Thursday, February 18, 2010

When did we first 'go down to the sea in ships'?

Archaelogical discoveries on Crete have thrown into doubt long-held beliefs about when human beings first ventured out onto the sea to discover new lands. The New York Times reports:

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 ago.

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.

. . .

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 mobility.

. . .

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.

. . .

... 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.

There's more at the link.

I find this fascinating. How did early humans - or, perhaps, their pre-homo sapiens ancestors - build boats sufficiently seaworthy to take them out of sight of land, through all the dangers of sea passages, to new territories? What materials and tools did they use to make them? Were their journeys one-way, or return? Were they deliberate undertakings, intended to find new lands, or were they accidental, forced upon them when primitive mariners were blown out of sight of their homes by storms?

I doubt whether we'll ever know the answers to those questions, but it's fascinating to try to put oneself into the shoes of those long-distant ancestors of our race, and wonder how they did it.



Crucis said...

The natives of the south Pacific crossed the ocean in dugouts and outrigger canoes. North Africa was forested at that time. Hollowing out a log was not beyond their capabilities.

F t K said...

130,000 years ago... Is the earth that old?

Peter (NOGH) said...

This is even more impressive when one realizes that even during the Age of Sail, with much more developed seafaring technology, about one in every six ships simply disappeared during the transatlantic crossing.

Also, this gives more credence to the current theory that the Greek Neolithic started (@ 7000BC) by immigrants from the Levant. It is further strengthened by the refusal of these folks to exploit native animals for food, instead relying on those domesticated animals with which they were already familiar.