ISOLATIONIST OR DIFFUSIONIST?
ISOLATIONIST OR DIFFUSIONIST?
By Thor Heyerdahl-(1971) [with 30 photos at the end of the article]
The speculations as to contacts between the Old World and the New before the voyages of Columbus have never ended. In scientific terms, they have gradually hardened into two opposed schools of thought: Isolationism and Diffusionism. The Isolationists believe that the two main oceans surrounding the Americas completely isolated the New World from Old World contact until AD 1492; this school of thought allows for primitive food-gatherers to have passed from Asia, Europe, or Africa in pre-Columbian times. Extremists in both schools have one marked characteristic in common: little or no appreciation of such oceanographic factors as prevailing winds and currents. To them, oceans are dead, immobile lakes. The difference between them is that the extreme Isolationist believes that these dead expanses of water represent barriers to human movement in any direction, whereas the extreme Diffusionist considers them rather as open 'skating rinks' upon which aboriginal voyagers could travel in any direction as they pleased. This disregard for geographical reality has led Diffusionists to postulate frequently ill-founded migration theories, which have no other effect than to harden the attitutde of the Isolationists. At the same time, the dogmatic manner in which the Isolationists have defended their case--solely by passing the burden of proof to the Diffusionists--has caused equal resentment among the latter. Indeed, the Isolationists have never attempted to adduce direct proof for their case, considering their position to be sufficiently vindicated by the absence of proof for the Diffusionist position: lack of proof of contact, they regard as proof of no contact.
Everyone agrees that there are many--and often remarkable--similarities between the civilizations of pre-Columbian America and those of the Mediterranean world. The Isolationists believe that these parallels and occasional identities can be ascribed to independent evolution along parallel lines. This is based on the knowledge that the human mind is apt to react inventively in a similar way to similar environmental challenges on either side of the geographical barrier--in this case, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The identity or parallel occurence, therefore, of certain tools, ornamental design, customs, or other cultural traits might obviously be the result of independent evolution and is, accordingly, invalid as proof of contact or oversea migration. A great majority of modern scholars have accepted the logic of this reasoning, and with its acceptance fell a whole series of formerly convincing arguments for global migration produced by the Diffusionists. Ideas and inventions, such as pyramid building, sun worship, marriage between brothers and sisters in royal families, mummification, the wearing of false beards among priest-kings, trepanning, script, calendar systems, the use of zero, irrigation and terrace agriculture, cotton cultivation, spinning and weaving, pottery, fitted megalithic masonry, the sling, birdman deities, musical wind-instruments, reed boats, fish hooks, necropolises, mural painting, relief carving, adobe-brick manufacture, hierarchic society, paper manufacture, ceramic stamps, and wheeled toys, were all elements that could have been thought of twice and are therefore considered inconclusive as evidence, of trans-oceanic influence. Consequently, whenever Diffusionists emerged with a new case of Old and New World cultural parallels to include trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific contact, the argument was predestined to be labeled 'non-proven'.
In spite of the setbacks that the Diffusionist movement suffered from the Isolationist doctrines, attempts to muster arguments in favour of cultural contacts across the sea never quite disappeared, and in recent years they have even gained momentum, not least in America, where resistance had for many years been strongest.
There can be but two reasons for this return of the pendulum towards Diffusionism. Either the Diffusionists' arguments are beginning to convince an increasing number of scholars, or else the arguments of the Isolationists are falling short of being generally thought conclusive. It seems that the latter is the case, for since the Diffusionists' evidence is sometimes vague, the comeback of their doctrine can only be due to the failure of the Isolationists to demonstrate the watertight validity of their own views. In a paper on 'Theoretical Issues in the Trans-Pacific Diffusion Controversy', D. Fraser clearly demonstrates how the available evidence can be interpreted either way and that what stands as valid evidence of diffusion for one scholar is interpreted in precisely the opposite way by another. He shows how the Asian game of parcheesi and the closely analogous Mexican one of patolli are used by both Diffusionist and Isolationist to bolster his own respective case. One camp argues that because of the similarity of these two games, links must exist, and it proceeds to search for such links; the other camp says that distance and other factors preclude relationship, and thus the existence of the game perfectly demonstrates the validity of the independent-invention doctrine. In the light of this example, one can see that the difference in opinion calls for cautious and fully unbiased attitudes from both sides and that the Isolationist should divide his efforts equally between the rebutting of the Diffusionist's case and a search for positive evidence in support of his own views. Although it is often claimed that the burden of proof falls heaviest on the Diffusionist, it certainly does not fall on him alone, and until either side has conclusively proved the validity of its case, controversy is bound to continue.
An ever growing number of scholars, however, perhaps now even the majority, seems recently to have adopted a cautious middle course, not siding with either of the two extreme doctrines but admitting that ocean currents may have carried individual craft without surviving aboriginal crews to or from America, without this necessarily representing a population movement on a major scale. I will therefore use the term Diffusionist for one who generally favors human contact as an explanation wherever cultural parallels occur and Isolationist for one who dogmatically believes that the oceans surrounding the Americas were impassable before AD 1942.
Let us then look impartially at this impenetrable barrier that the Isolationists erect around America before Columbus. Without question, an ocean is normally more effective than a desert, swamp, jungle, or tundra when it comes to stopping the geographic progress of aboriginal man. But an ocean nevertheless has pathways of currents and winds that facilitate its crossing.
There are two basic observations that must constantly be remembered when long trans-oceanic voyages are considered. The first is that the distance between two antipodal points is never shorter along the Equator than along the great circles curving by way of the northern or southern hemispheres. Our minds are so used to the map projections showing the Equator as a straight line that we forget that it is, in fact, a circle. The second is that the voyaging distance of a surface craft travelling straight from one geographical point to another is not equal to the measurable distance between these points (dead distance), nor is it equally long in both directions. The dead distance between two points may be measured in miles, but this has very little relation to the actual water span to be traversed between them. This is a ratio between the speed of the current and the speed of the vessel in question. Take, for instance, the dead distance between Peru and the Tuamotu islands. It is approximately 4,000 miles, yet the raft Kon-Tiki reached the islands from Peru after crossing only about 1,000 miles of surface water. The reason for this is that the ocean surface itself was displaced about 3,000 miles from east to west during the time needed for the crossing. Had we been able to sail back along the same route at the same speed, we would have had to cover about 7,000 miles of surface water before reaching Peru. This means that for Kon-Tiki the Tuamotus are only 1,000 sailing miles from Peru, whereas Peru is 7,000 sailing miles from the Tuamotus. This factor must be taken into consideration whenever one thinks in terms of any ocean crossing in primitive craft.
There are three main natural oceanic routes to the New World--two on the Atlantic side and one on the Pacific--and three routes away from it--two on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic. These routes are so well defined that they may be named after their historically recorded discoverers.
In the Atlantic, the approach routes are, first, the Leif Eriksson Route, from Norway to Greenland and Newfoundland by way of the Faeroes and Iceland. This route is favoured by very short oversea distances and a fast, south-sweeping current along the east and south coasts of Greenland to Labrador and Newfoundland. The second, the Columbus route, is longer, but offers gentle climatic conditions and extremely favourable currents and prevailing winds. It originates along the northwest African coast and runs with the Canary Current straight to the West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico. It receives a strong southern feeder from Madagascar and South Africa, which enters the West Indies by way of the Brazillian coast. Although born as two separate African units, these pathways must be considered as sub-divisions of one sea route pulling tropical America close to Africa, yet conversely setting Africa farther from the New World.
The departure route from America on the Atlantic side is the Gulf Stream, which starts from the Gulf of Mexico, sweeping northeast-wards across the North Atlantic and up the west coast of Britain; but its importance is not very great in as much as it would be in-hospitable to tropically acclimatized natives of Central America who would be little prepared to survive the long northbound drift into the cold North Atlantic.
