Hand axes excavated on Crete suggest hominids made sea crossings to go ‘out of Africa’

By Bruce Bower

Human ancestors that left Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago to see the rest of the world were no landlubbers. Stone hand axes unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete indicate that an ancient Homo species — perhaps Homo erectus — had used rafts or other seagoing vessels to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between, says archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island.

Several hundred double-edged cutting implements discovered at nine sites in southwestern Crete date to at least 130,000 years ago and probably much earlier, Strasser reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Archaeology. Many of these finds closely resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago by H. erectus, he says. H. erectus had spread from Africa to parts of Asia and Europe by at least that time.

Until now, the oldest known human settlements on Crete dated to around 9,000 years ago. Traditional theories hold that early farming groups in southern Europe and the Middle East first navigated vessels to Crete and other Mediterranean islands at that time.

“We’re just going to have to accept that, as soon as hominids left Africa, they were long-distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place,” Strasser says. The traditional view has been that hominids (specifically, H. erectus) left Africa via land routes that ran from the Middle East to Europe and Asia. Other researchers have controversially suggested that H. erectus navigated rafts across short stretches of sea in Indonesia around 800,000 years ago and that Neandertals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar perhaps 60,000 years ago.

Questions remain about whether African hominids used Crete as a stepping stone to reach Europe or, in a Stone Age Gilligan’s Island scenario, accidentally ended up on Crete from time to time when close-to-shore rafts were blown out to sea, remarks archaeologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Only in the past decade have researchers established that people reached Crete before 6,000 years ago, Tykot says.

Strasser’s team cannot yet say precisely when or for what reason hominids traveled to Crete. Large sets of hand axes found on the island suggest a fairly substantial population size, downplaying the possibility of a Gilligan Island’s scenario, in Strasser’s view.

In excavations conducted near Crete’s southwestern coast during 2008 and 2009, Strasser’s team unearthed hand axes at caves and rock shelters. Most of these sites were situated in an area called Preveli Gorge, where a river has gouged through many layers of rocky sediment.

At Preveli Gorge, Stone Age artifacts were excavated from four terraces along a rocky outcrop that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Tectonic activity has pushed older sediment above younger sediment on Crete, so 130,000-year-old artifacts emerged from the uppermost terrace. Other terraces received age estimates of 110,000 years, 80,000 years and 45,000 years.

These minimum age estimates relied on comparisons of artifact-bearing sediment to sediment from sea cores with known ages. Geologists are now assessing whether absolute dating techniques can be applied to Crete’s Stone Age sites, Strasser says.

Intriguingly, he notes, hand axes found on Crete were made from local quartz but display a style typical of ancient African artifacts.

“Hominids adapted to whatever material was available on the island for tool making,” Strasser proposes. “There could be tools made from different types of stone in other parts of Crete.”

Strasser has conducted excavations on Crete for the past 20 years. He had been searching for relatively small implements that would have been made from chunks of chert no more than 11,000 years ago. But a current team member, archaeologist Curtis Runnels of Boston University, pointed out that Stone Age folk would likely have favored quartz for their larger implements. “Once we started looking for quartz tools, everything changed,” Strasser says.


Agioi Deka, the ten saints of Crete.

The road from Iraklion winds south through the town of Agia Barbara and descends to the Mesara Plain at a small village which is still called, to this day, Agioi Deka. Agioi Deka is built on the eastern part of the ancient city of Gortyn. Gortyn is one of my favourite sites in Crete and more will be written of this exciting city of Crete which was the capital for many centuries of Crete and north Africa.

At the end of the second century AD, Christianity was spreading across Crete thanks to the earlier work of the Apostle Titus, a Cretan who was student to the Apostle Paul who landed on the island around 62AD.  Titus became the Patron Saint of Crete and a huge Basilica with five aisles has now been discovered west of the centre of Gortyn near the village of Metropolis, which is called the church of St Titus. The old church of St Titus in the public area of the Gortyn site was not the original church by any means. It was just called that by an archeologist in the last century.

By the end of the second century AD Christianity was an important religion in Gortyn. Circa 170 to 190AD Gortyn had a very active Christian bishop called Philip who is today held as a saint in the Roman Catholic church. Every day we learn more about these times in Crete but the information is still pretty scarce. At least until the year 249AD. Within the Roman Empire that year was a leader called Emperor Decius who was deified as were all Roman leaders. Decius though, wanted the whole of the Roman Empire to worship his name and this happened in Gortyn. A shrine was set up and a great celebration declared to worship the Emperor Decius, god of Rome.

Although Gortyn was by now becoming a Christian city, no one argued with the Emperor of Rome. So everyone in Gortyn went through the motions watched by the Romans. All except ten men who used the moment to protest saying that no one should be worshipped except the true god, Jesus Christ. Consequently all ten were arrested.

It is interesting though that this protest seemed to have been a planned protest. Although five of the men, Theodoulos, Satornilos, Euporos, Gelasios and Eunikianos came from Gortyn, the other five came from other cities such as: Pompios from Lebena, Agathapos from Panormos, Basiliedes from Kydonia (Hania), Zotikos from Knossos and Euarestos from Iraklion. The men were held in prison and tortured for one month. But they failed to change their opinions and so they were sentenced to death by the governor of Crete. The executions took place in Alonion, a part of Gortyn now known to be the main amphitheatre of Gortyn. Later in the reign of Constantine the Great of Eastern Rome now called Byzantium governed from Constantinopolis (Istanbul), permission was given to raise the bodies of the ten men, now sanctified as saints, and rebury them in holy ground in sarcophogi. No one knows exactly where they are buried for there is still so very much of Gortyn to discover.

The graves of the martyrs of Alonion, Gortyn may be the sarcophogi discovered during a rescue excavation in 1981. There was a low enclosure where stone sarcophogi were seen at the centre of which was a small votive pit. The site was then recovered and is now, apparently, no longer accessible. We just don’t know.

However the ten saints of Crete are still celebrated today for their courage and their sanctity and the previous centre of the amphitheatre Alonion now holds the church of the ten saints in the village of Agioi Deka, just south of the main road through the village. The church stands in the original oval of the centre of the amphitheatre and is dated to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. It has a fine icon to the saints as well as wall paintings that depict the ten saints. It is well worth a look.

It is also worth remembering that the ten saints came from cities in central and western Crete suggesting that even in the third century AD, Christianity had not yet penetrated the east of the island.