One of the great things about science is that old orthodoxies regularly get overturned; it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Of course the personal downside is that it means models which scholars have invested their lives and intellectual capital into may turn out to be unsupportable, but at the end of the day it’s not about everlasting fame, but the real world as it was and is and will be. Paradigm shifts are kind of like a box of new chocolates, you never know what new inferences will be generated. Thinking deeply again becomes a surprise.
In The New York Times John Noble Wildford has an excellent overview up of a new find which seems to definitively show that archaic Homo sapiens could travel long distances by water, On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners:
Crete has been an island for more than five million years, meaning that the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. So this seems to push the history of Mediterranean voyaging back more than 100,000 years, specialists in Stone Age archaeology say. Previous artifact discoveries had shown people reaching Cyprus, a few other Greek islands and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
The oldest established early marine travel anywhere was the sea-crossing migration of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia, beginning about 60,000 years ago. There is also a suggestive trickle of evidence, notably the skeletons and artifacts on the Indonesian island of Flores, of more ancient hominids making their way by water to new habitats.
The 130,000-year date would put the discovery in a time when Homo sapiens had already evolved in Africa, sometime after 200,000 years ago. Their presence in Europe did not become apparent until about 50,000 years ago.
Archaeologists can only speculate about who the toolmakers were. One hundred and thirty thousand years ago, modern humans shared the world with other hominids, like Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. The Acheulean culture is thought to have started with Homo erectus
The data here seem to be strong enough, if the reporting is correct (I’ve seen press releases elsewhere which suggest the same), that the low bound estimates for the dating of the tools is such that there can’t be overlap with the presence of modern human beings in Europe. Note that “anatomically modern humans,” that is, Homo sapiens sapiens, were extant in Africa sometime after 200,000 years B.P. But these populations did not expand out of Africa until after 80,000 years ago, at the earliest, and possibly as late as 50,000 years ago. Behavioral modernity seems to be approximately concurrent with the Out of Africa movement, post-dating anatomical modernity by over 100,000 years.
But there were others out there before our ancestors spread across the world; the descendants of an earlier expansion who are generally thrown into a catchall label of Homo erectus, with some regional variations such as Neandertals being their later forms. With the expansion Out of Africa the cousin lineages by and large disappeared, though there is still some debate as to whether they were partially genetically assimilated. Arguments about whether Neandertals spoke, or exhibited any unique characteristics of behaviorally modern humans, are at the heart of much of paleoanthropology. How you interpret Neandrtal sites is strongly conditioned on your priors; in other words, are Neandertals agents like us, or fundamentally Other.
The world is not totally flat though. It was anatomically modern humans of recent African provenance who settled the New World, and pushed the frontier of the Homo range to Australia. Clearly there was some quantitative leap which distinguished our own lineage. But I wonder sometimes if our assessment of the abilities of the non-African lineages is colored by our species’ tendency to enter into human/non-human dichotomies, in the quest to validate our own specialness. Chill out sapiens, you made it to the moon.