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Besides the capital Assen, Emmen, Meppel and Hoogeveen are the major urban centres of the province. Drenthe, consisting mostly of heathland, has no significant rivers or lakes.
Drenthe, unlike many other parts of the Netherlands, has been a sparsely populated rural area since medieval times. Except for some industry in Assen and Emmen, the lands in Drenthe are mainly used for farming.
Drenthe has been populated by people since prehistory. Artifacts from the Wolstonian Stage (150.000 years ago) are among the oldest found in the Netherlands. In fact it was one of the most densely populated areas of the Netherlands until the Bronze Age. Most tangible evidence of this are the dolmens (hunebedden) built around 3500 BC, 53 of the 54 dolmens in the Netherlands can be found in Drenthe, concentrated in the northeast of the province.
Drenthe was first mentioned in a document from the year 820, it was called Pago Treanth (district Drenthe). In archives from "Het Utrechts Archief" from 1024 to 1025 the "county Drenthe" is mentioned, when Emperor Henry II gave it to Bishop Adalbold II of Utrecht.
After long being subject to the Utrecht diocese, Bishop Henry of Wittelsbach in 1528 ceded Drenthe to Emperor Charles V of Habsburg, who incorporated it into the Habsburg Netherlands. When the Republic of the Seven United Provinces was declared in 1581, Drenthe became part of it, although it did not gain provincial status until January 1, 1796 due to its poverty.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Dutch government built a camp near the town of Hooghalen to accommodate German (Jewish) refugees. Ironically, during the Second World War, the German occupiers used the camp (which they named KZ Westerbork) as a "Durchgangslager" (transit camp). Many Dutch Jews, Sinti, Roma, resistance combatants and political adversaries were imprisoned before being transferred to other camps in Germany and Poland. Anne Frank was deported on the last train from Westerbork.
The name of this region is said to stem from *thrija-hantja "three lands".