One of Italy’s most picturesque islands, sleepy yet stunning Levanzo has just one tourist attraction: a mind-blowing collection of prehistoric graffiti from not one but multiple epochs. It tells an epic story of an unbelievable time scale.
A rocky outcrop shoulders the rugged, balding hill, standing guard over the village below. Whitewashed homes with royal blue shutters squat beside the Mediterranean sea. Which, now that you mention it, has such clear waters — flickering in teal and deep indigo — it seems to be trying on a Caribbean coat for size. A few dozen local fishing boats hover lackadaisically in the water.
Flashes of fuschia, white and magenta petunias line the seaside walkway. Yeah, you get it: the aesthetics are on point. You’ll be looking out for the art director for the photo shoot you must have surely, surely, stumbled upon.The occasional vespa and bike, propped up wherever they please as though their owner has just dashed off for a quick espresso, perfect the quintessential Italian mise-en-scène.
And while you won’t see much in the way of cars or traffic, venture a bit further from the postcard-like port area and you may well come across a jeep or two. Maybe even some mules.
That’s because, beyond the tiled alleyways of the one and only village of Cala Dogana you’ve just taken in more or less, this tiny island has more than its fair share of wide, open spaces. Its scenic hiking trails and secluded rocky coves ripe for swimming seem to beckon you by name.
What you won’t find on sleepy Levanzo is the influx of tourists that flock to the more popular islands of Greece and southern Italy, nor the facilities that cater for them. With a population of a couple of hundred* and just 5.82 km² to its name, Levanzo is about as un-touristy as an Italian island in the 21st-century era of mass tourism could possibly be. It has zero souvenir shops, four restaurants, and so few lodgings you could count them on your own two hands. At least for now.
A long-overlooked Mediterranean island with an ancient past: Levanzo’s history
So just where is this Mediterranean island so mystically nailing the beauty-to-tourist-numbers ratio? Levanzo is the smallest and rockiest of the Aegadian (aka Egadi) Islands off Sicily’s northwest coast.
Though for now at least this archipelago remains largely off the Anglophone tourist’s radar (at least by Italy’s standards), it saw some pretty epic action in centuries gone by. This was no doubt a consequence of these isles’ strategic goldmine of a location, poised like stepping stones to the repeatedly-and-I-mean-repeatedly-invaded island of Sicily. That and their bountiful local tuna reserves.
Just about everyone who was anyone had a go at the Aegadian Islands — it’s a bit like a rollcall, really. There were the Saracens, Vandals, Normans, Goths, Spaniards (for more than 400 years), some Genovese bankers, and a wealthy family of tuna magnates. (I wasn’t kidding about the tuna.)
Earlier still, Levanzo’s neighbour Favignana, the main island of the Aegadian chain, is believed to have made an appearance in Homer’s Odyssey as ‘Goat’s Island’.
And it was around these parts that, in 241 BC, the ancient Romans defeated the Carthaginian fleet and wrapped up the colossal 23-year clash that was the First Punic War. This then kicked off Rome’s annexation of Sicily as its first permanent province (read: imperial ‘conquest’). Ancient history in the making.
But ancient Rome seems positively modern by the standards of Levanzo’s prime, albeit hidden, attraction: an artistic record of a time so unfathomably long ago that it predates this island even being an island.
A rocky ride and a zigzag path
Quick heads-up, though: the cave that houses these prehistoric remnants, the Grotta del Genovese, is only accessible on pre-booked tours. (And do warn them in advance that you’ll need a tour in English unlike d*ckhead over here [yours truly] — l’inglese isn’t a given. I told you this place was un-touristy.)
If you choose to go by land, buckle up. You’ll be whisked away into a rickety jeep for a bumpy ride across dirt mule tracks. En route northeast, you’ll pass dusty copper hills, dry stone walls, and old farmhouses. There are pine forests and greenery to be found further afield, but much of the Levanzo hinterland looks arid from the jeep window.
Eventually the driver pulls up at a seemingly random stretch of rocky track. The only hint of what lies beyond is a no-frills red sign bearing the words Grotta del Genovese and an arrow pointing towards the sea.
Following the path on its steep zigzag descent towards the ocean, you pass rugged coastal heath and hear the caws of seagulls.
After a good few hundred metres you come to a large protrusion of limestone, all gnarled and weathered with age, overlooking the sea. This is the entrance — the pre-cave, if you will. You’re nearly there. Beyond lies the Grotta or, as one local lyrically put it (originally in Italian):
an open door to the depths of time.
When it’s your turn to creep through, duck. Next comes a narrow tunnel; you’ll have to crouch-walk your way in to avoid an overhanging chunk of cave wall to the right. Go on, closer, and mind your head…
Levanzo’s prehistoric treasure
Entering the dim, shadowy central chamber of the cave, you pause and take in the quiet, your eyes scanning the rocky surfaces for the reason you came.
And there they are: crude black markings scattered on the ancient, age-worn cave walls around you. These are the workings of a prehistoric hand or two.**
Naturally, your eyes are first drawn to the paintings. Dating from the late Neolithic, 5–6,000 years ago, these 100 or so primitive artworks depict various animal, fish and humanoid figures.
