Evidence for Mesolithic maritime connectivity between the inhabitants of Crete and the Cyclades – Implications of the findings

In this post one can read about some very interesting Archaeological findings from the island of Crete, Greece.

The beach of Livari on the island of Crete

From the paper titled “Obsidian Consumption in the Late Pleistocene – Early Holocene Aegean: Contextualising New Data from Mesolithic Crete”, by Tristan Carter (2016), we read:

“there are now a number of Late Pleistocene – Early Holocene sites in the Aegean whose lithic assemblages include obsidian (Kaczanowksa and Kozlowski 2013). Secondly, some of these sites are insular –including Cycladic –villages and/or campsites that date back to at least the Lower Mesolithic of the ninth millennium cal BC (Sampson 2014).”

“Until quite recently, Crete –the fifth largest island of the Mediterranean –was thought to have remained unoccupied until the foundation of an Initial Neolithic (IN) village at Knossos by migrant Anatolian farmers around 7000 cal BC (Broodbank and Strasser 1991; Cherry 1981, 43; Evans 1994). This late colonisation model was challenged in 2008 with the purported discovery of Mesolithic sites on the island’s southern coast at Moni Kapsa and Plakias, an argument based on their stone tool assemblages closely resembling those from well-dated stratigraphic contexts on the Greek mainland (Galanidou 2011, 224; Strasser et al. 2010). One of these Plakias region sites –Damnoni –has since been excavated (Strasser 2012). The material discussed in this paper comes from Livari Skiadi (hereafter Livari) on Crete’s south-eastern coast. (…) The claim that Livari was a site of Early Holocene occupation is based primarily on a distinctive component of its chipped-stone assemblage. Unfortunately these finds all come from secondary contexts intermixed with Bronze Age burial material, derived from thin remnant Holocene soil deposits that were protected from erosion by the rockshelter and tombs. The entire lithic assemblage from the excavation totals 469 pieces, 251 of which are claimed to be Mesolithic based on their techno-typological characteristics, raw materials, nature of retouch and site-distribution. In 2014 another 20 artefacts of Mesolithic type were collected from within a 20 m radius of the excavation area. (…) While the claim for Early Holocene activity is based mainly on the character of its chipped-stone assemblage, it is also important to note that Livari fits the Aegean Mesolithic site-location model forwarded by Runnels (2009, 60–2) at the ‘intersection of woodland and aquatic habitats’. The rockshelter offered protection from the strong north winds, with a nearby spring and small caves in the gorge, while the Early Holocene coastline was only c.1.5km to the south. This coastal wetland plain would have provided a perennial water supply and a rich array of animals, plants, and marine resources for hunter-fisher-gatherer subsistence, a setting directly comparable to the ‘foraging coastscapes’ (Broodbank 2006, 211) enjoyed by the well-documented Mesolithic populations of the southern Argolid (Runnels 2009).”

“The Livari material has much to compare with Franchthi’s Lower–Final Mesolithic assemblages from lithic Phases VII–IX, strata that span 8500–7000 cal BC (Perlès 2001, table 2.1). These assemblages are similarly microlithic and dominated by flakes (95%) struck from small pebble cores, with notches/denticulates the most common tools, followed by flakes with simple linear retouch, scrapers, backed pieces, and geometrics inter alia (Perlès 1990b,23–93, figs. 5–8, 13–19, 21–2). The Livari material also includes proportionally more bladelets than at Franchthi VII–IX (12% v. 4–5%), and instances of inverse retouch (33% v. 17%); these are both features more characteristic of Final Palaeolithic assemblages (Perlès 1987), i.e. the Livari material is potentially of earlier Mesolithic date (Phase VII in Franchthi terms).

