Ancient Seafaring — Neanderthals Sailing The Mediterranean 100,000 Years Ago; Prehistoric Travel & Cross-Continent Exchange; & The Reality Of Archaeological Evidence As Compared To Pop Culture Assumptions

November 25, 2016 in Humans

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Ocean open waters

The subject of prehistoric seafaring, and the technology of ocean-worthy ships, is a highly contested one. Conventional knowledge says that the ability to travel long distances across oceans is a uniquely human ability, and a modern one at that. But actual archaeological evidence shows something else entirely — a situation whereby seaworthy ships have been around very possibly for longer than “homo sapiens” have.

One where Neanderthals, and likely Denisovans as well (as well as other various “archaic” hominids around at the time, many of which have likely left some of their genetics behind in modern humans, just as the aforementioned two did), had been making use of the technology far back into prehistory.

Part of the reason for the subject being a highly contested one is that there seems to be something inherent in modern culture whereby people like to look back on the past and sneer, projecting onto the past an image of “sub-humans” who didn’t have the capacity to live the way that moderns do. All of the actual evidence out there though challenges this projection/assumption. Humans living 200,000 may well have been just as intelligent as modern ones, if not more so (using whatever definition of “intelligence” one wants to) — human brain size actually seems to have peaked around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, before then slowly diminishing. To put that another way, the cultural solutions of the last few tens of millennia seem to have had a negative impact on individual brain sizes, and probably on intelligence. (And, for that matter, brain-size ranges from as far back as 1.7 million years ago overlap with those of modern-humans, both with regard to overall capacity and also to brain-to-body ratio.)

An interesting way to illustrate this point, is to note that all of the supposedly uniquely modern capacities and technologies that people exhibit have been shown again and again by investigation to go far further back into prehistory than is generally thought.

Agriculture is a modern phenomenon? Why then does evidence of taro root cultivation go back more than 30,000 years in what’s now Papua New Guinea? Why does intentional selection and manipulation of many now domesticated plants go back far further then was previously thought (tens of millennia at the least)?

Spears are a modern “human” invention? Why then were perfectly created (the same front-loaded weighting ratio of modern Olympic javelins) 400,000-year-old spears found in what’s now northern Europe? The people living there then weren’t “homo sapiens” and were previously assumed to not be capable of such forethought, abstract comprehension, and fine-craftsmanship. (I would guess that if genetic tests were somehow done on the remains of these long gone peoples that we would discover that they do have some descendants in the world today, just as Neanderthals and Denisovans do — though they may well not be living in or anywhere near what’s now northern Europe. A fair portion of the genetics of Melanesians, various peoples in southern India, and Australian aboriginals, comes from the Denisovans that were living in Asia, and apparently Europe as well, for nearly a million years; and a notable portion of American Indian, European, Turkmen, Tatar, Avar, Arab, and North/East Asian, genetics comes from Neanderthals.)

Painting and art is a modern human activity? Why then does it go back at least 100,000 years, and probably far, far further than that? (There’d be no way to know how far back, most pigments simply don’t last that long even in the best of conditions.)

Complex ritual ceremonies are a “human” behavior? Why then were Neanderthals making complex modifications to stalagmite complexes deep, deep underground in caves systems 176,000 years ago?

Music is a modern human endeavor? Why then do musical instruments (which may well have been created by Neanderthals) go back at least 35,000 years? (And probably far further.)

Pottery accompanied the development of settled agriculture? Why then were there recently found 22,000-year-old pottery shards in a cave in China?

Seaworthy boats are a modern human invention? Why then is it now clear that Neanderthals must have been sailing the Mediterranean well before humans ever arrived there (judging on distribution of artifacts)? Why is there compelling evidence (though widely argued against by institutional types) that sea travel goes back, at the least, several hundred thousand years?

This disparity between compelling evidence, and common beliefs about the supposed superiority of modern humans (to those of the past), seems to be related mostly to arrogance, and contempt for those that live in different ways than one’s self. After all, if the people living 500,000 years ago in what’s now Europe, who have not left much behind to this day (whether materially or genetically), were living meaningful, intelligent, fulfilling lives, then what does that say about the modern world and modern culture(s)? That seems to me to be the root of much of the projection onto the past that seems to be so common nowadays.

If the various peoples of the distant past were intelligent, technologically adept (for the fulfillment of needs, not abstractions), and competent, then why aren’t they still around? This issue seems to cause cognitive dissonance for many of those now in the world — as it flies in the face of modern suppositions of a Darwinist bent. A real look at the natural world, though, shows something different — “best” is always local and temporary; what’s an advantage in one circumstance is a hinderance in another; you can’t have it all (generalists do not have it all, they have a stripped-down framework that’s widely applicable); and “smarter” and/or “stronger” aren’t always better, they are often out-competed by speed of reproduction, disease resistance and carrier behavior (a significant advantage for “civilized” agricultural peoples, hence the de-peopling and colonization of North America and Australia following exposure to European urban and agricultural diseases. As has been noted by many historians, were it not for the lack of resistance to European diseases the full-scale colonization of the Americas would never have happened, but rather a situation like that in India, Africa, and China, would have occurred — colonial plundering perhaps, but not a replacement of the local population); etc.

