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Early Cyprus

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

The island of what is now (and has long been known as) Cyprus may have spent much of recorded history being occupied by various major powers, but prior to that it was home to a series of archaeological cultures which chronicle the earliest attempts at settlement. According to archaeological investigation, the earliest presence on the island of anatomically modern humans dates to the period around 10,000 BC, as the most recent ice age was ending. The pre-Neolithic Akrotiri culture charts several visits by humans, but this can be hard to detect as there were no permanent settlements at that time. It is not until the Late Aceramic Neolithic's Khirokitia culture that a permanent presence was established, and even that was largely replaced by later arrivals.

In subsequent centuries, seafaring and trading peoples from the Mediterranean countries set up scattered settlements along the coast. By the Bronze Age in Europe, Cypriots had an advanced, Indo-European civilisation which had a written language. The first Mycenaean colony is believed to have been founded by traders from Arcadia about 1400 BC, but Mycenaean culture appeared at least two centuries before that. The recorded history of Cyprus began with occupation of part of the island by Egypt and then the foundation of the kingdom of Alashiya.

Khirokitia inhabitation on Cyprus

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Digging up the Tombs of the Kings, Sophocles Hadjisavvas (2014), from Ancient Israel and Its Neighbours: Interaction and Counteraction. Collected Essays Vol 1, Nadav Na'aman, from The Cambridge Ancient History, edited by I E S Edwards, from Civil-military relations, nation building, and national identity: comparative perspectives, Constantine Panos Danopoulos (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004), from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), and from External Links: Encyclopędia Britannica, and History Extra, and World Statesmen.)

c.10,000 BC

Hunter-gatherers become active on the island, especially at two pre-Neolithic sites at Nissi Beach, at Ayia Napa, and on the Aspro water causeway in the Akamas. They probably reach Cyprus from the coast of the Levant, although this is disputed. There are two dominant cultures there at this time, with the older Natufian in the process of being overlapped and replaced by the Khiamian.

It is quite possible that these arrivals bring with them domesticated animals, and perhaps even a few wild ones, such as foxes. Early cattle dies out during the eighth millennium BC and is not reintroduced until at least the Sotira period.

Nissia Neolithic site on Cyprus
The Nissia Neolithic settlement on Cyprus is located to the south of Vyzakia beach, in the area of Protaras, with its archaeological discoveries coming under the Neolithic B period of 5200-4800 BC

Akrotiri Culture & Early Aceramic Neolithic (Cyprus)
c.9000 - 7000 BC

While the first true native culture to appear on Cyprus was the later Khirokitia culture, the Akrotiri phase covers earlier hunter-gatherer appearances. These seem to have been fitful, arriving and leaving as conditions warranted, and it was a long time before archaeologists were able to find any evidence at all of settlement before the Khirokitia. The Aceramic Neolithic on Cyprus differed greatly from other contemporary societies in Anatolia and the Levant (which was part of the Khiamian culture at this time), showing no signs of contact between the two. There was never a land bridge to connect Cyprus to the mainland, so all arrivals had to be by sea, limiting access.

Due to the insular and fragile environment of an island like Cyprus, hunter-gather settlements could not have survived long term. Humans in this period probably only visited for selective periods before returning to the mainland. Following the Akrotiri phase, there is a gap of about a thousand years before the appearance of an Aceramic Neolithic culture around 8200 BC (which has only recently been discovered).

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, and Asprokambos. These sites demonstrate a preoccupation with wells and cuttings into the bedrock to access underground water channels. The material evidence has strong parallels with the Levant. Early farming communities migrated to Cyprus during this period and introduced domestic plants and animals (the discovery of a previously unknown farming site at Klimonas in 2012 further confirmed this).

