Mankind’s First Island Voyages


Flores bamboo raft, 1970

Flores bamboo raft 1970Photo: Peter Hollinger

Would you have dared to cross the oceans in a primitive boat, long before navigational routes were charted, to an unknown destiny? Find out more about the earliest sea voyages in history. Homo erectus rafting to undiscovered islands barely visible on the horizon is more than a courageous and dangerous sea voyage. It is a fascinating journey into the evolution of cooperative social behavior and the cognitive capacities of the human mind.

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First Mariners Project / Replica Voyage to Lombok –

The First Mariners Project (FMP) not only studies the fossil and archeological evidence for earliest Homo erectus in Indonesia, but has also built replicas of the rafts believed used by H. erectus to ‘sail’ among the islands of Wallacea.

Soon after the successful journey of the bamboo raft Nale Tasih 2 to Australia (EG article is forthcoming), the First Mariners Project decided to replicate a cross channel raft journey from Bali to Lombok. This voyage was likely the first of two legs in the voyage that brought H. erectus to Flores. This voyage is also believed to be the first ocean voyage route in history for which there is at least circumstantial evidence. There are hundreds of bamboo species in SE Asia, and in the absence of direct archeological evidence, bamboo is the logical choice for logs with which to build small and medium size rafts. Curing takes 4-6 months and care must be taken to avoid beetle infestations and cracking in the sun.

Long term planning is unavoidable and that tells us something very important about H. erectus cognition.

Indonesian Bamboo

Indonesian BambooPhoto: mikeintokyo

In March, 1999, an 11.4 m bamboo raft was constructed by six local boat builders at Padangbai, a small town in eastern Bali which is the ferry port for travel to Lombok. The FMP used only natural binding materials: split rattan, vine, and gemuti, a palm-like fibre. Oars were made from bulalu, a local softwood tree and thwart timbers were made from canari, a regional hardwood. A frame supported a sunroof of woven palm leaves, which also functioned as a sail as it could be positioned to catch a westerly breeze. Quickly completed, the Nale Tasih 3 was towed to Pula Giliselang at the eastern end of Bali. The west coast of Lombok was 35 km away; six oarsmen would provide propulsion power.

Moving east, a speed of 3.2 knots was reached in shallow waters. The 1300’ deepwater channel proved to be a serious barrier as every effort to row against the northward current proved impossible. The voyage was abandoned in bad weather 15 km from the coast of Lombok.

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Gunung Agung – Bali’s largest volcano

Gunung Agung – Bali’s largest volcanoPhoto: Doug and Kyle Hopkins

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The Nale Tasih 4 would be the raft for the next attempt. Raft design was further simplified and there would be no sail and no device for steering. Twelve paddlers would provide the propulsion. Cured, Balinese bamboo can carry 104-108% of its own weight before it is submerged. Twenty nine bamboo stalks with lengths up to 12 meters each were the minimal requirement. Work started in mid January, 2000.

Finished 70 days later, the Nale Tasih 3 was 12 meters long and weighed 1080 kg. Calamus sp provided split rattan. Replicas of Lower Paleolithic stone tools of the type found in the oldest archeology sites in Indonesia – especially Flores – were used wherever possible. Bamboo stalks for the raft platform could be chopped down in 3-6 minutes. Paddles were made from green Acadia wood. Only two were made using only stone tools from start to finish, the remainder were roughly shaped with steel parangs, then finished with stone tools. Lashings were fastened from Calamus (split rattan) and handmade cordage from gemuti was used for less important items. It took 3 days to finish a paddle.

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Bali – Gunung Agung and Batur volcanoes

Bali – Gunung Agung and Batur volcanoesPhoto: NASA/JPL/NIMA

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Early on the morning of January 31, the Nale Tasih 4 was towed to the tiny rock islet of Pula Gilibiaha and loaded offshore. Twelve paddlers reached a speed above 3 knots, with maximum speed over 4.1 knots. But once again, the deep water channel would prove to be a major challenge. When a water depth of 1,000’ was reached, there was serious chop in the water, very strong currents and waves of 1.5 meters. The Nale Tasih 4 often could make no progress and a Balinese paddler collapsed and had to be replaced and transferred to a support ship. However, the southwest wind turned to the west, seas and current subsided and the coast of Lombok was now visible. Landfall was made on the west coast at Pula Trewangan. 12 hours of exhausting paddling was required to travel 51 km.

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Lombok Island

Lombok IslandPhoto: Doug and Kyle Hopkins

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The extreme challenge of crossing from Bali to Lombok was very clear. The exact location for launching the raft was very important. Deep channel currents could not be predicted in advance, and at any hour they could force the raft north or south and make landfall on Lombok impossible. Granted the challenges of the Lombok Strait, but note that Bali is the easternmost extension of the Indonesian mainland and that Flores is visible from Lombok. While Sulawesi is a theoretical alternative to Bali as an embarkation locality, there are no archeological sites on Sulawesi that can be dated to the Lower or Middle Pleistocene, while Java had been occupied by H. erectus perhaps as early as 1.5 mya.

