Associate Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Crete Nena Galanidou is standing in front of a heap of “stones”. She introduces you both to them and their makers at the same time; to a whole world that takes you back to this corner of the planet, the Rodaphnidia site at Lisvori, south Lesbos, 150,000 to 500,000 years ago at least.

“Homo neanderthalensis”, says Mrs Galanidou, “is an ancestral species of hominin. Acheulians are many species that use the same technology; the hand axe that contains all the technological knowhow of that period. It is a tool that resembles the 21st century multipurpose tool containing today’s technological knowhow and doing everything. It is the smartphone we all have. The hand axe condenses the technological knowhow of a period that lasts 1.5 million years”.

However incredible it seems, in front of me are hand axes along with other stone tools of those distant hominin ancestors of half a million years ago. These are the products of an important excavation proving that today’s Lesbos as it was in distant times was one of the entrance gates to Europe. In an era of another climate change, grandfathers and grandmothers also used the island as a bridge to the west, also in search for food.

“Our ancestors”, says Mrs. Galanidou, “appear to be making their first carved stone tools 3.2 million years ago somewhere in Africa. For about 1.5 million years this sharp edge is just fine. They hit one stone against another, create the sharp edge and their job gets done. This is sufficient. At some point in time, however, it is no longer sufficient. Does this mean their brain expanded? Did the social group they belonged to expand? Was there a need for one to be differentiated from another? A need to have an element in their identity if it is a woman hunter for her to bring the food or if it is a man who constructs it to be admired by others? We do not know the answer to these questions or others that may be raised. We do know however that 1.7 million years ago, they start making something different; something that contains point symmetry. It is the symmetry that makes the difference.

“This hand axe”, she says showing one such stone tool, ‟is entirely symmetrical and is made by hand. Despite being handmade, if we draw a straight line and fold it we shall see that both ends match perfectly. This point symmetry and the fact it has been worked on bifacially, on both one side and the other, requires effort and programming in advance for this tool to be made, which as you can see is also beautiful. It has hidden rules of strict design. There are variations of this tool in many different shapes and sizes and made from different raw materials.”

The Acheulian hominins come to Rododaphnidia, a gently sloping hill one kilometer from Lisvori village in south Lesbos, because they come upon something amazing. They find flint which is linked with today’s hot springs in the region and which contain fossilized bulrushes. A small hand axe with fossilized bulrushes inside it involves the Acheulian hominins with the island’s volcanic history with all those geographic elements that attract them.

How the excavation began

In 2009, an article is published on the front page of ‟Eleutherotypia” about the earliest human presence in the Aegean, somewhere on Lemnos of 13000 BC. The doctor and field researcher Makis Axiotis protests that he has located earlier finds. This comes to the attention of Mrs. Galanidou who gets in touch with Axiotis who then points her towards the site at Rododaphnidia. This is more or less how the process begins of getting a permit for the research that begins in 2012. The summer of 2012 is the first year of systematic multipart research as required by this kind of site. It is not a typical excavation where an archaeologist works with an architect. In this case geoarchaeology is required as well as geophysics, palaeontology, micropalaeontology, very specialized analyses and studies, archaeometrics and chronometric dating. “So we have set up an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary survey centered on Lisvori”, says Mrs Galanidou.

The site being excavated is called Rododaphnidia after the rhododendrons (rododaphni) that once grew in the area. Nowadays there is a large olive grove here, one kilometer from the village near the Ai Yannis hot springs.

This is the seventh year the Rododaphnidia site is being excavated, made possible because we have permission from the owners to dig on their properties. According to the archaeologist “Nothing has been expropriated. Our work is based on a relationship of mutual trust and respect. For our part we approach people and explain our position and ask them to allow us to work on their properties committing ourselves to return these just as we find them. For this reason we open our trenches every year, we do our research, take our samples, do whatever one can imagine on an archaeological site and then at the end we cover up the trenches with polystyrene and bury them and hand back the site just as we were given it. The owners of the places return and carry on with their work. The life cycle has not been interrupted; we simply inject it with one more activity. This is an activity both on the part of archaeologists and of visitors as well; because there are already visitors from Lesbos, the rest of Greece, Europe, from all over the world”.

