Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday July 28th 2016

Ancient Sailors

Until recently, it was thought that humans began sailing the Mediterranean Sea around 12,000 BCE. But scientists now believe early Stone Age people arrived on Crete at least 130,000 years ago.

High, rocky bluffs around the village of Plakia were the shoreline zone in prehistoric times. Rocky bluffs around the village of Plakia were actually the shoreline zone in prehistoric times. This is where the team began excavations.

Why the huge timeline shift? A Greek-American research team found man-made tools in 130,000-year-old rock formations in southwest Crete, near the village of Plakias. And since Crete has been an island for more than five million years, the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. In other words, they could have been the world’s first sailors.

The boats of Stone Age migrants were probably log rafts with sails made of animal skins sewn together and mounted on poles to catch the wind. The boats of Stone Age migrants were probably log rafts with sails made of animal skins sewn together and lashed to a tree limb to catch the wind.

The Plakias Survey team collected over 2,000 artifacts at 29 sites around limestone caves and rockshelters, where ancient humans lived and made their stone tools.

Caves and other ancient dwellings that were on the beach are now in the ridges above the sea. Caves that were on the beach are now high on the ridges above the sea.

The researchers think that prehistoric humans must have found Crete an attractive place to hunt for food. In fact, Crete had many edible plants and a variety of wildlife – including small elephants and dwarf hippopotami (much smaller than the big hippopotamus you might see at a zoo).

Several cave dwellings were found near Preveli Gorge, which flows into the sea. Several cave dwellings were found near Preveli Gorge.

Upon examining all caves and rockshelters near fresh water streams and rivers emptying into the Libyan Sea, the survey team discovered stone artifacts on the slopes directly below the openings.

Survey team examine a stone tool found on the marine terrace below cave. Survey team examine a stone tool found on the marine terrace below a cave.

The geological context (known age of the soil/stone strata) at five of the sites allowed an approximate date to be assigned of 130,000 years. However, some artifacts may be much older.

Layers of ancient beach were excavated to locate man-made stone tools. Layers of ancient beach were excavated to locate man-made stone tools.

Quartz (which can be given sharp edges) was the main raw material used to manufacture such things as hand axes, cleavers, scrapers, and other tools. These artifacts not only represent the earliest tools ever discovered on Crete, they also demonstrate the talented seafaring abilities of ancient humans. The Plakias team wants to conduct more archaeological and geological research into these early phases of prehistory in the region.

Handaxe excavated near one of the ancient cave homes. Quartz handaxe excavated near one of the ancient cave homes.

It is thought that these early arrivals on the island of Crete were Homo heidelbergensis – forerunners of modern humans. They were not the grunting cavemen depicted in movies. On the contrary, they were intelligent toolmakers who had a language, formed family and social groups, and buried their dead with gifts for the afterlife (suggesting they had a religion).

Scientists think first settlers on Crete were probably Homo heidelbergensis, an expert toolmaker who predates modern man by thousands of years.

Where did these early humans come from – the Greek mainland, Europe, the Near East, Africa? No one knows for certain. Wherever their origin, the findings at Plakias alters the way we must think about how people spread across the world. Until now, most scientists thought early man migrated by land routes. Since the first settlers on Crete came across the sea, it is possible that there could have been sea routes crossed by long-distance seafarers moving at will throughout the Mediterranean.

How long did these early humans stay on Crete, and what effect did they have on the environment? We know Homo heidelbergensis was an experienced hunter, and we also know prehistoric animals that once populated Crete vanished long ago. Did the early settlers hunt these creatures to extinction and then move on?

The dwarf hippopotomus was widespread across Crete, but became extinct long ago. Dwarf hippos were once widespread across Crete, but became extinct.

Such questions remain unanswered for the moment. However, recent discoveries at Plakias make us think about the significance and impact of early seafaring on the peopling of the Mediterranean, Europe and the world.

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