ancient navigation across the Atlantic (was: Re: bottle gourd and sweet potato diffusion

Yuri Kuchinsky (
2 Dec 1996 16:16:31 GMT

John W. Hoopes ( wrote:
: Yuri Kuchinsky wrote:

: > Well, if the gourd can float to the shore of America, why couldn't
: > shipwrecked sailors on their rafts float to the coast of America? They
: > have one added advantage that they can purposefully direct themselves to
: > the shore...

: If they were drifting from the Pacific islands to the Americas, chances
: are they would have been swept far south across vast stretches of ocean,
: into cold and inhospitable currents. Without adequate clothing and
: fresh water, they would have died en route. Maybe their rafts arrived,
: but empty. The far southern Pacific is not the greatest place to be a
: castaway.

: In fact, floating craft with loads of sweet potatoes could have drifted
: westward into the islands without any people on them. If you don't know
: where you're going, it's awfully hard to prepare for the trip... The
: biggest problem about westward ocean journeys would not have been
: adequate supplies of food, but sufficient fresh water for drinking as
: one floated through the tropics.

Since interest has been expressed by John and others in transoceanic
voyages in ancient times, I have looked up some scholarly literature in
this area.

I'm posting now some information that I hope will prove useful.

The following quotes are from MAN ACROSS THE SEA: PROBLEMS OF PRE-
COLUMBIAN CONTACTS, Carrol L. Riley et al., eds, University of Texas
Press, 1971. There's much more about this subject in this book, a
collection of articles by many scholars, and also about transoceanic
plant diffusion in ancient times.

It is my impression that scholarly interest in this whole important and
fascinating area has waned in the last 20 years or so. In any case, if
someone is aware of a more recent research, please let us know.

All the best,


============== [begin quote]

In all humility I must, for the sake of brevity and as one who is
thus experienced [as a small-boat sailor], claim that the
"navigational problem" of transatlantic contacts can be dismissed.
The considerations of such possible contacts has been hampered by
a lack of essential experience and resulting understanding.

In view of these suggestions, it is my aim to point out the
existence of a strong case for a transatlantic stimulus by means of
the southern route and to suggest that this is the probable source
of many traits in Middle American cultures, particularly in their
pottery. (ibid, p. 268)

In my opinion we are dealing with Pan-Atlantic cultures, even if the
stimulus _did_ move in only one direction, though some colleagues
think the opposite (west-east) movement took place (on botanical
grounds, for instance). (ibid, p. 271)

To sum up ... my hypothesis for Old World stimulus via the South
Atlantic route, transatlantic immigrants are more than possible. We
know they had the craft ... . There were probably many landings over
a long period, giving rise to several stimulus-source cultures. The
ultimate influence of these was probably largely dependent upon
fortune, fortitude, and geography. (ibid, p. 274)



The most instructive voyage, for students of transatlantic
diffusion, was that of Dr. Alain Bombard in 1952. To prove his
doctoral thesis, that shipwrecked persons can remain alive on the
products of the sea alone, Dr. Bombard rode an inflatable rubber
liferaft from Casablanca to Barbados via the Canaries. ... Bombard
resolved that a man can maintain himself indefinitely on the sea if
he is provided with ... [some fishing gear]. Bombard did survive his
sixty-five consecutive days at sea in reasonable health. (ibid, p.

Also pertinent to the thesis of this paper is the Eskimo kayak
preserved in the Aberdeen, Scotland, Museum since it beached upon
the Scottish shore in the late seventeenth century. The kayak seems
to prove that Eskimos, probably from Greenland, were able to paddle
their light skin boats across the North Atlantic, and that they are
to be identified with the "Finn-men" of Scottish legend (Whitaker,
1954). (ibid, p. 276, footnote)

Basically, European boats either were constructed of a sewn,
flexible covering stretched over a light wooden frame or were built
of wooden planks braced in shape by a frame. Sewn boats persist into
the present in Europe as survival on the impoverished margins of the
plank boats' sphere of diffusion. The curraghs to be seen off
Ireland's west coast are the best known of the survivals. (ibid, p.

Curraghs differ from most ocean ships of today in that the sewn
boats are designed to ride over the waves, whereas our usual ships
cut through the waves, relying for stability upon heavy keels and
cargoes (or ballast). The curragh is actually more seaworthy than
the heavy-keeled ship because, although a curragh may capsize, she
is essentially unsinkable [references given in the text] (ibid, p.

To summarize, curraghs -- excellent craft for the Atlantic -- were
probably available in Atlantic Europe from the eighth millennium
B.C. (ibid, p. 279)

=O= Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto =O=
--- a webpage like any other... ---

It matters [whether Monte Alban ceramics reflect Chinese art forms]
because questions of human inventiveness and the nature of human freedom
are involved, and these are pivotal for the understanding of humans
CONTROVERSY, Social Research, 32 (1965) p. 453, as quoted by J. Needham.