The excavation site

The excavation is conducted at a site that was located on the banks of small rivers, at a relatively small distance from today’s Kalloni Gulf of Lesbos, which one must imagine as changing through time. In the great time vector the excavation is working with, the site changes from being a salt water gulf to one that gradually empties, its water becomes brackish and in due course fills up and turns into a fresh water lake. ‟So we have an environment made up of river and stream on the edges of a big water basin” says Mrs Galanidou as she shows us round. ‟Fresh water, sometimes brackish and sometimes seawater, a small valley cut across by these small rivers on the banks of which prehistoric people are active. They come to this spot because they know they will find whatever they need. For a start they need game in order to sustain themselves. Something can always be found near the water; animals, birds or aquatic plants. They also know that there are raw materials to make their tools, which belonging to prehistoric times are like today’s plastic bottle or cup; i.e. you make it, use it and throw it away. It is not something to carry around with you from place to place. It has a very short life cycle because it is heavy and you cannot carry raw materials wherever you go.”

‟Prehistoric people are nomadic populations of hunter gatherers. They know about the water, the game, raw materials and of course there is something more that makes this place so attractive. The island has many hot springs in various spots. The Ai Yannis hot springs are at a small distance from today’s coast of the Kalloni Gulf and were the only hot springs during the periods the bay was a lake. We can imagine the hot springs without buildings with steam rising from them. It is a special, distinct spot and we have reason to believe it registered in the minds of primitive peoples” says Mrs Galanidou.

These primitive peoples return here time and time again. This is shown by the absolute dating, not of the stone tools since these cannot be dated but by the deposits on which the tools are found. ‟We are essentially dating the last time these deposits, these layers of soil, were exposed to solar radiation before being covered”, says Mrs. Galanidou and adds: ‟I would say that this has been confirmed. We have a site of the middle Pleistocene. The latter is a geological subdivision of time. In archaeological terms, we have a site of the early Paleolithic. In geological terms, because geological time is deep, we have a site of the period beginning around 750 000 up to 120 000 years ago.”

The Acheulian hominins

The excavation at Rodaphnidia is of particular value for the history of humankind but also for the history of Europe. During eighty years, from between the two World Wars till 2012, systematic efforts to locate the early Palaeolithic in Greece had been fruitless. There was the 500,000-year-old skull of Petralona, a few hand axes in various spots (Siatista, Astakos in Aitoloakarnania, Euboea) but an important emblematic site was absent from Greek prehistory. Such a site was not only absent in Greece which is the southern part of the Balkan peninsula, but from the entire Balkan peninsula and west Anatolia. The closest site comparable with Rododaphnida is in Cappadocia.

There is therefore a big question mark. What happened in the south east peninsula of Europe? From where do the populations of hominins enter, as we know they enter, because we encounter them in Italy, France and the Iberian peninsula? Which are the entrance gates to Europe during these early infiltrations? “It is not necessary to have only one entrance gate”, says Mrs. Galanidou, “But there is a great gap regarding the Aegean. What this site brings us is what you see here; a mass of questions providing conclusive evidence that the Aegean was not a neutral or dead zone. On the contrary the entire Aegean was a very important zone for these early migrations and early European prehistory. Till now, the key to this absence was not the lack of research but the actual whereabouts of these sites. The Aegean itself played a very important part especially during glacial periods when on a global scale the oceans’ waters were locked in icebergs in the northern hemisphere and there was a drop in the sea level. When the sea level drops, the Aegean basin for at least the last 400,000 years is transformed into a zone with lakes, wetlands, marshlands, terrestrial bridges, landscapes that are particularly productive when you are a hunter gatherer. If you are a farmer you need a large plain to cultivate. If you are a hunter gatherer you wish for this mosaic of different ecosystems that will allow you elsewhere to hunt, elsewhere to catch birds, elsewhere to fish, making it an ideal zone for your survival. Today however and for 6,000 years now this zone is the Aegean Sea, the “endless blue”. It has nothing to do with what would happen in every glacial period. With the Crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews, the Old Testament is recording what happened very often in early prehistory; the opening and closing of the sea. And this is connected with today’s hot issue of climate change. Many of today’s refugees in Moria camp, Lesbos, are refugees of climate change, especially those coming from Africa. They are immigrants who are led here by the desertification of large regions of Sub-Saharan Africa connected with climate change. But it is evident in Rodaphnidia that climate change is a very old affair. Populations of animals, whose fossils were found in Vatera, up to two million years old, were migrating, so this was also the case with hominin mammals from Anatolia with Asiatic features which are well known in this part of Eurasia. They did not come and go in one direction. They did not all go to Europe but came and went. And the Aegean was the passage in this coming and going.”

