Episode 21: Cyprus and the Khirokitia Culture

After the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B in the Levant, Mesopotamia and Anatolia, we can see many changes to daily life happening across these regions. Pottery becomes a part of everyday life in villages across these regions of the Near East, although when it appears and when it becomes commonplace is not necessarily the same everywhere. The structure of life seems to continue a pattern first begin in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, with the organisation of everyday life and its activities moving from the level of the entire village to the level of the family, or the extended family. We also see signs of the spread of the idea of private property, and the measures taken to mark and protect this property. While these things were common across many regions of the Near East, though, each region – and even in some cases each valley or group of valleys – developed a more independent and distinctive local culture.

The island of Cyprus has this very much in common with these mainland regions of the Near East. Just like we saw more local variation and the development of local cultural traditions on the mainland after 7000 cal BCE, Cyprus also develops its own local post-Pre-Pottery Neolithic culture- the Khirokitia culture (circal 7000 to 5200 cal BCE).

The Khirokitia culture has been known for nearly 100 years, since the first excvations at the site of Khirokitia in the 1930s. In these early days it was thought to be the oldest human habitation on the island of Cyprus. We now know that this happened several thousand years earlier, from at least as early as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A. But, these earlier sites were unknown until the 1980s and for several decades in between the Khirokitia culture was thought to be the first permanent human settlement on Cyprus.

Once earlier sites were discovered, for another few decades there were so few pre-7000 cal BCE sites known that some argued that the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B occupation of Cyprus had been ultimately unsuccessful, and that people disappeared from the island until it was re-occupied by colonists from the mainland with the Khirokitia culture. With time, though, we found more sites, which provided radiocarbon dates, and which showed that people were living on Cyprus all the way through from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A until the beginning of the Khirokitia culture (and beyond). So this theory has also fallen away and we now see the Khirokitia culture as a continuation of a long tradition of local Neolithic societies on Cyprus.

Now, the big question has been whether or not the Khirokitia culture existed in a vacuum. Or, rather, how much interaction people on Cyprus during the Khirokitia culture had with people living in Pottery Neolithic/Ceramic Neolithic/Late Neolithic villages on the mainland. This is because there are a couple of things about the Khirokitia culture which make it different from the cultures that we have seen at this time on the mainland. For a start, people in the Khirokitia culture built rounded houses rather than the rectangular ones that were built by nearly everyone on the mainland at this time. They also had some differences in the way that they made their stone tools. For example, the fashion for pressure flaking that we have seen across Anatolia, the Levant and Mesopotamia never really seems to have come into fashion on Cyprus.

The big difference, though, is the pottery. Pottery appears and then becomes a part of daily life at different times across the mainland of the Near East. On Cyprus though, it appears a bit late. Or rather, it appears REALLY late, since it doesn’t really turn up in villages (apart from the rare experimental piece) until after the end of the Khirokitia culture (or, after about 5000 cal BCE). Instead of pottery, people living on Khirokitia Cyprus made carved stone bowls. These existed on Cyprus during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, as well as on the mainland. The stone bowls made on Cyprus before 7000 cal BCE, however, tended to be made of softer stone (like limestone). During the Khirokitia culture, this changed to a fashion for much harder igneous stone, usually of a grey-green colour. These also seem to have become more elaborately decorated, with designs carved in relief to the outsides of bowls. This stone was also used to carve figurines. Like on the mainland these were mostly figurines of humans. Unlike on the mainland these figurines are much more pared-back and even abstract depictions of people, and usually lacking in the details of anatomy which would tell us if the figurines were supposed to be male or female (unlike the figurines commonly seen across the mainland). Stone was also carved into elaborate designs on pebbles, which seem to have been associated with specific people and which have been argued to have acted as sealing stamps,much like what we have also seen from this time in the northern Levant and northern Mesopotamia.

A carved and decorated stone bowl from Khirokitia
An example of the human figurines found on Cyprus during the Khirokitia culture.
Examples of carved stone pebble ‘stamps’ from the Khirokitia culture.

So while carved stone was able to perform just about all of the functions that we see pottery being used for on the mainland, the Khirokitia culture still forms avery long additional time that Cyprus spent without this new pottery technology. The people of Khirokitia Cyprus spent an extra 1500 to 2000 years still living a Pre-Pottery Neolithic lifestyle after the mainland has changed to the Pottery Neolithic. This long delay in the spread of pottery, along with a reduction in the amount of obsidian being imported into Cyprus after 7000 cal BCE, has led to the argument that Cyprus became isolated after the ‘collapse’ of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B interactions sphere.

Unlike with the two previous theories about the Khirokitia culture – that it was the first occupation of Cyprus and that it was a re-occupation after previous villages died out – the question of the isolation of Cyprus can’t be easily solved by finding more sites and getting more radiocarbon dates.

