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Sailing the Oceans - not as modern as we thought

'Were they sailors as well?'    .

Leisure sailing as we know it may have begun a mere 150 years ago or so, but researchers across the world are now becoming more and more convinced that Neanderthals, or even older homo erectus, knew how to cross seas and oceans by boat.

Neanderthals lived around the Mediterranean from 300,000 years ago. Their distinctive 'Mousterian' stone tools are found on the Greek mainland and, intriguingly, have also been found on the Greek islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos. That could be explained in two ways: either the islands weren't islands at the time, or our distant cousins crossed the water somehow.

In March this year, George Ferentinos of the University of Patras in Greece said we can rule out the former. The islands, he said, have been cut off from the mainland for as long as the tools have been on them.

Ferentinos compiled data that showed sea levels were 120 metres lower 100,000 years ago, because water was locked up in Earth's larger ice caps. But the seabed off Greece today drops down to around 300 metres, meaning that when Neanderthals were in the region, the sea would have been at least 180 metres deep (Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.01.032).

Ferentinos thinks Neanderthals had a seafaring culture for tens of thousands of years. Modern humans are thought to have taken to the seas just 50,000 years ago, on crossing to Australia.

The journeys to the Greek islands from the mainland were quite short - 5 to 12 kilometres - but according to Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island, the Neanderthals didn't stop there. In 2008 he found similar stone tools on Crete, which he says are at least 130,000 years old. Crete has been an island for some 5 million years and is 40 kilometres from its closest neighbour - suggesting far more ambitious journeys.

Strasser agrees Neanderthals were seafaring long before modern humans, in the Mediterranean at least. He thinks early hominins made much more use of the sea than anyone suspects, and may have used the seas as a highway, rather than seeing them as a barrier. But the details remain lost in history. Any craft were presumably made from wood, so rotted away long ago. The oldest known Mediterranean boat, a dugout canoe from Lake Bracciano in Italy, is just 7000 years old. Ferentinos speculates that Neanderthals may have made something similar.

New Study:
Now there is a new study from Washington that agrees: This study has provided new evidence which suggests that 'Upright Man' might have sailed around the Mediterranean, stopping at islands such as Crete and Cyprus.

Other evidence outside of the Mediterranean supports that pre-Neolithic humans could sail. Researchers have pointed out that these individuals 'must have been able to cross substantial expanses of sea to reach Australia by at least 50,000 years ago.

'Additionally, findings from the Indonesian Wallacea islands suggest the presence of hominins as early as 1.1 million years ago on Flores Island.'

'They had to have had boats of some sort; unlikely they swam,' Discovery News quoted Alan Simmons, lead author of a study about the find, as writing in this week’s Science.

'Many of the islands had no land-bridges, thus they must have had the cognitive ability to both build boats and know how to navigate them,' he added.

Simmons, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, added that there is no direct evidence for boats dating back to over 100,000 years ago. If they were built then, the wood or other natural materials likely eroded.

However, other clues hint that modern humans may not have been the first to set foot on Mediterranean islands.

On Crete, for example, tools such as quartz hand-axes, picks and cleavers are associated with deposits that may date to 170,000 years ago.

Excavations at an Akrotiri site on Cyprus have turned up ancient thumbnail scrapers and other tools dating to beyond 9,000 years ago. There is also a huge assembly of fossils for a dwarf pygmy hippopotamus, which might have been a good food for the earlier islanders. It’s possible they hunted the small, plump animal to extinction.

'Conventional wisdom used to be that none of these islands had too much settlement prior to the Neolithic because the islands were too impoverished to have supported permanent occupation. This likely is untrue. Hunters and gatherers can be pretty creative,' Simmons said.

Thomas Strasser, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Providence College, told Discovery that he believes 'future research will confirm recent discoveries that hominids reached the Mediterranean islands when they first left Africa. I believe the Homo erectus radiation out of Africa was both terrestrial and maritime.'

Letter from Reader:
Sender: kim Klaka

Message: Article states''Mousterian' stone tools are found on the Greek mainland and, intriguingly, have also been found on the Greek islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos. That could be explained in two ways: either the islands weren't islands at the time, or our distant cousins crossed the water somehow.'

I suggest there is a third possibility: the tools were developed independently and simultaneously at the two locations. This happens a lot with technology, even today. I have seen it occur several times in my profession and is simply the result of similarly trained people being exposed to new materials or concepts.


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9:10 PM Sun 18 Nov 2012GMT


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