Pre-Columbian rafts plied the Pacific Coast of South America for trade from about 100 BCE, and possibly much earlier. The 16th century descriptions by the Spanish of the rafts used by Native Americans along the seacoasts of Peru and Ecuador has incited speculation about the seamanship of the Indians, the seaworthiness of their rafts, and the possibility that they undertook long ocean-going voyages. None of the prehistoric rafts have survived and the exact characteristics of their construction and the geographical extent of their voyages are uncertain.
It is likely that traders using rafts, constructed of balsa wood logs, voyaged as far as Mexico and introduced metallurgy to the civilizations of that country. Some scholars and adventurers of the 20th and 21st century have asserted that the rafts and their crews journeyed thousands of miles across the Pacific to Polynesia, most notably Thor Heyerdahl who reached Polynesia on the Kon-Tiki raft. Several other people and groups have also built rafts based on prehistoric models and undertaken trans-Pacific voyages.
Balsa is the Spanish word for raft. The use of rafts for commerce on the coasts of Peru and Ecuador, from northern Chile to southern Colombia, continued until the late 19th century, long after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire (1532 to 1572), although the fidelity of these rafts to their prehistoric ancestors is uncertain.
In 1526, a Spanish ship captained by Bartolomé Ruiz, Francisco Pizarro's chief navigator,ventured southward down the west coast of South America, the first Old World ship known to have explored this coastline. Off the coast of Ecuador, Ruiz encountered a Native American raft, being the first encounter between Spanish and Inca's vassals. A contemporary account of the encounter is:
[The Spanish] captured a ship [raft] with as many as 20 men aboard of whom 11 threw themselves into the water. [Ruiz] put the remainder of the crew onshore except for three whom he kept as interpreters. He treated them well. The ship he took had a capacity of up to 30 toneles [25 metric tons]. The keel was made of canes [balsa logs] as thick as posts bound together with ropes of what they call henequen, which is like hemp. it had an upper deck made of lighter canes, tied with the same kind of ropes. The people and their cargo remained dry on the upper deck, as the lower logs were awash in the sea water. The ship had masts of good wood and lateen-rigged sails of cotton, the same as our ships, and good rigging with henequen ropes. It carried stone weights like barber's grinding stones as anchors.
The chronicler, Francisco de Xerez, said that the raft carried a cargo of "silver objects, tiaras, crowns, bands, tweezers and bells, all of this they brought to exchange for some [sea] shells."Other contemporary chroniclers gave additional details about the rafts. "They set a mast in the largest log in the middle, hoist and sail, and navigate all along this coast. They are very safe vessels because they cannot sink or capsize, since the water washes through them."
Logs from the balsa tree (Ochroma lagopus) are distinguished by their light weight and large size (up to 90 centimetres (35 in) in diameter). A tree of the tropical forest, the balsa tree did not naturally occur on the arid coasts of Peru and southern Ecuador. The source of balsa logs for rafts was the valley of the Guayas River, north of the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. This area is still the principal source of balsa wood for international trade.
The long term buoyancy of balsa logs has been called into question. Prior to the voyage across the Pacific Ocean of the Kon-Tiki in 1947, scholars often argued that balsa logs absorb water so quickly that long voyages were infeasible. Heyerdahl, however, used green balsa wood logs for a voyage of 101 days on the Kon-Tiki. Other studies have also indicated that dry balsa logs can remain afloat for extended periods of time.
Rafts were always constructed of an odd number of balsa logs, usually numbering 3 to 11, with the center log being the longest and the others tapering down in length. The Spanish said the rafts were in the shape of the extended fingers of a hand. The large balsa logs, lashed together with henequen fiber, formed the main deck of a raft. Seawater passed freely between and over the logs making it very difficult for rafts to be swamped by heavy seas.
Atop the large balsa logs was a platform or multiple platforms, constructed of cane or bamboo which kept the cargo and passengers dry. During historic (and probably pre-historic) times the platform might include a hut to shelter the passengers and crew and a fire pit for cooking.
The use of sails on pre-Columbian rafts has been disputed by a few scholars who have speculated that the Spaniards introduced the use of sails or that the technology for using sails derived from the Spanish but was adopted by the Indians before the physical arrival of the Spanish on the Ecuadorian coast. However, the chronicler of Ruiz's voyage in 1526 is clear that the raft he saw used sails and this voyage was only 13 years after the first known Spanish sighting of the Pacific Ocean in Panama, more than 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) north. Another contemporary author said that sails had been used on rafts "since time immemorial."
