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Marine Technology

At the Second International Congress of Archaeologists, the presidential address by A.W.Brogger outlined the extensive evidence for seafaring during the Stone and Bronze Ages . . .

At the height of the Bronze Age the people of the western Mediterranean had a clear picture of the geographical outlines of the Atlantic coasts. Large parts of Africa were visited regularly and it is probable that Africa had been circumnavigated. The Azores and Madeira and other Atlantic islands were visited regularly. From these, the prevailing winds and currents almost compelled the discovery of Central America.

In my student days, it was considered a completely revolutionary thought when Montelius suggested, on a basis of certain discoveries, that there had been ‘a direct connection’ between England and Sweden in the Stone Age. For there were no steamship lines across the North Sea during the Stone Age!

Marine Archaeology has changed greatly since Brogger’s lecture in 1936 and archaeologists are now finding evidence of marine technology during the Neolithic period with indirect evidence of seafaring nearly a million years ago.

It is well known that fosssils and artifacts are almost always found by rivers and foreshores. It is also known, from water-saturated peat sites such as Monte Verde, that lithic objects appear to make up no more than 5% of the material culture of the time. The other 95% are tools and clothing made of wood, plants, and fibres which normally perish, leaving only the stone objects. Products such as cordage, basketry, netting and even textiles, must have been present in central Europe at least 25,000 years ago.

Since boats spend much of their time in the water, they are particularly perishable but recently, some bitumen pieces have been dated to 5,000 BC at Subiya in Kuwait and are indented on one side with impressions of reeds and encrusted with barnacles on the other. Dr Tom Vosmer, a marine archaeologist from the Western Australian Maritime Museum, recognised the significance of these fragments - probably the oldest direct evidence of ancient seafaring.

Reed Rafts

A raft is the most obvious form of buoyant craft. Rafts made from reed bundles such as those used by the ancient Egyptians 6,000 years ago or today on lake Titicaca appear to have changed little in their design for as far back as we can presently known. Unlike displacement boats, the sea pours through them, giving them a kindly motion, and they provided large unsinkable platforms that were ideal for carrying families and livestock.

In 1970 Thor Heyerdahl sailed Ra II across the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados in only 57 days. In 1978, Heyerdahl completed a 4,200-mile voyage on a 60-foot reed ship known as the Tigris. Setting sail from the banks of the Tigris, he navigated down the Persian Gulf to Oman and eastward to the Indus Delta of Pakistan. Then they reversed direction and headed southwest back across the Indian Ocean in the direction of the Horn of Africa.

Inspired by Heyerdahl, Dominique Goerlitz, a biology teacher, built Abora II which he successfully sailed around the Mediterranean Sea. As a botanist, Goerlitz is fascinated by the fact that there are many plants of foreign origin in the Americas. For example, the cotton indigenous to North America is of the short-stem variety, which cannot be used to make cloth. But long-stem cotton does grow there - a hybrid plant with genes from Africa.

What did these expeditions prove? They did not prove that the Egyptians or some other group of travellers on reed boats reached the Americas in ancient times but what it did, was to demonstrate that reed boats, that are found all over the world, were capable of crossing seas and oceans. They laid to rest the idea that ancient people did not have the means to make these voyages.

The reed rafts of the ancient Egyptians appear to have provided a pattern for the later Egyptian wooden displacement boats perhaps because the reeds would have been protected against rot first by cladding with bitumen and later by cladding the reeds with bitumen and wooden planks. It would then be a short step to have removed the reeds leaving a planked displacement vessel. It is certainly a fact that early Egyptian planked vessels adopted the same sickle shape as reed boats and that the strengthening struts were fixed after the construction of the shell.

The construction of large reed rafts with sails, shown below on the left, is basically the same as the that of the small rafts held by these Peruvian boys. It provides evidence that the tradition of reed raft-building has been deeply ingrained in Peruvian culture probably over many thousands of years.

Bamboo Cane Rafts

Bamboo cane rafts are a modification of the reed raft in which bundles of bamboos replace the reeds in East Asia. Being less flexible, they do not have the high shaped prow of reed rafts that break up the oncoming waves.

Motivated by the Chinese seafarer, Hsu Fu, who crossed from Asia to America on a huge bamboo raft in 219 BC, Tim Severin, built a replica in Vietnam.

In 993, with a crew of six, he sailed over 5,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean until difficulties with the deteriorating rattan lashings forced him to abandon the expedition.

Like Thor Heyerdahl before him, Severin showed that it was possible to sail and navigate these ancient age rafts over the oceans.


Archaeologists digging in Indonesia have unearthed evidence that primitive man was capable of crossing the sea to colonize the islands of Flores nearly one million years ago. Robert Bednarik who has said that:

"This species must have possessed language and a sufficiently complex society to organize such colonization attempts. It now appears that seafaring capability first developed in the region of Indonesia, especially around Java perhaps a million years ago. But it took most of that million years to evolve to the sophistication that made it possible to sail distances of several hundred kilometers to a target that for most of the journey remained invisible - which was necessary to reach Australia.

. . . hominids, more than 850,000 years ago managed to cross the sea to colonise a number of Indonesian islands that have never been connected to either Asia or Australia , but they were found to have been occupied by Homo erectus as well as by several endemic species of Stegodonts (extinct elephants) early in the Ice Age. Until recently, it had been assumed that the first sea crossings occurred no more than 60,000 years ago.

These crossings of several sea barriers involved the use of watercraft, so this was the first time in human history that our ancestors entrusted their destiny to a contraption designed to harness the energies of nature. All human development followed on from that first triumph of the human spirit, it set the course of the human ascent right up to the present day. In comparison to this achievement, Neil Armstrong's 'giant leap of mankind' was indeed a small step for man.

We know that these sea journeys occurred, and we know approximately when. But we do not know how they were accomplished. This project examines that question in great detail, in Indonesia and in other parts of the world. For this purpose, a number of rafts, each designed differently, are constructed with Palaeolithic stone tool replicas, and it is attempted to sail them across stretches of sea known to have been crossed in the Ice Age, in Indonesia, the Mediterranean, in Japan and off California.

The First Mariners project was commenced in 1996, and the first full-scale sea-going bamboo raft was launched in February 1998. The Timor Sea was crossed on the Nale Tasih 2 in December 1998, replicating the first landfall in Australia perhaps 60 000 years ago. In October 1999, the project was extended to the Mediterranean region. In January 2000, a primitive raft with 14 men, the Nale Tasih 4, repeated the first known crossing of the sea, which occurred more than 850,000 years ago between Bali and Lombok , Indonesia.

Further coverage of investigations into the fauna of Flores and human artifacts dated as long ago as 800,000 years ago are given in Archaeology May/June 1998 quoting earlier reports in Nature.