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When did humans first build watercraft and intentionally navigate seas and oceans? For many years, archaeologists thought it was just 5000 to 10,000 years ago, and rejected suggestions by ‘heretical’ researchers that water crossings may have happened much earlier. But all that may now change, based on new research being done in the Mediterranean.

In an article in Science (“Searching for a Stone Age Odysseus“), Andrew Lawler reveals that over the past decade, archaeological excavations on a number of islands in the Mediterranean appear to be pointing at an extraordinary conclusion. After dating the artifacts found, “researchers have quietly built up a convincing case for early seafaring in the Mediterranean,” Lawler writes, “and, even more surprisingly, that at least some of these adventurers were Neandertal.”

How early? According to the results of one dig, at least 130,000 years ago – which would push back the date on intentional water voyages by some 120,000 years over previous assumptions!

Scholars long thought that the capability to construct and victual a watercraft and then navigate it to a distant coast arrived only with advent of agriculture and animal domestication. The earliest known boat, found in the Netherlands, dates back only 10,000 years or so, and convincing evidence of sails only show up in Egypt’s Old Kingdom around 2500 B.C.E. Not until 2000 B.C.E. is there physical evidence that sailors crossed the open ocean, from India to Arabia.

But a growing inventory of stone tools and the occasional bone scattered across Eurasia tells a radically different story. (Wooden boats and paddles don’t typically survive the ages.) Early members of the human family such as Homo erectus are now known to have crossed several kilometers of deep water more than a million years ago in Indonesia, to islands such as Flores and Sulawesi. Modern humans braved treacherous waters to reach Australia by 65,000 years ago. But in both cases, some archaeologists say early seafarers might have embarked by accident, perhaps swept out to sea by tsunamis.

But the new evidence from the Mediterranean suggests purposeful navigation, at a time that is paradigm-shattering for archaeology. A decade ago, an excavation uncovered hundreds of stone tools near the southern coastal village of Plakias – so many, in fact, that it made an accidental stranding seem unlikely. Additionally, the artifacts resembled Acheulean tools, which were developed more than a million years ago by H. erectus and used until about 130,000 years ago by Neandertals as well.

But, with only a single example of apparent sea-faring at a highly anomalous date (at least 130,000 years old), other archaeologists were skeptical. It is only now, after archaeologists scoured other islands for similar evidence, that the orthodoxy is coming around to the idea that they had it wrong.

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.

Dating work on artifacts continues, but more scholars are now becoming convinced that humans and Neandertals were taking to the sea much earlier than was previously thought – or as one archaeologist put it: “We severely miscalculated.”

Link: Stone Age People May Have Voyaged the Mediterranean