Fri. Jan 17th, 2020

The Stone Age sailors had better ships than previously believed


It was not as easy as it seemed. A group of archaeologists Japanese wanted to recreate a trip of 30,000 years ago, in full Stone age, which ran the chain of Ryukyu Islands (or Nansei), the southernmost archipelago of Japan. But it could not be. Its raft, a replica built using paleolithic technology, did not reach the ultimate goal. Prehistoric colonizers it turns out that they had more resources than previously believed.

The largest sea currents in the world have been an insurmountable obstacle for this group of daring researchers who He began his adventure last July. The five sailors, all of them expert ocean kayak practitioners, used a wooden boat based on a model found in China and Japan dating back 8,000 years ago. But it was not enough.





One of the bamboo boats made by archaeologists

One of the bamboo boats made by archaeologists
(Antiquity)




The first inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands sailed to the archipelago between 40 and 30,000 years ago. Many experts believe that bamboo rafts were the most used boat by the first navigators of the western Pacific coast, since they can be done with relative ease using local materials and tools from that time.

Previous studies revealed that they could travel more than 800 kilometers. What those boats could not hold is, as revealed by the study published in the magazine Antiquity
, the current of Kuroshio that crosses the region. This is one of the strongest in the world, and it could even be even more intense at the time when the islands were colonized.

The Ryukyu Islands at the time of their initial colonization, rebuilt by lowering the sea level 80m (gray areas). The map also shows the current Kuroshio current course, along with the oldest reported dates for Pleistocene sites

The Ryukyu Islands at the time of their initial colonization, rebuilt by lowering the sea level 80m (gray areas). The map also shows the current Kuroshio current course, along with the oldest reported dates for Pleistocene sites
(Antiquity)









The bamboo ship of archaeologists, led by Yousuke Kaifu, of the National Museum of Nature and Science of Japan, could not cross the current or reach the next. They also failed when they tried to improve the design of the raft. "It seems that the Stone Age sailors had better naval technology than we expected," the researchers say.

About 50,000 years ago, the Homo sapiens began to colonize islands throughout the western Pacific. This fact marks the first repeated, and apparently planned, crossings of our species across the sea. However, any evidence of the maritime technology that made these adventures possible has long been lost.

Construction work on the first bamboo raft, carried out in 2017

Construction work on the first bamboo raft, carried out in 2017
(Yousuke Kaifu / Antiquity)




Archaeologists have had to resort to alternative sources to find evidence of these trips. In recent decades, for example, it has opted for a series of experimental marches using recreations of paleolithic ships to prove their viability. The last attempt, promoted by the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo and the National Museum of Prehistory in Taiwan, began in 2013.





The culmination of the project has been the cruise of Kaifu and his team through the 1,200 kilometers that make up the region of the Ryukyu Islands. To build their raft they used stone tools that are found in the region and are capable of cutting and working the bamboo. In addition, they were based on the experience of the people To my from Taiwan, which continued using boats of this material for coastal fishing until recently.

Tools for working wood from Japan: A) a stone ax with an edge and a grinding stone. B) Replica of a stone ax

Tools for working wood from Japan: A) a stone ax with an edge and a grinding stone. B) Replica of a stone ax
(Yousuke Kaifu / Antiquity)




The researchers worked side by side with amis to build, in 2017, a boat that was 10.5 meters long and was manned by five professional and semi-professional sea kayakers. After 14 hours of navigation, in which they traveled about 80 kilometers, they had to turn around and return to port.

The obstacle that had cut their way was Kuroshio (Black Current, in Japanese). This begins off the east coast of Taiwan and flows to the northeast, where it merges with the eastern drift of the North Pacific current. But they did not give up and built a new, wider, lighter and harder raft.





An earthenware from the III-IV centuries A.D. from Japan representing a rowing boat and a steering shovel. The roofs, the flag and other structures suggest that the ship is owned by aristocrats

An earthenware from the III-IV centuries A.D. from Japan representing a rowing boat and a steering shovel. The roofs, the flag and other structures suggest that the ship is owned by aristocrats
(Antiquity)




This new boat also failed to cross the stream. "It is clear that the East Asian Stone Age sailors who made this trip for the first time had more advanced naval technology than the simple bamboo raft," archaeologists who have participated in the project now recognize.

This second disappointment, even so, does not mean the end of the project. “The study was designed to have a better image of the Homo sapiens paleolithic. It seems they faced a great challenge to go to new places, so we want to know what it was, ”says Yousuke Kaifu. That is why he is already working on a new canoe design.







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