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Alta Norway, granite ridges covered with rock carvings showing skin boats. A gathering place for peoples, including those who crossed the North Atlantic

The following is an overview of the results of the investigations I pursued since before about 2000, in order to reconstruct the expansions of the boat peoples as revealed from a multidisciplinary investigation from all applicable sources I could find. Today much such investigation is helped by resources on the internet, but since the internet tends to focus on popular subjects, I own much to actual book resources which I own or I fetched from university libraries, In brief we are dealing with first the way that reindeer hunters of the Ice Age tundra adapted to the sudden melting of the tundra, and the flooding of the landscape and how they responded to it. Creating a very efficient way of life employing boats, these people found they could now travel some five times faster or farther in their boats than previously walking on open tundra. Suddenly they could spread in every direction there were waterways, and furthermore access the aquatic plants and animals that formerly had been inaccessible without the boats. This was a very successful way of life, that I believe has been overlooked and which couild be as significant to civilization as the development of a farming way of life. The boat later became the glue that bound the immobile farming civilizations and settlements together. It gave rise to the Veneti large scale trade systems, and that of the Phoenicians and Greek-speaking traders in the Mediterranean. The boat was certainy equal to the developing of a farming way of life, in the creation of European civilization.

The Ice Age Glaciers melt,
European reindeer hunters must convert to boat-using hunter- gatherers in flooded lands

    It is well known today, that some 50,000 years ago, the earth was in the grip of the Ice Age, during which the world climate was much colder than today, and glaciers accumulated from origins in mountains, and over millenia descended south covering the land with ice rivers a kilometer thick, the weight of which depressed the land below it. In the cold climate in Europe the arctic tunda was located at the latitude of central Europe. Whle in southern Europe there were forests and hunters of a large variety of large animals, in central Europe there were open plains and steppes with herds of horses and bison, and above that the arctic tundra filled with wholly animals such as mammoths, but especially reindeer. When many millenia later, the climate began to warm and the arctic conditions and animals adapted to it began shifting northward as the glaciers melted and retreated. Humans, thus shifted with the animals apon which they were dependent. 

Fig 1

    Our interest is in the reindeer hunters who shifted north with the tundra reindeer. But since the glaciers disappeared more slowly than the climate warmed, only the tundra reindeer towards Siberia that were not blocked by the melting glaciers or the meltwaters, were able to survive. In Europe all the tundras disappeared and reindeer hunters had to adapt to the new depressed and flooded lands by hunting animals of wetlands. Since it also became impossible to walk anywhere other than islands of high land, it was absolutely necessary to develop and become dependent on boats - dugout canoes - to move any distances. This new way of life arose first at the most southerly (most blocking) location of the melting glacier edge, around Denmark, around 12,000 years ago, and archeology has called this culture the "Maglemose" culture from being first identified in a bog in Denmark. This culture spread through the wetlands eastward to what is now the southeast Baltic, and then north. Gradually reindeer hunters there also had to adapt to the flooded lands, and also adopted the dugout canoes, except it appears this version, known as the "Kunda" culture from being first identified at Kunda, Estonia, had taken to the sea to hunt seals and other aquatic animals, probably from large dugouts. These were the beginnings of a new post-glacial way of life, that from archeology, appears to have been very successful and expanded east as far as the Ural Mountains. 

By 10,500 years ago, the arctic was inhabitable only by peoples adapted to a flooded landscape (except in arctic Siberia)

Although humans were smart enough to devise rafts to cross bodies of water we are not by nature water-creatures; thus the evolution of a part of humanity into a life using boats and getting around on water could not have occurred spontaneously just anywhere. It had to have occurred in a place where there was no other alternative; where survival depended on it, and the pressure lasted many generations.
     Through natural selection those groups who devised the best ways of dealing with the watery environment were the ones who produced the largest populations and flourished. The following presents  the basic story - including some original discoveries -  about the appearance and expansions of a boat-oriented way of life that marks an early stage in the evolution of Europe after the Ice Age.
     This side of the European past has never before been told in full, because traditionally scholars have focused on the land migrations and the evolution of farming and sedentary civilizations particularly in the Indo-European tradition.
    Everyone imagines that European civilization owes its existence to farming, but it owes as much to the development of boat-oriented ways of life as it created the transportation and trade that tied the civilization together.

