21. Modern Experimental Voyages: The Empirical Approach
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21 Modern Experimental Voyages The Empirical Approach “Wouldst thou,”—so the helmsman answered, “Learn the secret of the sea? Only those who brave its dangers Comprehend its mystery!” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1850 As pointed out in chapters 1 and 14, scholars doubting transoceanic contacts long contended—and many still do—that early watercraft were incapable of traversing the great seas, at least under any circumstance other than a rare fluke. If the oceans could not be crossed, they argued, then cultural similarities on the two sides of said seas had, at least for the most part, to represent evolutionary parallels and convergences, not contacts, thus proving that independent invention , even of very specific and arbitrary traits, can and does take place. In contrast , diffusionists, taking the position that the cultural similarities between the hemispheres were too numerous and detailed to be attributed to anything other than cultural transfer, felt that the existence of adequate ancient watercraft was demonstrated by these similarities, despite a lack of archaeological or other concrete evidence of suitable vessels.1 In effect, there was an intellectual standoff. But the no-­ crossings or almost-­ no-­ crossings position has become increasingly challengeable owing not only to advances in underwater archaeology but also to experimental voyages in replica watercraft. Owing to the latter, observed the Danish nautical archaeologist Ole Crumlin-­ Pedersen, “several theories launched from writing desks have had to be scuttled following a successful voyage in one of these ‘floating hypotheses.’”2 Kon-­Tiki and Experimental Archaeology The first empirical attempt specifically intended to break the standoff was made by the much-­ lauded and much-­ maligned Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, who essentially created a new area of inquiry, experimental archaeology—­ specifically, experimental voyaging. Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage in the pre-­ Columbian Ecua­ dorian-­style balsa-­log raft Kon-­Tiki (see chapter 17) was an effort to show empirically the capability of such craft to have transported humans from South 218 / Chapter 21 America to Polynesia, where he had perceived cultural evidence of Ameri­ can Indian contact and settlement. “In what may be his single greatest contribution to science,” wrote P. J. Capelotti, “Heyerdahl demonstrated that anthropologists had better be ready to take their hypotheses to sea.”3 The Kon-­Tiki voyage, widely covered by the media, galvanized the imaginations of many and set off a whole raft (one might say) of adventurous voyages by others. With Kon-­Tiki, Heyerdahl was the first substantially to break through the intellectual barrier that contended that long voyages by “primitive” watercraft— or even by developed ones—were impossible. Since “Señor Kon-­Tiki’s” first exploits , numerous experimental voyages on rafts but also in a variety of other craft have been undertaken in replica versions of early vessels. It is widely hypothesized among diffusionists that sailing-­ rafts, which evolved from simple, sail-­ less rafts, were the first craft that allowed ocean crossings, and that they may, therefore, have been the vessels that, through accidental drift or via intentional exploration, led to the first noncoastal overseas arrivals in the New World by people from the Old. As we have seen, pre-­ Columbian sailing-­ rafts were indigenous to scattered locations in south­ ern and east­ ern Asia as well as to Ecuador , and may well represent the kind of vehicle that carried these arrivals, who, in turn, transplanted that vehicle to the shores of the new hemisphere. Although a jangada—the Brazilian version of the sailing-­ raft—had sailed 2,150 miles from Recife to Rio and back in a test voyage in 1922, sailing-­ rafts’ long-­ distance capabilities remained almost universally disputed.4 Then came Heyerdahl ’s 1947 experiment, in which the 45-­ foot Kon-­Tiki was lashed together from nine feather-­ weight balsa (Ochroma) logs and fitted with guaras (daggerboards ), a shear-­ bipod mast (like those of Lake Titicaca), and a square sail. With six men on board—all inexperienced as sailors—the raft was launched into the Humboldt Current after a 58-­ mile tow out from the coast at Callao, Peru. Kon-­ Tiki crashed onto the reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands 101 days later, having traversed some 4,300 miles of open ocean without serious mishap, averaging about 40 miles per day.5 (Actual movement across water accounted for only about a quarter of that distance; the rest was accomplished by the moving current’s carrying the raft along.) At the time, Heyerdahl lacked a full understanding of how daggerboards functioned. However, in 1953, he had another balsa raft built...