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Sturgeon's House

Origins of Watercraft and Seafaring in Hominins

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In my archaeology class I thought I had a paper due on Tuesday. It isn't due for another week so I have extra time to add more information and edit it so it isn't an incoherent piece of garbage. I'd like to see what you guys make of it and you'll probably find some interesting tidbits here and there. 





The human species is unique in its worldwide distribution on planet Earth, coping with a wide variety of environments on nearly every continent. This early dispersal of hominins out of Africa poses a major challenge to early humans, that is water. Rivers, lakes, and eventually seas and oceans present a rather imposing obstacle for an ape as known extant apes, such as chimpanzees and orangutans are rather poor swimmers. We do know that humans are somewhat capable swimmers, but humans have gone a step further in creating watercraft. Rafts and boats are known to be crucial in humanity’s explorations in history, but we do not know the origins of humanity’s first intended drift. This event is a critical moment in humanity’s history and that has not been conclusively answered. Another critical moment is the first journeys out to sea and the open ocean. There is much to discuss on the origins of watercraft and seafaring despite the relative ambiguity of the subject.

In many human cultures around the world boats provide not only transportation but food as well. Boats have criss-crossed the Earth’s waterways and have allowed humans to tap into fisheries that would otherwise be completely impractical to use. This shows the multiple uses of watercraft. Is it likely that the need for transportation across waterways led to the boat or did the need for a larger resource base drive the invention of the boat? We do not know for sure as boats have not been well preserved in the archaeological record and there is little way to know exactly what was in the minds of the first people who set sail.

Boats, as previously mentioned, are not well preserved. The riverine and marine environments are harsh and this does not bode well to the preservation of organic materials, such as logs or reeds, which would likely be a key material in early boat construction, are more susceptible to decay and distribution in these environments. This puts a major challenge on pinning down the origins of boats and watercraft. A key in doing so is figuring out the most likely early boat designs. The two most primitive boat designs in modern times seems to be the dugout canoe and rafts. Signs of construction of these boats would be monumental in pinning down the origins of watercraft. Dugout canoes are built from a single large log that is hollowed out by carving. This is a long process and needs to be done by tool wielders. Rafts can be built by connecting various logs or reeds together and can be either extremely simple or complex. Even simple rafts would need some tools for construction. Knowing that even primitive watercraft would need some tools for construction would suggest that the first boats came after the first tools. This would suggest that hominins did not create watercraft on purpose until after the first stone tools which have been dated back to 3.3-3.4 million years(McPherson,2010 and Harmand, 2015). This doesn’t include early hominins holding onto non-worked logs to float from place to place. It is likely that that behavior would be nearly impossible to date and doesn’t quite show a specialized tool that a boat is.

It is an interesting prospect to think of australopiths as the first boatmen, but there is little evidence of australopiths constructing much of anything and known diets don’t seem to include much fish. It isn’t until around 1.95 million years ago, before the emergence of Homo erectus, when fish and other aquatic organisms became a significant part of the hominin diet(Braun, 2010). This isn’t proof of watercraft, but does show that early Homo, possibly Homo habilis might have started to exploit aquatic resources to a degree that is not seen in modern apes. Homo habilis is also connected to the Oldowan tool industry which is the earliest recognized tool industry and would have been possible for the the construction of a dugout canoe or possible a basic raft. There are some issues with pre-Homo erectus being the first to make watercraft as, even if the diet of these early Homo populations might have a significant part of fish and other aquatic organism it doesn’t mean that these populations actively fished beyond the shoreline. It is suggested that the majority of fish fossils that are associated with these populations of Homo were caught fish with “minimal or no technology”(Steward, 1994). With this in mind, it is hard to assume that these populations that were exploiting aquatic resources were using advanced and sophisticated tools such as watercraft but does show human activity near aquatic and semi-aquatic environments. This is a step towards hominids taking off from the shoreline and into open waters.

