According to groundbreaking archaeological evidence, Neanderthals and early humans are now believed to have inhabited Naxos 200,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought.
In 2021, a team of US, Canadian, and Greek archaeologists announced the discovery of stone tools on the island of Naxos which have been proven to go back at least 200,000 years. Naxos is a Cycladic Greek island located in the very middle of the Aegean Sea.
The tools, according to the team of Tristan Carter of McMaster University, demonstrate that somehow, both Neanderthals and early humans found a way to reach this island—and subsequently stayed in the region for some time.
Neanderthals were an extinct species of the genus Homo that inhabited Europe, the Near East, Middle East, and Central Asia between 230,000 and 40,000 years before the present during the late Middle Pleistocene and most of the Upper Pleistocene.
Paleogenetic studies indicate a common origin for modern humans and Neanderthals, as well as hybridizations between the two hominin species, in at least two places, namely the Near East and Western Europe, and times.
Findings shed light on Neanderthals in Greece
Discovering evidence of hominid activity at Stelida, Naxos hundreds of thousands of years ago completely changes the theory of how humans dispersed out of Africa, the scientists posit in their research, published recently in the journal Science Advances.
While Stone Age hunters are now known to have been living on mainland Europe for over one million years, the Mediterranean islands were previously believed to have been settled only 9,000 years ago by farmers.
Before the discovery of Stelida in 1981, the oldest settlements around the Cycladic islands were 7,000 years old.
The discovery of the site calls many of what were previously accepted theories regarding early humans and Neanderthals in the region into question.
The prevailing theory as to why the Mediterranean islands were inhabited so much later was that only modern humans, Homo sapiens, were sophisticated enough to build seafaring vessels.
Did early humans and Neanderthals travel to Naxos on foot?
However, scientists now believe that Naxos was not an island 200,000 years ago.
During one of the glacial periods amounting to an ice age, when huge volumes of seawater was locked up in glaciers and ocean levels were low, there were apparently marshy land masses between continental Greece and Turkey.
“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, (and) 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,” Carter explained to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz.
Some of these tools were in what is known as the Mousterian and Levallois styles, which are associated with Neanderthals in mainland Greece. Others were of an Early Aurignacian type, associated with the first appearance of modern humans, Homo sapiens, across the European continent.
What is perhaps most intriguing is that the very oldest tools found at Naxos actually date back to as far as tens of thousands of years before Neanderthals, much less modern humans, were known to have reached the Aegean.
Carter explains, however, that no ancient bones have been found on the island. “Unfortunately, the soil is very alkaline, so human bones do not survive,” the archaeologist told Haaretz.
These finds have inspired renewed debate and research into the arrival of Neanderthals and early humans on the Mediterranean islands. Archaeologists plan to continue excavations at the site, hoping to find more groundbreaking artifacts.
Evidence of Neanderthals sailing to Crete 130,000 years ago
Stone age tool discoveries made on the Greek island of Crete in 2010 indicate that man traveled the Mediterranean as early as 130,000 years ago—and not 10,000 years ago as originally believed—according to Science magazine.
In an article entitled “Searching for a Stone Age Odysseus,“ authors say that up until a decade ago, archaeologists assumed that the adventurous travels of Odysseus, as reflected in Homer’s Odyssey, were the first ventures in the Mediterranean, believed to have taken place 10,000 years ago.
Others have assumed that sea travel was a human endeavor that started in the Bronze Age.
However, excavators in 2010 claimed to have found stone tools in Crete dating back at least 130,000 years, leading to assumptions that man traveled the seas as early as during the Neanderthal stage of human development.