15. It’s Earlier Than You Think: The Antiquity of Seagoing Watercraft
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15 It’s Earlier Than You Think The Antiquity of Seagoing Watercraft Surely oak and threefold brass surrounded his heart who first trusted a frail vessel to the merciless ocean. —Horace, first century BC Humans are terrestrial creatures, physically structured to allow pedal land travel. True, people also possess the structural requirements for swimming, but swimmable distance is strictly limited (to about 40 continuous miles for a very fit person lacking professional training and special equipment) and many, perhaps most, people around the world, even a good percentage of sailors, never learned to swim. In the face of this physical limitation and in view of the existence of water bodies and aquatic resources, over the millennia humans devised a remarkable variety of craft to permit themselves to travel over the face of the deep. The watercraft developed ranged from the simplest flotation devices to boats and ships that were supreme achievements of preindustrial technical complexity and sophistication. Clearly, any discussion of possible trans­ oceanic contacts needs to give appropriate consideration to the several solutions to the water-­ transport challenge that humans have contrived in different areas of the world, and to evaluate their respective capabilities. That is, the question of means for possible early ocean crossings must continue to concern us in this and the following few chapters. How Old in the Old World? Southeast­ ern Asia and Near Oceania Until rather recently, the consensus has been that utilization of ocean-­ service­ able watercraft began relatively late in human history. However, the past few decades have witnessed a revolution in our understanding of the antiquity and importance of their human use.1 Coastal cultural adaptation goes back at least 165,000 years, and we now know that in some regions watercraft were well developed by peoples of paleolithic technology long prior to the end of the Pleistocene epoch, which terminated some 11,700 years ago. No physical remains or depictions of such craft have been recognized as of yet (with one exception, 168 / Chapter 15 mentioned below). However, dated stone tools found on the Indonesian island of Flores suggest a presence there, some 840,000 BC, of Middle Paleolithic humans, presumably Homo erectus, predecessor to our species, Homo sapiens, which, in turn, appears to have emerged in Africa about 195,000 years ago and to have reached east­ ern Asia some 70,000 years ago or somewhat earlier. The pre-­ sapiens humans could have arrived on Flores from the Asian mainland only by making at least two sea crossings, the minimum width of the wider of the two straits having been some 15.5 miles at lowest sea stand. Repeated natural rafting is unlikely and watercraft use is implied—although some authorities believe that simple floats would have been adequate. The Australian cognitive archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik has undertaken experiments with simple rafts of bamboo and rattan whose construction was based on hypothetical paleolithic models and which were built employing Lower Paleolithic types of stone tools. In 2000, Bednarik’s crew of a dozen paddlers successfully negotiated the treacherous Lombok Strait in twelve hours in the raft Nale Tasih 4. In 1998, he and a four-­ man crew had traveled on 59-­ foot Nale Tasih 2—which carried a palm-­ fiber sail—680 miles from Timor to off Australia , in thirteen days; it took only six days to reach the edge of the continental shelf, Australia’s Last Glacial Maximum shoreline. Only paleolithic-­ style foodstuffs , containers, and tools were utilized (see also chapter 21).2 Less extreme in age than the 840,000 years mentioned above—and therefore less controversial—are possibly 100,000-­to 200,000-­ year-­ old stone tools from both Flores and Timor. Reaching Flores from Sundaland (Pleistocene lower-­sea-­ level west­ern Indonesia) at these times would have required a minimum of four water crossings, reaching Timor nine, of up to 18 miles. Many culture historians have an image of most of pre-­nineteenth-­century humanity ’s being essentially land-­ bound and either technologically too primitive to have been able to traverse great distances or sedentary farmers whose horizons were extremely limited, of­ ten traveling, in their lifetimes, no farther than to surrounding villages or to the local market town. Whereas this image is undoubtedly accurate for the majority of the world’s farming and urban populations of the past, there did exist, on land, wide-­ ranging hunters and gatherers, pastoral nomads, and peripatetic populations such as India’s Banjaras and Europe ’s India-­ derived Gypsies...


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