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January 13, 2018

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Animal remains shed light on life of ancient sailors

THE remains of domestic animals such as chickens, geese, pigs, cattle, goats and sheep have been discovered on the Nanhai No. 1, a cargo vessel that sank in Yangjiang River in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).

The discovery suggests that the crew fished for crabs and other shellfish to enrich their diet, and address inequality among crew members.

“The findings open a new door to further look at the history of disease, exchange and inequity,” says Lu Peng, associate research fellow of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Since last winter, Lu and his team have delved into deciphering the enigmas posed by the animal bones.

In 2007, the wreck of the Nanhai No. 1 was excavated in the mouth of Yangjiang River, once the starting point of China’s Maritime Silk Road.

Although the vessel’s itinerary is unknown, the large quantities of porcelain, white porcelain in particular, indicate that the Nanhai No. 1 might have set off from Quanzhou Harbor in Fujian Province. Produced in Dehua, Fujian, white porcelain was normally made for export rather than domestic consumption.

According to porcelain export routes at the time, the Nanhai No. 1 was likely bound for Southeast Asia, or even the Middle East. Gold and silverware found in the vessel bear features of Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

There has been no final answer yet as to why the Nanhai No. 1 sank. Many scholars attribute the sinking to typhoons frequently sweeping through Yangjiang River. An overload of porcelain and hardware could also partly accounted for the tragedy.

The number of people onboard totaled 100 to 200. Among them were 30 to 50 crew members, along with servants, envoys and merchants.

The last moments of these people’s lives have not been recorded, with many stories still waiting to be told.

The absence of mice on the Nanhai No. 1 baffled Lu for a long time, because mice were commonly found on ancient ships. In another sunken vessel, the Hou Zhu from the Song Dynasty also discovered in Quanzhou Harbor, most of the animal remains were mice bones, Lyu said.

An ancient Chinese geographic document “Ling Wai Dai Da” depicts life on such a ship: “There were several hundred people on board, with a year’s grain storage for everyone, raising pigs and brewing alcohol. They didn’t have the least concern about death ... every day they were on the booze and slaughtered animals for a feast, treating one another as best friends.”

Animal remains found on the Nanhai No. 1 include 86 sheep and goat bones, 46 chicken bones, 40 goose bones, nine pig bones and one cattle bone. Lu says the findings matched and complemented Song Dynasty written records.

However, the question arises as to how difficult it was to keep both men and animals free of diseases in a confined space while sailing on the sea in Medieval times.

The first challenge was the sanitary crisis caused by rodents. These little creatures were notorious for spreading disease on long voyages. They could easily climb on board via mooring ropes or sampans. The black death that devastated Europe in the mid-14th century is believed to have been transmitted by rodents from the dry plains of Central Asia. They traveled along the Silk Road or via merchant ships, spreading plague throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

Nonetheless, there remain other possible explanations as to why mice bones were not found.

Maritime trade

“Firstly, the uncovering is still going on. Secondly, they might have simply drifted away due to their light weight,” Lu says. “Whatever the result is, mice or animal epidemic control was the first priority on board, otherwise it would have been impossible to make long voyages.”

The Nanhai No. 1 is categorized as a classical Fuchuan, famous for their watertight compartments and V-bottom design. The Southern Song Dynasty made huge progress in shipbuilding, following its rise as the preeminent economic power in the world and its expansion of maritime trade under military pressure from the northern border.

Fujian was a global pioneer and had the best shipbuilding techniques in the world. The Chinese character “fu” also means “fortune,” so Fuchuan can be interpreted as “fortune vessel.”

The animal remain findings might throw more light on the fortunes of the Nanhai No. 1. According to Lu, most of the domestic animals were young before they died. Healthy younger animals were important on a long voyage. Moreover, this suggests that people on board carried and raised animals not only for meat, but also for secondary products such as milk, wool and eggs.

“Other than bringing animals or fishing along the way, stopping for food supplies was possible too,” Lu says. “The bartering among Chinese crew and local residents in foreign harbors might be the earliest scenes of globalization.”

Lu says such voyages, when Song Dynasty vessels navigated to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, were among the first examples of domestic animals traveling across oceans.

The Nanhai No. 1 wreck still retains parts of its original structure: relatively small, excellent wave-resistance, abundant cargo space. As evident in previous studies, Lu believes that animals on board were kept in a fixed area.

Lu notes that management was hierarchical on the Nanhai No. 1. The division of labor was clear. Captains were at the top, then came the chief manager, then the helmsman, and then sailors in charge of particular matters.

“Under the premise of limited animal resources, the provision of meat, eggs and milk would have been strictly regulated according to hierarchy,” he says. In other words, the lower class crew might have been denied.

The senior crew fared far better. Through the analysis of burn and chop marks on the bones, archeologists have confirmed that smoke from grilled meat would have wafted across the deck of this long-voyage trading ship. It seems, even sailors from the Song Dynasty liked their barbecue.


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