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The earliest craft

Possibilities for the earliest boats

There is controversy about just what were the earliest boats.  They may have been tree-trunks which were hollowed out, which required tools to fell the tree and to chop out the wood.  Remains thought to come from logboats (otherwise known as dugouts) have been found in Northern Europe from as early as 4000 BC, the Stone Age.  Some of these show considerable skill in construction.  Those found in Britain have been made from old oak trees whose heartwood had rotted, and was thus easier to hollow out.  However, the hollow centre of the tree meant that boards had to be fitted across the bow and stern to make them watertight.  This may have been the beginning of making boats from planks.  A further refinement was to fit smaller tree trunks to either side to improve stability: halfway to a raft.  The largest logboats had substantial capacities: it is estimated that one found in Lincolnshire could carry 26 men or a cargo of up to five tonnes.

An alternative but controversial view is that the earliest boats consisted of waterproofed animal skins stretched over a framework of wood or animal bones.  The evidence for this claim is a rock carving in Northern Europe dated to 9000-8000 BC.  It is interpreted as depicting men in a boat hunting reindeer which are swimming across a river.  The carving appears to show that the boat has a frame.  It is pointed out that reindeer would be at their most vulnerable when swimming, and taking to the water would be man’s best chance to catch them.  Those who make this claim point out that the hunters would have the skills to make tents from reindeer hides.  Living in the Ice Age, they would not have large trees to fell to make dugouts, and probably would not have the tools to do this.  Boats made from skin on a wooden frame are quite practical, for instance, the Eskimo kayak, the Irish curragh and the coracle on the River Severn.  They are more buoyant and sea-kindly than dugouts.  A reconstruction of a skin boat, the Brendan, has made extensive voyages, including an Atlantic crossing.

Another possibility is that the earliest boat was made from bundles of reeds.  The reeds could easily be harvested and tied together, say with strips of hide or pliant branches.  Reed boats are still used in South America and elsewhere.  A replica of a reed raft, Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II, has crossed the Atlantic.  


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