Klissoura Cave 1; the earliest Palaeolithic sequence in Southern Greece

Klissoura Cave 1 preserves a regionally unique sequence of Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic though Mesolithic cultural layers dating to the Late Pleistocene. Klissoura 1 is one of several archaeological cave sites in the Klissoura Gorge, and it contains the deepest and earliest* Paleolithic sequence for the area. Here the material from the final sedimentary cycle in Klissoura 1 is reported, that representing the Upper Paleolithic through Mesolithic occupations. The Upper Paleolithic is clearly distinguished from the Middle Paleolithic on the basis of lithic and other artifactual contents. The Upper Paleolithic layers contain ornament assemblages and osseous tools, whereas the Middle Paleolithic layers do not, except where minor post-depositional mixing at the MP-UP layer contact is indicated.

*[NovoScriptorium: there are many (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4) earlier Palaeolithic findings from Southern Greece; indeed, until now, Klissoura Cave 1 remains the place where the earliest Palaeolithic sequence in Southern Greece is found]

klisoura 1 cave

The formation of the Upper Paleolithic through Mesolithic stratigraphic sequence was dominated by anthropogenic processes. Constructed hearths of diverse forms, ash dumps, raked-out ash features, and trampled ash remains are very common. The earliest Upper Paleolithic layer (V) truncates the top of the Middle Paleolithic sedimentary series. Layer V represents the only Uluzzian* occupation documented in Greece, and its industry resembles essentially contemporary industries in Italy. The Aurignacian layers have a generally discrete appearance, and the earliest Aurignacian layer (IV) truncates the underlying deposits.

*[NovoScriptorium: Considering the Uluzzian, there is not a ‘final conclusion’ available yet. We recommend a read of the following publications (1, 2)]

The Aurignacian components in Klissoura 1 are distinguished from all other cultural layers by the remarkable complexity of in situ hearths, which range from simple small basin or stacked forms to clay-lined types.

Remnants of a small structure are demarcated in the earliest Aurignacian layer (IV) by a roughly oval scatter of large stones, a discrete organic stained area within, and an exceptionally dense concentration of perforated shell beads. Following the upper Aurignacian layers are two enigmatic cultural horizons. The definition of these horizons suffers in part from the lack of information for the region and period, but also from ambiguities concerning the behavioral causes of variation in the lithic industries. Hypotheses for explaining this variation include ethnic differences and distinct traditions of tool manufacture and, alternatively, differences in the circumstances of occupation by essentially similar groups by season.

Moderately rich faunal and lithic assemblages were obtained from the Epigravettian and Mesolithic layers. These cultural layers experienced frequent truncations and considerable disturbance, mainly from human activity, and diffuse interfaces characterize the contacts between them.

The second major hiatus in the stratigraphic series corresponds to the LGM, after which appears the typical middle (or early-middle) Epigravettian with conspicuous links to south-central Italy. The third hiatus separates the Epigravettian (layers IIa-d) from the Mesolithic (layer 5a). Here, however, cultural continuity can be seen despite the presence of depositional hiatus. The occurrence of the Terminal Paleolithic marked by a Epigravettian tradition in neighboring caves of the Klissoura Gorge indicates that Epigravettian groups did not abandon the region at this time, but rather occupied different caves and shelters in the area.

The rich and varied archaeological record of Klissoura Cave 1 provides an unprecedented and for the moment (Note: 2010) unique body of information about the Upper Paleolithic of southern Greece. Coherent lithic, bone, shell and osseous tool assemblages and many features and spatial data were recorded and studied. This detailed record of Upper Paleolithic activities yields several of surprises and insights on Upper Paleolithic behavior and cultural diversity in Eurasia, including the great age of the earliest Upper Paleolithic occupation and the contexts of on-site activities through out the Upper Paleolithic.

