Early man is normally portrayed as a grunting cave-dweller of little intelligence and limited horizons.

But new research suggests that our ancestors may have been smarter than we give them credit for.

Archeologists now believe that man was crossing the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa at least 130,000 years ago - more than 100,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Image

Older than you think: These tools are now known to have been made in Crete 130,000 years ago - proof that early man must have sailed to the island before then to make them
The re-think comes after a number of ancient tools found on the island of Crete were accurately dated - and found to have been made by our early ancestors, Homo Erectus.

Until now, the oldest known human settlements on Crete dated to around 9,000 years ago.

Image
© Alamy
Not just a pretty face: Homo Erectus had the intelligence to navigate open seas
Traditional theories hold that early farming groups in southern Europe and the Middle East only began navigating vessels to Mediterranean islands at around that time.

But many of the Crete finds resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago - and a team has now been able to show that they are much older than first thought.

But it wasn't the latest carbon dating techniques - which have a limit of 50,000 years - that enabled scientists to date the tools.

Instead, geologists were able to use the island's unique rock formations to calculate when they were made.

The island has been gradually pushed upwards out of the sea for millions of years - creating a series of differentiated terraces along the coastline made up of ancient beach sands.

'We know that the tools are tens of meters above the terrace we dated at 50,000 years old, so we know right off the bat that they have to be at least that old,' geologist Karl Wegmann of North Carolina State University, said.

The team was then able to work out the age of higher, older terraces, and calculated that the soil in which the tools were found was 130,000 years old.

Image
© Alamy
Early voyage: The age of the tools demonstrates that Homo Erectus must have built rafts to sail to Crete from northern Africa
Image
© Alamy
Groundbreaking: Crete's unique geology allowed scientists to make the breakthrough
The technique proved that Homo Erectus had inhabited the island by that time - and must have sailed across the Mediterranean to get there.

'The thing to me that really makes this unique and exciting is these other sister species maybe weren't entirely stupid like we portray them,' Dr Wegmann said.

'They were capable of really complex things.'