Readers of these pages over the last couple of weeks will be familiar with the idea that archaic humans may have put to sea hundreds of thousands of years earlier than was thought possible, and to this end I’ve concentrated on the replicative archaeology of Robert Bednarik, who in recent years has designed and built various watercraft, such as the Nale Tasih, in order to undertake similar quests…

We know that these sea journeys occurred, and we know approximately when. But we do not know how they were accomplished. This project examines that question in great detail, in Indonesia and in other parts of the world. For this purpose, a number of rafts, each designed differently, are constructed with Palaeolithic stone tool replicas, and it is attempted to sail them across stretches of sea known to have been crossed in the Ice Age, in Indonesia, the Mediterranean, in Japan and off California.”

We now have news of another adventurer, by the name of Dominique Goerlitz, who is attempting a rather unusual sea crossing of his own – he intends to sail a reed boat, the Abora III from New York across the Atlantic to Europe, by way of the Azores, Cadiz and the Canary Islands – but what makes his journey different from previous experiments which exploited favourable winds and currents, is that by trying to navigate from east to west, he will need to be able to tack into the prevailing wind…

“Goerlitz, 41, and a crew of eight plan to set sail Wednesday from New York in a prehistoric-style reed boat to show that people 6,000 to 14,000 years ago could have made the more complicated eastward journey from the New World to get back home again.

The reed boat – called the Abora III – is constructed along the lines of Heyerdahl’s Ra, out of 17 tonnes of reed papyrus that grows at the 3,800-metre-high Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Goerlitz in fact had some input from the late Norwegian explorer on some of his earlier boats launched in Europe.

Unlike the Ra, however, the Abora has 16 lee boards – or retractable foils – for steering, a refinement that will enable Abora to tack into the wind and carry it eastwards.

‘Why did I not see this?’ Goerlitz quoted Heyerdahl as saying after their first meeting in 1995 in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Heyerdahl was referring to the keel-board evidence in ancient drawings that Goerlitz had found.”

Thor Heyerdahl is a name writ large in the log-books of experimental ocean crossings by means of boats and rafts that relied principally on Stone Age technology, or at least one that didn’t incorporate any man-made fabric or tools of the modern age, such as metals, plastics or other industrial products of the recent historical age. In 1947 Heyerdahl set off on his legendary expedition, which has since become the water-mark by which similar projects are designed and carried out. He successfully made it to Polynesia, and as the link to Wikipedia discusses, in so doing may have solved some of the mysteries which included cultural similarities, including the spread of gourds and sweet potato which could much be much more readily explained if contact had been established and maintained by groups of people living in lands and on islands distant from each other, yet accessible through long distance seafaring between the various locations.

Taking his inspiration in part from Heyerdahl, as well as from conclusions drawn in the course of his own research, Goerlitz explains his rationale with this quote from his website…

“There is growing evidence that before Columbus or the Vikings made their maiden voyages to the New World, people were regularly crossing the Atlantic to trade goods. Scientists have discovered traces of nicotine and cocaine in the mummy of Ramses II. Neither drug became popular until after Columbus returned to the Old World. Moreover, remains of tobacco beetles, which could not have flown from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mediterranean, were discovered in Egyptian graves. The discovery of the same cultivated plants on both sides of the Atlantic is further indication that Stone Age Man made these transatlantic business trips. How did they do it? Cave drawings from the Magdalene Old Stone Age cultures in France and Spain point to the advanced nautical knowledge of these pre-Ice Age seafarers.

The most remarkable example of this originates from the “Cueva del Castillo” in northern Spain, dating back to 12,000 BCE. It refers to the Canary Islands Gulf Stream System, a downwind course – much easier than sailing in the windy Mediterranean. Even the types of stylized boats used to cross the Atlantic from East to West with the North Equatorial Current, as well as from West to East on the Gulf Stream, are clearly depicted. The dotted circles on the left most likely refer to the Caribbean Current, from which the Gulf Stream rises.”

Arbora III was constructed along the lines of the reed boats made by the Aymara people who live at Lake Titicaca, which straddles Peru and Bolivia, and is the highest lake in the world. Boats of very similar construction and materials are known at Lake Chad in Ethiopia, and were also known to ply their trade along the Nile in Ancient Egypt.

If Goerlitz succeeds in his bid, it will at least prove that navigation may have been possible in both directions across the Atlantic, but that in itself wouldn’t be direct evidence for travel between Peru and the Mediterranean ports of Egypt. This is because New York, from where Goerlitz is sailing, is on the eastern coast of North America, whereas Peru is located several thousand miles away on continental South America, and is moreover, across the other side, on her western shores.

We learn that Abora III is due to cast off this coming week, and it only remains for us to wish Goerlitz and his crew all success and good fortune in their travails, and if this trip is indeed successful, it would be interesting to to see if a project could be funded which made both the Atlantic sea crossing and the overland foot crossing, possibly via Mexico or Guatemala, followed by the coastal trip down to Peru, before turning around and heading for home once more. (TJ)

see also: BBC News: Viking Ship Sets Sail For Dublin and Sea Stallion From Glendalough 2007