How Palaeolithic man sailed the oceans by the currents and the stars

Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was set in a post-Apocalyptic world. The whole floating, sea-borne community only existed as a reaction to a worldwide disaster. But what about a Waterworld scenario that is not a reaction to anything — one in which man regarded the sea as much his natural habitat as he did the land?

Just because we are a bunch of land lubbers, it doesn’t mean that our earliest ancestors were also. It just requires a little lateral thinking. After all, we are supposed to have evolved from life that came from the sea, according to scientists. Sixty per cent of our body weight (including 75 per cent of our blood) is made up of salty water. It shouldn’t be an alien environment to us.

So many of our ancient myths have heroes whose mothers came from the sea, such as Achilles, and the Merovingian kings copied this popular back story to give themselves more legitimacy. The word ‘mer’ is French for sea, and the word ‘mere’ is French for mother, giving us mermaids that come from the sea ~ or sea faeries.

But according to the post-hoc reasoning of some, the open sea would have been a terrifying environment for the ignorant, grunting Homo erectus (sic) who may have just about had the nous to throw together a flimsy raft — but then, they ask, how would that frail concoction have made it through weeks of voyaging, out of sight of land, in the unpredictable currents, storms and tempests of strange oceans?

The earliest attested boat, discovered by archaeologists, is only 7,000 years old. Given how quickly wood rots, they were lucky to find one even that old. But because the Darwinian view of intelligence evolving dictates the thinking of science, it is readily accepted that man, hundreds of thousands of years ago in the Pleistocene period, would not have been intelligent enough to work out how to build a boat and sail it across the ocean. However, a recent find of fairly sophisticated tools on Crete dating to 130,000 years old has blown that old assumption out of the water. (sorry!).

So in this article, I will show that the reasoning that man did not discover how to build or sail boats until 7,000 years ago is based on a misunderstanding about his advanced cognition. It is also fed by ignorance about early shamanism, and about how our earliest ancestors would have relied on the knowledgeable shaman to negotiate difficult terrains and to control the weather.

There are shamans who quite regularly bring the rains down even today. Many are based in the Coso Mountains of California, where there has been a ritual centre for weather shamans for more than 10,000 years. The Coso Shoshone and the Kawaiisu used rainmakers who wore the typical quail topknot head dress of the weather shaman. We can see these rainmakers in their rock art.

Anthropomorph with features resembling ethnographic accounts of a weather shaman, including atlatl, quail-topknot headgear, and stick bundle. (From Whitley 1994:363.)

I know how to go about making rain. The first is the shamanic or spiritual way. It uses intention, prayers, medicine objects, ceremony to help an individual connect with an unseen force of nature that produces clouds, rain, thunder and lightning, winds and other weather phenomena. The shamanic approach is thousands of years old and was once practiced worldwide. Most Native American tribal groups had a rainmaker in days past. The art is still known in a few places in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and wherever some knowledge of the old way remains.

In the shamanic tradition a man or woman becomes a rainmaker after showing a predilection and doing a long apprenticeship. While the means and methods vary from culture to culture, the paramount ability is the relationship that is developed with the weather – and with the forces that can move and change it.

In most Native American tribes, at certain times all the people would participate in rainmaking ceremonies. Among the Hopi of the Southwest the entire tribe could be considered rainmakers given their widespread activity in ceremonies. (This understanding that everyone can influence the weather needs more support and encouragement.)

In all tribal and cultural lands where rainmakers were found previously, the people acknowledged the craft, the necessity, and the value of it in their lives. As would be expected, some rainmakers were better at their craft than others. None did the job “fulltime” but were otherwise skilled as healers, herbalists, hunters, farmers, weavers, etc.

From a tutorial on rainmaking from the excellent Rainmaker Rainmaker.

My point is, if it’s possible to bring down the rains, and to produce thunder, lightening and storms, it must also be possible for the weather shaman to calm the winds and typhoons too.

We see remnants of these early explorer/navigator shamans in ancient myths, with characters like the shaman navigator Maya Danava of the Vedics, Moses (who parted the Red Sea) and Jesus who calmed the troubled waters for his fisherman disciples. I’m not saying that these specific shaman characters actually existed. I’m pretty sure that Jesus didn’t. But they certainly appear in the myths as representing a certain recognisable type ~ navigators, explorers and leaders of migrations who have the ability to calm or part the seas. This alone tells us something about ancient thinking ~ and that calming the waters or parting the seas could have been metaphor for their knowledge about the sea in terms of currents and winds, and all advised by their guiding spirits, of course.

