Category Archives: navigation

Madagascar inhabited long before Austronesian arrival

These findings revolutionize the understanding of the prehistory of the island, until now believed to have remained uninhabited until the arrival of peoples of Austronesian stock some 1500 years ago (with some scattered evidence of earlier inhabitation but nothing too conclusive). New archaeological data pushes back the first colonization period to some 4000 years ago, a time when Malayo-Polynesian culture was still restricted to, roughly, the Philippine archipelago.
Robert E. Deward et al., Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models. PNAS 2013. Pay per view (6-month embargo) → LINK [doi:10.1073/pnas.1306100110]


Past research on Madagascar indicates that village communities were established about AD 500 by people of both Indonesian and East African heritage. Evidence of earlier visits is scattered and contentious. Recent archaeological excavations in northern Madagascar provide evidence of occupational sites with microlithic stone technologies related to foraging for forest and coastal resources. A forager occupation of one site dates to earlier than 2000 B.C., doubling the length of Madagascar’s known occupational history, and thus the time during which people exploited Madagascar’s environments. We detail stratigraphy, chronology, and artifacts from two rock shelters. Ambohiposa near Iharana (Vohémar) on the northeast coast, yielded a stratified assemblage with small flakes, microblades, and retouched crescentic and trapezoidal tools, probably projectile elements, made on cherts and obsidian, some brought more that 200 km. 14C dates are contemporary with the earliest villages. No food remains are preserved. Lakaton’i Anja near Antsiranana in the north yielded several stratified assemblages. The latest assemblage is well dated to A.D. 1050–1350, by 14C and optically stimulated luminescence dating and pottery imported from the Near East and China. Below is a series of stratified assemblages similar to Ambohiposa. 14C and optically stimulated luminescence dates indicate occupation from at least 2000 B.C. Faunal remains indicate a foraging pattern. Our evidence shows that foragers with a microlithic technology were active in Madagascar long before the arrival of farmers and herders and before many Late Holocene faunal extinctions. The differing effects of historically distinct economies must be identified and understood to reconstruct Holocene histories of human environmental impact.

Notice that this colonization is also older than the Bantu expansion and therefore these settlers must have been pre-Bantu peoples of East African roots.

Source: Al-Hakawati
The sites are located in the North tip of the island, what is consistent with arrival through Comoros, the most natural route between East Africa and Madagascar, which  requires the sailing of some 190 miles (~350 Km) of open sea.
Otherwise the narrowest extent of the Mozambique Channel, between Angoche and Tambohorano, is of some 460 Km. The small island or Juan de Nova (uninhabited except for a military garrison) lies to the south of this other potential sailing route.
The toolkit found in the key site of Lakaton’i Anja includes many microliths, as well as some larger tools, made of chert and obsidian. This last must have been brought from far away, as there are no sources of the volcanic glass in Northern Madagascar.

An important point is that these new dates show that human inhabitation did not kill the Malagasy megafauna right away but that instead humans and giant animals shared the environment without immediate catastrophic consequences, which would only happen in the last two millennia.

The human colonization of Australia and Near Melanesia

Continuing with the joint series of articles on the expansion of Homo sapiens, David Sánchez published last week an interesting piece[es] on the original colonization of Australia and Papua at Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día, which I’ll try to synthesize here.

Earliest evidences of human occupation of Australia and Near Melanesia (all before 30 Ka BP)

Maybe the most interesting detail is that Lake Mungo 3 has dates that clearly establish a colonization of the continent at least 60,000 years ago:

81.000 +- 21.000 U (Uranium series)
62.000 +- 6.000 ESR/U (Electron spin resonance/Uranium)
61.000 +- 2.000 OSL (Optical Stimulated luminiscence)
40.000 +- 2.000 OSL (Optical Stimulated luminiscence)

The sites of Nauwalbila I and Malakunanja II have provided similar dates: 60-50 Ka BP (OSL) and 61,000 BP +9,000/-13,000 (TL) respectively. So we can safely discard the conservative approach that only allowed for at most 50 Ka as earliest colonization boundary for the Oceanian continental landmass. 
The depiction of a Genyornis, giant duck-like bird extinct before 40 Ka, in Australian rock art ago also supports a very early date for the settlement of Australia. In Highland Papua human presence is also confirmed to at least 49 Ka ago, as I reported in 2010.
Naturally the settlers must have arrived by sea, the most commonly accepted candidate for such a vessel is a humble raft still used by some Papuan populations and which has parallels in Southern Asia (also still in use in some places):

Such a journey was attempted with a similar but larger raft, equipped with a simple sail named Nale Tasih 2. This craft had no trouble in reaching the continental platform of Australia from Timor in just six days and they actually managed to reach the modern Australian coast, although they desisted of beaching by night in the middle of a storm in an area infested by the largest crocodiles on Earth, being evacuated by the coastguard instead (the barge was later recovered in perfect state).

Evidence of marine exploitation 250,000 years ago in North Africa

Dr. Cantillo in a cave access
According to news reports, Juan Jesús Cantillo the University of Cádiz has argued in his (successful) doctoral thesis that the exploitation of marine resources in Benzú Cave (Ceuta, North Africa) has some 250,000 years of antiquity instead of the mere 100,000 that has been proposed for such kind of economy by other scholars always in search of absolutist dividing lines between what is “modern human” and what is something else. 
99% of the coastal resources exploited by the ancient inhabitants of Benzú are limpets, albeit of a variant quite larger than modern ones. While no bones have been found that could inform us of the human species involved in this economy of coastal exploitation, some artifacts appear to be similar to those used by Neanderthals across the Gibraltar Strait. If confirmed, this would also imply intercontinental navigation, even if across a narrow strait of maybe some 5 km (in the worst of the Ice Ages, today it has 14.3 km).
Source[es]: El Pueblo de Ceuta (h/t Pileta de Prehistoria). I could not find the thesis online yet but it says it was successfully defended earlier this month.

