The Really, Really Ancient Mariners – Solutreans, Neanderthals & Hobbits

For most, a river or an ocean is a boundary. For a sailor, each is a highway.  But, when did the first sailor set out across the water? Recent research suggests that the early man may have gone to sea, and indeed, crossed oceans, much earlier than previously thought.  European Solutreans may have crossed the Atlantic over 20,000 years ago, while Neanderthals may have been crisscrossing the Mediterranean by boat over 100,000 years in the past.  The earliest record of human, or near human, ocean voyaging may be the arrival of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the ‘hobbits’  on the island of Flores in Indonesia around 1,000,000 years ago.

Since around 1930, the dominant theory has been that early man traveled to North America over a Bering Sea land bridge from Asia around 13,000 – 15,000 years ago. Now artifacts discovered on the East Coast of the United States suggest that ancient sailors crossed the Atlantic from Europe more than 5,000 years earlier.  Smithsonian Institute anthropologist Dennis Stanford, author of Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture, argues that a Stone Age European people known as the Solutreans paddled along an ice cap jutting into the North Atlantic at the height of the last ice age.

Radical theory of first Americans places Stone Age Europeans in Delmarva 20,000 years ago

The Solutreans eventually spread across North America, Stanford says, hauling their distinctive blades with them and giving birth to the later Clovis culture, which emerged some 13,000 years ago.

At the core of Stanford’s case are stone tools recovered from five mid-Atlantic sites. Two sites lie on Chesapeake Bay islands, suggesting that the Solutreans settled Delmarva early on. Smithsonian research associate Darrin Lowery found blades, anvils and other tools found stuck in soil at least 20,000 years old.

While not crossers of oceans, a recent article in New Scientist magazine argues that Neanderthals were ancient mariners, as well.  Their distinctive “Mousterian” stone tools are found on the Greek mainland have also been found on the Greek islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos.  As these islands were only accessible by water during the period that tools were made, the Neanderthals could only have traveled by boat.  This builds upon earlier discoveries that we posted about in February of 2010 – On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners.

Some of the earliest evidence of primitive sailors may be on on the island of Flores, Indonesia.  Evidence suggests that a very small early hominid, Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the “hobbits” because of their small stature arrived on the island one million years ago and finally died out 17,000 years ago. The only way to reach the island was by water.  It may turn out that some of the earliest sailors were also the smallest.

Did ‘Hobbit’ ancestor get to Flores 1 million years ago? 

Thanks to Roger Moore on the All things nautical Facebook group for pointing out the New Scientist article.

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9 Responses to The Really, Really Ancient Mariners – Solutreans, Neanderthals & Hobbits

  1. Steven Toby says:

    The Solutrean hypothesis seems to me extremely unlikely. After these people traveled thousands of miles against the prevailing winds and finally reached Delmarva Peninsula — a place hospitable to human life even in a colder climate, as I know full well having lived there since 2006 — how did they manage to leave no European “Markers” in the Native Americans’ DNA? We no longer live in the world in which Thor Heyerdahl could spin radical theories based on archaeological “similarity” while just skimming over the biological absurdity of them. That’s what the “Stealth” comment in the article is all about.

    There are just so many ways to make a stone cutting tool, as there are just so many ways of making a large stone structure in a time period without metals (yeah, they all end up looking very much like a pyramid). Archaeological similarities could result from independent invention as easily, perhaps even more easily, than from diffusion. These are long term issues among archaeologists that are favorite seminar topics.

    I’m aware that there has been controversy among academics over the dating of the Clovis culture, but I understand this is mainly a technical argument about the precision and proper use of Carbon-14 dating and does not raise questions about the direction of the migration from Siberia, only about the time frame.

    The “Hobbits” discovery is much more interesting and the notion they could have come by sea is something I have never seen before. As it is known that humans had the technical capability to build a hang glider some 50,000 years before it is known that they did so, it is also theoretically possible for very early humans to have built some sort of watercraft. Being made of materials that would have rotted away, we can’t expect to see remains of such a craft and are therefore limited to speculation when humans, or cargoes brought by them, are found on otherwise unconnected bits of land. But, we must also recall that coastlines were very different 100,000 years ago with sea levels much lower. The finds may not mean what they appear to.

  2. Rick Spilman says:

    The Solutrean hypothesis remains to be proven but I think the evidence is compelling. To my knowledge there is no remaining significant disagreement remaining on the accuracy of the carbon dating. The points found in Clovis, NM date to around 13,500 years ago while Catus Hill and other sites are at least 15,000 old. The Solutrean and Clovis flint-work is similar. There is no evidence of anything like it in Asia or even the West coast of North America at the time. There is mitochondrial DNA evidence for a European migration. I also find a migration along the ice sheet similar to techniques used by the Inuits to not be unreasonable.

    The early migration of people across the Indonesian archipelago is well accepted. As was the case in Crete, while water levels may have been lower the deep channels would have still required some sort of boat or raft to traverse.

  3. irwin says:

    I hope they had a better idea of where they were than Columbus ever had!

  4. john says:

    the basques(atlanteans) are the solutreans, the original europeans n of a holy bloodline..they founded great britain watch video british dna

  5. M Anderson says:

    The European Solutreans would not have had to travel against any winds if the ice they were on broke up and headed towards what is now the U.S. East coast. I think many people say this is controversial only because they Solutreans were from Europe. Regarding, the “native Americans”, has any evidence been ever been found in the so-called ice passage down which they’re supposed to have travelled? Why aren’t you criticising that theory?

  6. Louis says:

    I’m fascinated by all of this. I’d like to see more archeological evidence of
    possible Solutrean influence along the Eastern Seaboard.

  7. Brian says:

    DNA shows the basques people are smeared up the west coast of Europe all the way round to Northern Norway. The Saimi of Northern Norway are 50% basques. Also research of fish eaten, from the bones show the Solutreens fished over 100km off shore 30,000 years ago. These people survived through an ice age using technolgy so moving round the ice edge 5,000 miles would have been a 3 month summer trip.
    By the way basques are black haired swathe skinned people with o group blood. Red haired white skinned people are more from far east europe and may have come by the eastern route.

  8. Louis says:

    Man first started sailing when the tree branch he was living on broke and fell into the stream below. We might see more evidence if they started to dredge
    more off the coast.

  9. Greendraken says:

    No problem going from East to West in the North Atlantic. The Vikings did it with a square sail. Icebergs did it then and now. Pictures of Solutrean boats are found on cave walls in Iberia and Southern France, dating 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. They are similar to skin covered boats used by the ancient Irish, like St Brendan. His boat could hold at least 14 people and had a square. Maybe a forerunner of the Viking ship? A Little further south in the North Atlantic, The gulf Stream, or what was left of it, went from West to East, making a bi-directional seaway.