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by Stan Roberts - Cedar Park, Texas - USA

The Early Voyagers - Stone Age


The skill or technology of boatbuilding has a very long history. A growing body of evidence now indicates that seafaring stretches back to the earliest migrations of man out of Africa. "Rafts or other seagoing vessels were used to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between", says archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island.

Last year a team of archaeologists and others made a discovery that Archaeology Magazine calls one of the ten top discoveries of 2010. The team found worked stone tools dating from 45,000 to around
130,000 years BCE in four separate terraces at Preveli Gorge on the south coast of the island of Crete, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Evidence found from excavations on the islands of Sardinia, Cyprus, Australia, Japan, Timor and Flores (Indonesia) indicate that many other islands were colonized during the early Stone Age by open water voyages. Rafts are simple to build and with the stability and capacity for a band of nomads. Building materials such as; wood, cane, bamboo, reeds, plant fiber and green leather would have been easy to find near most bodies of water. The unpretentious raft was very likely the first watercraft built on earth, the first used on a river, and the first used on the seas and oceans.

The First Mariners Project is an organization started by Robert Bednarik for the purpose of investigating the origins of seafaring. The project conducts a series of archaeological studies and expeditions with the idea of replicating early migrations with primitive vessels. The purpose is to determine the minimum level of technology required to cross specific sea barriers and to acquire a reliable measure of human skill and cognitive competence at the time in question.

"These crossings of several sea barriers involved the use of watercraft, because sea straits cannot be crossed without propellant, so this was the first time in human history that our ancestors entrusted their destiny to a contraption designed to harness the energies of nature. All human development followed on from that first triumph of the human spirit; it set the course of the human ascent right up to the present day. " R. Bednarik

The First Mariners Project has been the largest series of replicant archaeology expeditions to date. By 2000 this project had constructed and sailed six rafts built either entirely or partly with Paleolithic stone tools, and equipped with replicas of Ice Age artifacts. In 2004, National Geographic helped conduct the seventh experiment, replicating the first crossing from Sumbawa to Komodo.

The 'Rangki Papa' ('Father of all Rafts') approaching the coast of Komodo, Bali, having succeeded in crossing from Sumbawa, 7 October 2004. The vessel traveled 36.4km in 9 hours 22 minutes.

The Nale Tasih 2, a bamboo raft made with stone tools, on its epic 13-day journey from Timor to Australia, December 1998, traveling in 5-m waves.

There is little doubt that rafts continued to be built and used for every possible purpose throughout the world, from the Stone Age migrations to modern historic times. A raft may have been used for the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean. Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 Kon Tiki expedition attempted to prove that early South Americans colonized Pacific islands. Using a balsa log raft, Thor and crew set sail from the Peruvian coast. After 101 days and 4,300 miles the raft arrived at Raroia in the Tuamotu islands.

The actual migration pattern may well have been in the opposite direction. Archaeological excavations in Monte Verde, Chile have found stone tools in strata dated at 13,000 BCE while Pikimachay cave findings in Peru have been dated between 12 to 17,000 BCE. Genetic research has shown similarities between natives of Patagonia and Australians. Australia was colonized at least by 40,000 BCE and it would have been possible for early voyagers to island hop across the Pacific to South America. Another possible colonization route is directly from the west coast of Africa to Brazil. The trade winds blow in a western direction in the Tropical Atlantic areas and the Southern Equatorial Current has a speed of about 1 meter/sec., which means that a raft would be pushed around 86 km per day (53 miles) in a westerly direction. Assuming a voyage of around 5,000 km, this would be a 58 day passage. Genetic research into the native Americans has produced some interesting data.

Physical comparisons of skulls and to maternal inherited Mitochondrial DNA indicate that the Fuegians and Patagonian native tribes were not Amerinds, but a separate population. The Fuegian and Patagonians lack the A and B mtDNA completely. It certainly looks like they represent the last surviving remnants of the earliest human migration into the Americas.

About 2400 BC seafarers had begun to colonize Isla de la Plata, located 22 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The exact beginning of the era of the great South American sailing rafts is still unknown, but what is known is that there was a progressive sophistication of societies that led to the rise of an entire culture of voyaging merchants about 800 AD. This corresponds to the beginnings of the Viking period in Europe. At its height the Manteno culture spanned the entire coastline of Ecuador and lasted up to the Spanish invasion.

In 1526 a Spanish ship in the Pacific spotted an unusual giant raft sailing north on a trading voyage from the port of Salango. It carried gold, silver, fine cloth and Spondylus (thorny oyster). The Spanish noted "the raft carried sails like that of our own ships".

The goal of the Manteno Expedition is to build an authentic replica sailing raft and then to test it on a simulated trading voyage to Western Mexico.

They hope to gain an accurate picture of the capabilities of the ancient balsa raft and its performance at sea. They will use the cotton sails, balsa logs and ingenious daggerboard steering system, called guara, of the original rafts.

The guara system is the original steering method used by the ancient Manteno voyagers. It is a matrix of long daggerboards pushed down through the logs. The raft can self steer for miles by deploying the boards in certain patterns, or by lifting some the raft will turn and sail on a new course, again self steering for a long distance. Balsa may seem like an odd choice for building watercraft but the trees are abundant in South and Central America. They grow in stands (bunches) in any well-lit open space. Best of all they grown incredibly fast. From a seed they can expand to a 40 foot, 8,000 pound tree in only 48 months. It is not uncommon for a balsa tree to grow to 90 feet in seven years and a three foot thick balsa may be only twelve years old.

South American sailing rafts are still going strong even now. As late as the 1980s the Jangada, a Brazilian sailing raft, was used for offshore fishing. These rafts were traditionally made of six logs from the Piuva tree (similiar to Balsa) and constructed using wooden pegs, vegetable fibres, and the simplest tools. They are beach launched off the north east coast of Brazil. Their flat bottoms allow crossing offshore reefs at high tide and the solid log construction let waves break over them safely when an open hull boat would swamp. The Jangada is rigged with a single low aspect Bermudian sail on a free standing mast. Both the broad bladed rudder and daggerboard are high aspect ratio. The Jangada in the photo is a medium size craft and would be beached after every trip to allow the logs to dry out. Fishing trips typically would be up to 40 miles at sea and last for two to three days. The deck of the raft is usually awash and the Jangadeiros work with their feet in the water catching hake, yellow tail and mackerel.

Medium size Jangada - Length 5.07 Meters; Beam 1.51 Meters; Depth 1.2 Meters; Crew 2 or 3; Max speed 10 knots.

Rafts are being used today in virtually every corner of the globe for river transport, ferries, houseboats, and even coastal sailing. The first form of watercraft ever built on earth, the oldest watercraft in continuous use, is doing very well.

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