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10 May 2009
Prehistoric trans-Atlantic crossings: fact or fiction?

When German adventurer Dominque Görlitz set out from New York harbor in July of 2007 to prove that a voyage in a traditional Bolivian reed boat from New Jersey to the Azores is possible, he attracted quite a bit of sceptical, if not downright snarky press. Now a new documentary aired on the National Geographic channel, showed that the Cassandras who warned that the expedition was an awful big risk for negligible scientific returns were, without giving too much away, pretty much on the money.
     The show is called Lost in the Atlantic, which might give you some sense of how things turned out for Görlitz and the crew of 40-foot Abora III. The 45 minute special is a strangely gripping look at how dubious experimental archaeology in the open ocean can make for high drama, as in the life or death variety. The theories underpinning Görlitz's quest are warmed over notions first brought to public attention by Thor Heyerdahl, the famed Norwegian explorer. Heyerdhal sailed reed boats from South America to Polynesia, and from North Africa to Barbados, all in an effort to show that trans-oceanic voyages were possible in prehistory. Heyerdahl's achievements are legendary, and while mainstream archaeology has rejected his views that, for instance, South Americans settled Polynesia (there is actually good evidence that Polynesians visited South America), his exploits inspired millions of people to take an interest in nautical archaeology.
     Görlitz means to build on Heyerdahl's successful east-west Atlantic voyages, and show that a return trip to the Old World was possible for... who knows? The documentary does not explore who it was Görlitz thinks was making these trans-Atlantic crossings, other than a generic 'ancient peoples,' who were possibly linked to the Bronze Age Nebra Disc which was found in Germany and seems to depict stars that the voyagers possibly might have sailed by. This vague, catch-all approach to prehistory is characteristic of the whole project. Rather than use materials local to New Jersey, or even Northern Europe, to fashion his vessel, Görlitz relies on the reed boats built by the Amayra Indians of Bolivia.
     Joining Görlitz is a cheery crew of nine mostly Northern Europeans. According to the voice over, sailing expertise was not a prerequisite for the expedition, only an adventurous spirit. Once a Bolivian shaman has blessed the boat, Abora III sets sail from New Jersey. What follows is 57 days filled with storms and failing equipment, as well as long stretches of the Abora III sitting in becalmed seas and going in circles. Not to give away the ending, but by day 54 the crew's main task has become 'reducing disintegration' of the boat's reed infrastructure, which turns out is rotted. We don't learn much about ancient seacraft in the course of the show and Görlitz is no Thor Heyerdahl, but we probably haven't heard the last of him. Abora IV, the show promises, is already being built.

Source: Archaeology (8 May 2009)

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