Monday, July 8, 2013

Thor Hyerdahl and Jaredite Boats

My hero Thor Heyerdahl

File:Tigris Model Pyramids of Guimar.jpgIn the fifth or sixth grade, I picked up a couple of books from my elementary school library. They were about some of the voyages of Thor Heyerdahl, when he built a raft and followed the currents from South America to somewhere in the Pacific, and when he built papyrus boats in Egypt and followed the currents to South America. It took two tries on the South American trip. The boats got waterlogged both times. The back fell out of the boat somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic the first time.

When Ammie and I were living in Cleveland, we made one of our occasional stops at a used bookstore, and I came across a couple of book by Thor Heyerdahl. I hadn't realized he wrote books about his own expeditions, and I bought them. So in my early thirties I once again started reading about one of my childhood heroes. I started with the last of Heyerdahl's adventures, the Tigris. On the marshes of modern day Iraq, Heyerdahl and his associates built a reed boat, learned to navigate with a square, single-masted sail, and sailed it 6,000 miles, much of them against the currents, and sometimes against the wind--all feats claimed by scholars to have been impossible for the ancients that used these technologies. If you want a gripping, real life adventure book, I can recommend Tigris--pirates, last moment, death-defying choices, near misses with super-tankers, and fascinating history and archeology--it doesn't get much better than this.

Heyerdahl and Noah

Have you ever heard anyone laugh at the story of Noah's ark? You might even feel that they do it with good reason. Heyerdahl is not so ready to dismiss the ancients as superstitious or stupid. He deals with Noah's story by taking away much of the absurdity. He looks at accounts of the flood that predate our Bible, and that come from other cultures in the same, Near Eastern region. In these stories, the flood isn't global and Noah, known by other names, only brings along a few kinds of domesticated animals. From this perspective, Heyerdahl sees a story that has at least the ring of truth to it, even if it can never be proven. Some Marsh Arabs graze their buffalo out in the water, and then herd them up onto floating reed barges at night. They build fires on their reed boats, just laying down a layer of hardened mud on part of the barge to keep it from catching fire--and watching carefully, since the fire is mostly fueled by the same reeds that make the ship. Building a boat on dry land doesn't seem so crazy when the water only has to rise enough to lift a shallow draft reed boat out into the current. These are just a few of the plausible details mentioned in passing by Heyerdahl. If you don't find my summary convincing, go read the book. The book is worth reading even if you couldn't care less about Noah. But one thing I'm sure never crossed Thor Heyerdahl's mind as he vindicated the intelligence and ability of the ancients, was that he would be substantiating one of my favorite ancient stories.

The Jaredite Travels

One of the strengths and problems in reading the Book of Mormon is that it is so closely tied to the Bible. This makes it an important witness of Christ's divinity where the Bible alone is unable to answer many criticisms, and it also allows biblical scholarship to illuminate word choices and passages in the Book of Mormon. It also makes us as readers prone to superimpose prejudices we learned from our biblical culture. To illustrate, let me tell you the story of the Jaredite travels as we often read it to ourselves and in our Sunday meetings:

The Book of Ether tells a story about an ancient people that left the Tower of Babel when God confounded the languages. Jared, his brother, and their friends didn't have their language confounded, so they must have continued to speak the pure, Adamic language. The Jaredites, as they came to be called, built submarines that could go under the waves with holes, or doors, in the top and bottom so that when the waves flipped them over they could get air the next time things calmed down. They took fish and herd animals on the boats with them for a journey of almost a year from Asia to somewhere in the Americas with their only light being stones touched by the finger of the yet to be incarnated Christ.

