Knife's Wonderful Alternate World

Knife's Wonderful Alternate World

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This is a discussion on Knife's Wonderful Alternate World within the The Art Museum forums, part of the Topics of Interest category; ...

  1. #1

    Knife's Wonderful Alternate World

    Today I thought I'd do something different and share snippets of an alternate reality project I've been working on and off on for the last ... oh, I dunno how long. I remember @daleks_exterminate once telling me I'd be a wonderful high-fantasy writer, but alternate realities are much more interesting and fun because they have to interface with our actual reality in complex ways, and the ways they interact offer interesting thought experiments that we can use to test the validity of anthropological and historical hypotheses. To that end, I want to introduce you to what I call the "Rio Grande Problem," an oddity of the pre-Columbian Americas that really just does not make that much sense, and various attempts I have made to consider scenarios in which it is resolved.

    The Rio Grande Problem

    The delta of the Rio Grande, today known as the Rio Grande Valley, is a large fertile floodplain where the Rio Grande reaches the Gulf of Mexico. More to the point, it is just about the only large fertile floodplain within a large, semi-arid region known as the Tamaulipan mezquital, and not far to the north of the Tampico area, home of the Huastecs and the northeasternmost extension of Mesoamerica. By the same token, the Rio Grande delta lies a similar distance south of the Sabine Lake, at the edge of the Caddoan and Plaquemine Mississippian cultures, and hence almost exactly equidistant between Mesoamerica and the Eastern Woodlands. On top of that, the Rio Grande delta, being at the mouth of the Rio Grande, sits at the end of one of the two great rivers that drain Oasisamerica, a region that in the pre-Columbian period was very much part of the Mesoamerican periphery and the ultimate source of several valuable products, such as turquoise.

    The Rio Grande delta is, in short, the axis which would conjoin three of pre-Columbian North America's four most important regions, and as such represented the ultimate prize available on the continent: the wealth that comes from a complete and total realigning of the continent's trade networks to take advantage of it. So who lived there? The Coahuiltecs -- in a region surrounded by urban or proto-urban societies, hunter-gatherers.

    What's even more noticeable is that the Rio Grande delta is, in terms of economic geography, structurally similar to the deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates on one hand, and the Indus on the other, where both sit at the nexus of coastal and riverine trade routes, and both, naturally enough, saw the rise of key early civilizations: Sumer and Harappa. Eridu, the world's first large city, sat quite literally at the mouth of the Euphrates at the time, and it should not surprise anybody that examples of the Indus Valley script have been found at Sumerian sites -- unequivocal evidence of trade between the two regions. Shouldn't we be seeing something similar happening in the Rio Grande delta?

    Scenarios to solve the problem

    (1) The Maya.

    While most of us think of the Maya first and foremost as city-builders -- Chichén Itzá, Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, etc., loom large in the public imagination -- in fact they were also colonizers who first emerged on the Guatemalan highlands, whose first major cities came into being c. 750 BCE, and who, from there, spread north into the Petén Basin (associated with the Classic stage) and, by about 1000 CE, reached the northern Yucatán (associated with the Postclassic stage). By the time of Spanish conquest, the Maya had become able mariners -- although we have poor knowledge of their shipbuilding designs -- and several of their major cities, such as Kaan Pech (modern Campeche) had become oriented to the sea.

    It therefore seems likely that the Maya would have expanded into western Cuba -- otherwise a natural cul-de-sac still home to an aceramic people -- and into the Rio Grande delta in the near archeological future, had the Spanish not shown up. The Maya had run out of Yucatán to colonize, you see, and -- unlike the Isthmian region to the southeast largely populated by the northernmost extension of the Andean Chibchan peoples -- those two regions would have represented the best opportunity for further colonization and settlement, from a Maya perspective.

    That said, this hypothetical relies on Europe never discovering the Americas, and while it's easy to keep Columbus from sailing the ocean blue (the guy was an intellectual nutjob and, frankly, I'm of the opinion that Isabella gave him those ships just to get him sent as far away from court as humanly possible; possibly she was expecting the crews to mutiny and turn back around after a time, if she even cared about them at all), it's all but impossible to keep European knowledge of the North Atlantic from increasing during this time. The Norse are known to have reached the Americas, for example, and English and Basque fishermen were probably already exploiting the Grand Banks before Cabot sailed down the North American coast in 1497. And even if Cabot's voyage was inspired by Columbus', Portuguese exploration of the South Atlantic pursuant to their goal of opening a new trade route to India would lead to the independent discovery of Brazil (as happened in 1500). Sooner or later, colonies would show up -- which leads us to a reformulation of the problem at hand: we don't just want a hypothetical for what could have happened absent European influence; we want a scenario in which a wealthy urban Rio Grande delta civilization was already exerting influence in the Gulf basin by the time the Europeans had begun exploration of the Atlantic. And in that regard, the Maya aren't going to cut it.

    (2) The Huastecs

    We already discussed the Huastecs, centered around the Tampico River, as being the northeasternmost Mesoamerican culture, and thus its region -- La Huasteca -- the northeasternmost extension of Mesoamerica. So what if La Huasteca was just a bit bigger?

    It turns out the Huastecs are, in fact, a Mayan people, speaking a Mayan language, but the Huastecs are actually representative of a separate migration from the Guatamalan highlands than the slow-but-steady northward spread of the Yucatec Maya (who are who we usually think of when we think of the Maya). In fact, while there isn't a consensus around this, the Huastecs probably reached La Huasteca c. 1300 BCE, which is conveniently around the same time as the Olmec highstand just to the south in the Veracruz swamps. And, as we have already established, the Tampico River's mouth is not that far from the Rio Grande's. So what if the Huastec migration stretched just a little bit further up the Gulf coast, reaching the Rio Grande?

    This scenario has a lot going for it: A Huastec urban civilization in the Rio Grande delta contemporary with Tres Zapotes, San Lorenzo, and La Venta to the south would likely kickstart urbanization in the Rio Grande's upper reaches, as well as along the American Gulf Coast (e.g. Galveston Bay, Sabine Lake, the Mississippi delta, Mobile Bay, etc.) It would see urban development in North America more closely mirror that of the Mediterranean in the Iron Age, classical antiquity, and Middle Ages. There's just one problem: maize.

