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Raft in the Stone Age.

Did Ancient Humans Acquire Nautical Knowledge by Sailing the Prehistoric Megalakes of Africa?


There is increasing evidence that anatomically modern humans (AMH) left Africa 100,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence indicates that AMH were in Arabia, China, Crete, and Brazil over 100,000 years ago. It has been shown that AMH left Africa before 60 thousand years ago.

The archaeological evidence from the Americas and Eurasia make it clear that people left Africa over 100,000 years ago to settle other parts of the world. The presence of AMH in Crete and Brazil suggests that some of these ancient AMH were skilled navigators who used some sort of sailing vessel to reach countries hundreds and/or thousands of miles away from the African continent.

Evidence of Early Migrations

There are no known books or records dating back to this archaic period, but there is archaeological and iconographic evidence from Africa that may help us to make inferences about the ancient sailing ability of AMHs in Africa.

Depictions of ancient sailing vessels.

Depictions of ancient sailing vessels. (Author provided)

In prehistoric times, there were megalakes connected by rivers that would have allowed ancient Africans to sail all the way from North Africa to South Africa. Axel Timmermann, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa claims that climate fluctuations made auspicious environmental conditions that promoted periodic human migration out of Africa every 20,000 years, starting around 100,000 plus years ago. Dr. Timmermann noted that “every 20,000 years or so Earth’s axis wobble caused shifts in climate and vegetation in tropical and subtropical regions,” which created green fertile zones and allowed man to migrate overland into Arabia, the Levant, and beyond.

According to Timmermann, AMH probably made at least four migrations out of Africa (106,000 to 94,000 years ago, 89,000 to 73,000 years ago, 59,000 to 47,000 years ago, and 45,000 to 29,000 years ago), he wrote that “Such shifts then opened up green corridors between Africa and the eastern Mediterranean and between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, thus enabling Homo sapiens to leave northeastern Africa and to embark on their grand journey into Asia, Europe, Australia, and eventually to the Americas.” These dates are interesting because they correspond to archaeological evidence for AMH in Brazil, Crete, and China (100,000 years ago); the rise of the Aurignacian culture from Africa to Iberia and thence Eastern Europe (44kya), and the spread of the Solutrean culture from Africa to Iberia and North America (21-17kya).

In addition to the climate shifts creating warm and wet periods in northern Africa that led to lush vegetation, there was also the creation of megalakes across Africa where hunter gatherers fished and communicated with their neighbors by boat.

Africans developed their nautical expertise as they migrated from Southern Africa to North Africa during the Green Sahara. This migration from Southern Africa to North Africa is supported by hominins leaving hearths as they moved.

The Sahara Desert was not always as it appears today.

The Sahara Desert was not always as it appears today. (CC BY SA 4.0)

There is considerable archaeological evidence supporting this migration of hominins from the south to north. This evidence comes in the form of stone tools recovered from hearths along the Megalake basin dating from the Neolithic back to the Oldowan period. The stone tool inventories indicate that hominins lived in these areas for over 100,000 years.

Anatomically Modern Humans in the Levant

Africans were not able to migrate into Europe 100 kya. But hominin stone tools have a trans-Saharan distribution. This allowed them to be in a position to migrate into the Levant and Southern Europe.

Over 100kya AMH of Sub-Saharan African origin had made their way into North Africa. AMH inhabited the African Mediterranean coast between 110k-30kya. As early as 100kya Africans had settled in the Levant. The AMH Levantine settlement lasted between 70kya-20kya. The permanent settlement of AMH in the Levant probably ended 70kya.

There was sporadic settlement of the Levant between 70kya and 20kya due to Neanderthal occupation of the Near East. Trenton W. Holliday tested the hypothesis that if modern Africans had dispersed into the Levant from Africa, "tropically adapted hominids" would be represented in the archaeological history of the Levant, especially in relation to the Qafzeh-Skhul hominids. This researcher found that the Qafzeh-Skhul hominids (20kya-10kya), were assigned to the Sub-Saharan population, along with the Natufian samples (4000 BP). Holliday also found African fauna in the area.

Left: Es Skhul Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel (CC BY SA 3.0). Right: A skull found in the cave, which represents an archaic and anatomically modern human

Left: Es Skhul Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel (CC BY SA 3.0). Right: A skull found in the cave, which represents an archaic and anatomically modern human. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Evidence for Migrations to Crete and China

There was no land route connecting Crete and North Africa 130kya. But an Acheulean tool kit indicates marine travel of North Africans onto Crete. These artifacts provide evidence of an ancient sea-crossing migration out of Africa 130kya. Crete is 200 miles (321.87 km) off the Libyan coast.

Stone tools found on Crete are evidence of early migration by sea.

