Category Archives: Old World Archaeology

The Most Ancient Mariner

When did land-loving humans first trust their fates to simple rafts and begin exploring the world by water?  Most archaeologists would say some 50,000 years ago,  when anatomically modern humans sailed from island southeast Asia to Australia.   But Thomas Strasser, an archaeologist at Providence College in Rhode Island, dropped a bombshell last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. Strasser reported that he had found several hundred double-edged cutting tools on the island of Crete that dated to at least 130,000 years ago.  Some,  said Strasser,  looked very much like the hand-axes that Homo erectus wielded in Africa 800,000 years ago.

Strasser now proposes that the ancient hominins voyaged out of Africa by primitive boat,  island-hopping from Crete to Europe.  “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 told Science News reporter,  Bruce Bower.

This new evidence sounds immensely intriguing,  and I would certainly like to know much more.  But I think that we are still a long way from seeing Homo erectus as a seafarer.   Other evidence for such primeval ocean voyaging,  after all,  is very thin.   Let me briefly recap.  In 1998,  a team led by Michael Morwood,  an archaeologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia,  excavated  stone tools on the island of Flores in Indonesia (the same island that produced the so-called “Hobbit” remains of Homo floresiensis) that dated to some 800,000 years ago.  This was the time period when H. erectus was roaming southeast Asia.

How did the ancient hominin get to Flores?  Morwood himself suggested that they might have held on to logs as simple flotation devices, and kicked their across the narrow strait separating Komodo from Flores.  But a more flamboyant researcher, Robert Bednarik,  an independent scholar who heads The First Mariners project, proposes that H. erectus sailed there by raft.   To demonstrate that such a voyage is indeed possible,  Bednarik and several associates built a bamboo raft with paleolithic stone tools, and then sailed successfully on it from Lombok to the neighboring island of Sunbawa in a ten hour and twenty five minute crossing in rough seas.

So such a voyage is indeed possible in a simple raft.   But most archaeologists working on the subject of coastal migration have been exceedingly reluctant to buy into the idea of seafaring H. erectus.  When I interviewed half a dozen of the world’s leading experts on the subject two years ago while working on an article on ancient seafaring for Discover magazine,  most suggested that that ancient hominins likely floated to Flores accidentally,  after being blown out to sea in a storm.

A major sticking point for many is the cognitive ability of H. erectus.  Many researchers believe that only modern humans possessed the necessary technological creativity to build a raft and the requisite intellectual ability to navigate at sea.   But if Strasser’s new findings are accepted (and you can be sure that people will be looking very carefully at both the stone tools themselves  and at the proposed dates), then it could be a whole new ballgame.    I personally will be following this research with great interest.

Royal Chamber-Pots and Privies

Today, I’m bringing you a small, strange, guilty pleasure. I just stumbled across this delightful video of a very animated British archaeologist showing off the ancient privies of British kings and queens at several royal palaces. (Does anyone know who she is? She’s terrific, but uncredited.) Check out her real delight at finding residues of Tudor urine in a chamber pot!

Beer, The Ancient Health Drink

One of the coolest experiences I ever had as an archaeological journalist was wandering through the vast collections area of the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago.  I confess that I’ve always loved museum storage areas:  you never know what strange artifacts and oddities you will spy on the shelves.  And the Oriental Institute  did not disappoint.  Although I was there to look at Mesopotamian silver for a Discover Magazine story on the origins of money,  what really caught my eye was a collection of what appeared to be slender three-foot-long bronze sticks.   When I asked assistant curator Emily Teeter what these strange objects were, she promptly informed me that Mesopotamia’s ancient inhabitants  had used them as beer-drinking straws.

Teeter and I then had an extended conversation about beer,  a favorite subject among archaeologists.   The urban dwellers of Mesopotamia had discovered that drinking fermented beer was much safer than downing the local water:  the alcohol in the brew made short work of the bacteria that flourished in their contaminated water supplies.   But the early beers were less than perfect:  they were laden with bitter residues.  So the Mesopotamians invented drinking  straws.  One end of the straw was sealed and perforated with tiny holes,  turning it into a long extended filter.   Early beer drinkers pored their brew into a large jar and then congregrated companionably around it,  each sipping from a long straw.

I was reminded of all this yesterday,  when I read a terrific article by Trey Popp in the January/February issue of the Penn Gazette on biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern,  the world’s leading authority on ancient alcohol.  Popp’s article is well worth reading–as is Patrick McGovern’s new book, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages–but I found one part particularly intriguing.

In the 1980s, Popp writes,  two researchers at the Penn museum posed an fascinating question:  was making a better beer a greater incentive for early botanical improvement of  cereal grains than making a better bread?  In other words,  which did early civilizations value most: bread or alcohol?   After much study, the two researchers,  Solomon Katz and Mary Voigt, concluded that beer was very probably the driving force for all this ancient  agricultural experimentation.  Beer,  of course,  produced a very pleasant high.  But more importantly,  it produced notable health benefits and no side effects (which can be very harmful in terms of health and legal side even, e.g.  The process of fermentation yields lysine,  an essential building block for all protein in the body, and an abundance of B vitamins, which great assist the functioning of the immune and nervous systems.   And the alcohol content kills bacteria in tainted water,  as I mentioned earlier.

Thus, argued Katz and Voigt,  beer drinkers had an “selective advantage” over teetotalers,  enjoying better health and giving birth to more children.   Who would have thought it–beer,  the health drink and one of the foundations of human civilization?