    See, Zea mays is a tropical plant. Its wild ancestors, the teosinte family, are highland grasses whose northernmost range roughly corresponds with the Tropic of Cancer (exhibits A, B, and C) It's possible -- just possible -- that the maize the Huastecs had would grow in the Rio Grande delta, but the delta is north of the Tropic of Cancer and at the edge of where early maize varietals received adequate conditions to come to maturity. So even if the Huastecs had built an urban civilization in the Rio Grande delta, the maize they had would not have been able to spread any further northward -- in fact, the maize currently grown in the United States comes from landraces that were developed in Oasisamerica!

    (At which point one should be asking, Well then, knife, why wouldn't Oasisamerican maize varieties get transshipped through the Rio Grande delta and reach the Eastern Woodlands a thousand years earlier than they did, along with an urban civilization package to go with it? To which I say: fair point. But there's some other stuff I'm considering that leads me to ask after a third possible scenario to resolve the Rio Grande problem.)

    (3) The Oasisamericans

    Because maize agriculture was necessary to produce the complex civilization of the Mississippians (as opposed to the Hopewell and Adena peoples, the latter of whom had no access to maize and the former of whom seemed to have rejected it), and one of the major problems we want to solve here is how to accelerate the spread of maize into the Eastern Woodlands, we will be disregarding influences from the northeast in favor of those from Oasisamerica.

    The problem here, though, is that Oasisamerica was seriously underdeveloped at contact. Maize was domesticated in the Tehuacán Valley ca. 9000 BCE, but did not spread into the Conchos Valley and the San Juan Basin -- the heart of Oasisamerica -- until ca. 3000 BCE, a time difference of some 6000 years!

    Oasisamerica is structurally similar to the Fertile Crescent, with highland regions (e.g. where settlements like Çatalhöyük were found) being settled first, and only later, as the highlands ran out of room did farmers spread into the river valleys. (I am also implying here that the region's pueblos and Çatalhöyük are exact analogues, by the by.) From the time when wheat was first domesticated in the Anatolian and Levantine highlands sometime before 8000 BCE to the rise of Sumer and the world's first large cities ca. 3000 BCE, some >5000 years had passed. Interestingly enough, approximately the same amount of time had elapsed from when temperate maize varietals first spread in Oasisamerica to the pueblo cultures we find at contact in the region. What I am suggesting here is that the pueblo societies we find in Oasisamerica are exact analogues to immediately pre-Sumerian Fertile Crescent cultures, such as the Ubaid and Samarra, and that continued development without European intervention would have led to the rise of urban cultures in the Colorado and Rio Grande deltas in about a millennium (the latter, interestingly enough, conflicting with the Maya likely starting the colonize the same place about the same time).

    What this means is that the 6000-year-long lag time between the domestication of maize and the development of its temperate landraces mattered. A lot. Does this vindicate Jared Diamond's hypothesis in Guns, Germs, and Steel? Well ... yes and no. The issue, I think, is less that maize took so long to develop (which does vindicate his hypothesis) and more that there were no native cereal grasses amenable to domestication in the Oasisamerican highlands, which, if we remember our map of teosinte's wild range, is very much a quirk of ecology: the northernmost varieties of Zea mexicana, common teosinte, can be found in southern Chihuahua: north of the Tropic of Cancer and at the very southern edge of the Conchos River valley. A single minor mutation, and we would have seen teosinte spreading all the way up the North American cordillera. And if the Oasisamericans had had access to that at the same time the Mesoamericans had access to teosinte in the Tehuacán Valley ... North America would have developed significantly faster than it did in our world.
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  2. #2

    Considering Wild Rice

    Wild rice is a delicacy in the United States today, a nutty, protein-rich grain whose parent species, Zizania palustris, is native to the Great Lakes, the boreal forest immediately adjoining, and the Allegheny highlands (see this map). At contact, Z. palustris is known to have had an extensive proto-agriculture built around it, and the resultant "Indian-ness" of this food is part of its appeal to American audiences. It is, however, not the only Zizania species (as the range map above demonstrates), nor even the only Zizania species native to the Americas. Today I want to engage in a discussion about the challenges and opportunities available with wild rice.

    The Zizania genus

    There are four plants in the Zizania genus: (1) Z. palustris or "northern wild rice", the wild rice that is most commonly eaten; (2) Z. aquatica or "eastern wild rice", which is native to the American coastal plains and occurs deep into Appalachia as well; (3) Z. texana or "Texas wild rice", a highly variant species nowadays limited to a few small pools around the head of the San Marcos River roughly halfway between Austin and San Antonio; and (4) Z. latifolia or "Manchurian wild rice", which was historically native to the Amur River valley in northeastern China and far southeast Russia but is now a weed in New Zealand and cultivated as a vegetable in East Asia (which is, incidentally, illegal to import into the United States).

    As far as I'm aware, all four Zizania species produce edible grains, three of which are known to have been consumed (to wit, Zs. palustris, aquatica, and latifolia). The cultivation of Manchurian wild rice in Northeastern China as a grain, however, greatly declined due to the development of increasingly cold-climate-tolerant varietals of the culturally favored plant Oryza sativa (i.e. sticky rice), and relatively little information about the cultivation and consumption habits of Z. aquatica, relative to Z. palustris, survived contact. (The fourth species was probably consumed by local native tribes.)


    All Zizania species farmed either today or historically are known to be amenable to paddy agriculture. Indeed, when Manchurian wild rice was used as a staple grain, it would have been grown using the same paddy methods employed in the production of sticky rice (or any Eurasian rice, for that matter; a West African rice was independently domesticated and grown using somewhat different cultivation techniques). Modern cultivation of Z. palustris, also in paddies, began in the 1950s in central Minnesota and from there has spread to other parts of the US and Canada, including Saskatchewan and California, and other countries as well, Hungary being a cited example.

    Paddy technology was, however, unknown in pre-Columbian North America, where Zizania production involved cultivation of naturally-occurring stands in standing or slow-flowing water. Based on this, we can infer that the activities of the American beaver had an outsize role on regional Zizania availability, as typical beaver activities (i.e. building dams) create habitat for wild rice. Thus, while engineered paddies (one does wonder where the idea of a "rice paddy" comes from here) were unknown in North America, its large beaver population created paddy-like wild rice stands spread widely across the continent. For a widely scattered society ranging from non-urban in the north to proto-urban in the south and proto-agricultural in the north to fully agricultural in the Mesoamerican (i.e. Three Sisters, that jazz) mode in the south, this was sufficient. And in any event, maize had supplanted and perhaps replaced Z. aquatica as a food crop in most of its range by the Mississippian period, anyway.


