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Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans

Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans

2.6 3
by Brian Fagan

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In Beyond the Blue Horizon, archaeologist and historian Brian Fagan tackles his richest topic yet: the enduring quest to master the oceans, the planet's most mysterious terrain. We know the tales of Columbus and Captain Cook, yet much earlier mariners made equally bold and world-changing voyages. From the moment when ancient Polynesians first dared to


In Beyond the Blue Horizon, archaeologist and historian Brian Fagan tackles his richest topic yet: the enduring quest to master the oceans, the planet's most mysterious terrain. We know the tales of Columbus and Captain Cook, yet much earlier mariners made equally bold and world-changing voyages. From the moment when ancient Polynesians first dared to sail beyond the horizon, Fagan vividly explains how our mastery of the oceans changed the course of human history.

What drove humans to risk their lives on open water? How did early sailors unlock the secrets of winds, tides, and the stars they steered by? What were the earliest ocean crossings like? With compelling detail, Fagan reveals how seafaring evolved so that the forbidding realms of the sea gods were transformed from barriers into a nexus of commerce and cultural exchange. From bamboo rafts in the Java Sea to triremes in the Aegean, from Norse longboats to sealskin kayaks in Alaska, Fagan crafts a captivating narrative of humanity's urge to challenge the unknown and seek out distant shores. Beyond the Blue Horizon will enthrall readers who enjoyed Dava Sobel's Longitude, Simon Winchester's Atlantic, and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Vikings coined a word—æfintyr—to describe humanity’s restless need for exploration, but the urge itself has been felt on every shore throughout history. Drawing on a lifetime of sailing, Fagan (Elixir), U.C.–Santa Barbara emeritus professor of anthropology, does more than reconstruct the sea routes and watercraft used by ancient mariners. He recreates their mental states and imagines what forces inspired them to leave the land behind. Tacking between first-person anecdotes, archeological explanations, and fictionalized scenes from the distant past, this salty work of historical imagination travels with the Micronesian outriggers that ferried moai carvers to Easter Island, the Egyptian timber barges that carried the cedars of Lebanon to the pharaohs, and the black ships that brought the Greek heroes to the gates of Troy. With today’s diesel engines, GPS displays, and satellite communications, these long-cherished skills are all but forgotten. Few people alive today could do what Micronesian sailors accomplished millennia ago, let alone rival the skills of a master navigator like Christopher Columbus. Fagan has produced a loving tribute to their achievement, as well as a bittersweet testimony to the loss as well as gain brought by modern technology. Agent: Susan Rabiner, Susan Rabiner Literary Agency. (June)
From the Publisher

“A fascinating story … this is history on a grand scale” —Philip Hoare, Daily Telegraph (UK)

“In taking a view of human history from the sea-goer, rather than from the more common viewpoint of the landlubber, Fagan reminds us of the vital role played by water in not only our socio-economic and political evolution but also our spiritual evolution.” —Literary Review (UK)

“Scholarly yet lyrical … quietly epic.” —Sunday Times Magazine (UK)

“Hugely impressive and wideranging book” —Mail on Sunday (UK)

“Combining his talents as a navigator, archaeologist and historian, Brian Fagan takes us on an enthralling tour of the world as its shores were being opened up by the first seamen to cross the oceans and the major seas. One could not hope for a more engaging skipper.” —David Abulafia, Cambridge University, author of The Great Sea

“Tacking between first-person anecdotes, archeological explanations, and fictionalized scenes from the distant past, this salty work of historical imagination travels with the Micronesian outriggers that ferried moai carvers to Easter Island, the Egyptian timber barges that carried the cedars of Lebanon to the pharaohs, and the black ships that brought the Greek heroes to the gates of Troy…Fagan has produced a loving tribute to their achievement.” —Publishers Weekly

“Fagan's newest archaeological work benefits from his own seafaring experiences… sure to pique the interest of maritime readers… A thoughtful presenter, Fagan accords a suitable awe to the intrepid sailors of prehistory and ancient history.” —Booklist

“Enthralling… Fagan effectively intersperses observations from his own extensive sailing experience as he ponders how ancient mariners might have responded to various sea conditions and what may have initially caused them to take to the sea. VERDICT: Fagan paints a thoroughly fascinating portrait of the intricate interaction among ocean, climate, and humanity in the many parts of the world where seafaring cultures developed. This excellent book is sure to appeal to readers with some background and interest in world archaeology and history.” —Library Journal (starred review)

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt

Beyond the Blue Horizon

How The Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans
By Brian Fagan


Copyright © 2012 Brian Fagan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60819-005-8

Chapter One

"The Sands and Flats Are Discovered"

You raise your eyes and the land falls away at your feet. I sat on the cliffs at Céide Fields, in Ireland's County Mayo, and gazed westward across a tumult of gray, windswept Atlantic toward an indistinct horizon swept by dark rain showers. Below me, precipitous cliffs battered by ocean swells tumbled into the surf with a low roar. There was nothing between North America and me except a featureless distance of tumultuous open water with unbridled power.

