THE FIRST MARINERS EXPEDITIONS

The Greek island of Kythira lies 20 kilometres below the southern tip
of the Peloponnese. It is a small island whose role in the march of
civilisation is remarkably disproportionate to its size. The love goddess
Aphrodite was born here and over the past 4000 years the island has
been occupied by the Minoans, Phoenicians, Byzantines, Venetians,
Turks, French, Germans and the British. Most significantly for a
country with such a maritime history, is the island’s strategic position
at the western edge of the Aegean Sea which made Kythira the
ancient seafarers’ gateway to western Europe.
Looking south on a clear Kythiran day you can see the rugged outline
of two islands. The first is tiny ( pop. 41) Antikythira, only 37
kilometres away . Some 90 kilometres further south is Crete which in
human times has always stood alone, it’s tall, snow-clad mountain
tops easily visible from Kythira. It is Crete, we believe, that may have
been the destination of Europe’s first sailors.

KYTHIRA – CRETE

Until recently archaeologists had not been able to put a human
presence on the Greek islands past 12,000 years. But that changed
dramatically with the recent discovery of stone tools on Crete, and its
mini outlier Gavdos, which have been dated to at least 130,000 years
earlier.
At that time both Kythiran islands formed a single landmass with the
Peloponnese and that meant that the southern tip of Antikythira was as
far as our land-bound ancestors could go. Crete was always there,
enticingly visible but isolated by the sea in between. But the human
animal is extraordinarily capable of dealing with physical limitations.
We may never fly like a bird or swim like a fish but to be sure we will
always find a way to get to where we want to be.
It was now that Crete’s archaic toolmakers clearly stepped onto the
Aegean, but from where? Libya could be a candidate because the type
of the stone tools found on Gavdos can be traced back to Homo erectus
there almost a million years ago. But as ingenious as the world’s first
sailors might have been, it was unlikely that they would have set out
without a visible destination, which at 200 kilometres way, Crete
wasn’t.
While scholars endlessly speculate what drove the ancients to build a
vessel to carry them offshore, there was one remarkable man to whom
the answer was quite plain.

When he died in 2003, Dutch palaeontologist Dr. Paul-Yves Sondaar had
become one of the world’s best known authorities on island fauna and island
dwarfism. He was particularly involved in the exotic menagerie of Crete’s
ancient fauna which included miniature elephants and hippopotamus, an
endemic otter and several species of deer; some no larger than a modern
sheep and one with long legs which behaved like a giraffe.
The ancestors of the dwarf hippo (Hippopotamus creutzburgi) – which stood
not more than a metre tall – had come to Crete before humans as a full-sized
hippopotamus, as did the herds of swimming elephants. Dr. Sondaar
surmised that if Europe’s first mariners did reach Crete 130,000 years ago,
or potentially much earlier as some artefact finds are suggesting, then this
was the tame and easily-hunted game he found there. It was a situation not
far short of paradise and man would have doubtless taken full advantage of
it. Paul Sondaar would therefore not have been surprised by the recent stone
tool finds on Crete and Gavdos which place ancient man on the islands
about the time of the faunal extinctions. The dwarf hippo, dwarf mammoth
and the giant rat – according to palaeontologist Alexandra van der Geer,
went extinct about 125,000 years ago, which correlates to the suspected
arrival by sea of the Cretan and Gavdos toolmakers.

Dr. Sondaar’s work on the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia is largely
credited for establishing that Homo erectus was making sea crossings
between the Lesser Sunda islands as long as 800,000 years ago.
It was natural, he would explain, for herd animals like deer, hippos and
elephants – all herbivores and natural swimmers – to navigate their way to
safe havens, and especially across straits left by low sea levels to islands
where their traditional enemies, all poor swimmers like the predatory big
cats couldn’t follow. On the island the newcomers adapted easily to their
new and protected environment; some of them in remarkable ways. The
dwarf hippo for example developed a special ankle joint which allowed it to
climb Crete’s rock-strewn terrain. Like the elephant it also became smaller
and more nimble so it was easier to forage for food. Without enemies a
defensive bulk was no longer necessary.
According to Paul Sondaar’s model, man reached the islands in the
Mediterranean during a global climatic upheaval of magnificent proportions,
a prolonged ‘super quake’ which turned grazing plains into deserts.
Temperatures plunged. With his food source dwindling, man became a
desperate survivor and at the edge of the Mediterranean he began to take a
greater interest in the offshore islands such as the then combined Corsica
and Sardinia, Cyprus and Crete which he had seen for the best part of a
million years but could never be reached because of the sea which
surrounded them. Not without a boat.

