Trans-Cultural Diffusion: Water, Water Everywhere

Since the emergence of early modern humans from Africa about 300,000 years ago shifting landmasses and oceans have separated groups. Events like the Storegga landslide, which resulted in a tsunami, permanently cutting Britain off from mainland Europe, happen far more than you would expect. Add to this continents and land masses drifting with geological indifference and rising sea levels between ice ages. Soon you had pockets of human population almost everywhere on earth and suddenly they were very isolated. It is hard to imagine how these groups of previously migratory people survived disconnected from their seasonal paths. There were still animals to hunt for food, and clothing, stone, and trees for tools but the environment would be changing all the time.   

The shifting and disappearing landmasses may have been handed down in oral history, giving rise to legends like the lost city of Atlantis, by the time these legends were written down they had become contorted by the agendas of all those who had previously carried it. Turning into a moralistic lesson not to piss off the God(s). We inhabited land that was reclaimed by the sea in several places. In the British Isle there is the “Welsh Atlantis”, a settlement just off of Cardigan Bay in Wales which is now under water.

Side Note: I can’t imagine how the people stood on what we now call Doggerland; the piece of land that connected Kent to Europe must have reacted in the fraction of a second between seeing the wave coming at them and the land suddenly disappearing. Grunts to the effect of “Oh Shi…..” would have been appropriate.

At the time of these isolations we see early signs of unique identity emerging. Those trapped on Britain start developing primitive boat designs, initially just a tree trunk with a hole scooped out, but slowly becoming more sophisticated. In other areas we find an increase in the rate of evolutionary change in domesticated wolves. Environmental stresses and evolutionary pressures forging them into something like dogs that we would recognise today. The isolation forced some communities into the development of agriculture and the development of fixed settlements.

Whilst isolated from each other many of these cultures independently developed similar technologies, tools, bowls, tailoring techniques, building styles. Similar Gods and pantheons started emerging, all with different names but very similar characteristics. This has been used by academics for generations to indicate some level of communication between these ancient peoples. Could the ancient Egyptians have crossed the Atlantic to swap Pyramid designs for tobacco and chocolate? Could this be where the first Duty-Free originated?

In the twentieth century two epic projects took place in an attempt to determine if contact between various cultures was possible. In the process each of these projects sparked preservation and restoration of almost-extinct cultural practices.


In 1975 the Polynesian Voyaging Society launched a performance accurate wa’a kualua. An ancient style of voyaging canoe used by the indigenous peoples of Polynesia. Double hilled at nineteen meters in length and weighing twelve tonnes the design and materials were entirely consistent with believed ancient practices.

The only navigation methods used by the crew would be familiar to anyone who has seen Disney’s Moana. Navigation by the stars and the direction of the currents. A skillset commonly referred to as “wayfinding” and until the launch of Hokule’a these skills were known to only a dozen people internationally. As technical as these skills are, they have allowed the Hokule’a to undertake a number of very impressive voyages including a three-year circumnavigation of the earth. The project has successfully proven that the ancient indigenous peoples of Polynesia could have travelled to the Americas, Asia, and the Orient without particular trouble.

The project has also enhanced the profile and interest in ancient Polynesian history, technology, and practices. In between voyages the Hokule’a is used as a training vessel, where before there were a dozen people with the wayfinding skills there are now hundreds.     

Ra and Ra II

Thor Heyerdahl is definitely on my list of maddest, badass explorers of all time. In 1970 he attempted to prove the Ancient Egyptians may have transited the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Very little was known about Ancient Egyptian ship design. What we do know is that they were made of papyrus and generally used to move up and down the relatively placid River Nile. So, Heyerdahl built his ship out of reeds and then set forth upon the Atlantic.

It took him 57 days in the twelve-meter reed boat before he reached Barbados with very little of note happening en route. You may be asking why I gave all of the hype at the beginning of this section. The answer is that the successful voyage took place with the Ra II. The predecessor to this ship, the Ra sailed ten months previous and sank in the middle of the Atlantic. Heyerdahl, still soggy from being plucked out of the ocean immediately started designing the RA II, presumably because one near death experience in twelve months wasn’t enough.

Even before the Ra project Heyerdahl had undertaken a similar task shortly after World War Two when he sailed an aboriginal raft eight-thousand kilometres from Peru to Raroia Atoll in Polynesia. There is very little technical detail readily available however the term “raft” does not conjure an image of comfort, particularly for one-hundred and one days. I also imagine the water he crossed to be somewhat sharky.

Egyptian boat design wasn’t really a subject explored by Egyptologists prior to Heyerdahl’s practical exploration of the concepts. Which is fairly surprising given the one feature that led to the Egyptians thriving as the most advanced culture on the planet for thousands of years was the Nile and their relationship with it.

My Thoughts

I think far too much excitement occurs around the concept of trans-cultural diffusion. Building designs are similar in various places because they are sensible, stable designs. The same with tools and clothing. There are only so many ways you can cover your bulge with one scrap of hide. Humans everywhere are basically the same shape.

A lot of excitement occurred when Nerlich et al (1995) identified tobacco and cocaine in the tissue of several ancient Egyptian mummies. Tobacco and Coca being plants native to the Americas. Given most of these mummies were excavated and studied in the Victorian era I can easily believe these mummies were probably contaminated by researchers poking the human remains, leaning over them with cigarette in mouth, staring through a haze of smoke. Given the Victorian love of narcotics this would probably also account for the cocaine. That being said I am sure there are those who love doing lines off of millennia old, desiccated human remains.

This however does not detract from the sheer awesomeness of the Hokule’a and Ra projects. Even if they did not provide convincing evidence of cultural-cross pollination they have done incredible things for cultural and historical preservation. There are few events I find sadder than the extinction of cultural knowledge. The Hokule’a in particular took a dying cultural skillset and pulled it back from the brink. For everything we have gained as a species, since our first emergence from Africa, there is a great deal that has been lost, however thanks to projects like Hokule’a and Ra II, some aspects of our shared past may not be lost forever.

Most of my source material for Heyerdahl’s exploits were from his own publications and the man was nothing if not the master of his own PR. However, the tangible outcomes of his projects and the impact that has had on society can’t be argued.

Sources – Hokule’a

Piianaia G. (1981). Implications of the Hokule’a. Hawaiian Studies Institute. Hawaii.

Thompson, Nainoa (2006). “Reflections on Mau Piailug: Master Navigator, Master Teacher“. Ku Holo Mau: 2007 Voyage to Micronesia for Mau Piailug. Polynesian Voyaging Society

Lewis, David (1994). We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

Sources – Thor Heyerdahl

Heyerdahl T. (2001). In the Footsteps of Adam. London: Abacus Publishing.

Recommended Books

I highly recommend the following books if you are interested in how geography dictated the adaptations our ancestors developed to survive.

Tamed by Professor Alice Roberts. One of my favourite books of recent years, Professor Roberts has an incredible ability to communicate highly complex and nuanced information meaningfully to those who have not undertaken any study in biology, evolutionary sciences, or history. I own both the book and the audiobook (which she reads herself) and I can highly recommend both.

Origins by Lewis Dartnell. Another fantastic read by an author experienced in science media communication. This doesn’t do into a huge amount of detail but is an amazing overview and starting point for how the earth determined our history.


  1. I have the urge to build my own boat after reading this. If I didn’t fear the ocean, I might have. Great work! K

    1. Thank You! these projects were incredible and run by absolute Badasses. Whilst I have an absolute respect for their work you would have to get me blind drunk to set foot on their respective boats for a two month, or more journey.

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