The First Mariners… Kythira-Crete 2014

The First Mariners team is now on Kythira Island in Greece, shifting its focus from Southeast Asia where it repeated the 800,000 year old Homo erectus voyage to bridge the Lombok Strait and also by bamboo raft copied the journey across the Arafura Sea following what scientists believe was the way the first humans made their way to Australia.

The island of Kythira is at the bottom of the Peloponnese in western Greece and some 45 nautical miles north of Crete which, although the rest of the Greek islands were connected to the mainland and each other during periods of glaciation, has always been surrounded by sea.

Until four years ago it was thought that humans first found their way to Greece’s largest island 12,000 years ago, in itself something of a feat, but in 2010 archaeologists discovered stone tools at Plakias on Crete’s south western corner and on its tiny neighbouring island of Gavdos, which also has always had a separating channel too deep to be affected by low sea levels. Carbon dating showed that the tools were made 125,000 years ago.

One person who had serious doubts about the 12,000 BC inhabitation of Crete was the late, renowned Dutch palaeontologist Paul Sondaar who believed that Crete’s unique dwarfed animals – hippos and elephants and a menagerie of other exotic creatures – became extinct about 125,000 years ago and that man was largely responsible.

All scientists knew that at the time both Kytharian islands formed a single landmass with the Peloponnese and that meant that the southern tip of Antikythira was as far as our land-bound ancestors could go. Temperatures had plunged, food animals and edible vegetation died. Man was hungry and Crete was always there, enticingly lush, green and visible but isolated by the sea in between.

It was time, declared Paul Sondaar, for European man to become amphibious, to become the first mariner in his determination to reach the island of Crete. The project is Dr. Sondaar died seven years before his until-then unproven theory suddenly became much more than hopeful speculation.

In November 2002 The First Mariners’ founder, Bob Hobman, was on Crete with Paul Sondaar and a team of Greek scholars when the palaeontologist outlined his theory. But as appealing and exciting as it was there was no scientific proof, no fossil evidence to support it. But the seed was sewn; it was only a matter of time, Paul Sondaar – to whom the project is dedicated – said, that evidence would come to light to show he was right. He was also convinced that although no definitive fossil evidence has been found on Kythira and the southern Peloponnese, its time would come and it would prove beyond doubt that the maritime assault on Crete came from the north and not from Libya in North Africa to Crete via Gavdos as some scholars have suggested.

Although the tools found on Gavdos are of the Archeulean type which are generally accredited to Homo erectus who came out of Africa some 700,000 years ago, his position is not shared by Hobman and The First Mariners for a number of reasons, the principal one being that at nearly 200 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, the mountain peaks of Crete – as high as they may be – were too far to be seen. And as primitive and backward as he might be considered to be, the anatomically modern humans of 130,000 years ago – whoever they were – were not suicidal.

It is also an opinion satisfyingly without overt opposition from the Greek academic community who have without exception given their most wholesome support to the Kythira to Crete raft project. For other reasons the people of Kythira – on some days it seems like the entire permanent population of 3,000 souls – has also donated its unstinted enthusiasm to the cause. Last year’s gathering of kalamia, the Mediterranean cane (Arundo donax) that grows here in reasonable abundance, was an example. And now cutting into the island’s precious Cypress (Cupressus semperivens) forests to provide the raft’s frame and accessories like paddles and its bipod mast, a local farmer demonstrated both his generosity and the renowned Greek disregard for authority by offering us a choice of trees from his personal forest.

The timber struts are vital to the cause since the kalamia cane lacks the rigidity of bamboo which, working in Southeast Asia, we had become familiar with. The Pencil Pine, or Kiparisi in Greek also features in Greek mythology as the tree planted by Juno the God of the Underworld above the dead body of one of his favourite subjects, the handsome Paris, its sharp pointed top directing the lad’s soul to heaven.

The tree is also subject to extreme low temperatures which once or twice every decade sweep the island and kill off a great many, which begins a natural seasoning of the dead trees which are extraordinarily dense and hard.

The 5,000 cane stalks are bundled into pontoons about 15 centimetres in diameter and lashed tight with sisal rope which is not locally produced but comes from northern Greece. Sourcing components which would have been available to the ancient seafarers is one of our goals that is not easy to accomplish since 125 centuries of varying climatic conditions, deforestation, salt invasion from rising sea levels and other species-destroying elements – including man himself – has taken its toll on the local flora and fauna. For example, much of our binding material will be from stripped goat skin, but it is hardly likely that goats were around so long ago.

The most ancient reference to the cane which the raft is made appears in Egyptian texts a mere 5,000 years old and the material to make a basic sail, which we believe the seafarers would have used to propel their rafts before a following wind, will be from the Chamaerops humilis, Europe’s only indigenous palm; but for how long it has claimed that distinction is of course unknown.

The flint from which our ancient stone tools are knapped is also not from Kythira but further north from the island of Euboeas. The toolmaker is Dr. Christos Matzanas who was a member of the team of palaeontologists who uncovered the tools found on Gavdos Island. He will spend two sessions at the raft building site at Kapsali to demonstrate the knapping process and to work with the group’s woodworker, Andrew McKenzie, whose assignment is to learn from painstaking trial and error and logic how such things as paddles were made so long ago.

Kapsali and the rest of the beautiful island of Kythira is over-burdened with tourists during the month of August which is why we have chosen the three warm (more or less) months of from May until July for the raft building and preparation for the voyage. The Mayor of Kythira, Theodore Kaukoulis and the Kapsali Harbourmaster, George Kalligeros, have granted us a site on the pebble beach at the fishing harbour for our activities and there the six of us are to be found daily as the raft gradually takes shape.