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27 August 2006
Neolithic men in Greece had their own sheds

The discovery of a neolithic complex of caves in Greece suggests not all cavemen were club-wielding, nomadic hunter-gatherers, but included some farmers and shepherds. They even had the Stone Age equivalent of a toolshed. Evidence of such homebody cave dwellers comes from a recent excavation of a cave complex dating from 5300-3900 BCE. The abode features plastered floors and evidence of crop-growing and an attached stable nearby.
     "This household was self-contained," says Dr Panagiotis Karkanas, who conducted the excavation of the Kouveleiki caves, located on the cliffs of a shallow valley in the southern Peloponnese. "I believe that the site was an ordinary household. The people were living there, cooking, sleeping, etc, probably during the whole year. They were both farmers and shepherds," says Karkanas, an archaeologist at the Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology in Athens. Karkanas came to this conclusion after studying objects uncovered within the caves and after performing a detailed microanalysis of the cave sediments.
     The complex consists of two caves, the first of which is divided into two chambers by several rock blocks that appear to have fallen from the roof before the caves were inhabited. The cavemen used this natural divide to their advantage, since one of the fallen rocks was curved and straightened to resemble a wall, which created a corridor between the two chambers. Burnt manure found in the front chamber suggests a few animals, probably sheep and goats, were housed there. Cereal husks and residue found within the dung indicates the cave dwellers probably farmed the land in front of the caves. He points out that farming in Greece started at about 6500 BCE, at the beginning of the Neolithic era.
     In the first cave he found fine painted pottery, polished axes, spindle whirls, clay and marble figurines, grinders and a collection of obsidian, chert and quartz tools. The dark, back 'room', measuring about 150 square metres, appears to have been the main area of habitation. Evidence for hearth fires was found. And the floor was plastered with a mixture of burnt dung and red clay. Karkanas suggests this type of plaster was unusual for the time, though it became popular later, and is still used today in some villages in Africa and India.
     He says the second cave "was probably used as a complementary activity area", sort of the prehistoric version of a tool shed. Nine human burials discovered within the caves suggests some people may have lived their entire lives at the site.
     Curtis Runnels, professor of archaeology at Boston University, says he finds Karkanas' paper to be 'both informative and convincing'. "The move to caves came for many reason, among which was the reorganisation of the economy during this period to emphasise sheep and goat herding," he says. "Part of the change was a focus on the production of wool and hair for textiles, which were traded for imported materials, possibly exotic flint or obsidian."

Source: Discovery News, ABC.net (25 August 2006)

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