A large amount of obsidian from these sites also suggests overseas contact, most likely with Anatolia. This would have been with people of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, shortly prior to the explosion in Neolithic farmer migrations into Southern Europe via the Sesklo culture. Overall, it seems that the Akrotiri culture saw hunter-gatherers visit briefly to exploit the island's resources while, after a gap of a millennium, the Early Aceramic Neolithic saw a period of initial permanent settlement on the island.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Cyprus Archaeological Sites (Cyprus Ministry of Culture & Sports), and Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus (Bryn Mawr College, an archaeology-led look at the early cultures on the island - dead link), and Ancient Origins, and Akrotiri (World Archaeology), and Excavations of Akrotiri (Santorini View).)

c.9000 BC

The earliest solid evidence of human activity on Cyprus comes from Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, a site on the southern-central coast of Cyprus at the very tip of the Akrotiri peninsula. This is contemporary with the Nautufian period in the Levant as well as the Epi-Palaeolithic era.

Akrotiri is a cave shelter at the top of a cliff, about fifty metres above sea level. There are four strata inside the shelter, two with cultural remains. The lowest stratum, Level 4, is found on a clean bedrock and is a mix of animal bones and ashy material, containing 99% of the entire site's material. The majority of the remains are pygmy hippopotami bones, with most of the others being those of pygmy elephants. Level 3 is sterile, showing a period of abandonment by humans. Level 2 shows evidence of stone tools and more animal remains. The site appears to be only periodically used, being abandoned and then re-occupied.

Coast of Cyprus
While the mountainous terrain may have been daunting to early visitors, the island would have provided fairly rich pickings in both pygmy game and Mediterranean fruits

c.8200 BC

The first settled village communities of the Early Aceramic Neolithic period start to appear, as early settlers begin to build more sophisticated forms of shelter. This progression in the adaptation of habitation also requires advances in storage and food preparation. These advances lead to the Khirokitia culture within a millennium.

c.7500 BC

The remains of an eight month-old cat are discovered by archaeologists in 2004, dated to this period. The cat had been buried alongside its human owner in a Neolithic burial site. This find pushes back the date for the beginnings of feline domestication considerably, and predates any such finds made in Egypt.

Khirokitia Culture (Recent Aceramic Neolithic) (Cyprus)
c.7000 - 5800 BC

This was the first native culture to arise on the island of Cyprus. It is represented by the site which bears its name, along with about twenty others across the island. Otherwise known as the 'Recent Aceramic Neolithic' period (or Choirokoitia culture, an alternative spelling of Khirokitia), the culture arose from Pre-Pottery Neolithic B original in Anatolia following a long process on the island which had started with its inhabitation by hunter-gatherers around 10,000 BC and had been continued through the subsequent Akrotiri and Early Aceramic Neolithic periods while being influenced from Anatolia and the Levant.

A settlement was formed at Khirokitia, about six kilometres from the south coast on the steep slopes of a hill overlooking the River Maroni and enclosed by a wall ('Wall 100' has been uncovered on the western side while the rest has been calculated). The constructions on the site were circular, with flat roofs in the form of a terrace. Several of these circular constructions would be grouped together around a small inner courtyard to form a house, and there would be an installation present to grind grain.

The site's inhabitants used flint or bone tools and receptacles made of stone or basketwork in their daily lives (being a pre-pottery people). They kept domesticated animals, hunted game, gathered wild fruit, and cultivated plants. Their dead were buried in pits which were cut into the floors of their houses (a common practice during this period, and not just on Cyprus), and bodies were sometimes accompanied by necklaces or stone vessels. Excavations began on the site in 1936 and again in the 1970s, and have continued almost uninterrupted ever since, steadily uncovering the lives of these early Cypriots.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Archaeology in Greece, 1933-34, H G G Payne (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1934), and from External Links: Cyprus Archaeological Sites (Cyprus Ministry of Culture & Sports), and Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus (Bryn Mawr College, an archaeology-led look at the early cultures on the island - dead link), and Ancient Origins, and Neolithic Settlement (Community Council of Khirokitia).)

At a date that still seems to be uncertain, the north slope of the hill that forms Khirokitia is abandoned. Instead, the settlement is expanded towards the west and a new enclosure wall is built to encompass it ('Wall 284', the line of which much has been calculated in relation to the uncovered section). The wall is up to two and-a-half metres thick and up to three metres in height.

