Long-distance Trade in Prehistoric Europe; the Aegean origins of the Neolithic European cultures

Spondylus gaederopus is a species of marine bivalve mollusc, a thorny oyster in the family Spondylidae. This species is endemic to the Mediterranean Sea.

Spondylus gaederopus from Sicily.JPG

Spondylus gaederopus from Sicily

Spondylus gaederopus attaches itself to the substrate with its lower valve, which is usually white, while the upper valve is usually purple. Specimens that are all white, or all purple do, however, exist.

The mollusc is edible, and is consumed in Sardinia.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spondylus_gaederopus)


Archaeological evidence indicates that people in Neolithic Europe were trading the shells of S. gaederopus to make bangles and other ornaments throughout much of the Neolithic period. The main use period appears to have been from around 5350 to 4200 BC. The shells were harvested from the Aegean Sea, but were transported far into the center of the continent. In the LBK and Lengyel cultures, Spondylus shells from the Aegean Sea were worked into bracelets and belt buckles. Over time styles changed with the middle neolithic favouring generally larger barrel-shaped beads and the late neolithic smaller flatter and disk shaped beads. Significant finds of jewelry made from Spondylus shells were made at the Varna Necropolis. During the late Neolithic the use of Spondylus in grave goods appears to have been limited to women and children.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spondylus)


From the excellent paper titled “Spondylus and Long-Distance Trade in Prehistoric Europe“, by Michel Louis Séfériadès, included in the collective work titled “The Lost World of Old Europe – The Danube Valley, 5000–3500 BC” we read, among many other interesting things, the following:

Analyses of the oxygen and strontium isotopes in ancient Spondylus shells found in Neolithic archaeological sites in Europe have shown that they came from the Mediterranean, and not from old fossil deposits on land or from the Black Sea.”

In Europe the appearance of Spondylus as a valuable item in long-distance trade coincided with the creation of new regional exchange networks that accompanied the introduction of farming economies, precipitating the new economic order that began the Neolithic era. The earliest farming economies in Europe evolved, I believe, as the result of a largely independent process, which took place first in the modern territory of Greece about 7500–6500 BC

we can follow the Spondylus trade archaeologically over nearly three thousand kilometers—mirroring the trajectory of the spread of domesticated wheat, barley, legumes, cattle, and sheep northward out of Greece extending from the Aegean and the Adriatic Seas, where the shells were harvested, to France, Germany, and Poland, where they are found in the archaeological remains of settlements and cemeteries, in graves, and as isolated finds

In the Mediterranean, the southernmost Spondylus beads are found in the Neolithic of Sicily and the archipelago of Malta. In the Aegean region during the Neolithic, as during the Copper Age, worked Spondylus ornaments are commonly found in Greece and Thessaly and in Greek Macedonia and Thrace. They also occur south to the Peloponnese in Greece

We are also informed that Spondylus’ made objects were also found in a number of sites in Bulgaria, Romania, former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, Germany, France.

We also read that: “Curiously, the farther one moves away from the Adriatic-Aegean, the native habitat of the Spondylus, the more frequently Spondylus artifacts appear to abound!

Most of the Spondylus artifacts found in Europe were initially processed and then finished on the Aegean and Adriatic coasts or in farming communities not far from the sea, principally in modern Greece, Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia.”

The trade among these places presupposes a network of access routes and a social framework of elaborate exchange systems—including bartering, gift exchange, and reciprocity—such that these shells even reached somewhat isolated places, including high mountain valleys in the Carpathians.”

We also learn that Spondylus shells are often found in graves together with marble, malachite, jadeite, rock crystal, carnelian, polished stone axes, adzes, mace heads, copper and gold. Most likely a sign of prestige or wealth. There is also a possibility that this type of material was somehow needed for cultic purposes. Objects made from Spondylus were found everywhere across Europe and most importantly, already from the Early Neolithic (7th-6th mil. BC). Interest in them seems to have disappeared rather suddenly at the beginning of the Bronze Age. There is a strong possibility that new cultures from the Eurasian Steppes were induced in Europe at that point causing general social and cultural, as well as commercial, disturbance.

