Sailors may have cruised the Med 14,000 years ago

NICOSIA Wed Jul 18, 2007 12:16pm EDT

NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - Archaeologists in Cyprus have discovered what they believe could be the oldest evidence yet that organized groups of ancient mariners were plying the east Mediterranean, possibly as far back as 14,000 years ago.

The find, archaeologists told Reuters on Wednesday, could also suggest the island of Cyprus, tucked in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean and about 30 miles away from the closest land mass, may have been gradually populated about that time, and up to 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.

"This is a major breakthrough in terms of the study of early Cyprus archaeology and the origins of seafaring in the Mediterranean," Pavlos Flourentzos, director of Cyprus's Department of Antiquities, told Reuters.

The discovery at a coastal site on the island's northwest has revealed chipped tools submerged in the sea and made with local stone which could be the earliest trace yet of human activity in Cyprus.

U.S. and Cypriot archaeologists conducting the research have known since 2004 that Cyprus was used by small groups of voyagers on hunting expeditions for pygmy elephants.

But the newly discovered expanse of the Aspros dig in the Akamas peninsula, which stretches into the sea, suggests the site held larger numbers of people, possibly for months.

"It shows that activity is much more organized than some isolated visit," said Tom Davis, director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) in Nicosia.

Flourentzos and Davis said the new find told archaeologists nomads knew the island well enough to find tool material, suggesting they were repeat visitors.

Archaeologists say the first human settlements in Cyprus date from 10,000 BC and are located inland. Logically, the coastal settlements should be older, and in Aspros dig case where a good deal of it is now in the sea, possibly up to 2,000 years older.

"We are trying to verify through carbon dating on bones in the area that this find is more ancient, possibly another 2,000 years," said Flourentzos, who co-directed the research project with Albert J Ammerman, an archaeologist at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

Virtually nothing is known about Mediterranean mariners of the era. There is a widely held belief they never ventured into open seas because of limited navigational abilities.

"We are looking at repeated activity here, it is more than a handful of people. For the first time in the east Mediterranean we are talking about serious sea-voyaging," said Davis.

"This was not a case of one guy, or a family blown off course. This is a number of persons coming to Cyprus, these were conscious, repeated visits," Davis said.

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