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Sicilian Peoples: The Sicanians
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Some Terms
B.C. - Before the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also B.C.E., before the "common" era.
Bronze Age - Era of first tools and weapons made from copper and bronze, in Greece beginning around 3000 BC, prior to Iron Age.
chalcedony - Mineral formations of quartz and similar substances, formerly used to make primitive tools.
Copper Age - Earliest period of the Bronze Age, varying by region, before copper was alloyed with tin to form bronze for tools and weapons.
Early Minoan - Minoan (Cretan) civilization from 4000 BC to 2100 BC.
Indo-European - Many societies of Europe, southern Asia and southwest Asia, identifiable by 1000 BC based on linguistic similarities.
Iron Age - Era of tools made from iron, beginning around 1200 BC, in Greece around 1100 BC, in Sicily probably with Greeks circa 700 BC. Followed Bronze Age.
Late Bronze Age - In Sicily the era from about 1270 BC until circa 650 BC, immediately prior to Iron Age introduced by Greeks.
Late Minoan - Minoan (Cretan) civilization from 1550 BC to 1100 BC.
Middle Minoan - Minoan (Cretan) civilization from 2100 BC to 1550 BC.
Minoan - Aegean civilization of ancient Crete, from 4000 BC to 1100 BC.
Mycenean - Late Bronze Age civilization of ancient Peloponnese contemporary to Late Minoan (Cretan) development. Relating to ancient Mycenae.
Neolithic - literally the "New Stone Age" immediately preceding the Bronze Age.
Phoenician - Semitic language of ancient Phoenicians.
Pleistocene Epoch - Geological era ending ten thousand years ago (8000 BC), before the Holocene (present epoch).
Proto-Sicanian - Various hypothetical, indigenous Sicilian cultures, somewhat influenced by eastern Mediterranean societies, thought to immediately precede identifiable Sicanian culture from around 3000 BC until circa 2000 BC.
Sicania - The "Sikania" of Homer's Odyssey, referring to Sicily and particularly the Sicanian Mountains.
Sicanian - Native people of Sicily, from "sika" for chalcedony (Italian "selce") found in valleys they inhabited. Origins identified from 2000-1600 BC following Proto-Sicanian cultures.
Siceliots - Greek colonists of Sicily and their descendants.
Sicels - Also Sikels from Greek "Si'Keloi," Italic people arriving in eastern Sicily circa 1200 BC.
Sikelia - Classical Greek name for Sicily, based on name of "Si'Keloi" (Sicels).


Greek temple built upon Sicanian ruins.Their origins are elusive. Of Sicily's three most ancient peoples (Sicanians, Sicels, Elymians), the indigenous Sicanians (or Sicans) of central and western Sicily were present at the earliest date, as the evidence suggests a more recent introduction of the Sicel ("Siculian") civilization in eastern Sicily and the Elymian one in the northwest. It is important to note that elements of all three societies may indeed have been indigenous; it may have been the Sicels' culture, rather than the people themselves, that arrived from other regions. (It is theoretically possible that comparatively small numbers of individuals from a more "advanced" society could have arrived in ancient Sicily, possibly for trade, bringing knowledge of their own deities, cuisine and writing systems to the early Sicanians or Sicels.) Archeologically and socially, differences between the Sicans and Sicels were subtle in more "recent" times (i.e. 600 BC), though their languages --eventually using characters based on Phoenician-- were distinctive of each other. The most relevant archeological finds, and certainly those devoid of external cultural influences, relate to the period before Phoenician and Greek incursions into Sicily (circa 800 BC). Much of our knowledge of the earliest Sicilians comes to us from Greek literary sources or, in some cases, quasi-historical ones. Given to poetic embellishment, few of these "foreign" authors appear to be particularly reliable, and some (particularly Diodoros Siculus) are notoriously whimsical. One need only look to the rather negative Greek and Roman characterizations of the neighboring Phoenicians and Carthaginians to appreciate the fact that historical bias and revisionism are nothing new.

Precious little knowledge of the Sicanians is based on elements important in the identification of any civilization --their own language, literature, religion, recorded history or centuries-old traditions. In most of these respects, our study of Sicanian (and "Proto-Sicanian") recorded history is extremely limited compared to that of the ancient Assyrians, Chinese, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. When evidence is scarce, archaeology becomes an imprecise science, relying heavily upon theories and (often) supposition. Beyond vague generalities, "expert" archeologists rarely agree upon the subtler implications of their discoveries. Their conclusions are often based on art (or what remains of it), traces Phoenician, Greek, Early Roman. Sicanian was written with the Phoenician alphabet.of architecture (typically foundations and necropoli), comparative studies (the influence of well-known foreign cultures) or historical hearsay (foreigners' descriptions), fortunately augmented by scientifically reliable analysis (such as dating processes). In the case of long-extinct cultures such as that of the Sicanians, archeology is our best route to greater knowledge, though it is now complemented by multi-disciplinary studies involving climatology and other topics. Certain genetic research, for example, can provide general information regarding migration patterns of ancient peoples, though even identifying typically "Sicanian" gene markers has, for the moment, proven challenging. The very term "indigenous" is rather subjective because "modern" humans actually migrated to the Mediterranean region, albeit tens of millennia ago. (Nobody has "always" been here; in terms of remote human ancestry, we're all "African.") Sicanians are said to be indigenous to Sicily because theirs is the earliest society which can be identified as inhabiting our island.

