It’s Malta, but not as we know it...

Could this be what a postcard of Malta would have looked like, when humans first inhabited the islands 7,000 years ago?

As the Malta Tourism Authority website proudly boasts: ‘Malta is home to 7,000 years of history.’ But… what would the Maltese islands have actually looked like, to the first humans to settle here all those millennia ago? What sort of landscape, and climate, did those early inhabitants have to contend with? How much of Malta has changed, since then; and… why?

Sadly, it may never be possible to provide conclusive answers, to any of those questions. But – at the risk of a little speculation – here is a small list, of the many ways in which ‘Neolithic Malta’ would surely have differed, from the island we are living on today.

Malta’s land-mass was bigger

Exactly by how much, is hard to tell. By 5,900BCE, the Mediterranean had already settled into its present sea-levels: having risen around 150 metres, since the thaw of last Great Ice Age (circa 12,000BCE).

As such, the general footprint of the Maltese islands had become more or less stable, from that point onwards. But there is evidence that – owing to a combination of sea-level fluctuations, and land-subsidence due to erosion – a precise map of Neolithic Malta would have revealed a significantly larger island, than the one we are moe familiar with.

In Marsaxlokk, for instance, there are grain silos dating back to Punic times (c. 2,000BCE) which are today either partially, or totally submerged. And as the whole purpose of silos was to ‘keep food dry’, it is safe to assume that they were originally built on land (probably, at some distance from the shore). Clearly, then, Malta’s coastline once extended further out towards the south-east. And the deeper into prehistory you delve, the larger this submerged ‘peninsula’ would have appeared.

When Malta was still connected by land to Sicily, circa 12,000 years ago, the site of Marsaxlokk towered at least 150 metres above sea-level; and looking eastwards, you would have surveyed an expansive (probably wooded) plain, stretching downwards some 40 km towards the coast.

It is impossible to tell how much of this additional territory still remained, by the time humans finally got here. But there was almost certainly no such thing as ‘Marsaxlokk Bay’, for them to land at. Instead, the site was the confluence of several streams, forming a river (whose course can still be traced on the seabed, today) that flowed eastwards for some distance, before spilling out into the sea.

St Paul’s Bay was likewise an estuary; and the entire eastern half of Malta’s northern littoral – all the way to Delimara – would have stretched out perhaps five or six more kilometres, before reaching the shore.

Elsewhere, there are indications – including ‘cart-ruts’ which mysteriously lead off cliff-edges – that the entire south-western coastline has suffered considerably from land-subsidence, over the past five millennia… and still does, to this day (The Azure Window being a classic case in point).

Filfla, in particular, has shrunk to a mere fraction of its former size, since the Middle Ages alone (as maps from the period all portray, however inaccurately); and especially, since the islet was used as ‘target-practice’ for coastal-defence artillery, after WW2.

Conversely, there are other (smaller) parts of Malta and Gozo, that arguably wouldn’t even have existed at all, in Neolithic times. The entire valley of Burmarrad – from Kennedy Grove, all the way to Wardija – was actually the bottom of a large, open natural inlet: comparable in size to St Julian’s Bay.

Today’s San Pawl Milqi chapel in fact marks the site of what was once a busy harbour, in Phoenician, Greek and Romans times. And the same goes for Xlendi in Gozo (and possibly, Marsalforn Valley too): where the inlet would have snaked its way far deeper inland… before being eventually filled up with alluvial deposits.

On balance, however, Malta has lost far more territory to erosion/flooding, than it ever gained through natural land-reclamation. We have, in a nutshell, ‘shrunk since the Stone Age’…

San Pawl Milqi Chapel

Malta was wetter, and a LOT greener

There is no evidence of any major changes to Malta’s general climate, over the past 7,000 years. Neolithic summers, it seems, were just as hot as those of today (at least, before climate change); and winters were not significantly cooler, either.

But in one respect, things have certainly changed. Far from being an arid island, facing desertification, Malta – and the rest of the Mediterranean – was a good deal ‘rainier’, than it ever has been since. A 2016 study of Malta’s Mid-Holocene Vegetation (7,000-4,600BCE) analysed pollen samples from the period, to determine the precise climactic conditions in which they grew.

They found that “both winter and summer precipitation were generally high”; and “winter precipitation displays much more variability than summer.”

This has profound implications for the topography that would have greeted Malta’s earliest inhabitants, when they first arrived. Most of what we now call ‘Widien’ – from the Arabic ‘Wadi’, originally meaning ‘river’ – would not have been seasonal springs, which dried up in summer. They would have been permanent rivers: meandering their way through the landscape, and creating floodplains, thick with reeds and sedges.

The same study also found that Malta must have been covered by dense vegetation canopy, at the time… in parts, provided by thick woodland (with trees such as the Oak, Ash, Hazelnut, Aleppo Pine, Judas, and Olive); in others, by lush meadows of hawthorn and thyme.

This suggests that the islands were, for the most part, clad in a thick layer of soil: most of which has since been lost to erosion, and/or deforestation… resulting in the typical ‘garigue’ landscape, we are more familiar with today.

Simply put: a picture-postcard of a typical Maltese landscape 7,000 years ago, would probably have looked a lot more like the coastal foothills of the Pyrenees, or the French Alps: thick forests, alternating with wetlands, maquis, steppe, and prairie.

Deer roamed the islands... but no rabbits, hedgehogs, or rats

Sadly, Malta’s first human visitors missed the age when these islands were home to all manner of ‘exotic’ (and sometimes, decidedly dangerous) wild fauna: including pygmy elephant, dwarf hippopotamus, brown bear, wolf, and auroch – the ancestor of all modern cattle. Most of those species died out entirely during the last Ice Age; and all of them are absent from the fossil record, by the time Homo sapiens makes his first appearance.

Nonetheless, a few of survivors from the Palaeolithic did remain: including at least two subspecies of Red Deer, whose bones and antlers were discovered -intermingled with human remains, and pottery fragments – at Għar Dalam.

Għar Dalam

It remains unclear, however, whether Malta’s early inhabitants actually hunted wild deer; or – if so – for how long, before they went extinct. Certainly, however, they did not subsist on hunting: nor even fishing, for that matter. Studies of human DNA from the period, suggest that their diet was almost exclusively (and quite literally) ‘home-grown’.

As part of a trend that would be upheld ever since: humans imported most of what they needed to survive, from the mainland (in this case, Sicily: and possibly North Africa as well). That included domesticated grains like Barley, Emmer, and Einkorn; and livestock such as pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, and horses.

Inadvertently, they also introduced much of what we now consider Malta’s natural (though not ‘indigenous’) wildlife: including the hedgehog, weasel, rabbit, and both species of wild rat (Rattus rattus, and Rattus norvegicus).

The rest is history… or, more accurately ‘prehistory’. Within a few thousand years, human activity had stripped the island of much of its woodland tree-cover – thus paving the way to soil-erosion – while human-introduced species competed against (sometimes, but not always, successfully) the island’s indigenous flora and fauna.