On the Pacific side, the principal sea routes are, first, the Mendana Route, named after the first European who set sail from the New World in search of the inhabited Pacific islands reported by Inca merchants. For this reason, it might also be called the Inca Route. Its potential for aboriginal craft was demonstrated by the raft Kon-Tiki in 1947 and subsequently by seven other raft expeditions from Peru. The second route, from Mexico to Indonesia, may be named the Saavedra Route in reference to the first crossing made in this area by Saavedra in 1527 and subsequently consistently followed by the Spanish galleons for two hundred years. At first sight, this route seems very long, but it is considerably reduced by the powerful North Equatorial Current and is aided by favourable local trade winds.
The only marine conveyor from the Orient to the New World, as discovered in 1565, is the Urdaneta Route, named after the navigator whose written records revealed it to subsequent voyagers--although Arellano completed the same crossing three months before Urdaneta. This route is drastically shortened by the eastbound Kuroshiwo Current, which brings warm water and a mild climate directly from the Phillipine Sea to the northwest American coast and then down the west coast of the continent to Mexico. The belt of contrary trade winds is avoided and the 'loop' north of Hawaii is, as we have seen, entirely illusive even in dead miles--as this is a great circle route. This is the only natural Asia-America route.
The Equatorial counter-current that figures prominently on most maps as running eastbound towards America between the westbound north and south Equatorial currents is nothing but an interrupted series of eddies and is of scant use to trans-Pacific voyagers, as Eric de Bisschop and Eduardo Ingris, on separate voyages, have found out to their cost in recent years. In conclusion, therefore, one could say that rather than acting as a barrier, the oceans are crossed by gigantic conveyor belts that will transport from one region to another anything remaining afloat on them.
Clearly, the value of currents and winds to the Diffusionists' case depends on the nature and chronology of contact evidence found at either end of such a conveyor belt. Without adequate regard for both the nature and chronology of the contact evidence, the Diffusionist can readily misinterpret available data--even if the geographic converyor belt is in his favor. The nature of contact evidence means the particular manifestation of a given phenomenon that renders it identifiable and specific: a surgical procedure, religious practice, building technique, or social organization, for example. That any one of these--say, trepanning--could evolve independently on both sides of the Atlantic is possible. The same can be said for pyramid building. A single culture element found to appear at both ends of a natural sea route may very well be the result of coincidence of independent evolution along parallel lines. To become a reasonable indicator of contact, a whole array of identities or similarities of extraordinary nature must be found concentrated in the two areas linked by a land bridge or marine conveyor. Far too often, a Diffusionist will find, say, a particular petroglyphic symbol, artifact, or funeral custom repeated in two areas, and from such a single case of parallelism, he will postualte theories of human migration. This tendency on the part of too many Diffusionists, to draw far-reaching conclusions on the basis of detached, individual pieces of evidence, has been justifiably criticized by the Isolationists, who thus gain something of an upper hand in the debate merely through the default of their opponents. The Diffusionists case, however, could be rendered considerably stronger, not necessarily by the adducing of new evidence, but merely by the presentation of evidence already at hand in a statistically convincing manner. It must be borne in mind that the cultural phenomena mentioned earlier as characterizing the civilizations of the Mediterranean area and pre-Columbian America are not isolated, individual factors existing outside any larger context. Quite the contrary: on both sides of the Atlantic, they are profoundly intermeshed and integral elements of complex and sophisticated social systems. It is no more meaningful to treat them separately as unconnected cultural phenomena than it would be to treat unconnected words without regard to their parent language.
What confronts us, then, on both sides of the Atlantic are arrays of cultural parallels. And when these are dealt with as complexes, we are faced by amazing statistical indications. True pyramids, for example, have a limited distribution on both sides of the Atlantic (Mesopotamia, Egypt--Mexico, Peru) and, as stated, might as well have been developed independently. The same can be said of mummification. But when both pyramids and mummification appear in the same two restricted areas, then the likelihood of coincidence is considerably decreased. Trepanation can also have been developed independently, but when this difficult art--with its very restricted distribution--appears together with pyramids and mummification, then the strength of the Diffusionist argument is not only tripled but, according to statistical rules, increases in an ever-steepening mathematical curve. When, further, the use of false beards among priests-kings, intermarriage among royal siblings, sun worship, reed boats, fitted megalithic masonry, bird-man deities, and the whole list of Mediterranean-American parallels are considered together as an entity then the probability of Diffusion rather than independent development does not increase arithmetically but exponentially; for instance, a cluster of twelve parallels grouped together, say, in Mesopotamia and Mexico does not weight twelve times heavier in the discussion than a single parallel, but rather, according to the laws of probability, has increased its significance by a truly astronomical amount. Among other things, this means that the Isolationist's technique of negating these parallels one by one by labelling them 'coincidence' is mathematically invalid.The Isolationist may choose any one--or even two--perhaps three--of the culture traits he wants to eliminate, but no matter which he chooses, the rest will remain on the Diffusionist's side of the scales.
Turning next to the problem of chronology, we find that the failure of the Diffusionists to give due consideration to chronology has frequently left their arguments wide open to attacks from the Isolationists. All too often, the Isolationists have been able to demonstrate that a cultural element is older in America than in the outside area whence some Diffusionist has hypothesized that this particular trait had been imported. For many years, it was common for Diffusionists to argue that the islanders of Eastern Polynesia had brought important culture traits to the civilizations of Peru and Mexico, like, for instance, the custom of carving and erecting giant stone statues in human form. Such theories could easily be disproved by the fact that the elements under consideration had a distribution in vast areas of America even before the Polynesian islands had been reached by aboriginal man.
Both Isolationists and Diffusionists alike agree that America was first peopled by primitive food-gatherers who filtered across from Siberia to Alaska in the Arctic north--without any navigational skill or degree of culture, except the lowest form of stone-age tools. The Isolationists therefore presuppose that all elements of American civilization are locally developed within America itself. The primitive migrant from the Arctic tundra had neither agriculture, architecture, script, nor any other of the cultural attributes typical of the peoples discovered by the Spanish Conquistadores in a continuous belt from Mexico to Peru. Herein, then, lies the vulnerability of the Isolationist doctrine, and for once, the Diffusionist is able to lodge a criticism: in spite of intensive archaeological test digs and stratified excavtions in all main culture centres from Mexico to Peru--that is, wherever in high culture flourished in ancient America--no trace of gradual evolution from primitive society to civilization has been discovered anywhere within the New World. Wherever archaeologists have dug, they have found that civilization begins at a peak and shows a decline rather than progress through the centuries leading to the arrival of the first Europeans. The Incas of Peru astonished the Spaniards with their high degree of culture, yet archaeology has shown that the Incas had borrowed most of their cultural elements from the earlier Tiahuanaco and Mochica cultures, which in many respects had an even more sophisticated and impressive civilization that suddenly appeared without traceable background in the highlands of the Andes and on the desert coast of Peru. Modern archaeology has established that contact took place between these early, pre-Inca civilizations and the contemporaneous civilizations of Mexico and Central America. In Mexico, correspondingly, the great cultures of the Aztecs, Toltecs, and Mayas had drawn their basic lessons from the highly advanced civilization of the Olmecs, an unknown people who suddenly established Mexico's earliest civilization--with script, calendar system, pyramid building, etc. fully developed--on the unfavourable jungle coast of the Gulf of Mexico, precisely where the marine conveyor from Africa ends.
Why, ask the Diffusionists, are the Isolationists unable to show us a single geographical area in America where the local evolution they champion can be verified? And why was there no corresponding evolution among the aboriginal inhabitants of the climatically more stimulating areas that are now the United States, Chile, and Argentina, all of which were originally peopled by the same migrant stock that arrived via Alaska? Here, it is the Isolationists who are lost for a satisfactory answer.