Fig 2

The blue tone and blue arrows represent the initial expansion of the boat peoples. The pink tone represents actual surviving reindeer hunters and herds. The orange tone represents former reindeer hunters left in an open subarctic landscape who had to hunt other animals like moose and move around on foot as before.  The boat peoples was one of the adaptations that was very successful. Less successful solutions to the loss of reindeer herds and the warm climate would have borrowed boat use, just as later in history, people borrowed farming practices. Once invented and mastered, anyone could copy.

Fig 3

The expansion of the boat peoples into the arctic is shown in the adjacent set of maps. It is a very simple set of maps that generally presents the theory.
1. - initially reindeer people migrated north with reindeer. The dots represent reindeer peoples

2. - 3  Eventually, arctic Scandinavia is free of glaciers and it is possible for tundra reindeer to enjoy a refuge in northern Finland and Kola Peninsula. Boat peoples in the meantims are able to expand east

4 - The "Kunda Culture" expands into the White Sea and the Norwegian arctic. The best evidence is that it expanded mainly from the Lake Onega area


Expansion Though Waterways Eastward to the Urals

    As one can see when looking at a map showing the possible directions of expansion of boat peoples from the Baltic Sea origins, the other direction was simply to spread eastward via the Volga or Dvina Rivers, and by them reach the Ural Mountains. Archeologists have already seen the spread of boat peoples to the Urals before the 1960's. The evidence is found on prehistoric banks of lakes and rivers. While archeologists now give the finds in different rivers, their own names, usually based on the river names - Volga, Oka, Kama, Ob - they are all basically the same boat-oriented culture.             Located in regions with trees, and not needing very large boats, their boats would have been dugouts. The making of a dugout in the old ways was captured on a Lennart Meri film crew visiting the Hanti peoples of the Ob River. The Jannits et al map shown earlier does not show as far east as the Kama River and the Urals, so I present another map, created by archeologists.

    Note that the Ural Mountains are located north-south just to the east of the "Kama" culture hatching.. To understand what this map shows, let us consider first the "Kunda" culture (1) with the vertical hatching covering the region from the Baltic as far as Lake Onega. This proves that the seagoing culture developed first in the Baltic coasts, and it gave these people the skills to go out onto the sea and hunt large sea animals like seals, and whales. Thus to claim that the trajectory of the seagoing boat peoples from the Baltic, to Lake Onega, to the White Sea, and west to the Komsa Culture, is very believable considering that ways of life tend to continue as it is passed down throught the generations. Next, note that the archeologists have given a "Kunda: culture hatching also at the midpoint of the Kama culture. The overlap suggests the two cultures met each other at that location. How the "Kunda" culture got there is obvous - it followed the rivers - the Sukhona, and then the Dvina to its end near the Urals. Obviously the shaded areas are based on where archeologists have found campsites. In reality, there will be evidence of campsites along the Sukhona and Dvina between the Kunda hatched area near Lake Onega and the Kunda hatched area near the Urals. Similarly we would find the Kunda culture also reaching north to the White Sea. It is misleading to use shaded areas to describe the locations of highly nomadic boat peoples. It might be more suitable to simply use dots indicating where campsites or other archeological evidence has been found.
    But the most important information in this map is obtained by noticing the rivers. The north end of the Kama culture is in the Pechora River basin.  Furthermore the headwaters of the Pechora, Dvina, and Kama are all in the same location - near the midpoint of the Ural Mountains. Social forces - finding mates, exchainging goods, sharing news - brought nomadic hunter-gatherers together on a regular basis. In North America, families comprising tribes met annually, and one tribe might be open to hosting neighbouring tribes too. In Canada, among the Algonqians, the gatherings are called "Pow-wows". It reflects something in human social nature since regular, usually annual, gatherings are found in all peoples everywhere around the world, and the need for large gatherings still goes in today. (such as the Olympics)
    It is likely that it is incorrect to cover the Kama culture designation also over the Pechora. A correct map should show the  Kunda, Pechora, and Kama cultures are three different archeological cultures of boat peoples, and there was probably a major gathering place at that location. It would be there too that contact was made with any remaining reindeer hunting peoples in the Ural Mountains. This would be where Asian reindeer people language words entered the language of the boat peoples.

