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Floating a big idea: MIT demos ancient use of rafts to transport goods
Date:3/19/2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Oceangoing sailing rafts plied the waters of the equatorial Pacific long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, and carried tradegoods for thousands of miles all the way from modern-day Chile to western Mexico, according to new findings by MIT researchers in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Details of how the ancient trading system worked more than 1,000 years ago were reconstructed largely through the efforts of former MIT undergraduate student Leslie Dewan, working with Professor of Archeology and Ancient Technology Dorothy Hosler, of the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology (CMRAE). The findings are being reported in the Spring 2008 issue of the Journal of Anthropological Research.

The new work supports earlier evidence documented by Hosler that the two great centers of pre-European civilization in the Americas-the Andes region and Mesoamerica-had been in contact with each other and had longstanding trading relationships. That conclusion was based on an analysis of very similar metalworking technology used in the two regions for items such as silver and copper tiaras, bands, bells and tweezers, as well as evidence of trade in highly prized spondylus-shell beads.

Early Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch accounts of the Andean civilization include descriptions and even drawings of the large oceangoing rafts, but provided little information about their routes or the nature of the goods they carried.

In order to gain a better understanding of the rafts and their possible uses, Dewan and other students in Hosler's class built a small-scale replica of one of the rafts to study its seaworthiness and handling, and they tested it in the Charles River in 2004. Later, Dewan did a detailed computer analysis of the size, weight and cargo capacity of the rafts to arrive at a better understanding of their use for trade along the Pacific coast.

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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert

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