While strong links can be established with the Franchthi lithics, Livari is ultimately better viewed as part of the ‘early Holocene Aegean island lithic tradition’ as defined by Sampson, Kaczanowksa and Kozlowski (2010, 68–9) through reference to excavated material from Maroulas on Kythnos in the Cyclades (early–mid ninth millennium BC), the Cave of the Cyclops on Youra in the Sporades (c.8600–7800 BC), and Kerame 1 on Ikaria in the northern Aegean (Sampson 2008; Sampson, Kaczanowksa and Kozlowski 2010, 2012). These assemblages are again flake-dominated, with denticulates, notches, perforators, scrapers and backed pieces, but have few opposed platform cores compared with mainland sites (n = 3/11 at Livari). The Cyclops Cave aside, these insular assemblages also have notable quantities of ‘spines’, which is a further distinction from the Franchthi material.”

“The raw materials under consideration come from the three Aegean islands where obsidian occurs naturally, namely Melos and Antiparos in the Cyclades, and Giali in the Dodecanese (Renfrew, Cann and Dixon 1965). The two Melian sources of Sta Nychia (Adhamas) and Dhemenegaki provided the most important raw materials for prehistoric tool production, first exploited by Upper Palaeolithic populations of the Greek mainland, thereafter circulating throughout the Aegean, and well represented on Cretan sites from the earliest Neolithic (Carter 2009, 202–4).”

“A major recent development in the field concerns alleged earlier Palaeolithic activity in the Aegean Basin (Runnels 2014). The only claimed use of obsidian during this period comes from Melos itself, namely a biface from a surface assemblage from Triadon Bay, while similar items are also reported from the Sta Nychia source (Runnels 2014, 217; see also Chelidonio 2001). Given that this is all surface material, it remains to be proved that Melian obsidian was being exploited in the Middle Pleistocene.

The earliest well-dated evidence for the use of these resources comes from Upper Palaeolithic contexts on the Greek mainland, specifically an artefact from a Late Pleistocene stratum in the Schisto Cave in Attica dated by an obsidian hydration method to 14,539 ±1280 BP (Laskaris et al.2011, 2477,table I; Mavridis et al.2013, 253). A larger assemblage is published from the Franchthi Cave, whose oldest securely dated material comes from the eleventh millennium cal BC, lithic phase VI (Perlès 1987, 142–3). Obsidian is in fact reported from strata extending back to the Middle Palaeolithic at Franchthi; however, in each of these instances the material was believed to be intrusive from later levels. These 12 obsidian artefacts (three retouched), constitute a mere <1% of the total lithic phase VI assemblage (Perlès 1987, 142–3). Three pieces of obsidian were sourced to Sta Nychia, though it should be noted that they were irradiated together, with the resultant data a blended chemical signature of the three (Renfrew and Aspinall 1990, 263–4). While an unconventional analytical process (they were too small to analyse individually), the source assignation seems accurate given the high yttrium value (Renfrew and Aspinall 1990, table XLI).

Tiny quantities of obsidian are also reported from throughout the Early Upper Palaeolithic – Mesolithic sequence of another Argive site, the Ulbrich Cave. Unfortunately, the 1920s excavation has never been published fully and there are concerns that obsidian from early strata were intrusive (Galanidou 2003, 108–9). Finally, we might note that preliminary reports of the Klisoura Cave excavations mentioned a piece of obsidian from an Early Upper Palaeolithic stratum of the twentieth millennium BP (Koumouzelis et al. 2001, 524–5, tables 1 and 4); this piece is now believed to have come from a deposit with intrusive Mesolithic material (J. Kozlowski, pers. Comm.).

Mainland hunter-gatherers continued to procure Melian obsidian into the Mesolithic (ninth–eighth millennia cal BC), as evidenced at the Franchthi, Ulbrich, Klisoura 1 and Schisto caves.”

