Skip to main content
Geosciences LibreTexts

1.1: Early Trade and Navigation

  • Page ID
    617
  • The history of ocean exploration is one filled with danger, discovery, and romance. For nearly 100,000 years intrepid individuals have traversed the oceans and crossed the seas of this planet. The first oceanographers were traders, navigators, conquers, and explorers who dared to cross the sea.

    A depiction of an Egyptian boat, from c. 1420 B.C. (Wikipedia)

     

    THE FIRST OCEAN GOERS

    Ocean exploration has slowly, but steadily gained more and more interest as the desire to expand, trade, and explore have become more enticing and necessary to understand the world around us.  Contrary to popular belief, the European Age of Exploration was not the start of this tradition. The earliest known explorers originated from Southeast Asia over 100,000 years ago during what is known as the Melanesian exploration. Inhabitants of what is now known as Indonesia began discovering and exploring islands to the East. These people did not stray far from land but stayed close to coastal areas. The used small simple watercraft, designed primarily for littoral fishing and travel. This early period of exploration was superseded by superior navigation and cartography techniques developed by later cultures such as the Polynesians.

    Dates of human migration in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. (Wikimedia)

     

    The Polynesians

    The next wave of ocean exploration was the Polynesian Period.  They were the first to develop open ocean exploration and navigation techniques. They consistently traveled across much of the South Pacific, passing New Zealand, Easter Island, and many others, and eventually making their way to Hawaii. This period also overlaps with the Greek exploration of the Mediterranean. There exist many conflicting theories as to how this culture was able to disperse across such a vast area or why they choose to do so, but they developed larger, stronger, and more stable boats that allowed them to endure the harsh conditions of the open ocean.

     

    The Polynesians relied upon a complex and rich oral tradition to pass on knowledge of their navigation techniques, known as wayfinding. Historically, this knowledge has been confined to local navigation guilds on each island, but renewed interest has seen that these techniques are recorded for all time. These oral traditions have shown not only a detailed knowledge of natural phenomena such as wind patterns but also an extensive and precise knowledge of the locations of islands all across Polynesia. There is still discourse on whether early Polynesian colonizers made use of these techniques. However, there is a strong academic consensus that the Islands of Eastern Polynesia, such as Easter Island, were explored and colonized purposively using this knowledge.

     

    Initially, researchers thought that the Polynesians and their culture originated from an Asiatic country and migrated to the Polynesian Triangle. However, researchers were able to use pottery to date the migration of Polynesian settlements and found that the Polynesian culture started on the Polynesian islands. Specifically, they started from the southeastern Solomons and northern Vanuatu before expanding to the Fiji archipelago which is west of the Polynesian Triangle around 1100-1000 B.C. They then settled in the Lau Islands then Tonga around 896-880 B.C. and further traveled east. Colonization of eastern and southern Polynesia occurred later. A study suggests explaining the delay in colonization was due to the unique climate patterns which finally allowed off wind sailing routes to the east. Gradual improvements in their sailing technology also attributed to the delay. The invention of the double-hulled canoe became beneficial in their colonization of eastern and southern Polynesia.

    A tepukei, an ancient type of boat used by the inhabitants of Taumako in Melanesia. (Wikimedia)

     

    WESTERN NAVIGATORS

    Some of the first ocean-faring people were the Minoan, Greek, and the Phoenician civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean. They utilized the Mediterranean for both trade and war, at first staying within sight of shore, but eventually using the sun, moon, and stars as navigational aids.  The Phoenicians were some of the first to use celestial bodies to take them beyond the sight of land, but the knowledge eventually spread throughout the region to facilitate maritime commerce and navigation. The most famous Phoenician explorers were Hanno the Navigator and Himilco, both from Carthage. In the sixth or fifth centuries B.C., Hanno sailed from Carthage, in modern day Tunisia, out of the Mediterranean and along the coast of Africa, reaching as far as Cameroon. Himilco, in the fifth century, sailed from North Africa to the British Isles. These journeys sought to establish and control trade routes. 

    Homer wrote of Odysseus using Ursa major to find his way home from Troy, and Greek navigators were using nautical charts as early as 600 BC. Some Greeks are known to have sailed all the way to India after Alexander's conquest of the east.

    A Phoenician ship depicted on a sarcophagus, 2nd century A.D. (Wikimedia)

     

    NAVIGATION IN THE EAST

    After the Polynesian people had migrated across the South Pacific, the first cultures to successfully navigate the waters around Asia were the Indians in the 4th century BC and the navy of the Chinese Qin dynasty around 200 BC. Much of the ocean navigation for these groups relied on the seasonal monsoon winds, which limited travel direction and time. Regardless, both the Indians and Chinese cultures were able to sail and explore much of Southeast Asia, and even to the eastern coast of Africa.  The Qin dynasty fielded a large navy to control the South China sea as early as 200 BC. The ships were as long as 100 feet and could carry up to 30 tons of cargo. 

    Pottery boat from the Han Dynasty, from the Hong Kong Museum of History. (Wikimedia)

     

    References

    1. Donald Harden, The Phoenicians, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, page 168

    2. Hill, Tessa. GEL 166N. UC Davis. Lecture 1. Jan. 7, 2019.

    3. Homer. The Odyssey. http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.html

    4. Kirch, P. (2017). Polynesia: ORIGINS AND DISPERSALS. In On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact, Revised and Expanded Edition(pp. 184-212). Oakland, California: University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctv1xxsng.15

    5. Kirch, Patrick V., and Jennifer G. Kahn. “Advances in Polynesian Prehistory: A Review and Assessment of the Past Decade (1993-2004).” Journal of Archaeological Research, vol. 15, no. 3, 2007, pp. 191–238. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41053239.

    6. Sun, Guangqi (1989). History of Navigation in Ancient China. Beijing: Ocean Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-navigation/article/zheng-hes-expeditions-to-the-western-ocean-and-his-navigation-technology/CFE8E51B4A917D2546F556B883F08C45

    7. Taylor, E. G. R. (1971). The haven-finding art; A History of Navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook. New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, INC. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-navigation/article/story-of-navigation-the-havenfinding-art-a-history-of-navigation-from-odysseus-to-captain-cook-e-g-r-taylor-2nd-edition-with-an-appendix-by-joseph-needham-frs-310-pp-8-5-in-hollis-and-carter-ltd-london-1971-250/068492486F0B46FC5A91F5E585A56589

    8. Tyson, Peter. “Secrets of Ancient Navigators.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 5 Oct. 1998, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/secrets-of-ancient-navigators/.