Prehistory of Lithuania
The first settlers of Lithuania arrived from the south and southwest in pursuit of reindeer, which were feeding on the tundra left by the receding glaciers of the Ice Age. This occurred sometime during the period of 10,000 B.C. Small groups of hunters would set up short-term campsites at the shores of the rapidly flowing rivers. These hunters left behind their primary tools, including flint arrowheads, and fur working and scraping tools. Archaeologists have classified the cultures of these peoples – the Swiderian and Madlenas – by the types of arrowheads.
The climate of Lithuania began to warm rapidly in the eighth millennium B.C. Forests flourished throughout the land. Along with hunting, fishing and gathering became the most important activities of the settlers. Fishnets were crafted, and canoes carved. The workings in flint stone showed on-going improvement. The fashioning of small tools made of small flint chips evolved, along with more complex articles, made of two different materials. Bone fishing harpoons with flint blades evolved from these early artefacts. People lived in groups of several families alongside the larger bodies of water. The flint artefacts, which have survived within Lithuania, have been categorised as being made by people of two cultural tribes – the Nemunas and the Kunda.
The first known burial grounds also appeared during this time period. The oldest known human graveyard in Lithuania was found at the Spigino Ragas locale of the Telsiai region, and carbon dated at 5871 B.C. The remains of the person found there, showed that the deceased had been escorted into the other world, arrayed in necklaces of animal teeth, and had been covered in ochre, a mineral of red colour. The deceased had been a Europide of average height and massive build.
The climate continued becoming more and more moderate, which allowed for an easier lifestyle, and people were able to pay greater attention to their households and to farming. Use of ordinary tents was replaced by more complex structures of posts, wherein large families resided. Pointed base pots of clay with ornamentation at the top were being fashioned from the fourth millennium B.C. Primitive wooden ploughs were being employed for working the land, and stocks of animals were being bred from the third millennium B.C. Crafts and trading began developing during that period. Amber was being fashioned at the seashore, which the natives traded to neighbouring tribes for small schistose axes. The archaeological cultural groups of this period in Lithuania have been named the Nemunas and Narva.
A group called the Corded Ware Culture (due to the characteristic impressions of cords on their pottery ornamentation) appeared on Lithuanian territory, migrating from the south during the third millennium B.C. Most scientists tend to link these peoples with Indo-Europeans. They brought with them a culture, different from the one found previously in Lithuania. In addition to a unique form of ceramics, axes of polished stone with drilled shaft holes were characteristic of this cultural group. They also introduced a tradition of burying the dead in a crouched form. The Corded Ware Culture people were engaged in stockbreeding. They came upon Lithuanian territory in waves, probably riding in on horseback. Once they integrated with the natives, two cultural groups evolved: the Pomeranians, who were probably dominated by the peoples of the Corded Ware Culture, and the Narva, dominated by native dwellers.
The first works, made of brass, which had been brought in from Central Europe, appeared in Lithuania at about 1,800 B.C. After a few hundred years, brass began being smelted locally, using imported raw material. As the use of metal began being incorporated into daily life, marked changes occurred in the community. The people who had the skill for hammering metal tools and weapons became the leading members of their communities. Over time, a differentiation in wealth occurred, and the unavoidable consequence of warring conflicts. Settlements began being fortified. Wooden safety walls were erected, and buildings began being built on steep hillsides. The first hill-forts appeared at the turn of the century, between 2,000 and 1,000 B.C., on the heights of Eastern Lithuania. Gravesites began being specially demarcated. Knolls of earth were poured on top, forming burial mounds, and stones laid around the grave. The cremation of the dead was initiated, and the ashes of the remains were poured into clay containers – urns, made especially for this occasion.
A striated style of ceramics became popular over most of Lithuania during the first millennium B.C. The name had been derived from the characteristic manner of smoothing the surfaces of moulded ceramic pieces by using a tuft of grass. The people, engaged in this expression of culture, were farmers, who raised various types of animals, as well as hunted. Most tools were made from stone and bone, due to the high cost of bronze. As the population grew, the living area atop the hill-forts grew crowded, and people began moving down to the foots of the hill-forts from approximately the middle of the first millennium B.C. The first artefacts to be made in iron began being used from the fifth centuries B.C., however it was not until the II century, that iron began being smelted from iron ore. In the meantime, hill-forts began being fortified by the building of embankments and digging of
trenches from the more easily accessible sides.
During the II century A.D., the tribes living within Lithuanian territory were distinguished by 4 major groups, which differed by virtue of their material wellbeing, and their manner of burial. At the seashore of Lithuania, the tradition was to bury the dead, without cremating them, in flat burial sites, which were marked by stone wreathes around them. Various items, mostly hand made tools and ornaments, would be placed in the grave. Graves such as these disappeared during the VII century. In Central Samogitia and Northern Lithuania the dead were interred in what are known as burial mounds – poured units of graves. These would be surrounded by wreathes of rather large rocks. Each of these burial mounds would contain several skeleton graves, wherein were work tools, weapons and ornaments. Such burial mound graves lasted as a tradition in these parts of Lithuania until the end of the V century. Central Lithuania took on a habit, from as early as the I century, of burying their dead in flat burial sites, rather than cremating them. Few burial items would be added, mostly bronze ornaments. At the Lower Nemunas River the dead were also buried, rather than being cremated, but in flat burial grounds. An abundant amount of artefacts, such as iron spearheads, axes, knives, bronze brooches, bracelets, and ornamental pins would be included in the grave. The names of the tribes, which had left behind these graveyards, are unknown.