Technological diversity is quite narrow from the Upper Paleolithic through the Mesolithic assemblages and contrasts with the cultural taxonomy based on the indicative artifact classes. The limited technological variability in these assemblages is probably due to the fact that a fairly homogenous group of primarily local raw materials (radiolarites and flints) were exploited throughout the sequence.

Extra-local raw materials are rare through out the layers, with some of the red radiolarites in layer V being of the highest quality. Unquestionably exotic materials from the later cultural layers include Melian* obsidian from Mesolithic layer 5a.

*[NovoScriptorium: This directly implies that the Mesolithic Aegean Man had naval-transport capabilities]

In nearby Franchthi Cave, a wind-blown Y-5 tephra (Campanian Ignimbrite) was found in stratum Q. Originating from the Naples area of Italy, this tephra is dated to 39.28±0.11 kyrs by 40Ar/39Ar (De Vivo et al., 2001). There is a strong possibility that Klissoura 1 may also contain this tephra.

Importantly, the tephra seals layer V in Klissoura 1. The radiocarbon results suggest that the industry of layer V is about 6000 years older than most currently reported ages for similar lithic assemblages from Europe.

The two important depositional/occupational hiatuses in the later part of the Klissoura 1 sequence correspond to major paleoclimatic events. One of these occurs within sequence B between the Mediterranean Backed Bladelet layer III’ and the Epigravettian (layer II). Because layer III’ is dated at about 30–28 Kyr and the Epigravettian can not be older than 16–15 Kyrs BP, this hiatus should include the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) within Marine Oxygen Isotope Stage (MIS) 2.

The last major hiatus in Klissoura 1 occurs between the geological sequences B and A, or between the Epigravettian (layer II) and the lower Mesolithic (layer 5a). Given that the Epigravettian occupation almost all certainly spans the time interval from 16 to 14 kyrs BP, and the Mesolithic is synchronous with the Early Holocene, the second hiatus must cover the end of the Late Glacial, spanning at least 12 to 10 kyrs BP.

The results from the botanical, faunal and geological analyses suggest a gradual trend toward climatic cooling through the Upper Paleolithic sequence in Klissoura Cave 1. Warmer, wetter conditions returned only well after MIS 2, or during the Mesolithic.

Grass phytoliths are the most important elements in the phytolith assemblages from Klissoura 1. Most of the identified specimens correspond to the C3 festucoid subfamily, which is very common in the Mediterranean basin. The grass phytolith assemblages of layers IIIe-g and IV indicate only a moderately humid environment. Pytoliths representing C4 grasses and probably also reeds (Arundo donax) are present in the Epipaleolithic (II) layers, and reed phytoliths occur in the upper most portion of the III sequence (III-III’). Although reeds require very wet conditions, their presence may simply indicate small pockets of wet land somewhere in the area and possibly localized changes in water tables caused by sea level changes, tectonic events or other non-climatic factors. The presence of C4 grasses, on the other hand, suggests a significantly drier and more open environment during the Epipaleolithic.

Wood charcoal remains from the Upper Paleolithic layers reflect a mosaic of perennial vegetation types. It is likely that dry parkland vegetation covered the rocky hills, giving way to open wood land with mesophilous and thermophilous trees in the foot hills and valley floors. Burned wood remnants of oak (Quercus sp., deciduous type) and elm (Ulmus), genera that prefer somewhat moister conditions such as might occur in gullies and small canyons, are most common in layers V though IIIe-g. Elm all but disappears from the charcoal assemblages there after. The wood-charcoal record of the early part of the Upper Paleolithic sequence indicates interstadial conditions during mid-MIS 3 (40–30 kyrs BP) and gradual cooling and drying towards the end of the MIS 3 (after 30 kyrs BP).

The composition of the mammal and avian faunas in Klissoura 1 suggests corresponding changes in animal community structure during the Upper Paleolithic through Mesolithic.

