|26 November 2005
Earliest evidence of seafaring in the Eastern Mediterranean
Two ancient campsites on the coast of Cyprus, found this year by archaeologists, may be the earliest evidence of long-distance, open-water seafaring in the Mediterranean, undermining beliefs that ancient mariners never ventured into open seas.
A preliminary analysis of the findings, including an abundance of crude stone tools, suggests that people in small boats from what is present-day Syria and Turkey paid seasonal visits to the island of Cyprus possibly as early as 12,000 years ago. These were daring voyages of at least 50 miles each way, often twice as far, at a time when Cyprus had no permanent inhabitants. The lure of better fishing waters may have drawn the seafarers to the island, where they fished offshore by day and made camp on the high ground above beaches now favoured by tourists. The discovery adds to a body of evidence contradicting the widespread belief that ancient mariners would never venture out of sight of land or had limited navigational capabilities.
Flints, unlike anything found in the geological make-up of Cyprus, and more than 1,000 years older than the timing of the first permanent settlers to the island, were found at the sites. "If this is verified this would be the earliest evidence of seafaring in the East Mediterranean," said Pavlos Flourentzos, director of Cyprus' department of antiquities. Fragments were found at sites on the southeast and west of the island by Albert J. Ammerman, an archaeologist at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.
The archaeologist was assisted by Carole McCartney, a research fellow with the University of Cyprus, who has studied the flints and stone tools. McCartney said these discoveries could mean that Cyprus was the first island colonised in the Mediterranean.
Ammerman said the geology and the types of tools led his team to estimate that the seafarers from the mainland were camping in Cyprus sometime around 9,000 to 10,000 BCE. They stayed for a few nights each season, at most a few weeks, and returned to the mainland. The archaeologists inferred the seasonal nature of the visits because the sites were on the coasts, with no sign of a human presence inland. "These were not colonisers," Ammerman said of these camping seafarers. "There was no island society as such, no native people yet, and these visitors had a very limited existence."
Cyprus, lying at least 30 miles away from any other land mass, was not settled by man 12,000 years ago, but there is evidence it was populated by pygmy elephants and hippopotamuses. Its earliest inhabitants, dated from the 9th millennium BC, are believed to be from the land mass which now rings it north and east.
Sources: Cyprus Mail, Reuters (23 November 2005)
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