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    Navigational reinvention
    From: Peter Fogg
    Date: 2004 Nov 26, 09:06 +1100

    Trevor J. Kenchington wrote, on Thu Nov 18 2004 - 23:52:10 EST:



    “The accepted date, in archaeological circles, for the earliest proven

    human crossing of the open sea is based on records of human presence in

    Australia (there having been no land bridge since long before the genus

    Homo emerged in Africa). The earliest generally-accepted site dates from

    before 50,000.



    The controversial date is based on the presence of an archaeological

    site on Lombok, in Indonesia. The Lombok Strait is part of the Wallace

    Line, which is a well-established biogeographic boundary. Yet, on its

    eastern shore, there are remains of hominid presence dated to 600,000 or

    so. At that date, the people must have been Homo erectus as our own

    species did not emerge until about 120,000. Nobody knows how they made

    it across 20+ miles of sea but, as best as anyone can tell from the

    evidence yet available, enough of them did to establish a colony of sorts…”




    When Europeans settled in Australia about 200 years ago they recognized 3 racial groups of aboriginal stone-age people: the Tasmanians, the Murrayians of the south-east of the continent (centred around the Murray River) and all the others. The assumption was that they arrived from the north at different times, pushing the people found already settled further to the south. Something similar happened in the British Isles.


    The linguistic story is a little more complex. While there were several hundred languages and dialects, most had a common ancestor – as do most European languages. But there were (and are still) some languages, eg Arunta, which seem quite unrelated to the others; like, say, the Basque language of the Pyrenees. The Arunta speakers belong to the ‘all the others’ group.


    They have left artworks, such as engravings and cave paintings, scattered across the land. Most of these sites were regularly reworked, repainted, until the people were dispersed in recent times. Some are truly ancient. Only a few years ago a hitherto undiscovered group of caves was found in the still remote north-west, the Kimberleys, and excavations there have led to suggestions that human involvement may date to 90,000 years ago or earlier. One claim was 120,000 years ago. This is contentious stuff, not least because it would require a rethinking of how, when and where humans evolved and spread. What I found more fascinating was the similarities between that very old art found in the Kimberleys that had not been repainted and the paintings associated with the Bushmen people, today restricted to the south of Africa, although evidence of their culture, particularly cave paintings, have been found in the Sahara and Egypt.


    As Trevor has pointed out, during one of the ice age periods, with the coastline much lower, the gap between Asia and Australia was lessened. Trevor says it was 20+ miles, another figure I have come across is 65 miles as the minimal barrier of water. So the other side may have been visible and bridgeable at different times by different peoples without great boatbuilding skills, let alone need of navigation. Log rafts, for example, or simple fishing boats. The British settlers of Port Jackson (Sydney) in 1788 were bemused by the lack of local seamanship evident in the leaky and poorly maintained canoes of the tribes living around and from this extensive complex of enclosed bays.


    So the peopling of Australia may be to some extent comparable with one suggestion made on this List not so long ago to explain the peopling of Polynesia; that it happened haphazardly by a succession of blown out to sea fisher folk and naughty couples banished with their pregnant sow. Without the sow, actually, as there were no pigs in Australia until the Europeans introduced them. This is an indication of how little contact there was between the Aborigines and the contiguous Polynesian/Melanesian world, which can be said to be pig based.


    If we look elsewhere during prehistoric times, the use of wheeled carts drawn by cattle was common across Asia, India and Europe over many tens of thousands of years – miniature models of them are not rare in Russian museums (I’ve seen ‘em!) excavated from a variety of sites. In these the ancestors of many of today’s Europeans are thought to have migrated from Asia, after the glaciers retreated. Boatbuilding skills are a natural progression from wagon building skills, once people settle along a coast.


    One people I have in mind as an example are the Greeks. We have a history, of sorts, of their exploration (and later, colonization) of the Mediterranean thanks to Homer. While parts of the Odyssey have a mythic quality much of the prosaic detail reads like a sailing pilot, and can be so used today - the prevailing winds are still the same, as are the distances. Regardless of just what the mix is of myth and factual voyage the story as a whole tells how Greece found and explored the Mediterranean, in about 1200BC.


    The first organized culture, as far as we know, to systematically colonize the Mediterranean was the Phoenicians, a Semitic people, during a period lasting roughly between 1200BC and 800BC. Known in the Bible as the Canaanites, their homeland was present day Lebanon, although people in Spain, Sicily, North Africa, and even Somalia count the Phoenicians as ancestors. They established a formidable maritime trading empire not only all over the Mediterranean – Marseille Cadiz and Carthage, Cyprus and Libya – but also traded for tin with the British, and sailed south along the coast of western Africa as far south as the Gulf of Guinea. The Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II is said to have sent a Phoenician expedition south of the Red Sea. Some say this expedition reached and doubled the Cape of Good Hope, others that it circumnavigated Africa. Unfortunately written Phoenician history in their own words has been mostly lost. It’s sadly ironic, as they invented a phonetic alphabet of 22 letters that was taken up and adapted by the Greeks, and later the Romans, and that I am using now. Most of what we know about them is scraps of knowledge passed on by the Greeks who superseded them. The Greek stacked warships; triremes and quinqueremes, are thought to be copied from, or at least influenced by Phoenician craft. As their homeland became Hellenized the centre of Phoenician culture shifted west to Carthage (present day Tunis). Their descendants gave the Romans grief once too many times (Carthage was a major thorn in the Roman side over a long period) and they were eventually thoroughly obliterated by the superpower of that time.  A great city ceased to be, converted to desolate fields of stone rubble sown with salt to prevent resettlement.


    It would seem safe to assume that the Phoenicians had some navigational abilities. Assuming they had not would seem exceedingly strange and unlikely. Coming from a homeland between Babylon, Egypt, Persia and Greece, cultures at the then technological cutting edge with a keen interest in astronomy and mathematics, their tools and knowledge may not have been greatly different to our own approach.


    Whatever navigational skills they had, not much of it was available to the Spanish and Portuguese when needed, beginning in the 1400s. One place the Spanish found and colonized was the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. They found people living there, the Guanches. Where did they come from? How did they get there? It’s a bit of a mystery.

    The Spanish described the Guanches as “tall, blond and blue eyed” and found them “a primitive but numerous and warlike people” who successfully resisted early attempts at subjugation. Although some see a Celtic influence, the best evidence points towards them being related to the Berber people of North Africa, whose descendents still live in the Atlas Mountains. Their closest linguistic relatives were in Libya, of the period before Arabic predominated.  It seems to me most probable that they were the remains of a Phoenician colony, left to their own devices over a couple of millennia. 


    To bring this ramble to an end; just as boat building and sailing skills are independently developed when wanted by different peoples all over the globe, with a level of skill and sophistication relative to need, so may the concomitant skills of navigation be independently reinvented and refined as need arises.


    Into the west, unknown to man

    Ships have sailed since the world began

    Follow the ships through the windblown wrack

    Follow the ships that come not back …”


    Howard: “Sword of Orion”







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