Human precursors went to sea, team says

Early manlike creatures may have been smarter than we think. Recent archaeological finds from the Mediterranean show that human ancestors traveled the high seas.

A team of researchers that included an North Carolina State University geologist found evidence that our ancestors were crossing open water at least 130,000 years ago. That's more than 100,000 years earlier than scientists had previously thought.

Their evidence is based on from the island of Crete. Because Crete has been an island for eons, any prehistoric people who left tools behind would have had to cross open water to get there.

The tools the team found are so old that they predate the , said Thomas Strasser, an archaeologist from Providence College who led the team. Instead of being made by our species, Homo sapiens, the tools were made by our ancestors, .

The tools are very different from any others found on Crete, Strasser said. They're most similar to early stone-age tools from Africa that are about 700,000 years old, he said.

Initially the team didn't have any way to date the tools. That's where NCSU geologist Karl Wegmann came in.

At the time, Wegmann didn't know much about archaeology, but he did know quite a bit about Crete's geology. He had been figuring out the ages of Crete's to study earthquakes.

A few of the stone tools the team had discovered were embedded in those same rock formations. Those rocks were formed from ancient beach sands, Wegmann said.

Today, the rocks and the tools embedded in them are hundreds of feet above the shore. The same process that drives the region's strong earthquakes - colliding continents - is pushing Crete upward out of the sea at a rate of less than {0 of an inch every year - more than 35 times more slowly than fingernails grow.

The island's slow rise has preserved beaches from many eras as terraces along the coast.

The lower terraces are the easiest to date. Scientists can measure the age of seashells embedded in the rock using radioactive carbon dating. This method estimates the age of those terraces at about 45,000 and 50,000 years old.

"We know that (the tools) are tens of meters above the terrace we dated at 50,000 years old, so we know right off the bat that they have to be at least that old," Wegmann said.

But 50,000 years ago is carbon dating's limit. Anything older has to be dated using another method.

Crete's rise from the sea gives a fairly simple way of doing that. Once they know the age of lower terraces, geologists can calculate the age of higher terraces just by measuring the difference in the beaches' elevation.

If know how much farther the older terrace traveled upward from the newer, and they know how fast it was going, they can figure out how long it took to get there. Or, in other words, its age, in this case a record-smashing 130,000 years old.

"The thing to me that really makes this unique and exciting is ... these other sister species maybe weren't entirely stupid like we portray them," Wegmann said. "They were capable of really complex things."

Explore further

Cretan tools point to 130,000-year-old sea travel

(c) 2011, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Citation: Human precursors went to sea, team says (2011, August 17) retrieved 21 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 18, 2011
i gotta stop watching ancient aliens..

Aug 18, 2011
Makes sense to me. Language, Mathematics, we didn't simply pop out of no where shortly before the pyramids were errected. Theres tonnes of evidence suggesting that we've been doing our thing for a lot longer than we currently accept. Which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; slow and steady. But not even the pyramids would last 10,000 years, so why would wooden boats or settlements of mud and rock?

Life prior to the first cities may have been radically different from after, but it was by no means animalistic. The simple truth is every time there is a radical change in communication, we see a radical shift in culture. Written language and the first cities for example.

And look at the internet today.

Aug 18, 2011
This could be used in support of the Aqua-ape theory, no?

Aug 21, 2011
This discovery is significant but has nothing to do with the Aquatic Ape hypothesis. That notion has to do with much earlier ancestors, possibly between "Ardy" and "Lucy." These very early "Cretans" were human, just another species of human, similar to Neanderthals. Since the tools are over 100,000 years old, the people who made them could not have had sailing boats. But perhaps simple rafts?

Aug 21, 2011
The tools the team found are so old that they predate the human species,...

Man, I would NOT be willing to plant my flag on that premise... Given that they're dating based on geological elevation (which in many places and certainly on Crete can be argued as a historical variable, but let's ignore that and accept the timetable for argument's sake), and that the tools weren't actually found alongside Homo erectus remains, I'm somewhat surprised the article didn't at least mention the "we might possibly need to reconsider how old the human race is" angle. We might be an older species than the currently accepted age. I'm not saying we ARE, just that I'm surprised that possible ramification was apparently ignored.

Aug 24, 2011
This could be used in support of the Aqua-ape theory, no?

No. This is way too young to be influential in evolution of bipedalism or hairlessness like Aquatic ape hypothesis says. This is after H. erectus, which places the author's claim that these weren't modern humans in the 'debatable' category. Also, like Shelgeyr says, the dating is questionable.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more