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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Stone tools on Crete suggest Paleolithic sailors Options

From The Times
January 18, 2010
Tools point to early Cretan arrivals
Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent


Evidence for the world’s earliest seafaring has emerged from an
archaeological survey in Crete. Tools of Lower Palaeolithic type, at
least 130,000 years old, have been found on the Greek island, which
has been isolated by the Mediterranean Sea for at least the past five
million years, so that any human ancestors must have arrived by boat.
At this date, they would have been of a pre-modern species: the
earliest Neanderthalers or even Homo heidelbergensis, the species to
which Boxgrove Man belonged, are among possible contenders, but no
such remains have so far been found on Crete.


“The early inhabitants of Crete reached the island using sea craft
capable of open-sea navigation and multiple journeys — a finding that
pushes the history of seafaring in the Mediterranean back by more than
100,000 years and has implications for the dispersal of early humans,”
Professor Curtis Runnels said. The oldest uncontested marine crossing
until recently was from Indonesia to Australia, dating to perhaps
60,000 years ago and made by anatomically modern humans of our own
species, Homo sapiens, although we now know that earlier settlement on
the island of Flores in Indonesia also necessitated a sea-crossing.


Professor Runnels, the Palaeolithic expert in the survey team, said
that the investigation was carried out along the southwestern coast of
Crete near the town of Plakias, facing Libya more than 200 miles to
the south. These first Cretans may have crossed the Libyan Sea rather
than island-hopping through the Cyclades from mainland Greece. Recent
finds of what are claimed to be Palaeolithic tools from the island of
Gavdos, off the south coast of Crete, would support this southern
approach.


The survey has focused on the area from Plakias to Ayios Pavlos,
including the Preveli Gorge, and has recovered more than 2,000 stone
artefacts from 28 sites; the early tools were found at nine of these,
eight in the area between Plakias and Preveli. “The existence of Lower
Palaeolithic artefacts in association with datable geological contexts
was a complete surprise: until now there has been no certain evidence
of Lower Palaeolithic seafaring in the Mediterranean,” Professor
Runnels said.


Early human penetration of Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar at a
much earlier Palaeolithic date has been proposed, on the basis of
occupation at Atapuerca, near Burgos, dating to at least 1.3 million
years ago. These first Europeans could also have come along the north
side of the Mediterranean from Anatolia, via Greece and the Balkans,
however. The impact of this Cretan evidence is to show that a sea-
crossing by pre-modern humans from Morocco to Spain cannot be ruled
out.


The Plakias survey team, headed by Dr Thomas Strasser, of Providence
College in Rhode Island, and Dr Eleni Panagopoulou, of the Greek
Ministry of Culture, and funded partly by the National Geographic
Society, sought caves and rock shelters near the mouths of freshwater
perennial streams and rivers emptying into the Libyan Sea and within
five kilometres of the present coast. Because erosion has cut back
many of these, the team sought artefacts on the slopes in front of
their present entrances. Much of the material was found on old marine
terraces up to 92 metres above modern sea level.


Up to 300 pieces were found at each of the early sites, and at five
sites the geological context allowed an approximate date to be
assigned. Professor Runnels considers his estimate of 130,000 years to
be a minimum and cautions that the artefacts could be much older. The
tools included handaxes, cleavers and scrapers, and the quartz rocks
used were sufficiently abundant for tools to be discarded after only
short periods of use.


What sort of water-craft might have been used remains a matter of
speculation, but it seems that our forebears were forging their way
across Homer’s “wine-dark sea” tens of millennia earlier than anybody
had supposed.
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