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Kythira to Crete

From island to island

One person who had serious doubts about the previously assumed 12,000 BC inhabitation of Crete was the renowned Dutch paleontologist Dr. 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.

At the time both Kythirian 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. ​

In November 2002 The First Mariners’ founder, Bob Hobman, was on Crete with Paul Sondaar and a team of Greek scholars when the paleontologist 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, said Prof. Sondaar – to whom the project was dedicated - 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 is 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 have been – 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. Most of Greek’s academic community supported both the this theory and The First Mariners project to build a raft from whatever material was available and attempt the crossing to Crete.​

Some 5,000 kalamia cane stalks were lashed into tight bundles about 15 centimetres in diameter with sisal rope which is produced 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.

A sisal-lashed mat of cane strips became a crude sail, the gaps filled with the fronds of Chamaerops humilis, Europe’s only indigenous palm.

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