Ships of History – Early Boats (The Pacific & The Americas)

This is the start of what will hopefully be an ongoing series of blog posts on various boats, ships, and stuff that travels the seas.  My hope is to build a sort of catalogue of the various types of vessels that have sailed the oceans throughout history.  Some posts may cover broad classes and design philosophies, while others may focus on specific vessels themselves. 

Caveat: I am NOT a naval/marine engineer and I DO NOT know the first thing about boat/shipbuilding apart from the fact that they shouldn’t sink.  Furthermore, I am NOT an archaeologist and I will be covering various eras in history, many of which I have very little knowledge or expertise in, but I’ll do my best to provide accurate information.  In short, I’m no expert and I intend to focus on broad ideas.

In this post, we’ll be looking at: Early Boats in the Pacific and the Americas: Prehistory to ~3,000 BCE.

Someone…Somewhere…Had an Idea

Early humans may have taken to the water for any number of reasons.  Archaeologists have speculated that those reasons could have been anything from hunting, fishing, or the simple urge to explore.  Whether intentionally or by mistake, at some point, people must have realized that, when compared to swimming, they could travel over water for longer distances by constructing a vessel out of materials that do not sink.  Perhaps some prehistoric person once noticed a fallen tree floating down a river one day and pondered, “I wonder if I can ride that thing downstream?”  I don’t know if this person was so eloquent, but maybe they just fell into the river one day and grabbed on to a piece of floating wood to keep from drowning.

Rafts & Canoes in the Pacific

Whatever the case, what we do know about early boats comes largely from the extrapolation of the movement of people.  The peopling of Oceania and the islands of the Pacific, in particular, do provide us with some clues.  It’s thought that sea levels during the last ice age in SE Asia were around 120 meters lower than they are in the present day.  Since the water was locked up in ice, the islands of western Indonesia were connected with the mainland in an area known as Sundaland.  Similarly, Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania formed a single landmass known as Sahul.  Between Sundaland and Sahul there existed a body of water which was crossed by people approximately 50,000 years ago.  However, the oldest stone tools for making dugout canoes are only around 20,000 years old, so these people likely made the trip on rafts made of logs together and using poles and paddles for propulsion.  It’s unlikely that they used sails since the earliest evidence of those dates from around 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.  However, navigation would’ve been doable since a chain of islands that are visible from one another stretches from New Guinea east through the Bismarcks.  About 29,000 years ago, people managed to cross from New Ireland in the Bismarcks to Buka in the western Solomons (Paine, 2013, p. 14 – 15).  Further expansion eastward from the Solomons is thought to have began around 1200 BCE with the continued spread of the Austronesian people, who are thought to have originated in southern China and spread to the islands in the SE Pacific, and are noted for their distinct Lapita ware (Paine, 2013, p. 15 – 16).  Sometime between 1000 BCE and 500 BCE, seafarers had discovered routes from Fiji and Tonga to Samoa and on to the Cook Islands. Separately, from 1000 BCE people from the Philippines and Indonesia settled the Northern Marianas and Carolines. By 750 CE, the Hawaiian archipelago and Easter Island were being populated (Lavery, 2019, p. 15). By the time the Austronesian peoples began to populate the islands of the Pacific, they likely had developed canoes and sails.  Knowledge of the boat building techniques of these people are obscure since they didn’t have a written language and traditions were passed down orally.  However, descriptions from European explorers in the 16th century note that the vessels tended to be of a shell-first construction.  That is, planks were lashed together to create a hull shape and then frames or ribs were inserted to strengthen it. 

Expansion of Polynesian people across the Pacific Ocean (Irwin, 2017).
A modern example of an outrigger canoe with crab claw sail.

The single-hulled canoes were poor for ocean voyaging, so stability was added by yoking two hulls together or by adding outriggers.  Often platforms would be erected between the hulls or on top of the outrigger’s transverse beams in order to create space and shelter for cargo, passengers, and crew.  It’s thought that Polynesians settled the Pacific using double canoes between 15 – 27m in length and capable of carrying enough people and supplies for establishing a community on an uninhabited island after voyages lasting up to six weeks (Paine, 2013, 20).  As for the sails themselves, it’s likely that they used crab claw sails.  Outrigger canoe sailing remains popular to this day and many enthusiasts have made reconstructions of such vessels that were likely used in prehistoric times.  Indeed, when I was living in Hawaii, all I had to do was look out the window and count at least half-a-dozen outrigger canoes being paddled or sailed around.  It’s just a type of vessel that’s heavily associated with Polynesian culture and the Pacific.

Native Boats in South America

It’s thought that late in the first millennium BCE and onward until European contact, the natives of the Pacific coast of Latin America, between Ecuador and Mexico, were trading with those in the Caribbean.  16th century Spanish sailors noted a variety of vessels.  Of the more simple variety, floats made out of bundled reeds were found in all regions bordering the Pacific, including places such as Lake Titicaca, and in the western areas of Bolivia and Argentina.  Natives in northern Ecuador used log canoes and those in Chile used inflated seal and sea lion hides. 

