Animal domestication processes in the Prehistoric Aegean (9th millennium B.C.)

In this post we present data, sourced from official publications, on the very interesting issue of Animal Domestication in the Prehistoric Aegean.   

From the paper titled “Glimpses of Aegean Island Communities during the Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods: the Zooarchaeological Point of View”, by Katerina Trantalidou (2008), we read:

“(Northern Sporades) During the Last Glacial Maximum (18,000 to 16,000 bp), sea level was 118 m lower than today, and the islands in the archipelago of the Sporades were connected to the Thessalian mainland, forming a long crescent-shaped peninsula. This formation meant that the island of Alonnissos formed the eastern cape, leaving a narrow shallow channel between it and the island of Kyra-Panayia. The group of smaller islands from Kyra-Panayia to Psathoura, including Youra, formed a larger separate landmass. Today, Youra is 11 km² in area while Kyra-Panayia is 25 km². The distance from Kyra-Panayia to Thessaly is 59 km. During the Mesolithic the sea level rose to be 60–40 m and then in the Early Neolithic 40–30 m lower than today (Sampson 2001b, 61; using the data available for the coasts of Troy and Pagassitikos Bay).

(Central Aegean islands – Cyclades) When the sea level was at its lowest, a narrow channel separated Kythnos from the mainland. Most of the other islands formed a larger landmass. Today Kythnos is 100 km² in area and is 39 km from the nearest mainland point. The vertebrate remains found in the fossiliferous deposits of the various islands belong to the Middle–Upper Pleistocene period, when separation from the continent must have occurred. The main vertebrate element is an elephant of medium to large size, whose good swimming abilities allowed it to colonize the islands.”

“The Mesolithic occupants of Youra and Kythnos were heavily reliant on fish and shellfish, as were many contemporary coastal groups of Mesolithic/Neolithic Europe.”

“If the suggestion that preserved fish were transported over long distances is correct, then fish could have been used for exchange. Such exchanges might explain the typological similarities among the lithic artefacts of the Cyclops Cave and the Belbidi Cave in the Attaleia area of Asia Minor (Sampson et al. 2003), and the early introduction of caprids to Youra during the late Lower Mesolithic might also have been a consequence of this long-distance travel and exchange.”

“There were no terrestrial predators on Youra. At Maroulas, some bones of Vulpes vulpes (red fox) were recognized, constituting 3.88 per cent of all mammal bones in the Mesolithic period. It is the earliest appearance of a predator recorded thus far in the Cyclades. Fox is also reported from the aceramic levels at Akanthou on Cyprus (Frame 2002, 237), where it was also introduced, and from other Cypriot Neolithic sites (Khirokitia III, Ayios Epiktitos: S. Davis 1984; 1989). On Saliagos, fox bones were discovered among other canid ones (Higgs et al. 1968, 117). Predators were certainly introduced to the Cyclades to exterminate commensal animals.”

“Bones of Sus scrofa were present on both islands. At Maroulas they comprised 92.23 per cent of mammals in the Mesolithic period (95 fragments), and were mainly of young pigs.

At Cyclops Cave, suids were most abundant (20.19 per cent of ungulates) during the Lower Mesolithic, but though present in all later levels they never exceeded one per cent, in terms of Number of Identified Specimens (NISP), and were very often less than 0.3 per cent. These small quantities are not significant as they would represent only a few individuals. In the deepest Lower Mesolithic deposits, of ninth millennium date, suids were the only terrestrial mammals found, apart of course from the human bones. They could have been introduced by visiting communities. Caprids gradually replaced suids during the Lower Mesolithic before the occupational hiatus.

Evidence of human activities, such as butchering and cooking, is scarce at both sites, and sex ratios provide the only evidence of human impact on the animal populations. On Youra, where the only reliable sample came from the Lower Mesolithic deposits, females are twice as abundant as males. In the following periods the ratio is approximately the same.

The slaughter pattern, deduced from tooth eruption and wear stages (Grant 1982; Legge 1990, 232), is biased towards young animals; 30.62 per cent were under six months old at the time of death and 66.07 per cent were under two years old (Trantalidou 2003, table 11.17, for the Mesolithic period). Such high mortality rates of immature animals have been considered as proof of domestication (Chaplin 1969; Halstead 1992, table 2)”

“Comparisons of the Sus remains on Youra and Kythnos, with the boars in the Greek peninsula and the rest of Balkans, demonstrate the existence of a rather small suid on these islands (Trantalidou 2003, tables 11.27–8), which does not fall in the range of the wild continental animals. The temperature increase from the Late Pleistocene to the Holocene resulted in the size reduction of several mammals (S. Davis 1981), but this factor is not enough to explain the small size of the suids, nor can insularity in itself explain it.

On Youra, suids range from small (Upper Mesolithic) to medium (Lower Mesolithic) in size. The size of the animals on Youra and Kythnos is close to that of the transitional forms recorded at Lerna in the Peloponnese (Lerna IV/EH III: Gejvall 1969, 72) and of the largest forms of domesticated animals in Macedonia and Thessaly during the Late Neolithic (Bökönyi 1986, 116–17; 1989; von den Driesch & Enderle 1976, 46; Hinz 1979). On Youra, common effects of domestication such as reduction in the size of the skull, which causes shortening of the premolars, can be seen from the Early Neolithic onwards.”

