Europe’s famous Mesolithic Pesse canoe: the oldest known boat on Earth

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One of the most interesting artifact discoveries was the discovery of the Pesse canoe in 1955. This unique boat is considered the oldest boat in existence and is estimated to be around 10,000 years old. This essential discovery has made it possible to better understand the importance and use of boats in European prehistoric times.

Before the discovery of the Pesse canoe, little was known about the use of boats or similar transport tools in the prehistoric age. So where was this boat found, and how do we know how it was used? How do we even know how old he is, and what does that tell us about humans at that age?

Current canoes on the shores of Lake Malawi, Africa, where the second oldest canoe, the Dufuna canoe, was discovered in 1987, which was around 8,000 years old. (i_pinz/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A strange tree log becomes the fascinating canoe of Pesse

The discovery of the Pesse canoe is fascinating, as it was an artifact that was not found intentionally. Rather than being unearthed by an archaeologist or historian, the ancient boat was discovered by a worker during the 1955 construction of the Dutch A28 motorway in the Netherlands. The worker was moving peat near the village of Pesse when he discovered the canoe with his backhoe.

Thinking the boat was nothing more than a rotting tree log, he ignored it at first. But when he mentioned the “tree log” to a local Pesse farmer, Hendrik Wanders, Wanders decided to go see the log for himself. Noticing that the supposed “tree log” was a bit unusual, he decided to take the find home for further analysis. After observing the carving marks on the log, he took it to the University of Groningen to be inspected by experienced researchers.

The researchers concluded that the unique ‘tree log’ was actually a type of ancient canoe known as a ‘pirogue’, which was regularly used in ancient civilizations. It is currently the oldest known boat in existence.

The Pesse canoe on display at the Drents Museum, 2019. (C messier / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Pesse canoe exhibited at the Museum of Drents, 2019. (C messier / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

To end the controversy, a replica is made

Researchers identified the boat as a dugout due to its narrow bow and flat bottom. The canoe is 117 inches (297 centimeters) long and 17 inches (43 centimeters) wide. Further analysis determined that the canoe was made from the trunk of a Scots pine and was likely carved with flint or horn tools. The researchers used carbon dating to determine that the canoe was likely built between 8040 and 7520 BC. J.-C., at the beginning of the Mesolithic period.

Although an exciting find, Pesse’s canoe has had its share of controversy. Many people wondered if the rare find was really a canoe and not another ancient artifact like a manger or a bath.

Jaap Beuker, an archaeologist and curator at the Drents Museum in Assen, has argued strongly for the authenticity of the Pesse canoe, saying that when the canoe was created, humans hunted and gathered rather than herding cattle. In 2001, Beuker decided to put an end to the controversy by building an exact replica of the Pesse canoe. He then tested his replica on water and proved that it floated well and worked like a canoe.

In addition to its test, comparisons were made with a similar boat found in the village of Dufuna in Nigeria. This boat was found in 1987 and excavated from its site in 1994. Researchers performed carbon dating and determined that the boat was around 8,000 years old, making it the second oldest boat ever discovered. Its shape, size, and carving patterns are all similar to those of the Pesse canoe, which further proves that it is not a manger or other artifact.

A hunter-gatherer on the move in a canoe similar to the 10,000 year old Pesse canoe.  (Hans Splinter / CC BY-ND 2.0)

A hunter-gatherer on the move in a canoe similar to the 10,000 year old Pesse canoe. (Hans Splinter / CC BY-ND 2.0 )

An era of hunting and gathering

The discovery of such an ancient boat further proves that ancient humans during the period of the boat’s creation engaged in hunting and gathering activities, including fishing. Canoes were used to paddle the river where humans fished, hunted birds and picked fruits and vegetables at the water’s edge. The creation of the Pesse Canoe indicates that humans around the 8th century BC were exploring their world for additional resources, rather than just the resources the land could provide.

This canoe also tells us that humans mainly explored shallow or peaceful waters such as lakes, swamps and parts of local rivers. Due to the size and construction of the canoe, it would not be able to handle murky water well and would likely overturn or fill with water easily in the presence of waves.

Low oxygen bogs: perfect for wood preservation

Researchers speculate that Pesse’s canoe was originally preserved due to a lack of oxygen in the bog in which it was found. Without oxygen, the canoe’s wood could not decompose into the surrounding soil. Once the oxygen was reintroduced into the canoe, it was at risk of further damage unless otherwise preserved.

The scientists decided to freeze-dry the canoe to prevent it from further decomposing after analysis. This process carefully removed all traces of water from the wood fibers of the canoe so that it would not continue to rot while on display. After being freeze-dried, the canoe was donated to the Drents Museum in the Netherlands, located near where the canoe was originally found. Today it is on display in the museum for anyone who wants to see the oldest boat in the world first hand.

The Pesse dugout has been a fascinating discovery for researchers interested in human evolution. Its existence further proved that humans were engaged in fishing, hunting and gathering around 10,000 years ago. This can help historians piece together a complete picture of how humanity has evolved over time.

If you ever find yourself in the Netherlands, be sure to check out the Pesse canoe at the museum in Drents. It is certainly a fascinating artifact to see and experience with your own eyes.

Top image: The Pesse canoe, shown here, believed to be the oldest known boat in the world, was made around 10,000 years ago, during the Mesolithic era, from a Scots pine trunk, in the Netherlands region. Source: Drenthe Museum / CC BY 3.0

By Lex Leigh

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