National Museum of Australia
History of Ships
Prehistoric Craft
Jean Vaucher (April 2014)

This section covers watercraft used by Man before the Age of Metal, the invention of writing and the rise of kingdoms; roughly before 3,000 BCE.

When were the first "boats" built?

The oldest discovered boat in the world is the 3 meter long Pesse canoe constructed around 8,000 BCE [ Wikipedia ]; but more elaborate craft existed even earlier. A rock carving in Azerbaijan dating from ~10,000 BCE shows a reed boat manned by about 20 paddlers. Others argue that hide boats (kayaks) were used in Northern Europe as early as 9,500 BCE.

However, the very first sea-worthy boats were most probably built long before that, about 800,000 years ago, not by Man but by his predecessor Homo Erectus, a smart naked ape.

Erectus originated about 1.8 million years ago (Mya) in Africa and the species survived for over 1.5 million years before being supplanted by Neanderthals and our own Homo Sapiens. Erectus had learned how to put cutting edges on stones and perhaps how to control fire; but he lacked the gene for speech and language. For more details on the evolution of Man - and the Universe, click HERE.

Erectus lived through the Ice Age(s), a period of repeated glaciations, each lasting about 200,000 years, separated by warm spells. At the extreme, glaciers covered up to 30% of the world's land mass and tied up huge volumes of water resulting in the sea level dropping 100 m or more. This created temporary land passages between islands and continents. At some point, England was connected to Europe, Siberia to Alaska and parts of Indonesia linked to mainland Asia.

The Island Corridor

In time, Erectus spread out of Africa into Asia, but as he did not wear clothes, he stayed close to the equator. Erectus reached the Indonesian archipelago as early as 800,000 years ago. We know this because stone tools dated to that period and typical of Erectus have been found on the Island of Flores - between Bali and Timor. Although Erectus could have reached Bali by trekking over land bridges; migration beyond Bali to Flores required a minimum of 10 important sea crossings of up to 100 km and could not have occured by accident [Ref1]. The conclusion is that Homo Erectus built seaworthy craft 600,000 years before the first Homo Sapiens appeared on earth.

Nothing remains of these early boats - which have long since rotted away; but, knowing what plants and tools were available at the time, anthropologists can guess at the kinds of watercraft they used. The current theory is that bamboo rafts like the one shown below were used. Recently, this hypothesis was tested by building rafts using stone age techniques and replicating critical crossings [Ref2].

Torres Strait islanders on a bamboo raft, 1906
Encyclopedia of New Zeland

H. Erectus is succeeded by more intelligent species who arise in Africa. First, the Neanderthals who appear around 300 Kya and then Homo Sapiens (~ 200 Kya). Both develop clothes, and migrate north into Asia and Europe via the Sinai land bridge. The last migration out of Africa is thought to have occurred around 60 kya, reaching Europe and Australia around 40 Kya and America around 20 Kya [ Ref. ].

Physically, early Homo Sapiens was identical to modern man; but for 150_000 years, his mental abilities were limited - on a par to those of Neanderthals. He used the same stone tools; had no jewelry and hunting was limited to small animals.

But around 50 Kya, there is evidence of a HUGE change: artefacts found around burial sites become much more sophisticated. They include: art (jewelry and drawings), advanced tools (needles and nets) and long-distance weapons (bows and arrows). This progress is attributed to mutations which allowed the use of language and abstract thought. Homo Sapiens truly became Modern Man.

Homo Sapiens undoubtedly improved upon the crude rafts of Homo Erectus. On this page, we consider boats which existed before metal tools were developped and cities arose. More specifically, before wood planks allowed the construction of large ships for war and commerce around 3,000BCE.

Evidence of the nature of these early boats comes from unearthed remains, petroglyphs and other drawings - starting around 10,000 BCE (12 Kya). To this we can add boats that are in use today but could have been constructed with stone-age tools. Boats types fall into several categories depending on the materials and tools used in their construction:

Prehistoric Rafts

Anything that floats can be lashed together to make a raft and serve as a boat. Only primitive cutting tools are required. Bamboo, wood logs and reeds have all been used as raw materials, tied together with vines or palm fibers. Early rafts served as fishing platforms, allowed transportation across bodies of water and even formed floating islands for villages.

Raft propulsion is achieved by pushing with poles, pulling with ropes or paddling. When floating down rivers, the current does all the work. Later, sails will be added to reduce effort going downwind; but rafts have no keel or shape to keep them moving in a straight line, so steering is always difficult.

Nothing remains of these early boats - which have long since rotted away - but watercraft still in use today in remote areas provide examples of what early boats must have looked like.

 Below, click on images to enlarge! Use the arrows to move to new images.  

