Owing to fluctuations in the earth’s temperatures, the sea levels all over the world rose and fell in more or less regular intervals during the Pleistocene between 400,000 to 12,000 years ago. At times when temperatures were very low, large amounts of water would freeze and be deposited as ice sheets in the northern regions of the earth, causing sea levels to drop to up to 140 meters (459 ft.) lower than today. These were the Ice Ages, of which there were four during the Pleistocene. When this happened, all over the world large swaths of land which were to be less than 140 meters under sea level became exposed for the duration of the Ice Ages. When sea levels rose again during warmer intervals, these landmasses were engulfed by the rising sea and disappeared under water. For the islands of Malta in the Mediterranean this meant that during the last Ice Age, when sea levels sank up to 140 meters, they were connected by a strip of land to Sicily. At the height of the last Ice Age, Malta and Sicily formed one landmass.
Malta and Sicily, 20,000 – 12,000 BC. Image courtesy of Lenie Reedijk
The first humans reached Sicily about 24,000 years ago, at the height of the last Ice Age, when this land bridge between Malta and Sicily existed. The distance between the southeastern point of Sicily and Malta is 80 kilometers (49.7 miles). People living in Sicily who wanted to go to the part of the land now called Malta could walk it in a few days. That was one option.
Ancient Seafaring in the Mediterranean
However, the earliest evidence for seafaring in the world has been found in the Mediterranean area. Crete in the Aegean has been an island for the past five million years and has never been connected to any other land mass in human history. Yet as many as 2000 stone tools, among them hand axes of the Lower Paleolithic type, have been found on its southwestern shore in a context which was dated to be at least 130,0000 and possibly even 190,000 years old. The humans who made these tools could only have reached Crete by boat. The New York Times in its report on the findings quoted archaeologists and experts who were astounded:
“…the discovery appeared to show that these surprisingly ancient mariners had craft sturdier and more reliable than rafts. They also must have had the cognitive ability to conceive and carry out repeated water crossing over great distances in order to establish sustainable populations producing an abundance of stone artifacts.”
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If seafaring in the Mediterranean has been attested to go back to these incredibly remote times, we may safely assume that humans could reach Malta from Sicily easily, either on foot or by boat from even further afield.
Evidence for Paleolithic Humans in Malta
Paleolithic human presence in Malta was once generally accepted as an established fact by both local and foreign researchers. The compelling proof for it was found in two fossilized teeth with fused roots (called ‘taurodont’ in the literature), attributed to Neanderthal humans and unearthed in 1917 by the Maltese paleontologist Giuseppe Despott. They were excavated in the cave of Għar Dalam in the south of Malta, in a layer which contained no pottery but flint and obsidian scrapers instead. A third tooth with the same characteristics was found in 1936 by his fellow countryman J. G. Baldacchino. The thorough investigations of the cave were dynamic and in experienced hands. In those glorious pre-war decades, Malta was famous among experts all over the world for its ancient temples as well as its Paleolithic remains, among which humans were still assigned their rightful place.
Dr. Despott’s photograph of the teeth found in 1917. ( Sir Arthur Keith )
Covering Up the Early Human Presence in Malta
War in 1939 brought an end to all research into Malta’s Paleolithic past. While enemy action took its toll among the many antiquities on the islands, none of this compares to the setbacks received by the introduction, immediately after the war, of a total revision of the story of Malta’s remote past.
One step in achieving this was to eliminate from all future publications any reference to an Ice Age presence of man in Malta. Instead, the narrative of Malta’s settlement by a group of Neolithic farmers in around 5,200 BC was introduced, accepted, and then cast in stone. How it has been possible that this version of history has been accepted in Malta for so long is, seen in retrospect, a mystery. Nor is it easy to understand why any broader view, no matter how carefully researched, has been received with such implacable resistance ever since.