Quoting the words of the great archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, we also learn that “The Danubians seem to have brought with them from the south a superstitious attachment to the shells of a Mediterranean mussel, Spondylus gaederopus, which they imported even into central Germany and the Rhineland for ornaments and amulets.”

Clearly, he refers to the fact, undoubtedly supported by archaeological evidence, that the farming cultures of S-E Europe originally came from the Aegean and the Greek peninsula.


From the very informative paper titled “Spondylus gaederopus/Glycymeris exchange networks in the European Neolithic and Chalcolithic“, by John Chapman and Bisserka Gaydarska we read, among many other interesting facts, the following:

The two marine shells, Spondylus gaederopus Linne (spiny oyster) and Glycymeris glycymeris Linne (dog-cockle), have become famous in global prehistory as prestige exchange items which look very attractive as ornaments and, very occasionally, tools. In the middle Holocene (6500–3000 BC), the Black Sea was too cool and insufficiently saline to support either species, but both occurred throughout the Aegean, the Adriatic, and the central and western Mediterranean. The paucity of Spondylus ornaments from the Neolithic and Chalcolithic in the two latter regions indicates that the only sources of living shell were the Adriatic and the Aegean (but note finds on coastal sites in Sicily and Malta, peninsular Italy and Iberia). Fossil Spondylus shells, which were brittle and pallid, were only occasionally used in prehistory. Despite limited sources, Spondylus and Glycymeris shells and products in archaeological contexts indicate an extensive long-distance exchange network covering much of Danubian Europe and beyond, over distances of up to 3000km.”

The Spondylus exchange network has three distinct phases. In phase 1 (6500–5400 BC), Spondylus use is sporadic. The earliest known ornaments are disc beads and fragmented rings from Greece. After 6000 BC, fragmentary rings appear in the Balkans, Hungary, and the Adriatic coast, later to become the most common Spondylus find alongside the disc bead.”

In phase 2 (5400–4900 BC), Spondylus is widely distributed in Hungary and the east Adriatic. In Serbia, Romania, and the LBK*, consumption peaks in this phase. The LBK peak has been explained by the elaboration of ancestral origin myths symbolized by the exotic, south-eastern origins of Spondylus. Similarities between ornaments from the LBK, Serbia, and Romania do support this link, while the importance of the Vršac settlements (north-east Serbia) in channelling Spondylus into the middle Danube basin supports an Aegean source.”

*NovoScriptorium: (LBK = Linear Pottery culture, abbreviated as LBK from German “Linearbandkeramik”)

Phase 3 (4900–3500 BC) marks a U-turn from the ‘pan-Danubian’ model of distribution, and a reversion to interregional exchange. Post-LBK, there is little Spondylus in western central Europe. Deposition equally declines in Romania and Serbia, with use continuing into the fourth millennium BC.”

So far, there are only two areas where Spondylus ornaments are entirely related to the living—Greece and the east Adriatic coast—significantly, both areas of the shell’s origin. By contrast, in areas furthest from these coasts, such as the western LBK, shell ornaments almost exclusively related to burials. The few exceptions cannot overturn this striking difference in consumption.

During the LBK Spondylus peak, farming settlements in north Greece and the Balkans were more numerous and sedentary, occupying a wider range of regions (e.g., the west Pontic zone), including uplands (e.g., the northern Hungarian mountains). The increasing regional differentiation of material culture and settlement trajectories contrasted with the more homogeneous pattern of LBK expansion. In many Balkan cases, such as the Vinča networks, a wider range of materials was exchanged over longer distances, with ‘intercultural’ exchange of pottery, more extensive prospecting, and the consequent utilization of lithics, axe materials, and copper from uplands in every major lowland basin. Typically, Balkan exchange expanded, as seen in the peak of obsidian exchange, now distributed from the Black Sea to the Adriatic, and Poland to northern Greece. However, the distribution of high-quality north-east Bulgarian honey flint and Melian obsidian in Greece contracts. Exotics are firmly established within local cultural value scales.”