Settlement at Khirokitia
The ancient cultural site of Khirokitia on the island of Cyprus sits alongside a modern recreation of the circular modules

c.5800 BC

The Khirokitia settlement is abandoned around this time for reasons unknown, and the culture leaves no obvious successor over the course of the subsequent eight hundred-or-so years. It is reoccupied after that period by the people of the Sotira culture. They know about pottery and have mastered the art of making it.

Sotira Culture (Ceramic Neolithic) (Cyprus)
c.5000 - 4000 BC

The Sotira culture of Cyprus filled the gap left by the abandonment of Khirokitia culture sites. This particular culture appears to have formed about two centuries after the first influx of pottery onto the island. It was brought in by a new wave of settlers who arrived around 5250 BC, possibly from the Levant's Yarmukian culture, although several sister cultures existed alongside this. Some sources place the rise of the Sotira at a later date, around 4500 BC, but most seem to agree that there was a gap of about half a millennium between the fall of the Khirokitia and the very first appearance of the Sotira.

Despite evidence of settlers who brought new forms of technology and new techniques with them, there is no evidence of any external trade. These people arrived on their own and then were isolated. Any potential social stratification that may have occurred is difficult to ascertain during the comparatively short-lived period in which this culture and its people flourished.

The culture gained its name through the examination of a typical site at Sotira-Teppes. Like most Ceramic Neolithic sites, this was located near the coast, on high ground which was easily defendable. Another key site is at Ayios Epiktitos-Vyrsi. Ceramic sites are only found on the east of the island, showing that these newcomers did not reach either the west or the Karpass peninsula (the long 'finger' at the north-eastern corner of Cyprus), and probably confirming that they arrived from the Levant. There were regional differences, and technical improvements as the culture progressed. Of the thirty villages known to have been home to the culture, only a few were still inhabited in the next period - the Erimi - but, as with the Khirokitia before it, why the majority of Sotira sites were abandoned is not known.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Archaeology in Greece, 1933-34, H G G Payne (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1934), and from External Links: Cyprus Archaeological Sites (Cyprus Ministry of Culture & Sports), and Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus (Bryn Mawr College, an archaeology-led look at the early cultures on the island - dead link), and Ancient Origins, and Neolithic Settlement (Community Council of Khirokitia), and The Sotira Culture: Regional Diversity and Cultural Unity in Late Neolithic Cyprus (Taylor & Francis Online).)

c.5000 BC

Sotira culture appears on Cyprus, with settlements at sites such as Sotira-Teppes, Ayios Epiktitos-Vrysi (which has a series of semi-subterranean houses with sunken floors), Philia-Drakos (which also has subterranean chambers), Troulli, and Khirokitia (replacing the abandoned Khirokitia culture phase). There is evidence for the household production of pottery, in buildings that are primarily rectangular with rounded corners. Burials are extramural instead of under the floor of the house.

Ceramic pots on Cyprus
Pottery was first introduced onto Cyprus around 5250 BC, with the descendants of the people responsible giving birth to the Sotira culture

c.4000 BC

The settlement of forty-seven structures at Sotira-Teppes is abandoned around this time for reasons unknown. Again on Cyprus, the disappearance of this culture leaves no obvious successor. Some scholars argue for an island-wide gap in the archaeological record, while others envision a direct transition into the Early Chalcolithic. However, there is a dearth of knowledge of the Early Chalcolithic period, between 4000-3500 BC when the Erimi culture is first appearing, which hinders any understanding of the end of the Neolithic period and the beginning of the Chalcolithic period.

Erimi Culture (Chalcolithic) (Cyprus)
c.4000 - 2500 BC

Following the disappearance of the Sotira culture, the subsequent advent of the Erimi began one of Cyprus' longest lasting periods. This saw copper being used across the island and trade links being developed with the mainland. The island's population increased greatly, and clear signs of the development of social strata become apparent. The Cypro-Minoan script was introduced into this growing social structure, but it was one which still failed to leave any written evidence of its existence. While copper objects have been found by archaeologists, what isn't known is whether they were made on the island or imported, probably from Minoan Crete.

Pottery was of a fairly standardised form which was produced at a small number of sites on the western side of the island and then exported across the rest of it. The poor soils were probably responsible for the appearance of seals and large storage vessels in houses, from which food could be distributed under central control. It seems likely that, although there are at least five possible origins for the name 'Cyprus', the island gained it from its rich veins of copper ('kuprios' in Greek, which was passed down into Latin).

It is also during this period that the greater area of the city of Pafos, which includes the later necropolis that is known as the Tombs of the Kings, is first inhabited. This is part of a flourishing culture on the west coast of Cyprus. Unfortunately the later intensive use of the area largely rubs out the Chalcolithic occupation layer. A loom weight has been found by archaeologists in the Northern Necropolis which bears eloquent witness to life at this time.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Digging up the Tombs of the Kings, Sophocles Hadjisavvas (2014), from Archaeology in Greece, 1933-34, H G G Payne (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1934), and from External Links: Cyprus Archaeological Sites (Cyprus Ministry of Culture & Sports), and Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus (Bryn Mawr College, an archaeology-led look at the early cultures on the island - dead link), and Ancient Origins, and Neolithic Settlement (Community Council of Khirokitia), and The Sotira Culture: Regional Diversity and Cultural Unity in Late Neolithic Cyprus (Taylor & Francis Online).)

c.3800 BC

The Early Chalcolithic period on Cyprus emerges out of a hazy crossover period from the preceding Sotira culture in which the latter is abandoned and disappears without offering any direct continuity to the former. No fortifications or weaponry are known for this period which is named after a settlement on the south coast, revealing a still-peaceful island which probably has little external contact other than through its limited trade routes. Settlements are of a variable size, but nothing approaching an urban centre has been found to date. Houses return to the rounded construction style of the Khirokitia culture, replacing the Sotira's rectangular style.

Khirokitia Culture houses
Erimi culture dwellings returned to the use of the roundhouse pattern that had been used by their Khirokitia culture predecessors

c.3500 BC

The Middle Chalcolithic sees the establishment of conventional settlement and funerary practices. The island would seem to be populated by tribes with regional chiefs in a moderately hierarchical structure. The Lemba Period I is the earliest Chalcolithic site with wall foundations, which confirms the use of the roundhouse style.

c.2800 BC

The Late Chalcolithic sees the copper-using society on Cyprus being replaced by one which uses bronze as part of the Philia culture. New burial practices are introduced, along with changed pottery styles and settlement patterns. Far stronger trade links are set up too, all of which suggests an influx of new, more advanced people who probably subjugate the natives.

Philia Culture (Early & Middle Bronze Age) (Cyprus)
c.2500 - 1600 BC

The Philia culture was representative of a new phase of settlement on Cyprus, probably that of Indo-European arrivals via Anatolia. From about 2800 BC bronze began to replace Erimi culture copper and new burial practices appeared. These changes heralded the start of the Early Bronze Age, which lasted between 2500-1900 BC. Trade links were set up, and traders found important sources of copper on the island.

Beginning around 2400 BC, prospectors from Anatolia arrived, possibly related to the regionally-dominant Hatti or, more probably, being southern coastal natives of what would become Pamphylia, theoretically migrating outwards in the face of increasing Luwian arrivals. They brought with them new methods of house building, cooking, spinning, and weaving. Settling on Cyprus, they introduced cattle and the ox-drawn plough, creating an agricultural revolution. Ploughing brought new ground into use, which led to a boom in food production and a population which increased rapidly. The new arrivals settled across the island, especially around the copper-rich foothills of the Troodos Mountains, and gradually blended into the existing population.

MapThe Middle Bronze Age on Cyprus lasted between 1900-1600 BC and produced several styles of pottery. Bronze-work was advanced and trade flourished between the island and the Hittites in Anatolia, Minoan Crete, Egypt, and the city states of Syria (see map link, right, for locations). Cyprus was a vital source of copper for all of the major states of this period, and the island's culture flourished as a result of the rich trade. It is probably these extensive trade links that account for the foundation of new settlements on the east of the island. These gradually developed into early cities which acted as major trade hubs.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Archaeology in Greece, 1933-34, H G G Payne (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1934), and from External Links: Cyprus Archaeological Sites (Cyprus Ministry of Culture & Sports), and Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus (Bryn Mawr College, an archaeology-led look at the early cultures on the island - dead link), and Ancient Origins.)

c.1900 BC

The Necropolis of Karmi, in Kyrenia in northern Cyprus, is probably brought into use from around this point and perhaps remains so for the remainder of the Middle Bronze Age. Archaeologists find a number of rich chamber tombs, and a crude relief of a human figure survives on an access wall, making it the earliest relief of a human figure discovered on the island to date.

Karmi necropolis
The necropolis at Karmi shows Bronze Age Cyprus at the height of its fortunes, with more powerful and rewarding international trade routes than ever before

c.1600 BC

Mycenaean culture appears on Cyprus, gradually displacing any Minoan cultural influences which may have entered through mutual trade between Cyprus and Crete. The Mycenaeans are entering their cultural golden age, with shaft graves dated to this early period clearly demonstrating their dominance on the Greek mainland. The changes herald the start of the Late Bronze period on Cyprus.

Late Bronze Age (Cyprus)
c.1600 - 1050 BC

The Late Bronze evolved out of the Middle Bronze period on Cyprus. It witnessed the end of Minoan influence on the island and the beginning of Mycenaean (Achaean) influence. These Indo-Europeans of the south-west group in Europe emerged into the archaeological record rather suddenly. Descending out of the Balkans, they can be noted in Greece with the appearance of shaft grave royal burials around 1650 BC. Whilst the first city states had emerged by 1600 BC (the same time at which Mycenaean culture also appears on Cyprus), the Mycenaeans did not form a single nation state. Instead they banded their independent city states together under one leader in times of trouble. Nothing is recorded of their existence in writing until the time of the Trojan War, around the start of the twelfth century BC.

The later part of the period was an intensely disturbed one. It saw disruption by the Hyksos, who had commanded lower Egypt from the beginning of the period. It seems likely that the Hyksos launched raids against Cyprus from time to time. From about 1400 BC, the Mycenaeans were freed from domination by the Minoans and they flourished, making much of the eastern Mediterranean a Mycenaean sea. They arrived on Cyprus probably as merchants, introducing their culture and gradually displacing Minoan culture.

Climate change and related drought at the end of the thirteenth century BC saw city states and empires fall on the mainland, the most notable casualty being the Hittites. During the twelfth and eleventh centuries BC, several waves of Achaean Greeks settled Cyprus, bringing with them early Greek language, religion, and customs. These migrants were escaping a Greece that was gradually being overrun by Doric invaders who eclipsed the Mycenaeans in their homeland. On Cyprus, and on many other islands in the eastern Mediterranean, they built new cities, such as Kition, Kourion, Paphos, and Salamis. The island was now an Hellenic domain, and for much of the period it was dominated by the island kingdom of Alashiya.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Archaeology in Greece, 1933-34, H G G Payne (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1934), from Ancient Israel and Its Neighbours: Interaction and Counteraction. Collected Essays Vol 1, Nadav Na'aman, from The Cambridge Ancient History, edited by I E S Edwards, and from External Links: Cyprus Archaeological Sites (Cyprus Ministry of Culture & Sports), and Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus (Bryn Mawr College, an archaeology-led look at the early cultures on the island - dead link), and Ancient Origins.)

1580 BC

Egypt is freed from Hyksos rule by Pharaoh Kamose. Nubia is soon regained, and normal trade relations are subsequently restored between North Africa and Cyprus of the immediate pre-Alashiya period. Larger trading centres begin to flourish on Cyprus, most notably at Enkomi, immediately to the north-west of the modern port of Famagusta.

Mycenaean cups
Mycenaean one-handled cups such as these examples appeared on Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age, when Achaean culture dominated parts of the eastern Mediterranean

1450 BC

Egypt takes control of Cyprus during the reign of Thutmose III, and the pharaoh imposes a land tax. It is around this time that the islands first definitive kingdom emerges, perhaps as an Egyptian sub-state or as a reaction against Egyptian dominance. Any potential Egyptian dominance is brief, however, and the island soon regains its independence. The Cypriot Bronze Age continues with the island dominated by the city state kingdom of Alashiya.