Contact Networks during the Middle Palaeolithic in the Northeastern Aegean? Presence of Neanderthals on Agios Efstratios island

In this post we present selected parts of the paper titled “Presence of Neandertals on the Island Agios Efstratios and Probable Networks of Contacts in the Northeastern Aegean during the Middle Palaeolithic“, by A.Sampson et al.


The island looks like a rectangular triangle with the right angle at Cape Thascoli southeast of Alonitsi and the smallest acute corner at its southern tip in Cape Tripiti. It is located at the western end of the northern branch of the Anatolian fault that crosses across Asian Turkey (Papanikolaou 1986). It is a seismogenic fault of horizontal sliding, with the movement of the northern part to the east and the southern to the west.

Morphologically, the island’s relief is intense although it is hilly with the highest hills on its eastern side and narrow valleys mainly in the west, usually along faulting surfaces. Most torrents at the western side are on the faults having a direction E-W.

The main geological formation that covers the island about 90% is pyroclastic formations that enclose tephras and irregularly scattered and uncountable pieces of volcanic rocks.

The pyroclastic formations are overlaid by yellow organogenic lime stones in angular unconformity which locally convert to travertine limestones. These formations οf Miocene age are marine (shallow marine environment) as evidenced by the fossils they contain (Elasmobranches, Gastropods, Pitchers, etc.). Their appearance is very limited to the south of capeThaskoli at the site of the Osios Efstratios cave. This small cave (about 8m long) is opened in this formation.

To the above formations, marls, sandstones, clays and sandstone-conglomerates, mainly of lakes to brackish phases, occupy the northeastern part of the island and cover about 10% of the surface.


The same sediments appear on the small island of Ag. Eleni, which is just off the Cape Thaskoli, about 800 m to the north, while no pyroclastic rocks are found on it. Obviously the Pliocene sediments extend beneath the sea northwest and northeast of the valley of Alonitsi and reach the islet.

Finally, the newer rock formations are alluvial deposits, which occur locally to a small extent along the small valleys and in coastal formations when the terrestrial section is smooth and slightly inclined. Their biggest appearance is in the northeastern part of the island, where a fertile valley is developing along the coastal zone to which the prehistoric site of Alonitsi hill belongs. Most of this valley is covered by dunes. They are mainly made of non-bonded clay-sand materials, conglomerates, fine sand (when it is of aeolian origin) or compact sandstone-conglomerates when they are beach rocks; their age is Holocene (from 10,000 years to the present).


The Alonitsi Area It is a lowland area that flows through small torrents and has an extensive sandy beach in front of it. In the past, it was intensively cultivated with vines and grain. It is located in the northeastern part of the coastal zone of the island. Ιn the middle of the area, there is a hilly ridge in which Palaeolithic stone tools and bivalve seashells were found.


From the lithostratigraphic column (Figure above) of the hill near the top of the southeastern slope:

•Terrestrial horizon of varying thickness (maximum 1, 20m) of clay-sandy materials into which were found the Palaeolithic artifacts, seashells, cobles ≤ 5cm of varied lithological composition resulting from erosion of the immediately underlying formation. To the northeast, it is destabilized and the underlying sandstone- conglomerate horizon appears.


At the southern and southeastern end of the valley on the western slope of cape Thaskoli at an altitude of 108m appear, to a limited extent, sandstone-conglomerate cliffs on marl-sandstone layers corresponding to Layer 2 of Alonitsi hill. In the whole western slope where marls appear, exist high erosion phenomena and lateral cone formation from loose material such as at Alonitsi hill. On the top of this cape Palaeolithic implements of opal of the same type as at Alonitsi as well as Neolithic pottery were found.

Results of the Geological and Archaeological research The Pliocene lake – brackish sediments, due to their thickness of ≥120m located at the Alonitsi hill, suggest that in the distant past there was a sizable lake which stretched to the north and east to a great extent. The maximum percentage of these sediments is now submarine between Ag. Efstratios and Lemnos. The limited appearance of carbonate limestones indicates that there are also limestone rocks that are now covered by later sedimentary and volcanic formations. The impossibility of locating sea terraces to be associated with Palaeolithic artifacts is attributed to the old and recent, up to our days, seismic activity on the island. Although the Middle Palaeolithic stone tools have been extensively dispersed on and around the hill, research has shown that due to the high erosion of layer 1 an excavation in space would not reveal undisturbed layers of this period.


A detailed surface survey in Alonitsi area revealed three sites of the Neolithic period. One of them is at the top of the limestone hill where the small cave of Osios Efstratios is located. The coarse Neolithic pottery found there does not provide diagnostic data; it probably dates back to the end of the Neolithic period and is the equivalent of ceramics that came from the earliest layer of Poliοchni (Bernabo-Brea 1964).