To sum up, the Isolationist position rests on searching out flaws in the Diffusionists' argument--and on a peculiar approach to geographical factors. The Isolationists base their school of thought on recognition of the fact that men are physically and mentally so alike that they will normally duplicate each other's actions and achievements irrespective of time or geography. Nevertheless, the Isolationists deviate enormously from this attitude in attributing totally different abilities and inclinations to trans-Atlantic travellers before and after 1492. A typical example of this inclination to consider 1492 a turning point in anthropology, with a clear break in all former rules of human behaviour, is found in a paper on 'Diffusionism and Archaeology' by J.H. Rowe (American Antiquity, January 1966). The author compiles a most impressive array of no less than 60 remarkable parallels between two restricted areas within the Old and the New Worlds. He himself describes this assembly as 'a substantial list of specific cultural features of limited distribution which were shared by cultures of the ancient Andean area and the ancient Mediterranean prior to the Middle Ages'. His list ranges from reed boats to sandals of hide or coiled rope, of which he says that: 'Very specific resemblances in design and manufacture can be traced.' One might think that this thought-provoking list had been compiled to bolster the case for Diffusion. But this is not so by any means, as the author lets us know in no uncertain terms. He starts his paper by stating: 'Doctrinaire diffusionism is a menace to the developemnt of sound archaelogical theory. . . . In the science-fiction world of the diffusionists . . . time, distance, and the difficulties of navigation are assumed to be irrelevant. Archaeology has too long and honourable a tradition to be surrendered without a protest to fantasies which require us to start with our conclusions and use them to deform the evidence.' But Dr Rowe is basing his own entire argument on just such a method of starting with conclusions. In fact, he presents his list of parallels to argue that areas he tacitly assumes are too far apart for any pre-Columbian contact to have occurred--like the Andean area and the Mediterranean world--still possess an array of very specific culture features in common. Ergo, he concludes, even the most impressive array of parallelism can arise through independent evolution. In other words, he assumes as basis for his entire argument that Peru and the Mediterranean world are too far apart for contact and uses this assumption to discredit cultural identities as evidence of Diffusion.
On what basis can it be regarded as axiomatic that Peru is 'too far' from the Mediterranean world for contact to have taken place prior to 1492? In Columbus's own lifetime, with a crew of no more than normally endowed men, Francisco Pizarro travelled straight from the Mediterranean world to Peru by way of Central America. Like Columbus shortly before him, he managed the oceanic voyage entirely without navigational charts of the waters around the Americas. He then succeeded in traversing the jungle-covered Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific side, whence he sailed onwards in new vessels, past the impenetrable coastal swamplands, until he reached the favourable, open terrain of Peru, where he established a settlement. His compatriot, Cortes, on the other hand, had already landed on the jungle coast of the Gulf of Mexico, making his way up into the open Mexican high-plateau country far from his landing site and establishing a settlement there.
We of European extraction are surely not so blindfolded by our own history that we consider ourselves a line of supermen, able to do four centuries ago what the great civilizations of Asia Minor and North Africa could not have done earlier. It must not be forgotten that these people of antiquity had skills and capacities that far surpassed anything imitated in Europe during the Middle Ages. The Egyptians and their neighbours in Mesopotamia and Phoenicia knew more about astronomy, the key to ocean navigtion, than any Europeans contemporary with Columbus, Cortes, and Pizarro. And the Phoenicians, in collaboration with the Egyptians, were circumnavigating Africa as early as the time of the Pharoah Necho, twenty centuries before Columbus set sail in an ocean Europeans believed was filled with dragons and ended in a precipice at the horizon.
We marvel at the abilities and capacities of the ancients as embodied in their titanic pyramids and obelisks, sophisticated mathematics and calendar systems, profound literature and philosophy, perfect mastery of maritime architecture as evidenced by the functional form and complex rigging of their ships in planks and reeds 3,000 years BC, and their spirit and skill in exploration and colonization as revealed by the numerous archaeological vestiges of Phoenician settlement all the way down the Atlantic coast of Morocco dating back 3,000 years. But is it realistic to stand in awe of these achievements only to deny the ancients the intellectual and mechanical ability to do what Pizarro did with a handful of men in an age beset by ignorance and superstition?
One of the 60 parallels cited by Dr Rowe as being shared by the ancient civilizations of Peru and the Mediterranean world was the reed boat. Is it the boats of the ancients that we do not trust? The seaworthiness of these craft has been empirically demonstrated quite recently. In fact, in 1969, the entire coastal voyage between Peru and Panama was successfully undertaken by a Peruvian totora-reed boat. The experimental voyage, by an untrained crew with no sea-going experience led by Gene Savoy, took two months, from 15 April to 17 June. At about the same time, from 25 May to 18 July, my own papyrus-reed boat, Ra I, built according to African design, sailed from the Old World to the vicinity of Barbados. This experimental voyage was repeated on Ra II the following year, and in 57 days, our reed boat, manned by an inexperienced crew, crossed safely from Africa to tropical America. These three reed-boat voyages all took place within a period of 16 months. Neither Gene Savoy with his companions nor I with mine would have had any greater trouble walking across the Isthmus of Panama than had Pizarro--or any other voyagers who might have reached the Isthmus before him. The swampy jungle country of the Isthmus area did not tempt Pizarro and his men to found a colony upon arrival there; instead, they pushed on across land and water until they reached the hospitable coastal terrain of Peru. Why should other people have acted differently if they preceded Pizarro across the Atlantic? By attributing motivations and accomplishments to Pizarro's little group of medieval voyagers--and rejecting the very idea that other Mediterranean voyagers might independently have benefited from the same winds and currents and thus ended up with a similar itinerary--the Isolationist does violence to the very basic law of Isolationism: that people are apt to duplicate each other's feats, given the same environmental conditions.
Too many anthropologists, of both schools, have an unrealistic conception of what constituties a geographical barrier to jungle hunters and coastal fishermen. Inexperience with jungle life or with the effects of natural marine conveyors can lead even prominent anthropologists to draw seemingly reasonable conclusions, which nevertheless all too often arise from misinterpretations of physical geography. Such anthropological conclusions have often penetrated associated literature as supporting evidence supposedly having different origins. Striking examples of such circuitous reasoning are to be found in the field of ethnobotany, the study of cultivated plants. As we have seen, both Islationists and Diffusionists have used the same cultural parallels to support the opposite points of view. Botanical evidence, however, is subject to far fewer subjective variables, almost none of which is avilable to human manipulation, and the evidence of genetic factors is therefore accorded considerably more respect in object scientific circles.
The history of the common garden bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, clearly illustrates how preconceived opinions on aboriginal navigational possibilities have biased the reciprocal conclusions of botanists and anthropologists. In 1885, Kornicke pointed out that this important crop plant was formerly generally accepted as having been cultivated by Greeks and Romans under the names of Dolickos, Phaseolos, etc. (Aristphanes and Hippocrates wrote about it in about 400 BC.) When it was discovered that the same bean was cultivated among the aborigines of the New World, it was thought that it must have been introduced by the early Spaniards. This was accepted until Wittmack, in 1880, discovered the common bean at the prehistoric cemetary of Ancon, on the coast of central Peru, and botanists were confronted with ample evidence of its pre-European cultivation in America. A theoretical introduction by the Spaniards thus became untenable as an explanation. At this time, however, pre-Columbian specimens of the bean were no longer available. The theory was therefore reversed and the view taken that Phaseolus had originated in aboriginal America, from whence it had been carried to Europe by the Spaniards. A re-examination of this confused botanical issue by Hutchinson, Silow, and Stephens in 1947 convinced them, however, that Phaseolus was not indigenous to the New World and that its peregrinations represented a piece of botanical evidence for contact from the Old World to the New World before Columbus.
The bottle gourd, Lagenaria vulgaris, represents another piece of botanical contact evidence. This important culture plant was widely cultivated in Africa before Columbus. Although the gourd itself is of only moderate food value, its rind was fire-dried and used as a water-tight container from Mesopotamia and Egypt to Morocco. When botanist came to study plants in the New World, they found it cultivated and used for the same purpose in all the American high-culture areas, including Mexico and Peru. It was supposed, as it had been for the bean, that the Spaniards had brought it over; again, however, this theory was gradually abandoned when the bottle gourd was found by archeologists in pre-Columbian culture sites in both Mexico and Peru. It was one of the most consistent culture elements within the American high-culture areas. A second theory was then advanced: the bottle gourd could have floated across the Atlantic from Africa, been washed ashore in the tropic America with live seeds, and grown. The Indians would have noticed that the rind, when dried over a fire, made an excellent container, and the original African use of the gourd would thus have been rediscovered. This, of course, is a deliberate attempt to dispose of a piece of undesirable evidence. The Isolationists, with the intention of being cautious, are, in effect, throwing the baby out with the bath-water. They attempt to wipe away an important African fingerprint in America: solid genetic evidence. As anyone who has drifted across oceans will be well aware, small, edible objects--like gourds--will immediately become the pray of both sharks and boring organisms such as shipworm. The four months needed for an African gourd to drift alone across the Atlantic would subject it a thousand times over to being gulped down by scavenging sharks or penetrated and quickly rendered unviable by the ever-present shipworm, teredo. To a raft voyager, it sounds paradoxical to hear it claimed that of two African culture elements--the terrestrial gourd and the maritime boat--the gourd can drift successfully by sea to America but not the boat!
