Human Ancestors at the Bottom of the Sea

Researchers are studying the remains of prehistoric human settlements that now lie submerged beneath Europe’s coastal seas.

More than 2,500 groups of submerged prehistoric artifacts, ranging in age from 5,000 to 300,000 years, have been found in the coastal waters and open sea basins around Europe. Artifacts include hut foundations, hearths, food remains, skeletons, shaped flint tools, hand axes, and canoe paddles embedded in the sediment on the sea floor.

Periodically during the successive ice ages of the last million years, sea levels have dropped by up to 120 meters, adding up to 40 percent to the land area of Europe. Sea levels have risen again since then, so many artifacts of human prehistory and human ancestor remains are now underwater. Human ancestors inhabited the Black Sea coast 1.8 million years ago, the coast of northern Spain over a million years ago, and the coast of Britain at least 0.8 million years ago. The submerged archeological sites include some of the earliest routes from Africa into Europe as well as areas where early humans survived during multiple Ice Ages.

Successful excavation of these underwater archeological sites will probably take the collaboration of engineers, climate change experts and numerical modelers.

Professor Jan Mees, Chair of the European Marine Board, says, “Our submerged cultural heritage is not a renewable resource; it is a unique, irreplaceable cultural asset which can provide answers to many research questions about our prehistoric ancestors, landscapes, and climate.”

This interdisciplinary research was supported by the European Marine Board. The paper was presented at a satellite event of the EurOCEAN Conference 2014 in Rome, Italy.