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Analysis of 43 Neolithic Skeletons of Greek Cave Confirms Diet of Cereals, Little Meat

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The Cave of Theopetra. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Thanassis Kalliaras)

ATHENS -- The 43 Neolithic-era skeletons found in the Cave of Theopetra, Thessaly that were analysed recently along with plant and animal remains confirmed that the community there lived mostly on cereals, hunted large and small animals but also had domesticated animals, including dogs.

According to archaeologist Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika, who first began excavating the cave 34 years ago, the stratigraphy of the cave shows two things: that it contains signs of habitation from 130,000 years ago through the Neolithic times (about 6500 to 4000 BC), when Thessaly saw more communities living outside caves.

The cave lies in the fertile region of Thessaly, 3km before Kalabaka on the road from Trikala, and at 300m above sea level. It is close to a tributary of the Pinios River and looks out toward Meteora. The entrance is 3m high and 17m wide, and it receives a lot of light. The cave appears to have been abandoned at the end of the Stone Age, either after rock eroded by water started breaking down in the interior or because more communities started to be built out in open spaces. (The climate during the human occupation eras included three ice ages and two warm 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 the domesticated sheep and goat (which account for 60 pct of the bones found), and also kept cattle, pigs and at least one dog. About 11 pct of the bones found belong to deer, wild boars, bears, hares, wildcats and badgers, all of which were hunted. Bones from a bear, for example, still bear knife marks.

The community also made its own jewelry, drilling holes into deer-like teeth and shells from the nearby river. Remains of beeswax were also found in the community.

Excavators also found five graves in Theopetra Cave. Two of them belong to the post-ice age of the Upper Paleolithic period (one dated to 14,990-14,060 BC), and three to the Mesolithic era (all dated to between 7000 and 7500 BC), the only site in Thessaly to contain Mesolithic evidence. All contained skeletons of Homo sapiens sapiens. Deeper levels of the Middle Mesolithic contained foot imprints – an extremely rare finding globally – but because the feet appeared to have been covered, it's impossible to distinguish physical features. Stone Age tools point to the presence of Neanderthal residents, according to the analyses.

One of the most sensational facial reconstructions of these skeletons is the one dubbed "Avgi", whose remains was found in the cave in 1993. The reconstruction of what her face may have looked like was presented at the Acropolis Museum in January 2018. She was between 18 and 25 years old, was 1.57m tall, and her skeletons showed mild signs of inflammation, possibly from anemia or scurvy, and prominent prognathism.

Neolithic-era levels contained the first clay vessels, statuettes of various types – signifying exchanges with farther communities – and a prolific production of stone tools, either from flint (chert) or stones collected from the nearby river. Also found in the same era were grinding stones for nuts, traces of dyes, clay and bone whorls and weights for weaving, bone needles and a lot of sea shells, acquired through exchanges with coastal communities.

The most recent analyses of the skeletons was presented by Kyparissi-Apostolika, an emerita director of the Paleoanthropology and Speleology Directorate of the Ministry of Culture, in an address to the 14th National Congress of the Greek College of Pediatricians in Trikala recently.