Humans Crossed the Mediterranean Sea Tens of Thousands of Years Earlier Than Previously Thought, Says Study

An international team of researchers has found evidence suggesting that early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals inhabited an island 200,000 years ago, suggesting that our species began crossing the Mediterranean Sea tens of thousands of years earlier than previous estimates.

The findings were compiled into a study published in the journal Science Advances on October 16. The years-long excavation on the eastern Greek island of Naxos that resulted in the findings was led by a team from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

According to a summary of the findings published by McMaster, the Mediterranean islands were previously thought to have been settled only 9,000 years ago, by farming descendants of the Stone Age hunter-gatherers who had inhabited mainland Europe for over a million years. This was because anthropologists held that only those modern humans, as sophisticated Homo sapiens, were capable of building vessels that could carry them across long stretches of water to the islands. For this reason, scholars had long postulated that the Aegean Sea, the part of the Mediterranean between mainland Greece and Turkey, was impassable for Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens.

In Naxos
A general view of the Apollo Temple at sunset located on an islet near the harbour on October 14, 2017 in Naxos, Greece. Kaveh Kazemi

However, the authors of the study published in Science Advances suggest that the sea level of the Aegean was much lower at some points during the Ice Age, which would have exposed a land route between Turkey and Greece that prehistoric humans would have been able to cross.

Furthermore, the study details evidence of human activity stretching back 200,000 years at Stelida, a prehistoric stone quarry on the northwest coast of Naxos that was discovered in 1981. They found evidence that early Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and other now-extinct human species used the rocks there to create tools for hunting, woodworking, cooking and making clothes.

"The data presented here indicate that the Aegean was accessible to archaic and modern humans tens of millennia earlier than previously thought," the study read.

While islands in the Aegean like Naxos would have attracted early humans because of their fresh water abundance of natural resources, "in entering this region the pre-Neanderthal populations would have been faced with a new and challenging environment, with different animals, plants and diseases, all requiring new adaptive strategies," Carter said.

"Until recently, this part of the world was seen as irrelevant to early human studies," Tristan Carter, an anthropology professor at McMaster University and the study's lead author, said. "But the results force us to completely rethink the history of the Mediterranean islands."

Carter conducted the work with Dimitris Athanasoulis, head of archaeology at the Cycladic Ephorate of Antiquities within the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports.

The study is part of the Stelida Naxos Archeological Project, which began in 2013. Besides Canada and Greece, the project's website says that it also involves scholars from France, Serbia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.