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Lecture: Adventure and Discovery aboard a Pre-Columbian Balsa Raft at Willamette U. In #SalemOR

Experimental pre-Columbian Archaeology off the coast of Ecuador with sunburn, heatstroke, and near-drownings – what’s not to like?


Willamette Law School, Paulus Lecture Hall (Room 201), 245 Winter St SE, Salem, OR 97301

In September 1526, off the coast of what is now modern-day Ecuador, two vessels met on the Pacific Ocean. One was Spanish and most likely a caravel. The other was a balsa raft, carrying “sails and rope as fine as anything in Castile.” The mariners aboard this unusual vessel are today classified as the Manteño-Huancavilca. At their height they numbered roughly sixty thousand, had at least five major chiefdoms on the coast, and had an economy based on sea transportation. In the time before the Spaniards, Manteño balsa rafts carried Inka dignitaries and regular freight alike.

The vessel the Spanish caravel encountered in 1526 was a balsa raft that came from the chiefdom of Salango, and in 1995, the author and his colleagues went to this tiny fishing village, which still has a thriving maritime culture, to begin building their first balsa raft.

Over the next five years, the author and his team sailed balsa rafts for 125 days and lived aboard those vessels for an additional 90 days in various ports and anchorages. Their voyages were punctuated by “madness, mutiny, mud, terror, desperation, failure, disease, death, the surreal, and the sublime.” In that time, and in the years afterward, they have emerged with a unique view of the Manteño raft, its abilities, its limitations, and its impact on pre-Columbian trade in northwestern South America.

Join writer John Haslett for a fascinating look at life aboard a raft at sea. The author will share stories, video, and still images from his voyages, and then summarize the sightings of sailing rafts throughout history, the important features of each of those vessels, and the questions that still remain concerning construction and navigation of pre-Columbian watercraft.


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