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Scientists have discovered new evidence proving that the Cycladic island of Naxos was inhabited by Neanderthals and earlier humans at least 200,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

An international research team led by scientists from McMaster University has unearthed this new evidence in Greece challenging current theories on Stone Age migration across Europe.

“Until recently, this part of the world was seen as irrelevant to early human studies, but the results force us to completely rethink the history of the Mediterranean islands,” said lead author and associate anthropology professor Tristan Carter in a university release. He conducted the work with Dimitris Athanasoulis, head of archaeology at the Cycladic Ephorate of Antiquities within the Greek Ministry of Culture.

*New discoveries on Naxos

Until now, scholars largely thought the Aegean Sea impassable to Neanderthals and early hominids and believed Mediterranean islands only have been settled for about 9,000 years. Stone Age hunters, meanwhile, are known to have been on mainland Europe for more than 1 million years. But the research team discovered evidence of human activity spanning almost 200,000 years in a prehistoric quarry.

The authors of this paper suggest that the Aegean basin was, in fact, accessible much earlier than believed. At certain times of the Ice Age, the sea was much lower exposing a land route between the continents that would have allowed early prehistoric populations to walk to Stelida, and an alternative migration route connecting Europe and Africa. Researchers believe the area would have been attractive to early humans because of its abundance of raw materials ideal for toolmaking and for its fresh water.

At the same time, however, “in entering this region the pre-Neanderthal populations would have been faced with a new and challenging environment, with different animals, plants and diseases, all requiring new adaptive strategies,” says Carter.

Reams of scientific data collected at the site add to the ongoing debate about the importance of coastal and marine routes to human movement. While present data suggests that the Aegean could be crossed by foot over 200,000 years ago, the authors also raise the possibility that Neanderthals may also have fashioned crude seafaring boats capable of crossing short distances.

This research is part of the Stelida Naxos Archaeological Project, a larger collaboration involving scholars from all over the world. They have been working at the site since 2013.

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