Synopsis: In this episode we will examine the megalithic structures of France, which are among the oldest still-standing buildings in the world. These marvels tell us of ancient civilizations that predate even the Egyptian pyramids.
Mesolithic (roughly 10,000 BCE – 6,000 BCE):
I want to start today’s episode by talking about the concept of ‘ancient.’ The ancient world has been a fixture of human thought for centuries. There has been this idea that for much of human existence, our ancestors lived simple, short lives, hunting wild animals, collecting whatever edible plants were in their vicinity, and migrating for food. Then, a whole new phenomenon occurred. Out of the vast deserts of Egypt the pyramids rose high enough to split the heavens. Massive cities were built with palaces, temples and centers for law and justice. Irrigation was used for the first time as humans were no longer helpless recipients’ of nature’s power, but could in turn shape nature according to their designs. From the shores of the Nile came writing, and with it the development of a time-scale, which meant humans were mastering abstract concepts as they mastered nature. Ages were reckoned with the passing of the Pharaohs and the world became the domain of human-beings were before humans were little more than animals, helpless in the face of nature.
This worldview was first believed by the classical age Greeks, who looked to Egypt as the founders of civilization. For millennia this view was carried over, so when Napoleon invaded Egypt he remarked that “forty centuries look down upon us” to his men, in admiration for the first humans to develop advanced societies. This Greek narrative was modified, though not challenged, by the Judeo-Christian narrative, which views the beginning of civilization in Mesopotamia, rather than Egypt. According to the Bible, the Garden of Eden was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, placing it somewhere in modern-day Iraq. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden for eating the forbidden fruit their descendants spread out across Mesopotamia, founding powerful cities such as the ancient city of Ur, where Abraham was born. It was in Mesopotamia that the ancient Sumerian city-states emerged, and the first known use of writing and the wheel. Thus Christians have looked to ancient Mesopotamia as the birthplace of advanced societies, and to this day if you take a Western Civ course in America, ‘Western Civilization’ begins in Egypt and Mesopotamia before passing like a torch to Greece, Rome, Western Europe, and finally North America.
For thousands of years this view that complex, monument-producing societies emerging in Egypt and Mesopotamia and spreading across the world shaped Western understanding of their place in history. For Westerners, the very idea of ‘history’ as they understood it, began in the Middle East. If you were secular, then everything before that was just unintelligible cave people. If you were an orthodox religious person, then there was almost nothing before that; just a week for God to create the heavens and the Earth, and however long it took Adam to name all the animals before the first woman came along and ruined everything by eating that damned fruit.
However, this narrative has begun to crack under the weight of a relatively new academic discipline: archeology. While historians primarily use written documents to detail past events, archeologists can use any material evidence to develop an understanding of the past. Over the last three hundred years archeology has developed to such an extent that we can look back farther into our own past than was ever possible using traditional historical methods. The result is that archeologists have uncovered complex cultures that produced giant monuments that are far older than ancient. The oldest known stone structures on Earth are in Turkey, at Catalhuyok and Gobekli Tepe which dates back to the tenth millennium BCE. Just imagine that: this city of numerous stone family houses, temple complexes and government offices is around 7,000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids. The gap in time between Gobekli Tepe’s creation and the Pyramids is a greater gap between the pyramids and today. Younger, though still pre-ancient sites include the original Tower of Jericho which may have dated to the 9th millennium BCE. Yet, while the oldest stone cities may have been in the Middle East, soon Europe would have megalithic structures as well. Of all the pre-ancient structures, France boasts the oldest in all of mainland Europe. These massive earth and stone structures date back to 4,800 BCE, more than 2,000 years before the Egyptian pyramids were built.
Before we dive into the megalithic structures of France, we must first pick up where we left off last week. Last week, we ended the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, and entered into the Mesolithic, the Middle Stone Age, which in France occurred around 5,500 BCE. The Mesolithic came about when humans first developed agriculture. In my opinion the development of agriculture is certainly the greatest scientific breakthrough in human history, and caused a greater shift in human society and behavior than the internet, fossil fuels, electricity, the printing press, gunpowder, the wheel or writing. For millions of years humans and their ancestors were a part of nature. Even when humans stood atop the food web, they were still a part of the natural environmental rhythms. They migrated alongside bison and elk herds. They gathered wild fruits and berries. And they mostly sheltered in caves, or in simple huts, not much more complex than beaver dams, birds’ nests, or other animal constructions. The agricultural revolution separated human beings from nature; now instead of being part of the natural migratory and food-gathering patterns, humans could grow their own food, manipulating their surroundings to fit their lifestyle. With the development of pottery at roughly the same time humans could store harvests giving communities longer-lasting and more reliable food supplies. Because humans based their diet on agricultural products, mainly wheat, barely, lentils and chickpeas, they became rooted in a singular location. In addition to these food products, early French inhabitants grew flax, which was used in clothing. Humans non-migratory status further led to the domestication of animals, including goats, sheep, pigs and cattle.
Thus, technical innovation was followed by social innovation. In this period there was job specialization, as members of a community were hunters, farmers, pastoralists, potters, woodcutters, warriors, tribal leaders and spiritual leaders. While early French inhabitants may have held multiple jobs, they each developed specialized skills; I doubt anyone was a hunter-farmer-shepherd-potter-lumberjack-chief-shaman-warrior, though that’s what my business cards say.
