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Akrotiri - Early Aceramic Periods (9,500 - Late 8th century BC)

Akrotiri phase - 9,500 -9,000 BC

Early Aceramic phase - 8,200 - Late 8th century BC)

Overview of periods: Although there are no materials from these periods in the Bryn Mawr Collections, this page gives a detailed overview of the earliest prehistory of Cyprus. The article below was written by Nicholas Blackwell as an answer to part of a Ph.D. preliminary examination on 3/23/2006. If you have any questions concerning this answer please contact me at

Developments in Cypriote Archaeology in the past 20 years: The Akrotiri and Early Aceramic Phases (click for important bibliography)

 Our understanding of the earliest prehistory of Cyprus has dramatically changed over the past 20 years. Up until the late 1980s, the earliest evidence of human activity on Cyprus was thought to be the Aceramic Neolithic or the Khirokitia culture that lasted roughly from 7000-5000 BC. This Khirokitia culture appeared fully developed and there were no signs of earlier, developmental stages on the island. Even more perplexing was the fact that the Aceramic Neolithic on Cyprus differed greatly from other contemporary societies in Anatolia and the Levant, showing no signs of contact. John Cherry explored this problem in an article that examined the earliest colonization of the Mediterranean islands (1). Many other islands in addition to Cyprus demonstrated settlement only in the Neolithic period, but those islands that did have pre-Neolithic activity were typically thought to have been connected to a mainland at the end of the Pleistocene era. Geologically, Cyprus was formed from the ocean bed and was never connected with the mainland, meaning that any animals or humans that arrived on the island had to cross a body of water and could not have used a land bridge. With this in mind, Cherry used a bio-geographical model to suggest that there must have been earlier human activity on the Mediterranean islands, but that due to the insular and fragile environment of an island, hunter-gather settlements could not have survived long term. In the lack of continual subsistence provided by agriculture or external contact with the mainland, hunter-gather communities were more likely to have traveled periodically to specific places for hunting or grazing grounds while keeping a home base on the mainland. Cherry cited ethnographic examples of the high mobility of hunter-gather groups and also pointed to evidence of human sea travel in the Mesolithic period as documented by Melian obsidian in the Francthi Cave in the Argolid. In his study of the islands, Cherry noticed a different colonization pattern in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean and argued that the two most important factors determining colonization in the east was the size of the island and the remoteness of that island to the mainland.

Cherry’s article almost twenty-five years ago seems to have anticipated the recent discoveries on Cyprus and we should remember his article in trying to interpret the new evidence. In the recent book entitled Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus: From Colonization to Exploitation, new evidence of human activity on the island from the Epi-Paleolithic through the Aceramic Neolithic is presented. Two new periods of activity on the island have been determined to predate the Khirokitia culture. The earliest evidence of human activity comes from Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, a site on the south central coast of Cyprus at the very tip of the Akrotiri peninsula. The site was excavated by Alan Simmons and provides a date around 9,500 BC for human activity. This date is contemporary with the Nautufian period in the Levant as well as the Epi-Paleolithic; it documents humans on the island at the Pleistocene/ Holocene interface. Akrotiri is a cave shelter at the top of a cliff, about 50 meters above sea level. There were 4 strata inside the shelter, two with cultural remains. The lowest stratum, level 4, was found on a clean bedrock and was a mix of animal bones and ashy material. There were about 300,000 animal bones found at Akrotiri and 99% of the remains came from level 4. The majority of the remains were pygmy hippopotami bones; the minimum number of hippopotami was over 500. David Reece also found 220+ fragments of pygmy elephants. 29% of the bones had evidence of burning. Above level 4, was a strata of sterile sand in level 3. Above level 3, in level 2 there was another layer of human cultural remains such as stone tools, shell ornaments, picrolite ornaments with about 3,000 (only 1% of the total number) animal bones of pygmy hippopotami, marine life such as shellfish and aquatic birds. Simmons has argued that based on similar radiocarbon dates for levels 2 and 4, that the two layers are contemporary, meaning that the materials documenting human activity should be connected with the faunal remains. This suggestion has not been accepted by many people who see a clear chronological gap between the faunal remains and the human activity. Critics argue that there has been mixing of the strata so that there were some bones in level 2 and they also point to the fact that the bones do not have cut marks.


Simmons' 1999 publication. (cover)


Location of Akrotiri.Picture from Simmons 2001, pg 2

View of the Akrotiri cliff with Aetokremnos in view. Picture from Simmons 2001, pg 4.




View of location of Akrotiri-Aetokremnos cave.

Click for website source of this picture.

