The first boats – they may be older – a lot older – than we think

It has been an exciting few weeks for anyone interested in the origins of boats and boating, as we are here at Chine bLog. It turns out that humans may have discovered the ways of the maritime life long before science generally believed. First, I read a great article in the next to last issue of Discover Magazine titled “Did Humans Colonize the World by Boat? Research suggests our ancestors traveled the oceans 70,000 years ago.” You can imagine me sitting upright when I flipped to this piece. It follows the research of Jon Erlandson, an archaeologist with the University of Oregon, who has identified dart heads along the California coast dating to 12,000 years ago. They are similar to others found along the Northern Pacific Rim, the oldest being from 15,600 years ago in Japan. They seem designed for hunting marine prey. Erlandson is building a case that the earliest Americans arrived here by boat, hopping along the coast and kelp forests. Wow.

It gets better. Other research suggests older maritime migrations in Southeast Asia (30,000 years ago) and Australia (50,000 years ago). Early humans may have even crossed the Red Sea coming out of Africa 70,000 years ago. Much of the research also uses projected maps of ancient coastlines. It turns out that, even with lower sea levels during the Ice Age, there were several significant straits to navigate to get form Southeast Asia to Australia. We have known ancestors of the current Aborigines were there 50,000 years ago. It always struck me that they must have gotten there by boat – I mean could the sea levels really be so low? It turns out my naive intuition may not have been far off.

While still chewing on this delicious piece of research, I struck, literally days later, a posting by “aqlunafoo” in the Proa_File Yahoo! Group. It references additional research, reported on Science Daily, pointing to a dramatic reworking of Southeast Asian settlement. Scientists had thought humans migrated to Southeast Asian islands from Taiwan 4,000 years ago. DNA studies, however, indicate that Island Southeast Asia was populated 10,000 years earlier than this and that, in fact, migration into Taiwan from these islands may have been the case. “aqlunafoo” suggests the trimaran is the original boat that sailed to Taiwan, and the proa was developed somewhere between Taiwan, the Bismarks and Santa Cruz.” Good stuff.

And there’s more…

Again within days, our friend Bob Holtzman over at Indigenous Boats posted a different piece from Science Daily, this one on pre-Columbian raft transport. Researchers at no less than MIT studied the feasibility of coast-wise raft-based trade between American cultures and determined the rafts noted in European accounts were possible. From the Science Daily piece:

In order to gain a better understanding of the rafts and their possible uses, Dewan and other students in Hosler’s class built a small-scale replica of one of the rafts to study its seaworthiness and handling, and they tested it in the Charles River in 2004. Later, Dewan did a detailed computer analysis of the size, weight and cargo capacity of the rafts to arrive at a better understanding of their use for trade along the Pacific coast.

“It’s a nontrivial engineering problem to get one of these to work properly,” explained Dewan, who graduated last year with a double major in nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering. Although the early sketches give a general sense of the construction, it took careful study with a computerized engineering design program to work out details of dimensions, materials, sail size and configuration, and the arrangement of centerboards. These boards were used in place of a keel to prevent the craft from being blown to the side, and also provided a steering mechanism by selectively raising and lowering different boards from among two rows of them arranged on each side of the craft.

Although much of the raft design may have seemed familiar to the Europeans, some details were unique, such as masts made from flexible wood so that they could be curved downward to adjust the sails to the strength of the wind, the centerboards used as a steering mechanism, and the use of balsa wood, which is indigenous to Ecuador.

Other work figured out how the balsa logs would have survived ship worms and such. Very interesting, and probably further suggesting that people were thinking about boats well earlier than we believe. Thanks to Bob for sharing this one.

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