Gene Expression

The Others could travel by sea

One of the great things about science is that old orthodoxies regularly get overturned; it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Of course the personal downside is that it means models which scholars have invested their lives and intellectual capital into may turn out to be unsupportable, but at the end of the day it’s not about everlasting fame, but the real world as it was and is and will be. Paradigm shifts are kind of like a box of new chocolates, you never know what new inferences will be generated. Thinking deeply again becomes a surprise.

In The New York Times John Noble Wildford has an excellent overview up of a new find which seems to definitively show that archaic Homo sapiens could travel long distances by water, On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners:

Crete has been an island for more than five million years, meaning that the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. So this seems to push the history of Mediterranean voyaging back more than 100,000 years, specialists in Stone Age archaeology say. Previous artifact discoveries had shown people reaching Cyprus, a few other Greek islands and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

The oldest established early marine travel anywhere was the sea-crossing migration of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia, beginning about 60,000 years ago. There is also a suggestive trickle of evidence, notably the skeletons and artifacts on the Indonesian island of Flores, of more ancient hominids making their way by water to new habitats.

The 130,000-year date would put the discovery in a time when Homo sapiens had already evolved in Africa, sometime after 200,000 years ago. Their presence in Europe did not become apparent until about 50,000 years ago.

Archaeologists can only speculate about who the toolmakers were. One hundred and thirty thousand years ago, modern humans shared the world with other hominids, like Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. The Acheulean culture is thought to have started with Homo erectus


The data here seem to be strong enough, if the reporting is correct (I’ve seen press releases elsewhere which suggest the same), that the low bound estimates for the dating of the tools is such that there can’t be overlap with the presence of modern human beings in Europe. Note that “anatomically modern humans,” that is, Homo sapiens sapiens, were extant in Africa sometime after 200,000 years B.P. But these populations did not expand out of Africa until after 80,000 years ago, at the earliest, and possibly as late as 50,000 years ago. Behavioral modernity seems to be approximately concurrent with the Out of Africa movement, post-dating anatomical modernity by over 100,000 years.

But there were others out there before our ancestors spread across the world; the descendants of an earlier expansion who are generally thrown into a catchall label of Homo erectus, with some regional variations such as Neandertals being their later forms. With the expansion Out of Africa the cousin lineages by and large disappeared, though there is still some debate as to whether they were partially genetically assimilated. Arguments about whether Neandertals spoke, or exhibited any unique characteristics of behaviorally modern humans, are at the heart of much of paleoanthropology. How you interpret Neandrtal sites is strongly conditioned on your priors; in other words, are Neandertals agents like us, or fundamentally Other.

The world is not totally flat though. It was anatomically modern humans of recent African provenance who settled the New World, and pushed the frontier of the Homo range to Australia. Clearly there was some quantitative leap which distinguished our own lineage. But I wonder sometimes if our assessment of the abilities of the non-African lineages is colored by our species’ tendency to enter into human/non-human dichotomies, in the quest to validate our own specialness. Chill out sapiens, you made it to the moon.

Comments

  1. #1 samsonite
    February 16, 2010

    “Paradigm shifts are kind of like a box of new chocolates, you never know what new inferences will be generated.”

    jesus, what a nerd.

    though the implications of this find are interesting.

  2. #2 Brian Schmidt
    February 16, 2010

    So why can’t the Crete colonization be accidental rafting, like it is for other species. Maybe a pregnant woman was swept into a river in a flood episode, grabs onto a floating tree and ends up in Crete.

    It would be strange for humans to figure out how to use rafts to cross significant distances and then only do it once, while leaving the other Mediterranean islands alone.

  3. #3 Raka
    February 16, 2010

    Article: …anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia, beginning about 60,000 years ago.

    Post: Homo sapiens sapiens, … did not expand out of Africa until …possibly as late as 50,000 years ago.

    So there’s some significant doubt on the Australia estimates?

  4. #4 John Emerson
    February 16, 2010

    There seems to be a bias against sea contact among prehistorians. The Polynesian / Malay colonizations which happened during historical times are well-attested, and there’s no powerful reason that they couldn’t have happened somewhere else at an earlier date — there are prerequisites regardin navigation, sailing into the wind, etc., but nothing really unimaginably difficult or terrible new or sophisticated.

    I’ve read of a conjectured prehistoric sea trade between Ethiopia and India, which is favored by the monsoon pattern there, and I believe partly supported by genetics. There’s also a lot of talk about contact between Shang China (ca. 1200 AD) and the north Pacific coast of the Americas, and the NW coast indians were pretty good navigators. There’s no archeological proof, but it seems like a reasonable reconstruction (which is all that a lot of prehistory is).

