Can a small canoe make us travel back in time to remember where everything started? And can a simple stone make us understand how we managed to build everything around us? If we had been in a movie, our answer might have been ‘yes’. In the real world… even if we entrust the task to competent scholars, able to reconstruct historical sea levels and shore lines of the Middle Tyrrhenian to determine the positions of human settlements throughout history.
To paraphrase an old slogan, it is science, not science fiction. Of the kind that is not limited to the libraries and dusty tomes of studies – – although they are of vital importance -, but tries to reconstruct on the field what happened thousands or even millions of years ago. This is what happens in the field of a research project that has been going for some years now. It involves such complicated things as “anthropological analyzes for the study of tides and coastlines” or “dating findings on the basis of the direction of the earth’s magnetic field for the purpose of thermoremanent magnetization of the discovered flint artifacts”; or else, ”air resistance and sail propulsion with canoes”, that is, the practical test consisting in a man who steers a canoe himself in order to identify with an ancestor.
Obviously, not any sportsman ca do it; only a scientist able to record every change of the stream, every movement of the canoe, and every ripple of the waves, so as to open a “stargate” between the past and the present. All this has been recently done on the coast of Lazio region, in Italy, and the explorer who is the protagonist of this story is a researcher of the Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, physicist, anthropologist, and prehistoric archaeologist Rodolfo Lama.
This experience took place precisely between 8 and 9 February, departing from Santa Severa and sailing to Cape Linaro, considered a kind of small Cape Horn, due to its dangerous waters. “Sailing is one of the oldest activities. We are looking for our ancestors’ routes that led them to settle on the coasts – Rodolfo Lama explains -. In those days there were no sailing tools, they relied on the stream and their experience, exactly what we have done not so long ago. I read the sea, the clouds, the rippling of the waves, and a passing stream. It is the only plausible way to reenact their journeys. If the sea changes, you change the route. “And once you landed, you had to figure out whether that strip of land was friendly or not, whether there was obsidian to build tools, wild animals to hunt, and plants to use.”
It sounds easy when you talk about it, but finding traces of thousands of years ago today is far from being easy. It is difficult both on land, where morphology is constantly changing, let alone at sea, where nothing remains equal a moment later. “Well – Lama explains – let us say you need to forget everything you have learned so far and observe to understand what you do not know yet. Every time.” It is a challenge inside another challenge and only a man who “imagined” oceanographic Anthropology – a field that has never been codified before Lama – could accept.
He did so defying water with a canoe similar to the old ones, using what he found in nature to adapt the boat. The skeg, for instance (a rigid support that is sometimes placed in front of the rudder in order to support the hinges on which the rudder itself rotates), which used to be made of wood – it could be easily found on the coast of Lazio -, not of carbon fiber back in times. Also wicker is common in this area, becoming thus another material used for the crossing/experiment.
Hence the way is (also) direct experience. You get there constructing and comparing vessels in view of aerodynamic, volume, strength, speed, range distance and, of course, limit testing. In short, we are heading towards the past as never before.
What we find today is not very different from what our ancestors found then? Lama himself provides the answer to this question: “Yes and no. ‘Yes’ as to morphological conditions of the terrain; for example, the coastline was further ahead, rivers had alternative routes to the current ones and their estuary had a different structure. It is useful to keep in mind the thin, partly submerged and partly emerged strip of land that divides the land from the sea. The configuration of this environment is subject to constant change due to the action of several factors, one of which is river intake; the sediment transported by rivers is the main source of sediment supply. But the ecosystem, in truth, is essentially the same, since we are talking about a great post-ice age period: about 80% of the things that were here at the time are still here today. Obviously, on condition that we enter protected areas, which are not exploited by man.”
In a period like the one we live in, when erosion virtually brings tourist economy to its knees on much of the coast of Lazio, such an analysis is paradoxically topical rather than “historic”. Of course, we can find clues not only at sea, but also on land. Provided, also in this case, that we are able to distinguish a common stone from a flint. Do not let the term frighten you, but you have to be able to identify a “flint bench along the coast” if you want to succeed. That is the only way you can categorize and study bones, sea shells, and fossils to determine how they were used and for what purpose. The end result, as in an imaginary “Holograms Bridge”, is not seeing houses, roads, and vehicles of the XXI century around us anymore, but the very first settlements from which we all descend to a certain degree.
The long journey towards our past has just begun. The crossings are going to be repeated, to acquire new elements from time to time. People should know more about such initiatives than they do; too often they are relegated in the academic field, but they are of utter importance to understand the genesis of our present civilization. A slap in the face knowledge divulgation. The project will last till 2017. Perhaps it will continue also afterwards, in a constant time jump, until you go back – to paraphrase an epic sci-fi TV Series -, where no man went before.