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Searching for Archaeological Indications of Long-Distance Pre-Columbian Balsa Raft Navigation

Benjamin Rosales, Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Summer Fellow 2014

During my summer fellowship, I researched articles and dissertations focused on archaeological sites on the coasts of northern Peru and Ecuador that can help us understand the development of cultural exchange and ocean sailing navigation in Pre-Columbian times. I reviewed books about ocean crafts used in the Americas and the world and related matters, as well as archaeological works on tropical Pacific America that indicate long distance maritime contacts between regions. In the Rare Books Collection, I consulted and photographed Spilbergen’s original drawing of balsa rafts from his 1617 world voyage and, in the ICFA, studied Moche iconography in the Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive. Thanks to the goodwill of Emily Kaplan of the National Museum of the American Indian, we were able to visit the Cultural Resources Center there and inspect some large wooden artifacts from the coast of Peru. Features in some of them indicate that that they were used as centerboards and steering paddles in ancient balsa rafts. Chemical tests are needed to determine if these artifacts were in contact with a marine environment during long periods. Further research also needs to be done on similar wooden objects located at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and other museums of the world, as similar artifacts occasionally are classified as “ceremonial agricultural implements.”

After reading a large amount of the available information, I created an outline of the writing needed to expose readers to archaeological works that suggest the existence of long-distance maritime contact between Mesoamerica and the Andean world, as well as to hypothesize where and when raft sailing was developed in the New World and what cultural transfers were effected by these contacts in ancient times. Thanks to this summer at Dumbarton Oaks, and the opportunities that Colin McEwan has given us, I have made contacts with archaeological colleagues who visited the campus, and with researchers who work on South American balsa raft navigation. Their advice and collaboration has been invaluable.