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Ancient Maritime Trade on Balsa Rafts: An Engineering Analysis

Leslie Dewan and Dorothy Hosler
Journal of Anthropological Research
Vol. 64, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), pp. 19-40
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20371179
Page Count: 22
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
Ancient Maritime Trade on Balsa Rafts: An Engineering Analysis
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Abstract

By approximately 100 BC Ecuadorian traders had established maritime commercial routes extending from Chile to Colombia. Historical sources indicate that they transported their merchandise in large, ocean-going sailing rafts made of balsa logs. By about AD 700 the data show that Ecuadorian metalworking technology had reached the west coast of Mexico but remained absent in the region between Guerrero and lower Central America. Archaeologists have argued that this technology was most plausibly transmitted via balsa raft exchange routes. This article uses mathematical simulation of balsa rafts' mechanical and material characteristics to determine whether these rafts were suitable vessels for long-distance travel. Our analysis shows that these rafts were fully functional sailing vessels that could have navigated between Ecuador and Mexico. This conclusion greatly strengthens the argument that Ecuadorian metallurgical technology and aspects of the metallurgical technologies of adjacent South American regions were transmitted from South America to western Mexico via maritime trade routes.

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