Palaeolithic Seafaring

How We Mastered The Waves and Colonised The World

Originally published in Man’s World Edition 2 and reprinted with kind permission of the editor. You can read it, along with dozens of incredible articles, here.


"Ships are the nearest things to dreams that hands have ever made, for somewhere deep in their oaken hearts the soul of a song is laid." - Robert N. Rose

One of the ultimate expressions of the heroic soul in primitive man is that he stared across a violently stormy body of water, and knowing all the dangers still lashed trees and branches with rawhide and set out to master his destiny. This is something of life at its most vital, most energetic, most daring and ambitious. The instinct to expand and explore. The world would be a far smaller place if our ancestors had meekly accepted their lot around the savannah watering holes.

So what do we actually know by way of real evidence of the earliest seafaring? We are hobbled by the almost total absence of organic preservation from the deepest Palaeolithic. No wood, leather or hide artefacts remain. This makes finding boats or sailing equipment virtually impossible. Instead a fruitful approach has been to combine the climatology data of which areas of land would have been islands and infer from any human remains that they must have sailed there.

One of the earliest pieces of evidence in this line comes from the Kagayan Valley in northern Luzon, an island in the Philippines. Remains of butchered megafauna and stone tools have dated the arrival of Homo erectus, or potentially even the Denisovans on the island to 709,000 years ago. This is an astonishingly archaic date for a sea crossing. The simian figures of erectus bands, perhaps with language, being capable enough to plan and execute such a voyage seems beyond what we understand of their capacities. Yet the entire continent of Oceania, with the Pacific to the east and the Indian ocean to the west, is the stage for a hugely complicated history of human migration.

At various points no less than five hominid species travelled and flourished in the archipelagos and warm sheltered coral bays. Potentially as late as 15,000 BC Denisovans and modern humans were breeding entirely new branches of the family tree. The sea levels around South East Asia were significantly lower than today, making it possible to either walk to Borneo or into Taiwan and cross to Luzon. But no matter how we look at it, the earliest crossings involved a deliberate and organised mission to traverse a body of water and colonise another land.

The fact that the earliest sea voyages were undertaken by Homo erectus, rather than our own species has irritated archaeologists and proved controversial, with some saying that they were carried to Luzon on tsunami debris! The evidence continues to build, with stone tools found on the Arabian island of Socotra dating to anywhere between 800,000 and one million years ago, and more tools on the island of Crete, dated to around 130,000 BP. These dates don’t fit anything other than erectus or perhaps in the case of Crete, Neanderthals. In the background of these arguments is the spectre of the ridiculed ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’, the idea that humans evolved under pressure to become fishers and seashore foragers with unique adaptations for the water.

While the academy is fiercely hostile to the idea, the evidence in favour keeps mounting. Humans have the unusual ability to voluntarily control our breathing, making it possible to dive to great depths, and with training to stay underwater for over ten minutes. We require iodine in our diets and can process high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Our bodies are streamlined enough to swim, dive and wade with a minimum of instruction and we are born with a fatty vernix layer which is chemically similar to other sea mammals. Added to this all human infants possess an innate diving reflex for several months after birth, a deep physiological adaptation which protects the child from drowning, lowers the heart rate and releases additional red blood cells. Curiously the presence of this reflex never seems to attract much scientific attention and its existence is still a mystery. Taken together it’s not difficult to make the case that early hominids were familiar and comfortable with diving and swimming. It only needs a group of young men watching birds out at sea to hatch a plot to sail on some lashed logs.

Neanderthals are another candidate for seafaring before modern humans. Their Mousterian style tools have been unearthed on the Greek islands of Zakynthos, Kefalonia and Lemnos, as well as potentially Crete. The cope pushback has been to say that Neanderthals swum to these islands, but this seems a stretch. Given that they were capable of distilling tar in oxygen free kilns, carving fire-hardened wooden spears, crafting leather working tools from bone and identifying manganese dioxide as a fire starter, it’s not too difficult to imagine them building boats and exploring the Mediterannean. Their entire way of life was based on extreme physical exertion and danger, using short spears to hunt megafauna up close. Their injuries are still gruesome to think about millennia later - multiple limb fractures, broken facial bones, rounds of rib breaks, missing teeth, deafness and blindness. A culture forged in such immense hardships seems unlikely to shrink from a challenge.

By the time we reach the story of modern humans the world had already seen seafaring, but over the coming years Homo sapiens took it to new levels. With the sea levels low enough to link Borneo, Java, Sumatra and the Malay Archipelago into a landmass called Sundaland and the coast of Australia extended outwards to New Guinea in a shelf named Sahul, the shorter distances between the islands made Palaeolithic voyaging a realistic prospect. Several routes have been proposed which match with archaeological remains potentially as early as 76,000 BP. Despite this evidence there have been some truly ridiculous attempts by archaeologists to fend off this narrative, including the scenario involving a pregnant woman washed out by a strong current or people clinging to bamboo mats caught up in ferocious waves.

