Maritime colonisation by Homo erectus commenced in Indonesia well over 800,000 years ago. It led to the peopling of much of the region by early hominins, and by possibly 60,000 years ago to the occupation of Greater Australia through archaic Homo sapiens. All of this maritime expansion involved the use of seaworthy watercraft. One implication of these first maritime expeditions is that the hominins concerned are suggested to have had language, and a much more sophisticated technology and culture than hitherto thought. The technological and cognitive background of these achievements is being examined through an intensive, long-term replication study.

The Indonesian evidence

The islands of Nusa Tenggara, formerly known as the Lesser Sunda Islands, are separated from Sumatra, Java and Bali by the world’s most important biogeographical filter, named after the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. The Wallace Line, which runs between Bali and Lombok, indicates the furthest extent of typical Southeast Asian eutherian fauna (Wallace 1890), which had been able to colonise the islands west of the barrier during Pleistocene periods of low sea level. The Indonesian islands are geologically young, being the result of the recent collision of two continental plates. Formed along a subduction zone, they are still rising from the sea. Those east of Bali have never been joined to any mainland, and most have not been connected to other islands in the past. Apart from a very few exceptions they were never settled by any large mammalian species.

Proboscideans swam across many of the sea barriers, presumably in herd formation, and the remains of elephants, Stegodon and Stegolophodon have been found in Pleistocene deposits on many of the region’s islands (Verhoeven 1958, 1964, 1968; Maringer & Verhoeven 1970; Hooijer 1957, 1972; Glover 1969; Groves 1976; Simpson 1977; de Vos & Sondaar 1982; Allen 1991; Hantoro 1996; cf. Koenigswald 1949). They form the most conspicuous component of the strictly endemic fossil faunas, occurring both as full-size and dwarf species. Elephants are superb long-distance swimmers that have colonised dozens of islands around the world (Johnson 1980: 384).

Humans also settled the islands of Nusa Tenggara, not by swimming but after they had developed maritime navigation capability. By about 800 ka (800,000 years) ago, hominins had established a substantial population on Flores, which suggests that they had earlier settled Lombok and Sumbawa, the two major islands between Bali and Flores. The Soa Basin in central Flores, north of Boawae, consists of a series of mostly volcanic facies, transected by numerous deep drainage valleys documenting the uniformity of the geological sections (Ehrat 1925; Hartono 1961).

Fossiliferous deposits in the lower part of this sequence have produced Lower Palaeolithic stone tools together with a wealth of remains of Stegodon trigonocephalus florensis from several sites since 1957 (Verhoeven 1958). Their age was initially estimated at perhaps 710 ka, although an age of up to 830 ka was already considered possible (Koenigswald & Ghosh 1973). This was based on the geology, fauna and presence of tektites. A series of nineteen palaeomagnetic samples from two sections indicated an age of slightly later than the Matuyama-Brunhes reversal (780 ka BP) for a sediment containing stone tools at the site Mata Menge (Sondaar et al. 1994). Subsequent zircon fission track analysis of the same deposit produced a date of 800 ± 70 ka, while four earlier deposits apparently free of anthropic evidence are about 850, 880, 900 and 920 ka old respectively (Morwood et al. 1998, 1999).

The antiquity of the Early Pleistocene artefacts from the Soa Basin indicates unequivocally that the hominins who made and used them were Homo erectus (Sondaar et al. 1994; Bednarik 1995a). That species’ remains have over the past one hundred years been found in Java, where they are suggested to be up to 1.81 million years old (Swisher et al. 1994). So far, no hominin remains have been found in Nusa Tenggara, but stone tools similar to those in Flores occur on several other deep-water islands in the region. They have been found in central Timor, in western Timor, in Roti (Bednarik 1998a), and in Sulawesi (van den Bergh 1997: 309). At least the finds from central Timor and Roti are from Middle Pleistocene deposits.

A recent study of the geology and unusually clear stratigraphy near Atambua, West Timor, has yielded finds of Stegodontidae at six sites: Weaiwe 1, 2 and 3, Motaoan, To’os and Odak. In all cases they derive from a distinctive, banded calcite-cemented conglomerate facies, the Weaiwe Formation. At Motaoan, an indisputable chert artefact was recovered from the same stratum, about 2 m from a nearly complete and superbly preserved Stegodont molar. The broad, Clactonian-like flake is thin, bears a bulbar area and percussion point, and a well retouched concave working edge. However, the severely weathered artefact has been transported among the gravel, whereas the osteal finds from the same deposit have generally not been moved. Therefore the two types of evidence do co-occur, but not in primary association in this instance.

