The unhailed mariners of prehistoric Greece’s seas
Trip to Crete raises questions about early maritime activity
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.