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Seafaring and trade

The earliest evidence of human presence on the Cyclades are the Paleo(!)- and Mesolithic chert tools on Naxos and the Mesolithic finds of obsidian from the island of Milos on the mainland and on other islands. Obsidian from Milos appears in 9,000 year old layers of the Franchthi Cave on the Peloponnese. There is no clear evidence that the Cyclades were already permanently inhabited at this early time. The earliest traces of settlements generally date back to the 5th millennium BC (Neolithic age).

The development of seafaring in the Aegean Sea

So far the discovery of obsidian from the island of Milos on the Greek mainland was considered to be one of the earlier evidences of maritime seafaring worldwide (the first settlement on Cyprus probably dates even a little earlier). Much earlier, in the Mesolithic age (about 40,000 BC), occurred the colonization of America and of Australia and other islands of the Pacific region, which also was possible only through the use of ships. (For the settlement of Australia, for example, an approximately 100 km wide waterway had to be passed; and even at the time of the lowest water level, America was not connected to Siberia; also the fast advance to South America probably took place by ships along the west coast).

The recently described Mesolithic and Palaeolithic tools on Naxos prove, however, that here seafaring was used already much earlier, about 100,000 years ago. Apart from Naxos, human artefacts from the same period were also found on Crete and other islands of the Aegean and Ionian Seas. At this time Modern Man (Homo sapiens) had not yet reached the Eastern Mediterranean, but the whole area was still inhabited only by Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). Our view of this archaic human species is substantially revolutionized by these new finds. Previous finds only testified to a rather low cultural level with simple stone, wood and bone tools and a few more complicated artefacts such as traces of manufactured clothing, simple pieces of jewellery, traces of pigment as well as indications of an occasional burial of the dead. The fact that the Neanderthals already manufactured boats and used them to visit the Aegean islands either to permanently live there or to collect resources throws a completely new light on this archaic human species.

In general, the Aegean region is predestined to bring about an early development of maritime navigation. It is quite natural that from early on the inhabitants of the surrounding coastal areas tried to reach the neighboring islands. After the first step had been taken and people had constructed seaworthy ships, they would soon have explored the entire Aegean Sea, especially since each island can be seen from some other island, including Crete.

The Aegean ships

We do not know what kinds of boats or ships the Stone age people used – no traces or depictions of them have survived. As far as we know the inhabitants of the Aegean Sea travelled to the Western Mediterranean with their ships already in the 6th millennium BC (Neolithic age). They invented the keel, which made the shipping on the open sea much easier. At the latest in the 3rd millennium BC (Early Bronze age) they even ventured out into the Atlantic, long before the so called sea peoples such as the Phoenicians, who only tamed the sea about a millennium later. Some simple depictions of the cycladic ships of the Early Bronze age have survived till today: They show long ships with up to 50 oarsmen and a strongly raised stern.

early Bronze age pictograph of a boat with two people on it; you can see the strange shape of the boat with a long, highly raised stern

Cycladic pan depicting a ship, from Wikipedia

Cycladic pan depicting a ship, from Wikipedia

Cycladic pottery boat model, Naxos, 2800–2300 BC, AshmoleanM, AN1929.26, 142323
ship model of clay, from Wikipedia

Seafaring skills

Except for experience and technical skills in shipbuilding, the development of a noteworthy seafaring also requires navigational knowledge. The inhabitants of the Aegean with their clear, mostly cloudless skies and the need for navigation certainly observed the stars very early and followed their movements closely. Mathematician and hobby archaeologist Michalis Bardanis from Apíranthos believed that the carvings on some of the mysterious naxian Early Bronze age stone plates represent a kind of calendar depicting the signs of the zodiac. We know little about this aspect of the early Aegean cultures, partly because of the lack of written records. However, it seems that the Cycladic culture played a pioneering role in the development of shipping and navigation of their area and for all of Europe.

The role of trade

Trade played a role in the life of humans already during the Stone age; the evidence for the first long-distance trade is easily 10,000 years old. During the Early Bronze age, obsidian, copper, silver, gold and lead were definitely traded in the Aegean region. The emery from Naxos can certainly be included in the list as well, even if we only know very little about it. Also pottery and other artifacts were traded. Rarer resources were sometimes imported from far away areas: For example the tin needed for the production of bronze was imported from Afghanistan.

One example that gives us an idea of the important role that the trade played in the Eastern Mediterranean was the discovery of a well-preserved merchant ship from the Mycenaean period (about a millennium later) off the Turkish south coast. The main goods that the ship had loaded were raw materials like metals, ebony and ivory, but also glass, pearls and pottery, terebinth resin and food such as olives, oil, almonds, acorns, figs and pomegranates. Even amber from the Baltic Sea was found on the ship.

There can be no doubt that Naxos, situated in the middle of the Aegean Sea right on the important shipping routes, played a major role in the long-distance trade of that time, either just as a supply port, but probably also as a hub of the trade itself.

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