Posted by on December 16, 2012 in navigation, Neanderthal, North Africa


Bronze Age rock art in Azores

The claim, even if very unexpected, seems legitimate enough to have been made by the President of the Portuguese Association of Archaelogical Research (APIA), Dr. Nuno Ribeiro, within a conference titled “pre-Portuguese human presence in Azores, myth or reality?”
Among the findings cataloged in the last few years Ribeiro mentioned building remains that seem prehistorical, a Roman era inscription, a rock art site in Terceira island and several megalithic structures. Only in the last year, five tombs of the hypogeum kind and three sanctuaries also dug in the rock were located. All the findings are still pending radiocarbon dating however but the style of the rock art is similar to Bronze Age ones from Iberia. 
However red tape by the regional government is blocking further research: in 2011 for lack of financing and in 2012 for not being withing the frame of a legal decree.  The archaeologist denounced that all these extraordinary findings are therefore in state of abandonment. In one case, works in the local airport, carried without the corresponding archaeological survey, may have damage a site.
These findings strongly suggest that the navigation skills of Bronze Age peoples of the Eastern North Atlantic (Western Europe, NW Africa) were much more advanced than we usually admit.
Source: RTP[por] (h/t Pileta).
See also these articles in English language at the Portuguese American Journal: art1, art2.

Azores are located far away into the North Atlantic Ocean (CC by Tyk)

Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Azores, Bronze Age, Megalithism, navigation, Portugal, rock art, sea


Early Neolithic boat and row fragments found in Korea

The remains were originally uncovered in 2005 in Ujin but only now it seems to have reached the international media. They are made of camphor wood and are stratigraphically from the Early Neolithic period (c. 8000 years ago). 

What remains of the boat is 3 meters long and 60 centimeters wide,
whereas the original ship is thought to have been at least 4 meters

The artifacts show how advanced carpentry was already in that period.
Sources and more details: Yahoo Groups: Austric, Korea Times, Yonhap, Delta World, Pileta[es].
Oldest Korean farm
In a related news item, the remains of the oldest known Korean farm were unearthed at Goseong earlier this year.
See: PhysOrg.
The site of the farm: lines indicate habitation or farming (white earlier, blue later)

Posted by on August 27, 2012 in archaeology, East Asia, Korea, navigation, Neolithic


Neolithic ship and obsidian cargo found near Naples

A sunken vessel has been discovered off the island of Capri (Campania, Italy), not far from Naples. The ship, whose details are unknown to me at the time of writing it, was tentatively dated to at least c. 5000 years ago, in the Neolithic (or earliest Chalcolithic) period. It carried a load of obsidian, a prime quality material for tools and weapons (which is said to produce sharper edges than modern surgical scalpels).
Sadly, I could not find much information on this most interesting discovery. I wonder if the obsidian was extracted from the Campi Flegrei at Naples Bay and who may have been demanding such a large cargo?

Archaeological map of Capri: red: Neolithic, yellow: Chalcolithic, other: later periods
(CC by Morn)

Sources: ANSA, Pileta.


Review of Tropical Neolithic flows

Michael Petraglia at Ancient Indian Ocean Corridors blog draws our attention to a quite interesting review on the Neolithic of the various regions surrounding the Indian Ocean, all them of rather tropical climate:
I strongly recommend full reading as I can only dedicate some space here and the study, while not really long, covers many diverse aspects of plant and animal domestication and translocation around the Indian Ocean. 
South Asia and Africa
First the authors deal with the issue of how the most important tropical crops of South Asia, which are mostly of African origin, arrived there. They conclude that the transfer took place at the very end of the Harappa (IVC) period, rather than earlier, even if it is confirmed that Harappa and the Persian Gulf (but not yet East Africa apparently) kept trading relations since much earlier. These African crops (millet and sorghum specially) were critical, as we know, in enabling the expansion of farming towards Southern India.

In return India gave Africa the zebuine species of cow, which, after hybridization, fueled the expansion of East African pastoralists into Equatorial areas.
This route between East Africa and South Asia is declared to be the precursor of the spice trade of later days:

The first hint of this spice trade comes from the findings of valued black peppercorns that were used to fragrance the nostrils of the deceased Pharaoh Ramses II (c. 1200 BC) (Plu 1985). This spice is endemic only to the wet forests of southern India (Asouti & Fuller 2008: 47), and in all likelihood was supplied by hunter-gatherer groups to coastal groups (Morrison 2002).

Tropical Asian crops
Another section deals with the transfer of diverse crops between South and SE Asia (and even as far as New Guinea).
Indian pulses migrated to the East, while a number of other crops (areca nut, sandalwood, betle leaf and maybe banana) did in the opposite direction. The origin of mangos and lemons is also discussed and seems distributed between both regions. 
Many of these flows may have been from approximately the same time as the African-Indian connection, in the late 2nd millennium BCE.
The Malagasy connection
Finally a third layer of agricultural flows appear to connect SE Asia with Africa, the most notable being the banana, but also yams, taro and chickens. 
This one seems most likely related to Austronesian (Malay) flows in westward direction, leading to the formation of the Malagasy people and the colonization of Madagascar. 
In their journey westwards, the proto-Malagasy appear to have left some maritime vocabulary in Sri Lanka, SW India and the Maldives, where they also left their outrigger technology. A variant of this one, with two outriggers, is also widespread through East Africa, from Somalia to Mozambique and, of course, Madagascar. 
The Austronesians would have spread these crops and the chicken to Africa, bringing also possibly some commensals like the rat, the mouse and the Asian shrew, as well as a weed. Some of these may however been introduced in several episodes.