Neanderthals cruised the Mediterranean

I mean, who wouldn’t, really? Science looks back at evidence that Stone Age people traveled to Naxos, Crete, and other islands across the sun-kissed Med:

A decade ago, when excavators claimed to have found stone tools on the Greek island of Crete dating back at least 130,000 years, other archaeologists were stunned—and skeptical. But since then, at that site and others, researchers have quietly built up a convincing case for Stone Age seafarers—and for the even more remarkable possibility that they were Neandertals, the extinct cousins of modern humans.

Early members of the human family such as Homo erectus are now known to have crossed several kilometers of deep water more than a million years ago in Indonesia, to islands such as Flores and Sulawesi. Modern humans braved treacherous waters to reach Australia by 65,000 years ago. But in both cases, some archaeologists say early seafarers might have embarked by accident, perhaps swept out to sea by tsunamis.

In contrast, the recent evidence from the Mediterranean suggests purposeful navigation. Archaeologists had long noted ancient-looking stone tools on several Mediterranean islands including Crete, which has been an island for more than 5 million years, but they were dismissed as oddities.

Then in 2008 and 2009, Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island co-led a Greek-U.S. team with archaeologist Curtis Runnels of Boston University and discovered hundreds of stone tools near the southern coastal village of Plakias. The picks, cleavers, scrapers, and bifaces were so plentiful that a one-off accidental stranding seems unlikely, Strasser says. The tools also offered a clue to the identity of the early seafarers: The artifacts resemble Acheulean tools developed more than a million years ago by H. erectus and used until about 130,000 years ago by Neandertals as well.

Possible Neandertal artifacts have turned up on a number of islands, including at Stelida on the island of Naxos. Naxos sits 250 kilometers north of Crete in the Aegean Sea; even during glacial times, when sea levels were lower, it was likely accessible only by watercraft. A Greek-Canadian team co-led by Tristan Carter of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, uncovered hundreds of tools embedded in the soil of a chert quarry. The hand axes and blades resemble the so-called Mousterian toolkit, which Neandertals and modern humans made from about 200,000 years ago until 50,000 years ago. These tools require a more sophisticated flaking method than Acheulean types do, including preparing a stone core before striking flakes off it.

Dating work on the artifacts is ongoing and Carter declined to comment pending publication. But Cherry says the Naxos evidence may be persuasive because it is well stratified, which means researchers should be able to date it more securely. “It is very convincing, because there are a lot more tools in situ,” adds Strasser, who, like Cherry, was not involved in the dig. “It is a quarry site littered with Mousterian stone tools.”

Other Paleolithic tools that appear to be Mousterian have been recovered on the western Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Zakynthos. The plethora of sites adds weight to the idea of purposeful settlement.