The second Neolithic site was found on the flat peak of Cape Thaskoli, at the same place where the artifacts of Middle Palaeolithic were found. The third site was presented at the western side of the coastοnthe lower slopes of Thaskoli hill, where the opening of a road revealed a prehistoric layer of 0.90 m thickness. The ceramics with typical Late Aegean Neolithic III lugs are similar to those from the cave of Cyclops (Sampson 2008), Ftelia on Mykonos (Sampson 2002) and the Dodecanese (Sampson 1987). Some Neolithic stone implements were also located at the Alonitsi hill area.

Palaeolithic Stone Industry About 200 artefacts were collected from the site surface. The analysis of their morphological and technological traits indicates they are Middle and Upper Palaeolithic artefacts, with a small admixture of Neolithic objects.The geological survey revealed that the opal, to which belong the majority of the tools, was found in lenses in limestone, which forms the background of the island.


Middle Palaeolithic materials reveal a relatively small percentage of the Levallo is residual cores no more than 36mm long, 33mm wide, and 13mm thick, pseudo-Levallois points up to 78mm long and discoidal core techniques, with the predominance of low flake cores exploited from one or two striking platforms up to 22m high.


Denticulate-notched forms are clearly predominant among tools: lateral-distal, bilateral-proximal, sometimes with lateral obverse and transversal inverse retouch. Lateral and transversal scrapers also occur. Among less common forms one can mention becs formed by notches on blade-like flakes or chunks. Retouched flakes also are relatively well-represented among tools.


Thus, we are dealing here with Mousterian with denticulate tools, known from the Aegean Basin. Similar materials, also included into denticulate Mousterian, come from Ucdutlar site in Kalipolis peninsula (Ösbek, Erdogü 2014). Upper Palaeolithic artefacts are less numerous in the discussed site than Middle Palaeolithic ones. One can include here first of all double platform cores, discovered in both the initial and more advanced stage of reduction. Some of them had the orientation changed three times. A specific trait of this industry is the presence of cores with narrow flaking surface and lateral trimming. A proof for careful trimming can be the presence of a secondary crested blade.

Among the materials recovered from the site there was a distinct group of quite regular, small blades, probably linked with the Upper Palaeolithic. Cultural attribution of the Upper Palaeolithic materials is hampered by the absence of diagnostic forms among the tools, except for a short truncated blade, and perhaps also a flake fragment with steep lateral retouch. Splintered pieces and a flake with splinter retouch on the break can also be linked with the Upper Palaeolithic. The absence of endscrapers and backed pieces makes it impossible to attribute the materials to either Pre- or Epi- Gravettian tradition.


Discussion So far, numerous Middle Palaeolithic sites, mainly Levallois-Mousterian sites, were registered on the island of Euboea which during the last interglacial (128000-118000 years ago) was connected with mainland (Cherry 1981, 45). During OIS 4 its northern part was connected with the coast of Thessaly and Northern Sporades being a large sub-continent (Sampson 2006) in the form of a long peninsula with a SW-NE orientation, except for a small channel in the strait between Alonessos and Kyra-Panagia and an even smaller one between Kyra-Panagia and Youra. For a second time, the islands remained attached during the Last Glacial Maximum until the early Holocene.


The only exception to this, might have been Gramiza Island which Georgiades (2002, 152) suggests that was insular during the LGM. Middle Palaeolithic sites have been located during a survey on the deserted islands of the Northern Sporades as on Youra, Psathoura and Gramiza. The last one is a precipitous island with a flattened top, where we had collected Middle and Late Palaeolithic artifacts (Sampson 1996, 2008). In Alonessos, a survey (Panagopoulou et al. 2001) revealed several Palaeolithic implements and local sources of flint, but not an actual site. In the southern part of Lemnos facing to the northern part of Agios Efstratios, where the Middle Palaeolithic site of Alonitsi is, the site of Ouriakos excavated by N. Efstratiou et al. (2013, 2014) provided a sequence of assemblages with microblade technology based on subdiscoidal, singleplatform and double-platform cores. The most characteristic tools are microliths, dominated by segments and bladelets with an angulated back, shaped by steep retouch, often bipolar, but without the use of microburin technique. Other tools are end-scrapers, mostly short and atypical burins (Kaczanowska and Kozlowski 2014). The site has been recently dated on burnt bones at the end of Upper Palaeolithic (10 390±45 BP – Efstratiou et al. 2014). Though lithic industry of the Ouriakos’ final Palaeolithic stage was not identified in Alonitsi, in Upper Palaeolithic the communication between the two islands towards the end of the last Glaciation (ca. 18.000-16.000 BC),when the fall of sea level had reached its extreme level, approximately 120 meters lower than the present while others claim 150m (Bird and Fabri 1987), would be not easy since even in LGM, it is estimated that Agios Efstratios was not connected to the continent as Lemnos was. However, the crossing of this small distance between these two islands would be an easy matter. Ιt is estimated that in the transition from the Palaeolithic to Mesolithic (10,000-9,000 BC), the sea level was 80 meters lower than the present, while temperatures were 2-3 degrees lower (Bintliff – Von Zeist 1982, 289). In the Middle Palaeolithic the communication between these islands should be more difficult because the sea level had already risen, at a level significantly varying between 35 to 55 meters below the present level. However, the visual contact would make the seafaring easier between Ag. Efstratios, Lemnos, Imbros and the continent. A survey conducted in the northern part of Lemnos by the authors of this paper revealed artifacts of Levallois technique in many sites, while the excavators of Ouriakos have reported a Middle Palaeolithic site at the southeastern part of the island (Efstratiou et al. 2013).


