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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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One thought on “Episode 15: Cyprus”
Interesting episode and a great podcast. Please keep it up!