Author: "Robert G. Bednarik"

The First Mariners

Volume 1

Personal Book: US $35 Special Offer (PDF + Printed Copy): US $150
Printed Copy: US $133
Library Book: US $140
ISSN: 2405-7703
eISSN: 2405-7711 (Online)
ISBN: 978-1-68108-020-8
eISBN: 978-1-68108-019-2 (Online)
DOI: 10.2174/97816810801921150101


This volume summarizes the history and findings of the First Mariners Project, which the author, Robert G. Bednarik, commenced in 1996 in order to explore the Ice Age origins of seafaring. This is the largest archaeological replication project ever undertaken with several hundred people involved in the construction of eight primitive vessels with stone tools under scientifically controlled conditions, six of them sailing. Four bamboo rafts have succeeded in accomplishing the historically documented crossings they sought to replicate. One of the successful experiments, a 1000 kilometer journey to Australia in 1998, attempted to recreate the first human arrival in Australia, probably around 60,000 years ago. Other voyages attempted to address the much earlier sea crossings documented to have taken place in the islands of Indonesia, the earliest of which may have occurred nearly a million years ago. These experiments have also featured in BBC and National Geographic documentaries.

The First Mariners comprehensively describes the archaeological background and relevant issues of the project and features an extensive pictorial record, of both the experiments and the archaeological basis of this research – giving a unique experience to readers interested in understanding the earliest marine adventurers from a historical and technical perspective.


When early humans began to cross sea barriers they demonstrated what they were capable of by harnessing nature. This may have been the most consequential single achievement in human history, because it marked the advent of the domestication of natural systems—the evolution of technologies that harness the energies of nature, in this case wind, wave action, current, and buoyancy. The importance of this is not so much in the expanded ability of colonization or the introduction of “assisted locomotion”, but in the cybernetic feedback derived from the conscious manipulation of natural systems and its impact on the cognitive and intellectual development of hominins. From an archaeo-technological perspective, early maritime navigational ability provides a more accurate determination of maximal technological capability than any other available evidence from the Ice Ages—rather in the same way as space travel does today. In both cases technology facilitates the survival of humans in life-threatening circumstances. Hence there are several good reasons to take a special interest in where, when, and especially how seafaring began.

But the available archaeological evidence for the use of boats or rafts and related paraphernalia only extends back to the end of the Ice Ages, in the order of 10,000 years ago, because any earlier remains have been destroyed by the repeated sea level rises of the previous couple of million years. So in effect we have absolutely no maritime artifacts from the early periods of human civilization. Nor do we know anything about that half of early humanity that lived in fertile regions that became repeatedly submerged by the sea in those early times. Since these people can be assumed to have been more sedentary and more technologically advanced than the inland hunters pursuing the animal herds of the continents’ interior, we can reasonably assume that Ice Age archaeology can only deliver a skewed picture of these times.

However, these barriers to our understanding can be overcome with a little care. Fieldwork in the 1950s and 1960s has demonstrated that the island of Flores in Indonesia was occupied by a thriving population of hominins (early humans) by at least 700,000 or 800,000 years ago. We know from other places in the world, including from nearby Java, that the kinds of humans then existing were of Homo erectus types. And we know that the islands of Nusa Tenggara, formerly called the Sunda Islands, were never connected to the Asian landmass. In fact, they are geologically very recent phenomena, resulting from the tectonic forces unleashed in the region’s subduction zone as the Australian plate (Sahul) ploughs under the Asian (Sunda). These mostly volcanic islands are "only" a few million years old.

These circumstances are of great importance in understanding not only the expansion of humans, especially through their first colonization of Australia, but also for more significant reasons. For one thing, they could tell us a great deal about the cognition and the technology available to these people, including their abilities to communicate, to collaborate, and to plan for the future. To arrive at Flores they must have crossed at least three sea barriers, which it is impossible to achieve without the use of some propelled flotation device. Since it is inevitable that the number of people crossing each of these times must have been at least several dozen, it stands to reason that these colonization attempts were well planned and executed campaigns. If the number of participating people had been below that required for a viable breeding population, bringing with them an adequate gene pool and a good number of fertile females, the new colony would have perished, or suffered great genetic deprivation. The impressive number of occupation sites already found in central Flores bears witness to a flourishing settlement, and the project described in this book also secured similarly early human occupation evidence from two other islands, Timor and Roti. These may have been the last stops before hominins launched their invasion of the Australian continent.

