Prehistoric times have left deep traces in France since the most remote times and the subsoil has provided abundant finds from every period. Many internationally accepted denominations of prehistoric cultures, in fact, derive from the names of the French places where the first or the most typical findings were made. Although some discoveries have suggested the presence of pre-Cheulean industries dating back to around 2 million years, there is no sure evidence, at the present time, that man has frequented France before a million years ago. Among the most ancient deposits, we remember the Vallonnet (Roquebrune-Cap Martin) and the industries of the terraces of the Tet (Roussillon). In addition to the eponymous deposits of Abbeville, Saint-Acheul and La Micoque, also in other prehistoric stations, such as that of La Celle-sous-Moret and those of the valleys of the Somme, the Seine and the Charente, there are numerous sites of the Acheulean and others with industries on splinter with rare or no double-sided, generally referred to the Tayatian. Numerous and important testimonies relating to the cultures of the middle Paleolithic; among the many prehistoric stations of this period, Arcy-sur-Cure, Aldène, La Chapelle-aux-Saints, La Ferrassie, Fontechevade, Le Moustier should be mentioned, La Quina, Laussel, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Levallois-Perret, Pair-non-Pair, Pech-de-l’Aze, Placard, Prélétang, Quinson, Regourdon. In the last phases of the glacial period, also in France there was a great diffusion of cultures of the upper Paleolithic, which followed one another for a period of approx. 20,000 years, from Chatelperronian, to ‘ Aurignacian, the Gravettian, the Solutrean and finally to the Magdalenian.
The discovery of a Neanderthal burialin Saint-Césaire (Charente), associated with castelperronian levels, has definitively shown that these transition industries between the middle and upper Paleolithic are the work of the Neanderthals. Among the places that gave the most abundant remains of the Upper Paleolithic we must remember Aurignac, Chancelade, Châtelperron, Laugerie, La Gravette, La Madeleine, Lespugne, Marsoulas, Pataud, La Ruth, Salpêtrière, Solutré, Teyat and Les Vachons. Famous for the amount of information that has been derived from it thanks to a rigorous excavation method, introduced in France by A. Leroi-Gourhan, is the Magdalenian hunting site of Pincevent (Seine-et-Marne) dated to ca. 12,000 years ago. It is in this period that there is an extraordinary flowering of Paleolithic art, both with paintings and with rock engravings, widespread in particular in the numerous natural caves of the Dordogne valley; there are also numerous engraved or carved objects, including the famous Venuses, such as those of Lespugne and Brassempouy. During the Mesolithic the French soil experienced numerous settlements of people devoted above all to fishing, collecting molluscs as well as hunting. Particularly characterized by the abundance of lithic tools of geometric shape and small dimensions, various cultural currents then spread such as the Azilian, the Sauveterrian and the Tardenoisian, which lasted until Neolithic times. The most important prehistoric stations for this transition phase are those of Mas-d’Azil, Sauveterre-la-Lémance, Tardenois, Teviec, Rochereil. The first facies Neolithic cultures, characterized by the presence of impressed ceramics and with cardial-type decoration, appear in the VII millennium BC. C. in the South of France. In the northern part of the country, Neolithic facies of the Linearbandkeramik type, similar to those documented in the same period in central-eastern Europe, only appear at the end of the fifth millennium BC. C. The Chassey culture, widespread throughout France, belongs to the Upper Neolithic. The appearance of the first metals of the Eneolithic coincides with the diffusion of the culture of the bell-shaped vase, probably of Iberian extraction, and with the extraordinary flowering of megaliths which finds in Brittany one of the areas of greatest concentration. In the next Bronze Age the influence of the European cultures of the neighboring countries is accentuated, including the culture of tumulus tombs and, later, of the urn fields. With the Iron Age we now enter protohistoric times.