  5. #5 Vicki
    February 16, 2010

    Brian: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Note that the archeologists who found this weren’t looking for it, because they didn’t expect to find any remains that old. If you are sure that there was nobody living on, say, Sardinia or Cyprus or Mytilene before about 10,000 BCE, and your excavations on a site in the Mediterranean find nothing interesting down to a layer earlier than that, you’d probably stop and dig elsewhere.

    This would be the earliest known human (or even hominid) sea-faring, but the other early dates aren’t from the Mediterranean: as the linked article points out, Australia was settled around 60,000 BCE, and there’s no way to get there except by water. And there’s H. floresiensis: whether or not they deserve to be counted as a separate species, there are artifacts there that pre-date the settlement of Australia. So, we know H. sapiens could travel by sea that far back; the question is how many did so, how they did it–what sort of boats or rafts they were using–and how often, and whether they settled there and left descendants. If the travel was accidental, they might be more likely to try to get back to Africa from Cyprus than to try to get back to Asia from Australia.

  6. #6 bioIgnoramus
    February 16, 2010

    “So there’s some significant doubt on the Australia estimates?” I’d guess so, but I base that on little more than having lived in Australia. :-)

  7. #7 Sandgroper
    February 16, 2010

    There is a long running dispute about the age of the oldest human remains yet found in Australia, which are referred to as Mungo Man or LM3 – Alan Thorne dated the remains at 62,000 +/- 6 years, but his methods were criticised. Subsequently, several groups reached a consensus that the remains are about 40,000 years old. The dispute is ongoing.

    Leaving aside LM3, the oldest evidence so far of human occupation of Australia has been dated at about 45,000 years, and the general consensus is around that.

    The disputes get tangled up with broader issues, e.g. for OOA advocates, the earliest date of occupation of Australia has to tie in sensibly with the earliest date for OOA, plus travel time. Then there’s the megafaunal extinctions. So whether you believe people could have been in Australia by 60,000 years ago or longer depends on your priors. It gets political, which I hate, because as an interested layman bystander, it’s hard for me sometimes to see through the political/personal-reputation smokescreen.

    But some of the longer estimates seem screwy. I’m inclined to believe the consensus, at least until they are definitively proven wrong.

  8. #8 John Emerson
    February 16, 2010

    “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    Actually it is, though it’s not proof.

  9. #9 Sandgroper
    February 17, 2010

    Sorry, that should obviously have been 62,000 +/- 6,000.

  10. #10 Brian Schmidt
    February 17, 2010

    Sounds like Vicki is suggesting a predictive hypothesis: look around the various islands in the Mediterranean, and more of these early colonization incidents should turn up. If they don’t, then accidental rafting to Crete seems more likely than real seafaring capability.

  11. #11 Alan Kellogg
    February 17, 2010

    #3

    Raka,

    It is possible the Australian Aborigine belongs to an older sub-species of Homo sapiens, a different line of evolution than H. sapiens sapiens. Don’t know if they have an official name, but I’m partial to Homo sapiens australiensis myself.

    Though Razib does get the first marine crossing location wrong. The first crossing of deep ocean water occurred when the first boats crossed the Wallace Line back in Indonesia. the water between New Guinea and and Australia was the first wide water barrier humans crossed, and deciding to cross it relied on a lot of observation, reasoning, and memory. In short, the crossing was a victory of intelligence. Probably the greatest victory of knowledge and imagination Humanity will ever know.

  12. #12 razib
    February 17, 2010

    alan, genetically australian aborigines look to be a branch of non-africans. IOW, they seem clearly part of the out of africa movement.

  13. #13 DDeden
    March 16, 2010

    From my gatherings, before 45ka dugouts and reed rafts were probably widely in use over short distance water crossings, so could have been used to accidentally cross larger water bodies (Wallacea), but paddles (as opposed to older poling) and slightly deeper hulls allowing safer transit & larger cargo capacity may have made the difference in deeper water, especially during the low sea levels of the ice age (20ka-8ka) from Djibouti to the Persian Gulf and between the Medit.-Black-Caspian Sea south coasts.

    Skilled use of sails probably started at the Nile (7ka?) due to the great advantage of combining downstream current with upstream winds, inducing and advancing inter-community trade (as opposed to inter-individual trade-gifting), developing into linked trade networks (Sumer, Meru/Meroe, Somalia, Samaria, Sumur Lebanon, Madras, Sumatra, Samarkhand, Samara (Iran), Samar (Russia) at regular trade posts/ports) which then spread out throughout the IndoPacific and Mediterranean coasts.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.