The Beginnings of Maritime Travel

Author(s): Robert G. Bednarik


Sea trials of the Lombok near the south coast of Flores, 14 April 2008.
Sea trials of the Lombok near the south coast of Flores, 14 April 2008.

Navigation of the sea is shown to have commenced in the order of one million years ago. The earliest evidence for it appears to be that available from Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, but seafarers colonized also numerous other islands and one continent during the Pleistocene. These early technological feats of hominins provide a reliable measure of their technological limits, and indirectly about their cognitive faculties as well. To explore these aspects, the First Mariners Project conducts numerous experiments, some of which are briefly described in this paper. The implications of its findings for the first colonization of the Americas are also considered.

1. Introduction
The maritime history of humanity commenced not a few thousand years ago, as traditional nautical archaeology has tended to assume, but more than a hundred times as long ago (Sondaar et al., 1994; Bednarik, 1997, 1999a; Brumm et al., 2010). Archaeological data from Wallacea (Indonesia) have shown that the history of seafaring began in the late part of the Early Pleistocene, at least 900 ka (900,000 years) ago. To understand better

Exploded view of the 15-ton bamboo raft Nale Tasih 1: (a) pontoons, (b) decking, (c) superstructures.
Exploded view of the 15-ton bamboo raft Nale Tasih 1: (a) pontoons, (b) decking, (c) superstructures.

the technological magnitude of these very early maritime accomplishments,  expeditions are currently engaged in a series of replicative experiments. This paper examines the theoretical conditions of these experiments and demonstrates that hominin cognitive and cultural evolution during the Middle and early Late Pleistocene has been severely misjudged. The navigational feats of Pleistocene seafarers include, besides the earliest Indonesian evidence,  also various crossings in the Mediterranean, near Japan, on the west coast of North America, and the first colonization of the Australian continent. In comparison to the usual discussions of the beginnings of maritime history,  the ages of some of these early feats of the Paleolithic period are of an entirely different order of magnitude.

Seafaring in the Pleistocene has been demonstrated by several types of finds from about twenty islands that have never been connected to a mainland (most of them not even to another island), or at least not during the Pleistocene; and from the continent of Australia (Bednarik, 2003). They consist of skeletal remains of approximately 200 humans, mostly from Australia but including those of nine individuals from four islands (Santa Rosa,
Okinawa, Crete and Sardinia); and of human occupation evidence in the form of stone tools, food remains, ornaments, rock art, foot prints, and campsites. The two main regions of Pleistocene maritime navigation evidence are the Mediterranean, where at least half a dozen deep-water islands were occupied during the Ice Age, and the general region of eastern Asia to Australia. The only other island with known Pleistocene occupation is Santa Rosa, one of the Californian Channel Islands.

Exploded view of the 3.6-ton bamboo raft Nale Tasih 2: (a) raft, (b) decking, (c) superstructures.
Exploded view of the 3.6-ton bamboo raft Nale Tasih 2: (a) raft, (b) decking, (c) superstructures.

The earliest Mediterranean evidence, Clactonian stone tools found in Sardinia, is thought to be in the order of 300 ka old (Bini et al., 1993). Because it consists of surface finds, some commentators tend to discount it (e.g. Simmons, 2014). However, one cave site has provided a single bone of Homo erectus, our evolutionary predecessor (Ginesu et al., 2003). The islands of Crete and Gavdos were occupied by hominins at least since the Acheulian, as evidenced by numerous handaxes and other stone tools (Mortensen, 2008; Kopaka & Matzanas, 2009; Strasser et al., 2010, 2011),  evidence that is generally accepted.  Cyprus, also never connected to the mainland during human existence, was settled toward the end of the Pleistocene (Simmons, 2014), as very probably were several other Mediterranean islands. By far the most extensive and the oldest proof of seafaring, however, comes from Indonesia, where this technology was first developed in the order of a million years ago. Evidence of hominin occupation of the late Lower Pleistocene and Middle Pleistocene is now available from three islands of Nusa Tenggara, formerly called the Lesser Sunda Islands: Flores (Verhoeven, 1958; Maringer & Verhoeven, 1970; Sondaar et al., 1994; Morwood et al., 1998), Roti (Bednarik, 1999a) and Timor (Bednarik & Kuckenburg, 1999). The early stone tools of Flores have been shown to be up to 840 ka old by a variety of dating methods, including fission-track dating, paleomagnetism, geology, paleontology, and the presence of datable tektites. Some of the strata containing these finds of stone tools and, in the case of Timor, charred animal remains are overlain by substantial facies of solid Quaternary rock, in places of more than 150 meters thickness (Bednarik, 2003). Their great age is therefore beyond dispute, irrespective of the comprehensive scientific dating evidence.


Journal: Advances in Anthropology
DOI: 10.4236/aa.2014.44023 (PDF)
Paper Id: 51890 (metadata)

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