Man had already become the
supreme hunter. He had
overcome the mystery of
fire, could convert a stone
into a tool and a weapon and
could clothe himself against
the cold and build himself a
shelter. But these
accomplishments were
relatively modest when
placed alongside the
challenge he now faced.
Some say it is man’s greatest
technological achievement,
to create a device that would
make him amphibious.

It was much colder than now – the planet was in the grip of a massive ice
age – but other than that it is not possible to know with any precision what
climatic conditions were like on earth 300,000 years ago when our hungry
ancestors – prowling the edge of the gradually shrinking Mediterranean –
began planning how to get to its offshore islands.
Sea levels were different also, in some cases up to 200 metres lower than
they are now. It is quite likely that even in modern human times – with a
combination of low sea levels and tectonic adjustments of the Earth’s
unstable crust – just about all of the Greek Islands were simply high peaks
on a single land mass. There was no gap between Kythira and Antikythira,
which made them a single island that was presumably joined to the
Peloponnese and thence to the great continent of Eurasia.
Crete stands out as one of the rare exceptions. Like Cyprus, Corsica-
Sardinia, and Mallorca further to the west in the Mediterranean, it was
always separated from the mainland by a body of water.
Nowadays from the high, vertical cliffs at the bottom of the island of
Antikythira – the original mainland – the distance to Crete is just under 30
kilometres. To a modern terrestrial the distance doesn’t look so intimidating.
But the Mediterranean has a fearful temper and a long and imperious history
of disdain for mariners. When its wicked wind quartet, the ‘mistral’,
‘sirocco,’ ‘tramontana’ and the ‘meltemi’ which the Kythirans call
‘provetza’ attack without warning, the result can be very uncomfortable.

There is supposed to be little tidal influence in the land locked
Mediterranean Sea, but that is not quite true. There is not a gap between
islands which escapes the turmoil of eccentric whirlpools and currents
moving in all directions and very often with power and malevolence of a
great ocean.
Such are the thalassic conditions in the Mediterranean which then, as of
now, the archaic inhabitants of Kythira would have faced in order to cross
the sea to Crete.
The question of how they went about it is what brings the First Mariners’
team to Greece. There are no tangible reminders left to indicate how they
did it. It was a technology which utilized only biodegradable elements. Even
in Australia where the original settlers have recorded their social activities
and material culture in 40,000 year old rock paintings, there is no known
image of the vessel which transported them there. The blueprints of these
experiments have vapourised along with the primitive people who drew
them in their minds and perhaps with a stick in the wet sand left behind by
the tide.
It is only by replicating what we think they did that we can gather the data
necessary to explain how our remote ancestors conquered mankind’s most
frustrating barrier. Until now we don’t know much. But we do know that it
happened at more or less the same time in very much different separated
parts of the world.

There is supposed to be little tidal influence in the land locked
Mediterranean Sea, but that is not quite true. There is not a gap between
islands which escapes the turmoil of eccentric whirlpools and currents
moving in all directions and very often with power and malevolence of a
great ocean.
Such are the thalassic conditions in the Mediterranean which then, as of
now, the archaic inhabitants of Kythira would have faced in order to cross
the sea to Crete.
The question of how they went about it is what brings the First Mariners’
team to Greece. There are no tangible reminders left to indicate how they
did it. It was a technology which utilized only biodegradable elements. Even
in Australia where the original settlers have recorded their social activities
and material culture in 40,000 year old rock paintings, there is no known
image of the vessel which transported them there. The blueprints of these
experiments have vapourised along with the primitive people who drew
them in their minds and perhaps with a stick in the wet sand left behind by
the tide.
It is only by replicating what we think they did that we can gather the data
necessary to explain how our remote ancestors conquered mankind’s most
frustrating barrier. Until now we don’t know much. But we do know that it
happened at more or less the same time in very much different separated
parts of the world.