From the excellent paper titled “Complexity of the processes of Neolithization: Tradition and modernity of the Aegean world at the dawn of the Holocene period (11–9 kyr)“, by  Michel Louis Séfériadès, 2007, we read, among other exciting facts, the following:

The key idea, largely accepted as self-evident but here criticized, is that agro-pastoral (Neolithic) farming originated in the Levant and Anatolia some 10,000 years ago and then was introduced in Europe (Zvelebil, 2000). It is the Ex Oriente lux postulate, introduced and illustrated by Gordon Childe nearly a century ago (Childe, 1925), and developed until now, in different ways, by Neo-diffusionist schools (i.e., Lichardus and Lichardus-Itten, 1985; Renfrew, 1987; Cauvin, 1994; van Andel and Runnels, 1995), despite a lack of serious archaeological data.”

Until recently only around 20 Mesolithic settlements in the Aegean area were known. The scarcity of sites was not an insurmountable paradox; what is important is that such sites exist, and that we can find them in different landscapes in the territory of Greece, in the mainlands or on the islands, near the coast or far inland up to the mountains.

Generally rejected, or, at best considered as secondary, two contrary but convincing reasons can explain ‘‘the paradox’’: first, a deep imbalance of the archaeological research, and second, the effects of some catastrophic or large geological phenomena*. This imbalance and these geological effects support a more reliable model that has ‘‘the merit of common sense’’, and where the dialectical dynamic of the Mesolithization–Neolithization process plays an essential role.”

*NovoScriptorium: (Climatic change and earthquakes appear to have been responsible for the collapse of civilization multiple times in the past. Also related is this post.)

The apparent paucity of Mesolithic and very Early or Initial Neolithic settlements in the Aegean area, particularly in the Balkans and Western Anatolia, is due in great part to insufficient exploration

As Ruth Tringham said 5 years ago, Mesolithic indigenous forager presence was much greater than its archaeological visibility in the great valleys of Southeast Europe indicates the problem is that we archaeologists cannot see it, although it may be ‘standing right in front of us’ (Tringham, 2000, p. 54). But the now clear proofs of what I advanced, together with Tringham and Zvelebil, and, for my part, that Greece was highly densely settled during the Mesolithic period (and before) is given by the researches of the Greek–Italian team of archaeologists (conducted by N. Efstratiou, V. Elefandi, and P. Biagi, Universities of Thessaloniki and Venice) who over the last 3 years have discovered more than 25 Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic sites or settlements (e.g., lakes of Valia Calda) on the peaks of Mount Smolikas (2632 m), on of the Pindus mountain range which separates Epirus from Thessaly. As Nikos Efstratiou points, the chronological order of these sites reveals that these few and constantly moving Paleolithic and Mesolithic groups roved the Pindus range until 8000 BC following prey such as deer, boar, and hare. There is also evidence of Neolithic hunters who, as early as 7000 BC, began leaving their permanent villages, their livestock and fields on the plains and headed into the mountains occasionally to hunt and gather berries and seeds.

In 2003, a survey in the Argolis (Peloponnesus), south of Nauplion, conducted by Curtis Runnels and Eleni Panagopoulou put in evidence a dozen of new Mesolithic sites.”

On the Cycladic island of Kythnos, Adamantios Sampson found circular dwellings and graves at Maroulas. Again recently, the Thesprotia Expedition (geological survey and prehistoric periods), a regional Interdisciplinary Survey in Northern Greece conducted by Björn Forsén from the Finnish Institute at Athens, discovered two Mesolithic sites located in the Kokytos inland valley (with cores, arrowheads, trapezes, end scrappers, percoirs, and bladelets).”

