Before we were here: The New World

In the Common Era, you could say transportation took a different course.

In the last thousand years or so, early European explorers took to the seas. Taking long-distance ocean voyages between continents meant that vessels used for these early explorations needed to be sturdier than ever before.

But these travelers weren’t the only ones equipped for long-distance sailing. When the explorers arrived in the “New World,” they discovered that the Native American people had their own unique modes of transportation. So what did some of these early sea-going vessels look like?

Early Europeans

The carrack was a type of ship developed in the 14th and 15th century in Europe. It was used for trade into the 17th century. In its final form, the carrack was a carvel-built, ocean-going ship made to endure heavy seas and hold large amounts of cargo and provisions.

Replica of the Spanish carrack Santa MarĂ­a in 1904. Photo from United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division
Replica of the Spanish carrack Santa María in 1904.
Photo from United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Another type of ship on the seven seas in the 15th century was called the caravel. Developed by the Portuguese in order to explore the Atlantic Ocean, the caravels were small, highly maneuverable boats.

Christopher Columbus voyaged from Spain to America in a carrack called the Santa Marina. His other ships were caravels. Did you know that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America? That’s right, the Vikings had been there 500 years earlier, during the 11th century! 

Early Native Americans

When Columbus did come to America, his diary indicated that the native North Americans were experienced long-distance travelers as well; he was astonished that these peoples had already honed the ability to navigate the open sea.

Northwest Coast Qagyuhl people aboard canoe for wedding party. Photo by Edward S. Curtis from Smithsonian Institution Flickr
Northwest Coast Qagyuhl people aboard canoe for wedding party.
Photo by Edward S. Curtis from Smithsonian Institution Flickr

Native American canoes could hold as many as 50 people, plus plenty of room for food and water. The Taino people observed by Columbus typically made dugout canoes, as did the peoples living on the Northwest Coast and Eastern Woodland culture areas.

By the 1500s, native peoples in the Northeast constructed their canoes with light-weight cedar frames covered with birch and elm bark. In the Arctic, where birch trees are not available, the Inuit people covered their canoes with animal hides, thus developing the kayak.

Europeans quickly adopted these modes of transportation for their own endeavors in the New World. In fact, even the English word for “canoe” came from the Taino word kenu meaning “boat carved out of a tree.” Aside from the materials, our modern version of a canoe has gone basically unchanged from what the Native Americans originally designed!

100 years...

In the centuries to follow, all kinds of new inventions would forge their place in civilization.

Soon, transportation would rely on more than sails in the wind, people, or animals. In the centuries leading up to now, innovative thinkers invented transportation that utilized electricity, gasoline, diesel fuel, and even renewable sources like wind and solar power.

Transportation as we know it has been years in the making, but inventions dating back thousands of years are what paved the way for the technology of today. Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but transportation has really only “taken off” in the last 100! What’s next?

References

Related links

(Video) How did early sailors navigate the oceans?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DlNhbkPiYY

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer