The recent discovery of early tools on the island of Crete is causing scientists to revise their view not only of when the technology of sea travel developed, but of how humans (or other hominids) migrated into Europe from Africa.
According to a statement by the Greek Culture Ministry reported by NPR (and elsewhere), the tools are at least 130,000 years old, and may be as old as 700,00 years.
Crete is separated from the Greek mainland by 40 miles (here — see for yourself). It has been for five million years, when it separated from the continent. That means that the archaeologists’ estimate on the earliest sea travel by humans or related hominids, which was previously thought to have started about 60,000 years ago, just got doubled.
The earliest evidence of sea travel in Greece, however, was previously closer to 9,000 B.C., which means that the (very!) early history of Greece just got rewritten as well.
There are a few different reasons this discovery is extra-fascinating. One is that rough stone implements like this are associated not just with Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans), but with our ancestors.
According to the NPR story:
Such rough stone implements are associated with Heidelberg Man and Homo Erectus, extinct precursors of the modern human race, which evolved from Africa about 200,000 years ago.
“Up to now we had no proof of Early Stone Age presence on Crete,” said senior ministry archaeologist Maria Vlazaki, who was not involved in the survey. She said it was unclear where the hominids had sailed from, or whether the settlements were permanent.
“They may have come from Africa or from the east,” she said. “Future study should help.”
This raises the possibility that open-sea travel developed before modern humans did. The important distinction here is that it’s open-sea travel — not river or lake travel, that sort of thing. Crete is too far from Greece to have been the result of the humans or proto-humans swimming or floating on a log. The minimum technology that would reasonably expected to get humans or other hominids to Greece would be a raft and oars, which means that previous estimates of when hominids developed cognitively are probably far too conservative.
Though the discovery, by Princeton archaeologist Thomas Strasser, was championed as one of the top science stories of 2010, and is just now being covered by the media due to the Culture Ministry statement, it actually occurred in 2008 and 2009.
The really big questions opened up by this discovery, such as what land mass the hominids came from (Africa or Asia) and how widespread such sea travel was, are still waiting to be answered.