Early humans, possibly even prehuman ancestors, appear to have been going to sea much longer than anyone had ever suspected.
That is the startling implication of discoveries made the last two summers on the Greek island of Crete. Stone tools found there, archaeologists say, are at least 130,000 years old, which is considered strong evidence for the earliest known seafaring in the Mediterranean and cause for rethinking the maritime capabilities of prehuman cultures.
Crete has been an island for more than 5 million years, meaning that the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. So this seems to push the history of Mediterranean voyaging back more than 100,000 years, specialists in Stone Age archaeology say. Previous artifact discoveries had shown people reaching Cyprus, a few other Greek islands and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
The oldest established early marine travel anywhere was the sea-crossing migration of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia, beginning about 60,000 years ago. There is also a suggestive trickle of evidence, notably the skeletons and artifacts on the Indonesian island of Flores, of more ancient hominids making their way by water to new habitats.
Even more intriguing, the archaeologists who found the tools on Crete noted that the style of the hand axes suggested that they could be up to 700,000 years old. That may be a stretch, they conceded, but the tools resemble artifacts from the stone technology known as Acheulean, which originated with prehuman populations in Africa.
More than 2,000 stone artifacts, including the hand axes, were collected on the southwestern shore of Crete, near the town of Plakias, by a team led by Thomas F. Strasser and Eleni Panagopoulou. She is with the Greek Ministry of Culture and he is an associate professor of art history at Providence College in Rhode Island. They were assisted by Greek and American geologists and archaeologists, including Curtis Runnels of Boston University.
Strasser described the discovery last month at a meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. A formal report has been accepted for publication in Hesparia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, a supporter of the fieldwork.