Early Transportation

World's Oldest Boat Found in Desert

June 12, 2002 - Discovery News

The world's oldest known boat, built 7,000 years ago out of tarry, bitumen-covered slabs, has been found in an unlikely place: the Kuwaiti desert. If the assessment of British and Kuwaiti archaeologists is correct, the slabs, found covered on one side with barnacles and warehoused in a stone building at a site called As-Sabiyah, would push back the date for the oldest known boat by more than 2,000 years.

According to an upcoming paper in the Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies and a paper published in the June 7 issue of the journal Science, the current oldest boat record-holder is a vessel found in an Egyptian tomb dating to 3,000 B.C. Evidence for log canoes, thought to be more like rafts than boats, goes back much further, to 8,000 B.C.

The age of the entire As-Sabiyah site, including the boat remains, has been carbon-14 dated to 5,511-5,324 B.C.

Robert Carter, an archaeologist at University College London and the expedition's field director, believes that the slabs belonged to a boat because they have reed impressions on one side and barnacles on the other.

Carter said bitumen, which is still crushed with fish oil and coral and used today by some Middle Eastern boat builders, likely formed a waterproof seal around vessels constructed out of reed bundles tied together with ropes and string.

He also believes that the bitumen-covered reed boats were used to carry people and goods between Mesopotamia, As-Sabiyah (which he thinks was then a peninsula within the Tigris-Euphrates River area), and the Central Gulf region.

If the theory is correct, it could explain why ancient Mesopotamian pottery often turns up many miles to the south on the Persian Gulf's western shores, according to the Science report.

"We do not know the race of the people trading at As-Sabiyah," Carter told Discovery News. "It is (safe) to say that people from the Arabian Peninsula were involved, along with people from Mesopotamia."

Carter is more confident about what goods were traded, based on finds at the site. These included pierced pearls likely used for jewelry, pottery, shells, spindle whorls probably used to spin wool, bead necklaces, mother of pearl buttons, and flint and obsidian stones. He believes that livestock and fish also were traded.

Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky, professor of archaeology at Harvard University, questions whether the As-Sabiyah boat was used for trade, due to its apparently small size, and suggests that it was just a fishing boat for locals. He also hints that remains of even older vessels may be found in future due to evidence for ancient boating, such as clay boat models.

Lamberg-Karlovsky said, "Although the Kuwaiti find might be the earliest evidence for a boat, it is very important to point out that people were seafaring far earlier than this."





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