BMCR 2011.10.49

The Cave of the Cyclops: Mesolithic and Neolithic Networks in the Northern Aegean, Greece

, The Cave of the Cyclops: Mesolithic and Neolithic Networks in the Northern Aegean, Greece. Vol. II: Bone Tool Industries, Dietary Resources and the Paleoenvironment, and Archeometrical Studies. Prehistory monographs, 31. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press, 2011. xviii + 395. ISBN 9781931534598. $80.00.

[Chapters and contributors listed at the end of the review]

The volume under review is the second of two (the first appeared in 20081) reporting on excavations at the Cave of the Cyclops, on the island of Youra in the Northern Sporades. This site is very important for the Mesolithic and the Neolithic in the Aegean, as well as seafaring and island archaeology. In the first volume, Sampson argued that the faunal evidence from the Cave of the Cyclops supported a model of multiple and separate centers of plant and animal domestication, including the Aegean. This was one of several arguments that depended on evidence now published in this second volume. These studies collectively represent an important contribution to the study of these periods in the Aegean. This book will be worth reading for anyone interested in early Mediterranean seafaring, the Greek Mesolithic and Neolithic, and questions of neolithization generally.

The volume opens with a very brief introduction by Adamantios Sampson, the excavator and editor, summarizing each of the chapters. Since the primary purpose of this volume is to present the results of the specialist studies, there is little in the way of synthesis. However, Sampson does reiterate several points of general significance: the early presence of suids and ovicaprines on Youra, the importance of postglacial climate change in understanding Mesolithic-Neolithic transitions, and the existence of long-distance networks of contact and exchange.

Chapter One, by Antiklia Mondrea-Agrafioti, deals with the well-developed bone tool industry from the Cave of the Cyclops, which included remarkable fishhooks, in addition to other implements in bone and antler. In general terms this material confirms the testimony of the faunal remains, discussed below, regarding the importance of fishing in Aegean Mesolithic adaptations. Fishing continued in the Neolithic, using much the same technology but apparently at a much lower level of intensity. The Youra hooks themselves are non-standard in their dimensions, manufactured from the bones of animals of different sizes, and do not exhibit much typological variation or change over time. They would presumably have been appropriate for taking a wide range of species. The other bone implements, points and bipoints, may have been used directly for points for hunting or gorges for fishing. As Moundrea-Agrafioti points out, while fishhooks are known from the Paleolithic, the early appearance of this technology on Youra stands in contrast to Francthi, where, despite evidence for an early (Epipaleolithic) start on a broad-spectrum “Mesolithic” diet, there is no evidence for fishhooks before the Neolithic.

Mesolithic and Neolithic subsistence strategies receive further consideration in chapters on the faunal remains and island economy, by Katerina Trantalidou, the non-vertebral fish remains, by Judith Powell, fish vertebrae, by Dimitra Mylona, and the molluscs, by Lilian Karalis. All three chapters are clear, thorough, well illustrated with professional drawings and photographs, and engage with current literature on their respective subjects. Both faunal analysts and interested non-specialists will appreciate the tables which include individual element identifications with dimensions.

As Trantalidou shows, the faunal data from the Cave of the Cyclops document both the broad-spectrum hunting and fishing characteristic of the Mesolithic, and the appearance in the Neolithic of an economy focused at first on suids, later on caprines, a pattern which has been documented in detail on other Mediterranean islands, such as Cyprus.2 In much the same way that Neolithic settlement of Mediterranean islands can be convincingly shown to have arisen out of a Mesolithic (and earlier!) seafaring tradition, perhaps the spread of suids and caprines to offshore islands is best understood in the context of Epipaleolithic and Mesolithic animal management strategies, in which animals in the early phases of domestication were moved around by human agency—Cyprus, again, being a well-documented case.

The Lower Mesolithic pigs ( Sus scrofa) show evidence for a strong meat-based animal management strategy, with many more males culled at younger ages. Samples from subsequent levels were too small to construct age/sex mortality distributions. The sheep and goats exhibit a similar pattern, with heavy culling of male animals, and high mortality in the animals’ second or third year. Twisted horn cores gradually replaced scimitar-shaped ones starting in the Early Neolithic, providing some support for continued anthropogenic selection on the population after their introduction. This evidence is not inconsistent with evolving human-animal relationships and concomitant morphological changes from the ninth millennium onward, but how large the breeding population was at different times, and how often new animals were introduced from off island, and from where, necessarily remain open questions.

Turning to the fish, Powell’s and Mylona’s chapters confirm the importance of fishing. As at Francthi, the deposition of fish remains declined from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. Both seasonal migratory species and those present year-round were taken, and the large number of smaller fish—often underrepresented in archaeological assemblages —suggests net-fishing, in addition to the use of hooks and lines. There are some indications in the ratio of caudal to abdominal vertebrae that fish may have been processed for storage by salting, drying, or smoking, an indication of the importance of storable resources.