More complex boats included the Chilean dalca which were of a sewn-plank variety, and of course, the log rafts made out of balsa wood logs, aptly named, balsa (Spanish for raft).  These rafts usually had an odd number of logs (7, 9, or 11) with the longest in the middle and the shortest on the sides.  Apart from paddles, they commonly had fore-and-aft triangular sails, or more rarely, square sails.  Steering was accomplished by raising or lowering daggerboards called guares (Paine, 2013, p. 26 – 27). 

Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft made of balsa logs.

These balsas are probably most well-known in the West due to Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947 where he demonstrated the possibility of sailing such a vessel across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia in order to support his theory that the Pacific was peopled by natives from South America rather than the more conventional theory of people from the east.  Similar expeditions have recreated the voyage, including the Tangaroa in 2006 of which Thor’s grandson, Olav Heyerdahl, participated in.

Dugouts, Canoes, and Kayaks in North America

Apart from rafts, some of the oldest known boats date back to around the 8th millennium BCE and were likely dugout canoes constructed out of hollowed out tree trunks (Angelucci & Cucari, 1975, p. 9).  The world’s oldest boat, the Pesse Canoe, was discovered in the Netherlands in 1955 and is dated to around 8,000 BCE (The Drents Museum, n.d.).  Dugout canoes are thought to precede the use of metal tools.  Instead, fire and stone tools were probably used.  An appropriately-sized log would have its bark stripped and then fire would be used to burn a section of the log.  The stone tools would then be used to scrape and hack away at the charred area until a cavity was formed.  This process would be repeated until the cavity was large enough, and then frames would be inserted to maintain the shape of the canoe.  Planks or strakes would be added to increase the freeboard (Paine, 2013, p. 29).  Eventually, people learned to shape the ends of the canoe to create a more hydrodynamically efficient shape, effectively creating a prow.  Canoes used by tribes in the Amazon are known to be very streamlined (Angelucci & Cucari, 1975, p. 11 -12).   Evidence of dugout canoes has been found on numerous continents. 

An example of a dugout canoe

In North America, some of the oldest dugouts have been found in Florida, where more than 400 have been uncovered.   Some of these date to around 3,000 BCE and possibly older (Laskow, 2017).  However, the shape of these dugouts suggest that they were used for inland navigation and not the open ocean (Paine, 2013, p. 29).   In contrast to Florida, logboats have been used for navigation up and down the coast of the Pacific Northwest due to the abundance of cedar trees which have trunks large enough to create the deep hulls necessary for oceangoing canoes.  Such vessels were used for long-distance trade, whale hunting, and warfare.  They measured about 12m long, 2m wide, and could carry 20-30 people, including cargo.  Larger ones measured up to 25m long. (Paine, 2013, p. 29 – 30).  

Native Americans of the eastern woodlands, stretching from Newfoundland across most of Canada and down through New England, the northern Appalachians, into the Midwest, are known for their birchbark canoes which were largely used on inland waters.  These canoes were made of the bark from paper birch (Betula papyrifera).  Bark would be stripped from the tree and sewn together with roots from a black spruce.  They were made watertight with spruce gum and formed the outer shell of the canoe.  Frames would then be fitted into the “bark skin” (Paine, 2013, p. 32 – 33).  Essentially, these are the stereotypical canoes most people associate with the Native Americans.

A birch bark canoe in 1910.

Further north in the arctic and subarctic, it’s thought that maritime traditions began around 6,000 BCE in the Aleutian Islands.  Unlike the dugouts, these people created composite boats made of seal, walrus, or polar bear skin stretched over a wooden frame.    Kayaks and baidarkas had one or more cockpits, respectively, and were mainly used for hunting.  Umiaks, on the other hand, were large ,open boats capable of carrying multiple passengers and their cargo for walrus and sea lion hunts.  These vessels are generally lightweight and flat-bottomed making it easy to drag them over the ice.  Hunting excursions involved numerous vessels, and kayaks would be lashed together for stability in rough weather (Paine, 2013, p. 30 -31).

An umiak

Conclusion

What is so interesting about these early boats is the sheer variety and ingenuity in how they were built.  Naturally, much that comes from the necessity of using what materials are readily available to construct a vessel .  The Pacific Islanders made great voyages in outrigger canoes using some of the most advanced navigational techniques of their time, while the South Americans made balsa wood rafts.  The North American natives ranged up and down rivers and coastlines in canoes, and the peoples in the frozen arctic hunted large sea mammals in skin-covered kayaks and umiaks.  It says a great deal about the people that made them and what value their society put on trade, travel, and work on the water.

In the next post of Ships of History, we’ll examine early boats in the land of the Pharaohs and pyramids. 

References:

Angelucci, E. & Cucari, A. (1975). Ships. Milan, IT: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.

Irwin, G. (2017). The direction and timing of settlement. Retrieved from https://teara.govt.nz/en/map/1772/the-direction-and-timing-of-settlement

Laskow, S. (2017, October 5). Florida Has More Archeological Canoes Than Anywhere Else in the World. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/dugouts-florida-archaeology-canoes-native-americans

Lavery, B. (2019). A Short History of Seafaring. New York, NY: DK Publishing.

Paine, L. (2013). The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

The Drents Museum. (n.d.). The Pesse canoe. Retrieved from https://drentsmuseum.nl/en/in-the-spotlight-top-exhibits/pesse-canoe.


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