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8 March 2012
Neanderthals were ancient mariners

Growing evidence suggests Neanderthals criss-crossed the Mediterranean from 100,000 years ago.
     Neanderthals lived around the Mediterranean from 300,000 years ago. Their distinctive 'Mousterian' stone tools are found on the Greek mainland and, intriguingly, have also been found on the Greek islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos.
     George Ferentinos of the University of Patras in Greece says the islands have been cut off from the mainland for longer than the tools have been on them. Ferentinos thinks Neanderthals had a seafaring culture for tens of thousands of years. Modern humans are thought to have taken to the seas just 50,000 years ago, crossing to Australia.
     The journeys to the Greek islands from the mainland were quite short - 5 to 12 kilometres - but in 2008, Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island (USA) found similar stone tools on Crete, which he says are at least 130,000 years old. Crete has been an island for some 5 million years and is 40 kilometres from its nearest neighbour.
     Strasser agrees Neanderthals were seafaring long before modern humans - in the Mediterranean at least - but any craft made from wood rotted away long ago. The oldest known Mediterranean boat - a dugout canoe from Lake Bracciano, Italy - is just 7000 years old.
     Even if Ferentinos and Strasser are correct, the Neanderthals were probably not the first hominin seafarers. One million-year-old stone tools have been found on the Indonesian island of Flores. Someone - perhaps primitive Homo erectus - crossed to Flores before Neanderthals even evolved.

Edited from NewScientist (29 February 2012)

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