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Migration of Neanderthals discovered on Naxos. Source: eleftherostypos

Early Humans Migrated to Greek Islands 200,000 Years Ago


Scientists have proven early humans migrated through the Mediterranean much earlier than currently believed.

A team of international scientists led by Tristan Carter, an associate professor of anthropology at McMaster University, has today published new evidence proving that the Greek island of Naxos was populated with Neanderthals and early humans 200,000 years ago, which is tens of thousands of years earlier than currently held. But this is only the tip of the iceberg in a paper which quite literally tips anthropology on its head.

Tristan Carter was the lead author of the new study which was published today in the journal  Science Advances , and this fascinating scientific project directly challenges current thinking about early human movement to territories that were previously considered uninhabitable. Essentially, the new study is demanding that researchers in evolutionary sciences now reconsider their models of how our early ancestors moved out of Africa into Europe and it also provides new data about how our ancestors adapted to new environmental challenges.

It’s Time For A Colossal Rethink

In this groundbreaking paper, evidence is presented of human activity spanning almost 200,000 years at a prehistoric quarry on the northwest coast of Naxos near Stelida, where homo sapiens , Neanderthals, and earlier humans all crafted local flint stone (chert) into tools for hunting.

The scientist’s key evidence was gathered from “luminescence dating” which placed 9,000 artifacts in a stratigraphic sequence from 13,000 to 200,000 years ago. Tristan Carter told a McMaster University press release that the new evidence forced a “complete rethink” of the history of the Mediterranean islands, for while it is accepted that Stone Age hunter gatherers lived on mainland Europe for over 1 million years, the Aegean Sea and Mediterranean islands were thought to have been settled only 9,000 years ago because seafaring vessels didn’t exist before this time.

Artifacts from the excavation on Naxos where early humans migrated before previously believed. (Science Advances)

Artifacts from the excavation on Naxos where early humans migrated before previously believed. ( Science Advances )

Scholars who held that the Aegean Sea of western Anatolia (modern Turkey) from continental Greece was impassable to hominins and Neanderthals maintained that they passed in and out of Europe across the land bridge of Thrace (southeast Balkans), but this new study shows the Aegean basin was accessible around 200,000 years earlier than currently believed.

Neandertal Navigators?

At certain periods during the Ice Age sea levels were much lower than previously thought and the researchers discovered land routes between the continents that would have allowed early prehistoric people to walk to Stelida. Using these alternative migration routes connecting Africa with Europe, early humans would have valued what the scientists refer to as an “abundance of raw materials” for toolmaking, and lots of  fresh water .

Location of Stelida archaeological site and hypothesized hominin migration. (Science Advances)

Location of Stelida archaeological site and hypothesized hominin migration. ( Science Advances )

And the researchers also suggest that pre-Neanderthal populations would have been presented with new challenges in unknown environments with different animals, plants, and diseases which would all have required the development “of new adaptive strategies ,” says Carter. But what really gets called to question by the new study is the actual importance of coastal and marine routes to human movement and while the Aegean is commonly thought of as having been crossed by foot over 200,000 years ago, this new study raises the possibility that Neanderthals may also have fashioned crude seafaring boats.

They Beat Us To It

These new findings support a 2012 study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science that presented evidence of early Neanderthal seafaring activity in the southern Ionian Islands, in the Mediterranean Sea.  Neanderthals are generally considered either a sub-species of modern humans or a separate species altogether and they lived from approximately 300,000 years ago to somewhere near 24,000 years ago occupying all of Europe and extending into western Asia. But with George Ferentinos and colleagues finding 100,000 year old Neanderthal stone tools on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, we now know they had figured out how to travel by boat.

Chert tool found on Naxos where early humans migrated. (Skarpelis)

Chert tool found on Naxos where early humans migrated. ( Skarpelis)

To put this technological advancement into perspective, while Neanderthal people were sailing about 100,000 years ago the first archaeological evidence of modern humans sailing dates back to just 60,000 years ago when the first landings were made on Australia.

What Must Be Changed Now?

The old Encyclopedia Britannica for starters! I checked today and it still says Neanderthals inhabited Eurasia from the Atlantic regions of Europe eastward to Central Asia, from as far north as present-day Belgium and as far south as the Mediterranean and southwest Asia. It now needs updating to include “islands in the Aegean Sea ”.

Archaeologists have long known that Europe had been populated with pre-Neanderthal hominins, such as Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, and that Neanderthals lived in continental Greece and Turkey, but it never occurred to anyone to actively hunt down archaic human remains on an Aegean island for ancient humans were never thought of as seafarers. But this new paper shows that they could have crossed marshes on foot during lower glacial periods of Ice Age when sea water was trapped in glaciers.

It is believed that the Aegean Sea levels allowed for migration to Naxos. (MGA73bot2 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is believed that the Aegean Sea levels allowed for migration to Naxos. (MGA73bot2 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Finally, while the human factors and implications connected with this new paper are indeed interesting, perhaps the most revealing aspect is that the Aegean Sea simply didn’t exist and the territory which would much later become the island of Naxos was an extension of “the rest”, just a harder walk.

Top image: Migration of Neanderthals discovered on Naxos. Source: eleftherostypos

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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