    The colouring of this map shows what is described above - Not mentioned yet, and also important, is that the Volga tributaries reach up close to Lake Onega. The Lake Onega location, thus, was also a location where several tribes gathered. This is clear from the rock carvings around Lake Onega, and from overlapping material culture characteristics. In general there is no reason to believe that all of these cultures were descended from Kunda Culture. The Kunda Culture, in turn, developing later than the Maglemose Culture, has some amount of origins in the Maglemose Culture.

The Divergence of Boat Cultures in the Millenia since the original expansion: Archeological manifestations

    The concept of the conversion of the glaciers into flooded post-glacial northern lands, is a very general one. Of special interest is how it manifested archeologically and then evolved as tribes in different geographical locations adapted to different environments, and asserted their territorial rule. Territorial rule is very significant to al sciences looking at the past, because it means other tribes could not move into occupied territories without a battle in which the loser is conquered. As a result dynamic equilibriums developed between neightbouring tribes, interracting with each other but respecting each other's territories.

Fig 4
Fig 4

    The above map is developed from a learned text on the archeology of northern Europe, that depicts assumed archeological groupings based on locations and/or archeological artifacts.  But bear in mind, they are all fundamentally the same descendants from the original boat peoples ("Maglemose"). In the expansion of the boat peoples, there were small adaptations to different environmens : The original "Maglemose" culture was only concerned with travelling around in marshes; the "Kunda" culture adapted to hunting seals in the sea in large dugouts. From Lake Onega to the White Sea and arctic Norway the descendants of the "Kunda" culture did not find large enough trees for seagoing dugouts, so they developed the skin boat.  It is these variations and different water way locations that inspire archeologists to define different archeological names. The hatchings to the south, without colour, are also boat peoples. The inland hunter-gatherers , those without boats who continued to hunt deer and aurochs, were only found in the interior highlands to the south of the Oder River Valley (not shown). As we might expect, the boat peoples went where there was water, and not in highlands or mountains, and that would include the Oder River, Vistula, and Dneiper water systems, all of which run through lowlands.

    As evidence from archeology shows, there was at first a rapid expansion, and then as the Ice Age came to an end, and the environment stablized, so did human populations.
     At this early stage, all the archeological cultures of the boat peoples would have been very similar in culture (including language), with only dialectic variation. As the various bands/clans had settled in annual circuits of travel and nature-harvesting, they established  territories, according to human nature, and guarded their territories. Insofar as each tribe consisted of several clans/bands, the tribe's territory was the total of the territories of the individual bands/clans. Because bands/clans associated with each other, they would have had the same material culture, and therefore there is no question that each archeological culture may represents the territory of only one tribe.
    Because of human territoriality,  it was difficult for another hunter people to enter any part of the north without getting into serious conflict with the established peoples. This truth works against any theories of a later migration as an explanation for culture change, as opposed to culture change from borrowing.  The exception is that people following a different way of life and who are not competing for the same sense of territory, will not be challenged -  for example neither farmers nor traders engaged in hunting on a hunter-gatherer tribes territory (at least not noticably)

The impact of the arrival of farming settlement peoples in central  on boat peoples: an example from archeological maps

Fig 5
The following four maps, developed out of maps in the same Jannits et al, source, to generally show how the descendants of the boat peoples evolved as they interracted with people pushing north from the south and east

The above maps do not explain the archeological hatchings in detail. Our discussion below will be in general to show how things changed

1 - ORIGINAL:EXPANSION  from the  map as above, showing how around 7,000 years ago all the cultures within the area of the map were Boat Peoples descended from the original reindeer peoples (Ahrensburg and Swiderian cultures, or the original Magdalenian)  These became the typical northern aboriginal peoples. There were also reindeer peoples in the arctic. As time went on, civilization was developing in southeast Europe, producing sedentary settlements and farming. It would be inevitable that soon the two would interract at their contact locations.

