Episode 15: Cyprus

Now that we have had a look at the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in most of the Near East, we can have a look at the arrival of people on Cyprus and what we know about the Pre-Pottery Neolithic societies there.

The earliest evidence that we currently have of people on Cyprus comes from the site of Akrotiri, from as early as 10,500 cal BCE. Cyprus never had a lot of the plants and animals that we associate with the Late Epipalaeolithic and Pre-Pottery Neolithic Near East. For example, Cyprus never had native versions of the plants and animals that we domesticated in the Near East during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. However, at Akrotiri we do find evidence that the people who either visited the island, or moved there, brought over some of their favourite hunting animals from the mainland Near East.

A map of Cyprus showing some of the major Late Epipalaeolithic (Akrotiri) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites. Image from Manning et al. 2010.

At Akrotiri, in some of the last levels of its occupation, we find the bones of wild boar. Like I said, these were not animals that were native to Cyprus, so the only reasonable explanation is that they were imported to the island by people, probably from the coastal parts of the Levant or southern Turkey.

Wild boar bones that were found during excavations at Akrotiri. Bones from these excavations have been directly dated to confirm that wild boar were imported to Cyprus as early as 9700 cal BCE. Image from Vigne et al. 2009.

After Akrotiri, we don’t have any evidence of people on Cyprus for a few hundred years. This might be simply that we have not yet found the sites, or it might be that people stopped coming to Cyprus for a few centuries. When we start to find evidence of people on Cyprus again it is in the PPNA, what is called on Cyprus the Cypro-PPNA.

It is only in the last ten years or so that we have worked out that there was a specific PPNA phase of settlement on Cyprus, and that this took place only slightly later than the PPNA in the rest of the Near East. There are a lot of things in common between the PPNA of the mainland Near East and the Cypro-PPNA.

Projectile points recovered from PPNA Ayia Varvaria. Image from Manning et al. 2010.

We find round or oval houses, built with the same variety of materials and building techniques that we find on the mainland. We have public buildings in settlements just like we do on the mainland, and the chipped stone tools are also made in pretty much the same way as those of the Levantine part of the mainland. We have stone bowls, stone beads and shell jewellery, just like we find in the mainland although here these are made of local shells and stone. We do have imported stone though, in the form of obsidian from central Anatolia. We also have imported plants and animals. At PPNA sites on Cyprus we find the remains of wild boar (either those that were imported in the Late Epipalaeolithic and still living on the island, or animals that were freshly imported in the PPNA) as well as the remains of domestic dogs and small wild cats. We also find mice, who seem to have tagged along with people travelling from the mainland Near East and introduced themselves into the PPNA settlements on Cyprus. This might be because people also imported wild plants, like barley and wheat, and encouraged them to grow around the PPNA settlements on Cyprus so that they could be harvested, just like they were on the mainland.

Excavation of houses at early PPNB Akanthou Arkoosykos. In this image you can see part of the stone foundation for a wall (bottom left) as well as sections of preserved plastered floors (top left). Image from Seveketoglu and Hanson 2015.

Through time, the mainland Near East moved from the PPNA to the PPNB, with more complex houses and public buildings and increased trade in goods like obsidian. In Cyprus, we see this change as well at about the same time, moving from the Cypro-PPNA to the Cypro-PPNB, where we also get more complex architecture and more imported obsidian. We also see imports of more exotic materials, like beads made of carnelian. The PPNB in the mainland was also the time of the domestication of plants and animals, and on Cyprus we see this as well. From early on in the PPNB we see the importation of sheep, goats, cattle, and – a bit later – domestic pigs. We also see the importation of wild deer, which were let loose on Cyprus to be hunted and never show any signs of people trying to domesticate them. We seem domesticated grains, both barley and wheat as well as other plants, with different species of these turning up over time on Cyprus. This suggests that people were travelling back and for fairly regularly, as they were importing obsidian and occasionally carnelian, as well as animals and new varieties of domesticated grains from the mainland.

Carnelian beads from various PPNB settlements on Cyprus. Image from Moutsiou and Kassianidou 2019.
A bead made from local calcite to imitate imported carnelian beads. Image from Moutsiou and Kassianidou 2019.