One would have thought that the Ice Age (Pleistocene) archaeologists had taken a great interest in this knowledge, especially those who were concerned with the colonization of Australia. Far from it, the Flores evidence was almost completely ignored by a discipline that instead developed a mythology around the notion that a superior form of humans appeared much more recently in Africa and exterminated or outcompeted all other humans in the world. What has led to this controversy in Ice Age archaeology? The simple answer is that nearly all the published reports about the Flores evidence had appeared in German, had never been seen by most specialists and were soon forgotten by others. Becoming aware in the 1990s that practically all archaeologists mistakenly believed that it was the African superhumans they had invented who first swept through the Indonesian Archipelago to reach Australia 60,000 years ago, I set about drawing attention to the Flores presence of Homo erectus. I even began dismantling the dogma of the African Übermenschen by showing that it derives from a hoax by a German archaeology professor dating back to the 1970s, which the discipline had accepted as part of its dogma until 2002.

This book tells the story of how I set about correcting one of the discipline’s great errors (the latest in a series of many), beginning with exploring the circumstances of the early colonization of the Indonesian Archipelago, and of several islands in the Mediterranean. To gauge the sophistication of the first mariners’ culture I designed a series of “replicative” experiments designed to determine the lowest levels of technology needed to succeed in traversing a number of sea straits. The primary purpose of these experiments is to examine each of the many variables involved in Pleistocene seafaring quantitatively, to create the conditions for constructing multiple scenarios within a realistic framework of probability. In this procedure, the confidence that the most probable scenario can convincingly be identified is a function of the number of variables or determinants accounted for satisfactorily. Therefore numerous experiments were essential, and all needed to be conducted under controlled conditions. While the most sensible, economic, or logical course of action is not necessarily the one always taken by hominin mariners, the task is facilitated by several arbitrary limiting factors. For instance, these journeys had much to do with survival, and we can reasonably assume that they explored the very limits of the technologically possible at the times in question. The most probable scenarios can then be tested by reference to known parameters of technological competence at the time in question, especially the well-known stone tool technology. These were derived from the archaeological research forming part of the overall project. This would seem to be the only scientific method available to us to generate informed and plausible explanations for the very early maritime feats of hominins.

The first maritime colonizations were the greatest single achievement in human history, rather than the invention of the wheel, of agriculture, or writing, or flying machines. By comparison to the monumental importance of the first ocean crossing, Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface was indeed no more than a small step for mankind. In effect the entire destiny of humanity was decided around a million years ago, when hominins made a conscious decision to entrust themselves, their very existence, to a contraption they themselves had built, and to seek their future in an unknown land. Since that moment in time, the destiny of the planet Earth has become closely intertwined with the destiny of the human species, because it led to the irreversible and ever-accelerating technological spiral that now transforms the biomass of our planet, and heralds human capacity to affect other objects in space. The ongoing extinction catastrophe on Earth has developed alongside this technological ascent of our species, which mushrooms at a rate massively outstripping our physical, cognitive, or intellectual evolution.

More than one thousand people have, in one capacity or another, contributed to the success of the First Mariners Project, from 1996 to the present. I cannot thank them all individually, but in singling out the following, which were among the most instrumental in in the accomplishment of this large venture, I wish to also extend my gratitude to the hundreds of others who were involved as well:

Peter Rogers, Bob Hobman, Emmanuel Littik, Jacobus Zakawerus, Peter Welch, Fachroel Aziz, Mike Morwood, Eben Unu, Mark Pidcock, Silvia Schliekelmann, Alan Keohane, Abdeslam El Kasmi, Mohammed Boumahdi, Mohammed Habibi, Georgina Pye, Richard Rudgley, Haji Najib, Burhanudin Abdullah, Ruslam Ahmad, Saleh Ahmed, Ibrahim Akadir, Junaidin Ali, Kamirudin Arsyad, Usman Gani, Ibrahim Habeb, Hadji Suaeb Nonci, Bert Roberts, Subhan Solo, Thomas Sutikna and Ali Tahril, Muhammed Su’ud, Idrus, Mala Burhana, Narno, Sawaludin, A. Lukman, Muliono Susanto, Alice Roberts, Sunardi, A. Yuli, Ama Ros, Naomi Law, Tom Barrow, Scott Martin, Paul Bradshaw, Ed Bazalgette, Nadia Astari, Thor Hemmerle, David Hamlin, and the thirty-eight crews and the many builders of the four Nale Tasih rafts; as well as the four hundred men who lifted and carried the Nale Tasih 1; the builders of the Rangi Papa and the Lombok, the crews of the various support vessels, and the four film crews of BBC and National Geographic. They all have contributed their very diverse talents and enthusiasm to the greatest replication experiment ever undertaken in archaeology, and one of the most remarkable adventures of modern science. I have been honored and often humbled by their passion, their inspiring dedication and wonderful friendship, and I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart.

Finally, I thank my teachers, Aboriginal men of the highest degree as they are called, who taught me that their ancestors, in the Dreamtime, arrived in Australia by crossing the sea. As one of them (C. D.) remarked: "White fellows are very knowledgeable about trivialities; they know little of real importance."

Robert G. Bednarik
International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO)
P.O. Box 216
Caulfield South
VIC 3162