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Humankind’s battle to conquer the seas

The relationship, through history, between humans and the sea has been one of conflict and conquest. The dangers of traveling on such a fickle, treacherous, and alien environment could easily mean death for early seafarers and explorers (and indeed it still can today). What is even more impressive, and perhaps mind-boggling, is that those venturing to sea in pre-history did not know what they would find, if anything at all. So why did humans first take to the sea? What drove them to surf and sail into the unknown? One reason may be our inquisitive nature.

Now we can begin to understand the ‘why?’, but what has archaeology revealed about our ancestors and how they took to the oceans?

The often hostile environment that is the sea meant that safety was never certain. This short Breton fisherman’s prayer describes the perils of the ocean and encapsulates the fear, and necessary hope, that underpinned every voyage.

Early explorers braved unimaginable feats, charting courses into the unknown, and doing what no other had done before them (at least as far as we know and was recorded). These great adventures led many to treat their reports and discoveries with much scepticism. Incidentally, this scepticism also gives us some of the best-recorded evidence of what they claimed, and modern understanding of the world enables us to verify some of these stories.

The accounts we have of Pytheas’s voyage are largely from those who didn’t believe he had done what he said he’d done. His lost book, also titled On the Ocean, exists only in  fragments quoted in other works.


Featured Image: “beach-clouds-landscape-ocean” by Josh Sorenson. CC0 via Pexels

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Sir Cunliffe,

    Of all the ancient sea faring people, the ones most puzzling to me are the Phoenicians.

    Why would essencially land people take to the sea? When their land could provide them with all their needs? And how did they acquire the technology and knowledge to build and navigate ships far from their shores?

    Though distant seafaring travel is well known for islanders, I know of no other land people doing this.


  2. tony harms

    Why are the Phoenicians “land” people and the Greeks (for example) not?

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