“It is when we turn to insular populations of the Cyclades, Sporades and northern Aegean that we find evidence for the procurement and working of significantly larger quantities of obsidian at this time. At the Lower Mesolithic village of Maroulas on Kythnos obsidian represented almost a third (31%) of the chipped-stone assemblage, the material imported as raw or part-decorticated nodules and worked on site (Kaczanowksa and Kozlowski 2013, 21). At Kerame 1 on Ikaria, Melian obsidian comprised a quarter of the Lower Mesolithic assemblage, while the distinctive white spotted obsidian from Giali constituted a further 15% (Sampson, Kaczanowksa and Kozlowski 2012, 19–20, fig. 13). In contrast to Maroulas, the inhabitants of Kerame 1 imported largely decorticated nodules, rather than unmodified raw materials. Two obsidian artefacts from this assemblage were sourced to Melos, and hydration dated to 11085 ± 3282 and 10152 ± 1643 BP (Laskaris et al.2011). To the north, the Cyclops Cave on Youra in the Sporades generated 15 pieces of obsidian from its Lower Mesolithic sequence, some 8% of the chipped stone, a mix of knapping debris and end products (blades), with just over half the artefacts (n = 8) retouched into formal tools (Kaczanowksa and Kozlowski 2008, 170, tables 8.1–8.2). Obsidian hydration dates from three of the Cyclops Cave artefacts spanned 10968 ±64012017 ±1875 BP (Laskaris et al. 2011). Finally, we have the Livari data, the first such material from Early Holocene Crete. Here obsidian comprises a tiny proportion of the site’s chipped stone, proportionally comparable to that from the mainland assemblages of Franchthi VII and the Klisoura Cave.”

The locational influence upon raw material consumption patterns is of great interest given previous claims for differences in knapping traditions between insular and continental Mesolithic populations. Here we return to the alleged existence of an ‘early Holocene Aegean island lithic tradition’, as defined by Sampson, Kaczanowksa and Kozlowski (2010, 68–9), who juxtaposed the assemblages of the Cyclops Cave, Maroulas and Kerame 1 with that of the Franchthi Cave. While differences certainly exist between these sites’ assemblages, as for example between their respective core technologies and tool-types, the distinction between island-based and mainland assemblages is perhaps not as clear-cut as originally suggested. Moreover, these may be false dichotomies if the inference is that different traditions represent different populations.”

“One final important point to take from this study is that the Livari obsidian provides the first evidence for pre-Neolithic maritime connectivity between the inhabitants of Crete and the Cyclades.”

From the paper titled “The Cretan Mesolithic in context: new data from Livari Skiadi (SE Crete)”, by Tristan Carter et al. (2016)

“The existence of a Cretan Mesolithic was first claimed via the publication of stone tools from surveys at Moni Kapsa and Plakias on the southern coast (Galanidou 2011.224; Strasser et al. 2010); one of the latter sites, Damnoni, having since been excavated (Strasser et al. 2015).”

“The evidential basis of Livari’s Mesolithic occupation is comprised primarily of chipped stone artefacts. (…) While our claim for early Holocene activity is constituted primarily on the quintessentially Mesolithic character of its chipped stone, Livari also fits the Aegean Mesolithic site-location model forwarded by Runnels (2009, 60–62) at the “intersection of woodland and aquatic habitats”. (…) While strong links can be established with the Franchthi lithics, Livari is ultimately better viewed as part of the ‘early Holocene Aegean Island lithic tradition’ (…) The Livari Mesolithic lithics provide further proof of overseas connections through the presence of four pieces of obsidian (n = 4/251, 1.6%) which were characterised by energy- dispersive x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy as being products of the Sta Nychia source on Melos, 235km away in the Cyclades (Carter 2016).”

From the paper titled “Obsidian circulation in the early Holocene Aegean: A case study from Mesolithic Damnoni (SW Crete)”, by Tristan Carter et al. (2018)

“(Abstract) Excavation at the Mesolithic site of Damnoni in southwest Crete generated nine tools made of obsidian, a raw material foreign to the island. This study characterises these artefacts’ raw material via elemental analyses and their techno-typological nature. These data when located within a broader consideration of the larger Damnoni chipped stone assemblage and the consumption of obsidian at other Mesolithic sites of the larger region enables us to further develop our understanding of maritime activity and hunter-gatherer interaction in the Early Holocene Aegean. Using energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy the obsidian is shown to be Melian, primarily from Sta Nychia, in keeping with Aegean Mesolithic procurement habits more generally. The artefacts were accessed in the form of ready-made tools, likely via exchange with intermediaries, the procurement of such exotic pieces conceivably serving to both maintain and reproduce social relations and cultural traditions at distance.”

