Stone Age and Early Iron Age
Significant and rapid changes in the material culture of people took place at the turn of the Common Era in the territory of Lithuania. The large extent of iron metallurgy and widespread use of iron working tools led to such advances as increasing productivity, improvement of living conditions, and growth of the population. In the basin of the River Neris flourished the culture of Brushed Pottery whose people are considered to be ancestors of the East Baltic tribes.
During the first centuries, modest fortified settlements formed on the hill-forts. In Kernavė a natural promontory of the upper terrace of the Neris, today called Aukuras Hill, had been adapted for living. With the ongoing increase in population, settlements of farmers were established in the fertile Pajauta Valley in the 2nd–3rd centuries.
The Iron Age is an important period for the formation of the Baltic tribes. As a result of the complicated ethnocultural processes in the 3rd century, the East Lithuanian Barrow Culture emerged. Representatives of this culture are the direct ancestors of the Lithuanian nation. The final split of the Balts into separate tribes was prompted by the Great Migration which culminated in the 5th century. Traces of this turbulent period were found in Kernavė as well. Evidence of repeated attacks by the Huns revealed findings discovered in the hill-fort of Aukuras Hill, such as arrowheads characteristic to those of the nomadic tribes and remains of burned defensive fortifications.
During the Iron Age, one of the most important tribal centres of the Lithuanian tribe was formed in Kernavė. This tribe played a crucial role in the consolidation of the Balts as well as in the formation of the Lithuanian state – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th century.
Kernavė in the Middle Ages
In historical sources Kernavė was first mentioned in 1279 in the Livonian Chronicle (Chronicon Livoniae). Chronicler Herman Wartberge described the grand military march led by master of the Teutonic Order Ernest Rasburg in the same year to the Lithuanian land, to Kernavė: "...fecit autem magnom expeditionem in terram Letwinorum versum Kernowe". This march to the land of the Grand Duke Traidenis, which ended with the death of the master, was described in the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (Livländische Reimchronik) as well.
Fortification of the hill-forts in Kernavė and prosperity of the town in the Early Middle Ages are related to the beginning of the formation of the Lithuanian state during the reign of Duke Mindaugas (1236–1263). Under Duke Traidenis (1269–1282) Kernavė became one of the most important economic and political centres in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At that time Vilnius was the only town which could equal Kernavė in size, importance and strength of fortifications. The duke’s residence on the centre hill-fort, on Aukuras Hill, was protected by other four hill-forts, which formed a defensive system. A town of craftsmen and merchants extended at the foot of the hill-forts in the Pajauta Valley and on the upper terrace of the River Neris. Similar to other medieval towns, there lived people who belonged to different ethnic groups and confessions. Investigations of Kernavė town and burial grounds from the 13th and 14th centuries testify to a high level of warfare, craftsmanship, and thriving trade, and reveal one of the most significant periods in Lithuanian history - the conversion of Pagan culture into a Christian one.
At the beginning of the 14th century Duke Gediminas transferred the capital from Kernavė to Trakai and later to Vilnius. For some time Kernavė continued to remain an important Lithuanian town, yet the attacks by the German Order destroyed its power. During the crucial attack in 1390, while retreating, the defenders burned the wooden castles and the people deserted the Pajauta Valley. Over time deposits of the Neris covered the remains of the medieval town, and the ancient capital of Lithuania sank into oblivion