The actual words in the Book of Mormon

There are aspects of many scriptural stories that are inexplicable. I'll freely admit that I have no idea about technological explanations of the sixteen small stones lit by the finger of Jehovah that glowed for at least the better part of a year, and I don't have enough information to even speculate as to the natural part of that miracle. As with Jesus healing the blind and raising the dead, we can speculate, but these incidences are clearly beyond proof or disproof. We can believe the witnesses, or not, but it is beyond science to know. Admittedly, some critics take the facile position of denying the possibility of God's intervention a priori. But when we can't even make the supposedly mundane details of our stories plausible, there is no need to criticize the miraculous. Too often in our readings of the Book of Mormon we create problems for ourselves by reading what isn't there and not reading what is. The travels of the Jaredites are one of these instances. I'm going to summarize what is actually in the text. You can check it for yourself in Ether 1, 2, 3, and 7:
  • Jared, his brother, their families, and their friends took their flocks (male and female), seeds, fish, and honey bees and left the land where a tower was being built to get to heaven
  • They avoided having their language confounded
  • They build barges to cross many waters, and then went on their way for some period of time
  • They built barges, again, to cross an ocean, but with some modifications:
    • The barges were already light on the water, like a fowl (most of the barge floated above the water)
    • The living quarters on top needed to be sealed so the inhabitants wouldn't drown in the storms that were coming
    • They needed holes in the top and the bottom
    • One hole was to be unstopped for them to get air when it wouldn't let water in
  • They prepared all manner of food for themselves, their flocks, their beasts and fowl
  • They were on the water 344 days
  • They were very happy when the journey was done
You will note right off that the tower is not called the Tower of Babel. Babel is never mentioned despite its being named in the modern chapter heading. You can see how we propagate, and even institutionalize, incorrect readings of the text. No claims are made about how the tower was to be used to reach heaven. The Jaredites' language, singular, is unconfounded, but there are no claims made about all the languages of the world arising from this event. So the Biblical Tower of Babel story is cut down to much more human proportions and goes from being a fantastical creation to a plausible ancient story shaped by the limitations, agendas, and prejudices of their authors. It looks a lot more like Thor Heyerdahl's telling of the Noah story than it does like a 19th century, plagiarized copy of the biblical account. Somehow Joseph Smith--or Moroni or Ether or someone else--already did the editing to remove the absurd, demonstrably false, mundane claims that we like to read into the Jaredite story. And whoever it was didn't stop with Babel and the languages.

Moving on to the boats. The boats are always called barges, in contrast to Nephi's boat and to what we tend to imagine when we think of ocean voyages. The barges are never said to flip over, and only one hole is indicated as a source of air. The boats are light on the water, consistent with a barge or reed ship supported by large, solid wood or reed bundles rather than by an air-filled hold like more modern ships or submarines. This is a bit counter-intuitive, but such a heavy barge on land is light on the water, like a fowl. Most of it floats over the water, especially early in the journey.

Take a look at the picture of the Tigris, above. You'll notice the very large bundles that are the majority of the boat. The bundles are completely filled with tightly bound reeds. The only "inside" of the boat is the relatively shallow dish formed by the two smaller bundles along the top edges of the large, lower bundles. You could cut a hole right down through the big bundles (or design a hole from the start), and the boat would keep floating just the same. It's no problem at all. It wouldn't affect boat speed when you are pushed by the current. It wouldn't flood the boat. Heyerdahl and his associates lived on top of the boat, hardly doing anything down in the shallow dish part. They built latrines that hung out over the edge of the ship, in the back. One problem with this arrangement is that there is nowhere to go if there are giant waves crashing over the deck. You can tie yourselves on and hope for the best, but what about your flocks, seeds, and bees? Why not cover the top of the ship with a cabin? Then the hole in the bottom makes even more sense. Where are you going to put the latrines when the waves are covering the boat? And how are you going to get your animals to use the latrines? Seems like a nice salt water well and drain hole in the floor is a pretty good solution. But there is still the problem of building the water-tight cabin.

This is where some of Heyerdahl's descriptions of Marsh Arab homes need to be added. Some Marsh Arabs build homes using essentially the same technologies they use to build their ships. I couldn't find stock photos or public domain photos, but do an image search for marsh arabs and you will see what I mean. Their houses--from little huts to grand buildings--are a lot like reed boats turned upside down. They aren't as thick as the bottoms of an equivalent sized boat, but they are solidly built and water tight, like the tops of the Jaredite "submarines" are described.

Another thing to note is that these were experienced travelers, both on land and on sea. Of course the voyage was miserable, and we have no idea how many people or how much livestock died. That would be interesting to know, but apparently Ether, Moroni, or someone else didn't feel the need to include it. They were happy all the boats made it to the new land, and the story moved on. Some other notable omissions might be of more significance to the plausibility of the story. While flocks, herds, beasts, animals, and fowl are vaguely mentioned in the second, 344 day voyage, fish and honey bees are left out. Could honey bees have survived a year without flowers? I don't know. Would fish have been practical to carry? Seems unlikely. As for food for everyone and everything, we know nothing. We don't know how many people or animals were brought, but one thing is sure--if they knew they were going on a long trip, they knew how to pack for it. They had done it before over many waters. How would they have gotten fresh water? I suspect it was hard, but storms were what drove them across the ocean. I suppose storms usually come with rain, and they might have had the foresight to prepare ways to collect the rain when the waves weren't to big. I love this story. It's even more exciting now that Thor Heyerdahl has given me ways of imagining it that seem nearly tangible. Maybe now you can see why Thor Heyerdahl, in saving a treasured childhood fairytale, is one of my grownup heroes.

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