Prehistoric Cyprus – from First Humans to the Iron Age

Khirokitia archeological site.

In the Paleolithic era (stone age), humans arrived at Cyprus who coexisted with many dwarf animal species, such as pygmy hippos (Hippopotamus minor) and dwarf elephants, well into the Holocene. There are claims of a link of this fauna with artifacts of Epipalaeolithic foragers at Aetokremnos around the Limassol on Cyprus’s southern coast. The first certain settlement occurred in the 9th millennium BCE from the Levant. The first pioneers were agriculturalists of the PPNB (pre-pottery Neolithic B) era but did not yet produce pottery.

The sheep, dog, cattle, goats, and pigs were brought in, and numerous wild animals such as foxes and Persian fallow deer that were earlier unknown on the island.

Bronze Age

In the Bronze Age, the first towns, such as Enkomi, were constructed. Regular copper mining began, and natives extensively traded this resource. Mycenaean Greeks were unquestionably occupying Cyprus from the late stage of the Bronze Age. At the same time, the island’s Greek name is attested from the 15th century BCE in the Linear B script.

The Cypriot syllabic script was originally used in the early phases of the Late Bronze Age and continued in use for 500 years into the LC IIIB, maybe up to the second half of the eleventh century BCE. Most pundits believe it was used for a local Cypriot language (Eteocypriot) that lasted until the 4th century BCE. However, the actual proofs for this are scant, as the records still have not been entirely deciphered.

Late Bronze Age Cyprus was perhaps a part of the Hittite empire but was a client state and as such was not attacked but rather simply part of the empire by the community and administered by the ruling Ugarit kings. As such, Cyprus was truly left alone with little interference in Cypriot affairs. However, during the reign of Tudhaliya, the island was temporarily invaded by the Hittites for either obtaining the copper resource or stopping piracy. Shortly afterward, the island was again conquered by his son around 1200 BCE.

Iron Age

The early Iron Age on Cyprus follows the Late Bronze Age’s Submycenaean period (1125 BCE–1050 BCE). It is split into the Geometric (1050 BCE–700 BCE) and Archaic (700 BCE–525 BCE) periods.

Foundations myths recorded by classical authors link the foundation of numerous Cypriot towns with immigrant Greek heroes in the wake of the Trojan conflict. For instance, Teucer, brother of Aias, was supposed to have established Salamis, and the Arcadian Agapenor of Tegea superseded the local ruler Kinyras and endowed Paphos. Some scholars see this as a memory of Greek colonization already in the 11th century BCE. In the 11th century BCE, tomb 49 from Palaepaphos-Skales, three bronze obeloi with engravings in Cypriot syllabic script have been discovered, one of which bears the name of Opheltas. This is the first indication of the use of the Greek language on the island.

Cremation as a funeral rite is seen as a Greek institution as well. The cremation burial in Bronze vessels has been discovered at Kourion-Kaloriziki, tomb 40, recorded to the first half of the 11th century BCE. The handle grave carried two bronze rod tripod stands, a golden scepter, and the remains of a shield as well. Previously seen as the Royal grave of the first Argive ancestors of Kourion, it is now rendered as the tomb of a Phoenician prince or a native Cypriote. The cloisonné enameling of the scepter head with the two falcons subduing it has no parallels in the Aegean but shows a powerful Egyptian influence.

The earliest written source shows Cyprus under Assyrian rule. A stela found in 1845 in Kition celebrates the victory of king Sargon II (721 BCE–705 BCE) in 709 BCE over the seven kings in the land of Ia’, in the district of Atnana or Iadnana.

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