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The Gravettian Culture that Survived an Ice Age

New research sheds lights on the resilient and technologically advanced Gravettian culture, which dominated Ice Age Europe and left a 20,000-year mark.

By Matt Hrodey
Mar 1, 2023 4:00 PMMar 1, 2023 4:01 PM
People of the Ice Age
Depiction of the people of the Ice Age. (Credit: Esteban De Armas/Shutterstock)


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The Gravettians dominated Ice Age Europe, where they hunted mammoths with particular aplomb. But in a warming world, their particular movement fell by the wayside. With so much of the world's water locked up in ice, the Gravettians built houses out of mammoth bones and carved early art — including the Venus of Willendorf statues.

The Gravettian people first established themselves in Europe about 32,000 years ago, according to a new study that traces their movement across the continent, and supplanted the incumbent Aurignacian culture, ushering in a new technological era.

Mammoth Hunter Genomes

The new study analyzed the DNA of 356 hunter-gatherers, including 116 new individuals from 14 different countries in an attempt to map the movements of early humans during this crucial period. The analysis revealed that even though groups of Gravettians may have lived in disparate areas and lacked a genetic heritage, they still shared a common culture.

Many Gravettians were expert Mammoth hunters and built sturdy structures out of the animals’ bones, such as those at Předmostí, an archaeological site in the Czech Republic where researchers found extensive evidence of dogs used for transportation or hunting.

Members of the Gravettian culture wore shells as ornaments, sewed clothing with bone needles and kept working dogs they fed with reindeer meat. They fashioned a bristling armory that included the eponymous Gravette point — a narrow stone spear tip used to puncture big game. And they may have used bows and spear-throwers as well. They walked across the Ice Age mammoth steppe that dominated Europe, through the dry grasses that fed their imposing prey.

As such, the Gravettian phenomenon proved pivotal in early Europe. Their gene pool carried on for some 20,000 years and influenced other groups, such as the Solutrean and Magdalenian, that lived through the bitter Last Glacial Maximum, the coldest period of the last Ice Age. Between 25,000 and 19,000 years ago, these descendants hunkered down in modern-day France and Iberia before spreading northeast throughout the rest of Europe.

During the Last Glacial Maximum, glaciers spread to 25 percent of the global landmass, and sea levels dropped more than 400 feet, exposing the land beneath the English Channel.

A Warmer Europe

Elsewhere, the Gravettian lineage seemed to have hit a brick wall. Traces of it in modern-day Italy and the Czech Republic disappeared during the glacial event, as if the pioneers had died or moved elsewhere. Yet another archaeological culture, the Epigravettians from the Balkans, replaced them and then spread throughout Europe as the climate began to warm.

At about 14,000 years ago, “The climate warmed up quickly and considerably and forests spread across the European continent,” says Johannes Krause, senior author of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in a press release. “This may have prompted people from the south to expand their habitat.”

With the change in climate and the onrush of new cultures, many other hunter-gatherers may have retreated to the north, where the mammoth steppe still existed.

The Advent of Farming

Despite these migrations, hunter-gatherer genomes remained relatively isolated from each other until about 8,000 years ago, when early farmers from Asia Minor brought the trade to Europe, along with a sedentary lifestyle. While some hunter-gatherers fled to the north, many mixed with the farmers and produced children.

The former left behind a lasting cultural legacy in the form of “Venus” statues, little stone or ivory statutes of women with large breasts and hips that formed one of the world’s first art movements. Archaeologists are still not sure whether the statutes held a shamanic importance or some other significance.

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