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Camps on Cyprus May Have Belonged to Earliest Open-Water Seafarers
2005-11-22 11:27:43

Two ancient campsites on the coast of Cyprus, found this year by archaeologists, may be the earliest evidence of long-distance, open-water seafaring in the Mediterranean, long before the Greek frescoes of sailing craft in antiquity and the legendary peregrinations of Homer's Odysseus, according to John Noble Wilford of The New York Times.

A preliminary analysis of the findings, including an abundance of crude stone tools comparable in style to mainland handiwork, suggests that people in small boats from what is present-day Syria and Turkey paid seasonal visits to the island of Cyprus possibly as early as 12,000 years ago, an archaeologist reported in the US this week.

These were daring voyages of at least 50 miles each way, often twice as far, at a time when Cyprus had no permanent inhabitants and sailors who ventured out to sea usually made a point of staying within sight of land. The lure of better fishing waters may have drawn the seafarers to the island, where they fished offshore by day and made camp on the high ground above beaches now favored by tourists and bungee jumpers.

The discovery of the two campsites and hundreds of stone tools was described by Albert J. Ammerman, an archaeologist at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., in an interview and a report at a conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Dr. Ammerman was assisted by Carole McCartney, a specialist in stone tools who is affiliated with the University of Cyprus; Jay Stratton Noller, a soil scientist at Oregon State University; and Pavlos Flourentzos, director of the Cyprus department of antiquities.

In his talk, Dr. Ammerman said the two sites, known as Nissi Beach and Aspros, had yielded "good evidence for the earliest voyaging in the Mediterranean and for the increased mobility of people at the end of the ice age and the beginning of agriculture" in the Middle East.

The tools, mostly sharp stone flakes for cutting and scraping, were found in clusters on elevated geologic formations of aeolianite, old sand dunes hardened into rock with a rough surface. The campsites were close to fresh water in rivers and flat, smooth landing areas for bringing boats ashore. They looked out on broad plains when the sea level was more than 300 feet lower than today. Much of the plain is now underwater.

Dr. Ammerman said the geology and the types of tools led his team to estimate that the seafarers from the mainland were camping on Cyprus sometime around 9000 to 10,000 B.C. They stayed for a few nights each season, at most a few weeks, and returned to the mainland. The archaeologists inferred the seasonal nature of the visits because the sites were on the coasts, with no sign of a human presence inland, and had no topsoil for growing things and few animals to hunt - a good place to visit, maybe, but not to live.

Other archaeologists have determined that the earliest established evidence for permanent human inhabitants on the island is dated at 8250 B.C. By that time, there is other evidence for extensive open-water seafaring, including the presence on the island of imported obsidian, the black volcanic glass used as sharp blades. Its closest source would have been Anatolia, today's Turkey.

"These were not colonizers," Dr. Ammerman said of these camping seafarers. "There was no island society as such, no native people yet, and these visitors had a very limited existence. When people started to put down roots on the island is still an open question."

The research is so new that few scholars have had time to pass judgment. The one cautionary question at the meeting was raised by Alan Simmons, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has also excavated on Cyprus.

"Where are your absolute dates?" Dr. Simmons asked Dr. Ammerman. "It's just critical to get some sort of absolute dates to these sites."

Dr. Ammerman agreed and said that excavations next year would concentrate on finding suitable charcoal and bone for radiocarbon dating tests.

Archaeologists said the research stemming from the discovery could have wide implications for understanding a critical turning point in human society. It was a time of drastic climate change.

One response to the colder, drier conditions in the Middle East was the steps people who were hunters and foragers took toward domestication of plants and animals - agriculture.

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