The cotton plant, Gossypium, provides even more intriguing evidence. Wild cotton is short-linted, unspinnable, and unsuggestive of any practical use to man. Yet, when the Europeans came to America, they found the Indians all through the high-culture area from Mexico to Peru wearing sophisticated cotton clothes of outstanding quality. In fact, subsequent archaeological excavations in the mummy tombs of peru have uncovered cotton cloth from the earliest pre-Inca period exhibiting a fineness of mesh and decorative patterns unsurpassed anywhere. Obviously, then, the very founders of Peruvian civilization had somehow come into possession of a cultivated, long-linted species of cotton, as well as the spindle whorl and the loom. The progress from useless, short-lined cotton in the wild, via spindle whorl and loom, to finished cloth is long and not at all self-evident until it has already been completed. As shown by such a declared Isolationist as Dr Rowe in his list of Peru-Mediterranean parallels, the method and the results of cotton weaving in Peru are the same as those in the Old World. He shows that the vertical-frame loom with two warp beams used by the Incas was the same as that used in Egypt in the New Kingdom, probably introduced from Mesopotamia. He adds that the second of the two types of Peruvian looms, the horizontal loom staked out on the ground, as used in the Titicaca Basin, was also the same as that of ancient Egypt. Many observers have noted remarkable similarities between the cloaks and loin-cloths produced on these looms in America and those produced likewise in the ancient Mediterranean area. Rowe, in particular, goes so far as to use the word 'identical' in listing 'A kind of woman's dress, consisting of a rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around the body under the arms and pinned on both shoulders, fastened at the waist with a girdle. . . .'
In 1947, Hutchinson, Silow, and Stephens published the first study of the genetics of cotton from all over the world. They discovered that cotton could be differentiated into three groups according to the number and size of its chromosomes. All the cottons of the Old World, both wild and domestic species, have thirteen large chromosomes. In the New World, however, there is a remarkable difference between the wild and the cultivated cotton. All the wild cottons of America have thirteen small chromosomes, whereas the cultivated species--and there were three of them from Mexico to Peru--have twenty-six chromosomes, thirteen small and thirteen large. Since there was no large-chromosome cotton among the wild American species, and since the cultivated American species is clearly a hybrid, some unaccounted for species must have been avilable to the early American cotton cultivators at the rise of local civilization, enabling them to produce what was obiously a man-made hybrid. It would seem very reasonable, since it is the thirteen large chromosomes that have been added, that they somehow obtained either the wild or the cultivated species from the Old World, and that the hybrid with spinnable lint developed and spread with high culture through Mexico and Peru.
Wherever one finds aboriginal civilization in the New World, one also finds twenty-six-chromosome cultivated cotton, and it spread from the Pacific coast into Polynesia as American influence extended into this adjacent island area. From the westernmost limits of Polynesia all the way into Southeast Asia, however, cotton, wild or cultivated, was unknown. The Polynesian cotton abandoned to grow wild before the Europeans arrived proved to be a wild descendent of the hybridized, artifically produced American cotton. There is no doubt about the Polynesian cotton's having been brought by man from America, because it is the cultivated and not the wild species. The question is, how did spinnable cotton come into existence in America?
The wild species with thirteen small chromosomes was native to the New World, and the botanical problem refers only to how the Indians of Mexico and Peru subsequently obtained the thirteen large chromosome species, typical of the Old World from Egypt to Pakistan but absent in America. There are only two possibilities: either the Old World cotton species--just at the time when civilization was developing in America--happened to drift safely across the ocean without being destroyed, or it was brought there intentionally--along with the gourd--by ancient voyagers. If the former alternative is the right one, we must postulate that Indians were standing on the beach when the seeds of the Old World cotton drifted ashore; they then recognized them for what they were and hurried to find some wild American cotton to cross them with; after successfully developing a hybrid with long lint, they next invented the spindle whorl with which to produce thread; with hundres of yards of thread, they then invented the loom and started producing Mediterranean-type loin cloths and cloaks--in the warmest parts of America, where clothing was least required. If the Old World cotton arrived by boat, however, brought by people who had long known how to use it, then it would be only logical for for its arrival to coincide with the coming into existence of Peruvian and Mexican civilization. It would be natural for the experienced cotton cultivators to cross their imported stock with a wild American species, thereby creating the twenty-six chromosome species subsequently cultivated in vast fields from Mexico to Peru. It would be equally natural for them to make clay and stone spindle whorls of the same type as those used in the Old World, and the same type of loom, on which to manufacture the type of clothing they had been wearing in the part of the world from whence they had come.
Experiments may show that cotton seed will float undamaged for months in laboratory tanks--but try to float these seeds across the Atlantic Ocean and into the hands of people who have never even seen a cotton field, much less a loom, and see what the results are. It is hardly too much to say that some of the most reckless theories currently being delivered on diffusion are coming from Isolationists, who, trying to be cautious, grant any diffusion hypothesis--no matter how improbably--as long as it does not involve a boat!
A similar case is presented by the plantain or banana (Musa paradisiaca) in America. This species has no wild relative in the New World, and for this reason, ethnobotanists--inspired by anthropologists--have taken it for granted that its presence in sixteenth-century America had to be due to the post-Columbian introduction. Various sixteenth-century chroniclers, however, considered the plantain native to America and described it as cultivated from Jalisco in Mexico to the southern coast of Brazil. The aboriginal Indians from Mexico to South America had their own names for the plant. Inca Garcilasso, Guama Poma, Father Acosta, and Father Monesinos all stated that the plantain was of pre-Conquest cultivation in Peru. As the historian W. H. Prescott pointed out as early as 1847 (p 147): 'It is a mistake to suppose that this plant was not indigenous to South America. The banana-leaf has been frequently found in ancient Peruvian tombs.' In 1879, a. T. de Rochebrune (pp. 346, 348) reported the discovery of both banana leaves and fruit in a tomb at the pre-Columbian burial site of Ancon on the Pacific coast of Peru, the fruit being seedless and therefore belonging to the cultivated species of Musa paradisiaca. Historical and archaeological evidence thus led H. Harms (1922, p. 166) to include Musa paradisiaca in his list of plants identified in pre-Columbian Peruvian tombs.
Since no one dared suggest that seedless bananas could have floated to America without human help, the growth of bananas in pre-Columbian America proved yet another genetic obstacle to the Isolationst view. Undaunted, however, by evidence to the contrary, E. D. Merrill, chief Isolationist spokesman among botanists, proposed (1946, p. 300) that the banana was first introduced into the New World by the Portuguese via the Cape Verde Islands off Africa. Supporters of this theory have tentatively credited Thomas de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama, with introducting the plant to the aborigines of America in 1516, when he is recorded as having planted some plantain roots on the island of Santo Domingo (Hispaniola), 500 miles from the nearest mainland. However, the noted plant geographer, C. O. Sauer (1950, p. 527), commenting in this connection, points out that 'The multiplication of the plantains is more difficult than that of a seed-bearing plant. The mature root-stocks need to be dug up, divided, preferably dried for a while, and then replanted. This species is an extraordinarily poor volunteer, and its spread must have been almost entirely by deliberate and rather careful planting.'
