First Mariners – National Geographic project 2004
Sumbawa to Komodo Expedition 2004
According to the expedition leader, Robert G. Bednarik, ancestral Indonesians were the world’s first seafarers, because the earliest crossings of sea barriers proven archaeologically were those from Bali through the islands of Nusa Tenggara, and on to Timor. These islands of Wallacea have never been connected to any other landmass. The crossings were first made many hundreds of thousands of years ago, commencing well before 840,000 years ago. Bednarik has for the past decade researched aspects of these extremely early maritime achievements, and those elsewhere in the Pleistocene (the Ice Age), including the means by which they might have been accomplished. In a series of experiments of replicative archaeology, he has been involved in designing, building and sailing primitive rafts not only within Indonesia, but also from Timor to Australia (almost 1000 km, in 1998) and in the Mediterranean. Prior to this present project he has conducted six such experiments with rafts made by Palaeolithic means. Numerous scientific papers have been published about this work in the major archaeological journals of the world, as well as a best-selling book in German (see reading list below).
In contrast to seafaring expeditions by numerous others, this series is conducted in a strictly scientific framework: by falsification. Bednarik is not interested in determining how the archaeologically proven sea crossings of the Pleistocene were achieved; he is determining how they cannot have been achieved. Hence in each of his scientific experiments it is attempted to establish the minimum technological capability necessary to bring a group of people, large enough to become a colonising population, across a sea barrier. This seventh experiment, the subject of the present report, was intended to establish the minimum conditions necessary to cross from Sumbawa to Komodo, which at the lower sea levels of the time is thought to have been part of Flores. This project was underwritten and filmed by National Geographic. It was conducted against the background of the announcement, shortly after its completion, that a new human species, Homo floresiensis, had just been discovered on Flores. This is a true dwarf species that evolved under endemic conditions locally, and the find raised the issue how the presumed ancestor, Homo erectus originating from the then Asian mainland of what is today Java and Bali, might have crossed the several sea barriers that always existed between Bali and Flores.
Previous sea crossing attempts of Bednarik’s First Mariners Project have in some cases failed, and been successful in others, such as those from Bali to Lombok and from West Timor (Kupang) to Darwin. All projects have been conducted with local indigenous boat builders, fishermen and sailors, and much the same applied in the Sumbawa project.
Bednarik’s underlying proposition is that the cognitive and cultural abilities of all pre-modern humans have been massively underestimated by archaeology. He has cited and contributed much evidence over some decades, and in recent years the paradigm has noticeably shifted in his favour. His main support derives from the early use of beads, from art-like productions, and from the Indonesian evidence that Homo erectus was a seafarer. Until quite recently, this was an absurd claim, erectus was considered to have had no speech and a culture not significantly above that of chimps. Although this is now changing, Bednarik’s claims still remain the most audacious attempt to re-write cognitive evolution. Professor Mike Morwood’s research work in Flores, which led to the discovery of the endemic dwarf species, was commenced in 1997, in response to Bednarik’s 1995 published demands that excavations be conducted on that island as a matter of high priority. The presence of Homo erectus on the island was not a new discovery, it had been made decades earlier, and Dutch, German and Indonesian scientists had long worked on Flores. However, it was only with the recent finds of human remains that Flores became a centre of worldwide attention.
Building Rangki Papa (Father of all Rafts)
Having been requested by National Geographic to demonstrate how humans of the Lower Palaeolithic period, prior to 840,000 years ago, might possibly have managed to cross sea barriers such as the straits between Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores, Bednarik agreed to conduct an experiment at Sape Strait, separating Sumbawa from Komodo. A simple 40-ft bamboo raft would be constructed on the east coast of Sumbawa, and an attempt would be made to paddle it to the rocky west coast of Komodo. A construction site was chosen at a long sandy beach 12 km south of the town of Sape, called Papa Beach and owned by Haji Najib, an influential entrepreneur in Sape. It was also he who provided the labour and transport required for the project. The beach, at the southernmost point of the bay separating the Lambu peninsula from Sape, is in fact the point where the Macassan ancestors of the present population of Bugis first landed about three centuries ago. Intending to make repairs to their ships they decided to settle there — hence the name “Father’s Beach”.
