Early African Seafaring

Early African Seafaring

African sailing tradition dates back longer than many realize. This #TallShipTuesday, we investigate some of the earliest sailors to journey to the seas in celebration of Black History Month. There have been many interesting discoveries from early human history, especially on the continent of Africa.

Stone Carvings of Early Seafaring

Some of the earliest attempts at seafaring that are documented come from the end of the Neolithic Period. This time period fell between around 7000 BCE and 1700 BCE. 

We have records of prehistoric maritime activity from stone carvings depicting early boats like those above. One of the oldest images of a boat is from Sudan dating to 7050 BCE. These were discovered in a small pit grave, and given contextual evidence from this and other discoveries in the area, researchers D. Usai & S. Salvatori determined this was an illustration of a boat. They described the drawing as “the back half of the boat, including part of the hull, a steering system and what seems to be a cabin placed more or less at the centre of the upper hull. The steering system seems to be of a composite type: a tiller, placed at more than 45° with a long pole ending in a ovoid blade, all fixed to the top of a vertical pole.”

The two researchers realized that this meant that there were already ocean-going vessels as early as the neolithic period which was rather advanced for the time period. Other ocean-going civilizations like the Netherlands have preserved boats from this time period, but nothing this advanced.

The Dufuna Canoe

Africa’s oldest known boat discovered is called the Dufuna Canoe. According to the researchers who worked on the artifact, this canoe is possibly older than 8000 years old from around 6000 BCE or potentially even earlier. This vessel is one of the 3 oldest preserved boat specimens discovered in recent history. The Dufuna Canoe was discovered in Dufuna, Nigeria in 1996 and is an example of dugout canoes in early maritime tradition. Native Americans also built dugout canoes as a part of their maritime tradition.

Ancient Egypt and Maritime Trade

Amongst other incredible finds from this early era of human history, in about 2500 BCE there is evidence of not only ship building but ship commerce in ancient egypt. An area that would have likely been a bustling port was unearthed not far from the Pyramids of Giza. Inside one of those pyramids was an enshrined ship, now known as Khufu’s ship. This ship is a Solar Barque, the vessel used by the sun god Ra in Egyptian mythology. The ship is now at its new home in the Grand Egyptian Museum.

These old boats mark the early days of seafaring and maritime tradition. A tradition with a meaningful and continuing legacy today.

Further Reading

Overview of African Sailing: https://thinkafrica.net/africas-inventions-the-earliest-sea-faring-vessels/

Overview of African Sailing: https://quatr.us/african-history/ships-sailing-ancient-africa-early-boats.htm

Seagoing Ships of Ancient Egypt: https://escholarship.org/content/qt9d93885v/qt9d93885v.pdf 

Neolithic period: https://asia-archive.si.edu/learn/for-educators/teaching-china-with-the-smithsonian/explore-by-dynasty/neolithic-period/#:~:text=The%20Neolithic%20period%2C%20or%20New,solely%20on%20hunting%20and%20gathering

Oldest representation of a Nile boat: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Sandro-Salvatori/publication/313611232_The_oldest_representation_of_a_Nile_boat/links/58aab935a6fdcc0e0798409d/The-oldest-representation-of-a-Nile-boat.pdf 

Khufus boat: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/pharaoh/expl-nf.html

Port in giza: https://www.livescience.com/42902-giza-pyramids-port-discovered.html

Archaeological, Linguistic and Historical Sources on Ancient Seafaring: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Study of Early Maritime Contact and Exchange in the Arabian Peninsula: https://www.academia.edu/471331/Archaeological_Linguistic_and_Historical_Sources_on_Ancient_Seafaring_a_Multidisciplinary_Approach_to_the_Study_of_Early_Maritime_Contact_and_Exchange_In_the_Arabian_ 

Implications of hominid seafaring capabilities: http://www.ifrao.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/99ActaArch.pdf 

Pesse Canoe: https://drentsmuseum.nl/en/in-the-spotlight-top-exhibits/pesse-canoe#:~:text=The%20dugout%20canoe%20found%20near%20Pesse%20is%20the,1955%20during%20the%20construction%20of%20the%20A28%20motorway.

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