Sicily in prehistory

The prehistoric period is commonly subdivided in ages based on the existence and use of artefacts in stone or by type of metal. The earliest stone tools were relatively simple, this period is referred to as the palaeolithic or old stone age. Stone tools in the new stone age, the neolithic, were already very much refined, these are also called microliths; like arrowheads, spearpoints, scrapers and blades made in obsidian or flint. The first metals came into use in the calcolithic (Copper age), when for the first time copper was worked, then with the Bronze Age and finally the Iron Age technology improved and harder metals could be used. However in the Copper and Bronze Age many tools like arrowheads were still made of stone, as metals were expensive and often considered a luxury.
The following text on the prehistory of Sicily is mainly based on the work of Robert Leighton, Sicily Before History, that spans the whole period from the paleolithic until the seventh century BC when Sicily entered the historical age.

The upper Palaeolithic (40.000-10.000 BC)

Evidence of the first presence of humans in a specific area is usually based on the finds of stone tools. It is however not that easy to provide the necessary evidence, especially if the archaeological finds are not that well documented. This seems to be the case in Sicily, where like Sardinia there is evidence of presence of humans in the Paleolithic, probably because these islands were large enough for groups of hunters-gatherers to survive. But the evidence is still too slight to be able to confirm this 1.
On Sicily some sites have been discovered where stone tools of the upper-palaeolithic, also called Epigravettian, have been found and decorations and drawings have been discovered in caves and on artefacts that reflect the development of cognitive skills of humans in this period. It concerned groups of hunter-gatherers, their diet and habits could be deduced from the finds in caves along the coast and surface finds inland. Similar finds have been done in Southern-Italy which points to a continuity between Sicily and the rest of Italy, with northern Africa there seem to have been no contacts at that time 2.

The Mesolithic (10.000 - 6.000 BC)

The transition from late-Paleolithic to Mesolithic is placed around 10.000 BC although there is no clear break between the two periods. In the Mesolithic there is a gradual change in the habits of the people living on the island of Sicily. The main archaeological discoveries have been done in caves on the island, particularly famous are those of Uzzo and the Grotta dei Genovesi on the Aegadian island of Levanzo. The main change occurred in the diet of the groups of hunters-gatherers with fish occupying a larger part of it. The main reason for this change is sought in climatic change and the disappearing of large herds, only red deer remaining available. The activity of fishing lead to a more sedentary life and to more contacts oversea with for example the island of Lipari where the volcanic glass, obsidian, was found. Obsidian was used more and more to obtain cutting tools. There are also indications that in the Mesolithic clay was being used for the first time in the preparation of food, as a fire hardened platform. In the many caves graffiti have been discovered depicting animals and humans in a quite realistic manner, the most famous are those of the Grotta dei Genovesi on Levanzo and the Grotta dell'Addaura near Palermo 3.

The Neolithic (6000 BC - 3500 BC)

At the beginning of the Neolithic period the main change was the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry (goats, sheep and cattle). In general archaeologists considered this a major change and called it the Neolithic Revolution, however more and more it is now believed that the introduction of techniques of agriculture and the domestication of animals was more an evolutionary change over a longer period of time, spreading gradually over Europe.
Agriculture in Sicily seems to have been introduced from nearby Apulia. Whether this has been accompanied by migration of people is not always known. The oldest evidence has been found in the Uzzo cave in western Sicily, with dates of around 5700-5500 BC for organic material like seeds and bones in various contexts. For eastern Sicily it seems that the introduction of a mixed agriculture was abrupt with a sudden increase in human settlement as compared to the previous Mesolithic. This can be explained because of the abundant fertile plains in this part of Sicily that favoured agriculture. The evidence from the Uzzo cave shows the contrary, a diet that changed slowly from predominantly fish and wild animals to a larger share of domesticated animals and agricultural products, agriculture would have been gradually adopted by the local population who lived mainly off fishing, gathering and hunting.

The neolithic also saw an increase in the production of ceramics, the so called impressed wares decorated with the help of objects like shells. The southern Italian and Sicilian impressed wares are part of the Stentinello horizon, called after it's findspot near Syracuse, while in western Sicily the impressed wares varied slightly and are part of the Kronio style. In the Neolithic period also painted ware was produced, either bichrome or trichrome styles.
Of settlements it is know that they were surrounded by a ditch, some houses were built with poles much in the style of western-Europe, others by using clay which is more common of the building style of the Middle East. The most prominent archaeological sites of the Neolithic that have been researched are Stentinello near Syracuse and Piano Vento near Agrigento. The first settlements appeared on the smaller islands like Lipari and surprisingly also on Pantelleria and Lampedusa, which is evidence of the development of seafaring in this period. There developed a network of exchange of goods like obsidian from Lipari and Pantelleria or flint and ochre from Sicily.

Initially there was little known about burials of the Neolithic, a few shaft graves were discovered, not more than oval shaped holes cut out in the rocky underground. New evidence has brought to light that some grave chambers that were ascribed to the Copper Age may have been used already in the Neolithic. It is also possible that some caves were used as burial sites. Other caves were used probably as sanctuaries, like the Grotta dei Genovesi on the island of Levanzo where graffiti of human figures have been found that could be dated back to the Neolithic, clearly different from the graffiti of the preceding periods 4.

The Copper Age (3500 BC - 2500 BC)

With the first use of metals came the dawn of a new period, the Copper Age. Copper was easy to find and to work, but it does not mean copper was used for everything because it is too soft as a metal, tools and weapons were still made of other materials like stone and wood. The material remains of the Copper Age are found mainly in the burial sites. There were three types of graves in use; the natural caves, the shaft- or pitgraves and the gravechambers cut in the rock. The shaft or rock cut chambers were originally closed by a stone slab. The larger grave chambers date back to the late Copper Age and have been reused frequently for burials and secondary burials. Most grave chambers are cut in soft rock like limestone (Ribera) or marlstone (Piano Vento). Near the actual burials small pits have been found with votive gifts; broken pottery, remains of burnt sacrifices and even statuettes. The largest known burial site of the Copper Age is the Hypogeum of Calaforno. In the late Copper Age also corridor tombs were built, similar to the European megalithic grave structures called allee couverte 5.

About settlements much less is known, apart from some caves that were probably used as temporary shelters in the hunting season, traces have been found of settlements consisting of a number of huts. Most settlements have been found along rivers or on hilltops. The Copper Age sites are recognizable by the finds of various styles of ceramics; with engraved decorations and painted ceramics (Serraferlicchio). Even though the shape and forms of the ceramics seem to be similar to styles of the eastern Mediterranean it has not been established that there were direct contacts. Next to these more native Sicilian styles a more European style ceramics have been found, the Beaker culture, also present in Sardinia. It points to a possible migration of peoples form northern parts of Europe towards the Mediterranean islands. Just like in Sardinia trepanned skulls have been found, a prehistoric primitive surgery technique 6.


1 Leighton 1999, p 11,21
2 Leighton 1999, p 22-30; Renfrew 2000, p 174-177 on societies and the organization of economic and religious relations; On Gravettian see Wikipedia
3 Leighton 1999, p 30-50
4 Leighton 1999, p 51-85
5 Leighton 1999, p 87-99
6 Leighton 1999, p 99-112


1. Leighton, R. 1999, Sicily before history An Archaeological Survey from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, London
2. Renfrew, C. and P. Bahn 2000: Archaeology: Theories Methods and Practice, London

Last updated 10/11/2015
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