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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations - Statue of Aphrodite

The Birth of an Island

Map of eastern Mediterannean featuring Cyprus and its surrounding countries

Cyprus lies in the eastern Mediterranean, 43 miles off the coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).

Cyprus rose from the sea, a product of geologic uplift. Geology played a decisive role in the development of Cyprus’s natural environment, as well as in the human history of the island. The rugged landscape has affected every aspect of life on the island, from climate and rainfall to the distribution of plants and wildlife, as well as its social and economic development. Copper deposits in the Troodos Mountains are among the five richest in the world, and this mineral wealth has been a crucial element in Cyprus’s history.

First Mammals

Pygmy hippopotamus skull

Pygmy hippopotamus skull
ca. 10,000–8,500 BC
from Aetokremmos

Dwarf elephants, pygmy hippos, one or two species of mice, and the genet (a cat-like relative of the mongoose) were the only mammals on Cyprus before humans arrived. The hippos and elephants probably came during the last Ice Age, more than 100,000 years ago, by swimming from Asia Minor. The strait was then only about 19 miles (30 kilometers) wide.

Young dwarf elephant tusk

Young dwarf elephant tusk
ca. 10,000–8,500 BC
from Aetokremmos

Dwarf elephants (Elephas cypriotes) were about 40 inches (1 meter) tall; pygmy hippos (Phanourios minor) were about 30 inches (.75 meter). Their ancestors may have been full-sized, but, as with mammals on many islands, a smaller version evolved on Cyprus, where food resources were limited and no predators threatened them.

The elephants and hippos were extinct by the time the first villages appeared on Cyprus, 10,500 years ago. The role of humans in their extinction is unclear, but these animals would have been easy prey for hunters who may have journeyed from the mainland.

 

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