Riding the Waves, 130,000 Years Ago
Archaeologist Curtis Runnels finds earlier signs of ancient mariners
In the slide show above, see the archaeological team that is redefining the timeline of maritime history. Photos by Nick Thompson
Boston’s scattershot road layout is not the world’s most primitive transportation mode, no matter what visitors say. Seafaring is far more ancient, and new research may hurl its origins back almost 100,000 years earlier than conventional wisdom has suggested.
“Every textbook may have to be rewritten,” says Curtis Runnels, a professor of archaeology in the College of Arts & Sciences, one of a team that worked on the Greek island of Crete in 2008 and 2009. The researchers unearthed Paleolithic tools dating back at least 130,000 years, suggesting that humans traveled by sea much earlier than previously hypothesized.
Before this research, the first confirmed sea crossing was that of Homo sapiens traveling to Australia 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. The first travel across the Mediterranean Sea, where Crete is located, was thought to have occurred about 12,000 years ago. The tools the archaeological team found seem to prove that people were living on Crete much earlier, and that because the island has been isolated for five million years, whoever made them must have arrived by sea.
“Objects like this have never been found on islands before, anywhere. For the last 150 years it was thought that early humans couldn’t cross the open sea,” says Runnels. “That now needs to be reexamined.”
Sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Runnels, Thomas Strasser of Providence College, and Eleni Panagopoulou of the Greek Ministry of Culture traveled to Crete in 2008 and 2009. When the project started, they were hoping to find evidence of seafarers from about 12,000 years ago.
Their survey focused mainly on the island’s southwestern coast, near the town of Plakias, where the team members recovered more than 2,000 artifacts from 28 sites. “I’m the one who identified the sites and worked out the protocol for dating them,” says Runnels, “so I played a major role.”
Artifacts were found in caves and rock shelters located in Preveli Gorge, where freshwater rivers and streams have eroded rocky sediment. Among the artifacts were hand axes, cleavers, and scrapers made from local quartz rock. According to Runnels, the tools may have been used to hollow out large tree trunks, to turn them into boats.
The team’s discovery puts centuries-old beliefs about movements of early humans out of Africa into question, according to Runnels, and will have worldwide implications. “Every hypothesis is suddenly on the rack,” he says.
Other large Mediterranean islands, such as Cyprus and Sardinia, will also need to be examined to learn more about early human occupation.
“We have also been contacted by archaeologists interested in early boats and early seafaring who are very excited by these finds,” he says.
This is not the first time Runnels has been involved in research that could shift paradigms. In the 1980s and 1990s, he helped show that the people of prehistoric Greece caused catastrophic environmental change through soil erosion and deforestation. “That work challenged a long-held belief that prehistoric peoples were careful stewards of the natural environment,” he says.
Other research by Runnels in Greece revealed that Neanderthals were not related to Homo sapiens.
“This is the way science works: new evidence leads to new hypotheses, which in turn lead to new syntheses of our understanding of the past,” he says.
Tom Vellner can be reached at email@example.com.