2 - TWO PEOPLES INTERRACT. The boat peoples  were the aboriginal peoples across northern and central Europe. At about 6,000 years ago the settling peoples with some amount of farming, move north - represented by the screened (dotted) areas, while at the same time trade has begun between the Kunda Culture and boat cultures in the rivers reaching south via the Dneiper. Professional trading has begun also between the Kunda and Maglemose cultures, as shown by mixtures of material culture on the east Baltic coast. (Professional trading means carrying wares from where they are obtained cheaply to another location where they are valuable, and making a living from the difference, from the profit.)

3 - EXPANSION OF TRADE AREAS  Since archeology can only find material culture, the expansion of similar cultures from the south Scandinavia south towards the Vistula and Oder , and the expansion into a Comb-Ceramic Culture on the entire east Baltic coast, in effect does not distinguish between non-material cultural variations anymore. Professional trading sells the same goods to all kinds of people with all kinds of languages and genetics, and so from about 5,000 years onward it is increasingly difficult to claim parallelism between language, genetics, and culture, without additional evidence and analysis.

4 - MATERIAL CULTURE ONLY SHOWS TRADE PATTERNS. Since archeology identifies material culture and trade spreads material culture, this map reflects  how it is impossible for schlars to connect the material culture uncovered with the nature of the people, without much additional evidence from other sources.. All we can really say is  that professional traders continued to develop who were energized by north-south trade involving mainly furs and amber  The ancient historic "Eneti", "Veneti" , who history has associated in particular with the amber trade, arose from this and lasted until the Roman Empire fragmented and undermined the original pre-Roman trade systems.  From the Roman era onward, there were various peoples with the "Veneti" name in different parts of Europe speaking different languages, but incriptions in northern Italy left by the Veneti/Eneti there from before the Roman era, seem to be (according to new deciphering work)  in a Finnic language, which makes sense if these people show up strongly in history (ancient texts) and archeology (findings of dropped amber along the route) as amber traders originating in the north which by that time (first millenium BC) appear to have been Finnic.


Expansion of the Kunda Culture into the Arctic Ocean and Beyond

    While the "Maglemose" culture has been found from eastern Britian to the southeast Baltic, and appears to represent a culture that lived beside lakes and marshes, as one moved north up the east Baltic coast, the prevailing winds were blowing in from the northwest and throwing up waves along the coast. To access animals out from the shore, like seals, it was necessary to develop large dugouts that could use six rowers and manage the high waves.  To hunt sea animals like seals and whales, it was also necessary to have large harpoons.

Kunda tools

Fig 6
From the "Kunda" archeological finds, the image at right shows a large harpoon and an adze head -used for hollowing a log for a dugout with the help of fire.

    According to archeology, Kunda artifacts show origins in the "Swiderian" reindeer hunter culture before 12,000 years ago, meaning it did not come from elsewhere. The Kunda, a Post-Swiderian Culture, thus was a direct consequence of reindeer hunters in the region of Poland being forced to abandon reindeer hunting and adapt to living in the warm flooded lands south of the rapidly melting glaciers.

The evidence of expansion of Kunda boat  peoples into the arctic



The above records a rock carving site at the White Sea. It depicts the world of these boat peoples - hunting moose on land and hunting whales in the sea. The origins of these peoples at the White Sea is indicated by the boats having moose heads on the prows. The origins in the Kunda Culture is suggested both by the fact that Kunda Culture hunted seals and small whales, and that the moosehead skin boat would have developed because in the arctic trees were too small to make into dugouts larger than single man canoes.


Khanti Skin Boat
The concept of the original boat did not involve frames and skins. All boats were dugout logs. The dugout is still made by the Khanti of the Ob (image at right is from a Lennart Meri film produced in Estonia in the 80's) However this dugout is small because at the northern edge of the forest zone, the trees are too small to make large seaworthy dugouts.

A small dugout like the one of the Khanti is seen in the top image in the rock carving from arctic Norway, dated to some 6000 years ago. But this small dugout was not adequate for dealing with the high waves of the ocean, The image below it show the skin boat made from moose hide, the moose head represented on the prow.
Boat people who wanted to harvest the arctic, therefore could not use the slim dugouts made from the small northern trees. They had to develop something new. My theory is that it began with someone's idea of trying to make a dugout from a dead moose carcass.

