Ancient tools on Mediterranean islands could predate the appearance of modern humans—suggesting Neandertals took to the seas. Christopher Intagliata reports.
And now some archaeologists say evidence is mounting for another skill the Neandertals might have shared: the ability to navigate the seas.
"Maybe that's just part of the human psyche, of wanting to go and explore places, and maybe that extends back further than we would have thought."
Alan Simmons of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He presented his case at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C., first reported in an article by journalist Andrew Lawler in the journal Science. [Alan Simmons, SAA 2018: Aquatic Neanderthals and Paleolithic Seafaring: Myth or Reality? Examples from the Mediterranean]
The case goes like this: hundreds of stone tools have now been found, lodged in ancient soils, on Mediterranean islands like Crete and Naxos. We can't date the tools directly—they’re too old. But Simmons says you can put them into a rough chronology with other tools, based on their sophistication. He compares it to car styles:
"The tail fins of old Cadillacs, you could seriate those and show this is older than this or more recent than this, but you couldn't put an absolute date on it. That's exactly what we do with typologies and technologies, you know, this is the way these tools were made during a certain time period."
Those clues and other hints—like the fact the stone tools are buried in ancient soils—suggest the implements could date back to the Middle Paleolithic, somewhere between 50[,000] and maybe 200,000 years ago—meaning they could have been made before we Homo sapiens showed up. And therefore, to leave tools on the islands, the toolmakers must have plied the seas.
"To me this suggests Neandertals at least had the same cognitive capacities that fully modern people do. ‘Cause you don't just make a boat or a raft or whatever and go out and float around in the ocean. There's a lot of cognition involved. You have to have navigation skills. This has implications for language."
It's just speculation for now—boat remains are nowhere to be found. But perhaps new digs, and better dates on the tools that have already been uncovered, will strengthen the case. 'Til then: it seems that old stereotype about Neandertals being brutish cave dwellers is already critically endangered. If not extinct.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]