    Wild rice is no maize, wheat, sticky rice, or even sorghum in the nutrition department, but comparison between it and other cereal and staple crops (wild rice table here) reveal that it is approximately as nutritious as a variety of other common staples, such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and cassava (see above), although it has far less caloric energy than most other cereals or pseudocereals, comparable mainly with teff.

    For this reason it is doubtful whether the Zizania genus could sustain a civilization by itself, but it should certainly find wide use as a secondary crop in a civilization (for example, potatoes and quinoa together are the principal staple crops of Andean civilization, as maize in South America was historically a brewed crop, analogous to barley's primary use in Europe; or Manchurian wild rice was, together with Tartary buckwheat, a staple of the Jurchen and Manchu peoples). This importance increases around the northern limits of e.g. wheat, maize, or rice production, where having plants willing to grow in the increasingly severe climate at all often entails the difference between whether a society can become complex or not.

    Application of this theory

    After its limited nutritive capacity, the greatest limiter to Zizania production in North America was the lack of a paddy technology. Wild rice production was "sticky", limited to riverine and lacustrine environments, and the only real way to make more such habitat relied on the activities of beavers. A functioning paddy technology would have become necessary in time, as the proto-urban Mississippian civilization developed into a more fully urban one, yielding increased demands on Great Lakes trade goods (especially copper). The question thus obtains: where would such a technology come from?

    My argument -- the premise I develop my alternate timeline with -- is that it would come from domestication of Z. texana -- whose challenges in the wild should benefit from domestication, especially with the creation of paddies mimicking the conditions the plant naturally grows in. This would occur when the Texas littoral was part of the Rio Grande agricultural periphery, perhaps 5000 or so years before present (based on the model of an independent Oasisamerican domestication of a Zea (teosinte) species).

    The idea here is that Texas wild rice would be (relatively) easy to domesticate, if not really worth the effort in its own right, and excels in environments (i.e. aquatic ones) poorly suited to maize, and the creation of paddies comes about from watching the behavior of beavers (whose wild range extends to the Rio Grande delta). It thus spreads along the Texas littoral and into the Rio Grande valley as a secondary crop within the maize agriculture during the region's proto-urban formative period.

    As it spreads north, production techniques associated with Texas wild rice are adapted by locals to eastern wild rice in the southwesternmost part of its range. Eastern wild rice is a superior food crop to Texas wild rice, and thus as the first cities emerge along the region spreading from Galveston Bay to the Florida panhandle, it replaces Texas wild rice production in the more established urban regions to the south (although the littoral nature of Z. aquatica perhaps limits its interior penetration, meaning that Z. texana would remain favored in e.g. the Conchos valley). Eastern wild rice thus becomes a secondary food crop in the Rio Grande agricultural package, and as such, spreads into the Mississippi Valley and along the Eastern Seaboard.

    By the later first millennium BCE, wild rice production techniques are adapted to Z. palustris and spread throughout the Great Lakes and into the boreal forest. Wild rice agriculture far outstrips any other kind of agriculture in this region, and it would be with the development of new cold-tolerant maize varietals that urban civilization spreads beyond the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence valley into the boreal interior in the first millennium CE. By about 1000 CE, muskeg was getting converted into paddies and townsites started occurring along the southern Hudson Bay and James Bay; in addition, northern wild rice production had spread far up the Nelson River watershed and into the uppermost reaches of the Mackenzie's (although crops attempted north of Lake Athabasca continued to fail).
    Last edited by knife; 04-09-2019 at 06:25 PM. Reason: fixed typo

  3. #3

    Keep it up, it's well done. I am excited to see what you will do with the civilizations that emerge out of this and their cultures and the geopolitical map and various conflicts that would emerge.

    I wish this field was more well respected, IMO every historical narrative suggestive of causality should be rooted in a reasonable counterfactual playing out the lack of the cause to show the same results might not have happen anyway (In this case, the cause being the lack of an easy to domesticate carb).

    My only advice - the one thing I didn't like towards the ending of TYORAS for comparison - is how he kind of ended up making 'super geniuses' folding multiple people from our timeline into singular characters of his timeline. If you've read it you probably know who I am thinking about - the one who was Socrates and Newton and Lavoisier and Edison all in one. It felt way too rushed, and could have easily being done better if spread over multiple characters (or even into really good stories if they would have known of each other and have relationships). It doesn't have to be a 1to1 obviously, but take your time if you reach that point.
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  5. #4

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  6. #5

    I bet @Dare would be interested in this project as well.

    Naval Technology in the Americas

    It is a commonplace no potentially domesticable livestock species survived the Pleistocene in North America. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond engages in an extended discussion of the challenges associated with the domestication of Bison bison and Odocoileus virginianus (conveniently ignoring the Chonnonton's partial domestication of the latter), and apart from forcing American peoples to be more reliant on plant sources of protein (e.g. quinoa, amaranth, wild rice, beans, etc.), by our thinking, it greatly limited their transportation capacity (because no horses, no oxen = limited transportation).

    This is, naturally, at best a half-truth.

    In reality, most of the interior of the North American continent east of the Rockies is defined by five major watersheds: those of the Mississippi, Saint Lawrence, Nelson, Mackenzie, and Rio Grande rivers. This makes the development of riverine transportation routes throughout North America relatively easy and extensive trade routes can be discerned from the archaeological record from as early as Adena times. Indeed, the Eastern Woodlanders created what was probably one of the most robust pieces of naval technology ever developed in pursuit of these trade networks: the birch-bark canoe.

    The Birch-Bark Canoe

    Anybody who's ever gone boating in North America knows that our modern canoes are an application of modern materials on a Native American design. This design, known as the birch-bark canoe because their hulls were skinned, for preference, with birch bark, was a sturdy and lightweight design with a skin stretched taut over wooden ribs. Far lighter than dugout canoes, the birch-bark canoe could be loaded with trade goods yet also had the advantage of being portable for up- and downstream portages. The size of these canoes made them easily operable by one- or two-man crews, yet the largest and heaviest craft, such as the rabaskas of the Canadian voyageurs, could be up to 33 feet long by 5 feet wide and operable by ten men.

