|View from above Petralona Cave, looking south toward the Aegean Sea|
Aris N. Poulianos
Volume 22, Number 3, June 1981
Until only 15 years ago, the Palaeolithic was almost unknown in Greece. Some important Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites and materials were discovered in Epirus and Thessaly in the 1960s, but apart from a few handaxes Greece remained terra incognita for the Lower Palaeolithic and the pre-sapiens stages of human development. In recent years, however, discoveries by members of the Anthropological Association of Greece have radically transformed the situation.
In 1959, at Petralona, a village in Khalkidiki province, south of Thessaloniki, some local men searching for a spring in the mountainside happened upon a hole through which they were able to enter a huge cave full of stalagmites and stalactites. The following year a primitive human skull was found adhering to a rock in the cave and was removed. An early examination of this skull and of animal bones from the cave floor led to an estimated age of ca. 70,000 years; a search for the rest of the skeleton involved breaking up of the stalagmite layer and led to the destruction of the human bones. My systematic excavations in the cave since 1968 have established a detailed stratigraphy, salvaged some human fragments, and proved conclusively that the skeleton and the cave's occupation belong to the Lower and Middle Pleistocene. No fewer than 27 layers, with thicknesses ranging from 2 cm to 2 m and a total depth of over 15m, have so far been differentiated in the cave's fill. The original entrance is blocked by a huge cone of sediment. The layers decrease in thickness as one moves from this entrance to the interior of the cave. Almost all the layers show traces of human occupation.
The Petralona hominid, known as Archanthropus europaeus petraloniensis, was located in a sort of compartment formed by a large fallen rock which had become wedged against the cave wall, thus constituting a 2 meter squared natural "mausoleum." The body was in a crouched position with the head slightly elevated and resting on a rock; it was surrounded by bone awls, burnt animal bones, and stone implements. All of these finds are from Layer 11, which is the thickest and contains the most tools and other traces of habitation. It is not surprising that the use of the cave at this time was intensive, since the sediments and fauna indicate a cold, humid climate. Subsequently it became more humid, and a stalagmitic breccia (Layer 10) covered the floor and walls of the "mausoleum" and made a bridge between the skull and the rock. During a later, drier phase, the sediments shrank and dropped to 24 cm, but the skull remained suspended, fixed by the stalagmite and thus separated from the rest of the skeleton.
Fauna, sediments, and stratigraphy all point to a late stage of the Lower Pleistocene for Layer 11. The new dating technique of electron spin resonance gave a figure of 670,000 years, probably the Günz-Mindel interglacial, for Layer 10 and dated the stalagmite of Layer 1 to between 250,000 and 350,000 years. Before the formation of this top stalagmite, probably by the end of the Mindel glacial, the cave had been abandoned and had closed up. The uranium/thorium method dated the stalagmite of Layer 10 to a minimum of 400,000 B.P. (the upper limit of this method) and suggested a true age of ca. 600,000. Palaeomagnetic studies of the sediments have shown an inversion of the earth's magnetic field in layers below 11, but such studies are fraught with problems. In short, the cave's stratigraphy spans at least half a million years, corresponding to the late Lower and early Middle Pleistocene, Archanthropus having died more than 700,000 years ago, is the most ancient European yet known.
The fragments of post cranial skeleton salvaged from the "mausoleum" suggest that this hominid was a short (about 157 cm), muscular, mature individual. Thought it is classified as Homo erectus, many features of the skull and skeleton fall within the modern human range. Fragments of up to 15 other individuals have so far been found in different parts of the cave.
The first ten layers contain bone tools, pebble tools, and handaxes; this stone industry has been dubbed Petralonian. A cruder industry, the Crenian, is found in Layer 11 and below. The type of tool technology used here was not known in Europe until these finds; . . .