If the Isolationist theory is correct, and the plantain first appeared in the New World on the island of Hispanola in 1516, then it must have spread with a speed that would be miraculous even for a hardy weed, misleading the Spaniards into believing that it was indigenous to Indian settlements from Mexico to Peru, even in the most inaccessible parts of the continent. For example, when Orellana, in 1540-1, crossed the Andes from the Pacific side and became the first European to sail down the Amazon to its mouth, he found bananas under cultivation all along the upper reaches of the river only 24 years after their alleged first appearance in the western hemisphere. If the Bishop's root-stocks were the progenitors of all American bananas, then aboriginal cultivators must have quickly dug them up again and carried them by sea to Mexico and Panama, as well as by boat to the mouth of the Amazon (in itself an overseas journey exactly as long as the one from Africa to South America), before the same or other tribes paddled up the world's longest jungle river with a vast supply and interested the tribes all the way to the upper reaches of the river in cultivating this unknown tuber. From the sources of the Amazon or from the Isthmus of Panama, the banana carriers then somehow managed within the same decades to get the Bishop's root-stocks into the irrigated fields and sealed desert tombs of Pacific Coastal Peru, confusing such local authorities as Inca Garcilasso and his contemporaries into recording that the plantain was pre-European in Peru.
Domestic dogs were kept by aboriginal American Indians from Alaska to South America. At first glance, the presence of the dog in the New World creates no problem, for the North American dog is of the Siberian spitz or husky type that obviously followed early man in his migrations from northeastern Asia into Alaska. But the domesticated dogs of Mexico and Peru, as exemplified by well-preserved mummified specimens of at least two breeds found together with mummified birds in early pre-Inca tombs, are not at all the aforementioned Asiatic type. In fact, they have no progenitors among the wild fauna of America. Both of the breeds mummified in Peru are strikingly similar to the dogs found in the tombs of ancient Egypt, where the peculiar craft of mummifying dogs and birds was as much a part of the culture as it was in ancient Peru. In the jungle climate of Mexico, where any attempt at mummification would give only temporary results, the importance and antiquity of these same dogs are demonstrated through Maya, Aztec, and Olmec art. Tombs of the realistic pottery figurines of dogs running on ceramic wheels attached to their feet by wooden axles. Perhaps one of the most remarkable cultural parallels mustered by Diffusionists is that corresponding ceramic figurines of wheeled dogs are known from tombs of ancient Mesopotamia. How did the Olmecs, at the dawn of American civilization, come to produce wheeled ceramic dogs as funerary objects, just as was the custom in the eastern Mediterranean? And how did they obtain a domestic dog related to the breeds of that same area rather than to the husky of Siberia-Alaska?
Almost since the time of Columbus, a sound argument for Isolationist thought has been the absence of wheeled vehicles in the New World. Obviously, a horse would be unlikely to accompany a trans-oceanic expedition, but the concept of the wheel could be carried in the mind, and the wheel could be used on hand-drawn vehicles, even if the Mexican jungle, almost impenetrable with its dense timber and muddy soil, did not favor the elaborate development of extensive wheeled traffic. It was not until the recent discovery of wheeled figurines in early Olmec tombs that we learned that the wheel was, in fact, known in early America. We would not have known it if the small wheels discovered had not been made of enduring ceramic. Paved roads of pre-Columbian origin have been found in the jungles of Mexico, where wheeled transport might have been used. But since ceramic was unsuitable for full-scale vehicles, and iron was unknown, wheels could only have been made of wood, and such perishable materials from the Olmec period would not have come down to us. Why the wheel never survived in America once it was known by the founders of local civilization remains a mystery. What is noteworthy, however, is that even today, the Indians of the Peruvian highlands, like their cousins in the Mexican jungle, completely ignore the existence of the wheel, despite centuries of intimate contact with the Europeans.
It is a long way from the eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf of Mexico, yet Columbus was born in Italy and sailed to America three times. At least twenty-seven centuries before Columbus, Phoenicians, sailing from the innermost corner of the Mediterranean, were engaged in large-scale exploration, with colonization on the open Atlantic coasts north and south of Gibraltar. Of course, one cannot imagine ordinary marooned sailors shipwrecked or blown off course founding the high cultures of Mexico and Peru. A handful of uneducated eastern Mediterranean seamen cast ashore among small, unorganized, family groups of primitive people--although probably given the same friendly reception as Columbus--would hardly be able to transmit their limited knowledge of their own civilization to the scattered natives who met them. The transmission of concepts such as hieroglyphic writing, the zero, or the techniques of mummification and trepanation needs more than just a knowledge of their existence, or even a cursory knowledge of their working, on the part of the teacher. A group of ocean voyagers capable of founding a culture like that of the Olmecs must have been large enough to include representatives of the intellectual elite of its own homeland: something like a premeditated and fully equipped colonization voyage that went off course. Both archaeology and written history witness how large organized groups of colonists left the Mediterranean to found major settlements and trading posts along the coast of west Africa. The earliest written record is the stele in Carthage, which records how the Phoenician king, Hanno, in about 450 BC, sailed with sixty ships crowded with men and women to establish colonies all down the Atlantic coast of Morocco. And archaeology shows that Hanno was not a pioneer. When he arrived, other organized expeditions from the inner Mediterranean had long since founded the large megalithic city of Lixus far south of Gibraltar, just where the ocean current sweeps past directly towards the Gulf of Mexico.
The history of Lixus has vanished into the dawn of history. The Romans called it 'The eternal City' and said it was the burial place of Herakles. It was built by unknown sun-worshippers who oriented the gigantic megalithic walls according to the sun. Its oldest known name, in fact, is 'Sun City'. Whoever founded and built Lixus, it is clear that astronomers, masons, scribes, and expert potters were among them. Around 1000 BC, just before Olmec culture suddently began to flourish in America, organized colonists from the eastern Mediterranean, with ample knowledge of both Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, had penetrated as far as the Atlantic area where eternal winds and currents constitute a marine converyor to the Gulf of Mexico. Such boatloads of colonists as might have been blown off course here would certainly not be the founders of the vast Inca, Maya, and Aztec cultures. Traditional history, supported by archaeology, clearly shows that these great historic and proto-historic nations of the Andean area and Mexico were purely local products--amalgamations of the indigenous peoples. These, however, owe their inspiration to more obscure predecessors. Thus, in Mexico, for instance, culture seems to have originated from what was originally a restricted group which has been given the name of Olmecs, whose early activity began in a limited area around the Gulf of Mexico.
All that is left to consider is the missing link, the water craft that might have carried to Mexico the gourd, the cotton seed, the banana, and circumcision, the ideas of human deities with hook-beaked birds' heads, adobe manufacture, megalithic carving, paper making for written hieroglyphic texts, mural paintings, mummification, terrace agriculture, metalwork, and the countless other ideas and inventions that never reached the Indians much above the Mexican border because they were unknown to the original immigrants from Siberia. Indeed, the Vikings and Phoenicians had excellent wooden ships with frames and ribs and planked hulls that could sail provided they were not filled by breaking seas. Planked ships, however, were not known in pre-Columbian America, and the Isolationists are certainly right in their logical claim that the mariners who came and built pyramids would hardly have forgotten how to build the type of water craft in which they arrived. Prior to Columbus, the only types of water craft known in America were rafts, canoes and kayaks of birchbank, hide, or dugout log--the latter sometimes heightened by a sewn-on plank gunwale--and a peculiar type of boat shaped raft-ship made of bundles of reeds bound together in a highly sophisticated manner. This type was undoubtedly the most highly developed vessel found by the Conquistadores in the New World. It constituted a basic element in the culture of the Incas and their civilized predecessors, both on the coast and in the highlands. In Mexico, it was formerly used in seven different states. The last reed boats in Mexico were abandoned by the Seris Indians of the Gulf of California in the early 1960's, while they are still in common use on Lake Titicaca in Peru and sporadically occur on Peru's north coast.
