The Pearl of Prehistoric Europe, 3 Times Older Than Stonehenge

Lepenski Vir was strange and beautiful

Maria Milojković, MA
Jan 11 · 10 min read
Lepenski Vir displaced site under glass roof
Lepenski Vir displaced site under glass roof
Lepenski Vir displaced site © by Philipp Weigell is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Prehistory was pretty urban in Serbia, Southeastern Europe. People didn’t live in caves but in houses. They didn’t only hunt, they were also farmers. They had an economy, art, and complex burial practices. In fact, the man from Lepenski Vir had many characteristics of today’s European man: These people were the first on the continent to tame animals and make sculptures. Also, this little place by the river Danube is the origin of the family, street, square, and village — the concepts that later spread throughout the Old Continent. And their genetic material still exists in many Europeans.

At this place from 1965 to 1970 archaeologists found this little center of prehistoric Europe. They discovered fine-quality artifacts in remarkable condition. The village was constructed so precisely that architect Hristivoje Pavlović called it “the first city of Europe”. The settlers built it according to an urban plan. As the number of inhabitants rose, the village was spreading, and everyday life was getting more complex.

Year-long DNA research of skeletons gave us more insight into who these people were.

The floor of the house from Lepenski Vir
The floor of the house from Lepenski Vir
The floor of the house from Lepenski Vir — Cultural Heritage Site of Serbia, No. AH 45 © by Nemezis is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Oldest Genetic Mix in Europe

Recent archaeological research claims the first melting pot was right here, on the Balkan Peninsula. And we didn’t know that until February 2018 when the magazine Nature published interesting research. 10% of the current population in Serbia still has the prehistoric genes of two different populations that mixed some 8 millennia ago.

The Institute Max Planck took genetic material from fossilized bones of 225 individuals from southeastern Europe who lived between 12000 and 500 BCE. 117 researchers from 80 institutions including Harvard
analyzed the DNA to understand one of the oldest genetic mixes in the world. The indigenous population of the Balkans was hunter-gatherers. At the end of the Ice age, they came from central Europe and settled on the banks of the Danube. They used tools and built houses with solid floors. A few thousand years later, at the end of the 7th and the beginning of the 6th millennium BCE, they mixed with newcomers from Anatolia (today’s Turkey).

The newcomers looked completely different. They had agriculture, brought first crops and cattle with them. The 2 populations started blending in the first generation, which was remarkable, especially for Europe at the time.

Later the inhabitants of Lepenski Vir spread all over Europe, claims Andrej Starović, the archaeologist who took part in the research of the ancient Europeans’ DNA. Compared to the rest of the Old Continent, these people were so progressive they even observed the sun and the seasons.

Precise Archaeoastronomy Over 8,000 Years Ago

Treskavac cliff across from Lepenski Vir
Treskavac cliff across from Lepenski Vir
Treskavac cliff across from Lepenski Vir — Cultural Heritage site of Serbia number АН 45 © by Dekanski is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2014 scientists carried out the first archaeoastronomical surveys of the location. They realized these prehistoric people had a solar calendar dating back to 6300 to 6200 BCE. From the position of Lepenski Vir, they could observe double sunrise on June the 21st.

They had a strange spheral stone that looked like an egg. Its scripts show the Northern celestial hemisphere from 8,300 years ago. You can see the prehistoric northern sky only if you look at the part of the stone with a pattern resembling mount Treskavac. It is a volcanic hill in a trapezoid shape across from the village, on the other side of the Danube.

From the village, you can see the sunrise above the mountains. Then it goes behind the Treskavac lump and reappears again at the other side of it. The specific position of the sun only once during summer and winter solstices helped those people determine what part of the year it was.

The whole village was planned according to this phenomenon. It even determined the shapes of their houses. In fact, their whole world gravitated toward the Danube.

The Everyday Life in the Red Clay Whirlpool

Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir — Amphoras made of baked clay
Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir — Amphoras made of baked clay
Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir — Amphoras made of baked clay © by DjordjeMarkovic is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Lepenski Vir or the “red clay whirlpool” got its name after its surroundings: The inhabitants used to build houses close to the Danube (Here’s a picture of how the whole settlement looked). They would decorate household objects with red clay from the area. Also, they would fish in the river. That part of the Danube was full of rocks creating small whirlpools. As a result, the water was more oxygenated, and richer with algae and fish.

Apart from fishing, they would also hunt. Far from the village, they would build pit-houses for hunting and gathering food. This way they didn’t exploit all the resources around the village. This kind of semi-nomadic economy was pretty impressive for the prehistoric time.

