Map of the Mediterranean Sea and the countries surrounding it

Malta before History

In the Genesis, the first book of the Bible, we read:

God also said: Let the waters that are under the heaven be gathered together into one place; and let the dry land appear.  And it was done.  And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, he called Seas.  And God saw that it was good.

Before land there was the water.  The science of plate tectonics and continental drift tells us that the earth’s land masses are always moving and clashing, as are the oceans.  Our planet is alive and in constant motion.  Many millions of years ago, all the present continents were one land mass – called Pangea – surrounded by an ocean known as Panthalassa.

About 200 million years ago, this super-continent split into two land masses: Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south, with an ocean in between.  That ocean is known as the Sea of Tethys.

Fast forward by one hundred million years to when these two enormous land masses also started breaking up and drifting, slowly creating the world as we know it today.  This was not a smooth or speedy process: the tectonic plates broke up and collided again and again, something they are still doing today.  We know that the part of the African plate carrying Algeria and Morocco is slowly moving towards Spain, that Tunisia and Libya are drifting towards Sicily (with Malta in the way) and that Italy is moving east.  To compensate, the Greek plate is moving west as is Turkey. In millions of years from now, the Mediterranean may look very different from how it is today.

Back to Tethys.  Originally this sea simply divided the two land masses of Laurasia and Gondwana which together made up all the land on this planet.  But when the two masses started moving and breaking up, the Sea of Tethys had to do so too.  At the same time,other mini-plates split, grouped and regrouped.  When the Middle East joined up to Turkey, the large Sea of Tethys was divided, creating the Mediterranean Sea as we know it.

The present Mediterranean is 3,800 km long with an average width of about 1,000 km.  It is divided into two large basins, evidence of its changing past.  The Tyrrhenian Sea between Italy and Sardinia is 3600 metres deep, while the much larger eastern basin reaches a depth of 4,000 metres.  The process of its creation also divided the central part into other mini-seas like the Ligurian, the Tyrrhenian, the Adriatic, the Ionian and the Aegean.

There is a reason for this.  Recent surprising discoveries show that the Mediterranean actually dried out and was refilled several times in its history.  By studying the ocean floor, scientists could conclude that the connection with the Atlantic at the Straits of Gibraltar had been blocked more than once. The inflow of water from the rivers running into the Mediterranean was not enough to make up for the loss of water by evaporation. These phases of drying out, together with the climatic changes that led to various Ice Ages, caused major drops in the sea level and allowed dry land to appear and reconnect Africa and Europe more than once, dividing the sea into a series of lakes. Flora and fauna started travelling along the land-bridges while marine life began developing separately.

Scientists have come across remains of sunken sites which showed that for some time, they had emerged from the water and subsequently submerged again.  In Israel, a string of underwater Neolithic villages has been discovered, complete with typical Stone Age houses, about 200 metres from the shore.  A collection of flint tools some 45,000 years old was discovered on the continental shelf off the island of Corfu. Other remains have been found near Nice in France and off the Aegean islands of Milos and Agios Petros.

All this shows that early humans spread around and across the Mediterranean in all directions.  During the Palaeolithic Age, they started to use fire and bury the dead.  They may also have been visiting reachable islands in primitive boats and occasionally settling there.  Eventually modern humans developed art and agriculture. The Neolithic period has provided plenty of evidence regarding the first permanent settlements, the use of pottery, the domestication of animals and the beginning of religious beliefs.

And this brings us to Malta. As a result of the agriculture revolution, the establishment of commercial networks and improvements in boat-building, the smaller islands became attractive for permanent settlement.  Malta’s pre-history does not start with Għar Dalam, but with the evolution of the sea and land around our island home. The evolution of Mediterranean humans has been tightly bound up with the sea around us.  It still is and therefore we need to understand its changes and the dangers of pollution and over-fishing.

The main challenge now is the preservation and renewal of the Mediterranean and its common culture, where a great civilisation began.  For many thousands of years, this once great sea has provided both a barrier and a bridge for the people who live around it.  While political, religious and racial developments still divide us, there seems to be a general coming together to tackle problems that no one nation can solve on its own.

Għar Dalam

Għar Dalam

Għar Dalam is a prehistorical cul-de-sac located in the outskirts of Birżebbuġa, Malta containing the bone remains of animals that were stranded and subsequently became extinct in Malta at the end of the Ice age.