“In a natural goat population, one that is not subject to human predation, 80 per cent of the animals survive their third year (Hecker 1982, 229; Campana & Crabtree 1990). High mortality between approximately 6 and 24 months, apart from natural infant mortality, is seen to indicate exploitation of domestic animals (Bökönyi 1973; Ducos 1973; Ducos & Helmer 1981), with a focus on meat exploitation and eventually on dairy production (Payne 1973; Laurence 1982, 180–83; Becker 1991, 20; 1998, 67–78; Halstead 1992; Buitenhuis 1997).

At Cyclops Cave the animals were of all ages, from neonatal to old adult. During the Lower Mesolithic, the animals that were slaughtered or died before the age of 12 months represented 20 per cent of the livestock. Most died in their second and third years: 30 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. These data suggest a strategy of exploitation focused on meat procurement.

During the Upper Mesolithic, however, almost half of the animals were culled in their first year (though the sample was small). Thereafter, this fraction decreased slightly. During the Late Neolithic some 33 to 37 per cent of breeding animals were slaughtered before their first winter, similar to the pattern known from contemporary sites in Thessaly. (…) In the lowest strata (Lower and Upper Mesolithic) on Youra, all goat horn cores were small but scimitar-shaped. Most of them came from young animals (male and female) or juvenile females. The horn cores associated with domestic animals are most frequently twisted and almond-shaped in cross-section at the base. Twisted horn cores first appeared in the Early–Middle Neolithic and by the Middle and Late Neolithic the ratio of scimitar-shaped horn cores to twisted-shaped ones was 3:1. Nowadays, the feral population bears twisted horn cores.

Female sheep seem to be devoid of horns. This morphological characteristic is also considered to be a sign of domestication.”

It is possible that domestic caprids were first introduced into those areas of Greece that had easiest contact with Anatolia. It does not seem to be a fortuitous event. Mesolithic cultural behaviour was shaped by the demands and constraints of the environment, and other groups on the Greek peninsula gradually adopted similar practices. At Theopetra, for instance, the Mesolithic faunal assemblage was dominated by ovicaprids, making up 44 per cent of the total. It also seems, as on Youra, that the inhabitants killed animals at a younger age than if they had died by natural causes (Newton 2003a,b). (…) The island culture of Youra, at least during the Mesolithic, can be viewed as an important stage in the transition from fishing, hunting and gathering to animal domestication and agriculture in the Balkans.”

Theopetra Cave

From the paper titled “From Mesolithic Fishermen and Bird Hunters to Neolithic Goat Herders: The Transformation of an Island Economy in the Aegean”, by Katerina Trantalidou (2011), we read:

obsidian microliths found at Youra show similarities with tools from the Aceramic and Early Neolithic (EN) levels of Belbidi Cave and those from Öküzini Cave (Ia2, Ib1) dated between 8700 and 7800 B.P. (Sampson, Kozłowski, and Kaczanowska 2003; Kaczanowska and Kozłowski 2008, 172); both sites are located in the Attaleia area in Anatolia. The researchers also found similarities with early Holocene industries in central Anatolia (Pinarbasi, dated to about 8500 B.P., and Kizil I) (Sampson, Kozłowski, and Kaczanowska 2003; Kaczanowska and Kozłowski 2008, 172). These observations could lead to suppositions for probable relations and exchanges between people on Youra and the inhabitants of the coastal area of southern Asia Minor. Moreover, the Sporades islands acted like a natural bridge, linking the west coast of the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor (Sampson 1996b).”

“(Cave of the Cyclops) Judging from the concentration of land-snails (Karali 2001, 173–175; Sampson 2001b, 46) in the cave’s Mesolithic sequence, the presence of Cervus elaphus and Sus scrofa in the lowest strata of the cave (9th millennium: Trantalidou 2003, 146–148), and the pollen diagrams from Thessaly (where open and very open oak woodland with grasses existed; see Bottema 2003, 42–48), the accumulated evidence indicates that the temperature from the Paleolithic onward increased as did the humidity (though more gradually), at least during the earliest period of the cave’s occupation. Wild plant foods (fruits, nuts, edible roots, tubers, bulbs, and leaves) would have been more available than they are today, and they could have served as a buffer against resource failure. Nevertheless, according to the mammalian fauna, the gradual introduction of specimens belonging to the Caprinae family from the first centuries of the 8th millennium and the low values of other mammal species, points toward drier conditions (Trantalidou 2003, fig. 1).”