The ungulate assemblages from layers IIIe-g, IV and V are relatively diverse for their sizes. Hares (and tortoises in V) dominate the small game fractions. The assemblages from the middle and upper Aurignacian layers (IIId-a) are less rich in ungulates, and they are dominated by one ungulate species in particular, European fallow deer (Dama dama). Hunting of large and medium-sized ground birds (bustard and partridges, respectively) also became important in the interval represented by layers IIId-a. The dominance of fallow deer together with the high incidence of partridges and bustards in the later Aurignacian layers suggests an expansion of open grassy areas. Ungulate diversity expands again in the Mesolithic (and possibly in the Epipaleolithic, but this is a small sample), and hares once again dominate the small game fraction.

Changes in temperature and sea level forced qualitative shifts in the structure of terrestrial animal communities on the Argolid. A more heterogeneous environment would support a broader range and more even proportions of ungulate species, because greater macrostructural variation in available habitats makes it more difficult for one species to outcompete others. Relatively heterogeneous habitats are indicated by the faunal and botanical results for the earliest Upper Paleolithic. Subsequently, drier or cooler conditions prevailed and vegetation became more uniform, allowing Dama populations to dominate locally.

The overall contribution of small animals to the meat diet increased dramatically in layer III’ and above. This is clearly apparent within the vertebrate assemblages, but also from the rising economic importance of large land snails. Expansions in dietary breadth are generally thought to represent either temporary or long-term responses by consumers to the decline in the most profitable resources.

It is likely, therefore, that the relentless expansion in dietary breadth evidenced in Klissoura Cave 1 reflects a growing human ecological footprint in the region and probably also mild increases in human population densities.

Five of the ungulate species found in the Klissoura 1 faunas also occur in the upper Aurignacian, “Gravettoid,” Epipaleolithic, and Mesolithic layers of Franchthi Cave. Both red deer and European wild ass were important prey in the early part of the Franchthi sequence, but red deer was the only significant large prey item in the later part. Other ungulates are represented in low frequencies, namely aurochs, wild pig and ibex.

The findings on the shell ornaments from Klissoura Cave 1 also speak to questions about the degree of environmental heterogeneity in southern Greece during the Late Pleistocene. Although Klissoura 1 was never situated on the Aegaen shore during the Paleolithic or Mesolithic, the inhabitants visited the sea and other aquatic habitats, and they brought many small ornamental shells back to the site. These shells fall within a narrow range of sizes and shapes. However, the species collected during the earliest Upper Paleolithic phases are quite varied, whereas few species were utilized for ornamental purposes in the later occupations (above layers IIIg-e). The great variety of ornamental mollusk species in the assemblages from layers IV and V reflect a mosaic of aquatic habitats, more complex than exists in the Peloponnese to day.

There is the question of where the Upper Paleolithic inhabitants of Klissoura 1 obtained the ibex and chamois (layer IV only), since the area does not include true alpine habitats. In fact ibex may inhabit a much wider variety of elevations, provided that the terrain is rugged. The low but persistent presence of ibex in the ungulate faunas may simply reflect the extent to which hunters chose to search craggy up lands nearby. Today chamois tend to occupy rocky or alpine areas, but they along with wild goats may descend to much lower, forested pastures in winter.

The shells of the large edible land snail, Helix figulina, also are prevalent in the late Upper Paleolithic through Mesolithic strata of Klissoura 1. Most of these were modified by humans rather than small predators, although none is burned by fire. The relative quantity of land snails in the archaeofaunas increases exponentially with time, and shell sizes become larger and more uniform. Specifically, land snails are rare in layers IV or V and show no clear evidence of human modification, whereas human-modified snail shells are moderately abundant in layer IIIc and increase greatly through layers III” and III, and snail abundance peaks in Mesolithic layers 3-5a. Epigravettian layer IIa-b represents a striking exception in that snails are uncommon and a wide range of tiny to large species are represented, similar to the natural snail assemblages that litter the ground in the site vicinity today. Snails are not difficult to find or collect after heavy rains, but cooking and extraction is relatively labor intensive.

