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Thursday, March 12, 1998 Published at 18:26 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

First sailors date back 800,000 years
image: [ Sailors have navigated these seas from the dawn of history ]
Sailors have navigated these seas from the dawn of history

Scientists have found fossils and stone artefacts in Indonesia which they think could have belonged to the earliest sea-faring humans.

The findings, published in the scientific journal, Nature, push back the dates for human water-crossings by as much as 800,000 years.

The stone tools were discovered on the island of Flores in east Indonesia by archaeologists from the University of New England.

They expected them to belong to our modern ancestors - early homo sapiens.

Only intelligent humans could possibly have crossed the 25 kms of deep water that separated the east coast of Bali and the island.

[ image: Skull of homo erectus]
Skull of homo erectus
But using sophisticated dating techniques, the scientists found that the tools were at least 800,000 years old and must have belonged to our much earlier ancestors, homo erectus.

The BBC science correspondent said although homo erectus was not normally credited with much in the way of intelligence or technical skills, the archaeologists think that these early humans must have been resourceful enough to build sea-worthy craft, probably from bamboo, and use them to make repeated crossings to and from the island.

Until this discovery it was thought that the first human seafarers were homo sapiens - and the earliest sea crossings were thought to be the colonisation of Australia from Indonesia only about 40,000 years ago.

The archaeologists think that scientists have severely underestimated the capabilities, intelligence, and language of homo erectus, and that it is now time to re-assess the facts, and possibly re-write the textbooks.

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