Upon completion of the raft it was intended to tow it around the peninsula, for some 18 or 20 km, to a suitable launching place from where it would be paddled across the strait. If this attempt should be successful the raft would be towed back to Sape, to be donated to the community as an artefact for exhibition. This would commemorate and celebrate the ancient seafaring traditions of the region, and perhaps raise the local population’s interest in that long history.
Bednarik’s research program demanded that it should be attempted to try crossing the strait with a crew of ten. Local advice was that the project would not succeed, because of the strong transverse and largely unpredictable currents in the strait. According to Bednarik’s previous experience, a payload of between 800 and 900 kg translated into a raft made of high-quality large-diameter bamboo weighing about 970 kg. This in turn demanded twenty-six 12-m lengths of bamboo floaters to keep the raft’s floor several centimetres above the water line. On the basis of this calculation, the following materials were assembled in Sape prior to construction:
33 lengths of large-size bamboo, of about 15 to 18 cm diameter, more than 12 m long, dried for at least five months. They were to be checked for beetle holes and cracks.
4 length of thick-walled bamboo, which may be fairly green, of highest breaking strength.
180 m of split rattan, made from a forest vine occurring widely in Indonesia (Calamus sp.).
220 m gemuti, which is handmade rope of a dark-brown palm fibre, about 5 to 8 mm diameter.
Commercial thick rope for towing.
Several coils of 6 mm nylon rope for temporary lashings.
10 pieces of hardwood for paddles, min. 1.6 m long, c. 15 cm by 4 cm.
Bednarik requested that the construction site be accessible by truck, that it be on a sand beach, and that as a contingency, electric power for lighting be available, to work at night if necessary. He also stipulated that the construction crew be paid by performance rather than by time, and that a sunroof be erected over the site. Because only a few days were available for the construction of the raft, he relaxed the usual rule that stone tools be used, and allowed the use of parangs (Indonesian machetes). Stone tools were only to be used to demonstrate specific work processes, especially the shaping of the wooden paddles.
The construction of the raft commenced after the arrival on site of Bednarik and his assistant Diah Puspasari on 2 October 2004. Discussions were held with Haji Najib, the site was determined, and the materials were trucked to it. Preparations of the construction site, located at S 08° 38.668’, E 119° 02.355’, were initiated on the same evening. It was rendered flat, sloping gently towards the water. On the morning of 3 October, most of the construction crew, almost thirty men, assembled and were given individual copies of the section drawing, to ensure that every man was familiar with the intended end product.
The number of men at the construction site over the following days fluctuated between twenty-five and thirty-five, and work proceeded at a fairly leisurely pace. After noticing that the bamboo was rapidly developing longitudinal cracks in the hot sun, Bednarik ordered that it be covered with palm fronds and sprayed with water, while the construction of a substantial sunroof of palm fronds was expedited. Each length of bamboo was carefully checked for beetle holes and cracks, and these were sealed with heated triodia resin. This dark-brown resin occurs naturally and is collected by raiding the structures of an ant species that uses it to reinforce its mounds. However, the quantity available fell short of repairing all openings, and this activity had to be completed using epoxy resin. The cracking of the bamboo can be avoided by skinning it whilst green, but this has the significant drawback of weakening the stalks mechanically.
Sixteen filled sandbags were placed to support the four rollers in eight locations. Next, the lower floaters were placed and temporarily lashed to the rollers. The intention of this was to prevent accidental movement, and to cut these straps before deflating the sandbags to lower the rollers onto rails upon completion of the raft. Besides completing most of the patching of the cracked floaters, the six floaters of the lower layer were placed on this day.
