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New Findings in Theopetra Cave Shed Light on Neolithic Era in Greece

Theopetra cave
Credit: Tolis-3kala /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The Theopetra Cave in Thessaly, Central Greece, was formed in the Upper Cretaceous period, 137,000,000 – 65,000,000 years before the present time.

The cave that was  created in the limestone there has been inhabited since the Middle Paleolithic period, and new findings give new insight into the lives of those early peoples.

According to archaeologists, the cave is likely to be the place of the oldest human construction on earth, as findings indicate that the shelter was inhabited as early as 130,000 years ago.

Theopetra Cave may be home to oldest human construction on earth

Excavations at Theopetra began in 1987 under the direction of the archaeologist Dr. Catherine Kyparissi-Apostolika, honorary head of the Ephorate of Palaeoanthroplogy and Speleography of Greece’s Ministry of Culture and Sports.

The findings made there since that time include stone tools of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, as well as Neolithic pottery, bone and shell objects.

The findings are important evidence for the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic era way of life in Greece.

Theopetra cave
The steps leading to the cave entrance. Credit: Ministry of Culture and Sports

The climate during the time that it was occupied by humans included three ice ages and two warmer periods, the first dated to around 60,000 years ago.

Neolithic residents of the cave ate wheat and cultivated barley, olives, lentils and wild pear, among others. They ate some meat, mostly from domesticated sheep and goats (which account for 60 percent of the bones found), and also kept cattle, pigs and at least one dog.

About 11 percent of the bones found at the cave belong to deer, wild boars, bears, hares, wildcats and badgers, all of which were hunted. Bones from a bear, for example, astoundingly still bear knife marks.

The community also made its own jewelry, drilling holes into deer-like teeth and shells from the nearby river. The remains of beeswax were also found in the community. The newest findings show that an estimated 43 people lived in Theopetra Cave during the Neolithic era.

Cave served as refuge for early humans for thousands of years

Τhe latest data presented by Dr. Kyparissi-Apostolika show that the cave has served as a refuge for people for many thousands of years, and it is very likely that there were periods when they left it, depending on the prevailing weather conditions, as the climate changed repeatedly during those many thousands of years.

In recent years the cave also served as a shelter for the local population in times of war, and also at other times for animal pens.

According to Dr. Kyparissi-Apostolika, human burials are also found at the site, so there is no doubt that there were inhabitants at this cave. Two burials correspond to the post-glacial Upper Paleolithic period, with one dating back to 14,990-14,060 BC; while three other burials correspond to the Mesolithic period, and have been dated between 7,000 and 7,500 BC.

All the skeletons likely belong to the Homo Sapiens sapiens species.

In the deeper layers of the Middle Paleolithic period no burials were found, but human footprints were discovered, in what was a very rare find anywhere in the world. The feet were covered with some type of foot covering, so it is difficult to detect particular anatomical features.

However, according to the types of stone tools found in these layers, Neanderthal people lived there.

Theopetra cave
Credit: Ministry of Culture and Sports

Humans left the Theopetra Cave around 4,000 BC

According to the paleopathological analysis of the human bones of the Neolithic period found, the estimated 43 people who lived at that time in the cave seem to have been quite healthy, the archaeologist reported.

The abandonment of the cave by its occupants around 4,000 BC is most likely associated with natural phenomena as well as with the exploitation of the land for cultivation.

The force of the water that entered the cave through the karst pipes towards the end of the Neolithic era and the detachment and collapse of large pieces from the roof, again due to erosion, probably pushed the occupants out of the cave in search of another place of residence, Dr. Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika noted.

Due to its importance for the prehistory of Southeastern Europe, the cave became an  archaeological site open to visitors, while its findings are exhibited at the Theopetra Cave Documentation and Training Center (Museum) at the entrance of the village, not far from the cave.

The site officially opened to the public in 2009, but closed temporarily a year later, as the remains of a human-constructed stone wall were discovered during that year.

This structure became recognized as the very first surviving human-made structure to be discovered anywhere in the world.

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