Tech7,000-year-old sailing technology uncovered near Rome reshapes history

7,000-year-old sailing technology uncovered near Rome reshapes history

Diver at the bottom of the lake
Diver at the bottom of the lake
Images source: © PLOS ONE (2024)
5:25 PM EDT, March 26, 2024

People have been sailing with technologically advanced ships since seven thousand years ago. This finding emerged from the discovery of ancient boats near a lake close to Rome, which unveiled the sophisticated construction techniques Neolithic communities used in the region.

The Stone Age sailors possessed quite advanced boat-building technology. Neolithic communities traveled and traded using sea routes, as archaeological evidence of floating units and settlements on coasts and islands suggests. Scientists from the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Spain, in collaboration with colleagues from other institutions, detailed these Neolithic sailing technologies in the Mediterranean Basin. Their research, centered on analyses of ancient boats found in the Neolithic village of La Marmotta near Rome, was recently published.

The study's results and descriptions were featured in the journal "PLOS ONE" (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0299765).

Sophisticated sailing technologies

The Neolithic sailors of the Mediterranean Basin navigated on ship decks that boasted many features found in modern boats. The quality and complexity of these prehistoric innovations suggest several significant advances in sailing were made during the late Stone Age, likely facilitating the conquests and spread of major ancient civilizations.

At the archaeological site of La Marmotta, researchers found five boats constructed from hollowed-out tree trunks, resembling canoes or kayaks, dating from between 5700 and 5100 BCE. These boats were made from four different types of wood, an unusual practice in similar archaeological finds. The scientists acknowledged the use of advanced construction techniques in these boats, such as cross reinforcements that improved the hull's durability, protection, and steerability.

Remnants of ancient boats
Remnants of ancient boats© PLOS ONE (2024).

In one boat, the discovery of three wooden objects shaped like the letter "T", each with a series of holes, was especially noteworthy. These likely served to fasten lines to sails or to connect other navigational elements, like a stabilizer or a secondary boat to form a double-hulled catamaran. Such innovations would have ensured greater safety and stability, along with an enhanced capability for transporting people, animals, and goods, the authors suggest in their publication.

The boats are cited as unique examples of prehistoric ship construction, necessitating a deep understanding of construction techniques and wood properties, alongside a coordinated, specialized workforce.

The oldest constructions of their kind

Comparing the discovered boats with more recent sailing technologies supports the notion that many significant sailing advancements occurred in the Neolithic period. The researchers believe that more ancient boat wrecks may be hidden near La Marmotta, pointing towards intriguing possibilities for future research.

"Direct dating of the Neolithic boats from La Marmotta confirms their status as the oldest known ships of their kind in the Mediterranean Basin. This study underscores the considerable technological sophistication of early agricultural and pastoral communities, highlighting their craftsmanship in woodworking and complex shipbuilding," the authors wrote.

The Neolithic settlement of La Marmotta was first discovered in 1989, lying twenty-six feet beneath the surface of Lake Bracciano, approximately 984 feet from the current shoreline and linked to the Mediterranean Sea. Excavations conducted between 1992-2006 and in 2009 uncovered not only the five boats but also a substantial collection of wooden tools for weaving textiles, baskets for carrying food, and other artifacts. These findings portray La Marmotta as a thriving farming community, likely serving as a significant trade hub due to its Mediterranean proximity.

The largest of the unearthed boats, made from oak, measures about 36 feet, with the others ranging from 13 to 31 feet in length, constructed from alder, poplar, and beech. Given their sizes, it is speculated that these boats were used far beyond Lake Bracciano, potentially navigating the Mediterranean Sea. Artifacts found in La Marmotta, including Greek or Baltic pottery and obsidian tools from the Lipari and Palmarola islands, support this theory.

In 1998, a team of researchers built a replica canoe to test its capabilities for long-distance sailing, successfully journeying more than 497 miles from Italy to Portugal.

Source: Public Library of Science, IFLScience, photo by PLOS ONE (2024). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0299765, CC-BY

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