Since cave art is so common, you might wonder why this is a big deal. Well, that’s because the cave art is just the tip of this story.
Oh deer Crete
As far as we know there were no people in Crete during the Palaeolithic. There have been some claims of stone age habitation2, but the lack of data (including an absence of hominin fossils) has prompted much skepticism3.
This is probably for the best, given that the island was home to a unique species of deer during that time1.
It came in many different varieties, but the dwarf one is the most impressive, with incredible antlers bigger than itself1! Despite this armaments, the small size of this deer would’ve made it easy prey for humans. We would likely have driven extinct, like so many other animals we encountered during our spread around the world.
Unfortunately, despite our absence, these deer don’t seem to have survived the last ice age. This was around 21,000 years ago, millennia before humans first set foot on the island. Thus, nobody ever saw one of these impressive looking animals in the flesh1.
But the cave art tells a different story.
The cave art
Asphendou Cave is a small cave in Crete where the floor is just covered in ancient engravings, to the point where newer engravings cover up older ones. As such, despite knowing about this cave for decades, we’ve never really had the complete picture, pun intended.
So some researchers set out to try and tease apart just what was written on this Cretan cave floor, creating 3D models from high-resolution photogrammetry. This revealed several layers of art, ranging from a series of cupules on the surface to deeper line engravings1.
The former has been known about for a while, and have traditionally been used to help date the cave. Other caves on the island have similar patterns and are dated to ~6,000 years ago, around the time modern human farmers first arrived on the island. Thus it was inferred Asphendou Cave must be a similar age1.
However, underneath all of this appears to be something much more interesting, which the image above gave away. The earliest depictions on the cave floor appear to document quadrupedal animals with long, slender antlers1.
Could they be the extinct dwarf deer, which supposedly died out before humans ever arrived on the island?
If true, it means humans made this art before the deer went extinct. That, if you’ll recall is, likely before the last ice age. This would push back the earliest confirmed case of habitation on Crete by several thousand years. And that’s exactly what the people behind the discovery of these quadrupeds are claiming they’ve done1.
Despite the insistence of these researchers, some doubt remains in my mind. For example, the first farmers brought domesticated sheep and goats with them. Could that be what’s depicted here?
After all, some of them can have quite impressive horns too.
Nevertheless, there is something interesting going on on Crete. There were early claims of human habitation, possibly as early as 130,000 years ago2. And now, early evidence of art1.
Although skepticism remains about both claims, it raises all sorts of fascinating possibilities. The early age of those first claims of habitation predates modern humans in the region. So what if those early inhabitants, and by extension, artists, weren’t even modern humans? Could Crete have been the last refuge of European Neanderthals?
Or maybe, some archaeologists are just getting a bit too carried away with their latest discovery.
- Strasser, T.F., Murray, S.C., van der Geer, A., Kolb, C. and Ruprecht, L.A., 2018. Palaeolithic cave art from Crete, Greece. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 18, pp.100-108.
- Howitt-Marshall, D. and Runnels, C., 2016. Middle Pleistocene sea-crossings in the eastern Mediterranean?. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 42, pp.140-153.
- Papoulia, C., 2017. Seaward dispersals to the NE Mediterranean islands in the Pleistocene. The lithic evidence in retrospect. Quaternary International, 431, pp.64-87.