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Early Humans in the Aegean Basin

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Early Humans in the Aegean Basin

This McMaster project is helping to rewrite the migration routes early humans took to reach Europe, with archaeologists’ discoveries at the site of Stélida on the Cycladic island of Naxos (southern Greece) suggesting that our early ancestors were in the Aegean Basin at least a quarter of a million years ago, despite most scholars believing this region to have been a boundary to human movement until quite recently. The site comprises a source of stone (chert) that was used to make daily tools, and hunting weapons by prehistoric peoples – early Homo sapiens (us), Neanderthals, and even earlier characters.

What is this research about?

The site of Stélida has been known since 1981, but the date of its archaeology was contentious, because (a) the artefacts found here looked nothing like other material from the Cycladic islands, (b) while the material seemed very early, no one in theory was meant to be living in these islands until 7000 years ago.   

The purpose of the McMaster/Canadian Institute in Greece project was to clarify the nature of Stélida, and to try to date the periods of activity represented on site. In 2013-14 this involved an intensive survey of the hill by a small team, many of whom came from McMaster University, together with Greek, and American scholars.   

The work was initiated because (i) a number of other sites of proclaimed very early date have now been found in the Aegean basin, raising the possibility that Stélida could indeed be an early prehistoric quarry, (ii) the hill itself is undergoing rapid tourist development leading to the irrevocable loss of the archaeological record, whereby research was needed urgently.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers from McMaster University, Aix-en-Marseille University, University of Belgrade, Cyprus University, and the University of Athens first intensively surveyed the site to map the distribution of archaeological artefacts, and those parts of the hill where chert was exposed.  

Using standardised collection methods, a large representative selection of artefacts were collected for study. While most of this material was in the form of generic production debris, there were also some stone tools whose distinctive form and method of manufacture allowed us to date them to specific time periods and, by extension, the eras when the Stélida quarry was being exploited.   

Careful records were also made of modern features: vegetation, trackways and buildings, all of which can influence the visibility, and distribution of the archaeological record. 

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found that:  

  • In the 2013 season our results showed clearly that the chert was being worked during the Middle Palaeolithic by Neanderthals (maybe 100,000 years ago), and again much later by modern human hunter-gatherers around 9000 to 7000 years ago.  

Further results, not all of which are detailed in the Carter et al., 2014 paper, showed:  

  • That the chert source of Stélida has been exploited – likely intermittently – from at least a quarter of a million years ago, during the Lower Palaeolithic (likely by Homo heidelbergensis), Middle Palaeolithic (Neanderthals), Upper Palaeolithic – Mesolithic (early modern humans – late hunter-gatherers), i.e. ≥250,000 to 9,000 years ago.  
  • The results make Stélida the oldest scientifically examined site in the Cycladic islands, and extends back the history of the island/archipelago by some 100,000 years (if focusing on 2014 paper), or quarter of a million years (if dealing with 2013-14 finds).  
  • The discovery of Neanderthals in the Cyclades is important, but we do not yet appreciate the significance of this information, i.e. (a) did they only visit Naxos during very cold periods when the sea-level was much lower (due to water being taken up by glaciers of the ice age) whereby they could simply walk from continental Greece and/or Turkey, or (b) did they visit throughout the Middle Palaeolithic, i.e. also during periods when it would have been necessary to have undertaken at least some of the trip by simple boat? The significance of hypothesis (b) is that until quite recently, the ability to make seaborne craft was something we believed to be exclusive to modern humans, and by extent one of the technological/behavioural differences that separated ‘us’ (modern humans) from ‘them’ (Neanderthals and other early ancestors).  


To resolve the above issues the team needed to move from surface analysis of the site, to actual excavation – the aim being to take samples that could be scientifically dated to see exactly when these early prehistoric characters were visiting Stelida in conjunction with recent sea-level reconstructions for the periods involved (Middle Pleistocene – Early Holocene).  

How can you use this research?

This research is useful to archaeologists and museums. This will help researchers understand the dates and routes of early human movement into and out of Europe, whether these movements involved travelling by sea, and the relationship between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. The findings will also be of interest to locals of Naxos, visitors to the island, or to anyone interested in the Aegean islands or the study of prehistoric humans.