What is so interesting about Cyprus is not that it is so very similar to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the rest of the Near East. That is interesting, as the common traditions and material goods between this island and the mainland, and the fact that they change at similar times in both places, suggests that there were well established sea travel practices in communities along the coasts of both the mainland and Cyprus. What is particularly interesting for how we think of the Neolithic, and how much people controlled their environment during the Neolithic, is the movement of wild plants and animals, and domestic plants and animals, onto Cyprus from even the very early part of people living there. We don’t tend to think of Epipalaeolithic people as actively managing the animals that they hunted. But, moving a population of wild boar across the Mediterranean to stock Cyprus as a game park is exactly that – game management. We see this in the PPNA, and also with plants. We see sheep and goats appearing on Cyprus right at the beginning of when we think of them as starting to be domesticated, which suggests that people may have had more control over these animals (and possibly had control for longer) than we generally give them credit for.

The most important thing about the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of Cyprus, then, is that it reminds us not to under-estimate the capabilities of early Neolithic communities in the Near East. People may have mostly lived in simple villages, but we should not make the mistake of thinking about these people as simple.

A fragment of carved stone figurine from PPNB Ais Giorkis. The original caprion for this figure has been included, as it is priceless. Image from Simmons et al. 2012.

Episode Bibliography:

Barzilai, O. and Goring-Morris, A.N. 2013. An estimator for bidirectional (naviform) blade productivity in the Near Eastern Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 140-147.

Lucas, L., Colleges, S., Simmons, A. and Fuller, D.Q. 2012. Crop introduction and accelerated island evolution: archaeobotanical evidence from ‘Ais Yorkis and Pre-Pottery Neolithic Cyprus. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 117-129.

Manen, C. 2017. Manufacturing and use of the stone vessels from PPN Shillourokambos in the context of Cypriot and Near Eastern PPN stone vessel production. In J.-D. Vigne, F. Briois and M. Tengberg (eds.), New Data on the Beginnings of the Neolithic in Cyprus. Paris: Société Préhistorique Française: 167-182.

Manning, S. 2011. Temporal placement and context of Cypro-PPNA activity on Cyprus. Eurasian Prehistory 11(1-2): 9-28.

Manning, S.W., McCartney, C., Kromer, B. and Stewart, S.T. 2010. The earlier Neolithic in Cyprus: recognition and dating of a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A occupation. Antiquity 84:693-706.

Moutsidou, T. 2019. A compositional study (pXRF) of Early Holocene obsidian assemblages from Cyprus, eastern Mediterranean. Open Archaeology 5: 155-166.

Moutsiou, T. and Kassianidou, V. 2019. Geochemical characterisation of carnelian beads from Aceramic Neolithic Cyprus using portable X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (pXRF). Journal of archaeological Science: Reports 25: 257-265.

Sevketoglu, M. and Hanson, I. 2015. Akanthou-Arkosykos, a ninth millennium BC coastal settlement in Cyprus. Environmental Archaeology 20(3): 225-238.

Simmons, A.H. 2012. Ais Giorkis: an unusual early Neolithic settlement in Cyprus. Journal of Field Archaeology 37(2): 86-103.

Vigne, J-D., Briois, F., Cucchi, T., Franel, Y., Mylona, P., Tengberg, M., Touquet, R., Wattez, J., Willcox, G., Zazzo, A. and Guilaine, J. 2017. Klimonas, a late PPNA hunter-cultivator village in Cyprus: new results. In J.-D. Vigne, F. Briois and M. Tengberg (eds.), New Data on the Beginnings of the Neolithic in Cyprus. Paris: Société Préhistorique Française: 21-46.

Vigne, J.-D., Briois, F., Zazzo, A., Willcox, G., Cucchi, T., Thiébault, S., Carrère, I., franel, Y., Touquet, R., Martin, C., Moreau, C., Comby, C., and Guilaine, J. 2012. First wave of cultivators spread to Cyprus at least 10,600 y ago. PNAS 109(22): 8445-8449.

Vigne, J.-D., Zazzo, A., Saliège, J.-F., Poplin, F., Guilaine, J. and Simmons, A. 2009. Pre-Neolithic wild boar management and introduction to Cyprus more than 11,400 years ago. PNAS 106(38): 16135-16138.

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