coast only at these seasons (Gimbutas 31).

Subsequently, this community of "fishermen-hunters" flourished from around 5600 BC and lasted until about 3400 BC. This period also included a change in climate to warmer -- the atlantic climatic period. The number of oak trees quadrupled, and a new tool complex including spears was introduced (Vasks 19).

COMB-LIKE CERAMICS – Finno-Ugric arrival?

Ceramics arrived in the Baltic in the middle 5th millenium BC, around 4500 BC. Many of the pots were decorated with small comb-like teeth or small indented like ornamenting (Vasks 22). The second half of the 4th millenia BC, from 3400-2300 BC, the climate turned subboreal and a new people entered the Baltic in massive numbers. They were the comb-ceramics pottery tribe, are described by their pottery of comb-like pressing decoration. "The bearers of this ‘comb-ceramics’ culture most likely belonged to the Finno-Ugric race" (Uustalu, 15), and, moreover, the techniques they brought in did not originate in the Baltic, but rather were migrated in (Balodis 39). Exemplary of this culture were the types found at Narva (Vasks 23). Moreover, based on archaeological finds, thre is no direct link between those previous inhabitants and those, who arrived around the mid-5th century BC; distinct anthropological differences existed. "This suggests that around the mid-5th century BC there was a new migration of people into Latvia, people who were characterized by the metisized anthropological type" (Denisova).

During the period of 5000-3000 BC the main source of livelihood included still food-gathering, but at the same time, hunters and fishers became acquainted with the refinement of stone tools and the manufacture of pottery, having been influenced by the diffusion of a food-producing economy from the Danube area (Gimbutas 11). This central European culture of farmers and breeders of domestic animals belong to the Danubian I culture of the early 3rd millenium BC. They presumably converted the northern hunters and fishers to agriculture, from which the people of the southern Baltic area evolved a Neolithic culture of their own (Gimbutas 12).

DANUBIAN (3500-1700 BC)

Stroked Pottery Group

From the period of 3000-1300 BC much Stone Age equipment including hunting and fishing gear and comb-design pottery have been found in Estonia. The first group of Danubian settlement includes the Stroked Pottery Group, whose settlements and graves are characterized by stroke-ornamented pottery, which succeeded the phase of linear pottery and are assumed to belong to the Danubian I survivors. In northeastern central Europe, stroked pottery does not appear in large quantity (Gimbutas 115).

"Globular Amphora culture" -- new people, kurgan elements

Co-existing, and in some cases competing, with previous inhabitants, the Globular Amphora culture spread over the Baltic territory, introducing new burial and religious rites, small rectangular houses, cord impressions and patterns of hanging triangles on pottery, domesticated horses, and fortified hill-top sites. Elements such as the aforementioned are related with one culture, since such characteristics do not migrate separately. However, "the influence of the local culture is an important factor if the culture of the newcomers is not higher, but lower or of a similar level. This is seen in the example of the development of the Globular Amphora" (Gimbutas 151). Therefore, the Globular Amphora culture, adapting themselves to the local environment, were new people, introducing the rudiments of the so-called "corded" pottery culture of the 1800-1700 BC, and continued to incorporate forms of the Globular Amphora complex.

BATTLE-AXE CULTURE -- New people (2000 BC)

Following the Globular Amphora complex in the central and southern Baltic area were the corded pottery and battle-axe complex peoples, who settled in the area extending northward from either the north coast of the Baltic sea or northeastward to central Russia. The most significant feature of this new culture is pottery, which is a common archaeological discovery, and differs greatly from the comb- and pit-marked pottery of the northeastern European hunters and fishers. Distinct characteristics designating this new group of people include burial rites, changes in pottery (fig. 3), and the appearance of boat-shaped stone axes. For example, "cist-graves were disappearing and instead dead were laid on a stone or clay pavement. Globular amphorae proper with high necks and stamped ornamentaion were replaced by forms with narrow necks and small handles" (Gimbutas 153). Boat-axes of stone with a drooping blade called "battle axes" appeared, and are thought to be linked with the religious pattern of these peoples, as the "battle-axes" actually are "cult-axes" and are often linked with the notion of a sky deity (Gimbutas 153).

In the eastern Baltic lands the battle-axe complex prospered around 1500 BC and introduced a new economy. The main source of livelihood of this period is thought to include agriculture, due to finds of wheat grains and flint sickles; clay whorls evidence a production of textiles. Evidence of cattle-rearing, has been found from tombs of this period, which contain bones of cattle and sheep. "It is probable that the immigrants responsible for this new culture also introduced some elementary agriculture into this country, although there is no certain proof of this" (Uustalu 16).