We have also to take into consideration the eustatic changes of sea level at the end of the Pleistocene (before the Preboreal, 10,000 BP) and during the beginning of the Holocene that modified the shorelines from the Northwestern part of Mediterranean and the Ligurian coasts to the Black Sea shores. Related alluvial deposits are often very deep, thus mask the latest Mesolithic stages and the earliest Neolithic ones such as areas like Macedonia and Thrace. Recently, the same consequences were put in evidence in Thessaly.”

Tjeerd van Andel and Judith Shackleton in their detailed study concluded that the Late Palaeolithic geography is thus characterized by extensive coastal lowlands, especially in the NE and NW, by a large Cycladic land or peninsula, by the enlargement of the Greek mainland, and by a much narrower Aegean Sea. By 9000 BP, on the other hand, the amount of coastal lowland was only slightly greater than it is to day, and the Cycladic land had fragmented.”

The rise of sea level of 130m since 15,000 BP, of 50m during the Mesolithic period (12,000–9000 BP) and of 40m during the Neolithic/Eneolithic (9000–5500 BP) explains why a great number of Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements of the Aegean area are now embedded under more or less deep sediments.”

Two other also important geological phenomena can be added: neotectonic destruction, as at the Mesolithic site of Sidari (Corfu), and natural eolian and/or rain fall erosion which perhaps particularly affected the islands (i.e., Naxos: Mesolitic site of Stelida), including Crete and the Dodecanese.”

Despite the views held by the diffusionists, the Aegean World was populated, densely or sufficiently densely, by the end of the Paleolithic and during the Epipaleolithic / Mesolithic, during the Pleistocene/Holocene transition, and the beginning of the Holocene. During these times, numerous Mesolithic and Early Neolithic sites (sedentary settlements and/or (in greater number) seasonal (or ‘one day’, bivouac) encampments) existed along the coasts or inland, everywhere on the continent up to the mountains and on the islands.”

The Neolithization processes are here, in this southeast part of Europe, autochthonous in nature. Independent Neolithization processes developed with their roots in a firmly established Mesolithic culture, with an inherited Epipaleolithic / Mesolithic background without a real break from Late Paleolithic time.”

in the lower levels of Soroki in Moldovia, domesticated Bos, Sus and Canis were found (Bos taurus L., Sus scrofa domestica L., Canis familiaris L.) ”

Ceramic figurines come from the Gravettian sites of Dolni Vestonice and Pavlov in Moravia (as old as 29,000–26,000 BP)

at the Theopetra cave, ‘‘Primitive monochrome and undecorated pottery probably belonging to a pre-Neolithic phase, come out from the underlying Mesolithic deposit’’ (Kyparissi-Apostolika, 2000; Facorellis et al., 2001). Pottery seems to be a Paleolithic European invention but without implications for the processes of Neolithization

The wild ancestors of emmer, einkorn, barley and leguminous plants are well at home in the Balkans since the Middle/Late Paleolithic and Mesolithic times. This is also the case for the wild species of Bos, Sus, Capra and, of course, Canis familiaris. The case of Ovis remains under discussion. In fact, the so-called ‘Neolithic package’ is well at home in Southeast Europe*, in the Balkans area during the Mesolithic times (10,000–7000 cal BC).

*NovoScriptorium: (You may also like to read this post)

With the important climate change* at the dawn and during the beginning of the Holocene, landscapes were now in a state of flux. On the coastal areas and also along the river valleys of the interior, Mesolithic peoples had to solve in a new way the apparent sempiternal nomadism/sedentary opposition, in a complicated way according also to the multiple fluctuations of the sea.

A change of the environment related to this climate change was the herald of domestication, the strong element of the Neolithization process. Neolithization developed in different complex ways, but was well controlled by our sophisticated and complex ancestors.”

*NovoScriptorium: (Another possible explanation for the wide range catastrophes is ‘fire from the sky‘ Also related is this post.)