The issue of Akrotiri is extremely important as it may document human interaction with Pleistocene fauna and may have even contributed to the extinction of such animals. The animals must have crossed the body of water either on driftwood or by swimming. The latter option is more likely for the hippopotami . Some argue that the hippopotami are very good swimmers and must have crossed the sea at their normal size. However due to a limited gene pool, known as the founder’s principle, the hippopotami eventually became smaller to their pygmy size. Muhly has difficulty imagining the pygmy hippopotami swimming across the water, but this is a topic that is still not fully understood (2). Simmons notes that the shelter could not have been a mass die site, as the fauna do not represent ill or elderly individuals. Bones from entire carcasses are represented suggesting that the site was a meat processing center. The shelter would not have been a kill site, as Simmons imagines the actual hunting to have occurred around the salt lake of the Akrotiri peninsula. Pointing to ethnographic evidence, Simmons argues that cut marks are not necessary for the butchering of animals, especially if thumbnail scrappers are used as is documented at the site. I think that Simmons is right in interpreting the interaction of the humans and the Pleistocene fauna, since it does not make sense for that many animal remains to have accumulated at one site at the top of a cliff. If there is no association of the humans and animals, one needs to explain the coincidence of human activity in level 2 in a small cave shelter where there were massive amounts of animal remains from level 4 that were presumably covered and unseen by strata 3.

Another issue of Akrotiri is the nature of the human activity. Was it a settlement that was aborted and failed or was it a seasonal site used for the processing of meat? Cherry suggested that hunter-gathers were mobile and could have traveled long distances to take advantage of hunting grounds. I think that this is what Akrotiri represents; a sporadic exploitation by hunter-gather groups for the resources of the island. Simmons suggests that the site represents a full time “occupation”, a point that is challenged by Ammermann. Simmons notes that the amount of meat from the hippopotami would have supported 44 people, which is enough food to sustain a small-hunter gather settlement. Simmons also points to the shell and picrolite objects found in the shelter as evidence that the Akrotiri humans were familiar with their surroundings and had at least explored the entire Akrotiri peninsula. Muhly rejects the idea of seasonal use and thinks that the massive number of animal bones implies full time use of the site.

Muhly argues that the dearth of archaeological evidence to support extended usage and settlement is the result of the nature of the archaeological record and will be changed and updated with new discoveries.However, if we look to the stratigraphy of the shelter, we can see at least two periods of activity in levels 2 and 4. Simmons stressed that these were contemporary, however he did not discuss the meaning behind two periods of activity even if close in date. I think that this is evidence for sporadic activity and use of the site. The accumulation of most of the bones in level 4 must have resulted from seasonal activity and then there was a period of abandonment when the fauna declined in number. There may have been a longer period of inactivity, during which strata 3 of sand accumulated; finally there was one last period of activity represented in level 2. However the number of pygmy hippopotami were so small that they had almost become extinct forcing the humans to search for new sources of food such as the marine life and the aquatic birds. Because of this evidence I think that the Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus was incorrectly titled to use From Colonization to Exploitation. In fact the earliest evidence of the Akrotiri phase seems to be more of exploitation than long-term settlement. Such a theory may be supported by recent work by A. Ammerman who has identified pre-Neolithic sites at Nissi Beach at Ayia Napa and on the Aspro water causeway in the Akamas. These sites are defined by lithic scatters on aeolianite (cemented sand dunes) beaches. Ammerman thinks that the reductive technology of the lithics does not parallel evidence from the Aceramic Neolithic and so he thinks that it predates the Aceramic Neolithic, maybe paralleling the Akrotiri phase. Ammerman does not have any radiocarbon dates at this point and his work should be treated with caution. However, he sees constant voyages and surveys of the island at this early phase and on this point I think that he is correct. Akrotiri could not have been the only site reached by humans in the Epi-Paleolithic. Survey and reconnaissance of the island would have been necessary to locate Akrotiri and the location of the herds. Hopefully, new evidence will appear in the future that will help us put Akrotiri in a fuller context.

After this period, known as the Akrotiri phase, there is a chronological gap of about 1000 years. New evidence has come to light recently that identifies an Aceramic Neolithic culture predating the Khirokitia phase. This new period is represented by negative architecture with pot holes and cuttings into the havara bedrock and is attested at five sites: Parekklisha-Shillourokambos, Kissonerga-Mylouthkia, Kalavasos-Tenta (level 5), Akanthou, Asprokambos. These sites demonstrate a preoccupation with wells and cuttings in the bedrock to access underground water channels. The material evidence has strong parallels with the Levant and is seen as a PPNB culture. Early farming communities migrated to Cyprus during this period and introduced domestic plants and animals. Analysis of plants from these sites has strong parallels with Anatolia and the Near East, however a specific origin location cannot be identified (Hansen 2001). The lithic tools from these sites are the same as those in the Levant and there is also evidence of an emphasis on skulls at these sites. Kissonerga- Mylouthkia yielded skulls in a well that showed cranial deformation suggesting parallels of skull treatment with PPNB Levant societies. A large amount of obsidian from these sites also suggests of overseas contact, most likely with Anatolia. One of the most important aspects of this period is the introduction of cattle, a phenomenon that was previously thought to first occur in the Early Bronze Age. Cattle are non-existent in the Khirokitia culture and one can argue that the cattle became extinct in the later Aceramic Neolithic due to a lack of external contact with the mainland. Scholarship now defines this earlier phase of the Neolithic as the Early Aceramic Neolithic and the Khirokitia culture is now thought of as the Late Aceramic Neolithic. At this point, it is unclear of the continuity between the Early and Late Aceramic Neolithic. Evidence at Kalavasos-Tenta level 5 may suggest some sort of continuity (Todd 2001). At any rate, the Early Aceramic phase can now be seen a precursor to the Khirokitia culture. One no longer has to imagine this culture as having no precedents.

