New theory: Neanderthals were great sailors

Were Neanderthals sailors?
.. .
Last week Sail-World published a http://www.sail-world.com/CruisingAus/Ancient-barque-to-be-reconstructed-for-museum/94284!story about a 4,500-year-old Egyptian felucca being restored from a burial site. But that story pales considerably if the findings of an archaeologist, George Ferentinos of the University of Patras in Greece, are found to be true. He says that Neanderthals sailed the Mediterranean possibly hundreds of thousands of years ago, long before humans.

Neanderthals, considered either a sub-species of modern humans or a separate species altogether, lived from approximately 300,000 years ago to somewhere near 24,000 years ago, when they inexplicably disappeared, leaving behind traces of their DNA in some Middle Eastern people and artifacts strewn all across the southern part of Europe and extending into western Asia.

Some of those artifacts, stone tools that are uniquely associated with them, have been found on the Greek islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos, suggesting, according to Ferentinos and his colleagues, that Neanderthals had figured out how to travel by boat.

The presence of the tools could be explained in two ways: either the islands weren't islands at the time, or the Neanderthals crossed the water somehow. But Ferentinos compiled data that showed the sea at that time, in spite of considerably lower levels, would still have been at least 180 metres deep.

The journeys to the Greek islands from the mainland were quite short, 5 to 12 kilometres, but similar stone tools have been found on Crete, which are at least 130,000 years old. Crete has been an island for some 5 million years and is 40 kilometres from its closest neighbour - suggesting far more ambitious journeys.

Therefore Ferentinos thinks Neanderthals had a seafaring culture for tens of thousands of years. Modern humans are thought to have taken to the seas just 50,000 years ago, on crossing to Australia. The oldest known Mediterranean boat, a dugout canoe from Lake Bracciano in Italy, is just 7000 years old. Ferentinos speculates that Neanderthals may have made something similar.

If true, that would mean Neanderthal people were sailing around in the Mediterranean for fifty thousand years before modern humans built their first boat.

Others have suggested that hominids have been sailing for as long as a million years; stone tools found on the Indonesian island of Flores date back as far as that. It could be that both modern humans and Neanderthals were boating around for hundreds of thousands of years and we just don’t have any evidence of it because the boats back then would have been made of wood.

Evidence of their existence would have decayed to nothing long ago.