Nevertheless, a Stegodont bone fragment found at another site, To’os, had been smashed by considerable force and at one end bore extensive evidence of calcination. It had been laying in a fire, almost certainly through hominin agency. The contemporaneity of Stegodontidae and humans in Timor has thus been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. (For details of these finds and their geological context and radiometric age, see Bednarik in prep.)


Pleistocene seafaring and its implications

Homo erectus thus colonised a good part of the Indonesian island world, presumably helped by the region’s outstanding wealth of bamboo species suitable for building seaworthy rafts. The repeated occurrence of the stone tools together with Stegodont bones, at six sites so far, might indicate that this species was a major food source, which derives some support from the charred bone just mentioned, but giant rats (Hooijeromis nusatenggara) have also been suggested as a terrestrial staple of these early mariner people (Musser 1981; Sondaar 1987, 1997).

There is no seafaring evidence of such antiquity anywhere else in the world, although it has been mentioned from time to time that the Strait of Gibraltar may have been crossed by hominins (Freeman 1975: 662, 733; Johnstone 1980: 3). The presence of in situ stone tools in Middle Pleistocene deposits at Sa Coa de sa Multa near Perfuga, Sardinia, provides the earliest known indication of seafaring in the Mediterranean (Bini et al. 1993). The finds have been suggested to be in the order of 300 ka old. Sardinia was connected to Corsica at times of low sea level, but never to the Italian mainland. Similarly, Kefallinía near Greece, where Mousterian tools have been found (Kavvadias 1984), must have been reached via the sea, even though the distance from the mainland was considerably smaller than in the Indonesian crossings. Human skeletal remains from Crete combine both modern and neanderthaloid features and are about 50 ka old, clearly indicating seafaring ability in the late Middle Palaeolithic period (Facchini & Giusberti 1992: 189-208). To reach Crete, at least two crossings totalling about 80 km were required. Upper Palaeolithic evidence we have of European seafaring is also from the Mediterranean, consisting of a 20-ka-old human finger bone in Corbeddu Cave, Sardinia (Spoor & Sondaar 1986; Sondaar et al. 1995); and the discovery of obsidian from Melos, about 11 ka old and involving two journeys of over 100 km each to reach Frachthi Cave on mainland Greece (Perles 1979). Similarly, the presence on Honsho of obsidian from Kozushima, about 50 km from the main island of Japan, some 30 ka ago (Anderson 1987: 279), renders sea crossings in both directions necessary, indicating the availability of advanced navigation technology.

The Pleistocene has so far yielded no material evidence of navigation, such as boats, paddles, rafts, or identifiable parts thereof. There are no rock art images resembling water craft known that could safely be attributed to the Pleistocene. The earliest navigational material finds are all from northwestern Europe, and from the early Holocene (Bednarik 1997a). They are Mesolithic paddles from peat bogs at Holmgaard (Denmark) and Star Carr (England); a worked reindeer antler that may have been a rib of a skin boat in the Ahrensburgian of Husum (Germany); and the somewhat younger canoes and dugouts from Pesse (Holland, 8265 ± 275 carbon years), Noyen-sur-Seine (France, 7960 ± 100 carbon years), and Lystrup 1 (Denmark, 6110 ± 100 carbon years).

This pattern of occurrence implies a severe taphonomic bias, no doubt emphasised by the effects of the Pleistocene sea level fluctuations. Nevertheless, in the region to the north of Australia, maritime journeys were conducted almost habitually during the Late Pleistocene. We can only know about long-term settlements that resulted in archaeologically visible populations. Numerous attempts no doubt failed, either initially or at least in the long term. But evidence from about 33-27 ka ago indicates that many small islands had been settled by that time, by seafarers with an essentially Middle Palaeolithic technology (Bednarik 1997b). Most of these islands are small and could not have been sighted until a raft reached their proximity: the Monte Bello Islands (120 km from Australia), Gebe Island (west of New Guinea), New Ireland (east of New Guinea), Buka Island (180 km from New Ireland).

