January 04, 2011

Paleolithic Cretan sailors

Undertaking a sea voyage to Crete, whether from the Greek mainland, Anatolia, or Africa is certainly a feat that requires substantial cognitive abilities (to build and navigate a boat). Supposedly this level of sophistication would have to wait for Out-of-Africa modern Homo sapiens. Could people like Apidima 2 from Mani, or whoever lived in Anatolia at the time have made the voyage? If the findings are confirmed, then they must have.

The only thing that troubles me about the interpretation of this story is the idea that the Paleolithic settlers of Crete may have come from Africa. Pretty soon we'll be enganging in Heyerdahl-esque hypotheses about ocean-crossing Paleolithic man. A more parsionious hypothesis would have the settlers reach Crete from the Aegean, from either Europe or Asia.

The data would, however, have implications about other prehistoric migrations. It has often been postulated that sea voyages in other parts of the world (e.g., to Australia) would not have been possible at particular periods when the distance was "too large" for the hypothesized cognitive abilities of early man. If true, the Cretan findings would make plausible many other sea voyages.

Cretan Tools Point To 130,000-Year-Old Sea Travel
Archaeologists on the island of Crete have discovered what may be evidence of one of the world's first sea voyages by human ancestors, the Greek Culture Ministry said Monday. A ministry statement said experts from Greece and the U.S. have found rough axes and other tools thought to be between 130,000 and 700,000 years old close to shelters on the island's south coast.

Crete has been separated from the mainland for about five million years, so whoever made the tools must have traveled there by sea (a distance of at least 40 miles). That would upset the current view that human ancestors migrated to Europe from Africa by land alone.

"The results of the survey not only provide evidence of sea voyages in the Mediterranean tens of thousands of years earlier than we were aware of so far, but also change our understanding of early hominids' cognitive abilities," the ministry statement said.

"Up to now we had no proof of Early Stone Age presence on Crete," said senior ministry archaeologist Maria Vlazaki, who was not involved in the survey. She said it was unclear where the hominids had sailed from, or whether the settlements were permanent.

"They may have come from Africa or from the east," she said. "Future study should help."


Anonymous said...

Europe's most southerly point is the island of Gavdos which is part of Crete. Sailing, Paleolithic Age humans who settled on Crete's southern shore surely must have landed on Gavdos Island first if they came from the direction of the African mainland.

There were Paleolithic humans living in Sicily. So how did they get there? Low sea level land connections to the mainland may have assisted in the colonization. I am finding it hard to accept the Paleolithic humans were capable of seafaring even over flat shallow seas using islands to hop to Crete.

Unknown said...

Brumm et al.'s report in Nature last year on 1 million year-old stone tools from Flores' Soa Basin also indicates that early hominin dispersal across significant water barriers happens sometimes, SOMEHOW (!). Tsunami anyone?

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"between 130,000 and 700,000 years old"

Big difference. The low end could be first explorer modern humans or hybrid Neanderthals who had contact with the pre-Out of Africa group. But, 700,000 years old would be pre-Neanderthal. Also, query how the dates are established - I'm inclined to be very skeptical, particularly in the absence of marked change in fauna in the fossil record upon Homo arrival.

Suppose it is true. Would the shortest distance really have been 40 miles at all times every single day in that entire period? If the distance were 30 miles or less, you would have had line of sight. Perhaps with low tides, a prolonged dought, and a temporary blockage in a source water body for the Mediterranean (perhaps a temporary glacial blockage as glaciers break up), it may have been shallow for weeks or days. I could also imagine a few Neanderthals caught in a tsunami grabbing some driftwood as it hits and paddling for dear life once they got close, catching the same currents together, and winding up in Crete accidentally. Unusual, even freaky, but it only has to happen once and isn't impossible.

terryt said...

"I am finding it hard to accept the Paleolithic humans were capable of seafaring even over flat shallow seas using islands to hop to Crete".

I am too. Especially seeing that humans didn't manage to reach most other Meditarranean islands, including many that were much closer to any mainland.

"I'm inclined to be very skeptical, particularly in the absence of marked change in fauna in the fossil record upon Homo arrival".

That's another aspect that promotes doubt.

"it only has to happen once and isn't impossible".

That could explain Flores as well. On Flores humans survived for some time but on Crete they failed, presumably indicating a fairly small group.

YeomanDroid said...

I sincerely think we always tend to underestimate the ability of ancient humankind. An estimated 790,000 years ago at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel is evidence of the first controlled use of fire. This profoundly changed a lot of things. All this time and nobody couldn't figure out how to cross a body of water by a large floating branch or fallen log??? Doubt it!

Did they not have the ability to try and emulate creatures who live in the water or even swim under their own power? Someday we'll realize that it wasn't modern man that created the most profound of things that affect our lives to this very day. The crossing of water is not as difficult as everyone wants to make it out.


Anonymous said...

Months ago, someone posed the same question about the human presence in Sardinia during the same period, due to the discovery of tools, perhaps dated 150,000 BC
Difficult to say that may be true, because there are no objective facts, but you still keep the doubt, because at that time, the sea level was at least 100 meters lower and would not be difficult to reach the islands by land bridges .
Probably the Aegean islands were visible from each other and just a few hundred meters. Crete and Rhodes could be achieved through Karpatos. Sardinia by Elba and Corsica. Corsica and Sardinia were united, as Sicily was united with the mainland.
Everything has to be proven, of course, but best to leave the doubt.

I found thi map of Italy in that age.


terryt said...

Does anyone know how much of a fall in sea level it would take to connect Sicily and Africa? It occurred to me that if the Mediterranean became blocked ther the sea level in the eastern Mediterranean would fall considerably.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"Does anyone know how much of a fall in sea level it would take to connect Sicily and Africa?"

It would take less of a sea level drop to connect Sicily to Africa via Corsica and Elba and from their to either Gibralter or the Dardanelles, than it would to connect Sicily directly to Africa. I doubt that any hominin has ever lived in the Mediterranean or near it at a time when the two were connected directly by a land bridge. The divide pretty much dates to the breakup of Pangea.

terryt said...

"The divide pretty much dates to the breakup of Pangea".

I searched around a bit and noticed it was 5 million years ago at least. However I also noticed that a fall in sea level would make Sicily much larger, especially to the south. This would bring the coast of Africa closer, although I don't know how much.