Science

New artifacts show humans reached Greek islands earlier than thought

New artifacts show humans reac...
An archaeologist works
An archaeologist works in a pit at Stelida, Naxos
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An archaeologist works
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An archaeologist works in a pit at Stelida, Naxos

The early chapters of the story of human migration are constantly being rewritten as new discoveries bring more information to light. The latest update comes from the Greek island of Naxos, where new archaeological finds show that early humans, Neanderthals and other hominins have occupied the site for around 200,000 years – far earlier than previously believed.

Although it changes regularly, the currently-accepted story says that modern humans arose in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago, before migrating away from the continent only 120,000 years ago. Other bones suggest we left as early as 194,000 years ago.

But we weren’t the first human species to leave – Homo erectus is thought to have migrated out about 1.9 million years ago, before spreading across Asia and Europe by 1.2 million years ago. They eventually gave rise to Neanderthals, who were widespread across Eurasia between 500,000 and 32,000 years ago.

That said, most of this evidence comes from continental mainlands. It’s long been thought that hominins hadn’t made it to the Mediterranean islands until about 9,000 years ago – very recently, on the scale of things. That comes from the arguably-cocky idea that modern humans were the only ones smart enough to figure out how to build boats.

But now, that idea may have been broken by the discovery of new artifacts on Naxos. This island lies in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, and was assumed inaccessible until the last few thousand years.

At Stelida, on the northwest coast of Naxos, the researchers found hundreds of thousands of stone tools and weapons. These provide evidence that the site has been home to activity by Neanderthals, early modern humans and other hominins for almost 200,000 years.

“Until recently, this part of the world was seen as irrelevant to early human studies but the results force us to completely rethink the history of the Mediterranean islands,” says Tristan Carter, lead author of the study.

So how did our ancestors get to Naxos? There’s a chance that early humans and possibly even Neanderthals managed to build crude boats that could carry them the short distance to the island.

But the leading theory put forward by the researchers is that they walked there. After all, during past ice ages the sea levels fell, which could have revealed land bridges that connected Naxos and other islands to the mainland. In fact, it might even have opened up new paths between Africa and Europe, saving hominins the trouble of walking all the way around the Mediterranean Sea.

While the new discovery sounds like quite a departure from previous beliefs, it actually fits somewhat nicely into a timeline raised by other recent finds. A human skull found in a cave on mainland Greece has been dated to about 210,000 years ago – not long before those found on Naxos.

More work will of course need to be done to confirm the presence of early humans on the Greek islands, including looking for bodily remains that can indicate which species may have been present and when.

The research was published in the journal Science Advances. The team discusses the work in the video below.

Welcome to Stelida

Source: McMaster University

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