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Neandertals, Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean (sciencemag.org)
82 points by okket on Apr 25, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

I think there's a trend in archaeology of us realizing we've been underestimating the past.

The Polynesians were capable of voyaging across the Pacific to South America, and another Austronesian group made it all the way to Madagascar. This was pretty controversial until Kon-Tiki; even now, Polynesian-South American contact isn't fully accepted.

(IIRC, we weren't sure how the Polynesians even found so many islands, until an archaeologist asked a few of them and discovered that there's a simple algorithm for it: follow the birds.)

Australia had to have been sailed to from somewhere, possibly more than once, possibly intentionally.

Stone tools can be pretty good, especially obsidian. There are surgeons today who use obsidian knives.

Roger Blench has a paper on Greco-Roman lamps turning up as far afield as Palau, which implies more complex trade networks at an earlier stage than most people would think: http://www.academia.edu/9237516/The_Romans_in_Palau_how_did_...

And now, Neanderthals with boats. This isn't really new -- Homo floresiensis (the ebu gogo, maybe) had to have gotten there somehow. But it's part of an important trend.

Kontiki didn't prove much about the Polynesian navigation or the types of crafts they used.

Linguistic and other evidence strongly suggests that the Polynesian islands were settled from west to east (probably originating from Taiwan) and Kontiki drifted with the currents from east to west.

What's interesting is that the Polynesians settled the outlying islands by sailing into the prevailing winds (making it easier to return home if the failed to find land).

They used efficient outrigger canoes which could be tacked or, sometimes even better, shunted, into the wind.

They also did a lot more than follow birds, they relied on keen observation of the ocean (interference patterns in the swells caused by an unseen island), the colour of the clouds (clouds are darker underneath when there is land beneath them) and relied on a sophisticated 'star compass' for latitude navigation.

If their home island was at latitude -18deg for example, they knew which zenith stars passed above their island, and which stars set at what point on the horizon at that latitude.

So after an eastward exploration run, when they wanted to find their way home, they just kept their islands's zenith star at the zenith and sailed west with the wind till they made landfall.

Polynesian non-instrument navigation is undergoing a revival. See:



>They also did a lot more than follow birds, they relied on keen observation of the ocean (interference patterns in the swells caused by an unseen island), the colour of the clouds (clouds are darker underneath when there is land beneath them) and relied on a sophisticated 'star compass' for latitude navigation.

Yes, the National Geographic article / series I mentioned nearby in this thread:


says those sorts of things. So does the Morris West book, IIRC (some of them). In fact, some of the photos in the NG article show a device that may be the same as the "star compass" you mention.

A big problem is that so much of human history is now under water. The Mediterranean was likely an extremely fertile region in which to hunt, and likely the largest Neanderthal settlements that ever existed were there. Sadly, they are now under water. Likewise, much of the land between Africa and Saudi Arabia is now under water, though if we could explore it we would learn a lot about how humans migrated out of Africa. And likewise, the spread of humans in south east Asia --- our understanding would be very different if only we could easily see all the old settlements that are now under water.

A significant part of our story has simply been washed away by rising sea levels, once the Ice Age ended.

Bigger than Doggerland? I'm not really questioning you, so much as you've shared something about the Mediterranean in relation to the Neanderthal presence that I was unaware and I would be very interested in a source so that I could learn more.

> The Polynesians were capable of voyaging across the Pacific to South America, and another Austronesian group made it all the way to Madagascar. This was pretty controversial until Kon-Tiki;

Too funny: Kon-Tiki went from South America to the Polynesian and it's only more recent research which indicates it might have been the other way around.

What we realize now is how little we know.

Fair point - the expedition was intended to prove that the Polynesian migration (or at least the migration to Easter Island) could've come from South America.

FWIW, the area around Southeast Asia and Australia may have been extremely densely populated by hunter gatherers. During the last glacial maximum, sea levels were several hundred feet lower, which created a massive land mass.


Would there have been a land bridge to Australia?

There is a tectonic plate boundary in Indonesia such that the ocean depth between Asia and Australia is several km below sea level. In fact, the evidence of sharp biogeographical divide between Asia and Australia (Wallace Line) helped establish support for the idea of plate tectonics.

