We all know about nifty sea-faring peoples like the Phoenicians who used ships to trade, explore and build an empire, but it now seems that even Homo erectus, ancestor to Homo sapiens, crossed the oceans to emerge out of Africa.
Excavations by archeologist Thomas Strasser and his team on the Greek island of Crete have turned up artifacts that seem about 130.000 years old. For the moment, dating the tools that have been discovered merely relies on the age of the sediment they were found in, and further testing will have to show whether or not the dating has to be adjusted.
In any case, even if the age now suggested would be 10,000 or 20,000 years less, the findings do necessitate a radical re-thinking of how early homo species, erectus or an as yet unknown one, have moved out of Africa and into Europe and elsewhere.
Strasser, an archeologist of Providence College in Rhode Island, reported the result of his 20-year research on January 7, 2010 at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Archaeology, and a review of his presentation has been published one day later in Science News.
Until now, it was believed that early human and pre-human species have needed to follow land routes in order to populate the planet, but Crete, at the time in question, was not connected to Africa. The link between the continent and the island to its North is evident from the type of work that produced the hand-axes that were found at nine different locations on Crete's Southern coastline - not far from Preveli, a place that even today is one of the islands popular travel destinations. These hand axes, the scientist notes, were made from local (Cretan) quartz, but their style is typical for ancient artifacts usually found in Africa.
The discovery also changes all we know about the history of Crete, because until now it was believed that the island had only been inhabited since 9.000 years, when various people arrived by ship from the Near East, around 6000 BCE
Strasser explains:“We’re just going to have to accept that, as soon as hominids left Africa, they were long-distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place.”
Hitherto, the traditional view has been that hominids (specifically, H. erectus) left Africa via land routes that ran from the Middle East to Europe and Asia. On the other hand, there have been other controversial researchers who have - before Strasser - suggested that H. erectus used rafts to cross short stretches of sea; for example in Indonesia around 800,000 years ago. Also, there are indications as well that perhaps even Homo neanderthalenis has crossed the Strait of Gibraltar at about 60,000 years ago.
Certainly, Strassers discovery shows, once more, that we still don't know enough about the history of our species and that surprises may keep coming up.