With the increase in population, they specialized in different activities. Life was getting more complex. The appearance of agriculture brought them ceramics. They even organized a cemetery outside the village.

Life thrived in this settlement by the Danube. The river was their source of life, but it also inspired awe.

The First Portrait Sculptures in the World

Museum Lepenski Vir, sculpture Progenitrix, quartz sandstone, 6300–5900 BCE
Museum Lepenski Vir, sculpture Progenitrix, quartz sandstone, 6300–5900 BCE
Museum Lepenski Vir, sculpture Progenitrix, quartz sandstone, 6300–5900 BCE © by Mickey Mystique is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Lepenski Vir culture started between 9200 and 7500 BCE. This means it was 3 times older than Ancient Egypt and Stonehenge in England.

Since their economy was based on fishing, the culture gravitated to the Danube as well. The villagers took sandstone cobbles from the river and carved them into sculptures. Later they built them into the floors of their houses.

These figures either had geometric patterns or were human-like. They date back to 7000 BCE, long before Mesopotamia and Egypt. In fact, they are the oldest stone sculptures in Europe. They are also the first presentations of the human head in history in hard material. The biggest is 60 cm (24 in) in length. What is more, these are the first sculptures with mouths and ears. They present fish-like divine creatures with hair, brows, eyes, long noses, and fishlike mouth. Their hands are also stylized. Because of their shape and the position in the houses, archaeologists connected them to river gods.

The most famous figure is “Foremother” or Progenitrix. There are still traces of the red pigment on her. For this ancient population, red was the color of life. Foremother had her equal in male “Danubius” (Latin name for the river Danube).

The inhabitants also built tools and weapons of stone and bones, as well as jewelry of shells and stones.

Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir — Pearl jewelry
Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir — Pearl jewelry
Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir — Pearl jewelry © by DjordjeMarkovic is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Architecture and Urban Planning 10,000 Years Ago

From 1965 to 1970 archaeologists discovered 136 ancient buildings, both houses, and sacral objects. The village was built on the slope in a shape of a horseshoe, facing the river and hill Treskavac rising above the other bank.

The houses were built according to a strict pattern, with streets among them. They all led to a spacious square in the middle of the village. At this place, scientists saw trapeze-shaped houses for the first time. They were built like a tent, with precisely determined angles of the roof. Archaeologists believe the villagers had some mathematical knowledge for building these objects. Also, the houses were built in the direction of the strong fall wind called košava, to resist its blows.

Replica of the house from Lepenski Vir
Replica of the house from Lepenski Vir
Replica of the house from Lepenski Vir © by DjordjeMarkovic is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Their floors are still in excellent shape, hard as concrete. They were made of limestone mixed with animal dung and ash. On the edges of the bases, there were stones that served as the support of the roof. The residents plastered the houses with reddish clay. As the population increased in number, they converted shrines into houses.

About 10,000 years ago, for the first time in human history, residents of Lepenski Vir built a house with a dome with reinforcement. Nowadays we use the dome and arch in furnaces, bridges, and modern houses.

The size of the houses varied from 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft) to 30 m2 (320 sq ft). The biggest house was obviously the most important one: It was in the center of the village, 320 sq ft big, and had the most important sculptures (They found 7-9 out of total 52 figures): “Foremother”, Danubius, “Forefather”, “Progenitor”, and “Water fairy”.

The Mysterious Fireplace Inside

The foundations of the houses from Lepenski Vir
The foundations of the houses from Lepenski Vir
The foundations of the houses from Lepenski Vir with fireplaces— Cultural Heritage site of Serbia number АН 45 © by Nemezis is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

A lot about these houses is still a puzzle but one thing is certain: They all had a rectangle fireplace with big stone blocks around it. At the back of the fireplace was a stone block, decorated with stone sculptures of river gods or forefathers. All the figures were fixed into the floor with “concrete” made of limestone. All the stones in the house are placed in the shape of a human body.

Sometimes the dead were buried below the “cement”, in the foundation of the house instead of at the cemetery. Those were distinguished persons or children.

There is still controversy about what the fireplace was: The stone at the back might have been for the primitive night lamp. Or maybe it was the stone that held the foundation of the house. According to the shape if the fireplace, it might have been a spit or a sacrificial altar. Some archaeologists claim that around it, there was a table for the dead to eat.

Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir- the Altar called the All-seeing eye
Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir- the Altar called the All-seeing eye
Layout from the site of Lepenski Vir— the Altar called the All-seeing eye, 6300–5900 BCE © by DjordjeMarkovic is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Outer Fireplace to Protect the Residents and Spirits

In front of every house, there was a fireplace. Archaeologists believe they used fire as the door to protect the residents from wild animals. It was also used for heating since the internal fire was too small for it. These people didn’t make bigger fire inwards to protect themselves from choking in smoke.

