Monday, February 22, 2010

History: Very Early Seafaring

The Minoan civilization, which blossomed on the now Greek island of Crete from 2,700 to 1,450 BCE, or there abouts, was a maritime culture. Living on an island usually dictates that your people are good in and around boats and so it was with our Minoan ancestors. They excelled at all things nautical. As it turns out, they may very well have been born to it.

Tuesday's New York Times online featured an interesting article by John Noble Wilford entitled On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners. In it, Wilford details the work of art historian Thomas F. Strasser, Providence College, Rhode Island and archaeologist Eleni Panagopoulou, Greek Ministry of Culture, and their teams. They have uncovered evidence of a seafaring culture on the island possibly dating back as far as 130,000 years.

Stone tools have been excavated from the southern shore of the island and include well fashioned arrowheads and even the now iconic double sided hand axes that are so identified with Minoan culture. I studied anthropology in school so let me just cut to the chase here: the finds indicate that a significant culture existed on the island long before anyone ever imagined. Original theories date the first landings of humans from other shores on Greek islands at around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. These new finds potentially blow that theory out of the water (pun intended) and show that humans - possibly even prehumans - were developed enough on Crete to have the time to sit down and make things like double sided axes. In other words they were not a subsistence culture in which the only thing the (usually small) group of hominids has time for is finding, preparing and eating food. They could kick back a little and ratchet up their standard of living with tools.

I hear you, Brethren. OK, Pauline, but what do some stone tools have to do with seafaring? The evidence isn't anchors and fish hooks, after all, it's axes and the like. True, however the point here is that they were found on an island and are incredibly similar to tools made by Acheulean cultures which originated with prehumans in Africa. This means - if the dating and suppositions are accurate - that large groups of prehumans had to get from the mainland to Crete. And that means they had to have some sort of boat building technology. You can't just strap together a raft Bear Grylls style and expect to get your family and the neighbors safely from Africa/Asia Minor/Europe to Crete. Ask Odysseus about the reality of that little undertaking.

Of course there's already argument about time frames and dating and so on. For more on that, and specific details, I encourage you to read the article. My point is that it looks like we may have been out sailing the blue water before we could even be called "Homo sapiens". And that makes may little sailor's heart sing.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I thought that article might make an appearance on the blog when I sent it to you last week. It is pretty interesting to think that our ancient anscetors may have been sailing long before we thought it possible (which probably means that there have been pirates a lot longer than most people think too)... I liked the Bear Grylls and Odysseus references too. Nicely done, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and thankee. It's not every day a girl gets to work Bear Grylls and Odysseus into back-to-back sentences, so yeah. Pretty proud of myself.