Sicily lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. The Italian mainland is very close, divided by the narrow Straits of Messina, while the coast of North Africa is only some 250km away, a day's sailing in good conditions. Anyone passing across the Mediterranean would be likely to make landfall in Sicily, which historically gave it immense strategic value. The island's fertility also attracted settlement, with the result that periods of prosperity were interspersed with violent conflict over resources. Sicily today is a palimpsest of earlier civilizations, their remains jostling alongside each other against the backdrop of extraordinary natural beauty.
There are traces of human settlement from the Palaeolithic age (35,000-9000 BC), with the Upper Palaeolithic (18,000-9000) especially rich in sites. These show a population able to exploit a variety of habitats along with the development of burial rituals, decorative artifacts mostly in stone, and cave art. The art is concentrated in a group of caves on Levanzo and around Monte Pellegrino in the northwest of the island, with the result that some communities became settled on the coast. However, it was red deer which were the main source of food and hides: their bones make up 70 percent of remains on some sites.
Settled agricolture, which in Sicily dates from c. 600-500 BC, appears to have been an imported change. The remains of corn, sheep and goats are found for the first time in this period. Pottery, known as Stentinello ware, from a Neolithic site near Syracuse, has impressed or incised decoration and from about 5500 is painted, copying styles from Italy. A particularly important trade until about 2500 was in obsidian from the Aeolian island of Lipari, a volcanic stone which can be easily cut and shaped to make tools.
The first extensive contact with the wider Mediterranean comes in the Mycenaean age (1600-2250 BC). The Mycenaean strongholds were in the Greek Pelpopnnese and their chieftains were successfull traders, whose presence in Sicily reached its height about 1400 BC. This is the first time that Sicily can be placed within a far-flung trading complex, with evidence of routes which stretched as far east as Rhodes and Cyprus.
A harbour site as Thapsos, near modern Syracuse, certainly grew prosperous on trade. The Mycenaean civilitation desintegrated after 1200, and Sicily, like many other part of the Mediterranean, retreated into isolation. The island's primary contact for the next three centuries was with Italy.