The suggestion for it came about in the middle of the last century when
Theodore Verhoeven, a Dutch missionary and classical archaeologist,
discovered on the island of Flores, some 500 kilometres to the east of
Lombok, the remains of long-extinct elephants, giant rats and the relics of
stone tools and concluded that there might be a connection between his finds
and the bones of the early hominid, Homo erectus, which had already been
found on the island of Java. Java was then joined to Bali and Verhoeven
assumed that the same people had crossed to Lombok on a land bridge to
widen their hunting activities to the chain of islands which stretch east from
there almost to Australia.
Verhoeven was the first to produce this now irrefutable fact; that ancient
hominids coexisted on the islands east of Bali with now long-extinct
animals. But he was wrong in assuming that man and the animals before him
got there on foot. The Lesser Sunda islands might have been joined to each
other but in human times they were never part of a continent, there was
never a land bridge. The Homo erectus hunters of the long-gone Stegodon –
the people responsible for producing the stone tools – could have arrived
there only by sea, and perhaps via the shortest and most demanding route –
from Bali across the Strait to Lombok. After that the crossings between the
volcanic islands would have been smaller and easier. Sometimes the islands
wouldn’t have been separated by water at all.

The tortoise was on Flores long before man, probably before the
islands were separated or had actually appeared because of volcanic
upheaval. The elephant, the full-sized ancestor of the Stegodon
arrived later, most likely by swimming.
There was no wind the following morning so we set off paddling.
The tides which rage north-south were no help but a gentle west wind
came along and we landed on Lombok, 50 kilometres away, 14 hours
later. Six months earlier a first attempt was abandoned by a fierce
and sudden southerly storm which drove us north into the Java Sea.
Three months before that, also on the second attempt, it took five of
us 13 days on a larger bamboo raft to cross 650 kilometres of Timor
Sea to reach Australia to demonstrate how, in all probability, the
original inhabitants of Australia first made the journey some 60,000
years ago.

On none of these voyages was it our intention to prove that this was how
stoneage mariners crossed – or failed to cross – a stretch of water. But we did
establish that such a thing wasn’t impossible by riding on a bundle of twigs.
What is more important is that the success of both voyages confirmed that
our choice of vessel for the experiments was a wise one. Some thousands of
years later, seafarers in the Neolithic would have almost certainly made the
journey by dugout canoe. But to build such a vessel requires, as much now
as it did then, not only a certain technological sophistication but also an
assemblage of tools which simply weren’t available a quarter of a million
years ago.
It is clear that the vessel which carried the first humans to Crete was in
principle similar to that which first crossed the habitually terrifying
Lombok Strait. A raft that is, a buoyant and stable platform capable of
carrying a sizeable hunting party and seaworthy enough to withstand the
Mediterranean’s sudden bouts of fury.
All the First Mariners’ rafts made in Indonesia were from bamboo. It is
light, easy to harvest, to work, is available everywhere and grows in such
weed-like profusion it is easy to select the culms with the best curve or the
most prodigious length and girth.

For the bamboo-less Mediterranean, inflated animal skin was considered
then been ruled out because of its complex preparation procedure and
vulnerability. The raft for the voyage to Crete will be made from the cane
Arundo donax which is something between bamboo and very tall grass. In
Spain it is canya and in Greece kalamia. It grows, as expected, in the selfirrigated
valleys and rocky crevices on Kythira, just as it does everywhere
along the endless shoreline of the Mediterranean.
There are other potential raft component plants growing on Kythira which
can be exploited to bind the cane stalks together. The local psathi for
example is a bullrush whose thin, dried stalks are still a favourite weave for
the seats of chairs. The foliage of almost any palm can be used as a binding –
some more effective than others – when it is stripped, dried and twisted into
rope to lash the cane stalks together. Even kalamia itself can be used. When
green it can be split and split again to produce flexible and strong silica-rich
strips suitable for binding.
Tests with scale models have already been made but the final design will not
be known until further tests on Kythira where the First Mariners team begin
harvesting the kalamia in September, 2013. The cane – about 7,000 pieces of
it – will be trimmed, bundled and stored for seasoning through the winter.
Both the raft construction and the attempted crossing to Crete are scheduled
for the summer of 2014.