From Lake Onega Carvings
The Lake Onega rock carvings present several examples showing the small moose skin boat being used in sea-hunting.  Allowing for some variation by the artist, the scale of the moose head  is generally of natural size, when compared with the size of the two or three people inside.


Moose-European Elk

    All the skin-on-frame boats of the world owe their origins to this beginning, which I believe began with applying the concept of the dugout to a moose carcass. The idea may have begun with someone seeing a moose swimming and initially thinking it was a large floating log. Coming close they discover it is a moose; however the idea of making a large boat was already planted in their mind and they wondered if a boat could be made from it. In the beginning the idea of a skin on a frame did not exist. It was born when the concept of the moose's ribs was employed to hold the skin in shape.

moose-skin boat
    Note that the moose has a massive body giving a great deal of skin that can be stretched to create a boat large enough to hold three men.
    Since the moose (shown above) is a forest zone animal, the use of the moose meant that its users did not remain in the arctic, but migrated between the arctic coast and forested regions.  It is interesting that the Lake Onega carvings show no images of moose with antlers. Since males grow antlers in summer and shed them in fall, it follows that the Lake Onega people were in the Lake Onega area only in winter-spring. They then left for the arctic, perhaps going as far as Alta, and did not experience the moose with antlers. The Alta rock carvings also show boats with reindeer heads. It suggests that those people who DID stay in the arctic, and did not return south, used the reindeer as a substitute, sewing many skins together.

    The next step was of course the enlarging of this boat, to hold many more people. The obvious way to enlarge it was to simply sew skins together and make it longer. The following images compares a rock carving of a large boat at Lake Onega, with a typical UMIAK of the Alaskan Inuit. The umiak shown was made of walrus skins, but it gives an idea of  size. Walrus skin was discovered to be a better skin than reindeer skim, for those peoples who stayed in the arctic and did not descend south in winter to the forested regions where moose were found.

Onega boat vs Umiak


   The expansion of the Kunda Culture to Lake Onega, White Sea, arctic Norway, even British Isles, has plenty of evidence. If we line up the evidence found in the rock carvings, their dating, and in further evidence of skin boats where the head of the animal that provided the skin is honoured on the prow. Of special interest is the illustration of the recent Irish Curragh with the animal head, in this case the ox, is situated on the prow. Also interesting is an illustration of Greenland Inuit families in whale hunting activity, which is very much like the illustrations in the White Sea rock carvings, except that the Greenland Inuit boats lack the head of an animal. This could be explained if the Greenland Inuit used the skins of whales. Whales have no proper heads. On the other hand, they say that in the tradition of Inuit who made their large skin boats, the umiaks, from walrus hide, the walrus head was at the prow. We can thus trace the expansion of the seagoing peoples from boats with animal head prows, starting from the moose heads in rock carvings of Lake Onega, and following rock carvings of these moose head boats to arctic Norway, and then finding images of reindeer head boats in Alta rock carvings, the oxhead in the curragh, the walrus head in arctic Canada, and we could even continue to a practice of Pacific coast aboriginal with whaling traditions, who painted whale eyes at the front of their canoes - now dugouts again owing to the large trees of the Pacific coast.
    Skin boats, with the animal from which the skin came on the prow evidently reached the British Isles and the practice continued until the 18th century - as seen in the following illustration showing an oxhead on the prow. The heads on the prow became the origins of the heads on Norse 'dragon boats'

The head on the prow of boats can demonstate connections as a result of the expansion of the seagoing culture. This along with linguistic and cultural evidence will reveal that these seagoing boat peoples spread around the arctic and even followed whales southward as early as 5,000 years ago. See the more detailed pages for more information.


    The above is the basic introductory overview of the rise and expansion of boat-using hunter-gatherers when Ice Age reindeer hunters were forced to abandon their way of life and adapt to a land below the melting glaciers that was both still depressed from glacier weight and flooded from its meltwater.
    The next chapters/articles go into greater depth into the developments and some amazing findings. The next section INTRODUCTION begins the story of the northern boat using aboriginals, a story that has not been told before as thoroughly as this   - AP


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author: A.Paabo, Box 478, Apsley, Ont., Canada


2017 (c) A. Pääbo.