‘Art’ seems, well, to the layperson at least, maybe a little strong a word. Some are just random blotches; others recognisably human but with limbs protruding in weirdly stiff right angles; some pot-bellied, some bottle-necked. All in all many sort of look like the bumbling scribblings of a preschooler — the kind they’d proudly show off, only for you to feign admiration while sticking them up on the fridge.*** Lucky you came for the staggering historical and geological record these pictures represent rather than the aesthetics.
The drawings of men are straightforward: most have thin, elongated torsos, with crappily drawn arms and legs. The ‘female’ figures, however, are depicted largely without limbs, and in an exaggerated waspish, hourglass shape. Experts reckon they may in fact be fertility symbols or representations of a mother cult divinity rather than depictions of actual human women. They show similarities to other prehistoric rock art sites around the Mediterranean.
But perhaps more interesting are the animals. Twenty-nine in total were painted in a mixture of ochre, charcoal and animal fats.
Fauna, fish and fertility: What the rock art reveals
The marine creatures are the most easily recognisable of the lot. They include what seem to be a dolphin and, fittingly given the Aegadian Islands’ major export millennia later, tuna. These are among the earliest known depictions of fish in Europe. Which may sound like a boring piece of prehistoric trivia, until you consider the implications of that given the importance of fish as a food source.
As for the land animals, it’s harder to say. They form a kind of Rorschach test stretching across the millennia, up for interpretation by the onlooker.
Take the biggest of the lot: a huge bovine-looking creature attached to one of the hourglass ‘women’ shapes. Is it a massive pig, boar, bison, cow or, more creatively (yet anachronistically****), an elephant?!
Others have been tentatively identified as wild pigs, deer, horses and a donkey. You might notice one that kind of looks like a little dog staring up at his owner — but then, looking at such ancient sketches with 21st-century eyes, chances are you’re projecting.
So… what do they all mean? Noting the frequent associations of caves like this with burial and death, archaeologist Robert Leighton pondered the possible ritual significance of these drawings:
Darkness and secrecy are pervasive in this context. Despite the odd animal figure, there is no implication of a real scene or place being shown. The anthropomorphic figures seem to be evolving out of a human identity, perhaps towards reincarnation as animals, giving the impression of a transition to ‘another’ world, or a rite of passage. They may represent spirits or ancestors.
Whatever the meaning — we may never know for sure — look out for the red ones, such as one reddish-brown guy hovering above a fold in the cave wall, seemingly on his lonesome. He’s actually a fair bit older than his black counterparts. He’s probably Paleolithic.
That’s what’s so mind-boggling about Levanzo’s rock art: it comprises etchings by prehistoric humans from not one but two different eras, archaeologically speaking. Not just centuries apart but thousands of years apart. It’s easy to shrug ‘Stone Age is Stone Age’, but think of it this way: there is at least as much time between these two eras, the Neolithic and Paleolithic, as from ours to the late Neolithic.***** And they are both here on this wall.
Paleolithic pictures: A glimpse into deep time
So, once you’ve taken your fill of Neolithic remnants, thank you very much, lean in a little closer and look out for some even more ancient artworks.
The next lot — roughly 30 engravings carved into the cave walls — will take you back to the Late Palaeolithic. We’re talking some 11–12,000 years ago. These ones are more intricate and harder to make out; you’ll be grateful for the tour guide on hand.
Like the later Neolithic paintings, these Paleolithic artworks also depict animals, but there are key differences. These earlier works are far more naturalistic than the stylistic (if crude) Neolithic ones, for one thing. But the animals are also depicted in a different context: there is a running bull, a deer, a horse and a mystery creature, arranged in a scene that some have interpreted as a hunt.
After all, being from the Late Paleolithic era, these artists would have been hunter-gatherers. It was a time of intense climate change, of shrinking glaciers and transforming ecosystems, of more than one human species pottering about. It’s believed that gathering shellfish was in fact a recent Paleolithic innovation for locals here on the Aegadian Islands.
By the time the later black Neolithic paintings were splotched on these same cave walls millennia later, agriculture had become all the rage in southern Europe; humans in this part of the world were domesticating animals and cultivating plants. Those later artworks were the work of farmers — evidence of massive social and cultural evolution between the two epochs. (Read a breakdown of the contrasts and developments between the two eras here.)
What’s more, the island itself also saw great change during this time. For one thing, when the Paleolithic artists were at work carving their etchings on the walls here, Levanzo was not an island at all; it was still linked to the Sicilian ‘mainland’. In the thousands of years between the two lots of rock art, the sea came to swallow the land bridge that connected Levanzo to Sicily (shrinking glaciers and ice caps = rising sea levels, as you know). And so it became an island. Talk about a changing landscape.
For the millennia that followed, while the society around it slowly yet profoundly evolved, this random little cave chamber remained a secret place of art and ritual.
Rock art re-discovered
Until, somewhere along the way, it was forgotten.
At some point the last ‘stone age’ artist — we’ll never know when, much less who — put down their ochre and tools. And at some unknown point among the thousands of years and multiple archaeological eras that flew by, ticking from prehistoric to BC/BCE to AD/CE to modern with an ever-quickening pace, the knowledge of these treasures dropped out of living memory. As the world beyond transformed and transformed and transformed again on an unthinkably radical geological, demographic and cultural scale, the artworks remained hidden away in this dark cavern by the sea.
Well into the twentieth century, local fishermen, peasants and even rabbits (why not) had in fact used the cave entry as a place of refuge during storms, but this inner chamber had remained unexplored.
An artist from Florence named Francesca Minellono re-discovered the pictures on the walls in 1949. Hearing of a small cave popular among rabbits while on holiday in Levanzo, she convinced some local fishermen to show her and crawled into the cave headfirst to explore. Imagine the awe she must have felt at finding these prehistoric graffiti — unseen by human eyes for literal millennia — tucked away in this cave come rabbits’ den.
The secret was out: one of Italy’s richest collections of prehistoric artworks was on the map. The rest, as they say, is history.
And so your time here comes to an end. Back out you go — out of the cave, back in the jeep and across Levanzo to where you started: the pretty village of Cala Dogana. Back to the 21st century.
But as you wander along Levanzo’s hilly paths and maybe, if you’re lucky, swim in its deliciously blue waters, cast your mind back to the island’s deepest, darkest corner. To the people of millennia and millennia ago who once walked here, too — in an utterly different landscape — and to the mark they left here for posterity. An inscrutable glimpse into deep time.
*Estimates seem to place it as always either 200 or 450 people, nothing in between.
**And no, before you ask, photos aren’t permitted.
***All the while aware that, even as a nearly-30-something, you probably couldn’t do much better yourself anyway (or that just me?).
****This is a totally only tangentially related side note, but a juicy one if I may say so myself, as someone half-Sicilian — it blew my mind to learn that a) elephants were once in SICILY of all places, for hundreds of thousands of years; b) they either swam or crossed a land bridge to reach the island; c) once here, they shrunk fairly rapidly in evolutionary terms and became the smallest elephant species ever known on earth, the Sicilian dwarf elephant, reaching less than 1m in height and weighing only about 100kg — less than a domestic adult pig, and about 1% of the size of the straight-tusked elephants (10 tonnes) they are believed to have evolved from; d) the Sicilian dwarf elephants were in Sicily before HUMANS were in Sicily — they went extinct when humans arrived on the island some 10,000 years ago. Funny that. As Fossil Hunters explain:
The dwarf elephants survived on Sicily for hundreds of thousands of years, but like the straight-tusked elephants before them, humans on the mainland were searching for new places to live. They, too, set off across the Mediterranean, in boats and traversing land bridges, hoping to find new lands. They found Sicily and its dwarf elephants around 11,000 years ago. Because the dwarf elephants had been isolated for so long, they lacked the innate fear of humans possessed by most mammals. Elephants are curious, intelligent creatures, and they probably investigated the first humans they saw. A 100-kg animal could feed a tribe of hungry humans for many, many days, and the dwarf elephant’s lack of fear made it very easy to hunt. Sicily could have supported no more than a few hundred dwarf elephants, and this small population was probably wiped out in a few decades.
Finally, e) some people reckon that skulls of these dwarf elephants gave rise to the ancient myth of the cyclops; our forebears may have interpreted the huge nasal cavity in these skulls as one eye!
*****I’ve stuck with the analysis/chronology/interpretation on the cave’s official website, at least for now, but note that some scholars have even argued that three archaeological ages are represented here:
The engravings are thought to date to the upper Paleolithic (ca. 10,000 BC), the red painted figures to the Late Mesolithic (ca. 7000 BC), and the black painted figures to the Late Neolithic-Chalcolithic (ca. 3500 BC) based on comparison with finds in other Sicilian caves (e.g. Addaura)
Tips, Links and Resources
What you should know before you go to Levanzo:
- Grotta del Genovese website (ie the caves). Remember to book your visit to the caves in advance.
- You’ll need to get a ferry to the island from the mainland (namely Trapani). For more information, here are some helpful links courtesy of Frommers and two TripAdvisor threads.
- I visited on a day trip but next time would definitely stay at least one night.
Deep dive into the history of the island with my nerdy round-up of resources for learning more:
- More information about the engravings and paintings in the cave from the official website.
- A conference paper containing an analysis of the cave paintings by Robert Tykot, Andrea Vianello and Kyle Freund from ResearchGate.
- Google Books preview of archaeologist and academic Robert Leighton’s Sicily Before History: An Archaeological Survey from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age.
- A handy comparison of of the Neolithic vs Paleolithic.
- More about the Florio family from Best of Sicily.
- A nice travel piece about the Egadi Islands in general on Italy Life.
- (Italian language) An in-depth look at the Egadi Islands from Altre Mete.
- (Italian language) The Grotta del Genovese from Storie Enogastronomiche.