The wider view: Europe in its setting

Europe in its settingAlthough often discussed as though it were a separate continent, Europe is but a part of the great land mass of Eurasia. The first humans entered Europe from Western Asia. Throughout prehistory wave after wave of innovation and ideas swept into Europe from the Near East. Ex oriente lux (light comes from the east) has come to refer not just to the rising sun, but to cultural and even religious enlightenment. The Hellenistic era is generally seen as the period at which innovation within Europe and expansion out of it began, with the conquests of Alexander the Great, but not until the Industrial Revolution did Europe become a power-house, economic and military, which dominated the globe.

So much is common knowledge. However in recent years archaeologists and geneticists have made discoveries which give us a fresh perspective. Since writing began in the cities of Mesopotamia and art was also advanced there, the first indisputable image or written record of an innovation often appears there. Many innovations were therefore credited to Mesopotamia which now seem to belong rather to the hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent, the Eurasian steppe or even further afield. Pottery appeared in the Far East and Africa long before it was made in the Near East. Pottery reached Europe first from the steppe. Agriculture began along the great curve of the Taurus and Zagros Mountains. Metal-working too began in the hills that provided the ore. Gold was first worked in the Balkans. Horses were domesticated on the steppe where they ran wild and donkeys in North Africa. Wheeled vehicles were probably first made in the European steppe/forest zone. Light spoke-wheel chariots appeared first on the West Asian steppe. Wine was first produced on the southern slopes of the Caucasus, where grapes grew wild. Dairy farming, as opposed to herding cows primarily for meat (with occasional milking), first appeared around the Sea of Marmara - on both the European and Anatolian coasts. Wool sheep may have been first bred in the north Caucasus, where the earliest surviving woollen textile has been discovered, or on the adjoining steppe. Cotton was first used for its fibres by the early farmers of what is now Pakistan.

The countries bordering the Mediterranean of Southern Europe, North Africa and the Levant have much in common. The links across the Mediterranean are discussed here, starting with the first Mediterraneans, an early lineage of homo sapiens only recently coming into clearer focus.