Happily, this is because the question of the isolation of Khirokitia can be solved already, just by looking at the evidence that we already have.

The evidence which is used to suggest that Khirokitia Cyprus was isolated from mainland societies of the Near East is that (a) they retained burial patterns – with single burials under floors and head shaping – from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic; (b) they had round houses, which went out of fashion on the mainland during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic; (c) there is a drop in the amount of obsidian imported into Cyprus; and (d) they did not incroporate pottery into daily life until after the end of the Khirokitia culture.

Curvilinear stone buildings at the site of Khirokitia

Arguing about how much contact Cyprus had with the mainland after 7000 cal BCE using obsidian is a ticky subject. Cyprus did not get as much imported obsidian after about 7000 cal BCE, but then again many of the regions of the mainland that we have talked about – like the Levant and Mesopotamia – also saw a drop in the levels of imported obsidian at this same time. The obsidian that is coming into Cyprus during the Khirokitia culture is also coming from the Cappadocia region of what is now Turkey, which is the same source of obsidian that we see for Ceramic Neolithic cultures in the Levant as well as in some parts of northern Mesopotamia. So we can’t really use the levels of imported obsidian to argue about how much contact Cyprus may have had with the mainland during the time of the Khirokitia culture, since it gets the same decrease in how much obsidian is being traded around, and is getting obsidian from the same sources as its nearest neighbours on the mainland.

If we ignore obsidian, then we are left with the burial practices, the architecture and the absence of pottery. The current counter-argument to this view of isolation uses these same pieces of evidence to argue that Cyprus wasn’t isolated – it was just independent, and had been independent since the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. This view sees Cyprus as a land where the traditions of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A – including round communal buildings and houses and greater levels of use of wild plants and animals – continued to be kept throughout the Pre-Pottery Neolithic instead of being fashionable only in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and then disappearing over the course of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B like we see on the mainland. Remember, round buildings were common on the mainland in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A but then went out of fashion. On Cyprus, they kept this – and probably other older traditions alive. The burial traditions are also a sign of this independence of Cyprus, with people maintaining their traditions of burial regardless of what was currently fashionable over on the mainland.

So, if Cyprus has been doing its own independent thing throughout the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, then it should be no real surprise that they decided to continue to do their own thing during the time of the Khirokitia culture, and just were not interested in adopting pottery technology the way that people did on the mainland. If we look at the adoption of pottery into daily life as something that people may have chosen to do or not to do, then the absence of pottery on Khirokitia Cyprus becomes another in a series of choices about daily life and society that the people of Cyprus made over the course of several thousand years of human settlement which were different from the choices that people made on the mainland. So Cyprus almost certainly was not completely isolated from the mainland (after all, they were still getting imported obsidian). Instead, the people of the Khirokitia culture chose what they imported over from their neighbours on the mainland. Obsidian, yes. Pottery, not quite yet.

Episode Bibliography:

Clarke, J. 2010. Contextualising Neolithic Cyprus: preliminary investigations into connections between Cyprus and the Near East in the Later Neolithic. In D. Bolger L. and Maguire (eds.), The Development of Pre-state Communities in the Ancient Near East. Studies in Honour of Edgar Peltenburg. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 199-208.

Clarke, J. and Wasse, A. 2019. Time out of joint: a re-assessment of the Cypriot Aceramic Neolithic site of Kalavasos-Tenta and its regional implications. Levant 51(1): 26-53.

Constantinou, C. 2011. 7th and 5th millennium Eastern Mediterranean: an introduction to the identification of interactions between Cyprus and the North Levant after Pre-Pottery Neolithic times. Cahiers di Centre d’Etudes Chypriotes 41: 53-78.

Fox, W.A. 1988. Kholetria-Ortos: a Khirokitia culture settlement in Paphos district. Report of the Department of Antiquities Cyprus 1: 29-42.

Kardulias, P.N. and Yerkes, R.W. 1998. Defining the Cypriot Aceramic Neolithic: the lithic evidence. Lithic Technology 23(2): 124-138.

Keach, L.L. 2018. Investigating the Role of Liminality in the Cultural Transition of the Eighth Millennium BC on Cyprus. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Knapp, A.B. 2013. The Archaeology of Cyprus: From Earliest Prehistory Through the Bronze Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hourani, F. 2017. Khirokitia (Chypre, VIIe-VIe millénaires av. J. C.), la séquence stratigraphique dans son context. In J.-D. Vigne, F. Briois and M. Tengberg (eds.), New Data on the Beginnings of the Neolithic in Cyprus. Paris: Société Préhistorique Française: 229-240.

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

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