During the minimal sea level, the peninsula of Asia included Sumatra, Borneo, and Java, while Australia included New Guinea, and the sea almost to (but not connected to) Timor. The minor islands of Indonesia (and Sulawesi) remained disconnected from either continent. The resulting gaps, however, would have been smaller: you could have crossed the straits without losing sight of land.

No, but look at the map on the Wikipedia page I linked. There would have been tons of islands between Sundaland and an expanded Australia.

> Australia had to have been sailed to from somewhere, possibly more than once, possibly intentionally.

The Torres Strait is full of small islands bridging the 150km gap between PNG and Australia. Not only that, but much like the Strait of Dover or the Bering Sea it was most certainly a land bridge until the holocene, and it remains extremely shallow.

How about Australia and Tasmania? The indigenous languages on each side of the Bass Strait have at least one feature in common (initial Cr- clusters) that's rare elsewhere in Australia. (There might be more, but information is pretty hard to come by, and the Tasmanian languages are sparsely attested.) That may or may not be indicative of continued contact; it might even be a coincidence, but if it's not, I wouldn't expect the shared feature to stick around for thousands of years.

(If Wikipedia is right about the time of Tasmania's separation from the Australian mainland and Tasmania was already populated at the time, the feature would've had to have been preserved on both sides of the Bass Strait for about twice the time between modern English and Proto-Indo-European.)

Given that the indigenous Australian languages hold the record for the longest-running oral traditions (70,000 years worth of story-telling), it would be no surprise to me to hear that there was such an influence...

> Given that the indigenous Australian languages hold the record for the longest-running oral traditions (70,000 years worth of story-telling)

It isn't possible to verify a claim like this (and therefore, it also isn't possible to honestly make a claim like this...) - there are plenty of traditions that claim to draw on 70,000 years of history, but no reason to believe that they actually do.

Some versions of the Sumerian king list document that a single king reigned for 36,000 years.

Between this article and this one: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16837120 (Was there a civilization on Earth before humans?), I suspect we might be on the cusp of some amazing discoveries about the past. Not to say that we will find an advanced civilization, but I think there is a good chance that there has been civilizations before us on Earth, who at least built wooden structures and had a spoken language.

The Morris West "The Navigator" is a really good read related to this topic (IMO). It's fiction, but I think some of the stuf mentioned is based on facts about the navigation skills the Polynesians had. A National Geographic team had visited many Pacific islands (across many island groups), done a study and made an article (or series) about it. I had read it a while ago.

Just did a quick search:





There's something about 80386's comment that bothers me. I agree with the overall tone that there are interesting and unexpected discoveries to be made in pre-history and archeology, but all of the examples are unscientific.

Frankly, all of the examples have a click-bait tone and deal in those topics related to "secrets of the pyramids" cable shows: controversial until proven by an amateur; science in the dark until it asks the primitive people about one "simple algorithm;" surgeons use stone age tools; Greek objects on a Pacific island (but not really).

My debunking, in order:

Yes, we now know Polynesians were long-distance intentional sea-farers, but Kon-Tiki did not prove that and was very controversial (and unscientific) in itself. Polynesian-South American contact is hypothesized but doesn't have solid evidence (sounds more neutral than "isn't fully accepted"). Currently only the sweet potato and palm tree genomics show it was likely, still waiting for artifacts or human remains that could provide solid evidence.

About Polynesian sailing, others have covered the complexity and accomplishment of their navigation, I will add that they also likely travelled seasonally: go in one season, come back when the winds shift 6 months later. Recently, the crew of the Polynesian Voyaging Society sailed around the world using these ancient techniques.

There was likely a land-bridge across the Torres Straight at glacial maximum, but not across the Wallace line further east (see the Sundaland comments). Anyway, this comment is so vague as to not really say anything.

I get the idea that we modern industrial humans under-estimate what is possible with stone-age technology and ingenuity, but the link to modern scalpels is but one minor point (that they had sharp tools). You need a lot of other properties to build things, some cultures had them available and developed them (rope for binding, cloth making, etc). One thing to remember: when Captain Cook landed in Hawaii in 1778, the Hawaiians were essentially in the stone age (though some contact with Spanish galleons or the floating remains thereof is speculated). Very soon thereafter, an ambitious local chief used western advisors and purchased guns to conquer all other islands.

