From wild winter wilderness to Bronze Age bog bodies

How Denmark came to be inhabited, from the cold and distant past to early cultural development

From horny Vikings to contentious cartoons, via nationalist squabbles and callous colonialism, the often-murky history of the land we call Denmark has played a unique role in the development of modern Europe. But how did it all come about? Well, as with all stories it’s best to start at the beginning.

Even before Viking Dawn
Pretty near the beginning were the Vikings. Those loud, crazy pillagers so popular in the world’s imagination seem synonymous with early Denmark, as though they started it all by themselves. Just as the ongoing myth that Nazi Germany’s trains ran on time continues to this day, the powerfully-propagated myth of the Viking still holds a huge fascination around the world – indicating the sheer terror they inspired back in their day.

Saying that, they kind of did establish Denmark, but nevertheless, there was plenty going on before they turned up on the scene in about 700 AD.

Even colder than today
People lived in what is present day Denmark about 100,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia, but it’s thought they had to leave because of the ice-cap that spread south from 70,000 BC to 12,000 BC – the period known as the Weichsel glaciation if you want to sound really clever.

Following that ice age (during which there may well have been woolly mammoths, but no sabre-toothed squirrels), permanent human habitation recommenced here in around 12,000 BC. Southern Scandinavia was clad in lush forests at this time, where animals like aurochs wisent, moose, red deer, wild boar and wolves roamed free. Or as freely as conflicting territorial claims allowed anyway.

Their very own Atlantis
A lot of the land the pre-Danes initially inhabited is now under water, as the sea levels rose dramatically – by about 100 metres – with the receding ice. That’s where all that water goes when it isn’t safely stored  above the water level on top of a landmass. At that time Denmark was connected to Sweden and Britain by land, but in around 7,000 BC the sea rose sufficiently to breakthrough the Great Belt, joining the Baltic ‘lake’ to the world’s oceans. The link to Sweden was lost in around 6,500 BC and remained so until technology had sufficiently advanced by 2000 AD that it could be replaced.

Fish was a major part of the diet at this time, and people lived near the coasts. During the 5th millennium BC, the ‘Ertebølle’ people learned pottery from neighbouring tribes in the south, who had begun to cultivate the land and keep animals, and the first Danish farmers came to be. Then it seems that a climate change in around 2,700 BC transformed conditions into something comparable to that of present-day central Germany and northern France.

Kan du tale dansk? Not yet
It is not known what language these Bronze-Age Scandinavians spoke, but in around 2,000 BC they were overrun by new tribes who many linguists believe introduced a proto Indo-European language, which became the ancestor of the Germanic languages. The proto Indo-European language is something of an educated guess by linguists, since there are no contemporary recordings, but there is considerable evidence in the common links between languages that have survived the ages.

Anyway, these interlopers began the Battle Axe culture and advanced as far as Uppland and the Oslofjord. They were individualistic and patriarchal, and thousands of their stone battle-axes have been found, which were powerful status symbols. The warm climate permitted a relatively dense population and good farming conditions and even allowed grapes to be grown.

More city boy than hipster
If you met an ancient Dane today, you might find their facial characteristics had a rougher appearance than we are used to – compared to most of the population anyway – but generally they were very similar in appearance. They were clean-shaven and clothed, but probably a bit rougher-looking as the result of their diets at the time, which required quite a bit more chewing. They were also a bit shorter, but not extremely so, they would definitely still have towered over the hobbits who worked as their maids.

Okay, there were no hobbits, but the Middle-Earth aesthetic of the period was provided by thousands of burial mounds, or barrows. These are important since they are indicative of a society with a surplus of labour and food, as well as self-awareness and religious observance – the cornerstones of early cultural development.

Not dissimilar to the Shire
Over a period of 400 years from 1600 BC to 1200 BC, as time was hurtling towards a particular birthday in Bethlehem, the ancient ‘Danes’ built tens of thousands of barrows. They were placed in prominent positions like high hills and served as meeting places as well as navigation markers.

Building a barrow was no small project. It took knowledge, planning and calculations – schooling in maths in other words. And not least it took a lot of manpower. Barrow height and design varied, but the largest reached seven metres high, 30 metres wide and used over 700,000 sections of turf cut from fields. The dead inside them were often given weapons, bronze jewellery, combs, and brooches – showing that even Bronze-Age Danes had a sense of style.

Sometime after 1000 BC – possibly following another climactic shift – the practice of burning the dead before burying them in the barrows began. Sacrificial practices also changed as  the most common offerings became large collections of women’s jewellery, instead of the spears, axes and other weapons that were previously the norm.

Bully for bogs!
Fortunately for posterity, these unhinged lunatics enjoyed throwing their most treasured possessions into bogs, ensuring they have subsequently remained perfectly preserved. Lurs, bronze helmets (some with horns on), large bronze vessels, gold bowls, and items with religious significance such as the Sun Chariot  were all offered as sacrifices. A number of bodies have been found in bogs too, but whether they were human sacrifices or died from other causes is unknown.