2020 Norton Lecture: March 14, 2020, 2:00 PM: John Cherry, PhD, Brown University

Taking to the Water: New Evidence and New Debates about the Earliest Seafaring in the World

Until quite recently, archaeologists have supposed that the seas and oceans represented a barrier to human dispersal, and that islands were among the last places on earth to be colonized by people, only fairly recently, as part of the worldwide spread of modern humans. But is that picture still correct? Startling new data have come to light just in the last few years, in parts of the Mediterranean and in island Southeast Asia, that have been claimed as evidence for a far longer antiquity for seafaring, reaching back hundreds of thousands, and perhaps as much as a million years. Naturally, these claims have attracted widespread attention and much discussion — and not only among archaeologists. This lecture outlines what we know, with reasonable certainty, about patterns of global maritime dispersal in the past few tens of thousands of years, before turning to present the new evidence and its strengths and weaknesses. In trying to understand it, we will need to consider information (amongst other things) from ethnographic analogy, experimental seafaring, and our current knowledge of the relative configurations of land and sea over the course of the Pleistocene era. Some of the bold assertions made in the past few years require more supporting data before they can be accepted. That cautious conclusion does not detract from the excitement and importance of this fast-moving field of research in archaeology.


After a brief stint in the late 1970s in the Dept. of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, John Cherry was appointed to a University Lectureship in Aegean Prehistory in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge (1980 – 1993), and as a Fellow and Tutor at Fitzwilliam College, where he directed studies in Classics and in Archaeology & Anthropology. In 1993 he moved to the University of Michigan as Professor of Classical Archaeology and Greek, serving there for 11 years as Director of the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, and as a Curator in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. He was appointed at Brown in 2006 as Joukowsky Family Professor of Archaeology and Professor of Classics. His archaeological fieldwork over four decades has included projects in Great Britain, the United States, Greece, Italy, Armenia, and (currently) Monserrat in the Caribbean.


Two short popular articles, from Science and New Scientist, outline the debates.

Neandertals, Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean


Have humans been sailing the seas for a million years?