Early Humans Reached Greek Island 200,000 Years Ago, Changing Picture of Spread From Africa

Nobody looked for Neanderthals or early Homo sapiens on islands because it was thought they weren’t seafaring – but back then, the Aegean wasn’t a sea

Apollonas, Naxos, Greece.
Tango7174/Wikimedia Commons

Smack in the middle of the Aegean Sea lies the island of Naxos, best known for its beaches, antiquities, and grilled octopus. It was home to the Cycladic culture, which coexisted with the Minoans over 4,000 years ago. Now discoveries of stone tools on the Greek island newly proven to go back at least 200,000 years demonstrate that somehow, both Neanderthals and early humans reached this island – and apparently an earlier form of hominin, too.

None had been expected, Tristan Carter of McMaster University and colleagues from the United States and Greece explained Wednesday in Science Advances

Europe had been thronged with pre-Neanderthal hominins, such as Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, and come their day, Neanderthals did live in continental Greece and Turkey. But it didn’t occur to science to seek archaic human remains on any Aegean islands, based on the thinking that ancient humans weren’t seafarers.

So first of all, maybe they could have made boats. We don’t know. And, it seems, they could have gotten there on foot. During the glacial periods of Ice Age when much seawater was locked up in the glaciers and ocean levels were low, there were apparently marshy land masses between continental Greece and Turkey.

The Aegean Sea, in other words, wasn’t there. Naxos seems to have been, at times, part of a terrestrial continuum.

“We believe that pre-Homo sapiens populations and early modern humans (Homo sapiens) were also entering Europe via what today is the submerged Aegean basin, via what today is the island of Naxos, where they would have stopped off to extract chert [a type of rock] to make their tools,” the lead author, Tristan Carter of McMaster University, tells Haaretz.

In other words, the discovery of hominin activity on Stelida, Naxos hundreds of thousands of years ago changes the theory of how humans dispersed out of Africa.

Passage to Europe

Chert tool, Stelida, Naxos
N, Skarpelis

To be clear, no ancient bones have been found on Naxos. “Unfortunately, the soil is very alkaline, so human bones do not survive,” Carter explained.

That is sad. Happily, what survived are stone tools, which have now been rigorously dated to a range of at least 200,000 years to 13,000 years old.

Some of these tools were Mousterian and Levallois style, which are associated with Neanderthals in Greece. Others were Early Aurignacian type, associated with the first appearance of modern humans, Homo sapiens, in Europe.

And, the very oldest tools found at Naxos actually date from tens of thousands of years before Neanderthals, let alone modern humans, were known to have reached the Aegean.

So: if Neanderthals spread to the Levant, Anatolia and Aegean around 130,000 years ago and anatomically modern humans only 45,000 years ago (as current thinking suggests) – who were the earlier quarriers of chert rock for tools on Naxos 200,000 or more years ago? Maybe Homo heidelbergensis, a hominin which has been recorded from southern and norther Greece from a handful of sites, Carter suggests.

About the seagoing: Some postulate that even Homo erectus may have been capable of steering floating objects if they stuck by the coast for navigational purposes, and as for early humans, they weren’t riding cooperative crocodiles to Australia 60,000 years ago. They had to have gotten there by boat.

But the point is: rather than has long been assumed that early humans could only have entered Europe over the Marmara-Thrace land bridge, Carter argues that these new Naxos discoveries now suggest that pre-Neanderthal populations and the first Homo sapiens could have taken different routes as they roamed out of Africa, and traveled to continental Europe via the Levant, Anatolia and then across the central Aegean basin, via Naxos.

The discovery of tools possibly made by Homo heidelbergensis on Naxos at least 200,000 years ago suggests that Naxos was not then an inaccessible island, but was part of the yellow chert road to Europe.

Neanderthal and back again

The latest thinking on human evolution is that early anatomically modern humans began seeping out of Africa through the Levant at least 200,000 years ago (on foot). Maybe even earlier.

The evidence includes a jaw found in Israel’s Misliya Cave, which many believe to be modern human (not everybody agrees, on any of this); a modern human finger bone found in Saudi Arabia dating to 85,000 years ago; and recent claims of Homo sapiens remains in China dating to around 90,000 years ago.

“While these early dates are very exciting, it does not necessarily change the story of when Homo sapiens entered Europe,” Carter stresses. “We have long known that Homo sapiens entered the Levant, established sites in areas where Neanderthals had previously lived, but then seemed to disappear, perhaps retreating back to warmer African areas when there were colder periods within the Ice Age.”

Then the Neanderthals came back and repopulated those areas – and then Homo sapiens returned, likely overwhelming and absorbing the Neanderthals as they went along, and ultimately spread through Eurasia.

Like we said, it’s complicated. The latest thinking includes the postulation that all the early Homo sapiens exits from Africa went extinct, and today’s people all arose from later dispersals from Africa, starting maybe 65,000 years ago.

But clearly humankind and our predecessors had adventurous spirits. They explored. They might not have known they were boldly going where no human or Neanderthal had gone before, and not thought deeply about supplanting ancient pre-human and pre-Neanderthal populations as they went along.

But go they did. Some think sheer curiosity and derring-do lie at the very root of Homo sapiens’ success versus other hominin species. And now it seems that at least some of these early people may have crossed into Europe over land masses now sunken beneath the azure waves of the Aegean Sea.