Homo erectus spread from Africa to Eurasia and had to adapt to a wide variety of environments in order to survive and thrive. In order to spread from Eastern and Southern Africa, Homo erectus would have to cross not only wide expanses of land, but large bodies of water such as the large Indus and Ganges Rivers in the Indian subcontinent. Homo erectus spread all the way to Wallacea beyond the main Eurasian landmass and would have to had cross open ocean. Homo erectus’s distribution across Eurasia and Africa seem to suggest that they had the ability to cross large bodies of water which strongly suggests that early watercraft was used.
A hypothetical timeline of human seafaring is set forward by Bednarik in four key phases. The first phase is coastal navigation which would also apply to riverine navigation which would have been available for Homo erectus before 850 ka(Bednarik, 2001). With a Hominin population on Flores by 1 ma it fits Bednarik’s timeline of human seafaring abilities.(Brumm, 2010) Simple tools are required to construct very simple rafts that would conduct these coastal navigations. Mangrove forests would have been quite common in coastal zones that would have been encountered by Homo erectus along the Indian Ocean and would have provided a tough challenge to navigate without watercraft. These environments would provide a proving ground for the ingenuity of Homo erectus and likely was the birthplace for watercraft.

Bednarik’s next step in seafaring is a more large scale colonizing ability across waterways. This step of navigation is where Walacea’s population of Homo erectus becomes interesting as it would have to take a breeding population of a relatively large size to ensure genetic diversity in order to survive. Large and robust rafts would be needed to conduct such a crossing across rather treacherous waters such as the Lombok strait that separates the Sunda landmass, the Asian Indonesia Islands and the submerged continental shelf, from Wallacea. This crossing, and other possible oceanic crossings such as the Straits of Gibraltar would give examples of this advancement in seafaring capabilities of the genus Homo. The First Mariners Project, also led by Benarik has confirmed the ability for the construction of ocean going rafts using the resources available for Homo erectus in small groups in Sunda to cross the Lombok Strait. This shows that the crossing is plausible and could provide one of the earliest examples of seafaring in human history.

Another example of proposed Acheulean or Homo erectus seafaring is proposed crossings of the Mediterranean Sea. Sea levels fluctuated in the Mediterranean throughout the Palaeolithic, but many islands and landmasses remained separated from the main continental landmasses. The Strait of Gibraltar is another interesting case of proposed Acheulean seafaring. The Straits of Gibraltar narrowly separate North Africa from the Iberian peninsula and both sides of the Straits have numerous archaeological sites and it has been proposed that this shows early hominin seafaring abilities. With sea levels periodically lower in the Strait of Gibraltar and currents fluctuating to near nothingness it is very plausible that a raft crossing would be rather simple once a raft is constructed.

With a lack of human migration from the Levant to Iberia, it becomes more plausible that the Iberian population didn’t travel across the European continent, but rather came across the Straits of Gibraltar nearly over 1.4 ma. This would likely be an early crossing than the crossings of seaways in Southeast Asia and could be one of the earliest times hominins ventured out to sea.
There comes a response to Bednarik’s claims of Homo erectus seafaring abilities in Southeast Asia which is put forward by Smith. Smith hypothesizes that Homo erectus colonization of the islands of Wallacea can not be solid proof of Homo erectus constructing rafts. Rather, Smith conjectures that natural rafts created during intense weather events such as tropical storms and tsunamis, which often strike the region of Indonesia, can be the mechanism in which Homo erectus populations have spread to the islands of Wallacea.(Smith, 2001) Natural rafts are known to exist and are thought to be a mechanism in which large terrestrial organisms can cross great distances at sea. A prime example of this is the Galapagos iguanas which could not have swam from the American continent to the Galapagos, but would have gotten to the island by means of natural rafts.

