Oct. 17 (UPI) -- On the Greek island of Naxos, researchers have uncovered evidence that Neanderthals and early humans were living in and moving through the Mediterranean as early 200,000 years ago.
The discovery, described this week in the journal Science Advances, suggests our early ancestors used a variety of routes as they traveled from Africa to Europe.
"Until recently, this part of the world was seen as irrelevant to early human studies but the results force us to completely rethink the history of the Mediterranean islands," Tristan Carter, an associate professor of anthropology at McMaster University in Canada, said in a news release.
Fossils suggest Stone Age hunter-gatherers had made their way to Europe as early as 1 million years ago. The earliest evidence of human presence in the Mediterranean was dated to 9,000 years ago.
Researchers assumed the earliest migrants were thwarted by the Aegean Sea that separates modern day Turkey from Greece. Most experts agreed the first humans to travel into Europe followed Thrace, the land bridge connecting northern Turkey to the Balkans.
But the discovery of hominin fossils and evidence of stone tool use -- scientists analyzed some 9,000 artifacts dated to between 13,000 and 200,000 years old -- suggests Neanderthals and early humans made their way across the Aegean Sea during the Middle Paleolithic.
During the Ice Age, the Aegean Sea was lower than it is today, and researchers estimate alternative land bridges spanning the body of water surfaced periodically. Resources for stone tool making and abundant water resources would have been paths across the Mediterranean attractive to early populations.
"In entering this region the pre-Neanderthal populations would have been faced with a new and challenging environment, with different animals, plants and diseases, all requiring new adaptive strategies," Carter said.
The latest findings will force researchers to reconsider other assumptions about the capabilities of early hominins, and to expand their search into habitats previously thought to be uninhabitable -- islands, deserts and mountain ranges.