Oldest Stone Age boats found in the Mediterranean

Canoes found in Italy show how people more than 7,000 years ago developed advanced nautical technology to navigate the Mediterranean Sea.

The canoes are the oldest boats found in the Mediterranean.

In research published in the public-access journal PLOS ONE, archaeologists describe the discovery of 5 hollowed-out trees, called dugout canoes, at the Neolithic (Late Stone Age) lakeshore village of La Marmotta, about 30 km northwest of central Rome.

Underwater excavation of boat in italy archaeology scuba diver
Excavation of Canoe 5. Credit: J F Gibaja et al. in PLOS ONE.

The Neolithic is generally agreed to have started about 12,000 years ago in the Near East at the end of the last Ice Age. It marked a shift in the cultural, social and technological development of human communities highlighted by the shift way from hunter-gatherer subsistence to early farming.

The authors note that the spread of Neolithic culture through Europe was chiefly carried out along the shores of the Mediterranean.

“Many of the most important civilisations in Europe originated on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea,” they write. “Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians plied that practically enclosed sea to move rapidly along its coasts and between its islands.”

The writers say Neolithic communities occupied the whole Mediterranean between 9,500 and 9,000 years ago. They reached the Atlantic coast of Portugal by about 5400 BCE.

“It is clear that the Mediterranean Sea must have often been used for travel, as boats allowed rapid movements of population, contacts and exchange of goods,” the authors say.

The canoes were found under Lake Bracciano. The archaeological area is now 300m from the shore of the lake today, under about 8m of water and 3m of sediment. The lake is connected to the Mediterranean Sea by River Arrone over a distance of 38 km.

La Marmotta’s canoes are from between 5700 and 5100 BCE.

“Direct dating of Neolithic canoes from La Marmotta reveals them to be the oldest in the Mediterranean, offering invaluable insights into Neolithic navigation,” the authors add. “This study reveals the amazing technological sophistication of early agricultural and pastoral communities, highlighting their woodworking skills and the construction of complex vessels.”

The world’s oldest boat is also a dugout-style canoe found in the Netherlands in 1955 called the Pesse canoe, after the village where it was found. The 3m-long vessel was built between 8040 and 7510 BCE.

The excavation also shows that the vessels were seaworthy.

Associated with one of the canoes are 3 T-shaped wooden objects which have holes probably used to tie ropes fastened to sails.

That the boats were used to island-skip is further substantiated by the presence at the site of stone tools linked to nearby islands.

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