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Ancient canoes hint at bustling trade in Mediterranean 7000 years ago

Italian canoes capable of transporting people and goods have been dated to the Neolithic period, suggesting there was a bustling trade across the Mediterranean Sea

By Christa Lesté-Lasserre

20 March 2024

The canoes are up to 10 metres long and made from hollowed out trees

Gibaja et al., 2024, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

More than 7000 years ago, skilled craftspeople constructed wooden canoes that probably transported people, animals and goods across the Mediterranean Sea.

Scientists have identified five boats with signs of advanced seafaring technology, such as transverse reinforcements and towing accessories. Found in a freshwater lake, the canoes – which have been somewhat of an inadvertent secret for decades – probably enabled trade and transportation among Mediterranean farming communities during the Neolithic period, says Niccolò Mazzucco at the University of Pisa in Italy.

Along with the well-preserved village they were found in, the canoes “open a window to the past”, he says.

In 1989, Italian researchers discovered the site – which they named La Marmotta – buried under a lake located 38 kilometres upstream from the western coast of the Mediterranean Sea, slightly north-west of Rome. In addition to multiple wooden buildings, they found dugout canoes built from trees that had been hollowed by burning and carving.

Despite these findings, language barriers kept them from becoming well-known internationally, with nearly all related information published only in Italian, says Mario Mineo at the Museum of Roman Civilization in Rome, who participated in the discovery.

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Now, Mazzucco, Mineo and their colleagues have taken a fresh look at these canoes using modern methods – and shared their results in English.

Lasse Sørensen at the National Museum of Denmark, who wasn’t involved in the research, says he was unaware of these boats, despite his extensive work with dugout canoes in Scandinavia.

He is particularly intrigued by the wooden T-shaped devices found with the canoes. The holes drilled into them suggest they were probably used for ropes, which implies the boats were towed. This would have allowed them to transport “more people, more animals, more stuff”, says Sørensen. “So, these details are really important because they’re actually a testimony of how they could have transported a lot of goods.”

The team used recent carbon dating technology to place each boat’s origins in the 6th millennia BC: the two oldest were built as early as 5620 BC and the most recent one as late as 5045 BC. Carbon dating one of the T-shaped accessories revealed it was made as early as 5470 BC.

The boats are up to 10 metres long. This size suggests they were used on the sea, says Mazzucco. Recent tests of replicas of these canoes confirmed the originals would have been seaworthy. Foreign grains, livestock remains and stones found at the village indicate the villagers traded across the Mediterranean region.

To identify the trees used to make the boats, the team sliced off nine thin samples of wood from each canoe. Analysing these under a microscope, the researchers determined that two of the boats – including one of the oldest – were made from alder, which is lightweight and doesn’t split or crack easily. The most recent boat was made from oak, which is tough and resistant to decay, while the remaining two boats were made from poplar and beech.

“They probably had enough knowledge about wood species and their properties to choose them and to use them on the basis of those properties,” says Mazzucco. “These people were working wood with the same knowledge as a carpenter today, just with different tools.”

Journal reference:

PLoS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0299765


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