Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Prehistoric Exploration

Ralph Buttigieg
Sydney, NSW

One of the great explorers of the 20th Century was the Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl. He believed that prehistoric societies were capable of trans oceanic travel and trade. He would point to similarities in language and artifacts on different continents as well as legends of great sea voyages as evidence. In 1947 Thor and a small crew set sail across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft to show that Polynesians may have originated from South America. In latter years he sailed an Egyptian type reed boat, the Ra, across the Atlantic to South America.

His book “Kon-Tiki” is a true exploration classic, still in print its one of the touch stones of my generation. Get a group of people of a certain age together and you can bet a large percentage would have read it. I think it must have been in every school library in Australia.

Of course none of these expeditions prove prehistoric societies actually had intercontinental trade. Although the discovery of traces of nicotine and cocaine in the mummy of Ramses II and tobacco beetles in Egyptian graves sure appear convincing to a layman like me. However, the Kon-Tiki and Ra expeditions traveled with the prevailing currents and winds, they were one way journeys, If transoceanic trade was possible then the vessels had to get back.

Now another group of explorers are trying to show two way trade was possible. The Abora III expedition is trying to sail a reed boat from North America to Spain.

From explorersweb:

Now a ten-person crew including Tormod and led by Dominique Gorlitz is out to prove that others may have taken that historic intercontinental voyage far before Columbus — up to 14,000 years ago — by crossing the North Atlantic in a prehistoric-style boat made of reeds.

Gorlitz and his crew left port in New York City bound for Spain in the ABORA III, a boat made from reeds harvested at Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Since its July 11 departure, the boat has traveled 188 miles into the Atlantic.

“The prevailing opinion is that the North Atlantic passage was not possible 14,000 years ago,” Gorlitz says. “And if the return journey from the Americas into the Old World was impossible, so too was regular commerce between the two continents. But every assumption is valid only when the opposite is proven to be untrue.”...

Aside from the heady implications the completion of their voyage could entail, first the crew needs to deal with the crossing itself.

“Waves have been reaching 10 feet and winds have been blowing up to 17 knots per hour,” the crew reported this week. “Handling the fragile boat demands conservative judgment. Last night, Görlitz had no choice but to partly lower the sail in order to temporarily reduce the speed of the ABORA III. The boat performed well in the challenging conditions, but left many a crewmember sleepless as ABORA III rolled heavily in the waves.”

Certainly a successful voyage would show that primitive boats were capable o the trips but of course , not prove it was actually done. To my mind there remains one big question, how did they navigate? Could ancient sailors successfully navigate the Atlantic to allow trade? I realize the Polynesians could sail the Pacific without instruments but the Atlantic is a rough ocean I'm not sure their methods would be suitable.

Maybe they did have instruments after all. Crichton Miller makes the case that the ancient Celtic Cross was a navigation tool. Perhaps it was, or perhaps Mr Miller is being too imaginative. I not qualified to have a proper opinion but as recent discoveries show the ancient world can surprise us .