Showing posts with label archaeology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label archaeology. Show all posts

Monday, February 22, 2010

Seafarers

In my article of 2 December 2007 entitled Reenactments [display], I mentioned a Norwegian adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl [1914-2002], who was a hero for young people of my generation.

Click the photo to see original footage of the balsa-wood raft Kon-Tiki on its 1947 voyage from South America to Polynesia. Heyerdahl and his companions were trying to demonstrate that the Pacific islands could have been colonized by seafarers who drifted westwards from the American continent.

Today, we're practically certain that Heyerdahl's theory was wrong. Recent linguistic research suggests that ancestors of the future Polynesians probably sailed from the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan) around 3,000 BC. As indicated in the following diagram (with French captions), these seafarers ended up settling in such scattered islands as the Philippines, Fiji, Madagascar, Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island.

[Click the above diagram to obtain a more readable version.]

Many millennia before these long voyages across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, intrepid dark-skinned seafarers from Asia had reached the Australian continent. These ancestors of Australia's Aborigines made this voyage well before the time of the Homo sapiens sapiens individuals whose remains were found in 1969 and 1974: Mungo Man [see photo] and Mungo Woman, who lived out in western New South Wales, not far from Mildura, probably some 40,000 years ago.

Besides the various tests aimed at dating these bone fragments and the geological context in which they were found, DNA testing of modern Aborigines confirms beyond doubt the "out of Africa" origins of this indigenous people. Haplogroup C4 is the most common Y-chromosome result among indigenous Australians, and it has not been found outside of that continent. For an R-haplogroup individual such as myself, this means that the latest common ancestor of today's Aborigines and me lived in southwest Asia around 60,000 years ago. Genetically, his haplogroup is known as CF, but not the slightest trace of such a human being has ever been found yet.

Incidentally, if there are any Aborigines reading the Antipodes blog, I take this opportunity of letting them know that I've got into the habit of referring to my Old Stone Age CF-haplogroup ancestor by a tender nickname: Dreamtimer. It goes without saying that, if anybody were to find traces of him, I wouldn't be personally offended in any way whatsoever if present-day Aborigines were to take photos of old Dreamtimer (they don't need to ask my permission), or if his remains were to be put on display in a museum.

At the time of these epic voyages, there were land links between Asia and Australia that have since been submerged, but the seafarers were no doubt obliged to sail across an expanse of at least a hundred kilometers. Consequently, the ancestors of the Aborigines have been considered, up until now, as the greatest navigators of prehistory.

A month ago, the seafaring supremacy of the sons and daughter of Dreamtimer was subjected to a rude shock, of Titanic proportions, when a report from the the American School of Classical Studies in Athens was made public. Apparently, archaeologists have found the following prehistoric stone implements on the island of Crete:

[Click the image to access the original story in the New York Times.]

They're at least 130,000 years old. At that time, there were no land links inside the Mediterranean. Consequently, prehuman seafarers must have been able to leave the European mainland and sail to the distant island of Crete.

This new discovery pleases me immensely, because I like to think that there were ancient mariners in the Mediterranean at that early date. It's hardly surprising that this great sea, in the middle of planet Terra, went on to acquire a reputation as the home of illustrious navigators such as Ulysses. Obviously, Ulysses and our Antipodean Dreamtimer were distant "genetic cousins" of these Cretan sailors... who might have been smart Neanderthals. (Naturally, we cannot exclude the possibility that they might have been dumb Neanderthals who fell asleep in the branches of a tree that got struck by lightning and then washed out to sea. By the time they realized what had happened to them, they found themselves on a delightful beach in Crete.) It's imaginable that the sailing skills of the archaic Aborigines, which enabled them to reach Australia, were inherited indirectly from these prehuman Cretan seafarers. Maybe these skills were assimilated, much later on, by navigators from Phocea in Asia Minor, enabling them to colonize Marseille. Then a fellow named Pytheas, from that same city, used similar skills to go on a sea excursion up to England, around 325 BC, where he visited Stonehenge as a tourist. As for myself, I'm sure that all these illustrious ancestors and archaic prehuman relatives would have been proud of me when I worked for a month or so, back in 1963—in the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea—at the helm of a Greek tramp steamer, the Persian Cyrus.