The Beginning of Human Civilisation

Ancient Greece is well-known as one of the earliest civilizations that contributed significantly to human advancement. “Greece reached heights in almost every area of human learning” (Mark 2013).  Generally speaking, Ancient, in this context, means the period between 800 B.C and 500 B.C. However, the beginnings of civilisation as we know it arose much earlier, when humans shifted from hunter-gatherer to farming societies.   This crucial shift occurred in Greece during the Stone Age.  The Greek islanders continued to expand their farms and began to cultivate a hierarchical society, where some farms were more profitable than others.  It is these ‘advanced social formations‘ and modern, stable food sources that drew in populations from surrounding areas.  Populations climbed on both the islands and on the mainland, setting the foundation for both ancient and modern Greece.  This article will briefly look at Greek, and by extension human, history before and during ancient times that were immensely consequential for humans to advance.  It will give an overview of the Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean societies, which were the great Greek civilizations that preceded Ancient Greece.

Greek Isles

The Earliest Greek Inhabitants

The Greek islands have long been a treasure trove of archaeological finds.  It is estimated that the Greek islands have been inhabited since the Neolitic Period, approximately 6000 B.C to 2900 B.C., and earlier, many pieces of evidence to the origins of ancient Greece have been uncovered. According to Tony Spawforth in his book The Story of Greece and Rome, archaeologists in 1968 unearthed the body of a caveman carbon-dated to 7000 B.C.  Additionally, several tools made of obsidian were discovered in the same cave indicating the hunter-gatherers of the area had advanced their use of tools around 8500 B.C. (2018, p.18).  This also demonstrated that populations were voyaging to different islands around the Mediterranean.  These early Greeks were enabled by the geographic proximity of Mediterranean islands and surrounding continents, which could be easily been seen and traversed.  In fact, modern studies have found that many of the crops and livestock breeds that early Greeks harvested originated from now-Turkey (Spawforth 2018, p. 20).  With the advent of farming came the first wood houses and pottery as well.

Bronze Age Greece (approximately 3000 B.C. to 1200 B.C.)

It is a mystery as to what sparked the first peoples to extract and work metals from rock to use for tools.  But by the 3000s B.C. the Greeks had begun working with copper, as evidenced by at least two copper axe-heads found in Sesklo (Spawforth 2018, p.21).  The existence of copper, and later tin, at the time indicates that migration and trade was steadily growing.  Further research conducted in the 1990s off the coast of Turkey, discovered a large shipwreck from the 1300s B.C. with several tons of copper and tin on board for bronze production.  The tests of the metals concluded that the copper originated in Cyprus, while the tin was likely to have come from Afghanistan, Lebanon or Israel (Spawfoth 2018, p.30).  It was likely human curiosity that drove the first people to mix the two elements, discovering the vastly stronger material that could progress their farming skills further.

Replica of a Bronze-Age stone mould and copper axe-head

The Bronze Age in Greece saw peoples from all areas advance in metal works and farming. But there were three important, yet slightly different civilisations that existed throughout this period that pre-dated ancient Greece.  These are the Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean civilisations.

Cycladic Civilisation (3200 B.C. to 1100 B.C.)

The Cycladic civilation developed on the Cyclade islands in the Aegean sea.  The island cluster is composed of more than 2,000 islands and islets, only 25 of which are presently inhabited.   These islands were named the Cyclades because they somewhat appear in a ring (or circle, kyklos) around the important island of Delos (Cartwright 2012).   The civilisation as a whole was largely a fishing community that also cultivated natural resources specific to the islands, some of which included wheat, barley, olive trees, and marble.  Trade was significant between islands to exchange their wares and intertwine island culture.

A number of female-centered artifacts, namely ceramic figures of wide-hipped, naked women, suggest the cultural significance of women’s fertility (Spawforth 2018, p. 23).  For some of the smaller islands, travel to neighbouring island communities was essential to find partners for population growth.

Cycladic Figurine, from approximately 3,200 B.C. to 2,000 B.C. The largest collection of Cycladic figurines are at the Goulandris Museum of Cyclatic Art, Athens

Even with substantial efforts to grow populations, the islands were too small and defenseless to protect themselves from colonising forces.  The Minoans and their strong naval presence easily exerted their political power over the Cycladic peoples. Archeological findings have indicated that between 2200 B.C. and 1700 B.C there was an influx of Minoan pottery, trade, and influence in general (Cartwright 2012).  Much of the Cycladic culture becomes overshadowed by the Minoan culture as a result.  Then, after the decline of Minoan civilisation, the Cyclades fell under Mycenaean influence.  In approximately 1100 B.C., the Cyclades meet the same end as the Mycenaeans.

Minoan Civilisation (2700 B.C. to 1500 B.C.)

The Minoan civilisation is considered the first ‘great’ civilisation in human history.  It was found on the island of Crete and named by Sir Arthur Evans after King Minos. Greek mythology states that King Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa, a Phoenician princess.  He was a powerful ruler and was said to have been among the first colonisers, who established a violent navy and conquered the Cyclades.  He also often went to war with Athens.

Crete was a hub for trade.  The natural resources, such as timber, wool, tin, and copper, were extracted from Crete and its conquered islands and used to make a number of tradeable goods, including lucrative bronze and ceramics. It was in Crete that the pottery wheel was invented and ceramics were increased.  In fact, approximately 150 cups were found in Knossos (Spawforth 2018, p.26).  Evidence of the is scattered all around the eastern Mediterranean islands and has been found as far as Egypt (Spawforth 2018, p.25).  It is Minos’ navy and Crete’s extensive trade network that boosted the Minoan civilisation in both wealth and culture.

The most notable region discovered on Crete is that of Knossos, the oldest city in Greece.  Sir Arthur Evans discovered a large building complex and purchased the land in order to excavate what he thought was a significant archaeological area. What he found was the remains of a massive structure, that in its heyday would have had over 1,000 rooms.  According to Tony Spawforth, the multi-story, labyrinth-like structure was constantly added to over centuries until 1370 B.C. and had advanced drainage system (2018, p. 24).  A large collection of wall paintings were also found in the complex ruins, many of which illustrate bulls, as well as evidence of a written language, referred to as Linear A.

North Gate at Knossos complex, discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in the 1900s.

Knossos is guessed to have been the real-life setting of the myth of the Minotaur.  The legend says that king Minos sought Poseidon’s godly approval of his ascension to the throne by asking for a white bull.  A condition of the bull’s presence  was that it be sacrificed to Poseidon, but king Minos wanted to keep it.  So, Poseidon cast a love spell on Minos’ wife, she fell in love with the bull, and gave birth to a violent, half-bull-half-human child.  The Minotaur was locked in a labyrinth and fed human children from Athens, that is, until Theseus, prince of Athens, defeated the creature.

A statue of Theseus combating the Minotaur found in the Tuileries Garden, Paris.

It has been said that the Minoan civilisation ended following a number of natural disasters.  The eruption of a volcano on Santorini island generated a major earthquake, which in turn, set off an ashy tsunami that hit the vast majority of islands in the Aegean sea.  While no evidence of tsunami-caused damage has been uncovered on Crete, the damage caused to smaller islands greatly impacted trade and hurt Crete economically (Luis 2017).  This decline of the Minoan civilisation allowed Mycenaeans to rise as the regional power.

Mycenaean Civilisation (1900 B.C. to 1100 B.C.)

The Mycenaean civilisation were from continental Greece.  Its name is derived from its centre, Mycenae, where Agamemnon was king according to Greek myth. Homer wrote about Mycenae and Agamemnon in both his works the Iliad and the Odyssey.  It was in the former, that he describes Agamemnon’s self-centered leadership that unnecessarily stalled the Trojan War (Cartwright 2018). Born sometime between 1200 B.C. and 900 B.C., Homer remains one of the most influential writers in history.  It is because of the Mycenaean civilisation, who developed a written language known as Linear B.  Unlike Minoan Linear A, Mycenaean Linear B, can be identified as a precursor to Ancient Greek and can successfully be translated.

Mark Cartwright indicates that typical Mycenae architecture surrounds megarons, a centre hall with pillared entranceways, which would later inspire the renowned style of Greek temples such as the Parthenon (2013).  In addition to the megarons, a large stone wall acted as a defensive barrier to the palace complex.  These walls were characterised as Cyclopean, after the mythical one-eyed giants who must have been the only thing strong enough to move the stones and create the walls (Cartwright 2013).

Archaeological ruins in Mycenae, UNESCO world-heritage site.

The Mycenaean civilisation rebuilt and expanded trade in the area.  Objects made of ivory, gold, and copper were found in the area dating to this time (Cartwright 2013), indicating an upper class with expensive taste and trade relations with much farther territories than previously found.  The Mycenaeans continued to form a unified culture among all Greeks on the mainland and islands. Many Greek myths emerged from the time of the Myceneans and even after their destruction, the foundations they laid in terms of Greek culture survived through the dark age.

Greek Dark Age

There are many, but no conclusive, explanations for the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation.  In approximately 1200 B.C., a number of Mycenaean palaces were reinforced with large stone walls and painted vases depict armoured, marching men have been found from approximately the same time.  Some estimates suggest these are evidence of a large battle arose following a Dorian invasion; others say that the decline was political, razing the extravagance of the upper class and its luxury items and returning the population to a simpler farming time (Spawforth 2018, p. 31).  Additional factors, such as climate change, mass-fires, and drought, have also been cited as reasons for the Mycenaean civilisation’s decline.  What is known definitively is that it was the destruction of the Mycenaeans that launched Greece into a ‘dark age‘, so-named due to a complete blackout of written accounts and art.  Without written and artistic clues, archaeologists have remained more or less uncertain of what occurred in the period from 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C.

Greek history then resumed in the 800s B.C. to become what it is today.  The Greek civilisations of the Bronze Age were the start to human advancement.  While ancient Greece expanded from these civilisations and the Mycenaean language, it took a new form and culture.  To read further into what followed the dawn of Greek civilisation and understand ancient Greek history, grab yourself a copy of The Story of Greece and Rome by Tony Spawforth (2018, Yale University Press).

Additional Articles That May Interest You

History of Santorini: From the Minoans to the Greek Republic The history of the Greek islands of Santorini (or Thera) stretches back to the Neolithic Era more than 3,000 years ago. A place of great importance …
Creating Athens Aerial view of Athens, Greece This article Creating Athens traces the civilisations of antiquity to the rise of Athens as a city-state after the world’s first “Dark Age”. It is intended as background …

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