A fairly detailed History of Austria - Part I

Finest Hour: Imperial and Polish troops liberate Vienna from the Second Siege of the Turkish Empire in 1683

"In this subject and in others, the best method of investigation is to study things in the process of development from the beginning."

Aristotle, Politics

Like many geeks, I love history. I think knowing of the past of a place and its people allows you to experience it with a lot more depth. It helps to understand the culture and feelings of people about certain ideas. And history is also the key to spotting unique aspects about a particular place, be it in the architecture, ethnic and religious affiliation or local etiquette. Knowing a few things about the history of Austria will open a door to the country and its people. Beyond that, Austria′s past is exciting and a fascinating thing to explore.

Prehistoric period & Palaeolithic age in "Austria"

The first protohuman species such as Homo habilis (which lived in Africa about 2.5 to 2 billion years ago) was never found to have migrated to Europe. The oldest human finds in Europe (for example in Hungary) are of the hominid Homo erectus, but even these are no older than about 700.000 years.

The prehistoric Venus of Willendorf: A chubby nude at the tender age of 27,000

During the ice age, glaciers covered the Alps and most of their surroundings. These masses of ice did not allow permanent settlements. Humans of the Neanderthal species were traced back to the mid-Palaeolithic age, when they lived north of the glaciers. Some very significant finds were discovered in Lower Austria, especially in the Wachau area.

These include the two oldest "Austrian" pieces of art, of course consisting of displays of naked women: the so-called "Dancing Fanny" ("Tanzende Fanny"), a 32.000 years old relief about 7.2 centimetres high; and the more famous "Venus of Willendorf", a 27.000 years old and 11 centimetres high sculpture made of limestone. Other interesting finds include the burial site of two infants, whose remains were found under a mammoth bone in 2005.

First flickering of civilisation: Mesolithic & Neolithic Age

The Mesolithic Age left no big mark in Austria, either. This is the time when elsewhere in Europe communities of hunters and gatherers started to settle and increasingly formed groups of farmers that raised plants and animals. The few rare finds on Austrian soil that date back to that age are some stone-tools, minor artefacts and a burial site in Elsbethen near Salzburg.

Many more finds document the development of the early Austrians in the Neolithic Age. This is when gradually most places in Austria that could sustain agriculture or provided natural resources attracted settlers. The oldest mine of Austria, the "Hornsteinbergwerk" of Mauer-Antonshöhe dates back to this period. The following ages are named according to the most innovative material used for tools: Copper, bronze and iron.

Copper, Bronze, Iron: New technologies

The oldest objects made of copper that were found in Austria were found in Lower Austria and originate from the Carpatian Mountains. During this period, copper becomes an attractive resource, which leads to a further spreading of settlements into Alpine areas especially in the East of the Alps.

A very basic cabin in the Tyrolian mountains, where Frozen Fritz was foundOne of the most important findings ever made from this period is a mummy that was discovered only a few years ago in the mountain range around the Ötztal. In Austria it was named "Ötzi" according to its origin, whereas English-speaking media went for a similarly funny "Frozen Fritz". The mummy of an adult man with hunting gear was murdered (arrowheads were found in his body) about 5,300 years ago.

Ötzi became a national hero in the late 1990ies and the subject of numerous PhDs. Surely a frozen body is less impressive than the pyramids of Egypt (some of which were built at around the better days of Ötzi), but this was Europe after all and quite certainly the most significant late Neolithic / early Bronze Age finding in international terms. Just when the Ötzi-mania peaked, Italy realised that the body had actually been found in South Tyrol and thus Italian territory.

A struggle whether Ötzi was Austrian or Italian started. Personally, I stick with the suggestion a comedian made on the radio channel Ö3: He was neither Italian nor Austrian, but certainly German - since nobody else would be stupid enough to enter Alpine terrain in sandals. An in-joke for Austrians that have seen too many German tourists stranded in cabins with blisters on their feet.

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Further Reading

"Austrian History in less than 1000 words"

"A Jewish History of Austria"

A Complete List of all Austrian Monarchs