So let’s imagine a community that is almost permanently situated on the seas. How would they eat? How would they survive? Well, food shouldn’t be a problem as the most nutritious diet recommended by nutritionists even today is one based on fish, seaweed and spirulina which is a marine food largely made up of the same cyanobacteria or algae that is fed on by fish. The health benefits of spirulina are too many to list here.

We know that the Aztecs and other MesoAmericans were avid spirulina eaters until the 16th-century. We know that it was harvested from Lake Texcoco and then made into flat pancakes, because this process is described by one of Cortés’ soldiers. The Aztecs called spirulina tecuitlatl, meaning ‘stone’s excrement’.

OK, there is an issue about fresh water supplies when you’re spending weeks and months at sea. But given that we have our own desalination plants, it would have almost certainly not been beyond the whit of ancient man to know about herbs which would act as desalinators. They knew about how to do that in ancient India.

India has a rich background traditional technologies. Varahamihira, an omni talented scientist of A.D 505–587 in his treatise entitled Brihatsamhita, suggested the use of five herbs for desalination of brakishwater. Laboratory tests are conducted on prepared and natural ground water samples. The optimum dosages of herbs at different chloride concentrations are determined. The performances of herbs, herbal mixtures and herbal extracts are determined by conducting experiments on percentage removals of chlorides. An effort is made to understand the mechanisms of herbal desalination by conducting experiments on adsorption, flocculation and variation of pH.

From studies on herbal desalination.

As Steve Wyatt points out in his highly-regarded academic paper, Ancient Transpacific Voyaging, the only issues would have been environmental.

Wyatt concludes that the trans Pacific voyaging would have been possible mainly because of many tiny islands, now under water, that would have existed along the way, where the Waterworlders could have put in to take on fresh spring water and carry out repairs and a myriad of other things you can only do on land … even add to their gene pool as sailors have been wont to do since time immemorial.

Then, add into the mix of that hypothesis the shaman navigators and their knowledge of weather systems and currents, and I think you could very easily have had a sophisticated Waterworld culture in the Pleistocene period, hundreds of thousands of years ago.

I believe that the only barrier to that possibility is in our own thinking.



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  2. ken sachs

    Any country with a coast will develop a water-based culture along that coast.

    Whether it becomes the dominant one depends on the other options available.

    The Portuguese were/are cut off from going any direction but seaward.
    The same can be said for the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians.

    And while the Egyptians, the Indians and the Chinese, all developed sea-going trade, it cannot be said to have been the dominant culture of the country.

    Even the island based Japanese cut themselves off from the outside world.

    I cannot point to any data to support this idea. It is just a feeling I get when talking to “Southerners.” They seem to be more open to long distances and don’t seem concerned if those distances are over water.

    This is in contrast to the “Northerners” who are much more insular. Perhaps Europeans the most. A quick glance at a globe will show that nowhere on the planet are there so many different countries, each with its own culture and language, crammed into such a small area as Europe.


  3. Tony Holmes

    I live at the southern tip of Africa, so I suppose I should support ken sachs, but the idea of the northern/southern hemisphere disparity seems a little strained when one considered the sea going exploits of the Egyptians, the Portuguese, the Indians and the Chinese, all of whom lived in the northern hemisphere and made the ocean their highway.


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  5. ken sachs

    I have long thought that man’s view of water, and the sea in particular, seems to depend on whether he is from the Northern or the Southern Hemisphere.

    Northerners seen to view it as a obstruction. Something to be “conquered.”

    Southerners seem to view it as a highway to be “used.”
    (The Mediterranean during the Pax Romana is a notable exception.)

    The South Pacific is an obvious example.
    But there are many “water people” cultures at the mouths of great rivers in the South and few, if any, in the North.

    This may be due to the huge land expanses in the North and the corresponding huge water expanses in the South.

    When you can walk for months across Asia or North America the occasional stream or river becomes a natural marker. Even a boundary.
    When you can sail for weeks in the South Pacific the occasional island serves the same purpose.

    As with many other things, we seem to be most comfortable with what we grew up with.


  6. Wendy Mason

    Hi I love this. Many think of the earth as our mother, but maybe the earth is grandmother and it is the sea who is our mother in all her awesome power, governed as she is by the Moon. Certainly we carry the ocean within us in our blood stream – we couldn’t live without the sea so we developed a way to carry it with us. If you watch the ocean for any time you can’t fail to feel that great beating heart.


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