Neanderthals and early humans may have made it to the Greek island of Naxos, about 24 miles south of Mykonos, some 200,000 years ago, much earlier than thought, which could require a rewriting of the country's ancient history's beginnings, a team of scientists from Ontario's McMaster University said after research.
"Until recently, this part of the world was seen as irrelevant to early human studies, but the results force us to completely rethink the history of the Mediterranean islands," said lead author and associate anthropology professor Tristan Carter in a university release, C/Net news reported.
They surmised it may have been done using crude boats after using foot routes along the Aegean Sea coastline, pushing back initial estimates.
The research, published in the journal Science Advances after years of excavation by the scientists disputed current theories on Stone Age migration across Europe with scholars believing Neanderthals and early hominids settled Mediterranean islands to have been settled for only about 9,000 years. Stone Age hunters, meanwhile, are known to have been on mainland Europe for more than 1 million years, but the research team discovered evidence of human activity on islands spanning almost 200,000 years in a prehistoric quarry.
This research is part of the Stelida Naxos Archeological Project, a larger collaboration involving scholars from all over the world, also suggesting that early humans were more cognitively advanced than previously believed.
The team unearthed the evidence at a prehistoric quarry site called Stelida on the island of Naxos, located in the Aegean basin between southern mainland Greece and western Turkey. Hominins, likely including Neanderthals, used chert stone found at the site to make tools and weapons, although no bones were found at the site, said the Times of Israel in its report.
The Stelida site, a hill 152 meters above sea level, was first excavated in 1981 and was initially believed to be 20,000-4,500 years old.
The Canadian-led research teams uncovered some 12,000 artifacts from the site, including tools for cutting, scraping and piercing, representing some 200,000 years of history. The age and type of the artifacts, as well as Neanderthal remains found in southern Greece alongside similar artifacts, point to the species’ presence on the island, the researchers said. Earlier human species may have also been on the island.
The team suggests that scholars rethink the dispersal of hominins during the Pleistocene epoch, which stretched from 2.58 million years ago until around 11,700 years ago.
While the Aegean Sea was thought impassable then, during the Ice Age, at certain points the receding sea level in the Mediterranean may have exposed a land route connecting Europe and Africa, allowing early humans to cross marshy plains in the Aegean to get to the island.
Scholars previously argued that only anatomically modern humans had been able to voyage over water and colonize islands, as well as other remote or extreme environments, including deserts and mountain ranges, the paper said, citing the findings.
Evidence of Neanderthals has previously been found in mainland Greece and Turkey, and indirect evidence in Greece suggested they may have been able to undertake short trips across water.
“In entering this region the pre-Neanderthal populations would have been faced with a new and challenging environment, with different animals, plants and diseases, all requiring new adaptive strategies,” Carter said.