The Proto-Sicanians inhabited Sicily prior to the historical period and identification of the society later identified as "Sicanian."
By 2000 BC, the Sicanians had (at least to some extent) assimilated with
various eastern Mediterranean peoples with whom they traded, but historians
postulate that the neolithic Sicanians themselves were not Indo-European
culturally. In simple terms, this means that they were descended from an
early wave of human settlers which arrived in Sicily prior to the more recently
introduced "Indo-Europeans," who probably came from an area between
the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in what is now Ukraine and Georgia before
3000 BC (BCE). Linguistic (glottochronological), archeogenetic and archeological
factors suggest the existence of a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European people,
whose culture influenced, among others, that of the Proto-Celts. The Indo-European
influence was more cultural than physical; the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves
probably did not actually displace the populations they encountered but
instead amalgamated with them.
Little is known of the Proto-Sicanians and their religion, but
their temples on Malta are
the oldest free-standing structures (and the oldest-known places of worship) in Europe.
It has been suggested that the earliest "modern" humans populated
Mediterranean Europe around 40,000 years ago, and physical evidence (such
as human fossils and cave art) indicates a human presence in Sicily at least
10,000 years ago, long before the Indo-European influence. It is generally
believed that the Sicanian language, unlike Etruscan, Elymian, Punic, Greek
or Persian, was not an Indo-European tongue. Whatever the case, prehistoric
Sicanian culture cannot be compared to, for example, the more sophisticated
society of the Sumerians.
Why is this important in the study of the earliest religions? It is relevant
because of the generally accepted theory that the Indo-Europeans perpetuated
not only their language but their religious beliefs (mythology, a priestly
class) and social traditions (villages, tribal kingship, families) as well.
An earth mother and various deities identified with nature were part of
this early Eurasian and Mediterranean mythology.
The Sicanians themselves embraced such mythology, as well as specific
agricultural practices and patriarchal families. But did their neolithic
ancestors share these ideas?
This is impossible to know with certainty. The Proto-Sicanians living
in Sicily circa 5000 BC were not united; when the Indo-European Elymians and Sicels arrived en
masse even the Sicanians were not a unified population. Their social practices
and religions could have varied as much as those of the American Indians.
The Greeks sometimes sought to represent the Sicanians as a unified people (the story of the legendary King Kokalos comes to mind),
but few of these ideas can be traced to before 500 BC, and initially the
Greeks refused to intermarry with the Sicanians.
Comparative analysis (reference to other non-Indo-European societies
in Europe and northwestern Africa) would suggest that the Proto-Sicanians
placed great value on the forces of nature as quasi-religious concepts,
but their religion was neither animism nor formal mythology, though they
may have believed in an afterlife. (The miniature statuette shown here is
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.