“The researchers that conducted surveys (Theocharis 1970, 1971; Sampson 1996b, 2001a), geoarchaeological investigations (Panagopoulou, Kotjabopoulou, and Karkanas 2001), and the study of lithic assemblages found Paleolithic and Mesolithic artifacts on the Sporades islands. It is worth noting that Paleolithic tools, and, more specifically, Middle Paleolithic lithic artifacts, apart from those from the Thessalian mainland, have been collected from the islands of Alonnessos, Kyra-Panagia/Hagios Petros, Youra, Gramiza, and Psathoura (Moundrea-Agrafioti 1992; Sampson 1996b). (…) during the last glacial optimum (18,000 to 16,000 B.P.), when the sea level reached 118 m below the modern one, the islands of the Sporades archipelagos were connected to the Thessalian mainland, thus forming a long arcade peninsula. (…) From their studies, the geologists and archaeologists arrived at two important conclusions: (1) during the Mesolithic and EN periods the corresponding sea level must have been 60–40 m and 40–30 m lower than it is today (Sampson 2001b, 61, using the data available from the coasts of Troy and the Pagassitikos Bay); and (2) the Northern Sporades would have a considerable number of Paleolithic and Mesolithic circumstantial occupations, but the tectonic and eustatic processes and the erosion that have taken place on the islands have affected most of the sites quite seriously.”

“It seems that prehistoric people of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods constantly frequented the same area and camped in the cave. In addition, Neolithic open-air sites are found on the islets of Gramiza, Pappous, and Psathoura, all of which had limited arable land. The important marine sources may explain why these areas were occupied.

As Powell (this vol., Ch. 3) writes, those islands lie at the edge of some of the most productive seas in Greece today, which are the Macedonian gulfs, the Thermaic Gulf, and the gulf of Chalkidiki.”

“For Youra, we cannot make a case with certainty for the exact inception of domestication, but predomestication stages are known in Europe during the Mesolithic (Bökönyi 1993). Recent studies report evidence for independent domestication of both European and Asian subspecies of the wild boar that had high levels of genetic diversity (Giuffra et al. 2000; Alves et al. 2003; Larson et al. 2005; Scandura et al. 2008). The molecular data clearly indicate an introduction of domestic pigs of Near Eastern ancestry by the 6th millenium B.C. and show that the Near Eastern haplotypes dispersed along both a northern Danubian route and a southern Mediterranean route into Europe (Larson et al. 2007).

At the same time, other approaches show that domestic pigs of European origin replaced indigenous Near Eastern domestic pigs in Armenia by at least the 7th century B.C. It is also confirmed that during the same period a similar process took place in southwestern Anatolia. This suggests that the turnover from domestic pigs of Near Eastern origin to those of European origin was not restricted to the Caucasus area, but was probably widespread through the Near East by the end of the Iron Age

“We cannot rule out the possibility that domestic animals appeared in an aceramic period, perhaps in a Mesolithic context. Certainly the use of the terminology Mesolithic or Neolithic is a cultural one rather than economic. The process of domestication was multidimensional; it is a cultural manipulation (Hecker 1982) adopted as an alternative strategy independently of the soil quality, precipitation, and climate (Raish 1992, 1). Domestication was an important conditioning factor for the stability and the difference in duration of the pre-state farming period (Raish 1992). I think that the need for animal proteins in lean times compelled the fishermen to introduce a form of live-storage. It is difficult, however, to study the dietary contribution of mammals versus other edible tissues, not only because the relationship between body mass and skeletal dimensions is not linear, but also because we were not able to study indicative human groups using observations from habitation floors. What we can determine is that sheep reached the island at the beginning of the 8th millennium B.C. Goats were also captured, removed from their natural living habitats, transported, kept on the island, and killed at the appropriate time. (…) It is possible that domestic caprids were transported in the Mesolithic to various parts of Greece that had easier contact with Anatolia. It does not seem to be a fortuitous event. Fishermen seem to have adopted a cultural behavior based on the demands and constraints of the environment that influenced the human exploitation. Other hunting groups on the peninsula gradually adopted the same behavior. At Theopetra, for instance, the Mesolithic faunal assemblage was dominated by ovicaprids, constituting 44% of the total. It also seems, as is evident on Youra as well, that the inhabitants killed animals at a younger age than they would have been had they died of natural causes (Newton 2003a, 201). At Franchthi, hunted fauna and fauna derived from fishing dominated the Mesolithic assemblages. Sheep and goats were present in the Aceramic Neolithic, that is after 7000 B.C., totaling more than 90% of the assemblage (Payne 1975, 129).

As occurred in other parts of the world, sheep and goat herding was selectively adopted and practiced by some communities and not by others who continued the traditional hunter-gather mode of living (Perlès 2001; 2003, 84, discusses the different social and economic structure of communities in the Peloponnese during the EN). (…) At Maroulas, a 9th millennium Mesolithic site, caprids do not exist at all (Trantalidou, forthcoming). The Mesolithic sequence at the Cave of the Cyclops was defined by evidence of the chipped stone industry and radiometric dates. The 9th millennium deposits had very few flint artifacts and pig bones, and they contained no caprin remains. Goats appear at the very beginning of the 8th millennium. Apparently there was interaction between Neolithic communities and a progressive transfer of ideas and techniques. (…) The island culture of Youra, at least in the Mesolithic, can be seen as an important stage in the transition from fishing, hunting, and gathering to animal domestication and agriculture in the Balkans. Relating to this, Thessaly provides a large number of Neolithic sites, and perhaps this is not fortuitous.”

Mesolithic settlement at Kythnos

Reearch-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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: