The Beginning. The Prehistoric Latvia

The Prehistoric times have always shaded in the mysteries and the twilight of uncertainly. That’s mainly because the lack of written sources.  If you want to research Prehistoric times you must base your historical conception on archaeological findings.  This is  why the Prehistory is full of unproved theories and many speculations. However that is not preventing archaeologists from searching the facts of Prehistory. The Archaeology has always been popular among Latvian historians.

The first archaeologists in Latvia were Baltic Germans who made first archaeological excavations. They were searching for proofs of ancient German cultural existence in Baltic States.  The main purpose of this was to prove that Baltic States culturally belong to the German world. The same thing was done by Russian archaeologists who were searching for the remains of ancient Slavs to approve the Baltic States were belonging to Russia. When Latvia gained independence  the new generation of Latvian archaeologists begun to look for ancient Baltic cultural remains to find the sources of the Latvian nation. At this time many new discoveries were made and the first publications about Latvian Prehistory were done. When the era of Soviet occupation had begun the main settings for prehistorical research changed. It was now important to prove that the Prehistoric people lived more equal than now and lived according to the main principles of Socialism.  Despite that the archaeology in the Soviet era was at its best. Almost all important findings were made at this time.  Important projects like the restoration of the Araišu lake castle was done and many other secrets were uncovered.  After the fall of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence the archaeologists continued to explore Prehistoric secrets. This time there was no room for serious ideological aspects; the archaeologists are now trying to make Prehistory free from ideological statements.  The top Prehistorical historians for now are Prof. Andrejs Vasks, Asoc. Prof. Armands Vijups and Doc. Habil. Juris Urtāns. The next generation of young archaeologists is rising because the number of students who prefer archaeological studies is rising.

In comparison to other nations Prehistoric findings Latvia got no special world famous Prehistoric wonders. We do not have no large megalithic foundation like in the United Kingdom or beautiful cave paintings like in France or Spain. This is because the territory of Latvia was covered by ice shield for a long time. At the end of the last Ice age Latvia was an Arctic desert and was not suitable for human habitat.  Approximately before 14-13 thousand years Latvia was free from ice.  The first findings of human habitat traces back to 9000 BC. They were hunters who came from the south-west hunting the reindeer’s who were retreating to more woody places because of climate change.

It is proposed that before Latvia was inhabited by Baltic tribes it was entered by Finno-Ugrians. Today their descendants are Estonians and Livonians.  Finno-Ugrians are not from Indo-European language group therefore are completely different to Baltic languages. That’s why the Estonians speak completely different to Latvians.

The first signs of Baltic presence in Latvia dates back to late Neolithic times. The Balts pushed back Finno-Ugrians to North Courland and North Latvia.  The first written sources about ancient Balts comes from ancient Greece but more preferably from the Roman authors. Romans were making trade contacts with Baltic tribes. Romans liked the Baltic Sea amber in return they give various Roman goods like golden money and weapons.  The most famous Roman source about Baltic tribes was Tacitus Germania.

In the Iron Age the Baltic Tribes formed in the factions we know today. The Curonians lived in Western Latvia which is known today as Courland. The center of Latvia was inhabited by Semigallians (they are not in any way connected with the Celtic Gallian tribes). The south coast of Daugava was inhabited by Selonians and the Eastern Latvia was inhabited by Latgalians. The shores of Curland and Vidzeme was inhabited by Livonians. The borders of the four tribes now represent the regions of Latvia: Curland (Kurzeme), Semigallia (Zemgale), Selonia (Sēlija) and Latgalia (Latgale). The fifth region Vidzeme simply means Midland.


Latvian regions- yellow- Curland and Semigallia, Brown- Vidzeme, green- Latgallia

During the 8-10 century Latvian tribes lived in small wooden villages and wooden strongholds on foothills.  The Curonians were known to the outside world as brutal sailors and often they waged wars  with Scandinavian Vikings.  The Vikings created colonies on Curland and often made incursions in Curland. The Curonians answered with piracy. Latgalians often were forced to pay aliments to Russian Duchies. At this time the tribes were unable to form a united kingdom. The land of Latvia was divided into numerous small micro states. The largest were Jersika and Talava. Those states were too weak to fight foreign invaders. The end of 12. century when first German crusaders came is considered as the end of Prehistory in Latvia and beginning of Middle Ages.

Selected sources:

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Apals, Jānis and others. (2011) Latvijas senākā vēsture : 9.g.t. pr.Kr. – 1200.g. Editor: Mugurēvičs Ēvalds. Riga : Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Radiņš, Arnis. (1996) Ceļvedis Latvijas senvēsturē. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Radiņš, Arnis. (2012) Arheoloģisks ceļvedis latviešu un Latvijas vēsturē. Riga: Neputns.



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