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10 January 2010
Ancient hominids may have been seafarers

Stone hand axes unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete indicate that an ancient Homo species - perhaps Homo erectus - had used rafts or other seagoing vessels to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between, says archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island. Several hundred double-edged cutting implements discovered at nine sites in southwestern Crete date to at least 130,000 years ago and probably much earlier, Strasser reported. Many of these finds closely resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago by H. erectus, he says. It was around that time that H. erectus spread from Africa to parts of Asia and Europe.
     Until now, the oldest known human settlements on Crete dated to around 9,000 years ago. Traditional theories hold that early farming groups in southern Europe and the Middle East first navigated vessels to Crete and other Mediterranean islands at that time. "We're just going to have to accept that, as soon as hominids left Africa, they were long-distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place," Strasser says. Other researchers have controversially suggested that H. erectus navigated rafts across short stretches of sea in Indonesia around 800,000 years ago and that Neandertals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar perhaps 60,000 years ago.
     Questions remain about whether African hominids used Crete as a stepping stone to reach Europe or accidentally ended up on Crete from time to time when close-to-shore rafts were blown out to sea, remarks archaeologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Only in the past decade have researchers established that people reached Crete before 6,000 years ago, Tykot says. Strasser's team cannot yet say precisely when or for what reason hominids traveled to Crete. Large sets of hand axes found on the island suggest a fairly substantial population size.
     In excavations conducted near Crete's southwestern coast during 2008 and 2009, Strasser's team unearthed hand axes at caves and rock shelters. Most of these sites were situated in an area called Preveli Gorge. Hand axes found on Crete were made from local quartz but display a style typical of ancient African artifacts. "Hominids adapted to whatever material was available on the island for tool making," Strasser proposes. "There could be tools made from different types of stone in other parts of Crete."

Source: ScienceNews (8 January 2010)

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