17. Products of the Paleolithic: Rafts
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17 Products of the Paleolithic Rafts Then I gathered many pieces of wood from the trees. . . . Then I found a way to twist grasses and twigs into a kind of rope, with which I bound the raft. . . . . . . we hurried to the raft, untied it and, embarking on it, pushed it into the sea. —Sindbad the Sailor, in The Arabian Nights (ca. AD 900) Much of what we know about folk watercraft we owe to that indefatigable marine biologist James Hornell, whose Water Transport (1946) is the classic source, and to his collaborator, the Cambridge anthropologist A. C. Haddon. Also most worthy of mention is the nineteenth-­century French Admiral Pierre Pâris’s 1843 Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-­ européens1 and the geo­­ graphi­ cal distribution studies of the German scholar Hans Suder, in his Von Einbaum und Floss zum Schiff (1930). Many others have contributed since, as will be seen in these pages. The study of nineteenth-­and twentieth-­ century traditional craft is useful in reconstructing past vessel forms and distributions, because “we know that boatbuilders and sailors are extremely conservative in their choice of designs.”2 It cannot be known with certainty how far back in the human past and at what levels of technological attainment people began to construct and use particu­ lar kinds of watercraft, and direct archaeological evidence specific to truly ancient rafts and boats is, so far, disappointingly slim. Still, by comparing available skills that have been dated to particular time levels—skills such as coiled basket­ mak­ ing, hut construction, and hide tanning and sewing—as well as by studying geo­ graphi­ cal distributions of his­ tori­ cally known in­ di­ vidual types of craft, it is possible to make educated estimates. Certainly, upper-­ paleolithic-­ level technology included the kinds of watercraft discussed in this chapter, not every­ where but in at least certain parts of the world, and some of these sorts of conveyances may even have arisen at the Lower Paleolithic level, well before the Late Pleistocene epoch, which ended a dozen millennia ago (see chapter 15). Making a Bundle: Rafts Constructed from Clusters of Stems Watercraft that, for flotation, depend on the natural buoyancy of the materials from which they are made rather than on the water displacement of a hollow, Rafts / 183 air-­ filled hull, are termed “rafts.” What appears likely to be one of the most ancient forms of raft (going back, in my view, to the Af­ ri­ can Upper Paleolithic, possibly even the Lower Paleolithic, not just the Mesolithic as some see it) is made, usually, from bundles of dried reeds, bulrushes, or comparable vegetal material (for example, papyrus on the Nile, palm-­ leaf stalks in Bahrain, grass in Sonora, bark in Tasmania, and so forth). Some of these craft were entirely in the horizontal plane; others had bundles lashed along above the edges, which made these rafts into what we may call raft-­ boats. Where substantial trees are absent or rare, as in dry-­ climate areas, reeds, bulrushes, or their ilk, found in the few wet spots such as the shores of exotic streams and of sink lakes, may be the best (or only) material from which to construct craft. It is mainly in such areas that bundle raft-­ boats have survived into modern times, although some have persisted in wetter-­ climate regions as well. In historic times in the Old World, craft of these kinds have been described for Botswana, much of north­ ern Africa and the Mediterranean islands and littoral; the Black Sea; Ireland and Hungary; around the upper Persian Gulf and Bahrain ; south­ ern Afghanistan and the north­ ern Indian subcontinent; Sri Lanka; Vietnam and South China; Japan; and southeast­ ern Australia (in Tasmania, they carried up to eighty passengers). Archaeologically, bundle rafts were depicted well BC in many of these places. Reed vessels are mentioned in the ancient Babylonian predecessor of the biblical Noah story, and the Babylonian origin myth involves the god Marduk creating the earth in the form of a floating reed raft. Moses (Moshe) was placed in a bitumen-­ sealed papyrus-­ bundle boat, as described in Exodus 3:2, and his story recalls that of an inscription that claims that Sargon of Akkad (circa 2300 BC) was placed on the river in a basket of rushes sealed with bitumen. Reed boats are also mentioned at Isaiah 18:2, speaking of the land beyond the rivers of Ethiopia “that sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even...