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Updated on January 7, 2012

The Peoples of Europe

Europe is the home of more than 731 million people, and so contains about one-fifth of the world's population. No other continent is so densely populated and only Asia has more people. Europe has 34 countries, more than 60 languages, and many different ethnic and linguistic groups. Its physical diversity is equaled by its human diversity.

In terms of physical characteristics, the Europeans are sometimes conveniently divided into a few basic categories. Thus there are the rugged, blond-haired Nordic peoples like the Norwegians, Swedes and Germans; thickset, darker Alpine peoples like the French and Swiss; round-headed, dark-haired Dinarics, like the Romanians; and the short, sallow-skinned Mediterranean peoples. Rarely, however, are the ethnic groupings so clearcut.

The French and the Swiss, for example, have been subject to other than Nordic influences and are thus ethnically more complex. In Belgium the Nordic Flemings, descended from the Franks, contrast ethnically and linguistically with the Nordic-Alpine Walloons of the south. The Portuguese and southern Spaniards are usually regarded as typically Mediterranean peoples, but in Italy- probably the most characteristically Mediterranean country- the ethnic pattern merges from Mediterranean in the south to Alpine in the extreme north. In modern Greece the Mediterranean and Alpine types are blended. Hungary, long ago settled by the Ugrians and later by the Magyars, has Nordic, Alpine, and Dinaric elements in its population, and a distinctive (and difficult) language. The Austrians, usually short-headed and of medium height, and with blue or gray eyes and dark hair, reflect both Alpine and Nordic influences. The English, who count Anglo-Saxons, Danes, and Normans among their ancestors, stem mainly from Nordic and Nordic-Alpine stock; the Scots combine this with Celtic strains present also in Wales, Cornwall (and Brittany in France) and dominant in Ireland.

The Slavs, a major linguistic group, include the Russians, Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians, and the peoples of Yugoslavia. But due to her long history of invasions and foreign rule, Bulgaria has mixed Dinaric, Nordic, and Mediterranean elements, while in Yugoslavia Dinaric influences are strong. Other distinctive linguistic groups include the Finns and Estonians of the eastern Baltic who, unlike the Letts and Lithuanians, speak Finno-Ugrian languages. Some small groups have been virtually untouched by the great migrations and movements of people. The Lapps and the Basques retain their ancient identities. The Tasks and Gegs of Albania belong to an ancient Balkan stock.

Population Distribution

The distribution of population and its varying densities reflect both the diverse physical nature of the continent and at least 2 000 years of political and economic evolution.

High latitude countries with rigorous environments such as Iceland, Norway, and much of Sweden and Finland, have less than 20 persons per km2. Similarly parts of Spain's Meseta, the Pyrenees, Alps, and Apennines are very sparsely populated. In high mountain regions like the Alps there are few permanently inhabited villages above 20,000 meters. Relatively few people lived on the semi-arid plateaus of Old and New Castile in Spain, in the limestone regions of the French Midi and Yugoslavia (which lack surface water) or in the Pripet Marshes of eastern Europe, the salty steppes of the Caspian and Arctic Russia.

The highest rural densities occur in the lowlands, especially along the Atlantic, Channel, and North Sea coasts and in the valleys of the Rhine, Rhone, Elbe and Po rivers. Densities are also high in the Mediterranean coastlands, especially in Catalonia (Spain) and in Italy (the Arno basin, the Naples region, and coastal Sicily). Overpopulated and impoverished, such areas provide a constant flow of migrants and emigrants.

The greatest concentrations of population are associated with coalfields and industry. Among the largest are the Ruhr-Westphalian conurbation with over 10 million people, the Sambre-Meuse coalfield, and the Nord-Pas de Calais coalfield in northeastern France. In eastern Europe, the small Saxony coalfield m East Germany, the Upper Silesian coalfield in southwest Poland, and the coal fields of western Czechoslovakia all have a number of industrial towns. Other high density areas are associated with seaports like Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, Goteborg, Leningrad, Barcelona and Naples; or with capital cities like London, Moscow, Madrid, Rome, Paris and Athens.

In the Netherlands the urban ring from Amsterdam through Utrecht to Rotterdam forms the Randstad, while the conurbation stretching from Rotterdam along the New Waterway to Europoort is called the Rijnmond.


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