“Obsidian is clearly exotic and represented by only nine artefacts, a mere 0.2% of the Damnoni chipped stone assemblage. This raw material is foreign to Crete, with the closest sources located c. 170–290 km linear distance to the north/north-east in the Cycladic and Dodecanesian islands. (…) With only a minority of the artefacts measuring over 2.5 cm long, the Damnoni assemblage can be characterised as microlithic. Over a third of this material was deliberately modified (34.3%). The most common tools were ‘spines’, i.e. pointed tools used as borer/perforators or drills, followed by pieces with simple linear retouch, then notches, composite tools, denticulates, scrapers, geometric microliths (mainly trapezes), burins, and backed pieces amongst others. Notable is the use of inverse retouch, recorded on 41.5% of the modified pieces; this is a characteristically Mesolithic mode of modification (cf. Perlès, 1990: doc. II.11; see also Carter et al., 2016a: 90). (…) The closest parallels for the Damnoni material come from other recently reported Mesolithic sites on Crete. These include surface collections from elsewhere in the Plakias region (Strasser et al., 2010: 163–71, Table 2), together with the site of Moni Kapsa further eastward along the southern coast (Fig. 1 [Galanidou, 2011, 224]). (…) Livari, as with Damnoni and Moni Kapsa, is another site located in front of a rockshelter, its Mesolithic occupation discovered during the excavation of a Bronze Age burial ground. (…) When we take a broader view of the Damnoni material, the assemblage can be situated within the “early Holocene Aegean island lithic tradition”, as defined by Sampson et al. (2010: 68-9) through reference to material from Maroulas on Kythnos in the Cyclades (early mid 9th millennium BC), the Cave of the Cyclops on Youra in the Sporades (c. 8600–7800 BCE), and Kerame 1 on Ikaria in the northern Aegean (Sampson, 2008; Sampson et al., 2010, 2012). The chipped stone from these sites are similarly flake-dominated, with denticulates, notches, spines, scrapers, and backed pieces.”

“one can make a brief reference to two recently published assemblages from western Anatolia that bear some resemblance to the Damnoni and other aforementioned data-sets, and by extent the possible eastern extension of an ‘Aegean Mesolithic’ techno-cultural tradition. Late 9th/early 8th millennia BC deposits from the Girmeler Cave in SW Turkey contained yet another percussion-knapped flakebased assemblage, including multidirectional cores and tools such as perforators and scrapers (Takaoğlu et al., 2014: 112–114, Fig. 6). In turn, a survey of the Karaburun Peninsula – opposite the eastern Aegean island of Chios – recovered a flake-based flint assemblage including scrapers and notches that are claimed to be analogous to Aegean Mesolithic material

“In many respects the Damnoni obsidian is comparable to that from Livari, the one other (accidentally) excavated Mesolithic site on Crete situated some 160 km east. In both instances the material comprises a tiny proportion of the larger chipped stone assemblages, 1.6% at Livari compared to Damnoni’s 0.2%. Secondly, both sets of artefacts comprise tools that were brought to the sites ready-made. The absence of true raw materials and/or manufacturing debris at both sites suggests that members of these two hunter-gatherer groups either made the tools elsewhere on their seasonal travels or procured the implements ready-made from intermediaries.”