Mesolithic peoples of Greece were hunters of red deer and boars (respectively, 70% and 30% at Franchthi), hares and wild goats, and of a great variety of bird species. Bones of wild goats were found in the Mesolithic contexts of the Cave of Cyclop and of the Theopetra cave. They represent perhaps the first step of the domestication of this animal. In Crvene Stijena (Montenegro), animal bones including aurochs, wild pig, and wild goat were recovered from under the first pottery bearing levels. Wild goat was at home in the Balkans and, together with the aurochs and the wild pig, was domesticated there. Capra aegagrus (wild goat) has been identified in an Early Neolithic context through two clay figurines: the first from Donja Branjevina (Voivodina), the second from Sofia-Slatina. Reliefs from the Körös Culture pottery and bones in the Late Neolithic Tisza Culture are also known. The question of independent domestication of this animal in the Aegean area remains open, as do those concerning the pig and also the aurochs despite the questionable genetic evidence* for a derived Near-Eastern origin for European cattle.”

*NovoScriptorium: (We fully agree that the ‘genetic researches’ are, at least, ‘questionable‘. You may read a post about them here. Another relevant post is this)

Mesolithic burials in the Aegean area are simple inhumations in a contracted position (Franchthi cave, Youra, Maroulas). The Macedonian Nea Nikomedeia Early Neolithic graves recall exactly the Franchthi cave Mesolithic ones. At the Theopetra cave, DNA analysis was carried out on skeletal remains from the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic deposits, and showed biological relation and continuity of the population (Facorellis et al., 2001).”

With the dynamic economical systems and social organizations in flux in the Mesolithic, complex systems of exchange on more or less long distances, appear for the first time: Melian obsidian (already attested in the Late Paleolithic), Saronic andesite, and Spondylus gaederopus shell which, with the Neolithic, reaches the British Channel. Such complex systems of exchange including new ideas and inventions, social and religious behaviors and, perishable items which have not survived, are at the origin of the spread of agriculture through all the Aegean World and farther north.”


Franchthi cave

In this place we propose a reading of the following, fully related, posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)


Theopetra Cave

From all the above we can conclude the following:

a) Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic inhabitants of the Aegean & Greek peninsula were the very same people.

b) The ‘Neolithic expansion’ appears to have begun from the Aegean area and expanded towards the North & West

c) The Aegean people during the Neolithic Age not only were competent sailors -as it is evident at least from the widespread Melian obsidian finds during the same time- but they had the capability and will to move up to the British Channel, too. If the explanation given by the specialists stands (“ancestral origin myths symbolized by the exotic, south-eastern origins of Spondylus“), then we clearly speak of Aegean populations spreading all over Europe.

d) There had been domestication of seeds and animals in Europe, and for sure in the Balkans and the Aegean, contrary to what the supporters of the Ex Oriente theories suggest – amazingly, without the support of the necessary archaeological evidence

e) As suggested “Pottery seems to be a Paleolithic European invention“. Supportive of this is the use of clay in the beginning of the Aurignacian in the Klisoura cave 1, Greece, at about 32-34 kyr BP, the earliest recorded so far in the world.

f) As suggested “The Neolithization processes are here, in this southeast part of Europe, autochthonous in nature“.

Last but definitely not least, we must underline that all the above are also supported by the Ancient Tradition, i.e. the Greek Mythology:

a) The Greeks firmly believed that they were an indigenous population

b) They believed that Agriculture was first established in Greece

c) They have recorded multiple cataclysmic events – and not only one as most people believe. These included rapid change of sea-levels, floods, earthquakes, even ‘fire from the sky’. This is a clear indication that the very same people inhabited the area for countless millennia

d) They even had ‘collective memory‘ of the era when they were still living in caves. You may read an example ‘here

e) They firmly believed in ‘expedition myths’ of Hercules, Dionysus, the Argonauts and many others, towards almost every direction, and for sure towards the West. You may read an example here.


Theopetra Cave

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Maximus E. Niles, Philaretus Homerides, Isidoros Aggelos










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