    One can well point out there are certain similarities between birch-bark canoe technology and that of the Norse longships (also known to be portaged) -- suggestive of convergent evolution due to the similar environments both operated in. That said, canoes certainly did have their limitations -- limitations that were relatively unimportant in the pre- and proto-urban societies we encountered at contact, but which became more important as the American interior urbanized.

    Limitations of Birch-Bark Canoes

    It turns out the biggest technical advantage this design of craft has is also its biggest limitation. Recall that the riverine pathways such craft used are blocked by natural barriers (e.g. rapids and waterfalls) from time to time; a design light enough to be carried around these barriers and refloated up- or downstream is thus necessary for trade in the continent. Yet at the same time, this also introduces a hard limit for canoes' carrying capacity, i.e. the net carrying capacity of whoever was using them. As a society grows more urban, the demand for trade will soon exceed the carrying capacity of these vessels, especially along waterways linking several urban centers with relatively easy passages -- in particular here, the Mississippi mainstem north to the Chain of Rocks near St. Louis, MO; the Ohio up to its Falls by Louisville, KY; the rest of the Ohio on their other side; extensive stretches of the middle Mississippi, lower Missouri, and Illinois rivers; and Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Erie as well as connecting waterways. The lower Mississippi here is particularly important because craft can sail from the Gulf of Mexico clean up to the Chain of Rocks and Falls of the Ohio. Along these stretches an increasingly urban society would demand heavier craft, able to carry larger loads, that would not necessarily be easily portaged.

    Development of Heavier Riverboats

    Ultimately, the construction method of the birch-bark canoe would remain the technological base of such heavier craft, but the construction would be made more sturdy with the use of wooden hulls, innovations that would have been not unlike the Baltic clinker boat-building tradition. Overlapping planking to create the hull yields a vessel that is (surprisingly) more lightweight and hydrodynamically efficient than the traditional Mediterranean hull designs, and would retain many other key innovations of birch-bark canoe technology, such as the use of rocker to determine whether speed or cargo capacity was of paramount importance in a given vessel. (If one is paying attention here, one should also be noticing that the Viking longship can thus be thought of as an evolution of a low-rocker canoe, while its more cargo-oriented craft, such as the knorrs, were developments on high-rocker designs.)

    Sails have been independently invented in multiple parts of the world, including on the Pontic steppe and in Mesopotamia, as well as (presumably) at least two distinct inventions associated with East Asia: the Austronesians -- as the Polynesians had sailing technology that was unlikely to have diffused that far from a Mesopotamian place of origin -- and the Chinese batten sail, so characteristic of the junk and technologically distinctive from the sail types favored in the Indian Ocean basin. (They may even have been independently invented on the Andean coast!) Because of this, we will assume an independent invention of sail technology associated with our riverine navigation tradition, one where the Mississippi variant and its daughters favored bark sails, while the Texas littoral variant and its daughters favored cotton sails. In both cases, though, there was a strong convergent evolution towards Chinese batten sails, due to their ease of operation and maintenance; differentiation into specialized sails was, however, a feature of the development of deepwater ships.

    That said, while this type of craft would be lightweight enough to handle a variety of riverine and coastal environments, and even heavy enough to attempt a deep-sea (or deep-lake!) transit, there were hard limits to the size of such ships. Because they were still basically bark canoes with wooden hulls, such vessels can twist in the waves, but as the ships became larger, the amount of twist would as well. In addition, the use of overlapping timber to waterproof a hull meant that the hull was limited by the size of timber that could be overlapped. Eventually, these issues would need resolution as the development of deepwater trade in the Gulf demanded larger and heavier ships still.

    Portage cities

    The necessity and ubiquity of portages in the North American interior gave rise to a unique urban type: the portage city. These cities were economically founded around the inherent bottlenecks portages created, and in their most common variant had two major centers: one upstream and one downstream. The principal node of such cities was usually on the downstream side, particularly on fall line portages, due to the downstream side often being associated with greater trade volume.

    Eventually, some of the busiest portage cities (such as the one by the Falls of the Ohio) would develop a corduroy inclined plane and timber rollers for riverine vessels to be dragged wholesale across the portage, a solution that would become standard in such locales until the beginnings of lock technology when bulk cargoes greater than what rabaskas can handle started to be floated downstream. (This was, however, a long ways away in the future.)

    Deepwater ships

    It should be noted here that the geography of the Gulf inhibits the development of deepwater trade to a certain extent. The trade system that would have emerged in the mature phase of Rio Grande delta civilization would extend north to the Mississippi and south to the Veracruz swamps, where the Olmec cities lay (as well as inland up the Rio Grande). This trade system is a large crescent and there is minimal benefit of a direct transit between the Mississippi delta and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (which the Veracruz swamps form the north side of) relative to a coastal route that also happens to call at the Rio Grande delta. It would not be until substantially later, when the northeastern part of the Gulf trade network spread at least as far as Tampa Bay and the southern part around the Yucatán Peninsula, that viable deepwater "shortcuts" would drive the design of craft dedicated to using them. By this time, the riverine shipbuilding tradition, associated with the Texas littoral and lower Mississippi, would have matured, and shipwrights working on the problem would have mainly had recourse to this tradition for solutions.

    There were three major problems to overcome in the development of very large deepwater vessels: greater initial stability, so that the cargo wouldn't get thrown overboard due to flexing in rough seas, the ability to fit more masts for more propulsion on sail-reliant craft, and a more robust hull design. The first two problems are related to each other, as greater initial stability is also necessary for mounting more masts, and was solved by extending the keel up as a longitudinal bulkhead -- limiting the torsion affecting the ship -- and adding transverse bulkheads that intersected the longitudinal one at the mainmasts. The net result was a ship featuring multiple (at least 4) watertight compartments, not unlike those characteristic of junk construction, though achieved in the opposite direction: the keel was laid down first; then the ribs and masts; then the bulkheads were fitted along the keel and ribs and against the masts; and finally the hull was built up.