I sat there for more than an hour, my face buffeted by rain and wind, contemplating the immensity of the open ocean. My mind wandered, as it so often does, into the past, lulled by the endless rush of wind and sea. I became an Irish monk of 1,300 years ago, alone with a handful of companions amid towering swells in a small boat of stitched hide, just a rag of leather sail aloft on a short mast. We were rolling heavily in the rising gale with no land in sight and no idea whether land lay over the horizon. Hour after hour, we huddled in our thick, sodden cloaks deep in the boat. Only the helmsman stood watch at the steering oar, quietly chanting a Te Deum as he watched the endless pro cession of waves that could capsize us in a moment. We were in pursuit of a dream, of a mythic land somewhere in the western ocean, a place where the unknown began. Did such a land exist? We had no idea, just will-o'-the-wisps of sailors' tales of distant islands of the blessed where one could live in contemplative peace, close to God.

At Céide Fields, you feel as if you stand on the edge of the known world. Today, we know that Boston and New York, Greenland and Newfoundland, lie on the invisible shores 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) to the west. Atlases, charts, and Google Earth delineate the extremities of what was a vast, sinister wilderness a thousand years ago. To our Europe an forebears of that era, the western coasts of Europe were the frontiers of the earth. As I walked along the cliffs, I asked myself what compelled such men to leave familiar shores and venture into the vast, open ocean? Were they insane or desperate, or clever enough to think that they would know how to find their way home? And what did they believe lay beyond the horizon that was worth finding—only the knowledge of what was on the far side?

Irish monks were not, of course, the first people to sail beyond the horizon. Human experience of the oceans began far earlier in many parts of the world. Southeast Asian mainlanders were paddling or sailing from island to island to New Guinea and Australia by at least 50,000 years ago; their descendants were living in the Bismarck Strait region of the southwestern Pacific by 30,000 years ago. People were crisscrossing open water to Aegean islands by at least 8000 B.C.E.; Chinese fleets visited the East African coast a good century before Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope; raft sailors from what is now Ecuador traded with Maya lords in Central America long before 1492. In time, and in many places, the land became part of the sea, landscapes and seascapes as one. But the fundamental question remains, what ever the setting: What pushed people across the horizon, or in some cases gave them no incentive to leave familiar coastal waters? In other words, how and why did they decode the ocean?

The answer to this question comes from many sources, from written records, oral traditions, from old sailing directions and anthropological inquiries. Archaeology provides many of the clues, but, unfortunately, much of the record has long vanished. Canoes and other watercraft have long rotted away, but their crews left often transitory settlements behind them, sometimes natural rock shelters visited repeatedly over time. So archaeologists with their trowels and dental picks have prised charcoal fragments and seeds from thin occupation layers and shell heaps found in small archaeological sites that once formed coastal settlements scattered over hundreds, even thousands, of miles. From charcoal come radiocarbon dates and the chronology for early seafaring, some of it dating back more than forty millennia into the remote past.

There was no single moment in human history when people first decoded the ocean and we then moved onward and upward toward a future in which we completely mastered the ocean. Over thousands of years, we developed extremely diverse relationships with open water, often with profound ritual undertones. It is not as if someone had invented the screwdriver or the internal combustion engine; what happened was that the sea gradually became a human environment, learned by mariners through constant observation, osmosis, and cultural memory. Traveling by sea meant, in some senses, submitting to it, or at least adapting to its rhythms and reading its most inconspicuous signals. Today, much of this intimacy with the ocean has vanished in the face of the computer and satellite navigation. A tanker or motor yacht can travel from point A to point B with utterly predictable, stunning accuracy. Even the smallest sailing vessel anywhere can fix its position within a few feet in seconds.

Apart from a permissible, and understandable, nostalgia for the days of sextants and star sights, we've lost a great deal by interposing a layer of technology between the ocean and ourselves. Before steam engines, diesels, and GPS, there was something different about those who spent their lives on or alongside the sea, wherever they sailed or paddled. The watery locales upon which they spent much of their lives—whether tropical islands surrounded by coral reefs, the windy straits of the Aegean Sea, or the harsh waters of the Aleutians in the far North Pacific—defined their character. We know little about these anonymous folk, almost people apart, for they never set their thoughts on paper and passed their experience to others by word of mouth. The Norwegian novelist Alexander Kielland knew a sailor when he met one, laconic as they almost invariably were. He wrote perceptively of them: "What the sea is for those who live on the shore, no- one may know; for they say nothing. They live their entire lives with their faces turned toward the sea. The sea is their company, their adviser, their friend and their enemy, their livelihood and their churchyard." The relationship, he added, was one of few words but a watchful one that changed with the moods of the waves that broke a few yards from their houses.