Primitive Log Raft

First Mariners Project
Flores to Timor on Hominid Raft
In some areas, the primitive log raft evolved into more elaborate versions with a tapered shape and an odd number of curved logs often held together with sharpened hardwood pins. Examples below are from India (around Chennai) and medieval Japan.

Tamil Boat, Kattumaram (India)

Kon-Tiki Raft
Thor Heyerdahl (1947)

In 1947, a Norwegian expedition sailed 4300 miles accross the Pacific on a Balsa log raft built with primitive materials and techniques, showing that ancient craft were capable of long distance ocean crossings.

More information below...

Kon-Tiki, Balsa Logs and Sail

Bamboo Rafts

Bamboo rafts, little changed from the Homo Erectus model, are still in wide use in Asia. But now, synthetic ropes are used and the ends are often curled up by steam. The rafts are used for fishing, ferrying and, more recently, "Ecotourism".

Typical rafts with curved ends

Cormorant Fishing (China)

Ferry in Kerala

Ecotourism in Jamaica

Image Credits
  • Restless Wanderlust
  • All Posters
  • Nomadic Imagery
  • Bird Ecology Study Group

  • Reed Boats

    Reed boats are made by assembling bundles of reeds (or other thin branches), into pointy kayak-like shapes. They were used in areas where wood was scarce, like Egypt and Iraq, before efficient wood-working tools were developped. Petroglyphs from the Mesolithic period (Azerbaijan, 12,000 - 7,000 BCE) show large reed boats and remains of a 7000 year old reed boat were found in Kuwait.

    Nowadays, the most primitive examples are the one-man boats made from banana stalks used on Lake Baringo. The most complex are found on Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Here large boats made up of millions of Totora reeds can support as many as 60 people. Reed boats are still used in Peru and Ethiopia.

    Petroglyph near Caspian Sea
    Azerbaijan ( ~ 10,000 BCE)

    Predynastic Pretroglyphs
    Egypt (6000 - 3000 BCE)

    Banana Stalk Boat
    Lake Baringo (Kenya)

    Ethiopian Papyrus Reed Boat (Ethiopia)

    Single Person Boat (Lake Titicaca)

    Caballito de Totora
    Huanchaco Beach, Peru

    Elaborate Reed Boat
    Lake Titicaca

    RA-II, Crossing the Atlantic on a Reed Boat
  • Gobustan Petroglyphs (Azerbaijan)
  • Boats of Egyptian Prehistory
  • More Egyptian Petroglyphs
  • Kids in Idaho build a reed boat: Video
  • Experimental Archeology on Lake Titicaca

  • Buoyed Rafts

    Treated in seperate (new) section: LINK .

    Dugout Canoes

    Dugout canoes require more advanced tools, like axes, adzes and chisels, initially made from flint then metal. Fire can also serve to hollow out the core. Suitable tools appear around 12,000 years ago (Mesolithic period) and one can assume that canoes of some form would be developped shortly therafter; but more precise chronology must rely on the discovery of datable artefacts. The oldest boat found so far is the 3 meter wood canoe shown below, constructed around 8,000 BCE [
    Wikipedia ];

    Dugout canoes in various forms were developped all over the world wherever large trees grew. Later designs added outriggers to help with stability and eventually sails.

    Remember... Click on images to ZOOM! ; arrows to change; ESC to quit !

    10 foot Pesse Canoe ( ~8,000 BCE )
    The oldest boat found

    Using Fire to make Canoe
    Virginia (1585)

    Admiralty Island Outrigger

    Dugouts on Amazon

    Fiji Outrigger with Sail (19th C.)

    Haida Canoe (West Coast, Canada)


    Coracles and Kayaks

    The next innovation in watercraft was putting a waterproof skin over a rigid frame. This made for a lighter boat, portable even! There is
    (circumstantial) evidence that such boats were used as early as 9,500 BCE - before the Pesse canoe; but the required technology is more advanced and it is probable that wood canoes came first.

    Coracles use wicker baskets for the frame. European coracles have leather as a skin. In the Middle East and Asia, the waterproofing is achieved with cloth and pitch; for example in the Bible, Moses is sent off in a small basket of bulrushes coated in pitch.