    There were two solutions to the hull problem. The first solution was to segment the hull so that one only needed to fit it in parts against the bulkheads -- this solution, however, ran into the problem that such segmented hulls had poor hydrodynamics amidships and greatly slowed the resultant vessels down. Ultimately, more complex planking solutions would be used -- possibly even adopting the smooth hulls common to very large ship designs around the world -- that would wrap the entire frame in a two hull envelopes (one on either side of the keel).

    These designs also facilitated the development of large foward and aft superstructures (traditionally "forecastles" and "aftercastles" in European parlance), further enabled by the frame compartments being used for storage rather than living space. (That is, crew quarters would be in the superstructures.) Ultimately, by about the same time their cousins in Europe and Asia had developed their large ships, our Native Americans would have a large ship technology -- ultimately grounded in the canoe tradition -- as well.

    Okay, what about warships?

    Recall canoe rocker here, and that high-rocker canoes are ideal for cargo but low-rocker ones better for speed -- hence, in the riverine tradition, warships would be built on low-rocker designs. Since (unlike mercantile ships) warships demand constant speed, and the only way to deliver this constant speed is with more oars, riverine warships ultimately developed into galley canoes (which basically looked like a cross between a longship and a bireme). By the time the deepwater designs described above were coming into use, larger galley canoe designs still were being developed, including triremes and more-remes, as well as catamaran designs that added oars in secondary hulls mounted port and starboard of the parent ship, à la Austronesian designs like the kora kora; these latter designs were favored by the Taíno (which we will get to shortly).

    Variant traditions

    Not long after the trade networks reached the Florida Gulf Coast, riverine ships were floated on its Atlantic coast. From there, a seaboard variant of the riverine tradition slowly spread up the Eastern Seaboard (duh), until it reached the Gulf of Saint Lawrence about the same time that the Norse were active in the Labrador Sea.

    A key distinction between the seaboard tradition and other riverine traditions was its greater reliance on outriggers: Riverine technology was originally optimized for relatively constrained environments and so favored single-hull designs, but the seaboard variant saw the outrigger as a sort of "secondary hull" that could be beached in upstream missions, an innovation echoed in the Manitoba lakes and Hudson Bay variants of the shipping tradition. While the seaboard tradition itself would become outmoded once the Florida Straits were rounded about 500 years after its first creation (and hence Gulf riverine and deepwater vessels were to be found along the Eastern Seaboard), it would retain a niche usage among certain peoples within the region.

    The other major variant was the Lakes tradition, which tended to build far larger, deeper-draft ships than those found the Mississippi tradition -- ships, in other words, that were limited to whichever body of water they were floated on (i.e. either the Michigan-Huron-Erie group, Superior, Ontario, or -- later -- the Gulf of Saint Lawrence). The Lakes tradition began to diverge from the Mississippi riverine tradition about the same time as multiple major cities developed on the Great Lakes, c. 1 CE, and would reach the Gulf of Saint Lawrence about the same time that the seaboard ships did on the other side, about 1000 CE. Vinlander Norsemen may have even participated in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence trade network's formative phases!

    Spread of Deepwater Trade

    With the maturation of deepwater naval technology c. 1 CE, the interior Gulf, beyond the continental coast, was opened for trade and exploration. Soon enough, deepwater ships were passing through the Florida Straits and the channel between the Yucatán and Cuba; it was during this time that the Taíno peoples of the Greater Antilles encountered and eventually adapted this sailing technology. (It should be pointed out here that it is more probable the Taíno's ancestors were still in the Lesser Antilles during this time, where the Island Caribs were encountered at contact, but that's much less fun.)

    Eventually, the Greater Antilles would be unified into a single Taíno empire -- and during the next fifteen hundred years or so, the Taíno would come to dominate trade throughout the Gulf and Caribbean Sea, along the Atlantic Seaboard, and into South America's rivers (particularly, the Orinoco and Amazon). Most of the trade routes associated with the Taíno expansion were developed prior to 1000 CE; by that time, Marajoara shipwrights, as well was Tupí ones on the coast to the south, were reverse-engineering northern craft and using them to reach as far as the Río de la Plata and into the Paraná River valley, as well as points further south; about 1500 CE Tupian sailors had passed through the Magellan Straits. (Incidentally, the Marajoara culture is the best-known pre-Columbian Amazonian culture.) As the Paraná trade route intensified, it became home to its own major Tupí state, one which came increasingly into conflict with the Guaraní and later the Mapuche as their hegemony expanded across the South American cone.
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  7. #6

    Looking Westward

    So far we've been concentrating on eastern part of the North American continent, using urban civilization in the Rio Grande delta as a springboard for rapid innovation in the Eastern Woodlands. We've discussed how there are two interesting options for such a civilization to exist: the Huastecs migrating further north than is attested in the archaeological record, on one hand, or a grass native to the Oasisamerican highlands, on the other.

    Oasisamerica, however, is not just defined by one river, but rather by two. The Rio Grande and its watershed forms Oasisamerica's eastern half (and Oasisamerica was far larger than we realize: the Chihuahuan town of Ojinaga is built on a pueblo townsite at the confluence of the Rio Grande and its main tributary, the Conchos, well southeast of the bulk of pueblos), but its western half is defined by the Colorado. Indeed, the Colorado would have been structurally more important to Oasisamerica than the Rio Grande: where the latter picked up most of its meltwater from the southern edge of the Rockies and the Sierra Madre Occidental (via the Conchos, hydrologically the Rio Grande system's headstream), the Colorado drains most of the Rocky Mountains' interior between the Front and Wasatch ranges.It should therefore not be so surprising that the most advanced irrigation observed in Oasisamerica, that of the Hohokam, lies in a tributary basin of the Colorado. It is also interesting to point out that the Hohokam -- the most intensively agricultural and sedentary people of pre-contact Oasisamerica -- lived next to the Patayan, who (like the Frémont culture of Utah) continued to be hunter-gatherers first and foremost, using agriculture as a supplement.

    Anthropologically, this is an important lesson: societies will become intensively agrarian only once their population exceeds a certain threshold, that is, once there are too many people living in a given area for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to be viable. The Gila River valley has a much lower carrying capacity than the Lower Colorado; hence, the need for a more agricultural society, which uses resources more efficiently, was more pressing there than in the mainstem. (Note here that this says nothing about agricultural societies displacing hunter-gatherer ones as they expand out of their cores into new hinterlands.)