There is also controversy whether the sails used were square or lateen (triangular). Although square sails were later used, the earliest accounts describe triangular sails, probably two in number, fore and aft rigged with two masts. 7.5 metres (25 ft) and about 16 centimetres (6.3 in) in diameter. They may have been composed of two pieces of wood joined together. The wood used is unknown although modern reproductions have used mangrove wood, the mangrove being common along the Ecuadorian coast and the northern Peruvian coast of Piura and Tumbes.Engineering and stress studies indicate that the masts were curved and no longer than
Pre-Columbian rafts were steered by a combination of adjusting the sails and the use of centerboards, called "guaras." These were boards typically about 60 centimetres (2.0 ft) wide inserted vertically into the sea between the balsa logs. On larger rafts there were three sets of the guaras at the front, back, and the middle of the raft. Raising, lowering, or removing some of the guaras or moving them toward the bow or stern reduced or increased sub-surface tension and made it possible to steer the raft. Working in tandem with the sails, the guaras, according to an 1820 report, permitted the crew to undertake "all the maneuvers of a regularly built and well-rigged [sailing] vessel." The rafts could achieve a speed of 4 to 5 knots.
An engineering study concluded that ocean going rafts ranged in size from 6 metres (20 ft) to 11 metres (36 ft) long and had a cargo capacity of 10 to 30 tons. The cargo capacity of the rafts declined as the balsa logs absorbed sea water. After 4 months in the water the capacity of the largest rafts declined to 10 tons and after 8 months to 5 tons. Thus, a little more than 8 months in the water was the useful life of the rafts.
The antiquity of the use of sea-going rafts by the people of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian coasts has not been established as ancient balsa wood rafts have left few archaeological traces, but it appears that a maritime trading system from southern Colombia to northern Chile was established by about 100 BCE. 200 kilometres (120 mi) south of present-day Lima, Peru.The maritime trade had two centers: the northern coast of Ecuador and Chincha about
The sudden adoption of metallurgy in the civilizations of Mexico about 800 CE has led archaeologists to conclude that the technology was introduced, most likely by sea-going rafts, from the Ecuadorian coast of South America where metallurgy had been practiced for hundreds of years. Later advances in metallurgy in Mexico after 1200 CE resembled the metallurgy of the Chincha in Peru.
Scholars have calculated that a one-way trip from Ecuador to Mexico would have taken six to eight weeks, sailing at an average of 4 knots for 12 hours each day. To enjoy the best weather, traders would most likely leave Ecuador in early December and arrive in Mexico in late January. They would set off on the return in early March and arrive in Ecuador in early May. A raft could make two round trips before becoming waterlogged. Some sailors would remain longer in Mexico. One account from Spanish sources dated 1525 says that "Indians from certain islands in the south...brought exquisite products which they would trade for local products and ...stay for five or six months until good weather occurred." It was during these trade voyages that South American sailors may have introduced metallurgy to Mexico.
The purported trade between Ecuador and Mexico consisted of luxury items, including Spondylus (spiny oyster) and Strombus (conch) shells, which were prominently traded from their origins in the warm ocean waters of Ecuador throughout the Andes and up and down the coasts of South America.
Since the voyage of the Kon-Tiki in 1947, there have been numerous crossings of the Pacific Ocean by raft from South America to Polynesia. In the 1990s, four attempts to sail a raft from Ecuador to Mexico failed, although one attempt reached Costa Rica.The various voyages have demonstrated the seaworthiness of prehistoric rafts and, in the words of an early Spaniard, that the Indians who sailed them were "great mariners." The Spanish colonists in Peru and Ecuador from the 16th to the 19th centuries relied on the Indians of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts and their rafts for coastal trade.
Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer and ethnographer with a background in zoology, botany and geography.
Balsa Tree is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae, containing the sole species Ochroma pyramidale, commonly known as the balsa tree. It is a large, fast-growing tree that can grow up to 30 m tall. Balsa wood is a very lightweight material with many uses. Balsa trees are native to the Americas.
A raft is any flat structure for support or transportation over water. It is usually of basic design, characterized by the absence of a hull. Although there are cross-over types that blur this definition, rafts are usually kept afloat by using any combination of buoyant materials such as wood, sealed barrels, or inflated air chambers, and are typically not propelled by an engine.
The Kon-Tiki expedition was a 1947 journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands, led by Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl. The raft was named Kon-Tiki after the Inca god Viracocha, for whom "Kon-Tiki" was said to be an old name. Kon-Tiki is also the name of Heyerdahl's book, the Academy Award-winning 1950 documentary film chronicling his adventures, and the 2012 dramatized feature film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Chincha culture consisted of a Native Peruvian people living near the Pacific Ocean in south west Peru. The Chincha Kingdom and their culture flourished in the Late Intermediate Period, also known as the regional states period of pre-Columbian Peru. They became part of the Inca Empire around 1480. They were prominent as sea-going traders and lived in a large and fertile oasis valley. La Centinela is an archaeological ruin associated with the Chincha. It is located near the present-day city of Chincha Alta.
