By the mid-3rd millennium, Europe, except for the far north, was peopled by farming communities, practicing plow agriculture and raising cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Except in the south east, where substantial villages had developed, Europeans lived in farmsteads or hamlets consisting of timber or wattle-and-daub huts.
Over the preceding thousand years (3500-2500 BCE), there are signs that warfare had become more endemic. Fortified settlements increased in number throughout Europe, presumably a sign that competition for available farmland was hotting up as populations expanded.
A major episode that was happening in Europe at this time is invisible to archaeology. This was the expansion of Indo-European peoples (and their languages) within Europe.
Linguistic, historical and geographic considerations suggest that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European had been a relatively small population group that underwent significant expansion and fragmentation sometime before 4000 BCE. Most scholars believe that this population was located in the steppes north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.
This population seems to have adopted farming some centuries before this time. Given the dry climate and extremes of heat and cold, farming made slow progress here, and, since the extensive grasslands favoured animal grazing over crop growing (at least with the technologies available at that time), their subsistence depended more heavily on their animals than on plants.
Sometime around 4000 BCE, one of these groups, who still inhabited the steppes north of the Black Sea, was the first to domesticate the horse. There is evidence that horses were ridden from an early date, and this would have been an enormous help in managing herds of sheep and cattle – and of horses. It is clear that these groups came to rely more on their horses than on cattle, sheep and goats. Horses were used for meat and milk, hides, and bone implements. From the start they seem to have been highly valued animals.
By 3500 BCE the keeping of horses was spreading across the steppes and into Europe. Also, probably around this time or shortly after, another key invention had been made by the steppe peoples.
The original horse-domesticators lived in permanent settlements of large, timber-framed houses. To take true advantage of the horse’s mobility, and its ability to travel speedily and over long distances to find new pasturelands, the herdsmen themselves needed more mobility. It is no surprise, therefore, that it is here where wheeled vehicles – heavy carts with solid wooden wheels, drawn by oxen – first appear in the archaeological record.
A ‘bred back’ Heck Horse, closely resembling the now-extinct Tarpan,
a subspecies of wild horse extant at the time of original domestication.
Given the need to find new pastureland on a regular basis, coupled with the wide open spaces of the steppe, these proto-Indo-European speakers quickly expanded over a large area. Eastwards they expanded towards central Asia and northern Iran; westwards they moved into eastern and central Europe (the Eurasian steppe sweeps straight into the heart of Europe as far west as Poland and eastern Germany).
By 2500, speakers of Indo-European dialects had almost certainly established themselves over a large area of eastern and central Europe, an occurrence probably associated with the spread of a particular style of pottery, called Corded Ware, in this region. These dialects were probably by now well on the way to becoming different languages, the ancestors of most of the European languages we know today.
The small-scale nature of settlement was as true for the Mediterranean region as for further north. However, sometime in the 3rd millennium, things began to change here. In the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, some settlements were getting larger. In Cyprus, on Malta, on the coast of Asia Minor and in the Aegean, settlements, such as the fortified centre of Kastri in the Cyclades, appeared. In this, maritime trade was evidently a significant activity – at least, so the appearance of storehouses suggests, as well as depictions of paddled longboats in pottery decoration. This whole development is surely linked to the expansion of trade routes emanating from the Middle East during this period, based on the hunger which Middle Eastern societies had for copper and tin, the metals from which the alloy bronze is made.
These societies were not only changing in size, but also in sophistication. This can be glimpsed in the appearance of thousands of elegant marble figures from the Aegean, the work of master craftsmen and of high artistic value (so high, in fact, that they have been looted and copied on an industrial scale in modern times, making their study as archaeological artefacts almost impossible).