Human presence can be detected in several ways. Firstly, there are skeletal remains, which give us a direct indication. Secondly, artifacts and art made by humans are equally direct proofs of their having been on the scene. Thirdly, and most overlooked in our Maltese context, there are traces of human activity which point indirectly yet unambiguously to their presence. Although they are indications by inference, they are in no way less important. They include:
- Heaps of carcasses and body parts of edible animals, large or small
- Skeletal remains of animals found in locations that do not normally constitute their habitat, such as elephants, deer or swans in a cave, a fissure or a surface gap
- Heaps of broken sea shells in a landlocked situation
- Bones, especially long bones, broken to extract the marrow
- Signs of violent impact on skeleton parts, such as an elephant tooth broken in half, with the stone still stuck in the jaw
Skeleton and skull at the Għar Dalam Museum. (Continentaleurope/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
All of these instances, the smoking gun so to speak, that any detective would dream of, have been reported in Malta by various investigators at times when curiosity and research still had a free hand.
The Cave Paintings of Għar Ħasan
Hidden in the cliffs along the south coast of Malta, about two kilometers (1.2 miles) west of Marsaxlokk Bay, there is a cave system which bears the name of Għar Ħasan. With its large, scenic entrance overlooking the sea at a height of 70 meters (229.7 ft.), Għar Ħasan used to be a tourist attraction. Today the area surrounding the access to the cave has been fenced off. Before this happened it was possible to walk along a footpath towards the cliff’s edge. Here a flight of steps and a narrow rock-cut walkway, with a rusty railing offering a token of security, led along the steep cliff face to the mouth of the cave.
Ghar Hasan cave. ( The Coastal Path )
At its entrance, Għar Ħasan is a tunnel running straight into the rock. For the first 20 meters (65.6 ft.) or so it is pleasantly spacious; its large, triangular entrance offers a beautiful sea view and allows enough light in for one to find a way over the irregular cave bottom. Straight ahead, the cave becomes narrower and lower. At this point an iron gate blocks the way.
Side passages open up from the main gallery, most of which soon come to a dead end. But a larger one branches off to the right and winds its way through the rock in an easterly direction, parallel to the cliff face outside. A torch is needed here. After about 50 meters (164 ft.) it broadens into a room with an opening to the sea. From here, the narrow tunnel continues for another 70 meters (229.7 ft.), until it ends in a man-made round chamber with a stone bench around its walls. Here, too, a window-like opening allows a lovely sea view. This, according to legend, was the room in which a fugitive Saracen slave by the name of Ħasan lived long ago.
In this cave system the world renowned expert on rock art, Professor Emmanuel Anati, discovered cave paintings on one of his visits to Malta in the late 1980s. They consisted of animal forms, hand prints and ideograms in red and black colors. Having been covered by a thin layer of mineral deposits left behind by stalagmitic drippings over the ages, the images were faint but visible to the trained eye. They were photographically recorded at the time of their discovery.
Example of red ochre spiral cave paintings in the Hypogeum. (Damien Entwistle/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
Anati donated his manuscript with colour photos, dated 1989, to the library of the Archaeological Museum in Valletta. He writes:
“Many of the images are not very clear and partially covered by incrustations for which reason their systematic detection is quite difficult. However, it was possible to establish that stylistic, associative, graphic and conceptual models reflect a layer dating to the hunters period, before the Neolithic, never before reported in Malta. Surprisingly, among the animal figures there have been identified some that seem to represent elephants, animals which, as it was commonly believed, would have been extinct in the archipelago, towards the end of the Paleolithic, even before rising sea levels separated the Maltese islands from Sicily. The date of this geological episode is not definite and there are different hypotheses, although all scholars agree that the episode occurred before 12,000 years ago.” ( Translation by the author )
In the course of the 1990s, after these finds had been published, the paintings seem to have disappeared from the cave wall. The photographs taken during and shortly after their discovery may be the only reminders that they ever existed.
The Bull Fresco of the Hypogeum
Another example of ancient Maltese cave art would meet the same fate as the rock paintings of Għar Ħasan. It concerns the fresco of a bull inside the ancient underground temple at Ħal Saflieni known as the Hypogeum. The fresco was discovered in the 1950s and photographs of it were taken. It was also duly noted and recorded by archaeologist David Trump in his 1971 book Malta: an Archaeological Guide .
Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum photo by Richard Ellis before 1910. ( Public Domain )
The painting was carried out in black manganese oxide, a substance typically used in Paleolithic cave art. According to Mifsud, both the application of this paint and the style of the bull pointed strongly to a pre-Neolithic date of this part of the Hypogeum. He recounts that in the late 1980s experts from UNESCO took samples of the paint and the tests would have confirmed a Paleolithic age.