Other findings on Upper Paleolithic subsistence at Klissoura 1 relate to large game hunting, specifically the patterns of prey age selection and food transport. Minor biases were found for body part representation in this site. These biases are not explained by in situ attrition and therefore must reflect human transport decisions.

Deer antler is proportionately common in the Mesolithic (3-5a), though this is a small sample, and in layers III”, IIIe-g, IV, and V (also a small sample). Worked antler and (rarely) bone artifacts occur in all of the layers, but most of these are from Aurignacian layers IIIe-g and IV. The layers that contain the most antler fragments of any sort generally also contain the most worked antler artifacts, with the exception of the Mesolithic.

Shell ornaments occur through out the Upper Paleolithic, Epipaleolithic and Mesolithic layers. The earliest Upper Paleolithic ornaments occur in layer V in association with an Uluzzian industry. The largest assemblage of ornaments comes from the earliest Aurignacian or layer IV. There are a few ornaments in layers VI–VII, but most of these were found immediately below the area of the man-made shelter in layer IV.

The Klissoura 1 ornament assemblages differ from those typical of coastal sites in that the Klissoura 1 assemblages consist almost exclusively of finished products. There is considerable evidence of “high-grading” or human selection of the assemblages for harmony in shell color, form and quality, and there are few, if any, examples of manufacturing errors. The prevalence of cord-wear suggests that many of the ornaments arrived already attached to organic materials or human bodies. What breakage occurred to the shells resulted primarily from long-term use. Faded or worn shells of species that would have originally been red in color (Clanculus spp.) were renewed with red ochre.

The variety of features, artifacts and faunal remains in the early Upper Paleolithic layers of Klissoura 1 indicate that the site served as some kind of residential base during most or all of these occupations. The intensity or duration of the occupations probably varied greatly, however, with the most intense use of the site occurring during the formation of Aurignacian layers IV and IIIe-g. In addition to many clay-lined and unlined hearths, these layers contain a diverse assortment of lenses, pits and other features. Antler points and probable manufacturing debris, mainly on antler, are particularly abundant in layer IV.

Plant phytoliths are abundant in most of the Upper Paleolithic sediment samples, but they generally are not found in the hearths. The contrast in phytolith distributions between hearths and open areas testifies to the horizontal integrity of features in the Upper Paleolithic layers, consistent with the geological observations. The input of plant matter into fire places was selective – mainly dicotyledonous wood and bark-producing plants. It is the grasses that show the greatest spatial separation from the hearths. The abundant grass inflorescences in Layer IIIe-g may point to their use as food, or the harvesting of mature stems for fiber working or bedding. Small amounts of sedge phytoliths in layer IV, and reed phytoliths in layers II and III-III’ could also relate to fiber working on site.

There is considerable evidence of osseous technology use and production on site, particularly in layers III’’ IIIe-g and IV. Plant fiber working and hunting may rank among the many potential uses of these tools. Clearly, a wide range of activities took place in the cave, a situation typical of base camps.

As might be expected for a part of the world defined by distinctive ecosystems and a uniquely broken and diverse topography, there is much evidence for regional or “endemic” patterns of cultural evolution. While processes that promote cultural divergence are to be expected for peninsular conditions, as the Peloponnese certainly represents, there were also significant intervals of increased contact westwardly across the upper Adriatic sea bed, such as during the Uluzzian.

(Source: “Klissoura Cave 1 and the Upper Paleolithic of Southern Greece in Cultural and Ecological Contexts”, by Mary C. Stiner et al., 2010)

Figure 3. Stratigraphic section of part of the northern wall

Stratigraphic section of part of the northern wall. Clay hearth structures are shown in black and interstratified ash remains in gray. Spiral forms indicate the presence of large amounts of snails. Layers 1 and 2 contain mixtures of classical and Bronze age finds, 6 Mesolithic, III c and IIIe upper Aurignacian, IIIf and IV middle and lower Aurignacian, VII and below are Middle Palaeolithic. 

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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