The outward fireplace also had a symbolic meaning: The shadows were kept inside the house. As they passed the fire, the residents would enter the world of spirits inside their houses.

They Worshipped the Gods of the River

Mesolithic sculptures in the Lepenski Vir Museum
Mesolithic sculptures in the Lepenski Vir Museum
Mesolithic sculptures in the Lepenski Vir Museum © by Mickey Mystique is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Religion was probably the most essential part of life. Its rituals bound the members of the community and helped them organize their lives. The deities were presented as piscine sculptures you couldn’t see anywhere else in Europe. They were among the first sacral sculptures on the continent.

The greatest cults were the cults of ancestors: the hearth and fire. Most probably they also had the cult of the sun.

Strange Burial Rituals

A necropolis discovered in 1968 showed complex burial rituals: Monumental stone sculptures were put close to the deceased, and the body was surrounded by animal bones such as a head of an ox or a doe, or deer antlers. Deer were moving in the forests around Lepenski Vir and were considered the protectors of the deceased. With some of the dead, there were even dogs buried as their loyal companions. Around the buried, there was also ash which was considered important for the burial.

The dead were buried in the lying position, with hands on the stomach in shallow holes, their heads in the direction of the river stream. Some of them were also buried in the sitting position (aka Turkish style) which symbolized the birth of a child. Some of them were buried in a fetal position. People would often separate the skull from the mandible before they buried a corpse. All separate skulls they dug out are male, all mandibles are female.

There was an even stranger burial custom: First, the dead were placed on trees in woods, so animals and birds would quickly eat them to the bone. Then the skeletons were taken to sanctuaries and painted in the color of life, red.

They Didn’t Look Like Cavemen

Museum Lepenski Vir, skeleton Valentino
Museum Lepenski Vir, skeleton Valentino
Museum Lepenski Vir, skeleton Valentino © by Mickey Mystique is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

According to the skeletons found, the people of Lepenski Vir didn’t look like cavemen but like today’s people. The most noticeable is skeleton number 69. He was 180 cm tall and well built. Because of this, the archaeologists called him Valentino, after Hollywood actor Rudolph Valentino.

The man died in 8200 BCE, which indicated that he belonged to prehistory. His body is the proof these prehistoric people had a richer way of life than scientists had supposed.

In the end, the site that changed our view of prehistoric Europe disappeared underwater.

The Archaeologists Relocated the Settlement

Because the government planned to build a hydroelectric power plant, the location was to be flooded between 1970 and 1972. The archaeologists found another location to move the whole site. The first locality was never fully excavated and got flooded by the artificial lake Djerdap.

Unfortunately, a lot was damaged forever and the remains below the Danube mud will never be explored. As the archaeologists were preparing to transfer the pieces to a higher location, the frames with the remains crumbled into pieces. They had to move them in pieces and reassemble them in the new museum. Architect Aleksandar Deroko called the relocation the “largest cultural massacre of the 20th century”.

Djerdap lake, a photo of a natural area in Serbia
Djerdap lake, a photo of a natural area in Serbia
Djerdap lake, a photo of a natural area in Serbia with ID: НП04 © by Leontije mirotvorac is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Lepenski Vir Is Gone But It Gave Us a Lot

Life in Lepenski Vir disappeared around 4,500 BCE. We believe its inhabitants set off across Europe to find bigger agricultural surfaces.

Their way of life was fascinating: They started to grow wheat, created sacral objects, and separate houses in a unique trapezoidal shape. They developed an economy connected to the Danube and made tools from the minerals they found.

There, prehistoric humans evolved into people with modern concepts of society, culture, and economy. Until that time, people lived in caves for 13 centuries. Lepenski Vir was the first planned settlement in Europe. The scientists agree: Its citizens created the first European architecture, urbanism, monumental art with the first portrait sculptures in the world, present-time agriculture, and organized social life.

The prehistoric man from Lepenski Vir was closer to us than we could have imagined. And we came across him by chance only 50 years ago. We can only wonder what else from this civilization lies there underneath the Danube mud. We’ll never know.

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Maria Milojković, MA

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Life is unpredictable but rewarding. Create, it will save you | Get my digest 👉 https://mariamilojkovic.com/ or follow From Maria with Love

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Maria Milojković, MA

Written by

Life is unpredictable but rewarding. Create, it will save you | Get my digest 👉 https://mariamilojkovic.com/ or follow From Maria with Love

Lessons from History

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