During the most recent glacial period (see Ice Ages) the entire Scandinavian peninsula is under a sheet of ice. As the ice cap begins to withdraw, about 12,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers move north in pursuit of reindeer.
The living survivors of the hunter-gatherers in these regions are the Lapps (or the Samit, their own name for themselves), who today herd rather than hunt reindeer. Their language (in the Finno-Ugric family of the Ural-Altaic group) is related to that of the Finns who cross the Baltic in about AD 100 and push the Lapps north towards the Arctic. The Lapps are subject to the same pressure in Norway and Sweden, but there the tribes displacing them are Indo-Europeans speaking the Germanic group of languages.
Scandinavian prehistory: 2500-100 BC
Archaeology provides rich traces of Scandinavian prehistory, from the neolithic period (c.2500 BC) to the Bronze Age (c.1500 BC) and into the Iron Age (c.400 BC).
Objects found in tombs show strong trading links with the Celtic and Roman civilizations to the south. But the Scandinavian finds also include rarities preserved by the tannin in Danish peat bogs – among them a wooden cart and the bodies of sacrificial victims from about 2000 years ago, now in the National Museum in Copenhagen.
In the centuries immediately before the earliest written records (and therefore still within Scandinavian prehistory), the people of this northern peninsula feature prominently in the history of their southern neighbours – through their strong inclination to move away from home in warlike mood.
This applies first to the departure from Scandinavia of Goths, Vandals, Burgundians and others, from as early as the 2nd century BC. And it becomes true again 1000 years later, from the end of the 8th century AD, when the Vikings begin to stir.
Expansive energies: 9th – 10th century AD
The achievement abroad of the Vikings in the 9th and 10th century (in colonization and trade, as much as in direct and brutal conquest) is extraordinary in itself.
It seems even more so considering that in the same period the Scandinavians at home are creating their first centralized kingdoms. In AD 811 a Danish king, by the name of Hemming, is strong enough to make a treaty with the Franks establishing the river Eider as his southern border (it remains the Danish frontier until 1864). In the following century much of Norway is united in a single kingdom. Meanwhile it is the seafaring Scandinavians, the Vikings, who are making a bigger stir in the world.
The Scandinavian thing: before the 10th century AD
At the time of the first Viking raids overseas, most of the communities in Norway, Sweden and northern Denmark are living in small tribal groups. They are isolated by the barriers of fjord or forest. They are pagan and not yet literate. A Christian and literate Scandinavia will not begin to emerge until the 10th century.
Yet by this time the people of these regions already have one well-established custom of lasting value and interest. This is the institution known in Scandinavian languages as a thing.
A thing is a meeting of all the free men of a community (several communities coming together for a joint meeting on larger issues constitute an all-thing). The function of these democratic gatherings is limited, for they are legislative rather than political. The free men gather either to affirm or to amend the existing state of the tribal law, which is expounded to them by experts in the matter.
In a pre-literate society this is in a sense a communal aide-mémoire, but it also enables the group to assess its own response to any new situation. The ancient tradition of the thing is echoed today in the names of the parliaments of Iceland (Althing), Norway (Storting) and Denmark (Folketing).
Scandinavian kingdoms: 9th-14th century AD
The story of medieval Christian Scandinavia, after the various regions convert in the 10th and 11th century, is of dynasties in Denmark, Norway and Sweden struggling to establish stable kingdoms – with sometimes the added ambition of bringing the other two into a unified realm.
This is first achieved with the union of the crowns in 1363. For the next century and a half the union sometimes holds, sometimes fragments. The last king to hold all three crowns is Christian II, who does so briefly in 1520.
Thereafter the story of Scandinavia is best told in terms of its three constituent kingdoms – together with Finland, which from the 12th century becomes a disputed territory between Sweden and Russia.