Thursday, 18 July 2013

A Boat a Day (no.353)

Homo erectus (our predecessors) moved out of Africa to the Indonesian archipelago, most of the way can be made by foot, crossing various islands along the way, yet they would have had to cross multiple stretches of water. It is suggested by historians and archaeologist that these early inhabitants were building bamboo rafts and crossing small seas as long as 800,000 years ago. When Homo sapiens swept across Europe they displaced Homo erectus with their ability to communicate with other humans, and therefore allowed for collaboration and the sharing of knowledge, art and culture.

The basic bamboo rafts were just the beginning; our ancestors improved on the design and came up with a few of their own. As well as the raft-like structures and hollowed out canoes, men were also making wicker-work frames covered with animal skins to navigate the waterways. As society spread and developed the need for boats grew and changed. Prehistoric boats were used to cross the borders of continents where walking failed, bringing civilisation to new lands. Once these nomadic tribes settled, the need changed. Now man had stopped they had a chance to grow. As the population increased so did the need for food and farming had not yet been introduced. Whale bones found in prehistoric settlements imply that our ancestors hunted the oceans 6000 years ago, petroglyphs (rock carvings) depict boats surrounding the giants which is further evidence to suggest our prehistoric friends were no stranger to the open sea and had ways to navigate it safely. As new evidence comes to light that date is getting pushed further back, to as far as 18,000 years ago when Neolithic hunters crossed the Atlantic on boats made of animal skins. DNA tests of Native Americas have produced not only Asian variants but also those found only in European people. This is strong evidence that Columbus and the Vikings were not the first to land on American soil.
So our Stone Age ancestors were capable of travelling vast distances, they hunted giant whales in turbulent oceans, they crossed expanses of water to find new homes throughout Asia, Europe and likely even the Americas.
The migration to Australia was about 20,000 years prior to this, sometime during the last Ice Age. Those ancient humans must have been remarkable to cross the open sea between Asia and Australia, their vessels must have been strong and sturdy. At this point in history the oceans water would have been locked in icecaps, and sea levels would have been much lower. The actual distance between Australia and Asia would have been largely reduced to about 50 miles. No easy feat, but certainly feasible.

All those links between the cultures, sciences, societies and arts of the ancient humans are not so big a mystery when we consider ocean-going as a possibility. Is it so hard to believe that there were networks of communication open between the continents? Anomalies appear in archaeology and scientific research, the appearance of cocaine in Egyptian mummification, (a substance native to the Americas) for example could be the result of a trade link. The discovery of sweet potato in the Polynesian islands (Easter Island and Hawaii) which has been carbon-dated to between 1000-700 AD and is native only to America. These are just two examples of trade evidence, there are thousands more, some less tangible things such as the names of Gods and heroes speak to the sharing of knowledge and culture. Similarities in architecture and art appear all over the world, throughout history. Are these just mysterious coincidences or are we refusing to see man’s true potential through our modern thinking? It’s easy to understand that without the need to migrate and with the introduction of agriculture the knowledge of boat building seemed less important. Many later civilisations such as the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans and those known as the Sea Peoples continued exploring the oceans to trade and wage war. Yet it appears that at some point in human history our development was stunted. We reached a point in civilisation where we thought we knew everything! Somehow, during this time, we forgot how to build ocean-going boats, and stopped believing it was possible to sail beyond the horizon until 1492 when Columbus returned from the New World with gifts and legends.

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