Sometimes the ocean invited trust, at other times fear and apprehension, but always profound respect and the realization that one could never control its capricious whims. Kielland's remarks could apply with equal force to Maori canoe skippers, Aleutian fisherfolk, or Egyptian timber ship captains. They possessed an intimate knowledge not just of winds and waves but also of underwater landscapes of currents and tides. Of these men, anthropologist Knut Kolsrud wrote, "Since ancient times, [they have] seen the life of the sea, not a flat, grey surface with waves, but underneath, a landscape with shallows and depths, with clay, sand, stone, and vegetation, with currents and eddies and with creatures of the sea." What they had learned the hard way passed from father to son in a seamless continuity through dozens of generations and was never written down. Today, these ancient skills are rapidly passing into historical oblivion in a world where we use computer keys to find out where we are, even on the summit of Mount Everest or hundreds of miles from land in the mid- Atlantic. Our task is to identify how different ancient societies developed their own portraits of the ocean and decoded its mysteries. Why did people venture into deep water when they were well aware of the dangerous winds and high seas that battered them along the coast?

Sketching a portrait of the sea as a human environment was a challenging task, but one made somewhat easier by my own experience at sea. Although I've been sailing since I was eight years old, I'm certainly not a man apart, like many ancient seafarers. I've spent a lifetime in small craft trying to master both coastal and deeper waters. My hard- earned skills wither alongside those of a traditional Polynesian navigator, an Arab dhow skipper, or a Norse merchant seaman in the North Atlantic. Time and time again, too, I've found myself reading about a voyage, a coasting passage, or tricky pilotage among tropical reefs and realized that I'd experienced much the same challenges and sensations at some time or another—instincts of impending danger, about being in the wrong place, the helpless feeling of a flat calm in a featureless ocean, your sails thrashing endlessly in an ocean swell hundreds of miles from land. Different boats, often different waters, to be sure, but again and again, like other sailors, I've had the sea as intimate company. Deciphering the mysteries of the ocean came easier when I invoked firsthand experience.

My early sailing mentors were so at home afloat that the ocean was part of their being. I learned the basics of sailing and seamanship—and, I realize now, of having the sea as company—from a Dorset fisherman who had spent his life working his nets and traps along the English Channel coast. He knew every nuance of local waters the subtle eddies of a rising tide on rocky shallows where lobsters could be trapped, the dappled gray skies that signaled an approaching equinoctial gale, the best spots for taking mackerel with spinner and line. But he had rarely sailed out of sight of land. "I'm a shallow- water man," he once told me. His deciphered ocean covered about 20 miles (32 kilometers) of rugged tidal coastline. Thus it has been for most sailors everywhere, who rarely stray far from local waters.

I also sailed with another shallow-water man, who never cruised farther afield than about 70 miles (113 kilometers) from home, all of it among a tapestry of tidal estuaries and sandbanks. Tom Armelagos was an elderly sailor of vast experience who sailed off eastern En gland in an old-fashioned, engineless barge yacht with a flat bottom and what are called leeboards—drop keels set on either side of the vessel to provide depth when beating against the wind. He had been sailing through those sandbanks and estuaries since he was a teenager in the years before World War I, always without an engine, at the mercy of fast-running tides and the wind. Tom had a compass, a pair of binoculars, and a long pole, painted with 1-foot (0.3-meter) marks to a depth of 12 feet (3.66 meters), with which he sounded the depth while sailing in very shallow water. He had infinite patience—to wait for wind, to remain at anchor when the tide was against him. Time was unimportant. Wind and tide ruled.

Tom had no electronics, just ancient skills. His faithful marked stick carried him into narrow channels, where there were perhaps 4 feet (1.2 meters) to spare on either side of the boat. On occasion, we would run up on a sandbank on a falling tide, have a leisurely lunch, and then sail off when we were afloat once more. He would anchor safely in complete shelter among sandbanks or mudflats with only 2 feet (0.6 meter) below his keel at low tide. In deeper water, he turned to another traditional artifact, used by ancient seamen of many stripes: hour after hour, I would man the side and cast a lead weight on a tagged line marked in fathoms. (A fathom is 6 feet, or 1.83 meters.) I would cast ahead, then note the mark at the surface and call it out: "Two fathoms deep" meant more than 12 feet (3.66 meters). "By the mark, five" meant exactly 30 feet (9 meters). We used a terminology redolent of the nineteenth century and Admiral Lord Nelson's navy, and we navigated like medieval cargo ships—by feel. On one occasion, we approached the coast of south eastern En gland, where the ocean is deep until close to shore. The Admiralty chart displayed clearly defined five-and ten-fathom lines close offshore, together with cabalistic symbols such as "sh," for shell, or "snd," for sand. Tom took a chunk of heavy grease and packed it into a cavity in the bottom of the lead weight. I cast the line, called out the sounding, and then pulled in the line and looked at the residue from the bottom trapped in the grease. An expert like my skipper knew the seated deposits so well, he could tell roughly where he was. In this way, we felt our way inshore on a day when the visibility was less than a mile, using the five- and ten-fathom lines and the samples from the bottom as our guides.

