Online Review: Book

Neolithic Revolution: New Perspectives on Southwest Asia in Light of Recent Discoveries on Cyprus

Joanne Clarke


Edited by E. Peltenburg and A. Wasse. Pp. xx + 128, figs. 60, tables 21. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2004. $55. ISBN 1-84217-132-1 (cloth).

The conference, “Neolithic Revolution,” was conceived in response to new data from Cyprus that have begun to revise the way archaeologists view the emergence of early agricultural societies in southwest Asia and surrounding regions. A number of themes were addressed at the conference, including (1) the nature, timing, and direction of the earliest colonization of Cyprus; (2) the significance of the Cypriot data for broadening our understanding of the way in which domestication emerged in southwest Asia; and (3) future directions for southwest Asian Neolithic research in light of new discoveries on Cyprus.

Key to the aims of the conference was how the new data from Cyprus impacted on prevailing views of the Neolithization of the Levant. The presence on Cyprus in the mid 11th millennium b.p. (calibrated) of introduced, wild, and domestic species of plants and animals commonly found in the early food economies of the mainland challenged the established wisdom of how and when agriculture emerged in the “Golden Triangle” of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. Crucial to the debate was the apparent contemporaneity in Cyprus and on the mainland of some of the earliest domesticated species of plants and animals. Questions arose as to how domestic species reached the island so quickly. Some archaeologists favor a scenario in which wild species were introduced to the island and subsequently domesticated. Others are of the opinion that domesticates were introduced as part of a package of early food-producing species in the mid 11th millennium b.p. The first scenario implies a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) equivalent population on Cyprus responsible for the introduction of wild species. The second scenario implies that domestication must have begun earlier on the mainland than the mid 11th millennium b.p. There is still no consensus, but recent data indicate that pigs were introduced to the island prior to the arrival of PPNB colonists, perhaps by visitors who used the rock shelter at Akrotiri Aetokremnos in the late 13th millennium b.p. That said, there is no doubt that a colonization episode happened in the mid 11th millennium b.p. and that wild and domestic species were introduced. The current accepted view, therefore, is that the dispersal of new agricultural economies out of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria began almost immediately, for reasons that remain unclear. Agriculture probably reached both Cyprus and the southern Levant within a generation or two in association with Early Neolithic cultural elements from the northern Levant.

In the years leading up to the conference at Droushia Heights, a number of publications presented preliminary findings from two key sites in Cyprus that had evidence of links with mainland early PPNB sites: Parekklisha-Shillourokambos and Kissonerga-Mylouthkia. Like all important archaeological discoveries, many of these first publications reflected a determination by the excavators to have the definitive say on the significance of the new data and indeed on the chronological and cultural terminology used to describe them. At present, terminology is still debated. Those working at Shillourokambos refer to phases represented there as the Early Neolithic, whereas the team working at Mylouthkia refer to the period as the Cypro PPNB; both are commonly seen in press. A publication race ensued, culminating in not one but two conferences in 2001, the first, “Le Néolithique de Chypre,” hosted by the excavators of Shillourokambos and associates, and the second, “Neolithic Revolution,” hosted by the excavators of Mylouthkia and associates. Mention is made here of the first conference because it was at this forum that much of the data from Shillourokambos were presented in various stages of synthesis. More importantly, it also led indirectly to the absence of Guilaine and associates from “Neolithic Revolution.” It is unfortunate that evidence from Shillourokambos was not presented at “Neolithic Revolution,” as it remains the only substantial published Early Neolithic/Cypro PPNB site in Cyprus. The data from Shillourokambos are referred to in most papers in the Neolithic Revolution volume, but much of what was presented in May 2001 at the “Le Néolithique de Chypre” conference was not published before Neolithic Revolution appeared in press and has only been fully assessed subsequently. The aims of both conferences were sufficiently different to have warranted attendance at both.

Although the aims of Neolithic Revolution were clearly stated in early promotional material and subsequently in the introductory chapter (and the title of the volume reflects this), very few papers deal with Cyprus and mainland southwest Asia as an integrated region. Indeed, the conceptual leap needed to raise Cyprus from being a separate (island) entity that from time to time interacted with the mainland to being part of southwest Asia was made in only a few contributions (those that achieved integration include College, Finlayson, Horwitz et al., McCartney, Peltenburg, and Watkins). More often than not, Cyprus is treated as separate from but interacting with southwest Asia at different periods throughout prehistory (Eirikh-Rose, Galili et al., Stewart and Stewart, and Rupp). Other papers deal entirely with southwest Asia, with little or no recourse to links with Cyprus (Haïder-Boustani, Garfinkel, and Moore).

Even so, the aims of the conference were both ambitious and timely. Cyprus has, for too long, been treated as separate from the mainland, with all that this implies. Yet it is clear that throughout much of its prehistory, Cyprus was on the margins of southwest Asia, just as parts of eastern Anatolia and the dry steppe, subdesert hinterland regions of the eastern Mediterranean littoral were on the margins of southwest Asia. Neolithic Revolution opens the way for archaeologists of both Cypriot and southwest Asian prehistory to think about the island as part of a much wider cultural sphere.

In sum, this is the first of a number of volumes that have begun to change the way in which we view the prehistory of Cyprus and southwest Asia, and many more will no doubt follow.

Joanne Clarke
School of World Art Studies
University of East Anglia
Norwich NR4 7TJ
United Kingdom

Book Review of Neolithic Revolution: New Perspectives on Southwest Asia in Light of Recent Discoveries on Cyprus, by Cheryl A. Ward

Reviewed by Joanne Clarke

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (October 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1114.Clarke

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