Last Hunters and First Farmers on Cyprus

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The Mediterranean islands produced some of the most sophisticated ancient cultures in the world. Nonetheless, archaeologists know relatively little about the islands' early prehistory. There is scant evidence that most were occupied before the Neolithic period, the economic transition from mobile hunting and gathering to domestic food production and sedentary ways of life. The traditional paradigm was that the Mediterranean islands were late recipients of Neolithic colonists, who imported complete Neolithic "packages," consisting of domesticated plants and animals and a sedentary lifestyle, but left few material linkages to their homelands. Many researchers believed that the Neolithic on the islands was little more than a footnote within the broader Neolithic world. New research, however, is altering this view substantially. A focus of these studies has been the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where investigations are dramatically fueling the debate about when and why the island was occupied.


With few exceptions, there are limited data supporting pre-Neolithic occupation on virtually any of the Mediterranean islands. Claims for earlier occupations are unsubstantiated. Then came the discovery of Akrotiri Aetokremnos ("Vulture Cliff") in Cyprus (fig. 1), which documented an occupation at c. 10,000 b.c. calibrated. This small collapsed rock shelter ranks as the earliest well-documented human presence on any of the insular Mediterranean islands. Aetokremnos not only is the oldest site on Cyprus, but also, and more controversially, it is associated with a huge assemblage of the endemic and extinct Cypriot pygmy hippopotamus. More than 500 individual hippos are present, as are smaller numbers of other animals. The evidence suggests that humans were instrumental, at least in part, in finalizing the extinction of these unique animals.

While there are numerous Pleistocene fossil sites in Cyprus and other Mediterranean islands, these animals have not been associated with humans. Skeptics of Aetokremnos dispute such a connection, but a careful reading of the evidence strongly supports the direct association of pygmy hippos with cultural activities. When all aspects of Aetokremnos are examined, the most parsimonious explanation is cultural in nature. A small group of humans could have been the trigger to eradicate remnant hippo populations who were suffering ecological stress due to climatic change and thus were on the verge of extinction.

Aetokremnos is significant for several reasons. First, it firmly establishes a human presence on Cyprus in the early tenth millennium b.c., making it one of the earliest occupied Mediterranean islands. Here the distinction made by John Cherry between "occupation" and "colonization" is important, as Aetokremnos appears to represent a relatively short-lived (about five hundred years or less) occupation rather than an actual colonization episode. Second, Aetokremnos has ramifications for how islands are occupied, indicating that Neolithic technology was not necessary. Third, Aetokremnos is one of the very few sites anywhere in the world dating to the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary that shows a direct relationship between extinct megafauna and human hunters. Finally, Aetokremnos has challenged research paradigms on many of the Mediterranean islands concerning the nature of archaeological data. For many years scholars believed that the islands were too impoverished to have supported hunter-gatherer populations. The archaeological "signature" of such groups, however, is quite ephemeral, and it is now clear that small sites, such as Aetokremnos, have been ignored for far too long.


Although many of the Mediterranean islands have Neolithic occupations, most archaeologists believed that these first colonists were relatively late, ceramic-bearing Neolithic peoples. They arrived from the mainland and developed somewhat isolated and in many ways "impoverished" insular cultures compared with their Levantine or Anatolian neighbors. Cyprus was little different, except that the Cypriot Neolithic is the most developed and oldest of any on the Mediterranean islands and has an aceramic component. It was during the Aceramic Neolithic that Cyprus actually was colonized.

The Aceramic Neolithic in Cyprus is termed the "Khirokitia culture" after the type site for the period, a large and substantial agricultural settlement. During the Khirokitia culture, lasting from c. 7000 to 5000 b.c., there were few Levantine or Anatolian parallels, and overall it often was viewed as less sophisticated than its mainland counterparts. This is expressed by an unrefined chipped-stone technology and typology, by the continuance of circular structures rather than a transformation to rectangular ones, and by limited evidence of substantial ritual or symbolic behavior. Khirokitia peoples settled in various locations, but major communities were situated within 10 kilometers of the Mediterranean Sea.

