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Paleolithic and Mesolithic

Until recently it was assumed that the Aegean islands were inhabited by humans only in the Neolithic age. One of the earliest proofs that humans had reached the Cyclades were the findings of obsidian from the island of Milos in a 9,000-year-old settlement on the Greek mainland. The oldest excavations and finds known from Naxos also dated back to the Neolithic age (about 6,500 B.C.). These included the lowest layers of the excavations in the Cave of Mount Zeus, settlement remains near the Chora and isolated finds from various areas of the island.

However, new results from Crete and some other Greek islands as well as recent research on Naxos cast a completely new light on the early history of the Aegean: They show that these islands were inhabited by humans much earlier than previously assumed. On Naxos, on the hill of the Stelída south of the Chóra, human artefacts can be found that date back to the Mesolithic (about 12,000 – 6,500 BC) and even to the Paleolithic age (about 600,000 – 12,000 BC). These sites were first discovered and described in the early eighties, but have only recently been investigated systematically by Greek and Canadian archaeologists.

The chert layers of the Stelída

On the Stelída, an isolated hill southwest of the Chóra of Naxos, exist interesting and in this area unique outcroppings of pure chert that is very easy to work. This chert was used in the Stone age by the earliest inhabitants of Naxos for the manufacture of stone tools. Many traces of this use can still be found in the area today.

The hill of the Stelída south of Naxos town; seen from the southwest. At the top of the hill you can see the outcroppings of the chert, which was used already in the Palaeolithic age to make tools.

Here the hill seen from the beach of Ágios Prokópios. The areas studied by archaeologists are mostly located in the rockier terrain at the top of the hill.

thick layers of chert close to the top of the hill

The whole slope below is littered with larger and smaller pieces of chert, with many splinters bearing traces of processing.


Chert is a siliceous rock, which is often formed by secondary silicification of sediments, but which can also form from silicate-rich melts, gels or deposits (e.g. in the case of flint from radiolaria, that is algae rich in silica).

The chert of the Stelída was formed by volcanic activity in the Pliocene (about 2.5 million years ago), when siliceous liquids or gases penetrated into sandy sediment layers, which were thus silicified. The uppermost layers of the chert deposit are layers of brownish or white chert of almost pure silicon dioxide (quartz). They were formed from a “silica gel” that penetrated between the sediment layers. The siliceous gases and liquids originated during the orogenesis that formed the Aegean islands, when silicate-rich sediments were melted deep below the mountains due to the high pressure and temperatures. Silicon dioxide has a lower melting point than other minerals and therefore accumulates in the course of recrystallisation as a melt or, due to the high pressures, as a gas. In the last phase of orogenesis, when the pressure decreases and the temperatures drop again, cracks often form in the rock masses, through which the gases and liquids containing silica (and often also sulphur) can penetrate into layers closer to the surface. Such phases are called “postorogenic volcanism”. If the silicates remain “stuck” in sediment layers below the surface and solidify there, chert layers such as those of the Stelída are formed (these have now cropped out on the surface due to tectonic movements and erosion). If liquids containing silicates are spilled into the sea as on Milos they are solidified into a volcanic glass (obsidian) due to the sudden cooling.

Chert stones have a very fine crystalline structure which leads to conchoidal fracture patterns similar to that of obsidian. That is why sharp-edged stone tools can be manufactured from chert splinters as from flint and obsidian.

Chert is used as a term for rocks that consist predominantly of silicon dioxide (quartz, in very small crystals). Depending on what other minerals are mixed with the silicon dioxide, the chert can have a reddish, brownish, greenish or almost black colour.

The stone tools of the Stelída

Stone tools from the Stone age can be found easily in the area of the Stelída chert deposit. The most common type of tools are scrapers, partly with retouched edges; drills and blades are less common (the latter are more than twice as long as wide). Usually, only the front side of the flakes is worked.

Here you can see natural splinters of white, pure chert. These very fine crystalline pieces show glass-like fracture patterns similar to flint and obsidian. Chert is easy to flake and forms very sharp edges.

Some of the chert fragments found on the Stelída show signs of processing.

In these splinters you can see the so-called Wallner lines: concentric ripples, which are formed like sound waves by a blow. They indicate that these splinters were created artificially.