Humans were present in Sicily at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, about 10,000 years ago. Cave drawings confirm a presence by 6000 BC, if not earlier, and there is no evidence to suggest anything but a continuous presence since that period. In general terms, early Sicily may be represented by the following periods:

8000 BC - early settlements and cave drawings in coastal areas such as Addaura (near Palermo).

3000 BC - use of copper tools in certain localities, probably reflecting non-Sicilian influences.

2500 BC - use of bronze throughout "Proto-Sicanian" Sicily; contact with foreign cultures.

1600 BC - presence of an identifiable, distinct "Sicanian" culture across Sicily.

1200 BC - arrival of Sicels in eastern coastal areas, encouraging Sican migration westward.

There is little evidence that the Sicanians ever made wide use of any written language before the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet (shown here with the Greek and Early Roman alphabets), which they wrote from right to left. (Mycenean script has been found on some pieces of pottery.) On a pre-historic level, it seems probable that they were descended, for the most part, from Sicily's Bronze Age inhabitants. Indeed, the Sicans probably represented the main group descended from these first indigenous Sicilians. The theory of the Sicanians' Iberian origin is supported by a rather few linguistic factors thought to be shared with early Iberian tongues, though the evidence is hardly conclusive. The name of Spain's ancient Sicano River has been cited to suggest a common link, but it could be merely coincidental. It was the Greek historian Thucydides who first suggested Iberian roots, yet his authority for this is not known. That said, the best (and most recent) scholarly position is that the Sicanians were indeed natives of Sicily, while the Sicels immigrated from mainland Italy (possibly from Liguria, Latium or even Alpine regions) and the Elymians from the Asian regions of the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps via northern Africa.

Though largely hypothetical, a logical theory has been advanced that the Sicanians were not initially part of any Indo-European population, though recent discoveries imply at least isolated contact with some Mycenean and Minoan cultures --probably on the basis of trade. Living independently of other societies, the earliest Sicani naturally would have developed as a unique population lacking clearly-defined cultural links to the Indo-European cultures of Italy, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. (In this way they were similar to the earliest Iberians.) The Sicanians' name probably derives from the chalcedony called "sica" found in some of the areas they inhabited, and from which they styled tools in the Neolithic era. An Iron Age presence is indicated at Gela, Sant' Angelo Muxaro and other sites in the Agrigento area. The Minoan and Mycenean links explain possible similarities of the Thapsos and Castellucio cultures to Aegean ones.

That the Sicans apparently assimilated more rapidly and easily than the Sicels with the colonising Greeks suggests at least some affinity, if not commonality, between Sicanian and Hellenistic culture. This peaceful amalgamation took just a few centuries, from about 700 BC to 400 BC, and before long many Sicanian cities were essentially Greek. Our knowledge of this gradual union of Sicanian and Hellenistic culture is primarily archeological. Even today, the actual sites of ancient Sicilian localities (including Sicanian settlements) mentioned in Greek and Roman accounts are occasionally discovered and identified. A future find could yield greater information about the Sicanians.

Despite literary references to the contrary, there is little evidence to suggest a strong central government (or monarchy) among the Sicanians. Like the cities of Phoenicia and Greece, the Sicanian settlements were probably independent, or at least quasi-autonomous, forming a very loose confederation. There appears to have been little, if any, open conflict with the Sicels to the east and the Elymians to the northwest, though the arrival of each seems to have encouraged the Sicanians to migrate toward other areas.

Before the arrival of the Sicels, the Sicanians (or the prehistoric predecessor culture from which they emerged) probably occupied most of Sicily, though they were hardly isolated. Localised distinctions and "foreign" influences are often mentioned. For example, similarities of southeastern Sicilian prehistoric cultures to Maltese, Mycenean, Minoan or north African ones, or similarities between the cultures of northeastern Sicily and the Lipari Island cultures having links to mainland Italic ones. Much has been discovered of Sicily's Bronze Age (2500-1250 BC) societies, with the southeast Sicilian Thapsos and Castelluccian cultures the object of much study in the last few decades. It has been suggested that there were significant differences between the prehistoric cultures of far-eastern and far-western Sicily. When did these cultures emerge as the Sicilian society we refer to as Sicanian? Were Bronze Age peoples such as the Castelluccians "Sicanians" as we understand that term today?

