Infinite Voyage of the Navigational Mind
How did primitive seafaring alter us?
In “Around Cape Horn,” a video produced by Mystic Seaport in 1980, Captain Irving Johnson narrates film footage from his first voyage on board the SS Peking, a four-masted, steel-hulled barque, during 1929. The largest ship in the world of its kind at that time, the Peking was entirely sail-powered, requiring scores of sailors to manage five tons of canvas sheeting at extraordinary risk through the stormiest waters on earth.
These “clipper ships” were the most advanced sailing technology ever invented before steam power finished replacing wind as the chief form of propulsion for shipping. As such, they represent the final form of a technological development track stretching back 800,000 years or more to a time before Homo sapiens even existed. Taking this longue durée view of human seafaring history, the Peking appears to be a highly advanced evolutionary adaptation of the humans aboard her.
If Captain Johnson sailed in the same water as ancient hominins and on the same winds, perhaps they had the same purposes, and is fair to ask how much of the human mind has been shaped by evolution on the water.
It is a commonplace observation of geographers that most humans live near coasts, lakes, or rivers. Water being essential for mere survival, let alone agriculture and surplus, this is not surprising. That no human marine environment exists without watercraft on it should be equally unsurprising. As long as materials exist at hand, someone can, and eventually will, and always has, ventured onto the water.
Food is the most obvious purpose. Put in economic terms, humans seem to prefer “technologies that reduce search and capture time and expand the list of available foods,” as Jim Allen and James O’Connell argue. Biology has identified myriad hunting underwater strategies among land-dwelling animals. If watercraft are as old as we think, then hunting activity makes the most sense as their point of origin. Rather than a sense of adventure, or aggrandizement, humans followed the Bering land bridge coastline to North America chasing the fish and game along the shores, arriving on the coast of southern California by 6,000 BC.
Of course, it is impossible to verify the existence of these earliest watercraft because no remains would have lasted this long. Even the Peking would probably be unrecognizable after a million years; we have no hope of identifying such an ancient watercraft. We must infer the use of watercraft instead by the presence of hominin remains, middens, tools, etc. on islands that were never in sight of land even when the seas were at their lowest.
For example, Homo erectus could not reach the island of Flores in modern-day Indonesia without some sort of water transportation, yet tools on the island date as far back as one million years. Likewise, Homo Sapiens was able to leave the southern tip of Africa well over 130,000 years ago, reach Australia roughly 50,000 years ago, and from Australia, reach across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar by way of the Maldives 2,000 years ago, encircling one of the world’s great oceans. Humans apparently reached Crete and Cyprus repeatedly between 130,000 BC and 9,000 BC.
These people did not stay. As hunter-gatherers move around on land, so the fisher-forager moves on water, never settling for long. Most of this archaeology is now lost underwater. Rising sea levels stimulate watercraft development, however, so the Younger Dryas and the Mesolithic period would naturally represent a flourishing of watercraft even as it erased all the evidence of previous epochs. Thus the first rock art depictions of watercraft, as well as our earliest archaeological specimens of watercraft, naturally date from this period.
We may draw a general picture of the deep past from this information. Hominins began on the water as hunters and fishers, mostly exploring a range rather than continuing in an outbound direction for very long during the first several hundred thousand years.
“Humans,” as we know ourselves, have always acknowledged an instinctive need to go looking for adventure somewhere. Connected to language and our ability to tell stories, this ‘sense of adventure’ bears the implicit premise of return. A voyage has a beginning and an end, with the journey being in between. Thus Homo sapiens went farthest of all the hominins, and remains the most successful, because he left and came back again. We may leave the analysis of myth to Joseph Campbell and simply note that the original human ‘journey,’ remembered as either oral or written narrative, often involves a boat.
Ships are synonymous with adventure. As Captain Johnson acknowledges in his commentary, he went on board the Peking as a form of thrill-seeking. Perhaps this is not a new phenomenon, or something that humans learned recently, but something that has actually defined us as a species. Perhaps an instinct for discovery — something about Homo sapiens related to our use of the sea — is an important thing that separates us from our predecessor species, a trait becoming more pronounced with our evolution, stimulated by contact with the water.
Consider the navigator. Nature has invented many ways of navigating without tools. In addition to tools for seafaring, we have also developed entire cognitive systems to navigate at sea.
Pre-literate Atlantic sailors knew how to find their way by sounding the sea bottom and tracking tides. In modern times, Micronesian sailors have demonstrated traditional methods of navigation by tracking the movement of stars in the sky, referencing islands, following known currents, and sighting clouds over islands. Bushfires can reflect from the underside of a cloud as well, showing that an island exists over the horizon. Wave patterns reveal the lay of the undersea surface.
Of course, the more often someone navigates the same waters, the better they will know those waters. In nautical terminology, “pilotage navigation” is the ability to navigate that develops from boating in one’s own backyard.
Nevertheless, long before humans had magnetic compasses or sextants, we developed this ability to discover places over the horizon – “new worlds,” to use a poetic phrase – as an evolutionary adaptation and an inherently cognitive process. Seafaring navigation “is one arena, outside their own laboratories, where cognitive psychologists believe they can see humans thinking,” writes Stanford anthropologist Charles Frake. Using “purely mental devices,” humans have always been natural navigators.
Neanderthal could sail back and forth across the strait of Gibraltar, for he knew how to make ropes, an underlying technology of seafaring, and he had a human brain to navigate. Dependent on tools like GPS and accurate charts, and lacking the knowledge to build our own watercraft by hand anymore, we moderns are the real dummies.