Nowhere was the advanced division of labor more evident than in the development of polished flint axes. Polished flint axes were one of the most important new tools of this period and were used to cut down trees. The process to make them involved many people with particular skills. First, the flint had to be mined, which involved entire communities using bones to dig into the earth, sometimes dozens of meters to access the raw flint. Then this flint had to be turned into a rough rectangle using a hammerstone. After that, the tools had to be shaped and polished. All this work wouldn’t have been possible in the Paleolithic era, but with larger populations, greater technical knowledge and the division of labor meant that more advanced tasks could be accomplished.
More people also meant more religious development, and it is in this time that ritual burials with symbolic items, either jewelry or animal parts, were buried alongside the deceased. Interestingly, far less art has survived in the Mesolithic period as compared to the Paleolithic because of the transition from cave paintings to individual ornamentation, including painted pebbles.
Finally, being rooted in one place meant that square houses made of cut trees replaced simple huts made of sticks and moss. Particularly important buildings, such as temples and burial sites were made of stone, and were often remarkably elaborate. And it is here that we arrive at France’s first great monuments: the megaliths. The word ‘megalith’ literally means ‘great stone.’ These megaliths can be divided into two groups: those that are made of pure stone, and those made of massive stones and then covered with earth.
There are generally three different kinds of megaliths, two of which belong in the pure stone group, and one which belongs in the earth and stone group. Archeologists and anthropologists have many subdivisions, but for the purposes of this podcast, we’ll stick to three general forms. The first megalithic archetype is the cairn, which is a large stack of stones used to mark a burial place or important religious site. Cairns are found all across Europe, and are among the first stone monuments of early Europeans as they are the simplest to make of the four megalithic types. The next type are the dolmens, which look like large stone houses made when a large flat rock is placed on top of a series of boulders. Archeologists are divided on whether dolmens were used as tombs or had some other function, and remain a mystery.
The third type of French megalithic, and first of the earth and ground variety, is the passage tomb, otherwise known as a barrow. Passage tombs began as graves, which were then flanked by large stones and then covered by earth. From afar, these looked like mounds of turf, with an opening via a short stone hallway. Some larger passage tombs contain numerous passages and sub-passages under a massive mound.
The oldest megalith in all of mainland Europe is Barnenez near the northwestern tip of France. According to Brittany’s tourism website, it is Europe’s largest mausoleum, an impressive feat given that it was made nearly 7,000 years ago. Another site calls it the ‘Prehistoric Parthenon’ Barnenez is 246ft (75m) long and 82ft (25m) at its widest. The amount of work required to build this is truly breathtaking, as the mound itself is estimated to weigh over 12,000 tons. This massive construction was made over hundreds of years of painstaking effort as early French inhabitants piled stones to make passage-shaped constructions then covered those with earth. 11 of these chambers were made, and from a distance, the mound must have looked like a small hill with openings to the ritually-buried dead. Inside these tombs are many carved symbols, which may have been pictograms, and perhaps even an early attempt at recorded language, however crude. Barnenez is currently open to the public, so if you’re ever in Brittany and want to see the oldest building in mainland Europe, I suggest doing so.
Another incredible pre-ancient megalith is the Necropolis of Bougon, located in west-central France. I don’t know what you all like, but just the word Necropolis gets me interested. The Necropolis of Bougon is actually five barrows, each with a singular entry passage, as opposed to Barnenez, which is one incredibly large one that had numerous passages added to it. Each Like Barnenez, first construction began around 4800 BCE and continued over hundreds of years. Hundreds of skeletons were found at the site, alongside weapons, ornaments, clothing and other items. Were these items placed with the dead as part of some ritual? Did these early French inhabitants believe that the deceased would take their personal effects with them into the afterlife, like the ancient Egyptians did? Or was this merely a way to honor the deceased and maintain a sense of deference to their ancestors and the social order they oversaw? We may never know, though we do know that these people believed that recognition of death was extremely important. Perhaps the treatment of dead bodies was a way of ensuring control of living members of the community. If one was good in life they could be buried in a great tomb with many possessions, bringing honor to themselves and their families. Probably those descendants of those that were worthy of burial in the barrows could claim moral authority within their tribe and become its elders. Whereas those whose ancestors didn’t earn a place in the barrows were relegated to the edges of society. Furthermore, if these peoples created religions which claimed that good behavior on earth meant happiness in the afterlife, then burial mounds were living symbols of why one must always commit to the greater good of the community. Thus, it is possible that the spiritual and political leaders of these early societies used the dead to control the living.
So, why did these cultures die out? There are two major possibilities: one is that environmental change disrupted these societies. The other is that the Indo-European invasions caused the mass societal collapse of Old Europe. Let’s start with the environmental theory. The Mesolithic was a period of chaos for humans. A warming planet meant glaciers in the south melted. Doggerland, that area which connected France and England and stretched east of England into the North Sea, sank under the rising sea levels, pushing its populations into England and France. But this is not all bad news. A warming climate meant that France’s tundra was disappearing, and new animals and plants emerged, as France became more hospitable to life. So, while old settlements around the megaliths became less fertile, more fertile regions developed. Just like the cave-dwelling Pueblos in 14th century Colorado, it’s possible that early Europeans left perfectly good settlements because they suspected that better living areas were just over the next hill.
Now to our second theory of Indo-European invasion. Beginning around the mid-fourth millennium BCE the Indo-European peoples migrated across Europe. Given that indigenous European languages and cultures have gone extinct, the Indo-Europeans came as violent, brutal conquerors, assimilating decimating and perhaps outright destroying the cultures of Old Europe over a 2,000 year period.
Next week we will discuss the Indo-European migrations as these warrior-peoples conquered Europe, replacing the old culture with something wholly new.
Price, T. Douglas, Europe before Rome: A Site-by-Site tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, 201
French government sites on the megalithic structures