Concepts and Narratives on the Transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in the Aegean

In this post we present extracts from the very interesting and informative paper titled “The Transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in a Circum-Aegean Perspective: Concepts and Narratives“, by Agathe Reingruber.


Abstract The relative chronological scheme of the Early Neolithic period in Greece relies on sequences elaborated in the 1950s based on evidence from limited trenches. Between 1950 and 1970 concepts deriving from the Near East were applied also in Aegean archaeology. The terms “Preceramic” and “Aceramic” were adopted shortly after the recognition of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the “Fertile Crescent.” Culture change was explained predominantly by colonization processes, based on the assumption that all items belonging to the “Neolithic Package” appeared simultaneously in Southeastern Europe at the very beginning of the Neolithic. Fundamental in this model are the economic products (domesticated species) or single objects and their manufacturing techniques (pots and tools). But change seems to explain only partially the processes of the mid-seventh millennium B.C.: attention needs to be focused on the evidence for continuity as well. Therefore, the superordinate systems of social and cultural behavior (burial customs and exchange networks) are essential in the model presented here. Accordingly, the foundation for the transformations in the Aegean was the mobile way of life for both intra- and extra-local groups of late seafaring foragers-fishers and early seafaring fishers-farmers, with their face-to-face contact resulting in the transfer of innovations. The Neolithization process in the Aegean is thus the result of connectivities in time (with the Mesolithic) and in space (circum-Aegean).


Deconstructing: Concepts, Constructs, or Assumptions at the Base of the Narratives Suggested in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century A.D.?

It was not only the terminology and methodology that were adopted from Near Eastern archaeological investigations, but also the concepts that were valid at the time for the “Core Area” (basically the “Fertile Crescent”) and the “Primary Neolithization Zone” of central Anatolia (Özdoğan 2008:142–143). Whereas certain concepts like the PPN or a local domestication of plants and animals were indeed the result of precise observation and documentation, their introduction into Aegean archaeology turned these concepts into constructs and credos. Milojčić never published a specific model for the Neolithization process, but he pondered on behalf of domesticated plants (emmer and barley) and animals (sheep) on the “relationships with the Near East” (German: “Beziehungen zum Orient;” Milojčić 1962:24). Theocharis (1973:34–36), on the other hand, was rather inclined to explain the beginning of a sedentary life-style in Thessaly as an autochthonous process based on a local domestication of plants and animals, yet acknowledged the temporal supremacy of the Near East and an “indirect diffusion” from there. In other words, he conceived of an acculturation process in which local, Mesolithic populations were actively involved—a very foresighted viewpoint that was not shared by the international community possibly also for political reasons, as Kostas Kotsakis (2001:64) pointed out. The next generations of archaeologists perpetuated the viewpoints of direct or indirect diffusion with the addition of new (and disputable) concepts, like that of the “Neolithic Package,” and assumptions like that of westward migrating groups of people after an alleged collapse of the PPNB (Özdoğan 2007a:151–153, 2008:143). It was especially the conjunction of these two notions, the “Package” and the “Migration,” that resulted in the colonization model (Özdoğan 2007b; Perlès 2003). Yet no conclusive definition of the terms colonist and colonization have been given by those using them to explain culture change.

With the newly excavated Mesolithic sites, especially the caves of Theopetra and Youra, the concept of acculturation has received more support (Kyparissi-Apostolika 2000:137; Sampson 1996:46–51). The more thoroughly that mobile groups of pre-Neolithic foragers and fishers could be described, the more their interaction with mobile early farmers is stressed (Reingruber 2008:11–84, 2011). The focus of this model is not just the evidence for cultural change, since indications of cultural continuity are considered equally important.

Today, the picture seems to be “clearer than ever before,” especially when accepting “the ‘grand’ narrative” (Efstratiou 2007:124) of the Neolithization process as a demic diffusion (migration or colonization) caused by population pressure. But, as Kotsakis (2001:63–64, 2003:217) demanded at the beginning of this century, the old dichotomy between indigenism and diffusion as models for explaining the complex process of Neolithization must be overcome. In this respect, we must probe not only the introduction of new concepts, but also the critical evaluation of existing ones and their suitability related to our current knowledge and to the general discourses of our times. Indeed, the application of concepts in prehistoric research reflects—apart from ideological and national viewpoints—the general tendencies and discourses that were important in their age. Besides, catastrophes (wars, climatic changes, cultural clashes)—next to their relevance to certain research topics (and funding)—also had a great impact on the life experience of scientists that should not be underestimated.