The sail was known in pre-Columbian America, where it was sometimes made of cotton canvas and sometimes of reed mats. In both cases, it was hoisted on a peculiarly straddled bipod mast. The very same type of reed boat, with the same type of mast, was characteristic of ancient Egypt--a fact that would not have been known to us were it not for the realistic reliefs and paintings in old Egyptian tombs. Reliefs from old Nineveh, however, show naval battles on the same kind of reed boats navigated on the ocean, with double rows of warriors chasing the crew overboard to waiting crabs and fish, while other reed boats crammed with men and women escape across the sea. Reed is a perishable material, and were it not for these illustrations in stone from Mesopotamia and Egypt, combined with still earlier petroglyphs from the Sahara, we would not have known how extremely important such water craft were to the ancient Mediterranean cultures. Smaller versons of these reed boats, used by poor fishermen, have survived into the present century from the Mesopotamian rivers and the source of the Nile in the east, by way of such Mediterranean islands as Corfu and Sardinia, to the Atlantic coast of Morocco, where reed boats of amazing buoyancy were built precisely at the site of the megalithic city of Lixus until shortly before World War II.
Wherever reed boats were used in the ancient Old and New Worlds, stupendous megalithic ruins show the vigour and competence of local cultures in antiquitiy, whereas modern dwellers in the same areas live in humble huts. It can well be imagined, then, by seeing the reed boats of present-day fishermen, what large reed ships the rulers of antiquity could have made with the labor and materials they had available. Their sun-oriented, megalithic walls, fitted together with a highly specialized masonry technique, have come to our knowledge through direct survival, whereas the reed boats, made as they were of perishable plant stalks, have survived only through traditional skills passed on from father to son.
Both these cultural phenomena are of very limited distribution, and yet they are found side by side from eastern Mediterranean to Lixus on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and thence in Mexico and Peru, as well as on Easter Island. These modest boats have at best been seen by few modern scientists, but they have not been ocean tested for their true capabilities. Laboratory tests made with loose sections of papyrus reed have shown that this material becomes waterlogged and loses all carrying capacity in less than two weeks. Tank experiments with the same reed in still seawater have also shown that the cellular core of the reed quickly starts to deteriorate. For this reason, anthropologists, papyrus specialists, and maritime experts have all agreed that the ancient papyrus raft-ships could only have been used on rivers and lakes, where they could be hauled ashore and sun-dried at short intervals. It was unanimously deemed impossible for such reed craft to cross the ocean span from Africa to America. To judge the qualities of a papyrus ship by testing a peice of papyrus reed, however, seems as meaningless as to drop a piece of iron in to a tank and conclude that the Queen Mary would not float. There is, of course, a tremendous difference between testing a material and testing a complete boat. Nor does the constantly changing water encountered by a moving boat encourage rotting as does the stagnant water in a tank. My own testing of reed boats on Easter Island, Peru, and Mexico on one side of the Atlantic, and in Lake Chad at the source of the Nile on the other, had impressed me immensely. No other vessel of corresponding size could muster the carrying capacity, stability, and safety of a reed-bundle boat. Still, it was probably the study of ancient Egyptian boat designs that, more than anything else, convicned me of the probable invalidity of contemporary scientific opinions on the seaworthiness of such vessels.
In 1954, the dismantled pieces of a ship made of Lebanon cedar were discovered in a megalithic chamber at the foot of the Cheops pyramid in Egypt. The largest of the well-preserved planks, which weighed nearly a ton each, were over 75 feet long, about 20 inches wide, and nearly 4 1/2 inches thick. Egypt's Chief Curator of Antiquities, Ahmend Joseph, and his staff worked for years before they succeeded in reassembling the pharaonic vessel, which proved to be 146 1/2 feet long and nearly 20 feet wide. This ship, the oldest preserved vessel in the world, was built in Egypt about 2700 BC. Reassembled, the ship immediately exhibited two striking features: it was consistently papyriform in design, and it had the characteristic lines of an ocean-going vessel rather than a riverboat. The papyriform features include a longitudinal cresent shape with highly raised bow and stern each ending in a trumpet shape, clearly suggesting a papyrus prototype. Even the stern of the Cheops boat was curved inward, as is typical of a papyrus boat. There is no reason for a wooden ship to have this extremely complicated form, so natural to pliable papyrus but hard to imitate in rigid wood. The sole reason the tradition-bound pharaoh could have had for imitating the papyrus form was his desire to respect the vessel design used by his own earliest ancestors, the gods. In all Egyptian funeral art, the sun god himself and his bird-headed human attendants are shown voyaging on papyrus boats. It was only natural that papyrus preceded wood as ship-building material in ancient Egypt, where papyrus reed grew in abundance, while cedar used by the pharaoh had to be imported from the forests of Phoenicia, in present-day Lebanon. Even before it was reassembled, Pharaoh Cheops' boat was generally referred to as a 'solar' boat, as it was assumed that it had been built for the exclusive purpose of conveying the dead pharoah to his eternal resting place with his ancestor, Ra, the sun.
Ahmed Joseph had already discovered that the Cheops ship was no mere funeral vessel when we carefully studied the construction together in his laboratory during the early months of 1969. The wood showed clear evidence of wear from considerable use: grooves had been worn in the hard planks through the chafing action of the rope lashings binding them together. The ship, then, had clearly been a utilitarian vessel and not merely used for the pharaoh's funeral. Like the few others permitted to examine the ship at the final stage of reassembly, I was tremendously impressed by the vessel, whose lines were perfectly designed for deep-sea waves and whose dimensions were more than twice those of the largest preserved Viking ship. A boat designed for the Nile, where waves can be measured in inches, would not have a longitutidinal curve and tremendously high, curved bow and stern--features evolved by ancient deep-sea navigators, such as the Vikings and Polynesians, whose boats had to negotiate surf and ocean waves. The cross-sections of the cheops boat were those of a vessel intended to roll and pitch with big waves, not with the current of the Nile. The design has absolutely no functional relevance for a riverboat.
Having duly absorbed the spectacular, ocean-going lines, I was the more surprised to be shown that the heavy woodwork of the ribless vessel was simply fitted together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, end-to-end, with no overlaps, and was held in place by glue and rope seams. Even equipped with a longitudinal hawser, the beautiful craft would disintegrate in its first encounter with ocean swells. I knew enough about boats to see that there was no correspondence between the overall shape of the boat and its intrinsic construction.
Impressed by the seemingly eternal durability of the Phoenician cedar ships, the Egyptian ship-builders of 2700 BC began to import wood from Phoenicia, although they strove to maintain the traditional papyriform design of their own local ancestors. This, more than anything else, gave me confidence in the seagoing capabilities of papyrus. Since the original lines of the pharaoh's ship had been developed for compact vessels of papyrus bundles. The papyrus boat, then, antedated the wooden ship in Egypt, yet it gave the wooden ship its spectacular, ocean-going shape. How could this be if papyrus as a material would sink or dissolve? I decided to make a practical experiment.
In 1969, I organized the building of a papyrus boat near the Cheops ship at Gizeh in Egypt, using local funerary-art depictions as models. Since wild papyrus, for unknown reasons, has become extinct in Egypt--and the papyrus boat-building craft accordingly forgotten--I brought 12 tons of sun-dried papyrus reeds about 10 to 12 feet long from Lake Tana in Ethiopia and two experienced boat builders, with interpreter, from Lake Chad in cetnral Africa. The latter areas seemed to be the closest one to Egypt where large-sized papyrus boats of apparently robust construction are still in common use.
The feasibility of a coastal voyage along North Africa was not disputed by anyone, since it would allow the periodic beaching and drying out of papyrus vessel, and we therefore decided to launch our boat directly into the ocean from the ancient Phoenician port of Safi on the Atlantic coast of Morocco--in the midst of an area rich in archaeological evidence of an extensive colonization and settlement from Asia Minor. The papyrus boat, named Ra (the word for sun in ancient Egypt as well as on all the islands of Polyneisa), was launched on 17 May 1969 and set sail eight days thereafter, manned by a crew of seven men from seven nations. Food and water were stored in 160 ceramic jars copied from an ancient prototype in the Cairo Museum, as well as in several goatskin containers, wooden chests, and wickerwork baskets. All food on board was either fresh, dried, smoked, salted, or otherwise preserved as customary among ancient peoples. The several tons of superstructure and cargo, including bipod mast, wickerwork cabin, steering platform, and heavy double rudder-oars, made remarkably little impression on the degree of buoyancy, and the reed vessel did not heel when its 500-square-foot trapezoidal sail filled with strong lateral winds. Just beyond the Safi breakwater, Ra was immediately caught by the powerful current and trade wind that together constitute the eternal 'Columbus conveyor' to tropical America.
