Magazine article Science News

Human Ancestor May Have Taken to Sea

Magazine article Science News

Human Ancestor May Have Taken to Sea

Article excerpt

An evolutionary predecessor of modern humans known as Homo erectus apparently used some type of seaworthy craft to reach the Indonesian island of Flores at least 800,000 years ago, according to a new study.

Most researchers treat the settlement of Australia by H. sapiens between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago as the earliest instance of systematic sea travel.

"Even at times when the sea level was lowest, water crossings were necessary to reach Flores from Southeast Asia," write archaeologist Michael J. Morwood of the University of New England in Australia and his colleagues. "We conclude that H. erectus in this region was capable of repeated water crossings using [sea]craft."

Fission-track dating of volcanic ash grains provided the estimated ages of two sites on Flores, an island located east of Java and Bali, the scientists report in the March 12 Nature. This dating method relies on counting the microscopic damage tracks that accumulate as uranium atoms spontaneously undergo fission, or splitting.

One Flores site, called Mata Menge, yielded 14 stone tools in a 1994 excavation and several more last year, Morwood's group reports. The artifacts lie in sediment that contains the bones of several ancient animals also found in Southeast Asia, such as large, elephant-like creatures, crocodiles, and giant rats. The Mata Menge finds date to between 880,000 and 800,000 years ago.

The second site, Tangi Talo, contains animal remains but no stone artifacts. …

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