Incredible Sea Voyages: The Outrigger

We know about some fantastic voyages—Columbus “discovering” North America, though of course, it was already filled with people when he got there. Then there was Captain Cook and his amazing “discoveries” of island in the Pacific Ocean. Again, he found people that got there before him. How did they do it?

There is evidence of more than one incredible prehistoric sea voyage that suggest our ancient ancestors did not travel and discover new continents by accident. Even though humans evolved with feet on the ground they made truly amazing sea voyages that are difficult for us to comprehend.  They did not stay in Africa forever. How did this happen?  When did some humans become water people? How did we learn to live on oceans? Episode 3 of the series The Great Human Odyssey tried to answer these questions.

When early humans crossed Asia from Africa, South East Asia should have been the end of the line. The vast Pacific Ocean really should have stopped our ancestors. But our ancestors were not easily stopped. To any rational human being the enormous Pacific Ocean would have seemed an impassable barrier to any further colonization of our planet.  Really the Pacific Ocean was the largest barrier on the planet.

However as Niobe Thompson said, “instead it was nota  barrier, it was an opportunity, a life giving gift…our ancestors found ways to live with the sea and soon they found ways of crossing it.”

Wulf Schiefenhövel from the Max Planck Institute also made an interesting comment: “Our sea water had been frozen to such an extent that the sea was about 120 metres lower than it is now. That means people could walk from Sumatra to East Java and then there were channels of water around 30-40 km. wide.”

The first sea voyages happened so long ago that we don’t have much evidence of how they did it. We can only speculate. It is very difficult to understand how early humans could have made it. It seems so difficult that it seem impossible. But our human ancestors had determination.

There is no archaeological evidence of the first human boats. Yet, there is some interesting evidence in Papua New Guinea, the world’s biggest tropical island. Humans reached it at least 50,000 years ago. As Thompson said, “It is a rich culture today that opens a window on its past.”

In the wilderness of Papua New Guinea there is a ceremony that is very old and rare.  Few outsiders have ever seen it. There is an initiation ceremony where boys are transformed into men.  There is a ritual that mimics the snaky movement of the crocodile the most dangerous creature in the area. There is a secret space of the warrior society—i.e. the “spirit house.” Here families say good-bye to their children some 15 years old. To survive a boy must become a man by learning the secrets of the river. The boy must become part human and part crocodile.   Boys are cut in an extremely painful ritual. The object of the ritual is become “water people.” The crocodile people give a hint of what life was like on the water. The earliest kind of god is still used—i.e. a dugout canoe!

Over time, the people of Papua New Guinea tool dugout canoes to amazing extremes. Their war canoes are very long and fast. As Schiefenhövel said, “as every sailor knows, the longer your boat the faster your travel.” I didn’t know that. The people of Papua New Guinea, as far as we know, never had sailing boats because they never ventured into the sea.

The ingenious invention that allowed them to cross the waves of the ocean was the outrigger. This made the boat very stable on the ocean. These vessels  are very simple often made of hollowed out mangrove.  “The outrigger triggered a revolutionary new phase in our human journey—harvesting the winds of the sea.” This was the start of some astounding voyages.

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