The first day out, through inexperience, we broke both our rudder-oars, and on the second day, the yard supporting our Egyptian sail broke. Although repaired with rope splicings, the wooden oars kept repeatedly breaking in rough weather, thus converting the whole experiment to a scientifically more valuable drift voyage. Within three weeks, the reed boat had rounded the entire northwest coast of Africa from Safi to Cape Verde islands off Dakar, a distance equivalent to a voyage from Egypt to France, before the elements took us on the actual trans-Atlantic leg of the journey. By now, the papyrus bundles of the Ra had been floating in sea water for a month and demonstrated a spectacular ability to ride ocean waves even in a gale with crew and cargo dry. The ocean swells and rollers, following the current and prevailing winds, caught Ra astern, but the extremely high, arched stern tipped upward and caused Ra to ride each crest without shipping water. When the ocean swells passed underneath amidships, the sagging bow and stern of the wooden Cheops ship would have caused it to break in half, whereas the springiness of the papyrus bundles allowed Ra to undulate without damage. Our first major discovery during the experiment was that the characteristic ancient Egyptian rigging copied on Ra proved conclusively that the original papyrus ship was not designed for use on the ripples of a river, but was intended for riding ocean swells. On the calm Nile, a bipod mast could have been held erect by one stay running forward and another running aft. As the hull would be floating on an even surface, no other stays would be needed. However, the complicated original rigging copied by us showed one rope running from the top of the mast forward to the bow and six parallel stays running aft from each leg of the mast to each side of the vessel shortly behind midships. No stay at all ran from the mast all the way to the stern. However, the ancient Egyptian illustration depicted a rope running down from the elegantly in-curved tip of the stern diagonally down like a harpstring to the afterdeck--as though intended to preserve the attractive curved shape of the papyrus boat's scorpion tail. I was sure that the in-curved tail must have had some obscure practical function, whereas general opinion was that it was purely an aesthetic detail. However, like everyone else, I and my Chad boat-builders were convinced that, whatever the function of the curved tail, that the 'harpstring' was solely to retain the tail's curvature. It never occurred to us that the tail curve was to tension the rope, and not vice versa.
So the Chad boat-builders removed the 'harpstring', showing us that they had curved the tail so durably that it would never straighten out. And as they proved correct, we never reattached that rope till it was too late. By then, Ra had buckled transversely at a marked angle just where the rearmost of the parallel stays from the mast reached the deck. And although the tail retained its beautiful curvature, the afterdeck, now hinged at the buckling line, sagged into the sea. Now, instead of lifting to ride over the waves coming from behind, the sloping afterdeck acted as a beach, inviting the breakers to hammer aboard like surf. We now realized that the in-curved tail was there to act as a giant spring, which, by means of the 'harpstring', would hold the otherwise unsupported afterdeck on a level with the rest of the boat, which, in the manner of a suspension bridge, was hung by the stays running fore and aft from the mast. The ancient boat designers had wisely hinged, so to say, their pliant afterdeck to the mid-deck by making a complex rig, allowing the necessary flexibility in riding deep-sea waves without the taut stays breaking the mast.
Repair proved impossible once the afterdeck had sagged; it now both acted as a brake and prevented straight steering. Moreover, the waves, having direct access to the rear cabin-wall, caused constant abrasion between the lashed-on wicker cabin and the papyrus deck, severing the ropes holding the papyrus bundles together on the windward side. In the final storm before reaching the West Indies, we therefore began to lose alarming quantities of papyrus on the starboard side. The individual papyrus reeds left in the wake behind Ra still floated, and instead of having deteriorated they had become rubbery and strong, like rope, rather than brittle and fragile as they were when dry before being launched into the sea. However, after the last storm, the starboard bundles had lost so many papyrus reeds that the vessel listed steeply, and this, rather than an overall loss of buoyancy, posed a threat to life in the event of another storm. The port two-thirds of Ra were undamaged and floated so high that we could, if necessary, have completed the last leg of our drift voyage to the islands ahead--and, in fact, the entire crew wanted to do so. But, as expedition leader, I saw no reason to risk human life in a scientific experiment, virtually all of the questions of which had by this stage been answered.
It was now clearly established that papyrus was a first-class boat-building material. Instead of rotting in seawater, it became stronger and more sinewy through immersion; and rather than sinking after two weeks, the intact reed bundles were still carrying all of us and our tons of provisions and superstructure after one week in port and eight weeks in the roughest ocean waves. The papyrus boat itself proved to be astonishingly buoyant, stable, and seaworthy, capable of riding out any storm--as we learned during our first weeks in the ocean, before our own complete lack of experience in building and handling such a vessel reduced it from sailing ship to drifting raft of reeds. Finally, we learned that the weak points in such a vessel are not at all the flexible reeds, but rather the rigid wood and the friction of wood against ropes. Any mariners breaking their ruder-oars as we did in an encounter with the heavy rollers of the Canary Current off the Morroccan coast would be gripped by the 'Columbus conveyor' as we had been forced to hold on to the bitter end, whereas we had the opportunity of terminating our voyage at will once its scientific purpose had been achieved. When we transferred ourselves, our pet animals, and our cargo to a yacht that had come out to film us, we had covered 2,700 nautical miles in eight weeks--or the same distance as from Safi in Morocco to Quebec in Canada. Had we begun our voyage in Senegal on the west coast of Africa instead of in Safi, this same distance would have carried us straight across the Atlantic and more than 1,000 miles up the Amazon.
On 17 May 1970, ten months after the termination of the first papyrus ship experiment, the second reed ship, Ra II, set sail from the same Moroccan harbor with six tons of cargo and superstructure and an eight-man crew, six of whom had sailed on Ra I. The papyrus was brought once more from the source of the Nile, but whereas Ra I had been built in Egypt by Buduma fishermen from Lake Chad in central Africa, Ra II was built in Morocco by four Aymara Indians and their Bolivian interpreter brought from Lake Titicaca in South America. Strangely enough, although the former boat-builders came from within the same continent as Egypt--while the latter came from the New World--it was the Lake Titicaca reed boat that followed the main building principles once typical of ancient Egypt, i.e., with both bow and stern pointed and raised high above water and with rope lashings running uninterruptedly around the large-bundled vessel from deck to bottom. The chad boat-builders, in contrast to those of ancient Egypt, were used to cutting the sterns of their boats abruptly off at water level and constructing their vessels of superimposed layers of slender reed bundles bound together with vulnerable chains of interlocking rope rings. The chad system was perfectly adapted to lake transport, whereas the overdesigned and strikingly ingenious Titicaca type yielded a solid block capable of surviving far more violent conditions than would ever be encountered on Lake Titicaca. Basically, this vessel consisted of two huge cigar-shaped bundles squeezed together by a continuous and tightly drawn spiral rope encircling a smaller, central bundle, which, as the ropes were tightened, disappeared between the larger two. Once the pointed bow and stern were turned upward and two smaller bundles added along the upper edges to increase the width of the deck, an almost incredibly robust and seaworthy water craft resulted, which concurred remarkably with the designs of Mesopotamia and Egypt.
So set on returning home within a two-month building period were our South American boat-builders, that fully one third of the 12 tons of papyrus lay unused when Ra II was ready for launching. Whereas Ra I had been 15 meters (almost 50 feet) long, Ra II was only 12 metres (not quite 40 feet), and with its rounder cross-section, Ra II had far less volume. We had become so impressed with the fantastic carrying capacity of a papyrus raft-ship that we yielded to the temptation to load Ra II with far more cargo tonnage than a conventional vessel of her modest dimensions could ever have accommodated without going straight to the bottom. Although burdened down, with her deck almost to water level, Ra II rode out a full gale in mid-Atlantic when the now-colossal shaft of one of her rudder-oars broke and turned the vessel helplessly broadside to breaking seas until the papyrus above the water line was thoroughly soaked. Yet Ra II accomplished the complete crossing of 3,270 nautical miles from Safi in Morocco to Barbados in the West Indies in 57 days--an average speed of 65 statue miles per day. The papyrus vessel had crossed the entire Atlantic at its widest part without loss of, or damage to, a single reed--although one of the thick, rigid, wooden rudder-oars had broken, even on this trip.
