Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Very Old and Very Even Older Boats

In two separate articles this week, archaeologists revealed evidence of extraordinarily old seafaring -- Bronze Age, and Stone Age.

As reported in the Telegraph, the cargo from a 3,000-year-old shipwreck was discovered a few hundred yards off England's Devon coast. The find consists of 295 artifacts: 259 copper ingots, 27 tin ingots, a bronze sword, "two stone artefacts that could have been sling shots," and three gold wrist torcs (bracelets). No trace of the vessel itself has been found, and probably none ever will be, but the find gives clear evidence that sophisticated trade networks existed in Europe during the Bronze Age. The bronze ingots almost certainly came from the Continent, while the tin may have come from other parts of the Continent, or from elsewhere in Britain. Either way, the quantity of material is a clear indication that merchants were aggregating materials and trading in bulk over long distances by sea. The shipwreck, in a bay near Salcombe, may have occurred at the very end of a cross-Channel voyage, or in the midst of a coastal trip. (The photo, from the Telegraph, shows one of the gold torcs in situ.)

Regarding the boat itself, the article states, "experts believe it would have been up to 40ft long and up to 6ft wide, and have been constructed of planks of timber, or a wooden frame with a hide hull. It would have had a crew of around 15 and been powered by paddles." I'm not aware of evidence of true plank-built boats in Europe from the boat's estimated age of 900 BC, but the newspaper reporter may have been simplifying things. More likely, I think, would have been something similar to the Dover Bronze Age Boat, which I've written about previously. This was a transitional technology, between the dugout and the plank-built boat, in which logs where hewn into shapes that constituted longitudinal sections of a boat, then joined together with a combination of wedges and sewing with withies. Cross-Channel use of the Dover boat has been speculated, and now we see that Cross-Channel trade was in indeed process at a time not more than about 600 years after the Dover boat -- plenty of time for the elaborate trade networks to have been worked out.

But that's a mere yesterday compared to exciting but indirect evidence of European seafaring some 130,000 years ago! That's not a typo, and it's more than double the age of the previously earliest evidence of seafaring anywhere: that of the original settlers of Australia some 60,000 years ago. According to an article in the New York Times, archaeologists have found hundreds of stone tools on Crete that have been provisionally dated to at least 130,000 years old. Given what is known about sea levels at the time, the conclusion is that the people who first settled Crete must have done so by boat. Of course there's no direct evidence of the boats themselves, but they sure didn't swim! And what fun it is to speculate about the boats that our hominid ancestors were capable of conceiving and building with the simplest of tools.


  1. Some years ago, some friends and I printed up some tee shirts showing people in a skin boat. The caption was, Native Watercraft Society, Building Boats Since 50,000 BC.
    That was based on the approximate age of human presence in Australia. I suppose we should print up some new tee shirts with 130,000 BC.
    While this latest find doesn't prove anything beyond the likelihood that people got to Crete by boat, it does offer evidence that boat building is an ancient art and not some recent post ice-age invention and that human migration may have involved boat travel more often than was previously thought possible.

  2. Wolfgang: I love that T-shirt slogan.
    With the oldest dugout yet found dating only to about 8000 BC, it's hard to imagine real boats so much older (by a factor of 13X!). Yet someone cited in the New York Times article said that travel to Crete via raft was unlikely.

  3. I took the comment about travel by raft to mean that whoever these people were had a real boat that could be rowed or sailed. In any case, technology does not advance monotonically from a primitive origin toward the present peak. Cultures come and go and boat building technologies could have been developed and lost many times over.
    There is also the presumption that boat building started with the raft or the dugout and proceeded from there. One of the contributors to _The Earliest Ships, The Evolution of Boats into Ships_ suggested that the earliest boats in Europe were probably skin on frame boats since the biggest tree you were likely to find after the glaciers retreated were spindly birches and willows, not big enough to carve dugouts out of. But the boat to Crete was built 110,000 years before the end of the ice age, so who knows what the availability of boat lumber was.
    In any case, in the absence of any concrete evidence of what the 130,000 year old boats looked like, we can speculate to our heart's content or abstain for lack of evidence, whichever better suits our temperament.

  4. Right you are, Wolfgang. I recently wrote about Basil Greenhill's theory of boatbuilding's 4 roots: the skin boat, dugout, raft, and bark canoe, each of which developed independently, persisted to the present, and contributed to modern boat types.
    An article by James Hornell (The gentic relation of the bark canoe to dug-outs and plank-built boats, in "Man,", vol.40, Aug. 1940, pp 114-119) postulates that the bark canoe predated the dugout and gave rise to it. The argument is entirely speculative, but not unreasonable.
    The idea that the skin boat was among the earliest seems reasonable too, for the reason you cite -- lack of big trees, and also because lashing a frame together is arguably easier than hollowing a log.

  5. Whatever the water craft were there is no need to think of them as primitive in that they would be fit for purpose. Even the simplest Aboriginal bark boat made from curled up bark with clay stem and stern is still functional and serves its purpose.

    The monoxylon (logboat) voyaging possiblities on the later Mediterranean have been amply demonstrated by the travels and cargo carrying of the Czech initiative "Monoxylon 11" by Radomir Tichy, Dobrodruzstvi Experimentalni Archaeologie, 1999.

    We know that the use of animal skins as shelter covers is established for the Ice Age and if Mammoth bones could be used to support these then the upside down use of something similar to the bender cover as a boat is entirely possible.

    I like to think it was mostly worked out by reasoning rather than TC Lethbridge's tongue in cheek suggestion that one day the roof blew off into the water and floated thereby launching the boating revolution.

  6. Edwin,
    I have great respect for the craft skills and technological breakthroughs of our "primitive" ancestors and try not to use the term in a perjorative sense. I find it to be a useful adjective to describe an ancient, basic technology, or a people whose culture is characterized by such a techology.
    Thanks for the other citations and for your input.

  7. An archaeologist friend has pointed out to me that the stone tools discovered on Crete are associated with the Homo Heidelbergensis (HH) species. Homo Sapiens, our species, did not move into the Levant until 40,000 years after those tools were left behind in Crete. HH had exactly what you saw, hand axes and that was about it. No other tools of theirs were ever found. They did not make needles or awls or drills or fish hooks or attach a handle to any of the rocks. Their tool making was restricted to chipping rocks and the rocks were an end in themselves, used strictly for hunting or cracking things open, nuts, bones, whatever. They did not use the rocks to create more complicated tools such as hunting implements. So it is improbable that their boats, if they made any were very complicated, given that the only tools they had were like the rocks pictured in the article.

  8. This is a good blog if I ever seen one. Congrats!
    As a matter of fact I HAD to subscribe because it's right up my alley. Believe it or not I just wrote one about traveling the Amazon River. It's a collection of short tales about my experiences on the road (again).
    If you want to check it out, here is the address:
    I would appreciate your subscription, needless to say.
    Keep up the good work, and stay out of deadly rapids, lol
    René -stillmind-

  9. Wolfgang - I agree, at that level of technology, the boat type must have been very simple. Even the dugout seems like a stretch, but seems to be the only feasible type. Of course we don't know if they had rope, although it seems unlikely, so even the raft might not have been feasible (unless they might have used natural creepers to lash logs together?). I guess "unintentional migration" might also be considered, and that eliminates the need to speculate about a boat -- i.e., a couple of people washed out to sea and clinging to logs that happened to drift to Crete (or one pregnant woman).

    Rene - thanks for the very kind words. I'll take a look at your blog.