In addition to fish, the people of Youra exploited a variety of marine and terrestrial molluscs: over 70,000 shells were recovered from the Cave of the Cyclops. A range of species is represented, but exploitation targeted the Patellidae and Trochidae; one species, Patella aspersa, dominates from the Lower Mesolithic through the Neolithic. Clearly, shellfish were important at all times, whether as a daily addition to diet, or as a meat reserve exploited seasonally or at times of relative scarcity. It would be interesting to know whether, for example, populations of Patella aspersa were heavily exploited at some times and less intensively utilized at others. However, while Karali provides information on the absolute number of shells of the different genera for each period, she does not publish information about size variation within species which could support a preliminary investigation of human predation pressure on mollusc populations.3 Karali concludes her chapter with the few artifacts from shell: shell bracelets from Spondylus shell, which are such a feature of Neolithic assemblages across the Mediterranean and far beyond, and which Karali has previously connected with specialized craftsmanship. The Cave of the Cyclops also produced some artifacts interpreted as spoons, made mostly from Patella shells.

The environmental background to the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Greece and the Aegean is critically important, but our current understanding currently rests on too little evidence too widely extrapolated over space and time. The several lines of environmental data from the Cave of the Cyclops will help to remedy this deficiency. Chapters on palynologogy (Chryssanthi Ioakim), anthracology, (Maria Ntinou), paleobotany, (Anaya Sarpaki), radiocarbon (Yorgos Facorellis), the clastic sediments from the cave (Katie Theodorakopoulou and Yannis Bassiakos) and stable isotope analysis on mollusc shells (Androniki Drivaliari, Ioannis Liritzis, and Adamantios Sampson) all contribute to a more nuanced picture of local conditions between the ninth and fourth millennia, though readers must do most of the synthesis for themselves. Generally speaking, the environmental data presented are consistent with warmer and wetter conditions in the postglacial, or in the Lower Mesolithic. However, temperature, rainfall, transpiration, erosion, human and animal activity, and a variety of other processes all play a role in determining vegetation regimes. Regrettably, a significant part of the paleobotanical residues were lost (xxi), making this data set less useful than it would otherwise have been.

Though Konstantina Papakosta’s chapter is grouped with the archaeometric studies, I have left it to last, since it provides direct evidence for a different cultural dynamic: insularity and connectivity of Neolithic communities as attested by exchange. Papakosta has examined samples of the Neolithic pottery from the Cave of the Cyclops through ceramic petrography and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). The Early and Middle Neolithic periods are characterized by the use of locally produced fabrics, particularly a limestone tempered fabric. The manufacture of vessels in this fabric appears to be a long-lived and conservative local tradition, enduring even in the Late Neolithic, when more pyrotechnologically advanced ceramics appear. Petrographic analysis suggests many possible origins for imports, including Euboea, Samothrace, and Thessaly. Papakosta deliberately refrains from drawing too many conclusions from the ceramic evidence alone, arguing any reconstruction of complex networks of exchange should take into account as many categories of evidence as possible. It is to be hoped that such a project is, or soon will be, underway: it will add substantially to our understanding of Neolithic maritime interactions.

List of Chapters and Contributors

Part I. Tool Industries.
1. The Mesolithic and Neolithic Bone Implements, Antiklia Mondrea-Agrafioti
Part II. Dietary Resources and the Paleoenvironment
2. From Mesolithic Fishermen and Bird Hunters to Neolithic Goat Herders: The Transformation of an Island Economy in the Aegean, Katerina Trantalidou
3. Non-Vertebral Fish Bones, Judith Powell
4. Fish Vertebrae, Dimitra Mylona
5. Malacological Material, Lilian Karalis
6. Palynological Evidence, Chryssanthi Ioakim
7. Charcoal Analysis, Maria Ntinou
8. Archaeobotanical Seed Remains, Anaya Sarpaki
Part III. Archaeometrical Studies
9. Neolithic Pottery: A Characterization Study, Konstantina Papakosta
10. Sequential Radiocarbon Dating and Calculation of the Marine Reservoir Effect, Yorgos Facorellis
11. Clastic Sediments, Katie Theodorakopoulou and Yannis Bassiakos
12. Stable Isotopic Analysis of the Mollusk Shells, Androniki Drivaliari, Ioannis Liritzis, and Adamantios Sampson


1. Sampson, A. 2008. The Cave of the Cyclops: Mesolithic and Neolithic Networks in the Northern Aegean, Greece. Vol. 1, Intra-site Analysis, Local Industries, and Regional Site Distribution. Prehistory Monographs 21. Philadelphia: Institute for Aegean Prehistory Academic Press. Reviewed BMCR 2009.08.21

2. Knapp, B. 2010. Cyprus’s Earliest Prehistory: Seafarers, Foragers, and Settlers. Journal of World Prehistory 23:79-120; Vigne, J.-D., I. Carrere, and J. Guilaine. 2003. Unstable Status of Early Domestic Ungulates in the Near East: The Example of Shillourokambos (Cyprus, IXth-VIIIth Millennia cal. B.C.), pp. 239-252 in J. Guilaine and A. Le Brun, eds., Le Neolithique de Chypre (BCH supplement 43). Athens: �cole Francaise d’Athenes; Vigne, J.-D., et al. 2009. Pre-Neolithic wild boar management and introduction to Cyprus more than 11,400 years ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106.38: 16135-16138.

3. Ridout, J. 1982. The Mollusca from Agios Epiktitos-Vrysi, ch. 5, in Peltenburg E.J., Vrysi. A Subterranean Settlement in Cyprus. Warminster, 437-452.