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The ancient mariners

Book>> Beyond The Blue Horizon • by Brian Fagan • US $10 • Bloomsbury

 
By Pratul Raturi
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

BEYOND THE BLUE HORIZONHumankind’s tryst with seafaring dates back to thousands of years. Since the earliest ventures on rafts that took people in Asia to the Polynesian islands, seafarers have used a variety of vessels to fish, to travel, to explore, to trade or to fight. Brian Fagan’s Beyond the Blue Horizon is a comprehensive account of this primordial quest.

Fagan vividly explains how our mastery of the oceans changed the course of human history. What drove humans to risk their lives on open water? How did early sailors unlock the secrets of winds, tides and the stars they steered by? What were the earliest ocean crossings like? With compelling details, Fagan reveals how seafaring evolved, transforming the forbidding realms of the sea into breeding grounds for commerce and cultural exchange.

Fagan is one of the foremost archaeologists of our times. Emeritus professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, Fagan tries to understand how the environment has shaped human history. He is a rare academic whose books are lauded by peers and also figure in bestseller charts. In Beyond the Blue Horizon readers will encounter seafarers using bamboo rafts in the Java Sea, triremes in the Aegean, Norse longboats and sealskin kayaks in Alaska.

There are very little records in the early period of Fagan’s research. No canoes survive from the early voyages and we don’t know much about the people who paddled them. This lack of evidence has led many scholars to suggest that the early voyages were accidents. Fagan, in contrast, brings his anthropologist’s skill to use.

Fagan gives a fascinating account of the evolution of vessels and voyages

He speculates that despite their many differences, the mariners had to rely “on the sights and sounds of open water to guide them—the movements of heavenly bodies, flocks of birds flying toward land, swells refracting off invisible cliffs, the vagaries of tides and currents, even the sounds of waves breaking on rocks in foggy weather.” Such knowledge was built up over time and Fagan suggests that the first boatmen came from societies as intimately attuned to the tempers of the sea as they were to the land. He is in awe of these early navigators, and some of his theories have a delightful campfire-side quality about them: “Many Australian Aborigines are remarkably adept at handling dugouts in rough water.”

Fagan is on surer grounds while studying the maritime efforts in the early centuries of the Christian era. He draws extensively from the Graeco-Roman treatise, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a monumental description of coastlines around the Red Sea. He shows how international trade influenced the making of vessels. For example, mangrove poles grown in present-day Tanzania might have been traded from one town to another until they were matched with planks grown in India to make decent sailing boats. And of course, none of this would have been easy without first having decoded the monsoon winds and their seasonal fluctuations.

Ten centuries into the Christian era, seafaring was a much surer enterprise. Fagan mentions the Norse word aefintyr, which means venture, with the suggestion of risk, brought on by restless curiosity, but he makes the point that no one would just set sail without some object in mind, and that knowledge of the seas around Britain and Scandinavia and all the way to Iceland was arrived at incrementally over the centuries. By this time boat building had advanced from dugout to the substantial cog that would take Columbus all the way across to the Americas, and throughout Fagan is fascinating in giving accounts of its development.

If you are drawn to the water, to boats, to the pull of the sea and man’s inability to resist it, Beyond the Blue Horizon is the book for you.

Pratul Raturi is a science writer

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