The science of pre-history's a mysterious kind of game,
In which the winners privilege is to invent a name...
So wrote Joan Evans (later Dame Joan Evans), daughter of Sir John Evans, half-sister of Sir Arthur Evans, and a fellow student of V. Gordon Childe in Oxford during World War I.
When archaeologists began organizing the material remains of the remote past, they did so once they had got over inventing pseudo-geological labels like "Upper Palaeolithic", and periods based on type-sites which were assumed to represent whole epochs by inventing regional labels for characteristic assemblages of recurrent artifacts. Here are some typical ones currently in use.
With the help of radiocarbon dating, it is now possible to put these units within absolute time-spans, to produce a crude time-space framework of classification for prehistory. The following maps, still at an experimental stage, give some impression of the mosaic sequence of prehistoric cultural groupings which archaeologists have defined. These are often called "cultures", though they encompass a great diversity of types of cultural units, which may (or may not) have had similar forms of society, or related languages.
Do "cultures" exist? Is it a useful concept? This is a huge area of debate in prehistoric archaeology. However, these are the names which are currently in use and, if so, it makes sense to map them. Here, then, is a selection of more or less contemporary cultural groupings, period by period, in western Eurasia.
Note that the basemap reflects present-day conditions, and that sea-levels and climatic zones (and hence vegetational belts) differed markedly in the past - especially in the period covered by the first four maps, the later Pleistocene.
The inspiration (and partial source) for these maps is an extraordinary pioneering work (on a non-calibrated radiocarbon timescale) produced in Stefan K. Koozlowski, Kultury i Ludy Dawnej Europy (Cultures and peoples of Ancient Europe), Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences.