On a recent trip through Eastern Sicily, my group asked an important question. Knowing the island is a layer-cake of different cultures and languages they wondered who were the first historical inhabitants of Sicily. My group had trouble imagining there were native island peoples before the arrival of the Greeks or the Phoenicians. Yet it’s the interaction with the former civilizations that give us an understanding on who was here first.
Professor Finely’s Book, A Short History of Sicily helps us understand the unique background to this island. History is often cloudy (sometimes murky) but science has determined the first inhabitants of Sicily arrived by boat around 20,000 BC (yes, you read that correctly). Of course, it would be impossible to say who exactly the “original” inhabitants were. According to geologists, Sicily has always been an island and thus any migration required the knowledge and use of sea-worthy vessels. At about 5,000 BC vast migrations of Indo-European groups brought their unique language to Western Europe. Around 2,000 BC there were three primary groups of Indo-Europeans settled in Sicily: the Elimi in the Northwest, the Sicani in the central mountains and the Siculi in the east.
The smallest population of the three tribes, the Elymian people lived near what is present day Trapani, Castellammare and Segesta. Evidence shows these natives resisted the Greek presence, but near Segesta, the local indo-european language was the lingua-franca although written Greek was adopted
in local affairs. A peculiar aspect of the civilization at Segesta is that the natives became so Hellenic that they established marriage laws with inhabitants of near-by (and Sicani-based) Selinunte. This practice was remarkable for the age because most of the Greek settlements themselves came from warring city-states on the Peloponnesus. It suggests the Elymians at Segesta were open to new government and laws.
The Sicanian territory took up most of the land west of Enna to the southern coast at Sciacca. Much like the Elymians, the Sicanians were also resistant to the presence of the Greeks (regardless of most of their villages later becoming fortified Greek cities by the 4th C. BC). Legend says that Daedalus – the crafty Greek engineer – arrived in the land of Sicania with Minos hot on his trail. The king of the Sicanians, Kokalos, understood Daedalus’ worth and the ferocity of Minos. The king invited Minos to a party at his palace at Camicus (near Agrigento) and drowned him in his bath.
The largest of the three tribes, the Sicels were most accepting of the Greek occupation. In fact, the derivation of the word “Sicily” comes primarily from the Greek “Sikeloi.” In places like Siracusa and Gela the migrants invited the natives to live with them peacefully. They lived practically side-by-side with the Greeks until they were eventually pushed out of the towns and ports. Along with Henna (Enna) and Agyrium (Agira), Hyblea Heraea (Ragusa Ibla) were the principle Sicel cities. In the middle of the 5th C. BC, Ducetius, leader of the siculi, organized a group and threated the great Greek army based in Siracusa. He was eventually defeated but the natives’ ferocity against subsequent invaders has been manifested throughout the centuries.