Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans

  • Brian Fagan
  • Bloomsbury Press
  • 336 pp.

Archaeologist and historian Brian Fagan investigates why and how it came to be that humans stepped off shore and took to the waters of our planet.

Blue horizon. Mariners. Oceans. When I see those words in a title, I am helpless to resist. If you are drawn to the water, to boats, to the pull of the sea and man’s inability to resist it, get ready to feel the wind and spray in your face as you set off for some armchair voyaging with Brian Fagan’s Beyond the Blue Horizon, a study of why and how it came to be that the earliest men stepped off shore and took to the waters of our planet.

Fagan is an archaeologist, historian and emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written numerous books examining how human history has been shaped by the environment, including Elixir, Cro-Magnon and The Great Warming. In this volume Fagan examines the history of early man’s movements onto the water, a history revealed from archaeological evidence but also imagined and brought to life through the lens of his decades of sailing experience. His experiences bring to life the histories he tells: “Time and time again, far from land or in narrow waters, in fair weather and foul, I’ve sensed an ancient skipper from the same waters looking over my shoulder and been reassured that they must have felt much the same way as I did.”

This is not a book about shipwrecks or well-documented voyages like those of Cook and Columbus. Some of the book’s mariners lived over 50,000 years ago. Organizing the material by regions of water rather than chronology, the author teaches us about the cultures, watercraft and routes of coastal societies. The vessels vary greatly: rafts, canoes, triremes, sealskin kayaks, Norse longboats. So do the cultures, whether Chumash Indian, Polynesian, Lapita or Mayan. Despite their many differences, all these mariners had to rely “ … on the sights and sounds of open water to guide them — the movements of heavenly bodies, flocks of birds flying toward land, swells refracting off invisible cliffs, the vagaries of tides and currents, even the sounds of waves breaking on rocks in foggy weather.” Modern mariners still can rely only on these same things, if they choose to.

You don’t need to know all about archeology, seafaring terminology or the history of the world’s cultures to enjoy Beyond the Blue Horizon. Being at the intersection of these bodies of knowledge, Fagan provides clear explanations that keep the reader surfing along. If you’ve navigated on small vessels, you’ll especially enjoy the portions of the narrative where he brings his own sailing experience into play. If you’ve never had the opportunity, you’ll get the next best thing: a ride-along captained by an archaeologist who can weave information and senses together into a narrative that you can feel.

“It was no coincidence that later seafarers erected an imposing temple to Poseidon on Cape Sounion, at the extremity of Attica. Once, heading toward Athens on a hazy day with the lightest of northerly breezes, I estimated we were close to land but could see nothing for the haze. Then, suddenly, the salt-encrusted columns of Poseidon’s shrine stood out in the afternoon sun. We steered for the temple until the cliffs came in sight; I imagined countless ancient steersmen sighting the bright flash of the white columns from far offshore in the sunlight of early morning or by moonlight, happy to be closing in on their destination.”

It’s the personal closeness that Fagan brings to his approach that makes his writing so enjoyable. He reminds us how attuned people had to be to their waters and terrain by casting himself into their bodies. He never demands, but rather seduces you into wanting to disconnect your vessel’s GPS, cover your compass, throw off your shoes and stick your bare toes in the nearshore mud.

The central question of the book is “why?” What would cause people to leave perfectly good land to go out to the middle of nowhere, risking their lives without knowing what may be across the water — if anything? The frustrating answer is that we can never know for certain. As an archaeologist, Fagan uses the physical evidence that remains to project himself into ancient lives, but mostly what that evidence provides is a means for formulating some excellent possibilities.

The question is often one of whether the first sea voyages were accidental or deliberate. If you think about it long enough, the need for water, food, more land for families striking off on their own from a well-populated island, and of course people’s curiosity about “what’s over there?” all work together to make it inevitable. (Confession: I hold a special place in my heart for my own theory involving 10-year-old males taking their father’s fishing kayak for a joyride.)

This book will undoubtedly be a pleasure for anyone interested in history and anthropology. I would particularly recommend it to readers of maritime works such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude.


Carolyn Sienkiewicz is an independent writer and editor who has recently come ashore after living on a sailboat for eight years. She misses it very much  — except the bit about being seasick.

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