Finding Australia

The re-enactment raft project of the possibly 65,000 years old Wallacean sea crossings to Australia resumed in January, 2019 back on Timor and Rote with a hands-on work and strategy session for two weeks and to introduce Glenn Marshall to experimental archaeology, the seafaring people of southwest Rote and to give Glenn would the opportunity to launch his own experimental devices to gauge the sea currents between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.


Glenn is a former geologist and a meticulous researcher who from his base in Alice Springs has spent the best part of two decades wrestling with the who, how, why and when questions pertaining to the original colonisation of his homeland. The input of Glenn Marshall’s enthusiasm, knowledge, curiosity and need to get to the bottom of things is an enormous asset to the group. In December he will be working with stone toolmaker Barth van der Geer -  amongst other attributes. Both are mature, unbiased scholars who are greatly enhancing the scientific element to the current project.


In the almost 100 years since studies of the human possession of Australia began very little archaeological evidence has made it to the surface. Now the new wave of academic interest in the colonisation by the sea people we are calling ‘Wallaceans’ is going all out with geographic information systems software, bathymetric data, digital recreations and so forth. From the results, two main opposing hypotheses have emerged; one which favours the ‘northern route’ for the 90 km (including island stops) crossing to what is now Papua New Guinea, and the ‘southern route’- supporting a passage which the ancient sailors took from Rote or Timor; 90 kilometres also, but stopping off at convenient islands which have long since been submerged.


Perhaps different groups took off on both routes, again and again, at different but agreeable weather periods. Perhaps they made return journeys; even east-going to Sahul (as in Papua New Guinea) from Ceram in the north, moving southwest for a mere 1,000km to return to Timor. This may be far-fetched but we are dealing with Homo sapiens, modern man, our direct ancestor who had taught himself the art of moving over an ocean. They were after all the world’s first sea people with millennia at their disposal to master their maritime technology.


Whether they took the southern route or northern route or something in between is heading towards one of those eternal debates so is not a debilitating concern for us since whatever route these brave, aquatic stone age people chose they required a vessel to do it, a technique to propel it, the experience to sustain themselves during lengthy periods at sea, and how to return to home base.


Was seafaring as organised as that seven millennia ago? Who can tell? It is clear, though, that it would be a difficult task now if someone heading east from Timor had to manage it with only natural elements at his disposal; no metal, no plastic, no glue and only tools he has made for himself from stone.


Currently, archaeologist, palaeologists, marine biologists, meteorologists, geologists and anthropologists are busily producing a veritable flood of hypotheses covering the adventures of a group of Homo sapiens walking out of Africa to become the world’s first community of sea people on the far side of the world.  Mariners, seafarers, sea gypsies; call them what you want, but they were the first humans to learn the rules of the sea and put them into practice. Something of an achievement that we humble (ha, ha) Homo sapien-sapiens should be quite proud of. It is that major sea crossing – grown somewhat from its original 90 kilometres from shore to shore by melting ice caps – that is keeping us busy from now until we set off in February in front of the soggy northwest monsoon.


Physically the project began at the end of 2016 when six of us, including Barth van der Geer, harvested the raft’s giant bamboo in the hills above Kupang on West Timor. Some 220 culms were cut, hauled to the coast and towed across the strait to Rote Island.


Enthusiastically assisted by archaeologist Dr. Leo Nahakus, the first curator of the NTT Museum in Kupang, Barth van der Geer also gathered material on Timor to produce the stone tools which will partly build the raft. It was a six week period of learning, instruction and action. The great chunks of Barth’s flint not surprisingly survived the past 24 months, but much of the bamboo was spoiled by rain and sun and is being replaced from stands grown on Rote. Which means not even the Rotinese know everything because the giant, ‘betung’ bamboo has been there all along and nobody told us.


In January this year Glenn and Bob Hobman spent two intense weeks sourcing raft building material, moving what remained of our bamboo supply to the protected lagoon at Oeseli, signing on a local crew, and generally setting up the infrastructure for later in the year. Barth van der Geer couldn’t make the trip and would have been intrigued by Glenn Marshall’s sea drifting devices to measure the currents in the Timor Sea. Miraculously he got a professional model through Indonesian Customs (Bea dan Cukai) at Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport and we put together two more from bamboo, and bits and pieces before launching them with rocks below to keep them submerged and upright and a GPS device on top to record their hourly progress. One survived for two weeks and its activity out there on the Timor Sea is enlightening and bewildering at the same time. 