A study conducted by Ruxton based on McArthur’s island colonization model compared island colonization in Wallacea from an initial population from natural rafts to a population that had planned to settle the islands. Ruxton’s results show that unplanned colonization with the addition of new members due to other weather events might be a more likely explanation of early Homo erectus populations on the island of Flores in Wallacea. With tsunamis prevalent in the region and would washout wide areas of coastline without much warning, it would likely sent a large number of individuals out to sea to eventually drift to shore on a new landmass. Individuals have been known to survive drifting at sea for several days following tsunamis and it is possible that these survivors could be the founding population in a new land.(Ruxton, 2012)

The Strait of Gibraltar crossing also does not create a certainty of hominin seafaring by watercraft. As smaller distances and smoother currents would have made crossing the Strait of Gibraltar easier in the past by rafts, it would also would have made crossing by swimming easier. It is already possible to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar in the matter of hours and with the help of a non-boat floatation device the difficulty could be lessened. There are cases of African fauna crossing into Iberia during the Pliocene and Pleistocene and it wouldn’t be an anomaly to conclude that early hominins made the crossing by natural means instead of using more advanced watercraft.

This research challenges Bednarik’s ideas on Homo erectus’ seafaring capabilities. So, while it is likely that Homo erectus constructed basic watercraft to navigate across wide rivers and swamps that it would have encountered across its migrations out of Africa and into Eurasia. This is a huge technological leap in human history and sets up the framework for future watercraft advancements. However, it isn’t certain that these primitive capabilities were common and might not have become common until much later in time. Therefore, there is much gray area between the first hypothetical watercraft and the first recorded watercraft and the significance of watercraft in human evolutionary history also increases in importance as watercraft becomes more advanced and widespread.

With a population now spanning throughout Afro-Eurasian, hominins like Homo erectus continued to evolve in some parts of the world into other early hominins such as Homo neanderthalensis and Homo denisova. Archaic Homo sapiens also emerged following the first migrations out of Africa by Homo erectus. With these populations of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and archaic Homo sapiens comes new possibilities of watercraft advancement and seafaring capabilities.

Proto-neanderthals and Neanderthals were spread across Europe and the Levant and were eventually displaced by anatomically modern humans around 40 ka. These populations are known to have existed on many of the Mediterranean Islands, especially in the Aegean, Ionian, and on the Island of Crete. Some of these islands were connected to Eurasia by land bridges, but some of the islands have not been connected to the mainland since the Miocene. With this in mind, there comes the possibility of these populations of Neanderthals being efficient in seafaring and having rather advanced watercraft compared to rudimentary rafts that would have been used by earlier human ancestors. With late Acheulean and Mousterian tools on many Greek islands it shows human activity on these islands.(Ferentinos, 2012) It becomes a major question of how did these toolmakers get on these islands that have not been connected to the mainland.

With the widespread of artefacts across many islands it becomes very unlikely that seafaring was not the cause. With artefacts dating possibly back to 110 ka, these Neanderthals could have been the first true seafaring hominins. It is proposed that reed-based boats would be the most likely type of watercraft used by seafaring Neanderthals and shows a significant cognitive ability of Neanderthals to construct rather complex tools and use them for a specialized purpose. The Greek islands and environment is proposed to be a good catalyst for seafaring as the landscape of as the islands were relatively close together and near the mainland as to provide a “nursery” of seafaring and the islands were large enough to have benefits for hunter-gatherers.(Broodbank, 2006)

The Denisovans do not have much in the way of a large body of archaeological record, but there is a piece of evidence that could support the Denisovans being capable of constructing a form of watercraft as we head back towards Wallacea where we first looked at Homo erectus crossing seaways. Assuming that Denisovans became widespread across Eastern Asia, they would have made their way into Southeastern Asia and towards Australia. Genetic testing reveals that populations in New Guinea and other areas east of the Wallace line have the highest proportion of Denisovan DNA with and begs the question of why. Marine crossings into Wallacea and beyond by Denisovans might be a factor in this phenomena.(Cooper, 2013) With very limited information on the Denisovans it is hard to draw a conclusion about the seafaring capabilities and of them. With what we know from Neanderthals on Greek Islands, it isn’t a long stretch to hypothesize that Denisovans were also taking advantage of a “nursery” of seafaring in the divide between Southeastern Asia and Australia.
With likely watercraft technology and possible limited seafaring capabilities in both Neanderthals and Denisovans shows that both groups had advanced cognition in able to construct boats and might have had the ability for some form of control over currents. However it wasn’t until anatomically modern Homo sapiens came “Out-of-Africa” did boats and watercraft become widespread. Bednarik’s third and fourth phases of human seafaring also comes after the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens from Africa as they begin to disperse across the globe and spread to far away lands such as Australia. Bednarik’s phases include sailing beyond the visible horizon with the capacity of carrying a large population and doing so with return trips. These leaps were made during the the Out-of-Africa migrations around 60-35ka.(Bednarik, 2001)

