These Mousterian spearheads, a classic Neanderthal tool type, were excavated from the Stelida archeological site on the Greek island of Naxos by a team co-directed by Tristan Carter of McMaster University. The Stelida site is critical to resolving a major controversy over whether Neanderthals and other hominins were capable of voyaging by sea. (STELIDA NAXOS ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT)

Mousterian spearheads, a classic Neanderthal tool type, were excavated from the Stelida archeological site on the Greek island of Naxos by from McMaster University. There has been a long time belief that the first people to colonize this particular region were early farmers who arrived by boat approximately 9,000 years ago. These artifacts imply something much much different as they could be 250,000 years old. Archaeologist, Tristan Carter, co-director, comments on the these artifacts,

“The stone tools they were finding on the site looked nothing like the stone tools that had ever been found before on prehistoric sites in the Cycladic Islands.”

The Mousterian culture is Paleolithic. And these spear heads furnish evidence that humans reached the islands of the Aegean Sea a quarter million years ago and maybe earlier. If confirmed, it means the first people on Naxos were Neanderthals, or their probable ancestors, Homo heidelbergensis or maybe even Homo erectus. But how did they get there -Could these archaic hominins have travelled by boat?

Never before did we consider Neanderthals seafaring people, let alone even more primitive populations. Now we must entertain that possibility. That shouldn’t be surprising because we have Neanderthals carved cave symbols, painted their bodies with pigment, created musical instruments and jewelry, and intentionally buried their dead — all practices thought to be exclusive to modern humans.

Carter is relying on a method known as optically stimulated luminescence. Unlike radiocarbon dating, optically stimulated luminescence works on extremely old soil deposits, but takes months to process. Early lab results have dated some of the Stelida artifacts to at least 50,000 years ago. But the team is still waiting for results from the lower layers of the site, even as far deep where the pre-Neanderthal-looking tools were found.

To some this finding as well as a 2012 paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science finding similar spears on the islands of Zakynthos, Lefkada and Kefalonia are clear evidence that the origins of seafaring in the Mediterranean began well before Homo sapiens. Others however contest that others places like Flores may have been a short hop from the mainland, implying that few haphazard jaunts in Indonesia and now the Aegean are not evidence of deliberate, established sea voyaging.