As a teenager, I spent time sailing on a converted, engineless fishing boat under a retired naval officer of mercurial temper who had learned his seamanship on one of the last naval square-riggers before World War I. Day after day, our taskmaster reminded the crew that all boats without engines relied on sails and people power alone. The three weeks were a brutal experience in the hard school of seafaring, but the lessons have been with me ever since. "You're on your own out there," he told us. "Use your eyes and never stop learning." Your mind- set was what mattered, the way you looked at the ocean.

I finally realized what he meant when I discovered Danish church towers. I was thoroughly lost on a hazy gray day. The monotonous terrain carved by retreating Ice Age glaciers went on for mile after mile. Thoroughly bemused, I turned to the British Admiralty's Baltic Pilot, navigational scripture compiled by long- forgotten nineteenth-century naval surveyors.

The surveyors were intrepid young officers, let loose with compass, lead, and line in small sailing boats to survey remote coasts. As I turned the Pilot's pages, I thought of such a boat rowing a mile offshore against a chill wind. Like me, the midshipman or lieutenant would be peering at the shore, searching for distinctive landmarks that would tell them where they were. Most of these youths—they were little more—would have been at sea since their early teens. They knew how to sail and row in all kinds of weather, how to spot a safe landing from outside the breakers. They camped for days on windy promontories, took refuge from gales on uninhabited beaches. These young surveyors were cartographers and navigators, but, above all, they defined the seascape by landmarks—conspicuous headlands, distinctively colored cliffs, prominent houses or fortifications, even groves of trees. Their task revolved around a simple question: How could a sailor venturing along an unfamiliar coast find his way safely? The Admiralty Pilots, compiled originally during the Age of Sail, are a lasting monument to the surveyors' skill. In the older editions, written for small coasters and sailing vessels, the authors' calm, dispassionate voices resonate down the generations: "Mariners are advised to exercise extreme caution when sailing during spring tides in this vicinity," or "Anchorage may be obtained in 10 fathoms [18 meters] off the beach in SW winds."

They delivered with the church towers. The archipelago coast had few distinguishing landmarks, just a low ridgeline and brown, sandy cliffs. The Baltic Pilot surveyor knew well that the shore was featureless, but as he peered ashore, he noticed something that I had ignored: the church towers belonging to the small villages on the ridge. Each was different—some spires, others square towers, a few lattice-like. The Baltic Pilot described the height and distinguishing features of each church. There were no photographs in those days, so the surveyor penned a small sketch instead. (Naval officers were taught to sketch for this very reason.) I riffled through the Pilot until a sketch matched the approaching tower off the bow. The villages were about a couple of miles apart, so it became a matter of following the churches until we came to our destination, which lay beyond a narrow channel between two islands. Here again the surveyor had done his homework. We picked up a gap between two cliffs, identified an approach beacon that was already in place in the mid-nineteenth century, and came safely to port. That day in Denmark was a navigational epiphany. Thanks to Victorian surveyors, I'd learned how to decipher a small part of the ocean.

Everywhere, the ocean has a language of its own. You soon learn that each shoal has its own dialect, each coastline has the equivalent of the Danish churches, especially in shallow tropical waters.


Excerpted from Beyond the Blue Horizon by Brian Fagan Copyright © 2012 by Brian Fagan. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Elixir, the Los Angeles Times bestseller Cro-Magnon, and the New York Times bestseller The Great Warming, and many other books, including Fish on Friday, The Long Summer, and The Little Ice Age. He has decades of experience at sea and is the author of several titles for sailors, including the widely praised Cruising Guide to Central and Southern California.

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Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
efm More than 1 year ago
I love true nautical storys
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author does write as a college professor would write. I should have suspected this would be one of those books. In the prologue the author states that the chapters will jump all over the place. He was right! What a distraction. If I wanted to walk away with knowledge, disorganization is not the way to do it. The content was incredible but when switching from Polynesia to the Mediterranean, to Iceland, to South America, to Alaska, to California is not the way to keep me interested. I gave it one star only because it helped to put me to sleep at night.