    Indian Coracle

    Irish Curragh

    In North America, Indians developped the birchbark canoe: a frame of wooden ribs covered with sewn patches of bark. Birchbark was the perfect choice, not only was it lightweight and smooth, but it was also waterproof and resilient. The joints of the canoes were bound together by the root of the white pine and then made waterproof by applying hot pine or spruce resin. [ Ref. ]

    The Kayak is a traditional boat made by stretching seal skins over a framework of light driftwood or whalebone and then coating it with whale fat. They were developped by the indigenous Aleut and Inuit in subarctic regions of the world. Typically, the kayak is covered and includes a spray skirt to insulate the the rider from the cold and prevent the boat from being swamped by waves. The northern peoples also built Umiaks: larger open seal-skin boats used to move people and possessions to seasonal hunting grounds. [ Wikipedia ]

    Algonquin Birchbark Canoe (R. Griffing)

    Seal Skin Kayak

  • Canada's First People
  • European Leather Boats

    The argument for prehistoric European leather-boats comes from the discovery, in northern Germany, of reindeer bones (dated around 9,500 BCE) which show arrow wounds from behind in the neck and shoulders. This is indicative of a hunting technique still used - until recently - by Inuits in North America. As shown below, the hunters ambush migrating herds from boats as they swim accross lakes or rivers. The lack of trees in northern Europe at that time, precludes the use of dugout canoes; hence the assumption that (reindeer) hide boats were used. [Ref.
    Europe's First Boats, P. Fletcher, AAPP, vol. 93, no. 2 (2015) ]

    Eskimaux killing deer on a lake (1824)
    Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Museum    ( CLICK for larger view! )

    Recreating Historic Sea Crossings

    In 1947, the Norwegian ethnographer,
    Thor Heyerdahl, started a trend by sailing the Kon-Tiki, a balsa-log raft, from South America to the Tuamotu Islands. The expedition was designed to demonstrate that ancient people could have made long sea voyages, creating contacts between separate cultures. Since that time, many other expeditions have attempted ocean crossings using primitive techniques. [Wikipedia]

    The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1947)

    Established theory holds that Polynesia was colonised via Asia some 5,500 years ago. Based on similarities between statues on Easter Island and others in Bolivia, Heyerdahl believed that there had been contact from South America. To support that claim, he sailed from Peru with five other adventurers on a raft built in native style from balsa wood, bamboo, and hemp. After 101 days and 4,300 nautical miles on the open sea they arrived in the Tuamota Islands. [Wikipedia]

    Kon-Tiki Expedition (1947)

    Kon-Tiki, Balsa Logs and Sail

    RA-II : Crossing the Atlantic on a Reed Boat (1970)

    In 1970, Heyerdahl was at it again. Proving that a reed boat of Egyptian design could reach South America. Could Aztec pyramids have been influenced by Egyptians ?

    RA-II (1970)

    Ra II - Reed Boat

    The Brendan Voyage (Severin, 1976)

    This expedition sought to replicate a much later exploit: Saint Brendan's (c. 489-583) seven-year voyage across the Atlantic in a leather boat to a new land and his return.

    The Brendan, a 36-foot, two masted boat was built in traditional fashion of Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with nearly two miles (3 km) of leather thong, wrapped with 49 tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease. Between May 1976 and June 1977, Tim Severin and his crew sailed the Brendan 4,500 miles (7,200 km) from Ireland to Peckford Island, Newfoundland, stopping at the Hebrides and Iceland en route. [Wikipedia]

    Route of the Brendan

    The Brendan Leather Boat

    Experiments in the Mediterranean

    Recent digs have shown that most islands in the Mediterranean were visited or settled by Stone Age people - way before the classic civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece. On Cyprus, agricultural settlements dating to 9,000BC were found and, the first settlements on Crete (~ 7,000BC) precede the Minoan civilization by more than four millennia.

    Island settlement implies some navigation legs over 100km in very primitive craft. There is also evidence of repeated trade (in obsidian) between some islands and the mainland. In recent years, experimental archeologists have repeated these voyages in bith reed craft and dugout canoes.

    Reed "Papyrella" (Tzalas 1988) [Ref]

    Dugout Canoe "Monoxylon"
    Tichy, 1995 & 1998 [Ref]

    The First Mariners Projects (1998-2008)

    The First Mariners Projects showed how Homo Erectus could have reached Flores in the Indonesian Archipelago 800,000 years ago. They also demonstrated how the aborigenes could have sailed (600km) from Timor to Australia 50,000 years ago.

    Human migation out of Africa

    Flores to Timor on Hominid Raft

    The Next Step: Planks

    The next quantum leap in boat design would occur with the Metal Age around 3000 BCE. Metal tools allow the transformation of trees into planks making possible the construction of larger ships for war and commerce by the Egyptians, Phoenicians and Greeks.

    The content of this page is not original. It is an edited digest of the best that I could find on the Internet as I researched various topics over the years and looked at hundreds of sites. As a result, I have lost track of where I found what.

    If I have used some images that you own without sufficient credit, contact me and I will either remove them or add a reference that you are happy with.