Such questions are not easy to answer, but "Proto-Sicanian" might be a good name for the societies of these early Sicilian peoples. "Society" usually presumes interaction among communities, while "history" usually is thought to begin with the existence of some form of recorded knowledge beyond cave drawings (through oral history, pictographs, hieroglyphs, cuneiform, runes, letters), and it's difficult to know Routes to Sicily...when Sicanian "recorded" history actually began. Little is known of the Sicans' literature or mythology. Developed some time before 1200 BC, the Phoenician alphabet was used in some form in early Etruscan and Greek, and also influenced the writing systems of Hebrew and Aramaic. The only known alphabet of the Sicanians was essentially Phoenician. It would not be inappropriate to postulate that an identifiably "Sicanian" culture existed in many parts of Sicily by 1600 BC; it certainly existed before the presumed date of arrival of the Elymians and Sicels a few centuries later. To place this in a wider Mediterranean context, the Biblical Book of Exodus (a point of reference for Jews, Christians and Muslims) describes events involving Moses and Ramses II in Egypt around 1300 BC, though the work itself was written sometime afterward.

It is difficult to overlook the frequency with which Greek and Roman writers mention the Sicanians --among them Appollodorus, Diodorus Siculus, Herodotus, Homer, Strabo, Pausanias and Ovid. Indeed, one of the Greeks' earliest names for Sicily was "Sikania." In his Histories, Herodotus mentions the Sicanian city of Kamikos (near present-day Sant'Angelo Muxaro in the Agrigento area), and the legendary Sicanian king Kokalos figures in the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Sicanian architecture was simpler than that of the Phoenicians and Greeks. Few standing structures survive from the Sicanian culture, but the so-called "Temple of Diana" (shown here) overlooking Cefalù was built upon an older Sicanian temple to their own goddess of the hunt --analogous to the Phoenician Astarte, Greek Artemis and Roman Diana.

With the exception of the legendary Kokalos, who (like King Arthur centuries later) was probably based on a historical figure, few prominent personages are identified with the Sicanians, though the name of the Sicanian Mountains recalls their legacy. The Sicel leader Ducetius instigated a revolt of his people against the colonizing Greeks, but there appears to have been no such movement among the Sicans. The Greek name "Sikelia" probably came from the name of the Sicels (or Sikels). The Sicanians, like many native peoples around the world, needed no name to describe their own society.

Genetic Research: In general, studies of population genetics in Sicily tend to confirm, rather than refute, what we already presume to know about the various Sicilian peoples based on available historical, archeological and ethnological information. Here is a brief summary of an early genetic study involving potential identification of Sicily's three "native" peoples correlative to genetic factors in the current population:

Autosomal Microsatellite and mtDNA Genetic Analysis in Sicily

DNA samples from 465 blood donors living in 7 towns of Sicily have been collected according to well defined criteria, and their genetic heterogeneity tested on the basis of 9 autosomal microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA polymorphisms for a total of 85 microsatellite allele and 10 mtDNA haplogroup frequencies. A preliminary account of the results shows that: a) the samples are genetically heterogeneous; b) the first principal coordinates of the samples are correlated more with their longitude than with their latitude, and this result is even more remarkable when one outlier sample (Butera) is not considered; c) distances among samples calculated from allele and haplogroup frequencies and from the isonymy matrix are weakly correlated (r = 0.43, P = 0.06) but such correlation disappears (r = 0.16) if the mtDNA haplogroups alone are taken into account; d) mtDNA haplogroups and microsatellite distances suggest settlements of people occurred at different times: divergence times inferred from microsatellite data seem to describe a genetic composition of the town of Sciacca mainly derived from settlements after the Roman conquest of Sicily (First Punic War, 246 BC), while all other divergence times take root from the second to the first millennium BC, and therefore seem to backdate to the pre-Hellenistic period.

A more reliable association of these diachronic genetic strata to different historical populations (e.g. Sicani, Elymians, Sicels), if possible, must be postponed to the analysis of more samples and hopefully more informative uniparental DNA markers such as the recently available DHPLC-SNP polymorphisms of the Y chromosome.

V. Romano, F. Calì, A. Ragalmuto, R. P. D'Anna, A. Flugy, G. De Leo, O. Giambalvo, A. Lisa, O. Fiorani, C. Di Gaetano, A. Salerno, R. Tamouza, D. Charron, G. Zei, G. Matullo and A. Piazza

- - - Annals of Human Genetics, January 2003 (Volume 67, Number 1, Page 42).    

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2004 Vincenzo Salerno