The presence of deep sea fish such as tuna, mackerel and shark at many sites should finally dispel such idiocy and most researchers accept that the Palaeo-Papuans/Australians intentionally colonised their island chains. What cultural impetus drove them to push further and further into Oceania we’ll never know, but an expansive energy compelled them outwards and downwards. This first wave of migrants reached Tasmania in roughly 40,000 BP. This culture was evidently exploiting a broad spectrum of foods, from nuts and tubers inland to deep sea fishing and coastal foraging. We don’t know what kind of boats and vessels were used, as none have survived in the record. What we do know is that by the time of European contact, the boat technology of southern Australia was too simple to make their ancestral voyages, suggesting that they had lost or forgotten a more sophisticated sailing culture. Intriguing hints of these vanished vessels may have been preserved, etched into the walls at Gwion Gwion, possibly as early as 20,000 BP.

The second wave of migration in Oceania occurred around 3000-1500 BC, a much later time period, corresponding to the Asian Neolithic. These settlers brought pottery, rice and new sailing technologies with them and the consensus is that they expanded outwards from Taiwan, down into the Philippines and then split into both Borneo and east into New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. The migrations continued as they made contact with Sri Lanka, South India and most incredibly, Madagascar. The Austronesian maritime trade network was the world’s first true era of globalisation, as the Romans eventually made contact around the Red Sea and the Polynesians almost certainly landed in South America.

While most pursuits of prehistoric sailing and seacraft rely on glimpses and flashes of evidence, the culture which is forever a byword for voyaging is the Polynesian. Their sailing technology has survived into modern times and their skill at star and wave navigation is unparalleled given that they were a Neolithic culture. The Polynesian Pacific triangle of islands is a territory of 10 million square miles, with the remotest outcrop - Easter Island, sits alone in a circle of four million square miles. If there ever were a true ‘Sea People’ they would be the closest contenders. Captain Cook described the scenes as he encountered the shores of Hawaii, recalling how the islanders swam out to their boat in such numbers and with such grace that they looked like shoals of fish. European explorers routinely extolled their physical power and beauty:

. . as a race they were tall, shapely, and muscular, with good features and kind eyes. In symmetry of form the women have scarcely been surpassed, if equalled, while the men excelled in muscular strength”

In order to colonise the tens of thousands of islands in the Pacific, they made use of stick charts, oral compasses, noted swells, currents, the flight patterns of birds and the latitude of islands. Their stellar compasses made use of up to 150 stars. They used celestial navigation and famously even the swinging of their balls to help aid their direction. As well as making it to Hawaii and South America, there are settlements on the Auckland Islands and a tale of the Ui-te-Rangiora: a story of mountains of ice, bitter cold and snow, hinting that they may have sailed to Antarctica. The development of the catamaran and the outrigger vessels, along with the first true sails, allowed them to sail deep into the open ocean.

Meanwhile, in Europe, as the glacier ice melted and flooded Doggerland, opening up the continent as a mosaic of rivers, bogs, coastline and lakes, the people of the Mesolithic were developing their own boat building cultures. One of the earliest known production sites comes from a submerged site on the Isle of Wight. Several dugout canoe vessels have been found in Holland and Denmark, with at least one Ertebolle boat burial. Decorated paddles have been found on other Danish sites. We don’t yet know how sophisticated their sailing methods were, but we know that people were able to colonise Ireland from the Scottish islands and that Ertebolle vessels were possibly bringing in whales.

Sealing became a major source of food as the ice receded around Norway and the Baltic, with hunters following the coastlines. The Holocene proved to be the impetus for sailing developments globally, as water levels rose and landscapes became wetter. Native Americans and Inuits made use of kayaks and birch bark canoes, rock art in Azerbaijan and Korea show reed boats and whaling; coracles and curraghs are invented independently. The outpouring of creativity and technology with the warmer climate spurred the creation of more complex vessels and by the time of the Bronze Age we see powerful ocean going ships, like the Dover Boat found in Kent in the UK, dated to 1500 BC and made from oak planks. Only typically British health-and-safety regulations have prevented archaeologists from sailing a replica across the Channel.

Surveying the full scope of human seafaring, starting with our ancestral cousins, it's easy to focus on the evidence that we have, which is the evidence for success. Forgotten are the innumerable attempts, partial journeys and catastrophes which must have been the norm for early sea adventures. The Neolithic ships which crossed the Indian Ocean to Madagascar must have been just one in countless years of missions. It must have been a regular sight to see young men waving from the surf as they disappeared to the horizon and were never heard of again. A brazen defiance of death and drowning must have coursed through such people, we can scarcely imagine the existential horror and excitement of a stretch of water, not knowing what might be over the waves. A reckless and restless spirit is bestowed on people who take to the sea like this and we can, and should, aspire to summon these energies into the here and now.