The Concept of the “Neolithic Package” In 1971, at a conference organized by Sir Colin Renfrew in Sheffield, several speakers presented their models of cultural change, which might have further prepared the grounds for the narrative according to which knowledge, techniques, and items moved along with people. For example, Albert J. Ammer-man and Luigi L. Cavalli-Sforza (1973:345) were using as a proxy for their “wave-of-advance” model the most essential element of the later “Package:” namely, domesticated cereals. In subsequent analytical work dealing with cultural change, the “Neolithic Package” was further equipped, and the precise content of the package in the different regions was specified (Özdoğan 2008:155, Figure 6). Recently the “Neolithic Package” was subdivided into several “Packages,” the concept thus being adapted to new views (Çilingiroğlu 2005; Özdoğan 2010). Yet, the basic attitude remains the same: colonists of a more advanced cultural status brought their knowledge and belongings into an area of lower standing.

One of the basic raw materials occurring in western Anatolian sites, obsidian, was until recently thought to derive mainly from central Anatolian sources— brought there by westward moving colonists together with other items of the “Neolithic Package” (see Reingruber 2011). The neutron activation analyses (NAA) on obsidian pieces from Dedecik-Heybelitepe (Herling et al. 2008:13–65), Çukuriçi Höyük (Begner et al. 2009:249–271), and Coşkuntepe (Perlès et al. 2011) have shown that the main source of this raw material was Melos. Thereafter, pieces from other eastern Aegean (western Anatolian) sites were tested as well, the results demonstrating the predominance of Melian—not Anatolian—obsidian in the eastern Aegean. Not only the raw materials, but also the tool inventories, differ strongly between central Anatolian and circum-Aegean sites (see also Thissen 2000:154): tanged obsidian points with bifacial retouch were either the exception (in the eastern Aegean) or were not produced at all during the Early Neolithic (EN) in the western Aegean.

A brief comparison of bone tool inventories again shows strong differences between the “Primary” and “Secondary Neolithization Zones:” whereas in central Anatolia ornaments like rings, pins, and belt buckles predominate, in the Lake District spoons and points occur frequently (Lichter 2007), while in Thessaly polishers, points, and hooks prevail (Moundrea-Agrafioti 1981; Stratouli 1998)—but why should Anatolian colonists not have wrapped such items into their package or packages?

Burial customs are never included in the “Package” discussion—probably for the simple reason that the circum-Aegean rites are fundamentally different from the Anatolian ones (Lichter 2017). In many parts of the Aegean both inhumation and cremation had been practiced since Mesolithic times; secondary burials or modeled skulls as known from the Near East are absent (Reingruber 2011). This again raises the question of why colonists, spearheads of their society, did not bring with them their advanced stone and bone tool techniques and their basic customs.

According to Kotsakis (2008:58): “the transformational processes intervening between the point of origin of an entity and its final formation in an archaeologically recognizable form introduce a strong element of fluidity in established social entities.” This fluidity would make the identification of a specific origin an impossible task. But origins must
not be sought only in distant regions: Thissen has proposed for the Balkan region rather to envisage the transition from the Mesolithic to the EN as an uninterrupted historical trajectory, wherein developments of the EN had already started in the Mesolithic. According to this model, complex hunter-gatherer societies readily adopted innovations like farming and pottery production (Thissen 2005:71–72), innovations that were introduced to the area by small pioneer groups (Thissen 2017).

If this is the case in the circum-Aegean as well, then the reasoning must be allowed that it is not the “Neolithic Package” brought by colonists into an area that is a helpful concept, but rather the determination of the temporal closeness (or distance) between Mesolithic and Neolithic groups. Also, a closer look at regional varieties might be a good indicator of alternative narratives: the acceptance of certain elements in one area or their refusal in other areas would speak against an Aegean-wide swift spread of the “Package” together with colonists, but rather for the unforeseeable spread of innovations. As John Robb (2013:667, 672) has rightly pointed out, the “Package” never arrived at the beginning of the EN in a certain region, but rather it emerged at the end of a long process—its applicability as a useful concept in discussing Neolithization processes is therefore highly questionable.


The Narrative: Colonization and Migration Although both the concepts of colonization and migration imply demic movements, an important distinction must be made: as Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza (1973:344) have also pointed out, migration in prehistory involved a slow and continuous movement over short distances, whereas colonization implies an “intentional settlement by a coherent group of people, usually in a distant land.” In recent publications, caution has been requested to not assert prematurely colonization or migration movements (e.g. Burmeister 2000; Prien 2005; for a critical assessment of migration as a concept in traditional, processual, and post processual archaeology, cf. Chapman and Hamerow 1997).

