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Monday, February 15, 2010

On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners

The New York Times prints their version of the homonid mariners to
Crete. Pics of stone tools at the citation.

February 16, 2010
On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners

Early humans, possibly even prehuman ancestors, appear to have been
going to sea much longer than anyone had ever suspected.

That is the startling implication of discoveries made the last two
summers on the Greek island of Crete. Stone tools found there,
archaeologists say, are at least 130,000 years old, which is
considered strong evidence for the earliest known seafaring in the
Mediterranean and cause for rethinking the maritime capabilities of
prehuman cultures.

Crete has been an island for more than five million years, meaning
that the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. So this seems to push
the history of Mediterranean voyaging back more than 100,000 years,
specialists in Stone Age archaeology say. Previous artifact
discoveries had shown people reaching Cyprus, a few other Greek
islands and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years

The oldest established early marine travel anywhere was the sea-
crossing migration of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia,
beginning about 60,000 years ago. There is also a suggestive trickle
of evidence, notably the skeletons and artifacts on the Indonesian
island of Flores, of more ancient hominids making their way by water
to new habitats.

Even more intriguing, the archaeologists who found the tools on Crete
noted that the style of the hand axes suggested that they could be up
to 700,000 years old. That may be a stretch, they conceded, but the
tools resemble artifacts from the stone technology known as Acheulean,
which originated with prehuman populations in Africa.

More than 2,000 stone artifacts, including the hand axes, were
collected on the southwestern shore of Crete, near the town of
Plakias, by a team led by Thomas F. Strasser and Eleni Panagopoulou.
She is with the Greek Ministry of Culture and he is an associate
professor of art history at Providence College in Rhode Island. They
were assisted by Greek and American geologists and archaeologists,
including Curtis Runnels of Boston University.

Dr. Strasser described the discovery last month at a meeting of the
Archaeological Institute of America. A formal report has been accepted
for publication in Hesparia, the journal of the American School of
Classical Studies in Athens, a supporter of the fieldwork.

The Plakias survey team went in looking for material remains of more
recent artisans, nothing older than 11,000 years. Such artifacts would
have been blades, spear points and arrowheads typical of Mesolithic
and Neolithic periods.

“We found those, then we found the hand axes,” Dr. Strasser said last
week in an interview, and that sent the team into deeper time.

“We were flummoxed,” Dr. Runnels said in an interview. “These things
were just not supposed to be there.”

Word of the find is circulating among the ranks of Stone Age scholars.
The few who have seen the data and some pictures — most of the tools
reside in Athens — said they were excited and cautiously impressed.
The research, if confirmed by further study, scrambles timetables of
technological development and textbook accounts of human and prehuman

Ofer Bar-Yosef, an authority on Stone Age archaeology at Harvard, said
the significance of the find would depend on the dating of the site.
“Once the investigators provide the dates,” he said in an e-mail
message, “we will have a better understanding of the importance of the

Dr. Bar-Yosef said he had seen only a few photographs of the Cretan
tools. The forms can only indicate a possible age, he said, but
“handling the artifacts may provide a different impression.” And
dating, he said, would tell the tale.

Dr. Runnels, who has 30 years’ experience in Stone Age research, said
that an analysis by him and three geologists “left not much doubt of
the age of the site, and the tools must be even older.”

The cliffs and caves above the shore, the researchers said, have been
uplifted by tectonic forces where the African plate goes under and
pushes up the European plate. The exposed uplifted layers represent
the sequence of geologic periods that have been well studied and
dated, in some cases correlated to established dates of glacial and
interglacial periods of the most recent ice age. In addition, the team
analyzed the layer bearing the tools and determined that the soil had
been on the surface 130,000 to 190,000 years ago.

Dr. Runnels said he considered this a minimum age for the tools
themselves. They include not only quartz hand axes, but also cleavers
and scrapers, all of which are in the Acheulean style. The tools could
have been made millenniums before they became, as it were, frozen in
time in the Cretan cliffs, the archaeologists said.

Dr. Runnels suggested that the tools could be at least twice as old as
the geologic layers. Dr. Strasser said they could be as much as
700,000 years old. Further explorations are planned this summer.

The 130,000-year date would put the discovery in a time when Homo
sapiens had already evolved in Africa, sometime after 200,000 years
ago. Their presence in Europe did not become apparent until about
50,000 years ago.

Archaeologists can only speculate about who the toolmakers were. One
hundred and thirty thousand years ago, modern humans shared the world
with other hominids, like Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. The
Acheulean culture is thought to have started with Homo erectus.

The standard hypothesis had been that Acheulean toolmakers reached
Europe and Asia via the Middle East, passing mainly through what is
now Turkey into the Balkans. The new finds suggest that their
dispersals were not confined to land routes. They may lend credibility
to proposals of migrations from Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar
to Spain. Crete’s southern shore where the tools were found is 200
miles from North Africa.

“We can’t say the toolmakers came 200 miles from Libya,” Dr. Strasser
said. “If you’re on a raft, that’s a long voyage, but they might have
come from the European mainland by way of shorter crossings through
Greek islands.”

But archaeologists and experts on early nautical history said the
discovery appeared to show that these surprisingly ancient mariners
had craft sturdier and more reliable than rafts. They also must have
had the cognitive ability to conceive and carry out repeated water
crossing over great distances in order to establish sustainable
populations producing an abundance of stone artifacts.

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