You say "Greco-Roman lamps turning up [in] Palau" but the article you linked shows that it is only the design of ceramic oil lamps in Palau that might be traced back to a 6th c. bronze Byzantine lamp found in Thailand. The article itself does much to play up the sensationalist nature of Greek influence in Micronesia, but draws lots of tenuous connections between a few pottery shapes. And both the article and your short summary both fail to mention the possibility of parallel development of a basic implement (only so many ways to burn oil with a wick in a vessel). All in all, the article reads more like Popular Science (with unrelated-topless-native-woman image) than a scientific paper.

I wonder what it was like for them to live in a world that was so big and unpopulated and unknown. Someone must have been the first to cross the Bering land bridge into North America, or walk the Nile delta out of Africa into the Levant. Pre-history is deep and wide.

One question I suspect the archaeological evidence is insufficient to answer is how far from the last village/roving band of hunter-gatherers the next band into the wilderness would settle. When you broke off would you stay within a day of your old village or would you walk hundreds, thousands of miles before stopping, completely alone?

As far as the mindset goes, I’d say keep in mind that when Europeans landed in the Americas and Australia, they considered those continents to be “empty”, free for the taking. Their world may not have been so different from the first human to walk out of Africa.

1491 by Charles Mann goes into this a bit. Some estimates put the die-off of aboriginal North Americans at 90% from the arrival of Europeans (in ~1500) and the early permanent settlements (Jamestown was in 1607).

The first descriptions of what's now the US east coast from explorers describe coastlines lined with fires as far as the eye could see, and suggested a fairly densely populated continent.

The descriptions from the early settlers (as you've noted) describe a loosely populated land of "savages".

I've always considered the 16th century a time of essentially apocalypse for North America. Imagine what would happen to our society if we had a 90% die-off over 100 years; even in the modern era we would probably find ourselves regressing to "savagery".

Oh, I'm not talking about the "loosely populated" part. I'm referring to the way that they by and large didn't really consider the inhabitants to be "people". Into the 20th century they were largely denied agency by the colonists, and in the 21st century we still displace Native Americans with roughly the same sort of discussion we have about disturbing turtle populations.

I don't think 16th century Europeans considered the Americas any more inhabited than the Moon. Native populations were just another natural resource the New World was teeming with, not "people".

If you look at it, that kind of humanism (where the distinction between "humans" and "not humans" is more important than the distinction between, say, "Christians" and "not Christians" wasn't in vogue in the 16th century. 16th century Europeans sent enormous numbers of missionaries to the Americas with the aim of converting the natives; they wouldn't have done that if orangutans were the prevailing primate on the continent.

An oversimplification perhaps:


Not that practice matched theory but...

In some cases they actually were empty. Because all the inhabitants had recently been killed by diseases spread by the Europeans. One proposed mechanism for this is that infected pigs roamed wild "ahead" of the colonizers, killing the indigenous population.

> 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.

Weren't they more like parents than cousins? Except for Africans, modern humans have apparently inherited genes from Neandertals and their non-European contemporaries.

I believe us and them were parallel branches, rather than Homo Sapiens descending from Neanderthals. The Neanderthal genes that people have are from inter-breeding.

Yes, inter-breeding.

But that's not "cousins", unless you breed with them.

There's no good word for it. But in the sense that an individual has parents, grandparents and so on, the great^N parents of modern Europeans include Neanderthals. No?

No. You're being overly literal, an occupational hazard for us hackers. Human language works differently from computer languages. I suggest working out your right hemisphere - read some poetry, sing some songs etc. Good luck!

This is an article in Science. Science is literal.

I'm as much a scientist as a hacker. And my right hemisphere is just fine :)

> But that's not "cousins", unless you breed with them.

What? Cousins are descendants of a recent common ancestor (grandparent for the colloquial first/full cousin), you can breed with them but not doing so doesn't make them non-cousins.

> There's no good word for it. But in the sense that an individual has parents, grandparents and so on, the great^N parents of modern Europeans include Neanderthals. No?

Yes? But that didn't spawn a new species, Homo Sapiens Sapiens and Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis were already separate and well-defined things when that happened.

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens sapiens (~50 kiloyears ago) were cousins, both descended from Homo habilis. But modern European Homo sapiens sapiens are descendents of both. So Neanderthals are not their cousins, but rather grand^N parents.

