Subject:      ancient navigation (was: American map on Phoenician coins?
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/05/14
Message-ID:   <5ld1t3$cin$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology,soc.history.ancient,,sci.skeptic


Thanks for your reply. It's good to know that people are interested in
ancient navigation. And since you're writing a paper on this, this will be
a good opportunity to test your scholarship and opinions in this group.

On Tue, 13 May 1997 23:11:23, [22] wrote:

> In response I would like to cite a paragraph from a paper Im writing
> about pre- Columbian contact. I particularly recommend that you refer to
> Casons books because he is THE authority on classical boats and

Yes, Bernard, he's the authority on this, but his expertise doesn't reach
further than the Mediterranean navigation. Meanwhile, we know that the
best navigators in ancient times were in Asia/Polynesia. Casson is also
known for a certain "anti-diffusionist" bias...

> Previous posts by others have made the point that in antiquity
> Mediterranean based sailors only sailed within sight of land and coasted
> along. They usually put in at night. This is not great sailing skill and
> certainly not the kind of skill needed to sail across the Atlantic to 
> New World.

Well, I have a problem with this. See below.

> Egyptian captains only sailed within sight of land and put in to shore
> every night (Mertz 1990: 24). In the Mediterranean visibility was so
> important at a time when no compasses were available, that the sea lanes
> were practically deserted during the winter months when visibility was
> compromised and storms occurred; all normal sailing activities were
> packed into the summer months (Casson 1971: 270-271).
> A chronology dating back to 1200 B.C., although still too late to have
> influenced Olmec civilization, makes the postulated voyages even more
> improbable. Even a later date of 800 B.C. or 650 B.C. is a non-starter.
> There is no evidence that even much more accomplished sailors than the
> Egyptians (such as the Carthaginians or the Phoenicians) had ventured
> beyond the Straits of Gibraltar and outside of the Mediterranean at that
> time.

Here I beg to disagree. Evidence exists for much earlier presence in the

> The excursions beyond Gibraltar of the Phoenicians and the
> Carthaginians did not begin until 800 B. C. (Casson 1991: 62-66).
> Phytheas of Marseilles, the first documented excursion to the British
> Isles, took place around 300 B. C. (Casson 1991: 124-126). The Romans
> to Morocco and Portugal, but did not go further south. The island of
> Madeira was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1420. Casson (1991: 5)
> sums it up, "So far as we know, the prehistoric sailors of the
> Mediterranean stayed by and large within the limits of their great
> sea."

This is plain wrong.

> Mauny (1960: 85, 1969) is firmly convinced that the ancients did
> not go any further south than the Canary Islands and Cape Juby (27. 57o
> N). This corresponds exactly to the limit of the variable winds that
> allow a vessel to return north. Luce points out that there is no
> that the ancient Egyptians ever traded further west than Crete, and even
> cites documentary evidence (Pritchard 1955: 373-375) supporting this
> view.

Well, the Egyptians were never known as great sailors.

> "The Ipuwer papyrus uses the phrase 'as far away as Keftia.' The
> prelude to the great Victory Hymn of Tuthmoses III (first half of the
> fifteenth century BC) is more explicit. It celebrates the submission of
> 'the earth in its length and breadth,' and 'all lands... as far as the
> four supports (or pillows) of heaven." The Hymn itself makes it clear
> that Crete for the Egyptians lay at the western limits of the world
> 1971)." Why would a vessel loaded with Nubians, Phoenicians, sages, and
> architects be drifting near the Canary Islands thousands of miles from
> the Nile in 1400 B.C., when in fact there is no well- documented record
> of any group sailing out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic until
> several hundred years later.

Great many misconceptions exist in this area of ancient navigation. First
of all, I would like to comment on the opinion current among classical
scholars that ancient sailors always sailed by day along the shore, and
"parked" their boats for the night.

I know this opinion is based on some classical sources. I have no idea
where, how, and on what basis it was formed originally. And yet, I believe
it is completely off base. Let us consider this opinion about such
"incompetence of ancient sailors" in light of simple logic and common

How is it possible to sail to Cyprus, Crete, and other islands in the
Mediterranean -- islands with very early burgeoning maritime
civilizations! -- if one only sails "by day along the shore"? I would
like someone to explain this to me please...

How is it possible to cross from Italy to North Africa (and we all know
that the Romans had important colonies there) if one is an incompetent
sailor? Do you mean to say they were so incompetent that they took a huge
detour along the shore?  Really hard to believe this...

How is it possible for fishing boats, that are very often at sea fishing
during the night, or that are often gone fishing for a long period of
time, to sail only during the day?