On 4 October, most of the raft was built in a single day. The first four upper floaters were installed to hold up the thwart timbers, which were especially selected short-section lengths of bamboo (which typically has thicker walls). The latter were trimmed, spaced and placed, and then began the task of threading in all remaining floaters. Adjustment was often needed for the curvatures of most stems. The stern ended up being 3.15 m wide, the bow 2.15 m wide. Wooden levers were used to force stalks into their positions. Typically there were teams of usually three men at every one of the five lashing points, working systematically from left to right. Upon reaching the starboard side, the raft was raised on that side to permit adjustment of the three lower floaters. By the end of the day, the vessel was completely shaped, even though many of the bindings were temporary.
On the following day, the paddles were begun, but unfortunately half the required timber had not as yet arrived, and work was discontinued during the afternoon. In 6 October, the remaining paddles were made, all temporary lashings replaced and the raised seating structure was added. A boat was secured to scout for a suitable launching place beyond Cape Toromabalang, the northernmost tip of the peninsula forming the bay. An excellent site for launching was promptly found on the east side of a small island just off the cape, Pula Matagateh (Goat Island). A small picturesque bay with white sandy beach facing the strait was chosen. The following day, the National Geographic film crew arrived from Flores on two more boats, and the last components, left off to enable their placement to be filmed, were attached on camera. After the Rangki Papa, as the raft was named, was consecrated by an imam, the rollers were cut loose, it was lowered onto the sand and within seconds rolled down the slope and floated. It was soon taken in tow, and the indigenous sailors went with it to camp overnight at the launching site on Goat Island.
After early preparations for filming the launch, the Rangki Papa left the east coast of Pula Matagateh at 6.50. The full crew were Ibrahim Akadir, Usman Gani, Hadji Suaeb Nonci, Saleh Ahmed, Junaidin Ali, Kamirudin Arsyad, Ibrahim Habeb, Burhanudin Abdullah, Ruslam Ahmad, Subhan Solo, Ali Tahril, Bert Roberts, Mike Morwood, Thomas Sutikna, David Hamlin, David X and Robert Bednarik. Only ten paddled, the rest were replacements, but during the last two hours one or two were added starboard to counter the current. Only one half of the above men paddled the whole distance, the others were on the three escort vessels or were engaged in filming for much of the time.
Initially, a weak southerly current was not resisted because Bednarik expected a strong northerly current in the main channel, so he aimed to keep just to the south of Pula Sapekah. The speed began at 1.7 knots, then improving to 2.5–2.8 knots after 45 minutes. For the first two hours the course aimed generally at the very central part of the Komodo coastline. Waves were very moderate, with a slight SW breeze. However, towards midday the southern drift became increasingly apparent as the deeper channel was approached. By the time the 200 m isobath was reached, the speed was consistently above 3 knots, peaking at 3.6. However, this was largely attributable to the strong northern current. Efforts to cut across it were only of limited success, and at the cost of lower speed, of 2.0 to 2.5 knots. It seemed still feasible to reach the southernmost bay of the Komodo west coast, Labuhan Langkoi, north of a very prominent spur formed by Pula Lankoi, by trying to maintain as much latitude as possible. However, some of the entirely inexperienced crew were very tired by then, and the raft continued to drift southwards. Bednarik decided to allow the vessel to drift to south of the Komodo coast, and to take advantage of the weakening in the current where it fans out to aim for the lee of Pula Lankoi, in order to turn north and try for the southern coast.
Thus much of the afternoon was spent describing a narrowing spiral course centred on that steep and rugged island. Making as little as 0.8 knots, the Rangki Papa eventually headed straight for the southern ramparts of Pula Lankoi. The strategy of aiming for the lee side paid off at last and as the rock towers were approached, a landing site needed to be found on this entirely precipitous coastline. Bednarik selected a point where a long scree-filled ravine extending to sea level promised the presence of small boulders that might permit a landing. This turned out to be the probably only place on this coast of sheer cliffs and rock stacks offering any hope of landing, and the raft reached fully sheltered waters among the towering rocks. Mindful of the acute danger of cutting the now waterlogged bindings on the underside of the raft on submerged boulders, which would cause the vessel to disintegrate and the inexperienced crew to panic, Bednarik decided to attempt a landing. Guiding the raft to the rocks, it touched them gently, and he instructed the paddlers to retreat. It was 16.12 hours.