Another point to make on that matter, even when something is superbly adapted to its environ (and “superior” to its competitors by whatever parameters) it can be wiped out simply owing to events beyond its influence or control — a volcanic eruption, supra-glacial flood, meteor impact, an extreme atypical drought, etc, can often be the determining factor between what lives and what doesn’t. Fortuna (Lady Luck) always plays her part as well, just as individual and collective abilities do. This lack of control, and the certainty of eventual death, dismemberment, and disappearance, seems to deeply offend something in the modern psyche, leading to some potent blind-spots concerning repetitive patterns and the place of modern humans in context.

Though it’s probably obvious, it should also be stated here that part of the problem with looking for evidence of specific behaviors amongst peoples living hundreds of thousands of years in the past is simply that not much can persist for that long. Wood rots rapidly (in just decades in tropical climates); pottery disintegrates; and many things are intentionally destroyed for cultural reasons by successor peoples. The limited evidence that we have is simply the result of extraordinary circumstances (cold, isolated caves; etc). Also, population densities were in general much, much lower in the past, meaning these people left much less “trash” behind than the humans of the last few thousand years.

Another point to make on the subject, people tend to live most densely in the areas that are most biologically productive (coasts, river valleys, flood plains, etc) — exactly the sorts of areas that see the highest rates of erosion, rot, and change. All of the previous coasts of the various ice-age worlds of the last 1,000,000 years are now well under water — whatever people were doing or building in these places is now long since obscured. Also, ice-sheet and glacier expansion and retreat more or less obliterates everything in its path — generally scouring down completely to the bedrock.

The real difference between modern humans and those of the past (including “other species”) with regard to circumstances, beliefs, and products, seems to be that of food surplus, specialization, professional armies, and economies of scale. Cultural changes rather than (overtly) individual ones. Solutions provided by enculturation of participants (or inmates) rather than individual/inconsistent ability.

So, now, to move onto the focus of this article — sea and trans-ocean travel in prehistory. What evidence do we have, that’s managed to make it to us through the tens and hundreds of millennia of erosion, rot, cultural violence, periodic collapse and upheaval, geological change, rising and falling seas, growing and disappearing ice-sheets, spreading and retreating forests, and occasionally catastrophic floods?


That’s quite a question isn’t it?

Here’s an overview of some of the most interesting remains:

– There’s strong evidence that the arbitrarily-named Neanderthals were sailing the Mediterranean Sea sometime at least as far back as 130,000 years ago. Tool types that are apparently distinct to Neanderthals have been found on various Greek islands, including Crete — dating to the aforementioned 130,000 years ago mark. Neanderthal presence on the island seems to have been intermittent and over a very long period of time. At the times in question there would have been no apparent means of making it to Crete, or most of the other islands in question without boating technology of some kind.

– There’s compelling but debated evidence that Homo Erectus traveled by sea from the Indonesian island of Bali to nearby Flores — going on the presence of 700,000 to 800,000 year old stone tools there, amongst other findings.

– Hominid remains and accompanying stone tools dating to more than a million years ago, found in Spain, open interesting questions as well. The trip to Spain from Morocco (through the Straits of Gibraltar) would have been a 12-mile or so sea-journey at the time.

– There’s pretty good evidence that deep sea fishing goes back at least as far as 42,000 years ago — in East Timor anyways, at a limestone cave site known as the Jerimalai shelter. At the site an enormous quantity of fish bones (~38,000) were found — many dating back to as long ago as 42,000 years ago. Importantly, roughly half of these bones related to pelagic fish — those that live in the open ocean far from coastal areas. Types/species included tuna, sharks, rays, and others. These bones were accompanied by a variety of fish hooks made from sea shells — the oldest of which have been dated to between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago. While the line-material used with the fish hooks has of course not survived, it would have presumably been some sort of fiber or tendon rope. In which case, the use of nets would seem likely as well. And probably/possibly poisons, as many traditional fishing societies used until modern times.

– There’s the obvious example that humans seem to have first arrived in Australia by boat — quite far back in ‘prehistory’. Also, that boats and coastal fishing may well have played a part in the arrival of humans in the Americas sometime in the last 40,000 years. Notably, much of the oldest evidence of human presence in the Americas is in western South America, and some of it is near the coastal portions of the southern-western part of the continent.

– As open-ocean fishing and the making of seaworthy boats are essentially coastal activities, and the coasts of the various ices ages and interglacials of the last million years are now well below sea level, we may not get much more insight into the seafaring abilities of early humans, Homo sapiens or otherwise, beyond what we have now.

Whatever the exact truth of these specific examples, the evidence seems to be there that seafaring has been a part of the “human” experience for a long time. Apparently since well before Homo sapiens were ever even around.

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