At Oeseli Bob was reunited with the local fishermen who built The First Mariners raft 20 years ago and began experimenting with the ephemeral issue of the raft’s various sail possibilities. The Wallaceans were advanced sea people to be able to accomplish what they did. Realistically, moving a large and hardly nimble raft laden with passengers, food, water requires something more than a paddle to move and control it. We say that it would be almost vacuous to imagine even stoneage people not having some kind of system to take advantage of a following wind.


So far our experiments are focused on very large palm fronds. The stitching needle is from 40,000BP and weaving fibres belongs to the Neolithic. Hopefully our imagination will produce a ‘non-sail sail’ before we set out on the long haul to Australia in February.

The Raft


It is commonly assumed that the Wallacean vessel of choice 60,000 years ago was a bamboo raft. Almost nothing challenges carefully treated, dry and unskinned bamboo for weight, strength, durability, availability, resistance to seawater and its extraordinary flotation properties. And it was almost certainly growing in Wallacea and Sunda at the time.


The expedition raft will therefore be built with forest timber for lateral and longitudinal support and from the 200 culms of now well-seasoned bamboo (var. gigantochloa) which we harvested 12 months ago on Timor, in the hills surrounding Baumata near Kupang in the south of Timor. The raft will be the full, 18 to 20 metres length of a bamboo culm and a little  less than four metres wide; a voyaging-size vessel fit to carry 10 crew and able to withstand a fast-running following sea at the height of a tropical monsoon season. It also must be able to respond to paddle power and something representing a sail. It will be steered, or kept from broaching, by a simple sweep oar and will have a rattan and palm thatch shelter midships for protection from the sun, sleeping and preparing meals on a coral and sand firebox.


Simulated voyages with computer-tracked model rafts have shown that paddle-assisted rafts have covered the 87 kilometres from Timor/Rote to reach the shallow Sahul Banks – Australia’s once exposed continental shelf – in five or six days. The remainder of the journey is 360 km to the Bonaparte Archipelago or 700 km to the nearest landfall to the earliest human habitation in Arnhem Land. 


 The as yet unnamed raft will be built by the inhabitants of Oeseli, a village on the southwest corner of Rote Island which is flanked on one side by a bay which opens into the Indian Ocean and on the other by a shallow, white sand lagoon. Most of the materials have been gathered. Time prohibits the exclusive use of stone tools to construct the raft, so metal tools will also be employed. Construction should take no longer than four weeks.

The rafts’ ribs and backbone will be cut from Rote’s forest and the whole lot lashed together with 7,000 metres of hand-spun rope from the bark of the region’s ubiquitous Areca palm (Arenga pinnata). It will have a sail of sorts, based on fronds of the multi-purpose lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer).  Using some form of sail supports our belief that the ancient people The First Mariners team continues to emulate were more innovative and had more technical acumen than they are usually credited with. In the enviable days before greed, profit and power took command of the planet’s excessive human population, technology evolved from necessity, experience, and experiment.


A million years ago Homo erectus had control over fire and a million years before that he was knapping useful tools from stone. Prehistoric Homo sapiens had the same size brain as ours; they were endowed with the ability to think, to figure things out. So it is not unlikely that during the thousands of years that anatomically modern man was dabbling with maritime technology in Wallacea, he had devised a way of utilizing the wind to propel his raft or primitive dugout hull from one island to another.


And to Australia!

Life aboard


For the estimated 14-day voyage to the northwest coast of Australia, much of the crew’s time will be taken up with food. Hunting it fresh will be done with trailing copies of 43,000 years old bone and shell fishing hooks. But on a raft, a fish spear is the master tool; performing at its peak when the sun is high and fish seek the raft’s shade. To boil water for cooking tubers and a rare but still locally available ancient millet, a palm leaf bucket (‘haik’) is suspended over a coral hearth fire.


Coconuts from the palm ‘Cocos nucifera’ will be carried aboard as well as bamboo shoots and palm tops, bird eggs, honey and dried shellfish. The voyage is timed for February which is the middle of the wet monsoon season so the matter of storing water will be more challenging than its supply. But there are cunning ways of treating sections of large bamboo. Termite-hollowed mangrove logs are also a possibility once a method has been derived to seal one of the open ends.