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Did Neanderthals sail the Mediterranean? Some interesting evidence.

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Neanderthal/Photaro

Okay, you say, enough about Neanderthals. Just one more thing for now: From Andrew Lawler at Science:

A decade ago, when excavators claimed to have found stone tools on the Greek island of Crete dating back at least 130,000 years, other archaeologists were stunned—and skeptical. But since then, at that site and others, researchers have quietly built up a convincing case for Stone Age seafarers—and for the even more remarkable possibility that they were Neandertals, the extinct cousins of modern humans.

The finds strongly suggest that the urge to go to sea, and the cognitive and technological means to do so, predates modern humans, says Alan Simmons, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas who gave an overview of recent finds at a meeting here last week of the Society for American Archaeology. “The orthodoxy until pretty recently was that you don’t have seafarers until the early Bronze Age,” adds archaeologist John Cherry of Brown University, an initial skeptic. “Now we are talking about seafaring Neandertals. It’s a pretty stunning change.”

Scholars long thought that the capability to construct and victual a watercraft and then navigate it to a distant coast arrived only with advent of agriculture and animal domestication.

Quote of the day:

“We severely miscalculated,” admits Runnels, who excavated at the Crete site. If his colleagues are right, he says, “the seas were more permeable than we thought.” More.

Here’s a thought: The seas may or may not have been very permeable but the people were often pretty desperate:

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Tennyson

Skepticism is a good thing, taken in measured doses, but be cautious of skepticism that brushes aside the normal operations of human nature applied to the likely risks of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Seafaring could certainly occur to distressed, maybe starving Neanderthals. It’s not a complex idea, after all. Even if one does not have a specific destination, fat fish and edible seaweed wash up on shore, showing that there is fresh food in the ocean, if one is prepared to take the risk – maybe no more than floating out on a log, to start with. Lands suffer droughts but oceans do not.

Some years back, I was hired to write an encyclopedia entry on the question of whether the Apostle Thomas, featured in the New Testament, founded the ancient Mar Thoma church of India (which would make it one of the earliest churches, approximately 50 AD or so). Many scoffed at the idea that Thomas could have gotten to India from wherever he was when persecutions scattered the infant church because it was just too far.

Well, I did some research and it turned out that trade between Rome, Egypt, and India two millennia ago was a major factor in the Roman Empire’s economy. While voyages were long, difficult, and dangerous, many people undertook them because their other options were not attractive either. And, if one were interested in riches, as opposed to evangelism, coming back with a load of sugar and spices to be sold at a huge markup was a ticket to prosperity. In this case, skepticism of Thomas’s journey was overlooking the normal operations of human nature applied to a problem.

See also: Human evolution: Did large brains cause Neanderthals to go extinct? Did Neanderthals go extinct at all, as opposed to being fully assimilated into the early European population, as genome maps imply? They were never very numerous, relative to the newcomers. Here’s a familiar demographic pattern: There are simply many more partners available in the large majority group than in the small minority one. Small groups must make serious efforts to avoid assimilation (assuming they wish to); otherwise, it can just happen. The group lives on in the genome but not in society. Is there some reason for believing that that is not what really happened to Neanderthals?

and

Neanderthal Man: The long-lost relative turns up again, this time with documents

3 Replies to “Did Neanderthals sail the Mediterranean? Some interesting evidence.

  1. 1
    vmahuna says:

    What with the Ice Age and all, the Med was a pleasant valley through which the Nile River drained into the Atlantic Ocean someplace west of the scenic overlook at Gibraltar. The Black Sea was also a pleasant valley until all that ice melted. And much of the “Persian Gulf” was a fertile valley through which the Tigris-Euphrates drained directly into the Indian Ocean.

    For details, see the map at the front of any of the Conan books.

    So Neanderthals, and anyone else interested in taking a hike, could have simply WALKED to Cyprus prior to 10,000 BC or later.

  2. 2
    News says:

    So, vmahuna at 1, the idea of floating out on a log wouldn’t seem very scary compared to, say, braving the North Atlantic in recent millennia… ? No, of course not. It would hardly take Neanderthals Hawking-like intelligence to think of it.

  3. 3
    Mark from CO says:

    An honest question from someone who knows enough to get himself in trouble. I’ve read, perhaps in articles within this website, that Neanderthal bone structure falls within the tolerances of humans (homo sapiens). If so, why are Neanderthals universally thought of as different from homo sapiens? Thank you for any thoughts on this.

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