The Wallaceans

When the first humans reached Australia some 65,000 years ago they more than likely accomplished something that no mariner before them had been bold enough to do.  They had navigated their vessels - most likely bamboo rafts - to a safe landfall across a stretch of ocean to a destination they couldn’t see.


Close to a million years earlier the smaller brained Homo erectus – at the end of his long trek from Africa - had become the first hominin to cross a sea bridge. His presence is well recorded on the island of Flores. How and following which route - either the narrow strait separating Lombok and Indonesia’s eastern islands from Bali and Java - or the wider gap between Sulawesi and Flores – may likely be never solved. But he managed to arrive safely, prospered for more than a million years, but there his trail ends. From Flores, it seems, he ventured no further.


Homo sapiens evolved in northeast Africa 200,000 years ago, and inside the next 100,000 years began to move east. Archaic hominins had moved out of Africa before, but this migration would be the last as they inched along for 11,000 kilometers until their legs weren’t enough to carry them any further. They had encountered their first water barrier; two in fact, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. They had arrived at what would later be known as the Wallace Line, the biogeographical divide named after English naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace between the great continents of Asia and Oceania. To move on they would have to be able to float.  It was there at the Wallace Line, that the pedestrian, out-of-Africa nomads – now with a touches of Neanderthal and Denisovan added to their genes from social encounters en route – became more than aquatic nomads, they became seafarers, gradually developing maritime skills as they moved between the scattered islands of the Philippines, Sulawesi and every spot of habitable ocean between Asia and Australia.


We are calling them The Wallaceans. They are the world’s first sea people, pre-dating the Polynesians by some 60,000 years, and the ancestors of the original inhabitants of the western Pacific, Melanesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and, of course, the Aboriginal people of Australia.  The currently considered 65,000-year-old human colonization of Sahul Land - the earlier, larger version of Australia when it was joined to Papua New Guinea and Tasmania - is the first known ocean crossing by humans. It is this journey, to cross the now 600 km wide strait between Timor and Northern Australia, that our The First Mariners team is about to attempt with an 18-meter bamboo raft. We have rafted across the Timor Sea before, but not on a craft made entirely with stone tools and sailed under the same conditions as its original crew when they set out into the unknown to discover the southern continent of Australia.


The voyage, planned for February 2020, begins on the island of Rote which the last ice age separated from Timor.  The fossil record tells us that the voyage happened but offers no other clues. We are assuming the vessel was a raft made from bamboo which was plentiful even then. Bamboo is easy to harvest, easy to work with a stone tool, eminently buoyant and by using full-length culms a single raft can be big enough to carry  a significant number of passengers. A fleet of a half dozen rafts could transport enough men and women to seed a colony.


But we cannot ignore the possibility that by the time the sea nomads had settled the Wallacea archipelago, their maritime and tool technology might have made significant enough advances in the development of day-to-day tools. Even now the combination of hafted stone axe shards found in the ancient Madjedebe rock shelter in Arnhem Land with ground-edge sharpened tools -  both techniques credited to the Australian Aboriginal - raise the possibility  that the skills might have been brought to Sahul much earlier by its first visitors from the west. 


Anyone who has worked with a chopping tool is aware of the difference a handle makes. And in particular, anyone who has used a hand ax from stone is likely to conclude that having a handle attached might well coincide with the beginning of dugout canoes - the birth of sophisticated sea transport. Could it be that 65,000 years ago they forbears of the Australian Aboriginal knew how to transform a log into a canoe?  


Canoes rather than the slower and less maneuverable rafts may have been used in Timor at that time which would have helped facilitate fishing activity 42,000 years ago at the eastern end of Timor. A recent excavation at a well-known habitation cave there has come up with fish hooks and food remains that  show that the Wallaceans living there were catching tuna and other pelagic fish at that time. The trochus shell fish hooks could have been in the cave for 23,000 years, which makes them the world’s oldest, laying out further proof that here is the cradle of seafaring and the first signs of complete, almost amphibious human interaction with the sea. From land nomads to sea nomads, here in Wallacea our ancestors first took to the sea.


Genetically there is no doubt that the Melanesians, original settlers of the Philippines, the people of Papua New Guinea and the Australian Aboriginal share the same ancestry. But what is surprising is that until now, the fossil record puts Homo sapiens landing on Australia up to 20,000 years before Papua New Guinea and the islands of the Western Pacific.


We intend to show that like the Polynesians who came after them, their colonizing voyages were intentional. How can we do that? Academia functions not on surmise but factual evidence, and there is none. We are not academics, we are sailors, and this is our advantage by thinking and reacting to nautical situations as the original seafarers would have.


The basic challenges which confronted Homo sapiens to understand the ocean, to be able to live from it and move across it as one would a swathe of terra firma, can’t have been any different 65,000 years ago from the present. Evolutionary landmarks had longer spaces between them, that is obvious. But putting together an object which floated and then could be maneuvered and then could carry passengers, would have evolved steadily as needs arose. The good sense of using wind to propel a raft for example, wouldn’t have been ignored for very long.


The earliest sea crossings probably were made by simple rafts fashioned from whatever materials were available; reeds, trees felled by lightning or age, bamboo, even bundles of dry grass. As far as moving the basic vessels through the water, can we really believe that it took thousands of years to progress from a cupped hand in a swimming motion to a wooden paddle fashioned with a simple stone axe; and then a few thousand years more to harness the wind?