Neanderthals, or even older Homo erectus("Upright Man") might have sailed around the Mediterranean, stopping at islands such as Crete and Cyprus, new evidence suggests.
The evidence suggests that these hominid species had considerable seafaring and cognitive skills.
"They had to have had boats of some sort; unlikely they swam," said Alan Simmons, lead author of a study about the find in this week's Science. "Many of the islands had no land-bridges, thus they must have had the cognitive ability to both build boats and know how to navigate them."
Simmons, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, added that there is no direct evidence for boats dating back to over 100,000 years ago. If they were built then, the wood or other natural materials likely eroded. Instead, other clues hint that modern humans may not have been the first to set foot on Mediterranean islands.
On Crete, for example, tools such as quartz hand-axes, picks and cleavers are associated with deposits that may date to 170,000 years ago. Previously, this island, as well as Cyprus, was thought to have first been colonized about 9,000 years ago by late Neolithic agriculturalists with domesticated resources.
Excavations at an Akrotiri site on Cyprus have turned up ancient thumbnail scrapers and other tools dating to beyond 9,000 years ago. There is also a huge assembly of fossils for a dwarf pygmy hippopotamus, which might have been good eats for the earlier islanders. It's possible they hunted the small, plump animal to extinction.
"Conventional wisdom used to be that none of these islands had too much settlement prior to the Neolithic because the islands were too impoverished to have supported permanent occupation," Simmons said. "This likely is untrue. Hunters and gatherers can be pretty creative."
Permanent settlements, however, appear to have happened after these suspected first forays into the islands.
Other evidence outside of the Mediterranean supports that pre-Neolithic humans could sail. Simmons, for instance, points out that these individuals "must have been able to cross substantial expanses of sea to reach Australia by at least 50,000 years ago."
"Additionally," he continued, "findings from the Indonesian Wallacea islands suggest the presence of hominins as early as 1.1 million years ago on Flores Island."
Modern humans today quibble about which culture was the first to discover this or that country, but the truth is that many lands were probably first discovered and/or settled by hominid species that were not Homo sapiens.
As for what happened when modern humans arrived, it is possible that the different populations were not entirely put off by each other.
"If the Crete and likely Homo erectus or the other Ionian (Neanderthal) evidence is ultimately verified, it is possible that some mating could have occurred with later modern humans emerging from Africa, but this likely occurred around 100,000 years ago," Simmons said, adding that evidence for island occupation at that particular time is scant.
Bernard Knapp, a professor at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, told Discovery News, "The very earliest documented presence of people on these (Mediterranean) islands should be termed 'exploitation.' Once people came to stay, we should speak of 'permanent settlement.' 'Colonization' is a loaded term."
Knapp hopes that future research will lead to "some level of secure chonometric dating, beyond tool typologies" to help clarify when exactly the islands were first discovered.
Thomas Strasser, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Providence College, told Discovery that he believes "future research will confirm recent discoveries that hominids reached the Mediterranean islands when they first left Africa. I believe the Homo erectus radiation out of Africa was both terrestrial and maritime."
© 2012 Discovery Channel