The un­hailed mariners of pre­his­toric Greece’s seas

Trip to Crete raises ques­tions about early mar­itime ac­tiv­ity

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY STE­FANOS PSIMENOS

Find a good cor­ner on the deck, and I’ll be with you in a minute,” my fel­low trav­eler Fron­tis shouted over the din of cars as he se­cured his mo­tor­cy­cle on the fer­ry­boat’s park­ing deck. The jour­ney from Kythera, south of the Pelo­pon­nese, to Kasteli in the re­gion of Kis­samos on the north­west­ern tip of Crete was sched­uled to take about four hours in the choppy waters, whipped up by strong northerly winds. “Can you imag­ine our an­cient an­ces­tors mak­ing this jour­ney in prim­i­tive boats, with­out equip­ment, maps, knowl­edge and mainly with­out a known des­ti­na­tion, into the en­tic­ing and fright­en­ing un­known?” Fron­tis asked as he leaned against the rail­ing.

“It must have been like a trip to an­other planet,” I re­sponded. “But the Mi­noans were brave and ca­pa­ble sailors, mas­ter­ing the means made avail­able to them by the nautical de­vel­op­ments of 1,500 years be­fore the birth of Christ.”

“Sure,” said Fron­tis. “But I’m not talk­ing about the Mi­noans; I mean sailors that came long be­fore them.”

I laughed at him. “How much older? Should I add an­other zero to 1500 BC?” Fron­tis, his eyes still turned to the sea, re­sponded, “Add two.” I looked at him, as­tounded.

He must be jok­ing, I thought. The old­est trace of mar­itime ac­tiv­ity, lo­cated in Aus­tralia, dates back no fur­ther than 60000 BC, and in the Aegean it is be­lieved that there was none be­fore 9000 BC. “Imag­ine sea­far­ers around 120000 and 750000 BC, cross­ing a dis­tance of at least 40 nautical miles on the open sea and ar­riv­ing on Crete.” “Un­be­liev­able!” I ex­claimed. “Yes,” said Fron­tis. “And that’s how the ar­chae­ol­o­gists felt when they first dis­cov­ered the stone tools of those Pa­le­olithic hun­ters, small axes and blades, at the lo­ca­tions where they set up camp, near the mouths of val­leys and un­der the cliffs on the coast of south­ern Crete, all the way from Plakia and the Prev­eli Gorge to Aghios Pav­los. It’s hard to wrap your head around it, but since Crete has been an is­land for the past 5 mil­lion years, how else could those peo­ple have got there and made those tools?”

We ar­rived at Kasteli at 9 p.m. De­spite the jour­ney, we were both feel­ing rested and de­cided to ride the 130 kilo­me­ters to Plakia, the cor­ner of Crete that was once the hunt­ing ground of those pre­his­toric peo­ple. We took the north­bound road to Rethymno, headed south to­ward Ar­me­nous and then turned off the main road just be­fore Spili to head for Plakia. The sea­side town had not yet stirred from its win­ter slum­ber and ev­ery­thing was shut. We parked our mo­tor­cy­cles on the south­ern end of the coastal road and climbed down the steep path to the beach, which re­mains to this day one of Crete’s most im­pres­sive treks.

We set up camp in a grassy clear­ing un­der the cliff. We needed to make din­ner out of a few wild greens we had col­lected the pre­vi­ous day and a small bas­ket of snails Fron­tis had gath­ered a few days ear­lier in the north­ern Pelo­pon­nese. “So, great hunter, it’s time to eat your prey,” I said to him, pre­tend­ing to rub two sticks to­gether to get a spark.

“Those hun­ters prob­a­bly did use fire to cook their food, but it’s un­likely they knew how to start one,” said Fron­tis. “They would take a flam­ing branch, prob­a­bly ig­nited by light­ning or a bush­fire, and keep it alive by feed­ing it with kin­dling. When they moved on, they would take the burn­ing em­bers with them and re­light the fire at their next camp. What you are do­ing there is a tech­nique that did not evolve un­til around 50000 BC.”

The moon cast its light on the rock face, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the caves along the coast and trans­form­ing the waters of the bay into a placid, sil­ver lake. Fron­tis added the rose­mary he had picked to his hot pan of olive oil and snails, awak­en­ing my ap­petite with the aroma, just as it must have been like for those an­cient mariners thou­sands of years ago. I be­gan think­ing about how many things we still have in com­mon with those men, whose only sur­viv­ing trace is a few stone tools.

“Is it pos­si­ble that they had the tech­nol­ogy to build some­thing that not only floated by could sail the high seas with­out sink­ing when their tools were so prim­i­tive?” I asked.

“The finds made by ar­chae­ol­o­gists cre­ate rather than an­swer that ques­tion,” said Fron­tis. “The only ev­i­dence we have is stone axes and blades made by some­one’s hand. The rest of the truth is lost in the dust of time. But you can ac­quire a feel­ing for it by eat­ing some hot food cooked over a fire, un­der the stars,” he said as he served me a por­tion of snails.

The sandy beach of Plakia is lo­cated at the foot of a mas­sive rock, which is one of the most im­pres­sive climb­ing sites on Crete. Pre­his­toric peo­ple would set up camp in the shel­ter of the rock, where ar­chae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered tools made of stone that date to be­tween 120000 and 750000 BC.

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