The emergence of metallurgy in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica occurred relatively late in the region's history, with distinctive works of metal apparent in West Mexico by roughly AD 800, and perhaps as early as AD 600. Metallurgical techniques likely diffused northward from regions in Central or South America via maritime trade routes; recipients of these metallurgical technologies apparently exploited a wide range of material, including alloys of copper-silver, copper-arsenic, copper-tin and copper-arsenic-tin.
Eduard Ingriš was a Czech-American composer, photographer, conductor and adventurer.
The Tangaroa Expedition of 2006 closely resembled the Kon-Tiki expedition sailing a balsa raft from Peru to Polynesia. Tangaroa outperformed Kon-Tiki by having an improved sail rig and by actively using guaras (centerboards). As such, the expedition represents a scientific continuation of Thor Heyerdahl's experiments in recreated maritime technology.
The Kantuta Expeditions were two separate expeditions on balsa rafts led by the Czech explorer and adventurer Eduard Ingris.
William Willis was an American sailor and writer who is famous due to his solo rafting expeditions across oceans.
The Kon-Tiki Museum is a museum in the Bygdøy peninsula in Oslo, Norway. It houses vessels and maps from the Kon-Tiki expedition, as well as a library with about 8000 books. It was opened in a provisional building in 1949. In 1957, the current building—designed by architects F. S. Platou and Otto Torgersen—was opened. In 1978, an extension of the museum designed by Torgersen was opened.
Vital Alsar Ramírez was a sailor and scientist who made several extremely long sailing expeditions. His entire life was linked to nature and the sea. He became professor of economics, although he never acted as such.
Reed boats and rafts, along with dugout canoes and other rafts, are among the oldest known types of boats. Often used as traditional fishing boats, they are still used in a few places around the world, though they have generally been replaced with planked boats. Reed boats can be distinguished from reed rafts, since reed boats are usually waterproofed with some form of tar. As well as boats and rafts, small floating islands have also been constructed from reeds.
Axe-monies refer to bronze artifacts found in both western Mesoamerica and the northern Andes. Based on ethnohistorical, archaeological, chemical, and metallurgical analyses, the scholars Hosler, Lechtman and Holm have argued for their use in both regions through trade. In contrast to naipes, bow-tie- or card-shaped metal objects which appear in the archaeological record only in the northern Andean coastal region, axe-monies are found in both Mesoamerican and Andean cultural zones. More specifically, it is argued that the system of money first arose on the north coast of Peru and Ecuador in the early second millennium CE. In both regions, bronze was smelted, likely by family units, and hammered into thin, axe-shaped forms and bundled in multiples of five, usually twenty. As they are often found in burials, it is likely that in addition to their presumed economic use, they also had ceremonial value.
Kon-Tiki is a 2012 historical drama film directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg about the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition. The film was mainly shot on the island of Malta. The role of Thor Heyerdahl is played by Pål Sverre Hagen. The film is an international co-production between Norway, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Torgeir Sæverud Higraff is an explorer, teacher and author with special interest in prehistoric transoceanic contact. Like Thor Heyerdahl, Higraff combines history, anthropology and traditional knowledge with expeditions. In 2002, the year Heyerdahl died, Higraff decided to recreate the Kon-Tiki expedition, and in 2006 the Tangaroa Expedition sailed from Peru to Raiatea in eastern Polynesia. Tangaroa outperformed Kon-Tiki by using an improved sail rig and active use of the guara centerboards.
A guara is a hardwood centerboard used in Andean rafts. The Tangaroa Expedition outperformed Kon-Tiki in part due to using guaras.
In 2000 and 2003, professional explorer Phil Buck led international teams across the Pacific Ocean from South America to Easter Island via two separate ancient style reed rafts. Both vessels were constructed in their entirety from only four Andean materials; totora reeds, natural fiber rope, cotton sails and wood.
Between 1966 and 1973, Spanish explorer Vital Alsar led three expeditions to cross the Pacific Ocean by raft - La Pacífica in 1966, La Balsa in 1970 and Las Balsas in 1973. Travelling from Ecuador, South America, to Australia, the first expedition failed, but the second and third succeeded, both setting the record for the longest known raft voyages in history - 8,600 miles (13,800 km) and 9,000 miles (14,000 km) respectively.
The Kon-Tiki2 Expedition built and sailed two balsawood rafts from Peru to Easter Island in 2015. The goal of the expedition was to show that balsawood rafts can be sailed across long distances, and to collect scientific data in the southeast Pacific. The expedition built two rafts in 30 days and went on to sail the rafts more than 2000 nautical miles before reaching Easter Island after 43 days at sea. No other balsa rafts have sailed to Easter Island in modern times.