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The Development of Asian Watercraft: From the Prehistoric Era to the Advent of European Colonization

Richard D. Herron
Dissertation: May 1998
Chair: Bass


The development of Asian watercraft began with simple flotation devices: the log float, bundles of vegetation, inflated animal skins and pottery vessels. From these, developed skin boats, basket boats and, most fundamental to the evolution of Asian watercraft, the dugout and the raft. Some form of raft of dugout was used by Australoid and Austronesian peoples to sail to the islands of South and Southeast Asia, possibly as early as 80,000 years ago.

Shell-first construction dominated the development of Asian watercraft. In South and Southeast Asia, planked hull vessels built up from a dugout base were common. Apparently, planks were originally attached using only ligature fastenings. In time, a combination of ligatures and dowels was used, and eventually boatbuilders, especially in Southeast Asia, increasingly relied only on dowels without any ligature fastenings along the planking seams.

The majority of East Asian vessels was also based on the dugout, but in China both the dugout and the raft greatly influenced vessel development, resulting in the sharp-bottomed southern type and the flat-bottomed norther type of watercraft. By at least the first half of the second millennium A.D., in the areas of the South China Sea, a possible hybrid vessel type was being built which combined Chinese and Southeast Asian vessel features.

Restrictions on Chinese shipping during the Mind dynasty resulted in the flat-bottomed, northern type of Chinese craft becoming dominant. Western observers give evidence that by this time the builders of some Chinese watercraft were using a combination of shell- and frame-first construction methods. After the advent of European colonization, some traditional Asian vessel types were changed due to Western influences. Nevertheless, recent research supports the knowledge that the majority of Asian watercraft continued to be built in traditional fashion, many of which still exist in some form today.

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