This battle-axe culture is now linked with groups around the upper Volga as well, because the East Baltic groups display the same type of burial rites, axes, and pottery of the new system and religion. Therefore these Battle-Axe peoples, and the subsequent cultural change in northeastern Europe, although similar to the Globular Amphora Survival complex, is explained best as the arrival of a new people, since the archaeological data from the period 2000-1800 BC evidences a change that can be explained by the migration and co-existance of cultural groups (Uustalu 16). As Gimbutas puts it: "It is hard to believe that the stock-breeding and peasant culture in central Russia could have been created by local hunters and fishers who had acquired domesticated animals from some farming community" (Gimbutas 166).

This change in European culture could only have been caused by a migration of people voyaging through the east-west corridor of the open steppes. It is assumed from the archaeological data that this migration was accomplished by the Kurgan people, whose origin most likely is beyond the Black and Caspian seas. "In the course of possibly less than one hundred years the people of southeastern origin occupied an enormous territory in northern Europe (Gimbutas 169). "Their arrival has been connected, by some archaeologists, with the Indo-European migration. This would seem to explain the fact that the older comb-ceramics culture continues to exist side by side with the new elements until, in the end, it assimilates the features of the boat-axe (battle-axe) culture" (Uustalu 16). Besides that, different physical types of people arrived – being more tall-statured with smaller skulls.

BRONZE AGE (1300 BC – 500 AD)

Following the arrival of the first bronze articles, which appeared in the Baltic about 1300 BC, the period is acknowledged as the Bronze Age, which denotes a time rather than a culture. Characteristic of the Bronze Age in Estonia and of other areas of the Baltic is the Gorodistche culture, a society of hill-forts placed on good agricultural lands and trade routes (on large rivers like the Volga, Dvina, Emagjogi) and is evidenced beginning around 1000 BC (Uustalu 17). This culture is thought to have origtinated with Finnish tribes, as they encompassed an area from the Urals to the Baltic.

Moreover, the Bronze Age in Estonia not indicated a change in burial customs. Previously dead were buried without visible mark on the ground, however, at the end of the Bronze Age, the dead were laid on the ground in a stone-slab cist and covered with a cairn, or were cremated, a practice which spread to the northern Baltic. Cremation in Estonia soon became the norm, although the burials never completely ended (Uustalu 17).

From the period of 1300-1100 BC the southern Baltic territory was populated by the Balts, who inhabited a square area: Gdansk harbor-Ventspils-Daugavpils-50 km north of Warsaw (Dunsdorfs 10). We know that Balts inhabited these territories from the modern day Baltic river names that have been kept intact in places, where Balts no longer live. In Smolensk is a tributary Meža, which has its own tributary properly called Laukesa. It is generally accepted that the density of Baltic names shows that the Balts either reached or left more sparsely populated areas. “Water names communicate that the ancestors of the Latvians and the Lithuanians occupied the upper Dnieper region until as late as the first millennium AD and the first centuries of the second milliennium AD" (Bojtar 55). This means that the numbers of water names in current Latvian and Lithuanian areas developed after the end of the first millennium AD, and also hold that there’s no reason to date these names back prior to the first millennium BC.


The preceding information including solid data based on archaeological finds, and interpretations based on placename evidence and geological evidence describes at best prehistory in the Baltic. However, there are gaps in all history, and, likewise, that is the case in prehistory as well. Burial of corpses occurred only twice during the prehistory of the Baltic – in the Neolithic era and in the last part of the Bronze Age. Moreoever, some analyses of cultures are based on very few solid finds archaeologically. Bojtar cites J. Graudonis emphasizing that "we have no anthropological finds from the territories of Latvia between 1500 BC and the first century AD" (Bojtar 47). In reading this piece, one must take into heart that there are and always will be gaps in prehistory, and through more excavating, can a more clear representation of the past be discovered and unveiled.


Balodis, Francis Aleksandrs Senā Latvija. Chicago: Dzimtā zeme, 1956.

In Latvian. Excellent book about archaeological evidence of prehistoric peoples in Latvia. Problem: It focuses mainly on Latvia.

Bojtar, Endre. Foreword to the Past: A Cultural History of the Baltic People. Hungary, Central European University Press, 1999.

In English. This book discusses topics related to antiquity in sections: "How far back does Baltic antiquity reach," " The first references to Balts," and discusses tribes in the Baltic as well as underscores the difficulties in writing about prehistory. It addresses a lot of issues regarding theories of prehistorical significance.

