Le Moustier Neanderthals.

New Research Suggests Neanderthal Knowledge Led Them from Caves Out to Sea

The acknowledgement of the diversity of Neanderthal knowledge and skills has been growing. Tool making , caring for each other , dentistry, jewelry making , language, and elaborate burial rites have all been explored over the last few years. Now it seems seafaring may need to be added to the list.

Science magazine points to possible evidence of Neanderthal voyages in the Mediterranean to the Greek islands of Naxos, Crete, Kefalonia, and Zakynthos. 130,000-year-old stone tools were found on Crete about a decade ago, but there was much doubt at the time if they were really evidence of Stone Age seafaring. However, more indications of voyaging have been found both on Crete and at other sites since then.

Neanderthals were not as primitive as some would like to think. ( Erich Ferdinand/ CC BY 2.0 )

Neanderthals were not as primitive as some would like to think. ( Erich Ferdinand/ CC BY 2.0 )

Archaeologist John Cherry of Brown University, once a skeptic of the possibility of Neanderthal seafaring, said “The orthodoxy until pretty recently was that you don’t have seafarers until the early Bronze Age. Now we are talking about seafaring Neandertals. It’s a pretty stunning change.”

Science writes that one of the most significant caches of Neanderthal stone tools in the region has been located on the island of Naxos. Hundreds of tools, including hand axes and blades resembling the Mousterian toolkit were found by McMaster University’s Dr. Tristan Carter and the Stélida Naxos Archaeological Project (SNAP) .

Sifting soil for artifacts on the island of Naxos. (Stelida Naxos Archaeological Project - SNAP)

Sifting soil for artifacts on the island of Naxos. ( Stelida Naxos Archaeological Project - SNAP )

The Mousterian toolkit generally included small hand axes created from disk-shaped cores, flake tools such as sidescrapers and triangular points, and limestone balls. These tools were predominantly made by Neandertals from about 200,000 years ago until 50,000 years ago.

Cherry told Science that the artifacts on Naxos are more persuasive than some other examples because researchers can use the well stratified soil to help them date the items more accurately. Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island added, “It is very convincing, because there are a lot more tools in situ. It is a quarry site littered with Mousterian stone tools.”

Example of a Mousterian stone biface tool.  (CC0)

Example of a Mousterian stone biface tool.  ( CC0)

Strasser was not involved in the Naxos dig, but he also found artifacts which resemble Acheulean tools (a tool making culture in use from H. erectus to Neanderthal times). Stone picks, cleavers, scrapers, and bifaces were tallied up to hundreds of artifacts found by Strasser and his team near the southern coastal village of Plakias in 2008-2009.

Alan Simmons, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas who gave an overview of recent discoveries on the Greek islands, said that the presence of Mousterian tools on the western Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Zakynthos shows “People are going back and forth to islands much earlier than we thought,” and it may indicate settlements on several islands.

Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia, Greece. (Matt Sims/CC BY 2.0)

Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia, Greece. (Matt Sims/ CC BY 2.0 )

However, identification of which of the current islands were also islands tens of thousands of years ago is tricky. Nikos Efstratiou, an archaeologist at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, explained that land movement and sea-level changes are two elements which need to be examined.

For its part, Naxos is located 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Crete in the Aegean Sea and it is one of the islands that was almost certainly only accessible by boat in glacial times. That means Neanderthals, or anyone else who wanted to visit them and make or drop off stone tools, would have had to have seafaring skills to get them there.

Neanderthal man at the Natural History Museum London. (CC BY NC ND 2.0 ) Neanderthals had more skills than most people credit them for.

Neanderthal man at the Natural History Museum London. ( CC BY NC ND 2.0 ) Neanderthals had more skills than most people credit them for.

Top Image: Le Moustier Neanderthals. Source: Public Domain

By Alicia McDermott


Not to belittle the seafaring abilities of the Neanderthals, it sounds like a lot of this happened when sea levels were lower. Maybe they just walked to Crete through the Mediterranean plain?

Bruce, reread that last paragraph.

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