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Raft out of Africa: early hominids as ancient mariners: hand axes excavated on Crete suggest sea crossings.

Human ancestors that left Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago to see the rest of the world were no landlubbers. Stone hand axes unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete indicate that an ancient Homo species--perhaps Homo erectus--had used rafts or other sea going vessels to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between, said archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island.

Several hundred double-edged cutting implements discovered at nine sites in southwestern Crete date to at least 130000 years ago and probably to much earlier, Strasser reported January 7. Many of these finds closely resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago by H. erectus, he said. H. erectus had spread from Africa to parts of Asia and Europe by at least that time.

Until now, the oldest known human settlements on Crete dated to around 9,000 years ago. Traditional theories hold that early farming groups in southern Europe and the Middle East first navigated vessels to Crete and other Mediterranean islands at that time.

"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," Strasser said. Other researchers have suggested that H. erectus took rafts across stretches of sea in Indonesia about 800000 years ago and that Neandertals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar perhaps 60,000 years ago.

Questions remain about whether African hominids used Crete as a step ping stone to Europe or, in a Stone Age Gilligan's Island scenario, accidentally ended up on Crete from time to time when close-to-shore rafts were blown out to sea, remarks archaeologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Only in the past decade have researchers established that people reached Crete before 6,000 years ago.

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Strasser's team cannot yet say precisely when or why hominids traveled to Crete. Large sets of hand axes found on the island suggest a fairly substantial population size, downplaying the Gilligan's Island scenario, in Strasser's view.

In excavations conducted near Crete's southwestern coast during 2008 and 2009, the team unearthed axes at caves and rock shelters. Most sites were in an area called Preveli Gorge, where a river has gouged layers of rocky sediment.

Stone Age artifacts there were excavated from four terraces along a rocky outcrop overlooking the Mediterranean. Tectonic activity has pushed older sediment above younger sediment on Crete, so 130,000-year-old artifacts emerged from the uppermost terrace. Other terraces had estimated ages of 110,000 years, 80,000 years and 45,000 years.

Intriguingly, Strasser noted, hand axes on Crete were made from local quartz but display a style typical of ancient African artifacts. "Hominids adapted to whatever material was available on the island for toolmaking," he proposed.

For longer version of these and other Humans stories, visit www.science.org

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Title Annotation:Humans
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Jan 30, 2010
Words:485
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