Materials to build the raft

Timor to Australia

One of the most demanding aspects of following the rules of ancient maritime technology is the choice of materials. For example, what flora existed in Greece to build a 130,000-years-old raft to voyage from the Peloponnese to Crete? Surely the Lower Palaeolithic mariners – probably the first in Europe – would have used the lightweight, dessicated trunks of the region’s indigenous and elegant Pencil Pine (Cupressus semperivens) which dies from extreme low temperatures, as sometimes happens – even today – in the region. This information came to hand long after the miserable results of our experiments to fell a fully grown, very much alive tree with a stone axe which had led us to the local Mediterranean cane (Arundo Donax) the Greeks call ‘Kalamia’ which turned up around 5,000 years ago and stayed as an annoyingly invasive grass. To build our raft it was a case of being innovative, as we are sure the ancients were. It was a period of glacial maximum so the Pencil Pine might have been dormant anyway. For us there was nothing else on hand.

In Southeast Asia the arboreal choices for sea craft construction are also reduced by the limitations of stone tools, but the early raft-builders were blessed with any amount of bamboo, large or small, and must have understood and exploited the plant’s myriad capabilities. And bamboo – even with its tough, silica-packed outer skin –  is easily mastered by a sharp and persistent stone tool. The raft’s ribs will be the branches of common forest trees, purpose-selected for their shape and size. The amazing rattan (Calamas manan) vine – Rotan in Indonesia - will be used also; split to produce especially robust lashings, and bent for the frame of the crew shelter amidships. 

Another of nature’s gifts to stone age seafaring in tropical Southeast Asia is the magnificent Arenga pinnata, the commonly called ‘Areca’, or ‘sugar palm,’ from whose hairy bark a defiant and indestructible rope the Rotinese call ‘gemuti’ is twisted. It is no exaggeration that we will use up to 17 kilometers of ‘gemuti’ to lash the raft’s bamboos together and for every other scrap of cordage on the craft. Paddles growing as eccentrically independent tree branches were impossible to find amongst the sparse forests on Kythira Island in Greece, but on Timor there are vastly more prospects of locating and shaping paddles rather than splitting logs for the task. And there is always bamboo.