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Seafaring Neanderthals
Wednesday 25 April 2018

An article by Andrew Lawler on sciencemag.org - Neandertals, Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean - reports on the recent finds in the Ionian and Aegean seas which suggest that early modern humans and Neanderthals may have voyaged to remote islands before 130,000 years ago.

Seafaring Neanderthals
At Stelida on the Greek island of Naxos, researchers have found stone tools perhaps made by Neanderthals. Jason Lau/Stelida Naxos Archaeological Project. Map of the region. J. You/SCIENCE

A decade ago, when excavators claimed to have found stone tools on the Greek island of Crete dating back at least 130,000 years, archaeologists around the world were both surprised and skeptical. However, further research has revealed the possibility of Stone Age seafarers, and perhaps by Neanderthals.

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Alan Simmons, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, stated recently at the Society for American Archaeology that the finds suggest the urge to go to sea, and the cognitive and technological means to do so, predates modern humans.

Archaeologist John Cherry of Brown University, an initial skeptic, agrees. No longer the view that seafarers began in the early Bronze Age, we may now have seafaring Neanderthals.

Recent evidence from the Mediterranean suggests purposeful navigation. Archaeologists had long noted ancient-looking stone tools on several Mediterranean islands including Crete, which has been an island for more than 5 million years, but they were dismissed as oddities.

In 2008 and 2009, Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island co-led a Greek-U.S. team with archaeologist Curtis Runnels of Boston University and discovered hundreds of stone tools near the southern coastal village of Plakias on Crete. Strasser believes the picks, cleavers, scrapers, and bifaces were so plentiful that a one-off accidental stranding seems unlikely. The tools also offered a clue to the identity of the early seafarers: the artifacts resemble Acheulean tools developed more than a million years ago by H.erectus and used until about 130,000 years ago by Neanderthals as well.

Strasser argued that the tools may represent a sea-borne migration of Neanderthals from the Near East to Europe. The team used a variety of techniques to date the soil around the tools to at least 130,000 years old, but they could not pinpoint a more exact date. And the stratigraphy at the site is unclear, raising questions about whether the artifacts are as old as the soil they were embedded in. Thus other archaeologists remained skeptical.

However, possible Neandertal artifacts have turned up on a number of islands, including at Stelida on the island of Naxos. Naxos sits 250 kilometers north of Crete in the Aegean Sea; even during glacial times, when sea levels were lower, it was likely accessible only by watercraft. A Greek-Canadian team co-led by Tristan Carter of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, uncovered hundreds of tools embedded in the soil of a chert quarry. The hand axes and blades resemble the so-called Mousterian toolkit, which Neandertals and modern humans made from about 200,000 years ago until 50,000 years ago. These tools require a more sophisticated flaking method than Acheulean types do, including preparing a stone core before striking flakes off it.

Other Paleolithic tools that appear to be Mousterian have been recovered on the western Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Zakynthos. The plethora of sites adds weight to the idea of purposeful settlement.

Dating work on the artifacts is ongoing.

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ARCHAEOLOGY
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