Join us as we trace the journey of our relationship with the sea, through the ages and around the world.
Text credit: Terence Koh
Image credit: Tobias Friedrich
The Evolution of Freediving
With diving equipment undergoing constant innovation, allowing us to dive deeper and longer underwater, it’s easy to forget that the art of diving began as a simple act of holding one’s breath. Indeed, with the advent of modern underwater breathing apparatuses, the most primitive form of diving is now differentiated by the moniker “freediving”. But breath-hold diving began over 8,000 years ago, evolving over the centuries to its ultra-modern, present-day status. Now, freediving is constantly testing humans’ physical and mental limits, as the sport of competitive freediving continues to gain popularity.
Diving in Ancient Times
The first recorded evidence of freediving can be traced back more than 7,000 years to the Chinchorros, an ancient civilisation that lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert (present-day northern Chile and southern Peru). In a study of Chinchorro mummies, researchers discovered that the bones inside their ears started to grow across the ear canal’s opening, protecting the eardrums from repeated exposure to water. It was clearly a case of exostosis, a condition that afflicts people whose heads have been frequently dunked underwater. Colloquially called “surfer’s ear”, exostosis is a common condition among people who surf, dive or kayak. Shell-ridden fossils and bone chemistry tests on the mummies have proven that their diet consisted of 90 percent seafood.
Besides the Chinchorro in South America, seashell fossils found on the coast of the Baltic Sea have also revealed that ancient people who lived about 10,000 years ago freedived for clams. There’s also plenty of archaeological evidence pointing towards diving in Mesopotamia (presentday Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria), dating back to 4,500 BCE, as well as in ancient Egypt, to around 3,200 BCE. In addition, the Greeks have been diving for over 4,000 years. Artefacts and scripts from the Minoan civilisation, which flourished from 2,700 BCE to 1,450 BCE on Crete and other Aegean islands, include figures of seashells as well as colours produced by seashells in Minoan ceramic art.
The Greek sponge trade can also be traced back as far as Plato and Homer, who mentioned the use of sponges for bathing in their literature. The Greeks would dive for sponges on Kalymnos Island, using a skandalopetra (the Greek word for “stone”), similar to granite or marble, weighing eight to 15 kilograms. Carrying this weight, divers descended quickly to as much as 30 metres underwater to collect sponges. Exactly when the Greeks started the sponge trade isn’t known but Plato would have been 40 years of age around 388 BCE when he mentioned the use of sponges in his writing.
Divers have also been used by the Greeks in warfare. According to Thucydides, the Athenian general and historian who recounted the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) between the Delian League led by Athens and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta, divers were tasked to scout for and dismantle underwater barricades set up to defend against invading ships.
The Persians also recorded using divers in warfare. Having conquered Phoenicia (now Lebanon) in 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian empire, used divers to cut the anchor cables to Alexander the Great’s ships during the siege of Tyre in 332 BCE.
This is an excerpt from an article from our upcoming issue of Scuba Diver. To continue reading, pre-order it here.
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