The term colonization reappeared in Aegean research in 1981 when John Cherry (1981:42) discussed the “initial island colonization” throughout the Mediterranean. It is important to note that Cherry published this influential paper before the discovery of
Mesolithic sites on Crete (Plakias) and in the Cyclades (or else he rejected the scant evidence of, for example, the finds from Maroulas presented by Kenneth Honea). As Cherry (1981:60) himself pointed out, the term colonization is in fact misleading, since it implies a well-planned expedition by a group of people, which he doubted was the case in the Neolithic. He used it exclusively in a bio-geographical perspective, according to which humans and other species populated a previ-ously uninhabited area. Later, this term was extended to mainland Greece, as local Mesolithic populations were considered insignificant and not “engaged in a process towards more complex societies” (Perlès 2003:100). Not only was the initial meaning of the term (i.e. the first settling of previously uninhabited islands) transformed and now used to explain culture change, but the whole pre-Neolithic population of the Aegean was excluded from further discussion.

The assumption of a merely thinly populated Aegean mainland during the Mesolithic, in contrast with the fast development of new sites during the EN and especially the EN I, as deduced on behalf of the “Monochrome pottery horizon,” further fostered the colonization narrative, with Thiessen polygons apparently supporting this view (Perlès 2001:139–143). These assumptions need thorough revision, especially in light of the new Mesolithic discoveries in many parts of the Aegean (Kaczanowska and Kozłowski 2015), but also owing to the more precise definition of the EN I phase based on pottery and radiocarbon dates.


Reconstructing: Concepts Deriving from the Assessments of Old and New Finds

Mobility and Interaction (the Mesolithic– Neolithic Interface) Most examples of the Final Mesolithic stage in the Aegean derive from caves with or without stratigraphical gaps during the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic, such as the caves of Youra
and Sarakenos (Kaczanowska and Kozłowski 2015; Sampson et al. 2009:206–215) or Theopetra (Kyparissi-Apostolika 2000). A very convincing situation for the Mesolithic–Neolithic interface has been revealed in Franchthi, with a continuous stratigraphical sequence from the Final Mesolithic to the Initial Neolithic. Domesticated plants appeared during this interface in units FAN163 and FAN162 (Figure 4; Perlès et al. 2013:Tables 1–2). Other than expected, a gap of 500 years occurred not before but after the first domesticated plants were integrated around 6600/6500 cal B.C. into the daily life of the caves’ inhabitants. This situation does not really speak to new people (“colonists”) arriving in a forsaken region, but rather to the community of final foragers/early farmers that can be related to lithic phases Franchthi IX/X that was still mobile and moved into other areas better suited for farming. When looking at the transformations occurring during the middle of the seventh millennium B.C. from the Mesolithic side, from the perspective of hunters, fishers, and gatherers, the changes can be described
as the result of adoptions and adaptions to novelties circulating at that time, such as the new techniques being applied in the lithic industry. For instance, in the lowest level of Çukuriçi Höyük in western Anatolia, a microlithic industry has been acknowledged, although the tool in question is a rather “broad segment” (Horejs et al. 2015:309). But together with this traditional technology, new and innovative techniques can be observed as well, especially the early appearance of the pressure technique (Horejs et al. 2015:305, Figure 7). Traditional tool shapes being produced by applying new techniques has been reported also for eastern Greece, where the Mesolithic flake technique was substituted by the Neolithic macroblade technique (Gatsov et al. 2017)—but the shape of arrowheads, in this case trapezes, was maintained. Technical replacement and morphological maintenance (i.e. older technologies persisting, but becoming more and more marginal) could have been the result of advantageous innovations spreading through the Aegean rather than packages reaching the area with new populations moving in.

Interestingly, at most of the earliest sites known from the circum-Aegean, a (short) initial occupation phase was followed by an interruption—at least as can be inferred by the 14C dates (cf. for Franchthi: Figure 4 and Reingruber and Thissen 2005, 2017; for Paliambela and Mavropigi: Maniatis 2014:207–209; for Çukuriçi Höyük: Horejs et al. 2015:Table 1 and Weninger et al. 2014:18; for Ulucak: Reingruber 2015:Figure 11 and Weninger et al. 2014; for Knossos: Facorellis and Maniatis 2013). Hence, a still highly mobile way of life can be assumed. These mobile groups of intra- and/or extra-local provenance—conceived by other authors as “pioneer groups” (Horejs et al. 2015:295; Thissen 2017)—can be envisaged as the first generation of “innovators” and “early adopters” in the terminology of Everett Rogers (2003). The (still) seafaring foragers/farmers of the coastal areas are understood in this model as initiators of an experimental phase, adopting and adapting to new techniques and attitudes, accepting some, refusing others. But only with the strong commitment to a certain location that resulted in the formation of magoules was a “point of no return” reached, the new economy with all its entanglements (Hodder 2012) firmly adopted. As Robb (2013:672) observed, such a process was irreversible, “a one-way door,” no single farming community in the whole of Neolithic Europe switching back to foraging.