These colonists apparently arrived on an island with few resources; certainly the endemic fauna no longer existed. They introduced a limited number of domesticated plants and animals, including caprines, pigs, and apparently wild deer, presumably for hunting. Oddly cattle were conspicuously absent until the Bronze Age, despite their occurrence in Neolithic contexts on the mainland and on other Mediterranean islands. The Khirokitia culture is followed, after an apparent chronological gap, by the Ceramic Neolithic (the Sotira culture). While this is a pattern similar to that on the mainland, the Sotira culture also is often characterized as relatively nondescript.

Until the discovery of Aetokremnos, the Khirokitia culture represented the first occupation of Cyprus. Aetokremnos presented a chronological dilemma, in that it is some three thousand years earlier and there is little evidence to suggest that it was ancestral to the Khirokitia culture. Perhaps those responsible for Aetokremnos chose not to participate in the tumultuous changes associated with the Neolithic revolution on the mainland and simply decided to leave for uncharted but nearby territory. They could have been generalized late Natufian or Early Neolithic (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A [PPNA]) people who arrived on an unoccupied island, found residual herds of a unique fauna, hunted them into extinction, and then left. But they did not forget Cyprus. It is here that new research has made Aetokremnos more plausible and added to the complexity of the Cypriot Neolithic. These investigations, which must be evaluated not only in a Cypriot context but also within a broader perspective assessing the transmission of a Neolithic "package" from the mainland, have documented an earlier component to the Aceramic Neolithic. They also suggest much more complex economic strategies than previously believed. In particular there is now evidence of cattle.

These findings revolve around three newly studied sites. Two coastal occupations, Parekklisha Shillourokambos and Kissonerga Mylouthkia, predate the Khirokitia culture, with radiocarbon determinations of c. 8000 b.c., if not earlier. These discoveries extend the Aceramic Neolithic on Cyprus to a period roughly contemporary with the early mainland Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) and has been termed the "Cypro–PPNB." Both sites share artifactual similarities with the Levant and contain complex features, including wells. Significantly neither is a large village of the type typically associated with the Cypriot Neolithic. Of particular importance is the documentation of limited quantities of Bos (cattle) at Shillourokambos, thereby placing this important economic species firmly within the Early Neolithic of Cyprus.

The third site is Ais Yiorkis, a small non-village locality. It is significant for several reasons, including its location in an upland rather than a coastal setting; the presence of a technologically refined chipped-stone assemblage; and especially its economic implications, because limited numbers of Bos have been found, similarly to Shillourokambos. Unlike Shillourokambos and Mylouthkia, Ais Yiorkis appears to date to the early Khirokitia culture, although additional radiocarbon determinations are required to resolve its chronological placement.


What does this research mean to the early prehistory of both Cyprus and other Mediterranean islands? First, it is now known that people were in Cyprus much earlier than has been suspected and that the island could support a primarily hunting adaptation. Second, this research unfolds a story of an economically sophisticated Neolithic adaptation. Not all early settlements were restricted to the coastal areas of Cyprus, nor were they all villages. Cattle have been found at two nontypical sites, indicating an economic dichotomy selecting against keeping them in villages. The cattle from Ais Yiorkis and Shillourokambos also may have ritual significance; certainly there is considerable evidence on the mainland for ritual treatment of cattle during the Neolithic. Was there a similar reverence for these animals in Cyprus? Finally, these investigated sites apparently contain limited architecture; such localities previously have not been accorded much attention on the Mediterranean islands. This is significant because it is now apparent that small, limitedvisibility sites often contain far more substantial and diverse materials than was anticipated.

In summary, Cyprus clearly was a Neolithic "colony" far earlier and longer than researchers initially believed, and at least during the earliest Neolithic (the Cypro-PPNB) close relationships were maintained with the Levantine mainland. It also is apparent that principal economic animals, including cattle, were under enough human control to be transported by sea to Cyprus during the Neolithic. The island can no longer be considered an isolated cultural backwater of the Neolithic world. From at least the Late Epipalaeolithic, Cyprus, with its strategic Mediterranean location, was a component in a world on the cusp of the Neolithic revolution.

See alsoCopper Age Cyprus (vol. 1, part 4); Bronze Age Cyprus (vol. 2, part 5).


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Alan H. Simmons