These chert splinters show further characteristics of man made flakes. The point of impact is marked with an arrow; it often lies on an artificially smoothed surface. Here we see the ventral surface of the splinters, i.e. side that looked toward the core from which the flake was split off. It shows a distinct curvature caused by the impact (bulb); close to the point of impact one sees the impact scar, where a small splinter was detached during the impact (circle).

In this piece the edge has been “retouched” all around by small blows, also a sign for manipulation. While the natural edge of a splinter can be sharp enough to cut soft materials (e.g. meat or leather), the Stone age people retouched the edges of the stone tools, which were to be used to process harder materials such as wood or horn to make them more durable. The left picture shows the dorsal side of the flake on which the edges of the core can be seen that were formed when the previous pieces were split off (dorsal ridges).

The stone tools of the Stelída belong to two different ages according to their design and shape. Slightly smaller and more finely worked scrapers, drills or blades, often with carefully worked edges, are typical of the Late Mesolithic (about 9,000 BC). A second set of tools that are slightly larger and coarser and have a more irregular shape (mostly roundish or triangular scrapers) can be classified in the Middle Palaeolithic, which in the Mediterranean region probably dates from about 130,000 to 80,000 BC (in the Levant even earlier: 250,000 to 160,000 BC). These flakes are made with the so-called Levallois technique: Here, instead of retouching the flakes after splitting them off, the “core”, the stone from which they are separated, is first carefully trimmed and shaped, and then the finished tool is removed by one blow. This technique, which was used mainly in the Middle Palaeolithic, provides a much better control of the shape and size of the flake.

The first people on Naxos

The Mesolithic tools found on the Stelída are already of great interest. Not only are they more than three thousand years older than the previously known oldest finds, but they are also unusual in other respects. It is worth noting, for example, that these very early stone tools are made of chert, which does not or hardly occur in later finds on the island. There is no pottery to be found at the chert deposits; as far as we know, the people who came to gather and work the chert did not yet use any pottery. On the other hand there were some stone tools made of marble as well as of emery, which is also a very important raw material of the island. The obsidian blades so typical of the Neolithic and Early Bronze age are completely absent – the material as well as the tool shapes that were common during those later ages (long blades with parallel edges, arrowheads, spearheads).

Our knowledge about the Mesolithic people on Naxos is of course still much too limited to get a clear picture; without further finds it is unclear, for example, whether the people lived on Naxos, or whether they only visited the Stelída to collect the chert and produce tools. It is also noteworthy that these early humans as far as we know manufactured only very simple tools from a few materials, but were nevertheless able to reach an island, and thus must have had simple boats and mastered a certain navigation.

Even more remarkable are the finds from the Palaeolithic (by the way it is also interesting that, as far as we can say so far, there is a larger gap between the finds of the earlier and the later age, during which the chert of Naxos was apparently not used). In the Middle Palaeolithic (during the last Ice age, in the Pleistocene) the Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) was still present in southern Europe, while modern humans (Homo sapiens) only gradually immigrated from Africa. The Neanderthals show only a simple use of tools: mostly stone tools like the scrapers found on Naxos or simple wooden lances and tools made of bone, but no pottery. The Neanderthals buried their dead in graves and seem to have made simple pieces of jewellery. They lived in small groups and often dwelt in caves.

About 100,000 years ago, when the Neanderthals visited the Stelída to make tools, the water level in the Aegean was much lower than it is today due to the greater amounts of water bound in the ice sheets and glaciers. At the time of the lowest water level (about 120 m lower than today) the rather flat areas between today’s islands had fallen dry and the Cyclades formed one large island. At the time when the Neanderthals came to Naxos, the water level was not so low, but nevertheless it is likely that the humans then lived mainly in the now flooded plains between the present-day islands – so that the traces of their settlements would today lie inaccessibly for us on the bottom of the sea. Even on today’s islands, the conditions are not exactly favourable for the preservation of the remains of the early humans: the entire region has been strongly elevated and eroded since the Miocene, and only a few younger sediments exist in which traces of the Ice age inhabitants could have been preserved – most of the material has been washed into the sea. In any case, the Neanderthals had to cross the sea in order to reach Naxos, and thus the finds of Palaeolithic stone tools on Naxos and other Greek islands (e.g. Crete) prove that the Neanderthals did build and use boats.

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