    Beyond the Colorado River and the vast Colorado and Mojave deserts and Great Basin lie, of course, California's Central Valley and the Los Angeles Basin, the former being one of the most productive agricultural environments on earth. In a way, the pre-contact Central Valley was a victim of the impassibility of these deserts relative to Oasisamerica, as well as the middle Colorado's very many famous canyons, which limited traversal opportunities from the Oasisamerican heartland to the country beyond. Nevertheless, we find evidence of very early irrigation practiced by the Mono people in the upper Owens River valley, an endorheic valley in eastern California. (The Mono are a Northern Paiute people.) This suggests that, given time, agriculture would most certainly have spread into the Central Valley from Oasisamerica; in the anthropological record, not enough time was given.

    Geological Oddities

    Before we go further, however, we have to point out that the Colorado's delta -- no, not the modern relict one left over after some 99% of the river's water has been diverted elsewhere, but rather the geological one represented by its much larger alluvial fan (which can be seen from space) -- is interesting in that it's sprawled across a massive rift valley, a continuation of the East Pacific Rise where the Pacific Ocean is pulling a piece of North America off of the continental mainland. This rift valley is, in fact, below sea level, and most of it is, naturally, flooded; however, the Colorado's alluvial fan is so massive that it has spread all the way across the rift, damming the northernmost part off, and in so doing, creating an endorheic basin.

    But, because this endorheic basin is created by the damming action of Colorado's geological delta (i.e. its alluvial fan), and deltaic hydrologic systems are inherently unstable, the Colorado itself occasionally flows into the Salton Sink rather than the Gulf of California. When this happens, it reforms Lake Cahuilla, which in turn will eventually overflow along its own channel through the fan and into the Gulf of California; Lake Cahuilla only persists, however, for as long as the Colorado's mainstem flows into the Salton Sink and not the Gulf of California.

    One can thus argue that the Colorado delta is too unstable for civilization to spawn there, a mischaracterization that the Yellow River (whose historical mouth randomly wanders across a region spreading across some ten degrees of latitude) laughs at. Instead -- given that Lake Cahuilla only needs about half of the Colorado's water budget to sustain itself -- what I find more likely is that more intensive irrigation would stabilize the Colorado's delta to such a degree that it would bifurcate into two primary channels (one feeding the Gulf of California; the other, Lake Cahuilla), along with a raft of secondary distributaries in between.

    There is a second geological oddity in this region: the Central Valley. Like the North China Plain, the Central Valley is alluvial; the valley floor represents a filled-in inland sea, a deposition basin created both by a high sediment load coming off the Sierra Nevada and an exceedingly narrow outlet from the Central Valley to the Pacific (hence the sediment in the Central Valley sea stayed there until the place stopped being a sea).

    Indeed, the degree to which the Carquinez Strait limits outflow from the Central Valley makes it something of a natural dam, yielding an inverted delta -- the world's largest -- as the waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers pile up behind it, trying to get out faster than the strait itself will allow. (A third part of the Central Valley, the Tulare basin, is only intermittently connected to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and otherwise endorheic).

    Thus, the region to the west of Oasisamerica is stuffed with fascinating -- and fertile -- geological oddities, oddities which would have most certainly spawned civilization given time and the proper domesticables. This is what I was hinting after when I said I wanted an independent teosinte domestication to occur in Oasisamerica -- the Huastec option for the Rio Grande doesn't give me the stuff I need, so to speak, to fill in this fascinating part of the world. Next time, we'll look at how agriculture and eventually urban civilization would have eventually spread within this region from an Oasisamerican starting point.
    Tropes thanked this post.

  8. #7

    Last time, we discussed various geological oddities associated with California: the Colorado delta, Salton Trough, Central Valley, and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This time, let us consider how urban civilization could emerge in such environments.

    Deltas as Cradles of Civilization

    Some of the oldest civilizations arose in deltaic environments. Sumer, for example, arose in the combined delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; Lower Egypt specifically arose in the delta of the Nile; the Indus Valley civilization extended through its eponymous river's delta; the Yangtze Delta cultures associated with rice domestication; the development of the Shang Dynasty on the North China Plain (perhaps the world's largest alluvial plain, or infilled delta; the rise of the Olmecs in the Veracruz bottomland, etc.

    Deltaic environments provide plenty of water resources for the development and intensification of agriculture and are usually (not always) associated with coastal environments as well, creating natural T's between trade upriver and trade along the coast. It should, therefore, not be so surprising that some of the world's first major civilizations arose in deltaic environments.

    As we have already overviewed, California has not one, but two such natural hotspots of civilization: the Colorado delta, whose alluvial plain extends across the Gulf of California rift, separating it from the Salton Trough, and upriver towards the confluence with the Gila River; and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a massive inverted delta lying almost dead in the center of the Central Valley and connected with the San Francisco Bay (which also happens to be more or less halfway between the Pacific Northwest and LA Basin). It is not for lack of geographical opportunity that complex civilization never arose in California; rather, it's because maize never reached it.

    Thus, in our exercise, by suggesting that a teosinte spread across the temperate Rockies and was domesticated in the San Juan basin c. 1100 years ago, we give extra time for maize to cross the hostile deserts separating California from the Oasisamerican highlands. It is also important to note that deltas are naturally fertile, which means that people living in deltas are relatively slow to adopt agriculture (the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile deltas are both far from the region where wheat was initially domesticated, for example), because one of the primary benefits of agricultural lifestyles is more efficient use of the land, increasing its carrying capacity. As deltas naturally have a high carrying capacity, then, agriculture will initially supplement hunter-gatherer lifestyles, well after river valleys with lower carrying capacity have become agricultural, but once the delta's population exceeds its carrying capacity, the efficiency agriculture brings, coupled with the environment's natural fertility engenders -- cities.

    It is no accident that many of the world's first cities, Eridu, Ur, Uruk, the cities of the Nile Delta, the cities of the Yangtze Delta, and Tres Zapotes, San Lorenzo, and La Venta, all arose in large river deltas or coastal bottomlands.

