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Pirates of the Paleolithic

Avast, ye scurvy Homo erectus!  Recent archaeological finds from Crete show that the first seafaring humans set sail for parts unknown more than 10 times earlier than previously thought.

So instead of settlements on the Greek island around 10,000 years ago, we now have evidence of human activity there at least 125,000 years ago, and that’s the low end of the estimate.

Upwardly Mobile Island

How do we know? Because Crete, unlike other islands in the Aegean, has been rising from the sea at a rate of about one millimeter per year. A series of marine terraces, or beaches, formed as Crete rose and global sea levels fluctuated due to growth and melting of continental ice sheets.

Balos Beach in Crete
Balos Beach on the Greek island of Crete. Photo by Karl Wegmann.

Crete’s continual rise guaranteed that the beaches—and the items left there by early settlers—were preserved.  Archaeologists from Greece and the United States who found stone tools of the sort routinely used by Homo erectus on one of those beaches determined how long ago the tools were left behind by matching the beach terraces to known sea levels and then extrapolating the age.

NC State geologist Dr. Karl Wegmann put the tools in geological context.

“We started with the baseline radiocarbon dating, using spiny oyster shells, which confirmed that the lowest of these beach terraces was at least 45–50,000 years old,” he says. “From there, we knew that the age of the beaches increased with time. Basically, the formula is elevation divided by time.”

Karl Wegmann at a giant chair marking the southernmost point of Europe: Gavdos Island off the coast of Crete.

Too Far to Swim

Now the scientists had proof that people were on the island much earlier than previously thought. But how did early humans get to Crete? There wasn’t a land route available at the time, and the shortest distance over water was about six miles—probably a bit too far to swim.

“They had to have used some sort of boat, although we will probably never find preserved evidence of one,” Wegmann says.

For Wegmann, the implications go beyond just dating the geology surrounding the civilization. “We all have this idea that early man wasn’t terribly smart,” he says. “This finding shows otherwise—that our ancestors were smart enough to build boats and adventurous enough to want to use them.”

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  1. I love this hypothesis, very logical. It seems we (modern Homo sapiens) have a very false view of early hominids as being stupid. Where instead they were very adequate botonists and engineers ( selection of edible plants to agriculture varietals and the working of stone as a weapon ) it would be arrogant of us to not put a boat past the capabilities of a biped hominid. Most animals when fallen into a river go for a close boyant object. This can easily be extrapolated to the use of long distance swimming or to build a rudimentary raft. I would love to read any further findings you have put forward on this subject .

    Alexander James Schultz
    University of manitoba

  2. Dear Mr. Carter.

    Thank you for your excellent question. During the most recent glacial advances, sea level likely fell about 130 to a maximum of 150 meters below modern. We took this into account in our analyses of the stone tools from Crete. The sea is quite deep all around Crete. Even during maximum glacial-period lowering of sea level (e.g., at 25,000 or 140,000 years before present), Crete would have been isolated by an open water distance of 7 to 10 km from the nearest land. You can see the depths of the Mediterranean around the island of Crete for yourself in Google Earth, where the elevation / bathymetry value of the cursor location is reported as you move across the imagery.

    As for the complete drying up of the Mediterranean, you are correct that there is credible evidence that this happened in the geologic past, as is evidenced by the thick (up to 1,000 m) salt deposited as the sea evaporated. The geologic time interval during which the Mediterranean sea dried up is known as the Messinian (7.2 to 5.3 Million years before present), the last Age of the Miocene Epoch (23.0 to 5.3 Million years before present).

    Wikipedia contains basic information about the Messinian time interval.

    There is a good discussion of the Messinian Salinity Crisis (the drying up of the Mediterranean about 6 to 5 million years ago) also on Wikipedia.

    So, in summary to your excellent question, yes the evidence supports the dramatic lowering of local sea level in the Mediterranean basin, but this occurred well before the evolution of the Homo genus and the deposition of the stone tools found on the island of Crete. Glacial-interglacial variations in sea level, based upon the current depths of the sea floor around Crete, were not great enough for the creation of a land bridge between Crete and mainland Greece.

    Karl Wegmann

  3. Dear Dr. Wegmann,

    Have you considered that at least once during the last several glacial advances, the Mediterranean became a vast desert as falling sea level lowered the surface of the ocean below the level of the rock shelf separating Europe and Africa at Gibraltar. With the loss of replenishment water from the Atlantic and the high evaporation rate of the Mediterranean, the rivers supplying the Mediterranean would only be able to fill some of the lowest parts of the basin. Most of the basin and its current islands would then be readily accessible to traveling homo erectus/neanderthalensis. A key point could be when the first of these events (drying of the Mediterranean) occurred and I do not have this information. If you have factored in this event in your calculation, I would be interested to know when this first occurred.

    Albert M. Carter
    Class of ’73