The tribes, native to the eastern part of the Baltic seashore, caught the attention of Roman merchants during the I century, the time that the Roman Empire was at its greatest power. The Romans traded bronze works, primarily coins and brooches, fashionable during that age, in exchange for amber. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian, made mention of the Aestii tribe of farming people, who gathered amber in the year 98. That was the first known written record about tribes of Balts in historical annals.
The first wave of migrations from other countries reached Lithuania during the II century. There is evidence that a second wave occurred at the end of the IV century. Tribes of Balts from the southwest migrated to the south and east of Lithuania, due to pressure from the Goths. They brought with them new traditions and burial customs. As a result, the culture of the striated ceramics makers came to demise. The newcomers established settlements without reinforcements, either at the foot of hill-forts, or at a distance further from them. They buried their dead in stone edged burial mound graves, along with iron weapons and bronze ornaments. At about the same time, the custom of burying a person with a horse made an appearance in Lithuania. In the south of Lithuania, the burial mounds with skeleton graves were common. These were distinctive in appearance by the rocks piled on them. During this same time period, hill-forts became reinforced shelters, made by piling earth embankments, where people from the surrounding areas could gather to hide in times of danger. The witness to such troubled times was the increased abundance of weapons found in the graves. The graves of this time also indicate a sharp differentiation of wealth. Alongside the graves of prominent persons with their silver and gold gilded artefacts, were the graves of the poor, where either few or no added artefacts were found. At this time, tribal leadership and a social layer of patriarchal slaves were forming at a fast pace. The Tribes of Balts were drawn into the wars being fought in Europe. Sometime around the middle of the IV century, Gothic King Hermanarik subdued the Aestii. Aestii messengers were known to have delivered amber to Teodorik, leader of the East Goths, in Rome in the year 525.
The wandering tribes from the Steppes devastated Lithuania during the first half of the V century. Settlements were burned down, and their residents killed throughout Eastern and Central Lithuania. The traces of the fires still found at the hill-forts, and the stray arrowheads, endemic to those people, provide silent witness to the battles of that age. The custom of cremating the dead began to spread from the east and the southwest from the V century. The ashes of the dead, along with various artefacts, were buried into a small hole dug in the ground. The Slavic tribes, which were rapidly increasing in the vast areas of Eastern Europe during the VI century, began to pressure the Balts from the east, and the areas, which had been inhabited by the Balts, began to recede.
Tribes of Balts, whose names were known from later written annals, were differentiated, according to the VI to VII century burial headstones they used. The Lithuanian tribe left behind burial mound graves of sand with cremated remains in East Lithuania. The Lithuanian tribe settled in villages, and earned their livings primarily by breeding stock animals. They especially liked horses. Their dead were buried with iron axes, spearheads, and a small amount of ornaments and work tools. This tribe had increasing influence to the north, the west and the southwest. Their neighbours to the north, the Selonians, lived in small villages among the forests. This tribe did not cremate their dead, and would add many bronze ornaments, such as bracelets, neck-rings, headbands and brooches. The Upland Lithuanians lived to the west of the Lithuanian tribe in Central Lithuania. Upland Lithuanians enjoyed abundant harvests
in the rich soil at riverbanks, and also bred herds of animal stock. These people sent their deceased to the other world cremated, and with an abundant array of burial items and one or several horses. To the southwest of the Lithuanians, between the Neris and Nemunas Rivers, as well as the Uznemune waters, the warlike Jatvingian tribe lived in small numbers. They were also engaged in farming and stock-breeding. These people cremated their dead.
Scandinavian Vikings began visiting West Lithuania from the VII century, and occasionally attempted to levy tributes on the native tribes. Most conflicts occurred with the Curonians, another warlike tribe, who were both farmers and sea voyagers. The Curonian tribe lived on the shore of the Baltic Sea in a strip, running between Klaipeda and Ventspils. The Vikings made an unsuccessful attack on the Apuole Castle in Skuodas region in the year 853. This locale was to be the first specific place in Lithuania to be named in historical annals. The Curonian tribe moved to the depths of the land after the X century. Their custom was to provide their dead with numerous weapons, such as swords, spearheads and axes, and plentiful ornaments, such as bracelets and brooches. The goods were cremated with the body of the deceased, and then buried in flat burial grounds. Villages of the Semigallian tribe were located in North Lithuania and South Latvia to the east of the Curonian tribe. The rich soils of their lands provided the Semigallians with surplus of agricultural products, which they traded with their neighbours. Their dead were not cremated, and buried in rows. A short one-edged sword, several spears, a good many bronze ornaments, including headbands and pins, and farming tools were included in a grave. The Samogitians, who lived to the southwest of the Curonians in the Samogitia Heights, left behind the primary type of burial grounds, where they would include numerous ornaments and work tools. This peaceful tribe of people, who were surrounded on all sides by other of the tribes of Balts, had a habit of including a horse’s head and feet in their graves. Another tribe of Balts, the Scalvians, lived to the south of the Curonians at the Lower Nemunas River. The heritage they left behind were burial grounds of cremated remains, containing numerous burial items. These burial grounds had occasional graves of riding horses. This fact indicates that this tribe had flourished at the time. They were engaged not only in farming, but also in trading, and were known to have robbed their neighbours.