Window to the past: Alepotrypa Cave

A coastline with cliffs, green hills, and blue water with a small sailboat

Photo © William Parkinson, The Field Museum. 

Alepotrypa Cave is like a time capsule of life in Neolithic Greece. The cave lay undisturbed for 5,000 years before it was rediscovered in the 1950s, and Greek archaeologists started excavating the cave in the 1970s. Since 2010, Field Museum associate curator Bill Parkinson has collaborated with archaeologists in Greece to understand the significance of this space.

Alepotrypa (meaning “fox hole”) Cave is located near Diros Bay on the Mani Peninsula in Greece. The people who used this cave lived long before the Greeks that hosted the first Olympic games and built massive temples. Although the people of Alepotrypa Cave have not been celebrated in legend or popular culture, uncovering their existence gives us important insight into life at a certain place and time.

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The inside of a large cave, lit up orange and yellow
A large space at the back of Alepotrypa Cave, where an entire Soldier Field football stadium could fit. Photo © William Parkinson, The Field Museum. 

Alepotrypa Cave was so well-preserved because its entrance was likely sealed by an earthquake. Humans used this cave from about 8,000 to 5,000 years ago, during a pivotal time in history called the Neolithic period. Literally meaning “New Stone Age,” the Neolithic marked a moment in history when humans had domesticated plants and animals for the first time. From artifacts and remains found inside the expansive cave, we are able to determine how they farmed, ate, fought, and what sort of familial networks they lived in. We can tell they ate a land-based diet of grains, vegetables, and animals like cow, pig, and goat. Skeletal remains reveal that they fought a lot, and that many of them were closely related. 

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An archaeological site showing two skeletons embracing
Photo © William Parkinson, The Field Museum.

Even though much has changed since the inhabitants of Diros Bay lived, some aspects of the human experience transcend time. The remains of this embracing couple were found in what was once a village near the cave. Archaeologists believe that village and the cave were inhabited during the same time period. DNA evidence shows that the larger figure is male and that his arms are wrapped around a smaller female figure. Beyond that, we don’t know much more about their relationship. But Alepotrypa Cave provides a new window into the lives of these people who lived at a unique place and time.

See how modern technologies help give us a new glimpse into the cave.

By Madelaine Clarke, Digital Communications Intern