It is relevant to appreciate that all these maritime accomplishments in the Indonesian-Australian region were by people with pre-Upper Palaeolithic stone tools, because the hypothesis of an exclusively African origin of modern humans links their perceived modern human behaviour to Upper Palaeolithic technology. Moreover, the first appearance of maritime navigation in Indonesia refutes another idea of ‘African Eve’ supporters, namely that speech is an innovation limited to Eve’s progeny. The no doubt well-established population on Flores by 800 ka ago derived its navigational ability most probably from Javan ancestors who had been experimenting with rafts for a long time before succeeding in traversing Lombok Strait, the first step in reaching Flores. Initially these rafts may have been developed for off-shore fishing.

The Indonesian evidence thus demands a rewriting of the story of human evolution. Pre-modern hominins were not, as frequently claimed, devoid of complex culture and technology, of language, symbolism, self-awareness – mere carrion-scavengers at the mercy of their environment. They had the ability to plan projects that took months to complete, they had the courage to entrust themselves and their families to contraptions designed to harness four forces of nature: buoyancy, wind, waves, and ocean currents. The first mariners in history set the course not only for Lombok, but also for the destiny of humanity. Since their momentous decision the human ascent itself has been a history of the skilled application of cultural systems to utilise natural ones.

Human language, it seems, was already sufficiently developed a million years ago to express abstract concepts. This is twenty times as long ago as the adherents of the African Eve model of human evolution would find acceptable to preserve their paradigm. It is at massive odds with the currently dominant paradigm, but it is not entirely unexpected. The cultural and cognitive sophistication of Lower Palaeolithic hominins has been implied by the discovery of Acheulian beads (Bednarik 1997c) and petroglyphs (Bednarik 1995b), hunting spears (Thieme 1996, 1997), composite artefacts (Thieme 1995), portable engravings (Mania & Mania 1988; Bednarik 1995b), and the evidence that mineral pigments were used, and crystals and fossil casts were collected or ‘curated’ (Bednarik 1992). Indeed, the collection of ‘proto-symbolic’ manuports was apparently even practised by even earlier hominins or homidoids (Bednarik 1998b). Thus the Indonesian evidence reminds us that models of hominin evolution that disregard this cultural, technological and cognitive (Bednarik 1997d) evidence have become irrelevant and superseded, having been refuted consistently for decades. The Flores evidence has been available to us for 40 years (Verhoeven 1958, 1968; Maringer & Verhoeven 1970).


Replication experiments

The complete lack of any direct physical evidence of maritime technology from the entire Pleistocene renders it pointless to speculate about the circumstances of these endeavours without additional information. No sustained replicative experimentation of archaeology has been conducted in relation to this subject until 1996. Planning commenced then for two competing expeditions intending to determine the most likely means employed by Homo erectus in crossing Lombok Strait >800 ka ago (Bednarik 1997b), and the most likely circumstances of first landfall in Australia >60 ka ago (Roberts et al. 1990, 1993). Our rather limited knowledge from other areas of technology of the periods in question, particularly in stone tool knapping, wood and bone working, serves as a reference source for these projects. Some aspects of relevant material use can be replicated precisely on the basis of form of, and work markings on, archaeological finds, as for instance bone harpoons. Others must be determined according to systematically derived probability estimates based on experimentation. Both expeditions endeavour to create authentic conditions for the construction of a series of primitive vessels and their sailing across the sea barriers. This involves, for instance, the use of appropriate stone tool replicas in felling and working bamboo, and in constructing and sailing the rafts. As the Chief Scientist of both expeditions, the author conducts each experiment and travels on each raft.

Literally hundreds of issues of technology need to be addressed, including the means of carrying freshwater, of fishing at sea, of locating sources of stone tool materials, and of course issues of maritime design. The understanding of Pleistocene technology to be acquired in this way by far exceeds the understanding accessible by traditional archaeological approaches. Replicated stone and bone tools, for instance, are subjected to microwear study as part of this project, and the practical application of such replicas in combination with microwear analysis tells us more about the use of the archaeological specimens than any amount of theorising ever could.