Stone tools found on Crete are evidence of early migration by sea. (Nicholas Thompson and Chad DiGregorio)

A stone tool kit, hand axes, scrapers, and perforators, was discovered in a rock shelter at Jebel Faya in the United Arab Emirates when the region was humid. This toolkit was 125k years old. Jebel Faya is 34 miles (54.72 km) away from the Persian Gulf.

Although contemporary tool kits have not been found in ancient China, there are 47 teeth from China dating over 100kya. These teeth indicate ancient AMH were living in Daoxian County, in the Hunan Province of China.

47 teeth found in Fuyan cave in Daoxian province in Southern-China.

47 teeth found in Fuyan cave in Daoxian province in Southern-China. (S. Xing / XJ. Wu/ Universiteit Leiden)

Marine Migration of Anatomically Modern Humans to Brazil

There is also evidence that Africans made it to Brazil 100kya. The main evidence from the ancient Americas is prehistoric tools and rock art, like those found by Dr. Nieda Guidon. Guidon, in numerous articles claims that Africans were in Brazil between 65kya -100kya. Guidon also claims that man was at the Brazilian sites 65kya. She told the New York Times that her dating of human populations in Brazil 100kya was based on the presence of ancient fire and tools of human craftsmanship at habitation sites.

The agreed upon out of Africa (OOA) event was probably 60kya via the Bab el Mandab. The presence of African artifacts in Brazil, Crete, and Arabia dating to 100kya, make it clear that one of the first OOA events took place at least 40k years before the Bab el Mandab exit.

Nautical Expertise Perfected on the Megalakes

Sea-crossing migration OOA may have been facilitated by African nautical expertise perfected on the megalakes. It is time to take a serious look at the nautical past of African people. The idea that the first civilizations in Africa were solely hunter-gatherers without boat technology is groundless. It is necessary to move away from European ideas about the origins of sailing and boat technology.

The varied style of crafts depicted in the Sahara indicate that Africans made vessels that were capable of traveling in rough waters and in the Ocean. They would have needed these sailing craft to trade and communicate with people living along the gigantic lakes.

Examples of ancient ship representations. (Author provided)

Examples of ancient ship representations. (Author provided)

Africans probably developed their nautical skill sailing the former Megalakes that existed in Africa for 100s of years.

Megalakes that formerly existed in Africa. (Author provided).

Megalakes that formerly existed in Africa. (Author provided)

The lakes in Africa were thousands of miles long. Mega Chad was a freshwater lake in Africa covering 139,000 sq miles (360,000 sq km). Lake Chad formerly emptied in the Atlantic Ocean. The map of Megalake Chad and Megalake Congo makes it clear that Africans could sail all the way from South Africa to North Africa. From here they could have sailed up to the Mediterranean Sea. These nautical skills were developed by Africans prior to 130kya.

Due to their size, the weather on these inland lakes would have made conditions similar to what sailors would have experienced sailing in the ocean. Moreover, sailing these megalakes would have given them valuable experience, helping them to sail the open seas.

As previously mentioned, by 100kya African tool kits appear in Brazil and 130k year old African tools were discovered on the island of Crete and in Arabia. This archaeological evidence indicates that Africans were sailing vast distances at a time that AMH were said to be simply gathering seeds and berries to eat—instead of fishing for a supplemental source of food.

A Comparably “Easy” Trip

The discovery of butchered Mastodons in California provides additional support for an early migration of Africans OOA to the rest of the world. Travel from Africa to the Americas would have been easy. Whereas a voyage to the Americas was 1700 miles (2735.89 km), this was nothing compared to sailing Megalake Chad, which was over 130k plus sq. miles.

Distance to Brazil. (Author provided)

Distance to Brazil. (Author provided)

The presence of humans in California and Crete around 130kya and Brazil 100kya indicates that Africans were exiting Africa at this time to the Americas, Arabia, and Crete. The archaeological evidence suggests that the first OOA events were focused on the West and Mediterranean Islands, instead of the eastern parts of the world.

Top Image: Raft in the Stone Age. Credit: Look and Learn / Barbara Loe Collection

By Clyde Winters


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Clyde Winters's picture

I understand what you desire but, we can only use material created by the experts.

I was happy to see a representation of the two mega lakes discussed in the article. However, they are superimposed on a modern representation of Africa. I'd like to see them in their context as they would have listed. I believe the Sahara would have been at least somewhat different in scale.

Clyde Winters's picture

Clyde Winters

Dr. Clyde Winters is an Educator , Anthropologist and Linguist. He has taught Education and Linguistics at Saint Xavier University -Chicago. Dr. Winters is the author of numerous articles on anthropology, archeogenetics and linguistics. His articles have appeared in the Journal... Read More

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