A Somewhat Inclusive History of Oars Dating Back a Very Long Time

Although it is not true that babies are natural swimmers, there is a reflex called the Bradycardic Response which makes babies hold their breath and open their eyes when submerged in water. Also, until around 6 months, babies placed in water tummy down reflexively paddle their arms and legs, which makes them look like natural swimmers. And by the way, they seem to enjoy it very much. Now, imagine placing a baby sized surfboard or better yet, a miniature dugout canoe, under this swimming baby and you’ll have a natural born paddler. Could this swim-like behavior be left over from a time when our existence was inextricably linked to the water?

This may be true, and not only in humans,- most animals of the world appear to be able to swim, and all are naturally buoyant. And the vast majority of things that grow on dry land will float to some capacity. This is not a modern-day fact proven through independent test labs, it’s a simple observation, and one that was certainly not lost on the early peoples of the world, who by their very nature were profoundly aware of their natural environment.

Jared Diamond believes that early people were far and away more intelligent than we are today, because there was more cross over of the sections of the brain from moment to moment even just to get a drink of water, and their knowledge base was directly responsible for their very survival. And survive they did! Despite the high incidence of stress related headaches, they were able to pave the way for us, to the point where we sit today,...and, what percentage of our brain-power do we use?

Moose Antler

I’m sure you’ve seen a tree floating in a river or the sea... one that was released from its grasp of the shore by the erosive action of water. Have you seen a deer or a moose floating in a lake or out in a bay, maybe having succumbed to frigid temperatures while attempting to cross an expanse of water too wide, or having broken through ice? These are not uncommon sights in the Penobscot Bay here in Maine, and it would stand to reason that they have been happening since the dawn of time, or at least in this area since the dawn of the Penobscot bay, which would’ve been about 540 million years ago. The idea then, of things floating and moving on the water, is by no means a modern civilization kind of idea.

Lascaux, Cave Painting

It is easy therefore for me to imagine that the first oar, was a paddle, and that paddle was most likely someone’s hand or maybe their feet working the water to propel themselves away from, or back to, the shoreline, while they clung to a floating object that they desired dearly or that was their deliverance from harm. Even if they started with the hands, it’s easy to imagine a person sitting up on a floating tree trunk (or bloated beasty), eventually grabbing a branch and finding it useful in adding to the force or extension of the body during their steep learning curve of nautical propulsion. The world’s first paddle may have been invented during a few splashy minutes by some enterprising young and energetic cave kid; “Hey mom, I just used this moose antler to paddle a tree trunk from Beasty Island to our campsite! Wicked cool huh? I must’ve been doin’ about 3 knots!....” Of course it may have sounded more like; “Mahgga, gab hackmaw boo gumma wakka cool,.... Doin’ about a buck! Doooughhh!”

Changnyeong Oar in Mud

The earliest, ‘oars’ that have been found, are dated to about 7,500 years ago. Although a piece of an oar was found at the Star Carr Site in Britain dated to 10,500 years ago. One 7,500 yr old oar was found in the United Kingdom, another in Changnyeong S. Korea made of pine, and one 2 ft long ‘oar’ was found in Japan in 1999. It was left somewhere in Ishikawa Prefecture, 6,000 years ago and is made of wood from a nutmeg tree. It’s believed to originally have been about four feet in length. Though they all are called oars, they look more like canoe paddles really. Maybe Archeologists aren’t privy to small craft verbiage.

Pesse Canoe

The earliest canoe is dated to around 10,000 years ago. It was found in the Netherlands in 1955 while they were digging for a highway. The second oldest canoe was found by a Fulani herdsman in an effluent valley of the Komagudu Gama river of Nigeria in 1987 when he was digging to find water for his herd. It’s about 8,500 years old and is 28 feet long. Too bad no oars or paddles were found with them though. Another dugout canoe found in China is 6 ft 6 inches long with a beam of 2ft 3inches. It has a 6 inch deep hold, and two wooden pegs,(which sound like thole pins to me) shaped like tree stumps on each side. It was left there about 7,500 years ago.

Tanum Petroglyphs

Some of the earliest images we have of oars are from shards of pottery in China, and there are some in Greece as well, and 1400 miles from Mt. Olympus in a north northwesterly direction there are some fantastic rock carvings called the ‘Tanum Petroglyphs’ in the borderlands of Sweden and Norway. All of these representations of oars in boats, interestingly enough, are about four to five thousand years old.

Cheops Ship, photo by Olaf Tausch

One of the most fantastical and best preserved nautical artifacts the world has possibly ever housed under skylights and computerized humidity control, is the Cheops Ship, a full size 143’ long ‘Solar Barque’ unearthed at the great pyramid at Giza in 1954. It has twelve oars including two for steering. This one clocks in at around 5,000 years old. The oars range in length from approx. 19 to 24 feet. Now THOSE are oars.

Cave Painting Hands

I think It would be a mistake to conclude that people weren’t doing much boating earlier than 10 thousand years ago simply based on lack of evidence. Instead it is most likely that our absence of paddles, boats, and oars in our vaults of ancient artifacts older than 10K, is due primarily to the unfortunate fact that wooden stuff just can’t last in the ground much longer than that. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to assume that humans have been pushing and pulling things through the water with the aid of paddles or oars for a very, very long time; probably since humans have been the humans that we recognize today, which is said to be between 35,000 to 50,000 years! ..or thereabouts. Or...some suggest that we (or our distant relatives) have been boating even before that.

There is evidence which suggests seafaring Neanderthals in the Mediterranean Sea as far back as 110 thousand years and yet others have suggested that hominids have been sailing for as long as a million years; stone tools found on the Indonesian island of Flores date back that far. Why sailing is suggested I’m not sure, since the distances needed to get there from the mainland seem to be easily paddled or rowed on a half decent log with sea levels of present day’s geography. I think you and I could row for about 1400 miles (in a dory I mean, not on a log) with land insight the entire distance and not have more than a 12 mile crossing between islands. One million years ago, according to models of tectonic plates, water level maps, and volcanic activity, the Archipelago was tighter knit than it is now and ocean current might carry us through Indonesia all the way to New Guinea if we jumped on a log in Singapore and lilly dipped a moose antler now and then.