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Cave-dwellers of France and Spain: from 30,000 years ago

The area to the north and south of the Pyrenees, in modern France and Spain, is occupied from about 30,000 years ago by palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who make good use of the many caves in the area. They leave astonishing signs of their presence, and of their sophistication, in the paintings with which they decorate the walls.

There are many surviving examples, of which the best known are Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. But almost twice as old are the paintings recently discovered in the Chauvet Cave in France.

Neolithic villages: from the 5th millennium BC

In the regions bordering the Atlantic coast, the transition from palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to neolithic villagers begins in about 4500 BC. These villagers later develop a striking tradition of prehistoric architecture.

In most of Europe neolithic communities live in villages of timber houses, often with a communal longhouse. But along the entire Atlantic coast, from Spain through France to the British Isles and Denmark, the central feature of each village is a great tomb, around which simple huts are clustered. The tomb chambers of these regions introduce the tradition of stonework which includes Passage graves and megaliths.

The massive neolithic architecture of western Europe begins, in the late 5th millennium BC, with passage graves. The name reflects the design. A stone passage leads into the centre of a great mound of turf, where a tomb chamber - first of wood but later of stone - contains the dead of the surrounding community.

One of the best-known examples in Spain is the walled settlement of Los Millares. Dating from about 2000 BC, the village has a nearby cemetery of about 100 beehive tombs. The dome of each is constructed on the corbel principle, pioneered on the Atlantic coast some two millennia earlier on the Île Longue, in Brittany.

The arrival of the Celts: from the 6th century BC

During the last centuries of their prehistory, France and northern Spain are infiltrated by energetic tribes originating in central Europe. They speak an Indo-European language, and they know how to work iron. Their arrival inaugurates the Iron Age in these regions. They are the Celts, known to the Romans as the Gauls.

Meanwhile civilization has been brought to the coasts of both France and Spain by colonists from further east in the Mediterrean. The most important colonies are Massilia (Marseilles), settled by Greeks in about 600, and Cadiz, established by the Phoenicians at about the same time (though tradition gives it a much earlier date).

Spain and the Roman empire: 3rd c. BC - 5th c. AD

Spain is a rich prize for any empire-builder. It has mines of gold, silver and copper, and a plentiful supply of Celts, tough warriors and useful recruits for an army. The Iberian peninsula is therefore hotly contested, from the 3rd century BC, between the two imperial powers of the western Mediterranean - the Romans and the Carthaginians (successors of the Phoenicians).

After the Second Punic War the eastern part of the peninsula falls into Roman hands. It is turned into two new Roman provinces, Hispania Citerior and Ulterior (Nearer and Farther Spain). Celtic tribes in the west, the Lusitani, hold out against Rome. When they are finally overwhelmed, their region (approximately modern Portugal) becomes in 138 BC the province of Lusitania.

Spain becomes, like Gaul to the north, a fully Romanized and prosperous part of the empire. Magnificent evidence of the Roman presence can be seen in such structures as the great aqueduct at Segovia. Built probably in the time of Trajan (born in Spain, and the first provincial to become emperor), it is at one point 30 metres above the ground. 1900 years later it still carries water across the valley to the city.

Spain suffers in the 5th century, like the rest of the empire, from Rome's military weakness. The Vandals cut a swathe through the peninsula in 409-429 until they are pushed out into Africa by Roman forces heavily dependent on Visigothic support. It is the Visigoths, subsequently, who benefit.

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