That is, it all turns on who "our" refers to. In the article, "our" clearly refers to you and me and other humans who lived during the past few thousand years. So the article should say that Neanderthals were "their" cousins, referring to Homo sapiens sapiens living ~50 kiloyears ago.

There really should be new species names. I mean, if you're going to distinguish Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, shouldn't you also distinguish hybrids? As we do for mules, "E. asinus × E. caballus". But damn, that would distinguish those modern humans without Neanderthal ancestry, which probably wouldn't be a good thing.

No, both Neanderthals and humans are generally believed to have each evolved from Homo habilis separately, and then later interbred to varying degrees in various locales.

Right, the ancestors of Europeans and East Asians include Neanderthals.

Yes. And while "ancestors" is technically correct, I'm honoring my Neanderthal ancestors by calling them great^N grandparents. In other places, they had different names, but they were closely related.

Exactly. Though it's more complicated because if you go back even more generations, they're extremely distant cousins as well. The thing we're discovering about human ancestry is that it's not really a tree. Instead, it's more of a directed acyclic graph, where things branch off only to re-merge downstream.

For instance, the Denisovans are another archaic human population who split off from a common ancestor and then interbred with humans later on. And there was a recent paper which detected archaic DNA from an unknown source in West Africans. Given that species can typically interbreed for at least a million years after splitting from a common ancestor, combined with the fact that Africa had tons of hominids who coexisted with anatomically modern humans, we're probably going to discover that the story of human ancestry is highly convoluted.


Yes, it was highly convoluted. I mean, in some unregulated bordellos, non-human primates (and other species) are available. Some of which are also food animals.

Off topic, I'm guessing that your username is a reference to Battlestar Galactica. Yes?

> I'm guessing that your username is a reference to Battlestar Galactica. Yes?

No, just kind of a silly joke between me and my wife. Sorry to disappoint!

Oh. Did get me thinking about Six, though ;)

When people breed, any children call them their parents.

>> The picks, cleavers, scrapers, and bifaces were so plentiful that a one-off accidental stranding seems unlikely, Strasser says.

A two-off accidental stranding would be another explanation

Neanderthals had advanced jewelry drills, could make their own clay dishes, could treat diseases with herbs and simple surgeries, and they even had some knowledge of dentistry. They were able to construct furnaces, had advanced (at the time) weapons, social structures, and created underground settlements and tunnels spanning hundreds of kilometers.

The popculture image of grunting, snorting primitive cavemen is more fitting for Homo Sapiens than Homo Neanderthalensis.

>> tunnels spanning hundreds of kilometers

Do you mean tunnels that are hundreds of kilometers long? Sounds interesting. Can you point us to some reading on that?

It might be more accurate to say that they used tunnels spanning that distance in total: cave systems.

No way that's true. Maybe he have meant trade routes?

Here's an article on one such underground site: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature18291

The tunnels themselves were not that long or linked up, but apparently all those that were found under Europe add up to hundreds of kilometers.

What do you mean by the word "tunnel" here? They seem to be talking about an arrangement of stones on a cave floor.

Agreed, and apparently we killed them all. We're the savage ones :D

And had kids with quite a few of them..

What would interest me is, if this was more a love/voluntarily thing, or more rape and owning the women of the defeated tribe ...

I guess both. Sometimes tribes having hard times would join better off tribes. Naturally women would be expected to procreate. Taking women during raids was common too. Or if men were killed in warfare, women may have "voluntarily" joined the other tribe.

This is common to overall tribe relations. For example, Baltic and Fino-Ugric people in North/east Europe. Baltic people came as part of Indo Europeans while Fino-Ugric people lived there before that. Modern Lithuanians and Latvians have much more Fino Ugric genome in women-specific parts. Some of traditionally women arts were also carried from Fino Ugric tradition into Baltic. Conclusions are pretty clear...

So when relating your analogy to the article, the Finnish would be the Neandertals?

Yep. Although I don't know if Neanderthal genome is more present in female-specific parts. If it's even in both genders, I guess that'd point towards more voluntarily merge.

IIRC, there is no Neanderthal mtDNA (transmitted exclusively from mother to daughter) present in modern humans. That could just be because it died off though.

We sure did. I read recently that yes there are still traces of Neandertal in our genomes...

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