Intra- and Extra-local Networks and the Connectivity in Time and Space Mobile groups or single persons regularly prospected for obsidian sources on Melos, reaching the island from at least three different cardinal points. And it is precisely this obsidian that is indicative of a flourishing over-regional network operating ever since the Mesolithic (Reingruber 2011). Its occurrence throughout the Aegean might have been based on face-to-face contact and mutual negotiations. These observations lead us to the conclusion that the connectivity is twofold: first, there were strong, provable links between the Aegean coasts that were working in both directions (domesticated plants and animals were certainly introduced from western Anatolia, but the obsidian used there was derived from Melos). Second, the bonds with the Mesolithic were equally strong because it was the knowledge of seafaring foragers and their networks that were
expanded and amplified.

Additionally, the burial practice of inhumation in a crouched position (hocker) was in use throughout the Aegean since Mesolithic times, the first evidence from the eastern Aegean deriving from the site of Girmeler. But to date, cremations are known only from the western Aegean; later this custom appeared also in the Marmara region (Yenikapı) in the sixth millennium B.C., but was not yet attested in the eastern Aegean (Lichter 2017). The evidence is indeed very scant, but it reflects the strong and binding traditions
of superordinate systems of social and cultural behavior, as opposed to faster changes in technology and material culture. New techniques, new fashions, and new ideas were constantly integrated into the undeniable Mesolithic substratum, first by the late foragers/early farmers, and then by the subsequent generations. This model is well supported by the material culture itself, since pottery, tools, figurines, stamps, weaving
implements, and new species did not appear suddenly as a “Package.” The transformations spanned several centuries, changing only slowly the daily life of each generation.

But the Neolithization process should not be seen merely as a one-way exchange from transmitters to receivers: hunter-gatherer-fishers were rather active partners in this process and not passive receptors.

Time Intervals Based on Old and New Radiocarbon Evidence No one today will seriously doubt that new and innovative elements were introduced to the Aegean from Anatolia. The question rather is when and how these elements reached the regions on both the eastern and western shores of the Aegean Sea. Until recently, evidence was insufficient to determine the approximate end of the Mesolithic and the beginning of the Neolithic (especially since this transition can vary from region to region). But new dates from the caves of Franchthi and Sarakenos are securely placing the final stage of the Mesolithic in the first half of the seventh millennium B.C. Around 6600 cal B.C., following the plateau in the calibration curve between 7000 and 6700 cal B.C. (Reingruber 2015), the first signs of the Neolithic economy appear (Weninger et al. 2014). There may be a short time lag of a few decades between the eastern and western Aegean, considering the dates from Çukuriçi Höyük at 6700/6600 cal B.C. and those from Franchthi at 6600/6500 cal B.C.

As far as we can judge by today’s evidence, the single elements of the Neolithic way of life did not arrive simultaneously in the Aegean. The so-called “Package” is a palimpsest of 600 years of technical and cultural innovation.


Regional Variety and Innovation Centers Not all elements of the Neolithic lifestyle appeared in uniform dissemination throughout the Aegean. For example, the rich repertoire of ceramic vessels in southwestern Anatolia with predominantly closed shapes, to which tubular lugs were attached, or special shapes with an anti-splash rim, were not produced in Thessaly. Instead, rather simple shapes of mainly small-sized and well-polished vessels with ring bases occurred there. Specific regions maintained not only specific pottery styles but also specific bone tool inventories (Reingruber 2012). Not every new feature of the Neolithic repertoire was readily adopted throughout the Aegean: genetically transformed wheat varieties (e.g. Triticum aestivum) were not used in the later EN in Thessaly; stamp seals were not found in the south (except for a single object in Nemea). Neither was the Impresso decoration applied in the south, although it occurred throughout the northern Mediterranean.