The first full-size experimental vessel was commenced in August 1997 and launched at Oeseli in southern Roti on 14 February 1998 (Bednarik 1998c). It was the Nale Tasih 1, which sailed for sea trials with a crew of eleven on 6 March. Middle Palaeolithic stone tool replicas had been used in the construction of this 23-m-long, ocean-going bamboo raft of about 15 tonnes plus cargo. The objective was to establish whether it would be capable of sailing from Roti to Australia in a reasonable time. Some aspects of this raft were judged to be unsuitable under the unfavourable conditions brought about by the El Nino effect. Four days later the vessel was beached for destructive sampling, and the entire raft was dismantled and dissected for inspection and material testing. The results provided much information for the design and material choice for the further rafts to be constructed.

A radically different, simpler design was adopted for Nale Tasih 2, an 18-m bamboo raft of only 2.8 tonnes. Construction of this vessel began in August 1998 near Kupang, West Timor, and on 17 December it left Kupang harbour with a crew of five. The raft had been constructed from bamboo, rattan forest vines, hand-made gemuti ropes of palm fibre, wood, lontar pipa string, and palm leaves, especially of the lontar palm. On board were two mangrove logs, hollowed out by termites and sealed off with wood, beeswax, bark and tree resin, which contained 350 litres of drinking water. The A-frame mast bore a small sail made from palm fibre. The Nale Tasih 2 was well equipped with spare parts, including two sails, steering oar, vines, ropes and other cordage, and to effect repairs it carried 65 stone artefacts, replicas of Middle Palaeolithic types made from black chert, and a stone mortar and pestle. Food provisions included fruit, cassava, salted meat, native millet, palm sugar and salt, but it was intended to derive most food from the sea. For this purpose the raft was equipped with several harpoons and fish spears. It also carried a fire box of wood, firewood and dry coconut husks.

The Nale Tasih 2 travelled without an escort boat or radio. It reached the continental shelf of Australia, which formed the continent’s shore 60 ka ago, at noon on the sixth day, thus having completed its primary objective. To gain more knowledge in handling such a raft, the crew continued on towards Darwin. On the eleventh day, the seas became rough and the raft was sailed under extreme conditions for two days. The steering oar broke, the upper yard broke in two, and at one stage, all forward guy ropes of the mast snapped in unison. However, all repairs were effected successfully. On the thirteenth day, rough seas of 4-5 m waves forced the raft towards Melville Island, north of Darwin, a coast populated by saltwater crocodiles. As a precaution, the crew was taken from board three hours before the raft was to reach the shore, transferring to the Pacific Spear under dramatic circumstances on the evening of 29 December 1998. Three days later, the raft was recovered in calmer seas from where it was beached on the south coast of Melville Island, and towed to Darwin for public exhibition.

The author’s ‘First Mariners’ project, not expected to be completed before 2014, involves several further raft expeditions as well as extensive archaeological research on land. Its primary purpose is to examine each of the many variables involved in Pleistocene seafaring quantitatively, to create the conditions for constructing multiple scenarios within a realistic framework of probability. In this procedure, the confidence that the most probable scenario can convincingly be identified is a function of the variables or determinants accounted for satisfactorily. Therefore numerous experiments are essential, and all need to be conducted under fully controlled conditions. While the most sensible, economic or logical course of action is not necessarily the one always taken by hominin mariners, there are several arbitrary limiting factors. For instance, these journeys had much to do with survival, and we can reasonably assume that they were on the very limits of the technologically possible at the times in question. The most probable scenarios can then be tested by reference to known parameters of technological competence at the time. These are derived from the archaeological research forming part of the overall project. This would seem to be the only scientific method available to us to generate informed and plausible explanations for the very early maritime feats of hominins. The work has already prompted significant revisions to our ideas about these highly enterprising people (Bednarik 1997a, b, d, 1998a, c).

The principal finding of the project so far is that the level of maritime competence required to cross from Timor to Australia with a minimal number of males and females required to found a viable population is far in excess of what had been assumed available to these hominins. Hundreds of specific skills are involved, in procuring, transporting, processing, curating, fashioning and assembling numerous materials for one singular, totally abstract goal: to reach a still invisible shore, at immense cost in labour and hardship, and with a perseverance to be maintained over periods of many months. It is perfectly possible to do this with Middle, even Lower Palaeolithic technology. But it is an achievement that renders all current ideas about the cognitive, intellectual and linguistic abilities of these hominins totally superseded.

Robert G. Bednarik
International Institute of Replicative Archaeology
PO Box 216
Caulfield South, Vic. 3162



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This paper was written in March 1999.