H. erectus did reach Flores and Timor with groups of sufficient size to establish long term communities and successive generations. Archeology sites in the Soa Basin of Flores tell us that H. erectus communities were established there by 850,000 BP at the end of the Lower Pleistocene. We can now refer to long term planning, conceptualization of discrete goals and determination as behavioral attributes of H. erectus.

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Tangaroa / Ecuador balsa logs for raft

Tangaroa / balsa logs for raftPhoto: tangaroa.nettblogg

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Bednarik of the First Mariners Project estimates the minimum travel distance to an unseen island to be 200 km; the direct line – shortest distance as the ‘crow flies’ – is not relevant in the ‘real’ world. Ocean voyaging to an unseen island may not have occurred until the first humans reached Australia, perhaps much earlier than the oft quoted date of ~60,000 BP. By 27,000 BP, twenty islands in and around Wallacea had been settled, almost all of which fit the requirements for ‘out of sight’. Islands north of Australia were also occupied: Monte Bello Islands (120 km from Australia), Gebe Island west of New Guinea, New Ireland, east of New Guinea and Buka Island, which is 180 km from New Ireland.

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Tangaroa / Ecuador balsa logs soaking in fresh water prior to building raft

Tangaroa in  Ecuador/balsa logs soaking in fresh waterPhoto: tangaroa.nettblogg

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The Earliest ‘Out of Site’ Voyages –

The earliest documented island ‘blind ocean crossing’ is the settlement of Manus in the Admiralty Islands (Papua New Guinea), which occurred ~12,000 B.C. in the late Upper Pleistocene. This voyage would have encompassed 200-300 km in total, with a blind crossing of 60-90 km midway, whether the departure was from the north coast of Sahul, or New Hanover at the northern end of the Admiralty Islands. At the end of the ‘day’, the capability that allowed such a voyage to be completed successfully would have increased confidence in navigation parameters such a ocean currents, bird observations, sun, phases of the moon, brightest planets and stars.

This archeology provides some direct evidence about the cognitive capacities of H. erectus. Deliberately avoiding the taxonomic debate about the exact species attribution to be applied to the hominids found with Lower Paleolithic cultural remains, we see evidence for symbolic thought when examining Acheulian Culture beads, and the few pictographs dated to the Middle Pleistocene. The use of mineral pigments, creation of portable engravings, composite artifacts and collection of crystals and fossils tell us that all H. erectus ‘thinking’ was not strictly ‘concrete’ and could engage symbolism.

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Ancient Ancestors and Prehistoric Men from Australopithecines to Homo sapiens

Ancient Ancestors and Prehistoric MenPhoto: Artist/Cambodia postage stamps

Upper Paleolithic dates notwithstanding for the settlement of Manus, the stone tool technology was Lower Paleolithic in form and structure and little changed from that found in the Indonesian Middle Pleistocene. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that such tools, whatever the limitations we attribute to them, sufficed for the challenges at hand. This basic tool technology also lends indirect support to the conclusion that these early seafarers were building and using rafts, not dugout canoes that were propelled with carefully shaped paddles. What also sufficed was the organization and communication capabilities of these people.

Paleoanthropologists do not believe that the H. erectus larynx, throat anatomy, cognitive capacity and communication capabilities were identical to that of H. sapiens. Assuredly speech was less complex, and whether H. erectus communication modules fit our definitions of language with grammar and syntax can never be known.

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Creativity / Cognition

Creativity / CognitionPhoto: UC Davis/Neuroscience Graduate Program

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The communication abilities of H. erectus apparently sufficed to organize a group, build a raft and travel upon the sea. The challenge is too complex and dangerous to go it alone, and a hominid with highly developed social organization would be prone to have this adventure be a group effort. Building a large raft required planning, then an organised execution of the plan. Integrated, cooperative group behaviour would also be necessary for paddling the raft upon the ocean with travel oriented toward an agreed upon objective.

It is easy to imagine some degree of interpersonal communication, and the acknowledgment of leadership as well, both of which maximize one approach to organising and integrating tasks. A sophisticated spoken language is not necessary to execute complex tasks within a group. Basic vocalizations combined with hand signals might suffice to engage activities that require planning, organization, task integration between several individuals and then sequential execution towards an agreed upon objective.

Think for a moment about sign language, then play this game with some friends. Choose a complex task, agree upon the end point of its execution, then proceed to articulate the process without writing any words (simple pictures or diagrams in sand or dirt are OK), nor speaking anything but the simplest of one or two syllable words. This is a crude simulation for the communication possibly used by several H. erectus adults when building a seaworthy raft. Yes, we are guessing but we are compelled to do so. The circumstantial case for sea voyages in the Middle Pleistocene is compelling and we must ask the question: “How were these first sea voyages accomplished?”