    The Colorado Delta

    From a geographical perspective, there is a certain persuasive similarity between the Gulf of California and the Persian Gulf. While these basins were created through wildly variant geological processes -- the Gulf of California is a flooded rift valley while the Persian Gulf is a foreland basin associated with the Zagros Mountains' orogeny, both are large, fairly enclosed waters with a major river delta on one end and a connection to another society (the Indus River delta lying not far beyond the Persian Gulf in the one case; the early shaft tomb society of western Mesoamerica in the other). It is not a fluke that Eridu is the world's oldest large city: the Persian Gulf is better at providing the kind of environment for early trade to flourish than the eastern Mediterranean, say, or Arabian Sea, or Chinese coastline. Here I am arguing that the Gulf of California would serve a similar function.

    There is a potential spanner in the works here, though, and that is the Colorado's variable outlet. The periodic formation and drying up of Lake Cahuilla would divert the Colorado's fresh water away from the Gulf of California from time to time, which in turn favors more mobile societies over more sedentary ones. But it is also worth pointing out here that the Hohokam developed a large irrigation network in the Gila River basin and that, as this network gradually encroached further and further into the Colorado delta, it would have likely had (strangely enough) a stabilizing effect. This stabilization is not unlike the Yellow River's channelization for flood control, preventing what is essentially a large distributary from wandering at will across the North China Plain and whose resource requirement likely spurred the development of central government in China. Over time, as the Colorado's delta became more agricultural, it would be dominated by channels that would stabilize for fairly long periods of time (typically in the 500-year range) but still readily change due to flooding or silting. The formation and stabilization of Lake Cahuilla would become a matter of increasing interest as well as farmland encroached on and ultimately surrounded its shores.

    Thus we can see that the Colorado delta creates conditions that lead not only to early urbanization -- for much the same reasons the Tigris-Euphrates delta supported Sumer's early urbanization -- but that, perhaps moreso than most other deltas, the Colorado's also created conditions that lead to early centralization à la the early centralizations of Egypt and China, especially in contrast with the Veracruz bottomlands (which do not seem to have ever centralized to the degree that Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China did). In our world, we suggest that the first large cities arose in the Colorado Delta c. 3000 BCE, of a piece with the rise of Sumer, and that the delta would centralize by c. 2000 BCE, of a piece of Sargon of Akkad's conquest of Sumer (which would lay the groundwork for the later Babylonian and Assyrian empires).

    The first major central states would likely develop around Lake Cahuilla in the west and the middle Gila in the east, in both cases because of the necessity of significant organization to maintain irrigation and flood control structures; by about 1500 BCE (probably earlier), the more densely populated Cahuillan empire would conquer (permanently?) the Gila empire, establishing a lasting state on the same lines as Egypt, Assyria, or China. Once this conquest takes place, the imperial capital moves to a convenient central command-and-control node: a narrows of the Colorado between the delta's apex and the Gila River confluence. From here, river transportation spreads across the Colorado Delta and Lower Colorado and Gila River valleys, and movements can be coordinated across a region similar in size to Mesopotamia. (It is also worth noting here that Egypt and the Akkadian Empire and its successors were probably much more dependent on riverine communications than our chariot-first picture gives credit for.)

    Depending on the period and local relative strategic importance, this empire would also spread south along the Sonoran plains; west into the LA Basin; north into the San Juan Basin -- its expansion limited only by the Colorado River's canyon system -- and on occasion east into the Rio Grande Rift. From its command-and-control node, it would have interests both in the Gulf of California and along the Pacific coast, and would only be checked by states of similar size and complexity, such as the one that would emerge in the Central Valley.

    The Central Valley

    If the Colorado delta is more like Sumer, then the Central Valley can be thought of as being more like Egypt. Although it is geographically proximate, it is still worlds away in terms of trade connections -- far enough, in fact, that its development would be more-or-less independent of the Colorado delta for quite a while.

    That said, agricultural civilization would likely spread into the Central Valley via the Colorado Delta, especially either during a Lake Cahuilla highstand or after its stabilization during the Colorado delta's protourban period. Agricultural civilization during this time would be centered mainly around Tulare Lake, moving northward through the San Joaquin and later Sacramento basins somewhat slowly, in large part because the agronomists would likely be displacing the pre-existing hunter-gatherers wholesale in this scenario. OTL, agriculture had only hesitantly begun to spread into the Colorado delta some 4000 years after its introduction to Oasisamerica; from this we can augur that it would take 4000 years for it to spread into the delta and perhaps another thousand to cross it -- thus agricultural society would spread into the Central Valley about 4000 BCE, and it would likely be about 3000 BCE (when the first Colorado Delta cities emerged) that agricultural society would really spread into the labyrinthine Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

    Complex boatbuilding techniques are known from societies both north and south of the San Francisco Bay: the Chumash and Tongva built tomols, while Pacific Northwesterners built some of the largest and heaviest dugout canoes to ever exist. Within the confines of the Central Valley, the easy availability of tule reeds made reed boats preferable (which is borne out in the anthropological record, where e.g. Ohlone and Miwok peoples built tule reed boats); seagoing peoples along the Pacific coast could travel a very long ways -- Aleutians from Alaska are known to have visited California's Channel Islands, for example. Based on these factors, it seems reasonable that an agrarian Central Valley would spawn urban civilization in the San Francisco Bay perhaps by 2000 BCE; in this scenario, the earliest urban centers would be trade-focused city-states on various headlands within the complex bay system.

    The Central Valley is known to regularly flood, and as agriculture became increasingly intensive, flood control became important. Thus, the development of complex society in the Central Valley is of a piece with that of the North China Plain. This would have also been aggravated by border disputes with the Colorado Delta empire; perhaps the concept of empire spread out of the Colorado Delta and into the Central Valley in this way, à la how the concept of empire spread from Persia to India. In any case, by about 1500 BCE, the Central Valley would have consolidated its own large empire, one which spread through the region bounded by the Sierra Nevada on the east, the Klamath Mountains and Modoc Plateau to the north, and the Transverse Ranges to the south.

    Much like the Colorado Delta empire, the Central Valley one would exert hegemony over an extended area. The Central Valley's hegemony spread across the Sierras to its eastern slopes, north into the Willamette River valley, and along the coast from where it would clash with the Colorado Delta's hegemony to the south north into the Pacific Northwest.

    Next, we will either go into the development of Pacific trade or interior states within the region.
    Tropes thanked this post.