The raft had travelled about 36.4 km, having taken 9 hours and 22 minutes for this. Having been built by a crew, which, with the exception of two fishermen, lacked any experience in such work, it had been sailed by a crew completely lacking any maritime experience. The two indigenous fishermen in the construction crew had both refused to travel on the raft, having come to the conclusion that it would not succeed in the crossing. It needs to be appreciated that previous experiments by the First Mariners project were conducted with hand-picked, experienced crews, both in terms of constructing vessels and of sailing them. These expeditions had no standby paddlers, and in one case travelled for two weeks without any escort vessel. Naturally, such “recklessness” would have been unacceptable to National Geographic.
This journey can be summed up as having been very well planned and comparatively uneventful. Apart from the adventurous landing, it was merely a routine experiment that added new knowledge to the ongoing quest of understanding the nautical performance of rafts. The last ocean-going rafts occurred up to the beginning of the 20th century, and we have practically no technical information about this kind of vessel. It is through this series of experiments that we are regaining an understanding of such rafts, which may have served humanity as long as a million years. Yet until a few years ago, science knew nothing about them. The Rangki Papa project has contributed to changing this.
Selected Reading List
Bednarik, R. G. 1995. Seafaring Homo erectus. The Artefact 18: 91-92.
— 1995. Wallace’s barrier and the language barrier in archaeology. Bulletin of the Archaeological Survey Association of Southern California 20(3): 8-9, 13.
— 1997. The initial peopling of Wallacea and Sahul. Anthropos 92: 355-367.
— 1997. The origins of navigation and language. The Artefact 20: 16-56.
— 1997. The earliest evidence of ocean navigation. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 26(3): 183-191.
— 1998. An experiment in Pleistocene seafaring. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 27(2): 139-149.
— 1999. Maritime navigation in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences Paris, Earth and Planetary Sciences 328: 559-563.
— 1999. Nale Tasih: Eine Floßfahrt in die Steinzeit. Jan Thorbecke Verlag, Stuttgart.
— 1999. Nale Tasih 2: journey of a Middle Palaeolithic raft. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 26(1): 25-33.
— 1999. Der Beginn der Seefahrt. Almogaren 30:13-34.
— 1999. Sailing a Palaeolithic raft. Institute of Nautical Archaeology Quarterly 26(1): 12-18.
— 1999. Pleistocene seafaring in the Mediterranean. Anthropologie 37(3): 275-282.
— 1999. Seefahrt im Pleistozän. Quartär 49/50: 95-109.
— 1999. The implications of hominid seafaring capabilities. Acta Archaeologica 70: 1-23.
— 2000. Pleistocene Timor: some corrections. Australian Archaeology 51: 16-20.
— 2001. The origins of Pleistocene navigation in the Mediterranean: initial replicative experimentation. Journal of Iberian Archaeology 3: 11-23.
— 2002. The maritime dispersal of Pleistocene humans. Migration and Diffusion 3(10): 6-33.
— 2002. The First Mariners Project. http://mc2.vicnet.net.au/home/mariners/web/mariners.html
— 2002. The first mariners. The American Neptune 61(3): 317-324.
— 2002. The First Mariners Project. The Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology 26: 57-64.
— 2003. Seafaring in the Pleistocene. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13(1): 41-66.
— (2007). Experimental crossing from Sumbawa to Komodo by bamboo raft. INA Quarterly 34(2): 13-17.
— (2008). Early seafaring. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, ed. Helaine Selin, Part 19, pp. 1978-1983. Springer Netherlands.