Thursday, September 14, 2017

Conversation at Sithonia

A view of Holy Mount Athos from Sithonia, looking east

This August, I spent a few days in Sithonia visiting a relative on my Greek husband's side.  We got to talking about history (of course), and about the shepherds of Northern Greece, and their yearly movements across hundreds miles as they sought green pastures for their flocks.  Sithonia happens to be one of three fingers that reach out into the Aegean Sea from the Northern Greek mainland.  The two others are Kassandra and Athos.  Athos is the land of Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain of Christian Orthodoxy, the place of many Orthodox Monasteries, and homeland of Aristotle.

As it turns out, Kassandra and Sithonia were until quite recently, the wintering pastures of shepherds who would drive their flocks down from summer pastures in the Pindus mountains, to this temperate wintering ground, more than a hundred miles.  It would take them about a month, and on their journey, they would yearly drive their flocks through Thessaloniki in a ceremonial weeklong parade each October.  They did this until 1970.

This got us thinking about human models of prehistory that assume that somehow people where confined to limited territories over thousands of years.  The shepherds, and their descendants, know better.

My Greek relative then pulled out a book and showed me how Plutarch had written about the British Isles, and that these far distant places were well known by Greeks, even by common people (certainly shepherds).

Domesticated sheep bones appear in Greece approximately 10,000 years ago.  There is no reason to assume that if shepherds were moving across hundreds of miles each year within the last hundred years, that they would not also have done so 10,000 years ago.  Early Neolithic people would easily have spanned an area extending over thousands of miles in the thousand or more years in which early domestication processes occurred.

This is why I find these discussions about the "origin" of the Neolithic, or for that matter, the "origin" of Indo-European languages, to be so utterly misguided.  And looking farther back, there is no reason to think that Pleistocene hunters weren't also highly mobile, and confined only by their ability to find shelter, food and water.

We will never find an origin limited to a few hundred miles for these.  The Neolithic did not "begin" in Anatolia any more than in the Balkans or the Taurus Zagros Mountains.  Nor can the origin of "Indo-European" languages be found in a geographic area limited by a few hundred, or even a few thousand, miles.  The Recent African Origin for modern humans is likely also too simplistic, for the same reason.


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