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9 July 2007
Ancient-style reed boat tackles Atlantic

A German biologist and amateur anthropologist is obsessed with ancient long-distance seafaring. Dominique Goerlitz and a crew of eight plan to set sail from New York in a prehistoric-style reed boat to show that people 6,000 to 14,000 years ago could have made the more complicated eastwardly journey from the New World to get back home again. The reed boat - called the Abora III - is constructed along the lines of Thor Heyerdahl's Ra, out of 17 tonnes of reed papyrus that grows at the 3,800-metre-high Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Goerlitz in fact had some input from the late Norwegian explorer on some of his earlier boats launched in Europe. Unlike the Ra, however, the Abora has 16 leeboards - or retractable foils - for steering, a refinement that will enable Abora to tack into the wind and carry it eastwards.
     The idea that ancient people could have navigated and steered large vessels across vast oceans - not just drifted in wind and currents - flies in the face of all established academic knowledge.
"We act as though the ancients were second class people," Goerlitz said. "Yet they must have been advanced sailors, and I'm convinced they had advanced navigation." Goerlitz cites the evidence: Plants known to have originated exclusively in the New World, like cocaine and tobacco, were found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian ruler Ramses II. Vintage 6,000-year- old rock drawings in Egypt's Wadi Hammamat depict reed boats with keels on the side.
     But what clinched Goerlitz's conviction was a lowly plant called the bottle gourd. For more than a decade, he has bugged his professors about how the bottle gourd, which was essential for the development of irrigation and agriculture across a world that had not yet discovered pottery, managed to spring as a full-blown domesticated plant within a relatively short time in Asia, the Americas and Africa. The standard answer was that the seed was first domesticated in one place, and then floated to the other places. Goerlitz is convinced that the answer lay in vibrant long- distance ocean voyages, carried out for trade or colonization long before historians believe was possible. Goerlitz found confirmation in more recent molecular biology studies showing that the bottle gourd, in fact, grew 9,000 years ago in southern Africa, and yet also emerged as a full-blown domesticated plant, without any evidence of gradual cultivation, in the Americas about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. "There's amazing evidence that people could sail in every direction, and the evidence in the books must be completely wrong. People who spread agriculture ... from Asia to Africa, these must have been advanced sailors," Goerlitz said.
     The Abora's website, www.abora3.de, will be posting live reports on the journey, estimated to cost more than 500,000 dollars.

Source: Monsters and Critics (5 July 2007)

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