So, if we consider this opinion in logical terms, it falls apart really
fast. Our classical scholars aren't usually known for their maritime
prowess, you know, so let's keep this in mind when we evaluate this
opinion of theirs. And also, possibly, ancient chroniclers may have been
predominantly landlubbers. Thus they could have gone really wrong about
this. Yes, it's possible that at certain times and on certain routes such
very "conservative sailing techniques" may have been practised. But I
really cannot believe that this is valid as a generalisation about
navigation in classical times.

Let's now go to the second misconception that appears in your article.
When were the Europeans in the Atlantic? Is there evidence for early
European/Middle Eastern presence in the Atlantic ocean? To this, the
answer is an unqualified Yes.

What is this evidence? Is this some brand new research, just "hot off the
press"? Not at all. Again, the evidence is simple and logical.

I've been talking before about a certain "anti-diffusionist" bias that
exists in historical scholarship today. Often such bias prevents the
simplest and the most elementary information from being considered. This
bias allows error to proliferate. This is one such case. This bias must be
exposed, because it is doing serious harm to historical scholarship.

To see when the Europeans _really_ sailed out to the Atlantic, look at 
the Canaries. When were these island settled? At least by the middle of 
the third millennium bce. 

[LATER CLARIFICATION: Further inquiries revealed that there's quite
an academic debate about exactly when the first human settlement of the
Canaries took place. Some scholars maintain it happened at around 2500
bce, based on some interesting apparent Neolithic remains, such as 
rock-engravings and spiral designs. But others point to the fact that 
nothing earlier than 700 bce has been carbon-dated.]

Who settled them? We don't know for sure, but it was most likely settled
from the East, either from Europe or North Africa, or both. Case closed. 
So how can these "noted scholars", Casson, and others, say things that 
they're saying? I really don't know what else except the above mentioned 
bias of theirs that can account for their error... (And do I have to 
spell out that any sailor who's capable of making it to the Canaries 
will certainly be capable of making it all the way to New England?) I 
may also add that the study of ancient civilizations on these Atlantic 
islands will give us much food for thought when considering ancient 
culture connections...

Now, let's look at another common misconception in this area. Casson and
others will accept that the Mediterranean was navigated quite early, and
yet they will claim that these sailors couldn't handle the waves of the
Atlantic. I would like to make one thing clear. There's _no inherent
difference_ between navigating the Mediterranean, and navigating the
Atlantic. The Mediterranean can get awful rough, you know. The biggest
danger to a small ship IS NOT in the open sea. Most of these early boats
could withstand some very heavy storms in the open sea. The biggest danger
is clearly _near land_. It's when close to the shore that the ship will
run aground or be dashed against rocks. This is the end of the ship, and
often of the crew. The swell of the Atlantic ocean presented no inherent
danger to early craft.

Are the readers of these groups familiar with the term "thalassophobia"?
This term is used precisely in regard to landlubbing scholars who never
set their foot on a boat, and yet who claim to know much about navigation.
Also, this term is often used when describing the publications of
"American isolationists" (mainstream scholars who deny all meaningful
connections between ancient America and the rest of the world) who go to
great lengths to minimize the sailing abilities of ancient peoples.
Myself, I had some experience on sailboats in the Pacific, and in other
areas. Yes, indeed, certain things may appear quite different with the
benefit of some practical experience...

So I call on all interested parties to reexamine this issue once again in
light of above consideration. Let me clarify my own position. My main
interest is in Asia-America connections in ancient times. I've spent
considerable time both in Asia and in Latin America, and had the benefit
of having been able to compare first hand the cultures of the descendants
of both these ancient peoples... I learned much from these experiences.
And I have plenty of materials, scholarly research, to demonstrate that
these connections were real (check my webpage).

It is well known how sophisticated and superior ancient
Polynesian/Indonesian/Asian navigational skills were. I, myself, have not
made any claims about the Phoenician-Olmec connection. In fact I doubt it.
But although I don't know enough yet about all the voluminous and rather
mixed research on ancient Mediterranean/American links, I'm sure ancient
Europeans did make it to America at various times. They certainly could
do it as early as 1500 bce, and probably much earlier.

On my webpage some more research and references about this are avilable. 
One book about this I recommend is MAN ACROSS THE SEA, C.
Riley, ed, U of Texas Press, 1971. This is not exactly a new 
publication, but the lessons that it teaches us about ancient navigators 
haven't yet been learned by mainstream scholarship, unfortunately.

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky   | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
     -=-         | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient
 in Toronto      | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
 ----- my webpage is for now at: [23] -----

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