The fresco of the bull today no longer exists on the Hypogeum wall. Some years ago a staff member at the Hypogeum personally told me that one day during the 1990s, when the monument was closed for refurbishment, he was ordered to take a bucket of water and a brush to clean that part of the wall. The reason given to him for this order was that the wall had accumulated mold and needed to be washed. As far as I have been able to establish, reference to the bull fresco has disappeared from all publications, except for the 2010 reprint of David Trump’s above mentioned Guide from 1971. When he was asked during a group excursion in 2008 to the Hypogeum why the bull fresco was not mentioned in his recent works, Trump replied: “It was very faint.”
The Hand Axe Found in Comino
A few years ago I was introduced to a Gozitan diver and tour boat owner, Tony Lautier, who wanted to show me some finds.
On the table in his garage were several objects on display. They were all of stone, among them small, pebble-sized pieces of black obsidian covered with a patina revealing their considerable antiquity. There was also a larger stone, rougher and much paler in colour. It was wedge-shaped, somewhat oval, tapering to one side. As Lautier held it up to show it to me, his hand fit snugly around it. The stone appeared to have been slightly shaped, so that his third and ring fingers rested in shallow hollows cut out along one of its long sides. Although these made the object fit perfectly in his hand, this feature alone would not prove anything. But the tip of the implement had been broken off. It had clearly been used as a tool, and the patina on its broken surface showed that this had not happened recently.
The object is made of the hard Coralline limestone which occurs all over the Maltese islands. It has the size and shape of a primitive hand axe such as those known to have been made by Neanderthal humans. The implement was found along the water’s edge of the beach of San Niklaw Bay in Comino, therefore in an unstratified context. Yet the broken tip clearly showed that the primitive tool had once been used as a hand axe or stone hammer.
The walls of Ggantija in Malta (upper part of photo) are made of rough coralline limestone, in contrast to the interior architectural elements (lower part of photo) which are made of Globigerina limestone. The soft Globigerina limestone is more easily worked and smoothed. This makes it suitable for interior finishing, such as the trilithic niches shown here. (Michael Gunther/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Parallel Canals on the Sea Floor
In recent decades, Maltese professionals from the diving community have gone to great lengths to investigate the sea bottom all around the islands. In spite of the skepticism that they invariably had to put up with, all these surveys have been carried out at their own expense, for the pure love of the history of their country.
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During one of these diving expeditions, Kurt and Shaun Arrigo, diving school owners from Sliema in Malta, while searching for temple ruins under the sea, found some very interesting man-made features of another nature in the process.
Off the northeast coast of Malta, in the area around St. George’s Bay, large canals have been discovered, parallel to each other, as a clear indication that they must have been made by man. They were found eight to ten meters (26.2-32.8 ft.) below sea level, indicating that they must have been made a minimum of 8,000 years ago, which means that they are Neolithic at the latest. Although they resemble the mysterious ‘cart-ruts’ that can be found all over the land surface of Malta and Gozo, Shaun Arrigo made it clear that they are much larger and deeper than the ruts on land.
As far as could be established at the time of writing, these underwater canals have not yet been officially investigated.
Parallel canals found at St. George’s Bay. Credit: Shaun Arrigo
The Monolith in the Sicilian Channel
Megalith builders were active in the central Mediterranean shortly after the end of the last Ice Age at the latest. This can be deduced from the recent discovery of a huge megalith, shaped by human hands, which was found lying on the bottom of the Sicilian channel. Found recently, the monolith is 12 meters (39.4 ft.) long and has a hole drilled through the thickness of the stone at one end. It is situated on a flat plateau 40 meters (131.2 ft.) below sea level 60 km (37.3 miles) south of the southwestern tip of Sicily. Whatever the reason it was placed there, this event must have occurred 11,000 or more years ago, at the start of the Mesolithic period, when sea levels still stood below the platform on which it rests.
Top image: A megalithic temple in Malta – evidence for early human presence in Malta. Source: Sandro /Adobe Stock
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