World’s Oldest Boat

In the early 2000s, the world’s oldest boat was found in the desert of Kuwait. It was built 7,000 years ago and is made from bundled reeds covered in bitumen. According to a scholarly article on the subject published in Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, the remnants come from a site, “H3,” located on the northside of Kuwait Bay, which was excavated between 1998 and 2004. The remnants of the boat date to between 5300 and 4900 BCE. At this time, the site would have more closely bordered the sea. Studies have shown that the reeds bundled together to build the boat came from reeds that grew in that area, and that the bitumen used to coat the boat came from a surface seep at Burgan. In the book Kuwait: Miracle on the Desert, David C. Cooke writes that people in Kuwait, “had known for years of the existence of small pools of oil on the surface of the land” and that people used to use it to treat sores on camels or rub it into leather to make it soft and pliable. In Kuwait: Vanguard of the Gulf, Peter Mansfield writes that Eratosthenes of Cyrene (d. 194 BCE), later quoted by Strabo (d. 24 CE), made the first mention of the oil in the Gulf Region. Eratosthenes wrote, “Asphaltus is found in great abundance. The liquid asphaltus… when it is brought near the fire, the fire catches it… which it is impossible to extinguish, except with a large quantity of water.” The excavations at H3 align with the herding, fishing, and gathering economy of the Arabian Neolithic, but they also demonstrate that the “occupants were engaged in an exchange network which linked southern Mesopotamia and the Gulf region.” Later Mesopotamian cuneiform sources “show that bitumen was used in large quantities to coat reed boats in the shipyards of southern Iraq.” Amazingly, “historical and ethnographic sources show that the coating of reed and wooden boats with bitumen was common practice in the marshes of Southern Iraq until recent decades.” The first two images below are artifacts on display at the Kuwait National museum, the rest come from an article on the subject by Robert Carter.

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