Numerous cuts in the bedrock at Parekklisha-Shillourokambos.

Picture from Guilaine and Briois 2001, pg 42.

It is better to think of the Early Aceramic Neolithic as a “colony” or initial settlement of the island and the Akrotiri phase as exploiting the island’s resources. Muhly cautions that we must not use the word “colony” for initial settlements, reminding us that the vocabulary that we use has significant connotations and must be used very wisely and cautiously. Since a 1000 year gap separates the exploitation phase and the initial settlement, I do not think there is any way to associate the Akrotiri and Early Aceramic phase except that both periods were only recently recognized. One phase represents exploration of the island and its resources with no intention of settlement (in my opinion) while the other demonstrates long term settlement with domesticated plants and animals.

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Relevant bibliography:

Ammerman, A. and J. Stratton Noller. 2005. "New Light on Aetokremnos," World Archaeology 37:4, 533-543.

Ammerman, A. "New Evidence for Pre-Neolithic Sites on Cyprus." Paper delivered on November 17, 2006 at the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting held in Philadelphia, PA.

Bar-Yosef, O. 2001. "The World Around Cyprus: From Epi-Paleolithic Foragers to the Collapse of the PPNB Civilization," in The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus: From Colonization to Exploitation. Ed. S. Swiny. CAARI Monograph Series, Volume 2. Boston, MA: American School of Oriental Research, 129-164.

Cherry, J. 1984. "The Initial Colonisation of the West Mediterranean Islands in the Light of Island Biogeography and Palaeogeography," in The Deya Conference of Prehistory: Early Settlement in the Western Mediterranean Islands and the Peripheral Areas. Eds. Waldren, William H., et al. BAR, Oxford. p. 7-23.

Guilaine, J. and F. Briois. 2001. "Parekklisha Shillourokambos: An Early Neolithic Site in Cyprus," in The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus: From Colonization to Exploitation. Ed. S. Swiny. CAARI Monograph Series, Volume 2. Boston, MA: American School of Oriental Research, 37-53.

Hansen, J. 2001. "Aceramic Neolithic Plant Remains in Cyprus: Clues to their Origins?" in The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus: From Colonization to Exploitation. Ed. S. Swiny. CAARI Monograph Series, Volume 2. Boston, MA: American School of Oriental Research, 119-128.

Muhly, J. 2005. Review of L. Steel's Cyprus before History. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.83. Click here for link to the review!

Peltenburg, E. et al. 2001. "Well-Established Colonists: Mylouthkia 1 and the Cypro-Pre-Pottery Neolithic B," in The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus: From Colonization to Exploitation. Ed. S. Swiny. CAARI Monograph Series, Volume 2. Boston, MA: American School of Oriental Research, 61-93.

Reese, D. 2001. "Some Comments on the Akrotiri Aetokremnos Fauna," in The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus: From Colonization to Exploitation. Ed. S. Swiny. CAARI Monograph Series, Volume 2. Boston, MA: American School of Oriental Research, 19-36.

Simmons, A. 1991. “Humans, island colonization and Pleistocene extinctions in the Mediterranean: the view from Akrotiri Aetokremnos, Cyprus.” Antiquity 65, 857-869.

1999. Faunal extinction in an island society : pygmy hippopotamus hunters of Cyprus. New York : Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

2001. "The First Humans and Last Pygmy Hippopotami of Cyprus," in The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus: From Colonization to Exploitation. Ed. S. Swiny. CAARI Monograph Series, Volume 2. Boston, MA: American School of Oriental Research, 1-18.

Steel, L. 2004. Cyprus before History. From the Earliest Settlers to the End of the Bronze Age. London: Duckworth.

Todd, I. 2001. "Kalavasos Tenta Revisted," in The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus: From Colonization to Exploitation. Ed. S. Swiny. CAARI Monograph Series, Volume 2. Boston, MA: American School of Oriental Research, 95-107.