larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next
by Larry

December, 2011

Our Early Seafaring Ancestors

Scientists were amazed a few decades ago to discover how early in Earth's existence life began to form, almost four billion years ago, perhaps only a few hundred million years after this sphere had coalesced into a molten core and rocky surface world.

Similarly, from DNA as well as archeological evidence scientists have been surprised to learn more recently how distant in the prehistory of Homo sapiens were their first travels by sea. Speculations along these lines had arisen following evidence that aboriginal people had arrived far inland in Australia by about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Since it was known that human origins occurred in Africa and that overland migrations typically occur at a not terribly frenetic pace, to have already established themselves in regions distant from shore on that island continent so long ago suggests that ocean voyages by our ancestors must have happened 60,000 years ago or even longer in our species' prehistoric past.

Just as was true at a more stepped up pace in the early pre- and post-Columbus voyage history of the discovery and habitation of the Americas by Europeans, it is assumed that small groups of male explorers set forth upon the ocean's currents at still more distant times but were then later followed by colonists, family groups, once promising routes were known.

More remarkable still, one of our human antecedents, Homo erectus, has now been found to have engaged in seafaring over 100,000 years ago. Remains and shaped tools on the Island of Crete in the Mediterranean apparently confirm that Homo erectus families had migrated to that location from northern Africa roughly 130,000 years before the present. It is unknown if Homo erectus had sophisticated speech, but the latest finds demonstrate that they at least possessed sufficient sign language or other communication to organize and carry out intentional crossings of wide stretches of ocean to new sites, ones requiring elaborate provisioning and far enough away that they could not have been visible to those setting forth. This is the more intriguing since previously Homo erectus, being relatively small-brained, were believed to be closer to the chimps than to modern humans in their capacities for complex thought.

While Homo erectus was a species not in our direct line of ancestry, it is thought this form of early humanoids were at first co-existent with our own kind. Might the two forms of human in a few places and times have come into enough contact that the ocean crossing technologies and customs of the earlier species might have been passed along to our own?

Orca whales - Among the New World sights enjoyed by the first seafaring peoples in North America (Wikipedia)
In any case, whether they were assisted in this way or independently evolved a basic practical knowledge of how to cross an ocean, our Homo sapiens forebears are now thought to have crossed the Red Sea by raft or boat, and in sufficient numbers of both genders to have made a go of it in the Middle East, between around 65,000 and 80,000 years ago. From there, migrations may have been northward (into the Mediterranean and more northern European regions) and eastward (thus later arriving in Australia, after island hopping through southeast Asia, about 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, and settling in far eastern Asia about 30,000 years or so ago).

Current thinking indicates that there were then two primary human routes into the Americas, the first via a sea arrival and from there initially along the coastlines, maybe as long ago as 30 millennia, and, second, through Beringia, a land crossing possible (between what are now Siberia and Alaska) due to very low sea levels during the latter part of the last ice age, and from there both inland, in passages between the mountain ranges, and along the coast. The Beringia avenue assumes first passage from Asia into the Americas around 14,000 to 16,000 years ago, I understand. It would need to have been early enough, evidently, that Clovis technology would have had a chance to have been established far inland, in the presently New Mexican region, by around 11,000 years ago, the approximate age of the distinctive Clovis type artifacts. In any event, it currently is thought that Homo sapiens migrated into the western hemisphere earlier than had previously been believed, and possibly by more than one route.

As was certainly true elsewhere, in the Red Sea and Mediterranean areas, along the Asian and southeast Asian coastal and island migration routes, into and around Australia, etc., so off the Americas as well: seaworthy kayaks, rafts, oceangoing canoes, catamarans, or other vessels would have been used by early peoples to enhance both their expansions into new areas as well as their exploitations of the novel, often highly productive environments in which they found themselves.

That these seafaring skills were already well enough developed by around 65,000-80,000 years ago (over 100 times as distant in time as Columbus' often heralded courageous voyages into the unknown) to promote extensive movements of the species out of Africa, and thence its colonization of all the continents but Antarctica, is for me a fascinating insight into our ancestors' ingenuity and resourcefulness.

It gives fresh hope too that, as we are now inadvertently recreating our world, inevitably pushing out or transforming the natural realm (via global warming, pollution, monocultures, dead zones, overfishing, and the impermeable surfacing of vast areas of the planet), we shall find the means to overcome the latest challenges, just as our kind did with such brilliance in the far distant past.

Primary sources:

Early Humans May Have Crossed Sea to Leave Africa. Hilary Mayell in National Geographic News; May 13, 2005.

Early Human Migrations. in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia; last updated in August, 2011.

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next