Spain: Early History Overview

Picking our way through the history of our earliest predecessors, including those who roamed the Iberian Peninsula, is a search through the scattered skeletons of prehistoric times. We depend on the evidence of bone fragments, which together with primitive flint tools and animal fossils, give tantalising glimpses of what earth’s earliest hominid forms may have looked like and how they may have survived. They appear to have been nomadic, probably hunters who sought refuge in caves or any protected retreat.  There are plenty of conjectures, but theories about these early hominids are constantly undergoing modifications as new finds challenge earlier ideas.

Although early hominids contributed little concrete to the development of Spanish cultural history, their existence feeds universal curiosity. They predate modern humans –homo sapiens– by hundreds of thousands of years, but archaeological finds constantly remind us of their presence, and our need to know and to look for links or patterns with our past is deep-rooted within us.

We’ll move quickly through the earliest periods, pausing only at the most notable features: the Palaeolithic Age 2.5 million years – 10,000 years ago (Earliest inhabitants, Neanderthal man and homo sapiens, Cave paintings: Altamira, La Pileta), the Mesolithic Age 10.000 - 5.000 years ago (Rock face paintings), Neolithic Age 5,000 – 2,500 years ago, the Copper or Chalcolithic Age 2500-1700 BC (Dolmens, i.e. burial chambers), and finally the Bronze Age 2000-700 BC.

By around 700 BC we have the testimony of trading cultures from the eastern Mediterranean that native communities existed in the Iberian Peninsula. These communities left no written records so we don’t know what they called themselves or what they thought of the newcomers. What we do know of them comes to us through the prism of the new arrivals.  The Phoenicians were the first to arrive, establishing their outposts along the southern coast. Their main trading partner was Tartessus, a territory or possibly kingdom which has acquired mythical status because its exact location has still to be determined.  The Phoenicians were followed by the Greeks who settled in the north east in an arc running from approximately Valencia to Marseille, in France. Later came traders from Carthage, the North African city founded by the Phoenicians but now flexing its own muscle and dominating the Phoenician settlements along the south coast.

Evidence of commercial activities along the coastline is provided by archaeological artefacts: agricultural tools, amphoras and so on. But with whom was the trading activity carried on besides the Tartessians?  The Greeks, for example, certainly had limited contact with them because of the Phoenicians.  The main trading partners of the Greeks were, in fact, a tribal group known as the Iberians who had settled along the Mediterranean coast and inland (there are those who feel the Tartessians might, indeed, be an Iberian tribe).  And further inland and running along the north coast other tribal groups, the Celts, had established themselves.  Some historians believe that, somewhere in the middle of the peninsula, a possible commingling of both Celts and Iberians produced the Celtiberians, a hybrid culture.

The impact of these early traders on the development of Spanish culture is limited, certainly in comparison with the next arrivals whose appearance was prompted not by trade but by war. The Romans came because of Carthage, their bitter rival and enemy.  They came, they saw, and they conquered, not only Carthage but in time the entire peninsula (with the exception perhaps of the Basques). They remained for some 600 years, a time during which they changed the course of Iberia’s history and established the founding blocks of the many modern communities within the peninsula.