From the paper titled “The significance of an Aegean insular Mesolithic to processes of Neolithisation”, by Tristan Carter (2019)

“(Abstract) This paper reviews the evidence for Mesolithic activity amongst the islands of the Aegean, including the new sites of Livari and Damnoni on Crete, and considers these data’s significance concerning long-held views on the processes of neolithisation in the region. It is argued that these new data now suggest that (a) migrant seaborne farmers moving into the Aegean from Anatolia would not have traversed an uninhabited land- and seascape; (b) there is robust evidence for pre-Neolithic, pan-Aegean, interaction networks as attested by the circulation of Melian obsidian and common lithic traditions (from Crete to western Anatolia); (c) knowledge of these maritime routes would have been employed by migrant farmers; they were not navigating unknown waters; (d) the chipped stone assemblage of Initial Neolithic Knossos reflects forager-farmer interaction, indicating that while the earliest agro-pastoral regime was based on the introduction of foreign domesticates, this was not a colonisation of ‘virgin territory’, and the agency and influence of indigenous hunter-gatherers must be taken into consideration when considering the character of earliest Neolithic Crete. “

Damnoni beach near the village of Plakias on the island of Crete

NovoScriptorium: As our more regular readers already know, we do not agree with the concept of ‘massive migrations of eastern populations’ towards the Neolithic Aegean. The soundly notable changes in everyday life that occurred during the Neolithic in the Greek peninsula, the Aegean and, of course, Crete appears to be more an event where the local, indigenous populations adopted new ideas from the East rather than a ‘colonization’ of the above territories from Eastern populations. There is plenty of Archaeological proof at the moment that the so-called “local traditions” in the above territories persisted for some considerable time together with the “Neolithic innovations”. We can all think of many modern analogies, where the “everyday culture” of the inhabitants of a given place change radically (due to advances of Technology, for example) while the population itself remains practically the same.

Slowly but steadily during the last 20 years, another pattern emerges:

-The Aegean is a quite a difficult sea to navigate. On the other hand, the existence of thousands of small islands in close distances from one another makes it an ideal place for Man to be trained in seafaring. This is exactly what appears to have been the case. Already since the Palaeolithic era there is abundant evidence of seafaring in the Aegean. There is nothing to prevent us from suggesting that there had been a relatively continuous evolution of the navigational capabilities of the inhabitants of the region for millennia. There is now enough evidence (and hopefully there will be plenty more in the future) to support the idea that reaching the Mesolithic era, the Aegeans were already very capable navigators, having organized a contact/Trade network all over the Aegean, the Greek mainland and the western coasts of Asia Minor. Indirectly, it appears that they must have also had capable enough boats/ships for open-sea navigation. Very important: there is now archaeological evidence that they had reached Cyprus (Nissi Beach) during the same era. 

-What is valid for the morphology and the opportunities for learning navigation the Aegean offers is not valid for any other part of the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, it comes as no surprise that there is no proof -so far- that others than the Aegeans were capable navigators during the Mesolithic or the Neolithic around the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, if something would make sense is that the Aegeans travelled towards the lands were the “Neolithic package” is believed to have emerged and brought back the innovations they considered more convenient for their lives. Of course, it may not be excluded -on the contrary, it is much expected if not absolutely certain– that they brought some migrants from the East back in the Aegean to help them in the first phase of Neolithization. But it must be refuted, as it contradicts both Logic and the Archaeological record, that there had been some “massive population replacement” or a “massive migration of Eastern populations” in the Aegean during the discussed epoch.

Greek Mythology, the surviving written Tradition of the indigenous populations of the area under discussion, is categoric that there had never been a “massive population replacement” in Greece and the Aegean. It does inform us though of:

a) Aegean movements/expeditions towards every part of the Mediterranean, Anatolia and Europe

b) mingling between Aegeans and other populations that occurred away from the Aegean

c) population movements from Anatolia towards the Aegean and mingling with the locals

All the above have been confirmed by Modern Science to a greater or lesser degree. 

For those unfamiliar with our original type of Research, we suggest a read of some of our previous relative posts: 1234567891011121314, 15, 16.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides, Isidoros Aggelos


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