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As part of a very early migration of ancient humans out of Africa, Homo erectus walked into and across Asia, roughly a million years ago. A hundred thousand years later, the descendants of those people observed stegodont herds swimming out to different islands, from the mainland of Southeast Asia. So, being a highly inquisitive and inventive species, they fashioned together rudimentary bamboo rafts, using the stone hand axes they inherited from their ancestors. Then, they daringly ventured out, to the Indonesian island of Flores, to see where the ancient elephants were going, and why. There, the isolated Stone Age humans and stegodonts both gradually underwent insular dwarfism. In this way, they became Homo floresiensis and Stegodon florensis insularis. More importantly, this particular event, nine hundred thousand years ago, was undoubtedly one of the earliest uses of boats, in the entire prehistory of humanity.

Much later, during another mass migration of ancient humans out of Africa, around seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens traveled in primitive dugout canoes. They paddled and drifted in their handmade vessels north from East Africa, along the coast, around passed India. At the time, sea levels were much lower, which meant that Australia and New Guinea were joined. So, whole communities of people went from Southeast Asia, moving south until they eventually arrived at their final destination, in northern Australia, about fifty thousand years ago. That long journey into uncharted waters, from Africa to Asia to Australia, was one of humanity’s greatest early achievements. The point is that, once they arrived on the newly discovered continent, fully modern humans followed the rivers inland, looking for the best places to settle. There they became the natives, now known as Aboriginal Australians.

Similarly, around thirteen thousand years ago, the Chukchi people paddled dugout canoes east along an exposed land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska. Then, they used the rivers, and other waterways, in the region to travel inland. In this way, a number of Native American populations, such as the Navajo, spread into and across the continent, in a relatively short period of time. As people spread out, there were eventually three main types of canoes that could be found in North America. As part of this, the more standard log dugouts were constructed by tribes along the Northwest coast, as well as in the Plateau regions. Meanwhile, tribes in the Northeast woodlands built canoes made from the bark of trees, most commonly birch. Some tribes even made tule canoes, from local reeds, in and around the area that is now California.

Millennia later, there were many different kinds of boats in Mesopotamia, India and Egypt, among other places. Around five thousand years ago, boats were all made without a keel, like that of the papyrus rafts in Ancient Egypt. These were typically fashioned from bundles that were cinched together, and brought up into points on the ends, to give them the signature look of a boat. Following this, the first great civilizations even went on to have river and sea worthy sailboats, along with accompanying oars, of course. Of these, the Khufu ship was one of the most interesting. The solar barge of King Cheops was skillfully made from imported Lebanese cedar, among other kinds of exotic lumber. The Khufu ship was even put together using mortise and tenon joints, among other revolutionary technical woodworking innovations. The now ancient relic, which has been well preserved through history, is almost 150 feet long and 20 feet wide. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the Pharaoh’s ship was even designed to be disassembled and reassembled. It had to be transportable, because it was used on both the Nile River and the Red Sea.

The thing is that the solar barge was not even the most spectacular boat in antiquity. On the contrary, more than two thousand years ago, the most amazing ship in the ancient world was that of the Syracusia. The, one of a kind, over the top boat was a massive battleship that had been commissioned by Hieron II of Syracuse, designed by Archimedes of Syracuse, and built by Archias of Corinth. It was only made possible through Archimedes’ brilliant discovery of the law of buoyancy. His principle states that the upward force exerted on a boat immersed in water, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the water that the boat displaces and acts in the upward direction at the center of mass of the displaced water. By way of this nautical knowledge, the maiden voyage of the Syracusia, from Sicily to Egypt, became an absolute triumph. The floating palace was in excess of 350 feet long, and it carried more than one-thousand passengers. There was even a temple to the goddess Aphrodite on-board.

As generations of people came and went, over a thousand years ago, the Vikings and the Polynesians became expert sailors, with fairly small ocean worthy ships. The former explored the Atlantic Ocean with single-hulled longships, while the latter ventured throughout the Pacific in very different double-hulled canoes. The Vikings were expert craftsmen who always used axes to work with wood, never saws to work against it. As part of this, the old Scandinavian sailboats were steered by a crew that occupied between about one and three dozen rowing positions, with oars along the sides of their ships. In contrast to this, the Polynesian boats were controlled using a single large oar, all the way at the rear of the vessel. Either way, the Scandinavians soon discovered North America, and the Polynesians discovered South America. There, they met and traded with Native Americans.

Ultimately, the thing about the origins of boats is that, although steam-powered technology was first developed in Ancient Greece, as described by Hero’s engine in Roman Egypt, the steamboat is a fairly modern invention. That is to say, little more than two hundred years ago, a new transportation device was first launched in France. As a modern marvel, the first steamboat was a paddle steamer, which was powered by a Newcomen engine. It traveled upstream on the River Saone, for about fifteen minutes before the engine finally failed. Then, a couple years later, a similar kind of vessel was designed by John Fitch in America. Shortly thereafter, he began operating a rather lucrative commercial service along the Delaware River, between Philadelphia and New Jersey. This effectively ended the era of the ancient ships, ushering in the motorboats of the future.

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An Autodidact Polymath

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