The Impresso decoration is of particular interest: Impresso pottery in Macedonia and Thessaly was of different clay composition than the local pottery (Dimoula 2014:206). First the surfaces of the impressed pots were unpainted (as is practiced in the Balkans as well), but after 6000 cal B.C. it became integrated into the symbolic expression of the painted pottery traditions, resulting in the developed MN fusion-style (Reingruber 2008:Table 4, Figures 1–3). Therefore, contacts were not only trans-Aegean and east-west-east oriented, but indeed circum-Aegean, as they were also north-south directed. Especially in the final stage of the EN, exchanges occurred also with the Balkans to the north (Reingruber 2017).

Acculturation and the Spread of Innovations Nowadays, the claim for an indigene domestication of animals and plants, or the evolutionary development of pottery technology from primitive to sophisticated, can be refuted*. In fact, a pure indigene appearance of the Neolithic way of life has never been advanced; Theocharis rather envisaged the autochthonous development as a result of diffusion. But an acculturation process has not been accepted by the international community; rather much more emphasis has been placed on colonization processes (see Figure 3). But were these first generations indeed colonists or even “maritime colonists,” as Childe wrote in 1950? Stefan Burmeister (2000:544) described the process of colonization as a concerted action, where a central system of power takes over the control of an area, pioneers with special interests initiating the process. This was obviously not the case at the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic, when small groups of seafaring forager-fishers interacted with small groups (or single persons belonging to such groups) of seafaring farmers.

*[NovoScriptorium: We consider this view as totally opposing Logic. There must have been some short of domestication of local animals and seeds; not only in the Aegean, but all around the World really. It is another thing to claim that some seeds and animals were introduced to a Society, indeed changing its living, and a completely different thing to claim that every animal and seed was received from abroad. Seeds do not grow on every soil and climate, neither expose the same productivity, to begin with. Additionally, animals do not share the same behaviour and productivity in every place and climate. Whoever had an actual experience of Traditional Agriculture can confirm the above. Genetically modified seeds and modern-day state-of-the-art Farms did not exist back then]

“One hand cannot tie a package” is an old African saying; the success of the implementation of the Neolithic way of life in the Aegean was not the result of the input of small migrating groups of people alone. Certainly, they initiated an enduring process at ca. 6600 cal B.C., but the consequences were borne and further transformed by the next generations until the commitment to a certain place (after 6500/6400 cal B.C.) and the complexity of a sedentary life with its social implications (around 6300/6200 cal B.C.) stabilized. Certain raw material networks (e.g. obsidian) and basic traditions (e.g. burial customs), as well as certain shapes of stone tools (e.g. trapezes), derived in fact from local, Mesolithic, traditions. To these, new economic (domestication), social (serving food and beverages), and cultural elements (new habits, new fashions) were added that spread together with single persons or small groups of mobile people throughout the Aegean. The Neolithization process can therefore be viewed as the result of a close cooperation between intra- and extra-local mobile groups—some still pre-dominantly foragers and some already predominantly farmers. Rather than describe them as purposeful “colonists,” I would envisage them as “early adopters” of innovations.

The process of adaptation and acculturation, perhaps even of individual socialization enforced by family bonds and peer groups, played a major part not only for those already living there, but also for the newcomers. For each case an example can be given: Çukuriçi XIII for the farmers that were inte-grating into their daily activities the knowledge of raw material sources from Aegean Mesolithic groups (Horejs 2015:308), and Franchthi IX/X with seeds of domesticated species (Tr. dicoccum) in a transitional Mesolithic–Neolithic context (Perlès et al. 2013). The dichotomy of “foragers” vs. “farmers” would then be resolved; the “fluidity” could be described as that of acculturation processes. Groups still (predominantly) relying on hunting-fishing-collecting were in exchange with groups from pioneer sites that were already keeping animals and growing plants. In this view, it was not the linear spread of the “Neolithic Package” that led to the transformations lasting several hundreds of years (6600–6000 cal B.C.), but rather the unpredictable spread of innovations, where the consequences of adaptions could not be foreseen by the actors themselves, but only in much later retrospection.



If in previous models a seemingly incompatible dichotomy was forced upon the evidence, it was in fact only the two extremes of a fluid and complex process that were being juxtaposed: a mainly local evolution with little input from outside (indigenous development) vs. the dominant input from outside with a negligible local contribution (colonization). A good corrective for both models might be the temporal resolution: neither was the transformation process between 6600 and 6000 B.C. long enough to allow for local developments, nor was it short enough to support a swift colonization. It would rather point to a continuous acculturation that lasted many generations, the first link in the chain not foreboding the effects on the subsequent, let alone on the current one (ourselves).


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


One thought on “Concepts and Narratives on the Transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in the Aegean

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: