The Earlier Neolithic in Cyprus: Recognition and Dating of a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Occupation

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Up to 20 years ago, archaeological evidence indicated that the human occupation of the island of Cyprus began in the seventh millennium cal BC (Stanley-Price 1979; Cherry 1981, 1985; Karageorghis 1982), and could be seen as a relatively late and somewhat marginal colonisation achieved by established farmers from the Levantine mainland during their final Pre Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) period. An important challenge to this consensus occurred in the late 1980s, with the discovery of a Late Epipalaeolithic site at Akrotiri Aetakremnas on the south coast of Cyprus with dates in the eleventh to early tenth millennia cal BC (Simmons 1988, 1991, 1999; Simmons & Mandel 2007). Two other coastal sites with similar early lithic industries have also been recognised recently, possibly indicating maritime explorations and voyaging by foragers to Cyprus during the Younger Dryas into the earlier Holocene (Ammerman et al. 2006, 2007, 2008). Meanwhile, in the other direction, finds reported in the last ten years trace the Neolithic occupation of Cyprus back another two millennia from its supposed seventh-millennium BC beginnings, with the recognition of earlier PPNB (Cypro-PPNB) sites starting around or after 840018300-8200 cal BC (Peltenburg et al. 2000, 2001; Swiny 2001; Sevketoglu 2002, 2008; Peltenburg 2003; McCartney & Todd 2005; Guilaine & Briois 2006; Simmons 2007: 234-45).

A major question for current research thus became: what happened on Cyprus between about 10 000 cal BC and 8200 cal BC? Was there a hiatus in human presence on the island (cf. Guilaine & Briois 2006, but see McCartney 2010)? The answer to this question is critical to providing a framework for understanding the development of the Neolithic on Cyprus, and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, since the missing interval represents the transition from foraging to initial experimentation with cultivation (Sherratt 2007; Simmons 2007:86-118). Was there a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) phase on Cyprus as suggested by some researchers (Watkins 1980; Peltenburg et al. 2001: 55; McCartney et al. 2006, 2007 with references)?

New investigation strategy

Much of the coastal terrain of Cyprus available in the initial Holocene is now underwater, and many inland areas are heavily eroded or deeply buried by later alluvial deposits. However, preliminary analysis of lithics from several inland sites in central Cyprus by Stewart and McCartney indicated the possibility of a hitherto overlooked Early Neolithic phase (McCartney et al. 2006, 2007, 2008). The Elaborating Early Neolithic Cyprus (EENC) project began by investigating this area of central Cyprus in 2005, focusing on the ecological transition zone between the Troodos foothills and central plain. Targeted survey work to date has identified 23 sites with lithic materials of potentially early date, but most are highly eroded and unlikely to have any significant intact strata. One locus with early lithic material, Ayia Varvara Asprokremnos (henceforward AVA), was a clear exception (Figure 1). On the basis of survey and preliminary auger tests, it appeared to have significant potential to yield intact archaeological deposits--now substantiated by four seasons of excavation (McCartney et al. 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009) (Figure 2).

AVA (Ayia Varvara Asprokremnos): site and Early Neolithic assemblage

AVA lies on a saddle between two low hills in central Cyprus at about 318m asl. The site is bounded on the west by the Yialias river and lies in an area rich in high quality chert, volcanic and calcareous rocks suitable for ground stone manufacture and abundant ochre, material resources that probably contributed to the choice of site location. The full extent (temporal and spatial) of the site is as yet unknown. The excavations have identified at least three phases of Early Neolithic activity in separate areas of the site. …