It is plausible that more archaic Homo sapiens in Africa developed boats and watercraft to navigate along rivers and along the coast and extensive use of shellfish by archaic Homo sapiens seems to suggest a connection with an aquatic environment which boats would be useful.(Volman, 1978) These technology needed by early Homo sapiens to spread across the globe would have to more advanced than it would be needed to just stay along the immediate coastline. With the mangrove rich Red Sea, Homo sapiens would have a good “nursery” for seafaring as they moved out of the African continent as begin to colonize the rest of the world starting with Arabia and the Levant.(Erlandson, 2015) The colonization of Oceania by Homo sapiens by around 40 ka tells of a strong possibility of advanced seafaring technology.

With the colonization of so many island groups, it would be extremely unlikely that this was by accident as proposed with Homo erectus’s crossing of the Wallace line. Crossing great distances such as to Australia and Madagascar shows more that just basic visible seafaring that was done by Neanderthals and possibly by Denisovans or even Homo erectus, it shows a forethought of travelling beyond the horizon and critical thinking of where land might be. It was the dawn of the sail as humans begin to harness the power of wind to travel.
There is still little evidence for depictions of boats in the archaeological record, yet we do know that Homo sapiens did have advanced sailing technology by the time of recorded history. With human societies across the globe, a numerous amount of watercraft designs arose by the time of recorded history. In ancient Mesopotamia you see reed boats, canoes, and sailboats all in the cradle of modern civilization by at least 3500 BCE. Other dawning civilizations also seemed to develop watercraft and basic seafaring without being connected to ancient Mesopotamia. From Eastern Africa to Scandinavia to the Americas boats had become a centerpiece of many peoples and come in a variety of forms. One of the most intriguing is Polynesian boats that were able to spread across the Pacific Ocean and possibly all the way from South America. This idea was set forward by evidence that links Polynesia with South America including chickens and sweet potatoes being found in the Pacific and in South America. Later research also suggests genetic links between some Polynesians and Native South Americans. With the Kon-Tiki expedition by Heyerdahl, it was shown that materials available to make it to Polynesia from South America during pre-Columbian times. With the known ability of Polynesians at sailing long distances, the possible connections between cultures seems to be heightened.

The Polynesian and South American exchange has been made famous by Heyerdahl’s expedition, but it wasn’t the origin of cultural exchange via boats. Many other cultures with boats could have had similar cultural exchanges with foreign lands and this eventually gives way to trade. Trade by use of watercraft likely would have emerged along riverways during the emergence of more recognizable human civilizations as settlements became more stabilized during the “Neolithic Revolution.” With this in mind, we now have boats as common multifunctional tools by the times of the earliest recorded history with texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh referring to a giant boat. Watercraft have now become advanced machinery that are sometimes powered by nuclear energy which is probably unimaginable to the first sailors as they drifted down a river.

With the creation of boats and watercraft hominins gained the ability to gain greater ability to access new resources. With these new tools, early humans began to explore new horizons as they spread across Afro-Eurasia and beyond. Multiple populations of ancient humans used watercraft and likely had limited seafaring abilities. Does this show a common origin or did these technologies and skills come congruently? Did some populations lose the ability to travel the oceans? Did the last remnants of ancient populations of humans such as Denisovans remain on islands after modern Homo sapiens dominated Afro-Eurasia? When did specific boat types come into existence? When exactly did the first sails go up to harness the wind? Why hasn’t there been nearly any boats depicted in prehistoric art, yet are a key feature in one of the first written texts? There are still many answers to many questions on watercraft and seafaring in prehistory and knowing the capabilities of different populations at different times might shed new light on old topics and is an area of research that is still poorly understood despite much work put into it.

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