Agriculture changes matters, especially on islands. The Neolithic period saw intensified settlement and food production, creating social hierarchies in burgeoning populations; these effects are magnified by the limited arable land space of an island. Evolutionary biogeographers have long noted the evolutionary extremes of the island habitat in species such as stegodonts, a kind of pygmy elephant that attracted hunters to visit Cyprus before the Neolithic. Similarly, islands have been observed to produce communal government and despotism.
Writing on the history of Polynesia, anthropologists Douglas J. Kennett and Bruce Winterhalder note that despotic behavior, which they define as “an extreme bias in the control of resources by certain individuals” associated with population density and resource disparity, played a significant role in the final wave of emigrations during the first millennium AD. Such despotism was endemic to Fiji and Tahiti at first contact with Europeans. Moreover, “warfare and territorial conquest were despotic strategies for increasing surplus production and the asymmetric distribution of wealth.”
Let us pause now to consider the two previous points. Ancient foragers visited one island to obtain ivory from pygmy elephants and hippos, probably as a trade good. Ancient settlers of one island periodically raided other islands to aggrandize themselves. To a casual observer, these two activities — trade and war — may seem like opposites, but anthropology has observed that groups tend to trade and fight with the same other groups. That is, any two groups might trade one day and fight another, or even do both on the same day.
To a conflict theorist, trade and warfare are indistinguishable in archaeology — they will always be found together, often bound up together. It is safe to assume that human beings have always traded with one hand and fought with the other, and always with one foot in the water.
Trade and conquest follow on hunting and gathering as an evolutionary expansion. We would then expect that watercraft history is intimately related to the origins of chiefdom, kingship, and the state formation process, and this seems to be correct. The political development tracks leading to the Vasa, a famous 17th Century Swedish ship of the line, were already visible in Iron Age Scandinavian petroglyphs of warriors and long ships. Palace systems of the Minoan and Mycenean worlds were themselves products of even more ancient seafaring worlds of trade and war.
Here again, we may find cognitive breakthroughs in human development that come from our contact with the sea. Our highly-adapted instinct to trade on the water led to trading in bulk, which required administration. More predatory instincts lie behind piracy, which must be answered by a navy, which also requires administration.
From the moment humans left their first shore, the evolutionary push and pull factors on the water led towards state formation. This can be seen more clearly in the history of violence at sea than on land.
Our first evidence of a battle at sea comes at the end of the Bronze Age world. In a letter ca. 1210 BC, the last Hittite king Suppiluliumas II mentions a naval victory over an unnamed enemy based in Cyprus that left their ships burning.
In this same era, a mural of Rameses III depicts a battle against so-called “sea peoples” in the Nile Delta. Aside from grapnels used to capsize enemy boats, there are no anti-ship weapons. Rather, the fighting is all hand-to-hand or with arrows. The ‘dolphin’ recovered from the famous Antikythera wreck, contemporary to these events, shows that anti-boarding devices already existed. For the most part, however, it appears that combat on sea was very like combat on land in the Bronze Age and until the invention of effective gunpowder cannons.
To this end, stability was an obvious issue. “The development of more stable watercrafts coincides with the emergence of early nation states,” writes historian Rolf Warming. “Stable watercrafts would not only have facilitated geographical expansion but almost certainly also the projection of power at sea.”
Of course, this process is not linear, as we can see in the career of the galley, a technology which had a late renaissance in the Baltic even as it passed out of use in the Mediterranean. Humans use the tools that work best in the culture and tactics of the moment.
Nevertheless, we can observe humans in the past optimizing resources to exert “state policy” at sea as far back as we are able to observe states. Better than remnants, we have text. Kings send ships. Ships bring soldiers. Sails and oars carry tribute over troubled waters. It was all happening already when people first began to write things down. It was a primary incentive to write them down in the first place.
About 3,500 BC, an army marched north from Uruk to besiege the community of Tell Hamoukar. Although it is impossible to perfectly reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the conflict, and what exactly took place there — Mesopotamians had not yet perfected cuneiform to leave us records — Uruk clearly occupied the city afterwards.
We are left with the picture of an imperial city-state at the dawn of civilization marching and sailing thousands of troops hundreds of miles up the Tigris River, equipping and supplying and training them to attack city defenses using primitive watercraft for logistics. If this was already their use at the dawn of what we call civilization, then it follows that watercraft have always been logistical tools used in power projection.
Humans went hunting and gathering, trading and raiding, and all of this has always served to shape our societies. Not all nation-states have coastline, but almost all of them have rivers, and a simple examination of the political globe will show that many land boundaries include stretches of river, since they serve as natural territorial markers. We are territorial creatures, after all. Here again, we find highly-developed human instincts expressed at the water’s edge.
However, modernity and complexity create technological traps. As already noted, our innate or natural navigational cognition suffers from our perfection of cognitive labor-saving navigational tools. Likewise, the modern watercraft is not a craft at all. That is, your factory-built metal canoe is an exact copy of thousands of other canoes. Someone has designed it and the factory has stamped it out according to very precise specifications. A ship like the Peking is in fact anticraft, the utter abolition of craft.
During the first million years of our history as a species, the design stage of any watercraft and the construction stage were one continuous process, “craft.” Separating these two stages of construction has been a rather recent cognitive process all on its own, and architecture of buildings and ships was the first human activity observed to make this separation into two phases, a design phase followed by a construction phase.
The essential modern industrial design art and the invention of the modern industrial state happened at the same time. In his book Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe, naval historian Jan Glete makes a strong argument that seafaring was essential to the Westphalian state formation process.
Navalism is itself a kind of technological trap into which states fall all the time, at ruinous expense. It is all very human behavior. The amphibious warrior, one foot in the water, the other on shore, has always been us.
What began with Homo erectus hunting and gathering fish fat to develop larger brains has turned into Homo sapiens building empires and navies. That is quite a long trip by boat. Our contact with water has probably shaped us in ways we have yet to fathom.