Denisova, Raisa. The most ancient population of Latvia. Viewed: May 14, 2001.

Offers a concise overview of prehistory in Latvia.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. Senie Stāsti. Melbourne, Austrālijas Latvietis, 1955.

In Latvian. Pages 7-13 provide some accounts of earlier actual primary sources.

Gimbutas, Marija Alseikaite, The prehistory of eastern Europe, Cambridge, Mass, Peabody Museum, 1956.

In English. This book has pages of detailed information about the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Copper age cultures in Russia and the Baltic area based on archaeological and artifactual evidence, which would be a primary source in my topic.

Krūmiņš, Andrejs. Mūsu tautas saknes : Kultūrvēsturiski pētījumi . Rīga : Andrejs Krūmiņš, 1998.

In Latvian. This book contains a good overview of European and Latvian prehistory. He often references M. Gimbutiene.

Vasks, Andrejs, B. Vaska, R. Grāvere. Latvijas aizvēsture : 8500. g. pr. Kr.--1200. g. pēc Kr. : eksperimentāls metodisks līdzeklis. Rīga : Zvaigzne ABC, c1997.

In Latvian. Interesting, newer edition book with diagrams of archaeological digs and maps, as well as detailed information.

Uustalu, Evald. The History of Estonian People London, Boreas Pub. Co. [1952]

Overview of prehistory in Estonia.

Bibliography (Useful sources not cited in paper)

6. Saks, Edgar Aestii: an analysis of an ancient European civilization Montreal, 1960  

In English. Has a few (10+) pages about Estonian prehistoric peoples. This will be useful to compare to the books I read in Latvian about the Aestii, as I will have two sides to this culture, if my paper does indeed stem towards that idea.

7. Sena Riga : petijumi pilsetas arheologija un vesture [redakcijas kolegija Andris Caune (atbildigais redaktores), Ieva Ose, Andris Celmins Riga : Latvijas vestures instituta apgads, 1998-2000. DK504.928 .S46 1998 v.1 

In Latvian. Compilation of articles written by archaeologists (Janis Apals, Ilze Loze. The latter of the two has a work published on the web, which I noted). This book may prove useful as pointing out that Riga is representative of nearby cities of about the same time period, but the book does just focus on one city, and, other than the first couple articles won’t be much useful.

Lithuania : past, culture, present [editor, Saulius Zukas ; authors, E. Aleksandravicius ... et al. ; translators, Vida Urbonavicius, Jonathan Smith] Vilnius : Baltos lankos, c1999


This site features the work of Loze, who seems to have summarized rather well the topic I will be attempting to analyze this quarter: prehistory. Her work is not cited. This poses a problem.

Vasks, Andrejs, THE CULTURAL AND ETHNIC SITUATION IN LATVIA DURING THE EARLY AND MIDDLE IRON AGE (1st - 8th Century AD) (accessed on April 4, 2001)

Vytautas Straižys and Libertas Klimka Global Lithuanian Net. Cosmology of the Ancient Balts. (accessed April 4, 2001)

This site features a good reference for Baltic prehistory and has itself an enormous reference list.

Geraldine Reinhardt, The Alekseev Manuscript: Chapter VII (continued): Bronze Age in Eurasia, (accessed April 4, 2001).

This site contains a referenced speech given by someone, possibly Reinhardt, as the site contains numerous links to parts of this speech (?) regarding the neolithic, mesolithic, paleolithic and later times in Europe.

Anonymous (US Dept. of state), Electronic Research Collection (ERC) web page is an older archived page from the U.S. Department of State web site, (accessed on April 4, 2001).

Site features rough information about Estonia and Estonian history. Not the best site, but, to me, seems rather trustworthy information-wise, although brief.

Estonian National Museum,

Has interesting information about sealing, which I may want to use in my paper.

Journal of Indo-European Studies

"Indo-Europeans between the Baltic and the Black Sea" is just an example of an article I may be interested in. This site holds a table of contents, which references journal articles, I may be able to look up for my paper. The articles, however, are not on the site.

Claes-Christian Elert, The Language of southern Scandinavia in the Bronze Age: Fenno-Ugric, Baltic, Germanic, or ...?

This is an abstract of a paper published in Studier i svensk språkhistoria 4 (utg. Patrik Åström), 1997, Institutionen för nordiska språk, Stockholms universitet, 106 91 Stockholm. Alludes to language as a source of information in research.


            Originally published at