Ocean Crossing of Stone Age People to Australia Set to Be Reenacted on Ancient Bamboo Raft Replica

Over 65,000 year ago, a group of Stone Age people set sail from Southeast Asia and arrived in what is now Australia. Sea levels were lower and Australia was connected to Papua New Guinea. It is thought these early seafarers arrived in an area known as Sahul. From there they made their way into the Northern Territory, setting up home and expanding across the country.

The arrival of humans in Australia is the first evidence of a major sea crossing by an early group of humans. The exact route they took and what sort of boats they used will never be known. But there has been much research to indicate their most likely path and what sort of raft they could have created from available materials. By referencing this body of research a group of explorers has now created a replica boat with which they plan to set sail from an Indonesian island all the way to Darwin, Australia, recreating the voyage of our ancient ancestors.

The project was developed by The First Mariners, a group that carries out "scientific reenactments of man's first encounters with the sea." A recent trip involved the team traveling between the Greek islands of Kythira to Crete, a voyage some researchers believe occurred 130,000 years ago.

The team says there are two main routes that early man could have taken to Australia, known as the northern and southern routes. Both cover a distance of around 55 miles — but the southern route once had islands speckled along the path, so the team thinks this is the more likely route.

The crew of eight is planning to set sail from Indonesia's Rote Island, on Sunday. From there, they hope to sail to Darwin, on Australia's northwest coast, although expedition leader Bob Hobman said they are not sure where they might land. While they will maintain daily contact with a team based in Darwin, they will not have an escort vessel for the 300-mile journey. Their progress can be tracked online here.

In an email interview with Newsweek, Hobman explained why he was undertaking the expedition, "I'll be 80 this year and there are health issues that slow me down considerably, so I wanted to know how it was when the first humans took on an ocean crossing." He said that while the crossing does not seem like much of a challenge now, "to the original seafarers it must have been like us going to the moon."

He continued, "Their 'moon' was Australia. There was nobody, just huge animals. The feat, we believe, was carried out by who we are calling the Wallaceans, the original inhabitants of the islands which separate the continents of Australia and Eurasia. The Wallaceans would have been the planet's first seafaring community. Which has some heroic connection for me."

The team estimates the trip will take 14 days. Aboard the reconstructed raft, which measures around 60-feet long and has been created from bamboo, the team will carry tools that would have been available to the Stone Age voyager. They will spend their time fishing with hooks fashioned from 43,000-year-old bone and shell. They plan to boil water to cook vegitables that would have been available to ancient people.

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Provisions onboard include coconuts, eggs, honey, and dried shellfish. The boat also has a small shelter to provide protection from the sun as crew members sleep and cook.

Hobman said the biggest risk of the journey is running into a cyclone, as this is the season for them in the region. "We would be entirely at the mercy of the conditions—which we are anyway. The sails are palm leaves so they wouldn't stay intact for long. The raft sits low in the water, but it tends to broach (turn sideways) when not moving and under control.

"Its 80 pieces of bamboo are lashed together with palm fibre rope so the whole thing flexes. This makes for comfortable sailing in the right conditions. But in a storm or cyclonic disturbance it could be picked up by a wave and turned over. This would be the end of us, so naturally we don't believe such a thing will happen."

Hobman says he hopes a successful journey will help show people "the profound abilities of our ancestors." He said that a goal of the project is to help construct the story of human endeavors and the migratory movements that brought us to where we are today.

"The colonization of Australia could not have happened without an ocean voyage, and it would have been the first," he said. "What vessel the Wallaceans chose to make the journey never be precisely known. Nor will the reasons for the migrations be known. We can only complement the study with the results produced by putting ourselves back to the archaeologically proven time and repeating the feats."