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Language on the Fringe – Sailing to Flores and Crete

This article first appeared on the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) site.

Reproduced with permission

Many readers will recall the excitement which surrounded the discovery a few years ago of the remains of the ‘hobbits’ of Flores, Indonesia. For recent discussions of these fascinating little hominids, see The Incredible Human Journey: The Story Of How We Colonised The Planet, by Alice Roberts (2009) and Kenneth Krause’s article in Skeptical Inquirer 33:4 (same year). The debate as to their status continues: they represent either an isolated, genetically afflicted Homo sapiens group or a remarkably recent non-sapiens species.

What is not so generally known is that the hobbits were found by chance during follow-up research on the remains of a much older Floresian population which had come to light a little earlier: what was obviously a thriving, long-lasting group of Homo erectus people, dated at around 800,000 BP. These findings were very dramatic indeed, because for over a million years Flores has been an island separated from other land by at least 20 km of sea. The implication seems to be that Homo erectus could sail, and this suggests mental facilities rather beyond what had previously been imagined (maybe even language!).

Some scholars have understandably resisted these implications – but now we have similar data in Europe! In the last two years, archaeologists working on Crete have unearthed stone tools similar to those used in Africa by Homo erectus and confidently dated to 130,000 BP or earlier, maybe as long ago as 700,000 BP. The makers of these tools may have been Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis or early Homo sapiens, but in any event the tools must either have been made on Crete or brought there; and thus some hominids must presumably have sailed to Crete, which has been an island for more than five million years, before the more recent of the two dates. (Incidentally, this date corresponds closely with that tentatively ascribed to the beginning of language use on the part of Homo sapiens.) It is beginning to look as if early humans got around the world in ways unimagined even fifteen years ago! For a brief account of the Cretan finds, see Sophie Mackenzie’s article in Minerva 21:3 (2010).