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Flores / north coast

Flores - north coastPhoto: Doug and Kyle Hopkins

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First Mariners, First Voyages – Chronological Development

1. Approximately, 850,000 B.P. early ocean coast fishing is well established with small rafts or boats. The beginnings of this activity can be approximated and require hominid populations living on the coast of a large lake and/or ocean. Evidence need not be fossil hominid bones. Tools and campfire charcoal, indeed anything that is clearly of hominid origin, tell us that ‘Kilroy Was Here’. Bigger fish are usually far enough offshore to provide the impetus to develop navigation skills and build larger and stronger watercraft.

2. About the same time – 850,000 BC – deliberate decisions are made to voyage to visible islands for reasons that may be no more than interest in a new locality for food. Extremely difficult to document because time on ‘new island’ is brief, and few artifacts and evidence are left behind.

3. 850,000 to ~10,000 B.P. Deliberate group decision are made to settle visible, offshore islands. Expeditions of several watercraft required, as are females who can reproduce. Travel and occupation of the Indonesian island of Flores is an earliest example of this stage.

4. About 60,000 BP, decisions were made to travel over the ocean towards an unknown, unseen land mass. Throughout history, there have been adventurous individuals who ‘go over the hill’ – ‘over the horizon’ – for no reason except curiosity. Some over-the-horizon land masses do provide evidence of their existence if they are not too distant. Smoke from wild fires and land mass cloud patterns are two examples. Some courageous explorers return to the clan and village; the first navigators are now present in the culture. Early journeys to unseen lands may have been short exploratory visits at first. Later, these ‘new lands’ were permanently settled with a planned expedition that included females of an age where they could reproduce. The initial occupation of Australia is a good example of this stage.

Ecuador – Manteño raft, 1626

Ecuador – Manteno raftPhoto:

5. About 35,000 B.P. navigation knowledge, individual and clan capacity for long term planning and preparation accumulate to a ‘critical mass’ in tandem with evolving raft, then dugout canoe, design. The ability to safely undertake long voyages is developed and is now a cultural option. Larger, stronger boats are required to undertake voyages in difficult waters with strong, and often unpredictable, currents. These larger craft, which were likely still rafts, also need a steering mechanism. Steering need not involve a rudder. Anything that can offer a surface to the wind will prove valuable as a primitive sail. A piece of flat material dragged behind the vessel suffices, as do large palm fronds mounted near the bow, or a boat’s cabin. A sail with rigging is not necessary for the first stage of steering developments, and there is no direct evidence that boats anywhere had sails with rigging until after the last ice age had ended.

Long journeys to unseen targets can be undertaken as several cultural and behavioral capabilities are now in place. Navigators have new confidence in their expertise and the structural features of the ‘new’ larger, well built rafts and later – canoes and catamarans. Motivation is a key factor, particularly if there is no visible evidence for the unseen land mass. As population densities increased on some islands, inter-island warfare and resource stress catalyze activities that can lead to one way voyaging and larger expeditions with an explicit mandate to colonize a ‘new’ island and not return.

Ra II (Thor Hyerdahl)sails Morocco to Barbados / 1970

Ra II (Thor Hyerdahl)sails Morocco to Barbados / 1970Photo: Kon Tiki Museum

6. >35,000 B.P to Historic times. Navigation and seafaring traditions continue to develop. Navigation expertise would evolve and soon make use of every available source of information: stars, sun, moon, wind, clouds, bird flight, ocean currents etc. Confidence builds to undertake ‘blind’ voyages to unseen target islands and very long journeys of hundreds of kilometers to exceedingly small targets. Soon, such ocean voyaging will be ‘two way’. If the founding population is not prohibited by circumstances that generated the long distance settlement voyage, representatives will return and visit the original homeland. This final stage in the development of indigenous seafaring culminates with the Polynesian expeditions that visited and established communities on all important islands of the Pacific Ocean, starting with the journeys of the Lapita people c.1500 B.C.

The navigational expertise achieved by the Polynesians would have no equal until the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the world in 1519-1522 A.D.; albeit only one of three ships and less than two dozen of the original crew returned to Europe. If the weak evidence for ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Romans and/or Bronze Age British peoples reaching the New World is ever substantiated by unequivocal archeology, then candidates for the first crossings of the Atlantic Ocean will have to be revised. Earliest Pacific crossings could have been undertaken by several South American civilizations. A trans-Pacific journey by a high civilization would have to be west to east and could not have predated the T’ang Dynasty in China.

In this glimpse into the earliest sea voyages in history, the rafting to islands by Homo erectus, there are profound implications for the evolution of cooperative social behavior and the cognitive capacities of the human mind.

This is the second in a series of EG articles that discusses the latest archeology evidence for first mariners and what that data tells us about evolving human cognition in the earliest members of genus Homo.

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Sources –

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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