The Eskino site in Imbros and the Ucdutlar site in Kallipolis peninsula (Özbek-Erdoĝu 2015) are two other Middle Palaeolithic sites in the northeastern Aegean and it is very likely that along with the aforementioned sites in Lemnos and Ag. Efstratios, should have existed a network of contacts in this early period. In the southern Aegean, systematic excavations at the site of Stelida on Naxos yielded artifacts of the same period (Carter et al., 2014). The industry of Stelida is attributed to the denticulate Mousterian with Levallois technology. However, as there are no absolute dates for Stelida, it is not certain whether the island was reached by land or sea route. The story of the island formation is, of course, a complex and dynamic one. Major advances have taken place in the last ten years (( Lambeck et al. 2004; Lambeck & Purcell 2005; Lambeck et al. 2007; Lykousis 2009; Vacchi et al. 2014) but much work remains to be done regarding questions such as the rates of local tectonic activity on the respective islands. Thus, current knowledge of islands formation at the head of the Aegean Sea is still at the early stage of approximation.We believe that all those changes can be probably attributed to a combination of climatic and tectonic causes, while further intensive investigation is necessary in order to confirm this. The Alonitsi site possibly documents sea-faring skills of Neanderthals in the Middle Palaeolithic because in OIS 6 and 4, Agios Efstratios was not connected to the mainland (Sampson 2014; Kaczanowska & Kozlowski 2014). The problem is that, as the detailed geological survey in the area has shown the seismicity on the island and the Northern Aegean region in general, is due to the Northern Aegean-Anatolian fault, has created multiple failures. In terms of eustatic changes, the position of the site -providing no isostatic disturbances occurred during the sea transgression-points to occupation, probably in OIS 5e or possibly OIS 5a or even 5c (Kaczanowska and Kozlowski 2014).

We should consider whether the subsequent seaway linking mainland Greece (Thessaly) to Asia Minor in the Mesolithic and Neolithic existed in Palaeolithic. Although the sea in the northern archipelago between Northern Sporades and the Chalcidice region is open, often with a very silent undulation, there are many periods of good weather throughout the year, with a calm of one or two weeks in the winter and one week or more in the summer, unlike the Cyclades and the Dodecanese areas where the northern winds are much stronger. It is self-evident that the Northern Sporades complex forms a continuous chain with northeastern direction. From Psathoura, the northernmost island of the Northern. Sporades, southwards to Euboea there is continuous visual contact between the islands. Although the coast of Chalkidiki, especially Mount Athos, is very often visible from Youra or Psathoura, the great distance of 80 nautical miles has probably discouraged navigation in prehistoric times. East of Youra, the solitary island of Piperi is very precipitous and inhospitable, and could not have ever favored sailing. Between this point and the closest island of Agios Efstratios, the open sea could have been easily crossed in good weather. For ships sailing West, the high peaks of Youra are easily distinguished from Agios Efstratios for the greater part of the year, a valuable guide on the route to the SW. On the opposite direction, the low mountains of Agios Efstratios (243 m) and Lemnos (319 m) would not have greatly assisted ships sailing to the NE, as the visibility of these mounts theoretically does not exceed over 35 nautical miles (see American Practical Navigator, US Navy, Hydrographic Office 1958). However, under rare circumstances visibility can be significantly greater; Agouridis (1996, 17) notes that in exceptional cases Agios Efstratios, Lemnos, and Lesvos are visible from Skyros.


In addition, sea currents, which would have been well-known back in prehistoric times (Papageorgiou 1997), played a significant role in seafaring, especially in the Mesolithic and the Neolithic when sails were still not in use. The current of the NE Aegean drifting from Ellispontos to the SW facilitates navigation to N-S directions, especially in the summer season when it is stronger. Recent studies (Ζοdiatis 1994) showed that the NE Aegean stream, except for its stable southward course, forms small-scale cyclonic and anti cyclonic flow regions or eddies in the area between Lemnos and the Northern Sporades, especially in the summer season. These anticyclonic flows facilitate the navigation of small vessels from the Northern Sporades to Lemnos as well as Chalkidiki. In wintertime, anticyclonic flows south of Lemnos would have enabled rowing-boats to follow the current from Skyros to Asia Minor, and then drift to the NE Aegean assisted by southern winds. With reference again to the Northern Aegean, the most difficult passage is the one from Lemnos and Agios Efstratios to the Northern Sporades, with strong winds and dangerous currents. Besides this difficult passage, the remainder of the route to the East is fairly easy, as the distance between Lemnos and the coast of Asia Minor is short.


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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