Here’s a story looking into the possibility that people were regularly putting to sea back in the Upper Palaeolithic, detailing research of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) in Nicosia; their discovery of lithic artefacts is described here…

The discovery at a coastal site on the island’s northwest has revealed chipped tools submerged in the sea and made with local stone which could be the earliest trace yet of human activity in Cyprus.

U.S. and Cypriot archaeologists conducting the research have known since 2004 that Cyprus was used by small groups of voyagers on hunting expeditions for pygmy elephants.

But the newly discovered expanse of the Aspros dig in the Akamas peninsula, which stretches into the sea, suggests the site held larger numbers of people, possibly for months.

The find, archaeologists told Reuters on Wednesday, could also suggest the island of Cyprus, tucked in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean and about 30 miles away from the closest land mass, may have been gradually populated about that time, and up to 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.

I assume that the researchers are currently basing their 14,000 bp dates by the fact that the submerged tools have been found at a location that was known to have been above water at the time, and was subsequently inundated as post-glacial sea-levels rose – it’s possible that if the search was conducted even further offshore at deeper levels, stone tools or other traces of human activity might also be found there, pushing back the date of the first people on Cyprus still further.

Readers of these pages in recent weeks will recall I have occasionally discussed the ideas by Bednarik et al that there is indirect evidence to show that people were seafaring in the Med hundreds of thousands of years ago, with evidence such as…

Acheulean tools were found at the base of the series belonging to the …… collected at open-air sites of Sa Coa de sa Multa near Perfuga, northern Sardinia, in an area rich in flint…

I think the Sardinia finds are dated to around 300,000 bp, and regular readers here will be familiar with the idea that it is believed southern Iberia may have been reached from northern Africa by humans navigating across the Strait of Gibraltar at an astonishingly early 1 million bp, as well as the Flores, Indonesia incursions by ocean-going Homo erectus at 840,000 bp., and the much later crossing of the Timor Sea into Australia at around 50,000 bp. And that’s before we’ve even begun to consider how very early arrivals in the Americas at 20,000-50,000 bp would have travelled there, in the absence of the putative Beringian land-bridge.

But for the remainder of this post, I want to concentrate on Cyprus, so here’s some more detail of the emerging picture…

U.S. and Cypriot archaeologists conducting the research have known since 2004 that Cyprus was used by small groups of voyagers on hunting expeditions for pygmy elephants.

But the newly discovered expanse of the Aspros dig in the Akamas peninsula, which stretches into the sea, suggests the site held larger numbers of people, possibly for months.

“It shows that activity is much more organized than some isolated visit,” said Tom Davis, director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) in Nicosia.

(Pavlos) Flourentzos and (Tom) Davis said the new find told archaeologists nomads knew the island well enough to find tool material, suggesting they were repeat visitors.

This is an important point, because repeat visits indicate an understanding of the necessary planning and construction phase of boat building, as well as the acquired knowledge of how to navigate the seas, taking into account winds, tides and currents, crucial if expeditions were to safely reach and arrive back from their chosen destinations.

The fact that special trips to an island were made on a seasonal basis might indicate that these trips were more than merely utilitarian – I’m not sure from exactly where these early visitors from Cyprus would have hailed, but if they were going out there on an annual basis, this could either mean they had no other, or insufficient access to food resources on the mainland at certain times of the year, which necessitated the not inconsiderable task of ocean navigation as a means of staving off starvation – or, that they indeed had plentiful supplies of food back on the mainland, but chose to visit the island of Cyprus at certain intervals, with the specific intention to hunt pygmy elephant, maybe for sport or unknown other cultural activities associated with a contemporary belief system of which we know nothing. Here are some concluding observations from the researchers…

“We are trying to verify through carbon dating on bones in the area that this find is more ancient, possibly another 2,000 years,” said Flourentzos, who co-directed the research project with Albert J Ammerman, an archaeologist at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

Virtually nothing is known about Mediterranean mariners of the era. There is a widely held belief they never ventured into open seas because of limited navigational abilities.

“We are looking at repeated activity here, it is more than a handful of people. For the first time in the east Mediterranean we are talking about serious sea-voyaging,” said Davis.

“This was not a case of one guy, or a family blown off course. This is a number of persons coming to Cyprus, these were conscious, repeated visits,” Davis said.

All in all a very interesting study, which hopefully will continue into the future, and reveal a great deal more about these early mariners – however, it seems unlikely that much if anything will ever be found in the guise of nautical archaeology – any boats built back then must have been constructed from organic materials, which by now would have long since perished – moreover, the coastlines and beaches used 14,000 years ago would have been submerged by rising sea-levels. But with the development of technology in recent years, and an increasing awareness of the benefits of underwater archaeology in coastal regions, more could yet be found to indicate that instead of being mere land-lubbers, Palaeolithic people had not only joined the ‘human sailing club’, but in fact had founded it as well.

see also: Erectus Ahoy!

and: ‘The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus, From Colonization to Exploitation‘  pdf, 2001, American Schools of Oriental Research

image: Akamas Peninsula from here

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