Reed boats, linking cultures

LARNACA – Following in the footsteps of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, a German-led project is hoping to unlock a centuries-old riddle of whether prehistoric mariners mastered the high seas to become a bridge linking ancient civilizations. The Abora project, led by German biologist Dominique Goerlitz on a Bolivian-made reed boat, is attempting to prove there were no boundaries to the travels of ancient seafarers, in contrast to conventional theories of limited navigational capabilities. If they succeed, the reed boats could fill in another blank to a puzzle that has confounded mankind for centuries: whether the Mediterranean peoples ventured well beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to the New World thousands of years ago, and back. A belief that prehistoric man could have traveled only in the direction of the currents defies the realities of the Mediterranean, which has continuously changing winds, Goerlitz said. «They wouldn’t have been able to sail just with the currents and this is what we are investigating,» Goerlitz told Reuters. Built by the Aymara Indians of Bolivia, the Abora 2 is a raft of hard-packed reed rods 11.8 meters (38 feet) long, 3.5 meters (11 feet) wide and 1.5 meters (five feet) high. It is held together by rope, bunched up at each curving end. With a flat deck made with small planks of wood, two sleeping cabins and an open-air compact kitchen, it has no railings. Two large wooden oars, or «swords,» on either side of the stern are used to navigate. Ancient skills It is a replica of boats depicted in prehistoric rock paintings found in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Canary Islands, and similar to those still used by the Aymara Indians on Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca. Goerlitz does not underestimate prehistoric man’s capabilities. «We are not much more intelligent than our ancestors. I think it is ridiculous to presume that mankind, being here for millions of years, only started getting clever about 5,000 years ago,» said the German biologist. That prehistoric man sailed the Pacific and Atlantic on board flimsy craft was a theory first proved by Heyerdahl, who sailed from South America to Polynesia on the Kon-Tiki balsa raft in 1947. In 1970 he crossed the Atlantic from Morocco to the West Indies on the reed boat Ra 11 to show that ancient Egyptians might have got to America long before the Vikings and Columbus. Dismissed by academics but adding to the curiosity of millions, Heyerdahl said that Aztec pyramids in Mexico may have been inspired by the ancient Egyptians. «I used to be enthralled by films on Thor Heyerdahl when I was a child. I built my first boat when I was 13,» said Goerlitz, now 35. With support from German carmaker Volkswagen, the Abora 2 is his fifth attempt to unlock some of the mysteries of ancient navigation. One crew member is Fermin Limachi, an Aymara Indian whose father worked with Heyerdahl on the building of the Ra 11. High seas Covering more than 450 nautical miles between Egypt, Lebanon and Cyprus, the crew say they want to evaluate the success of this first voyage before venturing further. And sailing in the Mediterranean poses a particular challenge. Unlike other seas, it is impossible to drift in the Mediterranean with currents in the basin because of the continuously changing winds. But the Abora 2 has shown that reed boats can travel across the breeze at angles of up to 85 degrees. «This is important in the Mediterranean because it is not possible to get from one point to the other simply by drifting; the wind currents are very strong and change all the time,» said crew member Connie Lorenz. Their experiment appears to debunk a theory that sailors in antiquity never ventured into open seas or traveled long distances. The comparative lightness of the boat, at six tons, combined with the strong sea currents would make it dangerous for any mariner to venture too close to coastlines due to the risk of running aground. In any case, safety does not appear to be a worry of the weather-beaten crew. In choppy seas before reaching the southern Cypriot port of Larnaca, it simply rode the waves, said crew member Ingo Isensee. «This is the safest boat you can get, it beats a boat made of plastic any day,» he said.