On the premise that the model for
modern sails didn’t make an
appearance before Austronesian
speakers who went on to conquer
the Pacific during the late
Neolithic, the Crete raft will
carry only the most rudimentary,
woven-mat substitute. Otherwise
it’s dozen crew will use paddles.
On Bali we were able to fashion a
reliable wooden paddle from the
branch of a Beach Hibiscus tree
with tools knapped from dark
grey microcrystalline
sedimentary silica.

On Kythira, with the cooperation of Prof. Nena Galanidou, Greece’s
leading stone tool expert, we are hoping to build the raft with an
assemblage of stone tools based on the recent finds on Crete and
Gavdos which have added more than 100,000 years to the human
settlement of Crete. The finds on Crete were near the town of Plakias
and made by a team of Greek and American geologists and
archaeologists led by Eleni Panagopoulou of the Greek Ministry of
Culture and Thomas L. Strasser, from Providence College, USA.

The team expected to find material remains of more recent artisans of the
Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, some 11,000 years ago, like blades, spear
points and arrowheads. But from the 2,000 items uncovered, archaeologists
found a style of hand axes known as Acheulean which had been made by
Homo erectus people in North Africa 700,000 years ago. Tools from the
Lower Paleolithic (200-125K) were already found on the island of Gavdos
and continuing archaeological work there is indicating that the tool
industries there could have started even further back in time.
According to local knowledge, my own observations made during a
reconnaissance by small boat of the straits between Kythira, Antikythira and
Crete, and information from the “Mediterranean Pilot, Vol. IV” (Royal Navy
Hydrographic Department), the most ideal conditions for such a voyage
occur between June and September.
The project would have gone ahead almost a decade ago but for the
untimely death of its mentor, Dr. Paul Sondaar, to whom the project is
dedicated. It is now planned, in the early summer of 2014 to construct the
raft at Kapsali, a beach and harbour at the southern end of Kythira.
Construction should take three weeks.

REFERENCES

Kopaka, K and Matzanos, C – “Paleolithic Industries from the island of
Gavdos, near neighbour to Crete in Greece. “Antiquity’, (083) 321 (2009)
Sondaar, P.Y and Van der Geer, A.A.E –”Evolution and Extinction of Plio-
Pleistocene Island Ungulates.” International Journal of the the French
Quarternary Association (2005)
Sondaar, P.Y and Van der Geer, A.A.E – “Mesolithic Environment and
Animal Exploitation on Cyprus and Sardinia/Corsica. Proceedings of the
IVth ASWA Symposium IVA: 67-73. Paris (2000).
Strasser T., Runnels, C, Wegmann, K, Pangopolou, E, McCoy, F, Di
Gregorio, C, Karkantas, P and Thompson, N – “Dating Paleolithic Sites in
South Western Crete, Greece. Journal of Quartenary Studies (2011)
Strasser, T., Pangopolou, E, Murray, P, Runnels, C, Thompson, N,
Karkanas, P, McCoy, F and Wegmann, K – “Stoneage Seafaring in the
Mediterranean: Evidence for Lower Paleolithic and Mesolithic Inhabitation
of Crete from the Plakias Region. “Hesperia” No. 79 (2): 145-190 (2010)
Van der Geer, A.A.E, Lyras, G, de Vos, J and Dermitzakis, M – “Evolution
of Island Mammals: Adaption and Extinction of Placental Mammals on
Islands:. Wiley-Blackwell (Oxford, U.K) 2010.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

My early research on Crete and Kythira was inspired by Paul-Yves
Sondaar, to whom the Crete project is dedictated and financed by Cercles
Polaires Expeditions through its director, M. Bernard Buigues.
On the island of Crete the project received the enthusiastic support of the
then Mayor of Achios Nikolaos, Mr. Adonis Zervos, a major force in the
proposed project to make a museum site of the dwarf hippo graveyard on
the Katharo plateau.
Mayor Zervos’s counterpart on Kythira, Mayor Artemis Kalligeros, also
provided invaluable support at the time.
But the primary work on Kythira, would not have been as productive,
enjoyable and indeed possible without the generosity, enthusiasm, sound
practical advice and the friendship of Mr. Panagotis Defterevos who will
host the First Mariners’ team once again.
Bob Hobman
Sengkiding, Bali
June 01, 2013.
<hobmanbob1@gmail.com>

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