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20 October 2014
Tracing our ancestors at the bottom of the sea

A specialist group of European researchers are studying the remains of prehistoric human settlements which are now submerged beneath our coastal seas. Some of these drowned sites are tens of thousands of years old.
     This rapidly evolving field of Continental Shelf Prehistoric Research is the focus of a new paper describing how during successive ice ages, the sea level dropped at times by up to 120 metres, adding 40% to the land area of Europe. Consequently, many of the remains and artefacts of Europe's prehistory are now underwater. Considering that pre-humans inhabited the Black Sea coast 1.8 million years ago, the coast of northern Spain over 1 million years ago and; the coast of Britain at least 800,000 years ago, the drowned land includes some of the earliest routes from Africa into Europe.
     More than 2,500 submerged prehistoric artefact assemblages, ranging in age from 5,000 to 300,000 years, have been found in the coastal waters and open sea basins around Europe. Only a few have been properly mapped, or assessed for preservation or excavation. These remains contain information on ancient seafaring, social structures, and use of coastal resources before the introduction of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.
     The paper reports that seabed prehistoric remains are being destroyed by natural erosion and industrial disturbance, arguing that compliance with the UNESCO convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, and other treaties and directives, can only be ensured by collaboration and funding at European level.
     Many initial findings are made by industrial operations, whose role can be strengthened by improving collaboration with national cultural heritage agencies and academics, both to encourage the reporting of findings and to map, protect, and where appropriate excavate the archaeological materials.
     The paper provides a comprehensive overview of recent progress in the study of our submerged cultural heritage, and sets out key research questions and policy priorities needed to support this research in the future. Professor Jan Mees, Chair of the European Marine Board, explains its importance: "our submerged cultural heritage is not a renewable resource; it is a unique irreplaceable cultural asset which can provide answers to many research questions about our prehistoric ancestors, landscapes and climate."

Edited from ScienceDaily (6 October 2014)

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