In Search of the World's Most Ancient Mariners

No Comments

19 October 2007 (Science) – Michael Balter reviews the latest scientific opinions about the nature of early human seafaring, covering when the earliest boats were made, migration into Australia, and the time period over which the Sahul and Sunda shelves were colonised.

It seems to be that a major problem with sifting through the evidence is that much of where the evidence would theoretically lie is now underwater. Sea levels in Southeast Asia were very much lower as recently as 6,000 years ago (see Sahul Time for an idea of how much land mass is now underwater), which would make former coastal sites – where we expect to find most of the archaeological material – inaccessible with our current technology. The huge difference of sea levels in the last 50,000 years presents special barriers and repercussions to our understanding of the prehistory of the region – something that I’m beginning to encounter with my own research.

Note: Science is a subscribtion-only magazine.

In Search of the World’s Most Ancient Mariners
by Michael Balter

We humans are terrestrial animals, yet we spend a lot of time gazing wistfully over bodies of water. We flock to the seashore or the lakeside at the slightest sign of mild weather and celebrate the romance of the sea in art and literature. Early seafaring was central to the spread of civilization, and today thousands of vessels ply the world’s oceans, searching for fish and
hauling billions of tons of cargo. Despite the importance of seafaring to culture, however, archaeologists are not sure how, when, and why humans first ventured into the oceans. The earliest known boats, hollowed out logs found in the Netherlands and in France, are at most 10,000 years old.

And the earliest indirect evidence for sea crossings in Europe—human occupation of Cyprus and the Greek island of Milos—dates to only 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. Yet ancient archaeological sites in present-day Australia, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian islands suggest sea crossings at least 45,000 years ago, soon after modern humans first left Africa.

Related Books:
Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology) by M. Oxenham
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by P. Bellwood