7,000 year old Neolithic boats were incredibly refined and surprisingly modern

The Neolithic sailors of the Mediterranean traveled aboard sophisticated ships that already incorporated many of the nautical solutions seen on modern boats. The quality and complexity of these prehistoric crafts indicate that several major advances in sailing were made during the Late Stone Age, paving the way for the spread of the major civilizations of the ancient world.

It is well known that maritime trade links existed in the Mediterranean during the Neolithic, although it has until now been unclear how adept these early sailors were at handling the waves. Navigating this uncertainty, the authors of a new study analyzed five dugout canoes discovered in a 7,000-year-old settlement that now lies at the bottom of an Italian lake.

Known as La Marmotta, the site lies under 8 meters of water and a further three meters of sediment, about 300 meters from the current shoreline of Lake Bracciano, near Rome. The ancient settlement is believed to have existed between 5700 and 5150 BC. been inhabited and is described by researchers as the earliest Neolithic village on the shore of the central Mediterranean.

Of the five canoes found at the site, the largest was made from a huge oak trunk and was 10.43 meters long. According to the authors, four “transverse reinforcements” at the base of the ship “would have increased and protected the durability of the hull, as well as improved its handling.”

Even more remarkable, investigators found three T-shaped wooden objects on the starboard side of the vessel, each with multiple holes. “The characteristics and position of these objects suggest that they may have been used to secure ropes attached to a possible sail or to connect other nautical elements such as a stabilizer or even another boat to form a double hull in to create the shape of a catamaran.” they write.

“These strategies would have provided greater security and stability, and increased capacity for the transportation of people, animals and goods.”

Neolithic boat from La Marmotta

This prehistoric canoe is carved from an oak trunk.

Image credit: Gibaja et al., 2024, PLOS ONE, (CC-BY 4.0)

The second canoe was made from a hollowed out alder trunk and contained a ‘mushroom-shaped’ piece of wood with a single hole in it. The authors point out the similarity between this object and “modern mooring posts we see in our harbors” and “suggest that its function might have been just that: to secure the canoe as the water level in the lake rose.”

Of the other three boats, one was made of alder wood, one of poplar wood and one of a beech tree. According to the researchers, the diversity of wood types used for the boats indicates that prehistoric builders had a great appreciation for the different properties of each material.

For example, oak may have been selected for its durability, while alder was likely used because it is light and resistant to cracking.

“Direct dating of Neolithic canoes from La Marmotta shows them to be the oldest in the Mediterranean, providing invaluable insights into Neolithic navigation,” the authors said in a statement. “This study reveals the astonishing technological sophistication of early agricultural and pastoral communities, highlighting their skills in woodworking and the construction of complex ships.”

Given the size of the canoes, researchers suspect they were likely intended for use well beyond Lake Bracciano. They therefore speculate that the boats may have sailed across the Arrone River – which connects the lake to the Mediterranean Sea – before continuing their journey to foreign lands.

Evidence for these overseas voyages can be found in the numerous exotic artefacts discovered at La Marmotta, including Greek and Baltic pottery and obsidian tools from the islands of Lipari and Palmarola. The ships’ seaworthiness has also been demonstrated by a group of experimental archaeologists who built a replica of one of the canoes in 1998 and sailed it more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Italy to Portugal.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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