The local society

The excavation in Lisvori is conducted in a village; “a Neolithic community” Mrs. Galanidou tells us. Its locals are farmers and stockbreeders who grow aniseed and chickpeas. It is a community with its own identity to which we archaeologists inject one more component that ties in with the early archaeological heritage both of this island, the Aegean, Greece, the Balkan peninsula and west Anatolia”.

The headquarters of this excavation are in Lisvori’s now closed old school. One part of it is used as a laboratory and another as the dormitory of students working on the dig. ‟In this village we may be studying the early prehistory of the Aegean, the Balkans and the eastern gate of Europe, but we are essentially undermining the way the average Greek approaches archaeology. By respecting property, by approaching the owners from day one on equal terms. We did not go and tell them we are expropriating; we say: “if you don’t want me to dig, that’s fine by me. I’ll go to the plot of land belonging to the person next door.”

So we are carrying out an experiment here; to change the way an average Greek approaches an archaeological team. We came with the wish to show that we can add something to a local community that has its own identity which we respect absolutely. Beyond its rural life it also has an annual life cycle and zones which are elsewhere for men and elsewhere for women; it is a rural community that has however started to discuss matters of human origins and evolution. The community is aware that the priest says human beings originate from God, but here there is an element of questioning and doubt in a way that is free of conflict and tension, without the arrogance of the scientist who knows everything. The mood is one of interaction and communication and of sharing a common vision. Different agendas and interests do exist, but Rodaphnidia can become a reference point which will highlight the place’s identity.”

Head of the local municipal community Thodoros Hatzipanagiotis has dreams for his small village. He wants visitors to come on a cultural recreation route that will also include other spots such as the water mill, the Byzantine remains, early living architecture, the cobbled streets, birdlife, salt marshes, the amazing natural history. “We share their vision”, adds Mrs. Galanidou, “and the locals see it and wish it to work and try to help us do so. First by allowing us to dig in their fields, secondly by offering us generous hospitality and thirdly by trying to help us in our work in every possible way”.

Mrs Galanidou does not omit mentioning the great contribution made by Hellenic Sea Ways, ANEK and Aegean Airlines in realizing the excavation. Likewise its sponsors: The University of Crete, the General Secretariat for the Aegean and Island Policy, the Region of the North Aegean, the Municipality of Lesbos, and the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation.

The aesthetics of our “Acheulian” ancestors

A little while ago in Dallas USA an exhibition ended of prehistoric hand axes that establish new foundations for the genealogy of aesthetics and art. Till now we associated the first aesthetic quests with our own species, the Homo sapiens and we see these on rock paintings and micro sculptures of the upper Palaeolithic. “This exhibition tells us that the makers of Acheulian miniature crafts had themselves aesthetic sensibilities. They noticed where the veins of the raw material were and worked around them with their tool. They noticed the fossils, whether a snail or a twig and were careful not to damage them and centered their creation round them. “There is an international movement of archaeologists to show that the creators of Acheulian stone craft had artistic sensibilities. This insignificant and seemingly ugly material is changing our approach to the quest of ancestral species in ways we never imagined” says Mrs Galanidou as she takes leave of us. She is holding a tiny hand axe in her hand, the smart phone of that distant grandfather in Rodaphnidia in Lisvori, south Lesbos. A door has opened here illuminating the human presence and civilization in this corner of the planet.