  9. #8

    Today, I want to focus on Pacific coast navigation. We have already explored the role of navigation and technology spread, especially in a land with no pack animals whatsoever, and just as in the Gulf and ancillary regions, the Pacific coast would have been an early center of boatbuilding, with some of the oldest boatbuilding traditions in the region perhaps dating as far back as the Pleistocene. Unlike the American Mediterranean Sea, which is largely enclosed and has several navigable river systems draining into it, the Pacific coast tends to be marked by relatively fewer river systems, with even the major ones offering relatively little in the way of upstream navigability viz. heavier seagoing craft: navigation on the Colorado and (to a lesser extent) the Fraser and Columbia would tend to be one-way downstream trips.

    The Pacific seaboard region immediately abutting the Colorado delta region has noticeable oddities as well. The Colorado itself flows into the Gulf of California, a long and narrow sea bounded by the Baja California peninsula to the west and the North American mainland to the east, but a short trip across the Peninsular Ranges and one finds oneself looking out at the Pacific Ocean proper. From the perspective of a people native to the Colorado River delta, thus, one would consider the Gulf of California an "inner sea" and the Pacific beyond as an "outer sea" (much as, to the ancient Sumerians, the Persian Gulf was the "lower sea" and the Mediterranean the "upper sea".

    Because of the extreme elongation of the Baja California peninsula and the extremely harsh environment along much of it -- one of the harshest environments on the North American continent -- the development of the Colorado Delta and San Francisco Bay not long behind it would have seeded discontinuous trade networks. The Gulf of California is an optimal sandbox for the development of trade if there are willing partners at either end, much like the Persian Gulf and later the Red Sea were in the Bronze Age: it is mostly enclosed, narrow, and generally protected from weather systems that can affect the Pacific by the Peninsular Ranges. Trade would therefore likely extend along the Gulf of California from the Colorado Delta to roughly the state of Jalisco and only in time would extend along the Gulf's other, wilder coast, which would have brought the Monqui, Pericú, and Guaycura peoples into contact with the broader Mesoamerican mien; of these, the Pericú would almost certainly dominate Baja California's bottom, inhabiting, as they do, the only patch of green south of the arid waste that dominates much of the peninsula.

    The Pacific seaboard in the region immediately adjacent to the Colorado Delta region (its uppermost extent being the Coachella Valley, especially if irrigation agriculture has the side effect of producing a stable Lake Cahuilla, as described previously) is home to the Chumash and Tongva peoples, among others; these people built a type of plank boat called tomols. As sedentary societies spread up the Central Valley and into the San Francisco Bay, these peoples would be able to develop sea trade between California's two major deltaic regions, and in so doing, become quite prosperous. Unlike the regions to the north, those to the south, however, would have had relatively little to interest traders, especially once the California oak chaparral gives way to the Baja California deserts.

    The increasing intensity of activity around the Bay Area would likewise attract attention from further north. Even in the late protourban phase, traders from as far north as the Columbia River, Salish Sea, and the Alaskan Panhandle and British Columbia coasts -- along, that is, the Inside Passage -- would make their way south to the markets of the San Francisco Bay and LA Basin with their large dugout canoes.

    Thus, in the first phase of sea trade in the Pacific you would have discontinuous trade networks linking the LA Basin with the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Northwest, to the north, and the Colorado Delta with Mesoamerica via the Gulf of California, to the south. Once the Pericú become part of the trade system, though, they have an incentive to reach the LA Basin, where they can procure exotic products from far to the north (which, in turn, would fetch quite a premium in Mesoamerican markets). During the same time period, a large stable state encompassing most or all of the Colorado Delta would find value in exploring its periphery for valuable new trade partners. Thus, once the two trade networks develop, there is substantial pressure to close the gap between them.

    While this trade would quickly become intensive, it would remain coastal in scope for far longer than their cousins in the Gulf of Mexico. There are only a handful of deepwater passages here, none more significant than the one between Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Baja California, and the cape off Puerto Vallarta on the Mexican mainland -- a passage which is quite short and tame as deepwater passages go. Much like rockets, it turns out that one of the biggest spatial "expenses" of deepwater ships is the necessary provisions for the crew, which tends to favor designs that require fewer crewmen and hence less space set aside for their provisions in favor of more cargo space. Because nearly all of the Pacific trade is coastal in scope, the cost of labor in the Pacific network (especially after the first centuries CE) is much lower and reduced still further by the development of towns and cities were ships tended to lay over for the night. Hence -- unlike in the Atlantic basin, where wind power quickly replaced manpower as the mercantile preference -- Pacific designs tended to favor maximizing cargo throughput per unit of labor power, by, for example, lining a log raft heaped high with cargo with canoes. As a consequence, sail development lagged in the Pacific relative to the Atlantic.

    The development of metallurgy in OTL Mesoamerica occurred extremely late, and, just as surprisingly, quite suddenly, with a general preference for Andean techniques. This strongly suggests that regular contact between Mesoamerica and the Andes began during the first millennium CE, which in turn formed an avenue of technology exchange. A persuasive case can be built up about this contact, using several lines of circumstantial evidence, though AFAIK no obviously Andean artifact has turned up in Mesoamerica nor has any obviously Mesoamerican artifact turned up in the Andes. We will therefore take it as a given that during the first millennium CE, contact between Mesoamerica and the Andes was made utilizing new deepwater routes running from the Mesoamerican coast to the Gulf of Guayaquil in Ecuador, one that would initially utilize Andean balsa raft technology.

    The development of these trade routes would greatly extend the Pacific coastal trade network, extending from at least as far north as the Copper River delta in Alaska -- a good source of copper (duh) and near the US' largest known deposits of tin -- all the way down the Chilean Coast to the southern limit of Mapuchean influence -- perhaps, roughly, Chiloé Island, if not further.

    Finally, we should note that naval technology would naturally diffuse easily across the various Central American isthmuses. As the Taíno developed their hegemony in the Caribbean basin, their client states would spread Atlantic-style deepwater vessels into the Pacific, especially at e.g. the Panamanian isthmus. Thus the Pacific basin would have a complex network of coastal trade networks with some deep-sea components and a greater variety of vessel designs than that found in the Atlantic basin, many of them derived from designs like the Pacific Northwest dugouts and the Chumash tomols we discussed earlier, as well as of course the Andean balsa rafts.


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