The experimental voyages of Ra I and Ra II had conclusively proved that the reed boat, which is one of the culture elements common to the Old World and the New World in pre-Columbian times, was perfectly capable of a trans-Atlantic voyage. It is thus needless to resort to fantastic theories of gourds and cotton seeds drifting haphazardly into the hands of food-gathering tribes among the jungle trees of the Gulf of Mexico. The discovery of the true merits of the reed boat does not prove pre-Columbian contact, but it does make such a theory more realistic than any other hypothesis so far offered in explanation of the impulse behind the American high cultures.
The reed boats of the troops of Sennacherib, shown in the pitched battle with the inhabitants of the sea-marshes of the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates, naturally enough resemble very closely those of the Marsh Arabs of today, but more surprisingly are also very similar to those of the Mexican and Peruvian Indians.
Mythical birdman ready to board his reed boat. This scene from a pre-Inca pot shows the birdman which often accompanies the god or culture-bearer in high-culture areas of the Americas and Polynesia, as well as in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Eight bottle gourd floats, dating from at least 1500 BC, embedded in the remains of a long cotton fishnet, were found at Huaca Prieta in the Chimaca Valley of Peru. This shows the antiquity of the utilization of both the bottle gourd and cotton in the New World.
Top, small pouch made of cotton, dating c. 1700 BC, and, bottom, part of a plain-weave cotton fabric, showing characteristic compact twining at warp ends, made c. 1500 BC. in the New World. But who brought the cotton seeds and the loom and spindle for the Incas and Aztecs to make use of this valuable plant?
The domesticated dogs of America were not only of the spitz or husky types: in Mexico and Peru, they resembled the dogs of the Old World, and they were often mummified--a practice also current among the Guanches of the Canaries, the Peruvians and the Egyptians such as the example above.
The wheeled toy from Vera Cruz, Mexico shows an example of the dogs from pre-Columbian America. The wheels on the Mexican toy further confuse the Isolationist case, as it was long thought that the wheel had not been introduced into America before Columbus.
The Cheops boat was found in a pit at the foot of the pyramid of Cheops. Though built of wood in the traditional Egyptian manner whereby relatively thick timbers were pegged and 'sewn' together, it has the shape of its prototype, the papyrus boat, and its structure at once suggested great ocean-going stability. The size of the Cheops boat--140 1/2 ft. long, with a beam of 20 ft.--and its means of construction would not have allowed it to sail on anything but the wavelets of the Nile; its lines, however, confirmed in Thor Heyerdahl's mind the thought that papyrus boats of this size were built for ocean navigation. Pliny, quoting Eratosthenes speaks of papyrus ships sailing to Ceylon from the Ganges in twenty days, but this has always been thought an exaggeration.
Egyptian papyrus boat.
The rope which the Buduma tribesmen had used to hold the scorpion tail during construction--shown on Egyptian and Mesopotamian prototypes--was thought not to have any practical purpose, as the stern kept its shape without it; it was only halfway across the Atlantic that its use became apparent: it supported not the tail, but instead the deck aft of the mast stays. Without this 'harpstring', the stern deck buckled and was soon submerged.
Reed boats--existing from the highest antiquity both in the Old World and the New--continue to be used today. Thor Heyerdahl (1969) is seen in a reed boat inspecting papyrus plants on Lake Chad prior to building Ra I.
In Sardinia these craft are still used by local fishermen, as they are by the Marsh Arabs of the lower Euphrates River.
The totora-reed boat is used both on the northern coast of Peru, as is its larger counterpart on Lake Titicaca, and until recently, on Easter Island.
Totora-reed boat on Easter Island.
Although no longer extant in Mexico, the reed boat was at one time used in eight different states; Thor Heyerdahl photographed one of the last to be built by the Seris Indians in the Gulf of California in the early 1960's.
When Thor Heyerdahl decided to build a modern papyrus boat, all he had to go on were the reliefs on Egyptian tombs and the practical experience of the few reed-boat builders of today.
Aymara Indian from Lake Titicaca building a small life boat for Ra II in Morocco.
Ra I was built by Buduma tribesmen from Lake Chad in the shadow of the pyramids, while Ra II, its successor, was built by Aymara Indians from Lake Titicaca with an altogether different technique.
Pyramid building, like trepanation and the erection of megalithic masonry, is yet another apparent link between the Old World and the New. This pyramid at Djoser, Saqqara, Egypt bears striking resemblances to the Cerro Colorado pyramid in the Chicama Valley of north Peru.
Cerro Colorado pyramid in the Chicama Valley of north Peru.
Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan near Mexico City.
Even in the Canary Islands there are pyramids on at least 3 of the 7 islands, another cultural link between the Old and New World and the point of departure for Columbus. The indigenous population, the Guanche Indians, had lived in this tropical-island paradise for over 2000 years and also practiced mummification and trepanning of the skull, a form of surgery employed in Egypt and Peru.
Seven men from seven nations, the crew of Ra I included: Abdullah Djibrine from Chad; papyrus expert, Yuri Senkevitch from Russia; ship's doctor, Norman Baker from U.S.A.; navigator, Santiago Genoves from Mexico; Professor of Anthropology and quartermaster, Thor Heyerdahl from Norway; leader of the expedition, Georges Sourial from Egypt; underwater expert, Carlo Mauri from Italy; film photographer. With men from 7 different countries sailing on the same small papyrus boat... a Russian next to an American, an Arab from Egypt next to a Jew... there was ample fuel on board for a serious conflagration. Their paper boat was loaded with psychological petrol and the heat generated by friction could only be extinguished by the endless waves. But Heyerdahl wanted to show the world that people are people no matter where they come from, so flags from east and west, north and south, were flanked by 2 blue flags from the United Nations. And as Heyerdahl pointed out in his masterpiece: "American Indians In The Pacific" (1952) those ancient pre-Columbian voyages also included multi-racial crews of Arabo-Semitic, black African and Nordic Guanche/Berber types who all later mixed in with the American Indian populations. After the success of Ra 2, glowing articles of this 1970 voyage appeared in dozens of magazines all over the world, including National Geographic, Life and Readers Digest.
Ra II, ten feet shorter than Ra I, was launched at Safi like its predecessor. Fifty-seven days later she sailed into Bridgetown harbour, Barbados, without a reed out of place, in spite of the battering of the seas and repeated difficulties with her steering gear. The experts who had predicted that a papyrus boat would become waterlogged in two weeks were confounded, and proof of the feasibility of long ocean voyages in this sort of craft--the missing link and possible means of conveyance of the many cultural traits common to the Old and New Worlds--was established.
Map of the courses of Ra I and Ra II across the Atlantic.
An early Peruvian Chimu ceramic pot in the shape of a reed boat with two paddlers.
The Buduma tribesmen who built Ra I were finally persuaded to give her an upturned stern rather than the cut-off one of their own reed boats.
Lithograph showing a reed boat in San Francisco Bay of California, from 1726.
A reed boat on Lake Titicaca.
Trepanation is another culture trait found on both sides of the Atlantic, in the Canary Islands and eventually in areas of Polynesia colonized by the pre-Inca people of Peru. This example is from Lachish, Palestine.
Megalithic masonry is one of the many cultural traits common to the Old and New Worlds. This example is from Gizeh, Egypt.
The Phoenician king, Hanno, in about 450 BC, sailed with sixty ships crowded with men and women to establish colonies all down the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and archaeology shows that Hanno was not a pioneer. When he arrived, other organized expeditions from the inner Mediterranean had long since founded the large megalithic city of Lixus far south of Gibralter, just where the ocean current sweeps past directly towards the Canary Islands then eventually the Gulf of Mexico. This megalithic masonry from Lixus, Morocco, near the Atlantic shores is testimony to some earlier cutures, and the method of construction strongly resembles that of both Peruvian and eastern mediterranean examples.
Pre-inca fortification at Saccsahuaman in Peru.