Many European and East Asian powers had very large sailing ships: clippers, junks and the like. Polynesians had sailing capacity, although theirs ships weren't as large.

Why didn't Native Americans build large ships like that? In my West Coast experience, they were limited to canoes and the like.

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    Luck. And also Native Americans had to develop in isolation, whereas science and technology were widely exchanged between disparate civilisations in the OId World, for a variety of reasons that ultimately regresses/generalises into a question like this.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 19:16
  • Thor Heyerdahl used to claim that Incas sailed rafts half way across Pacific and even re-created such a journey. Unfortunately, his assertion was later proven wrong...
    – Michael
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 21:32
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    This is another question that reduces down to "Read Guns, Germs, and Steel"
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 22:40
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    There's a saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention". They obviously didn't see the need to develop large ships, they were content with the lifestyles they had. The same question could also apply to the indigenous peoples of South America & Australia
    – Fred
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 1:54
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    Perhaps a lack of places to go? AFAIK European seafaring developed around the eastern Mediterranian, where there are lots of islands, and so an impetus to go between them. Then that naturally develops larger ships for trade & warfare - e.g. Rome getting grain from North Africa, tin from Britain, etc.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 8:14

5 Answers 5


TL;DR: Multiple factors conspired to make big sailing ships impractical.

There is a multitude of factors that, put together, caused the American cultures not to develop significant seafaring capability. If I were to point out the most important ones, they would be:

  • Lack of exploitable sea routes
  • Lack of metal tools
  • No large-scale cultural interchange

To elaborate:

Lack of exploitable sea routes

The development of seafaring capabilities in Eurasia occurred primarily in two locales: The mediterranean, and later the North Atlantic area (with the North Sea, Baltic sea, etc.). Why this happened had a lot to do with what there was to gain; after a bunch of civilisations sprung up in the fertile crescent, north Africa and Greece, there was a lot of money to be made by trade. There was also the silk road, spice trade with the Indies, and the Norse of course loved to go viking for fun and profit.

Now, technological development happens on the margins. If you can make a small improvement that impacts your bottom-line, you will take it; if it requires a significant investment with an uncertain result, you probably won't. This means that technological development is more likely to happen by increments, and if you take a look at the development of ships in Europe; from rafts and rowboats, to lateen-sailed ships, to Viking drakars, to caracks and galeons, you'll see that it is very gradual.

Basically, someone figured out they can make more by transporting the goods for cheaper and more quickly by water than overland, and started shipping them; from there, a sequence of small improvements resulted in the current state of technology.

In America, there was little reason to do anything like that; the big empires were all inland, and the cultures living on the islands of the Carribean mostly just lived on subsistence agriculture, and didn't have anything for sale that you couldn't just as easily grow or make on the mainland.

Lack of metal tools

You don't need metal to make a seaworthy ship, but it helps a lot. Iron nails and tools alone make shipbuilding a lot easier. This doesn't mean it's impossible to build a ship without them, but it does make it more work-intensive and therefore expensive, so anyone is less likely to actually invest in the endeavour (see above) and thus to discover that establishing sea routes can really pay off.

No large-scale cultural interchange

Eurasia and Africa put together are huge. Remember what I wrote above about progress being a sequence of small improvements; any small improvements that helps somebody's bottom line is highly likely to spread as soon as it's seen in use. This means that the successive steps tend to happen more quickly (since there's more people looking at the same issue), and thus the overall development is sped up.

In comparison, the American empires were mostly isolated; certainly the trade routes didn't extend over such a humongous area and huge population, which again also contributed to relative lack of trade opportunities.

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    The Lateen rig, so critical to the development of the caravel and similar ships of the Age of Exploration because of it's high pointing capability, was developed in the Gulf of Arabia and Indian Ocean. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lateen and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhow Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:59
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    The important distinction between clinker hulls and carvel hulls in the development of large sailing vessels is also important: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carvel_(boat_building) Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 17:05
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    You are correct, I just didn't mean to go into technical particulars, as there is always more than one way of doing things. What particular part of Eurasia any given development happened in doesn't matter in the end, thanks to the above mentioned cultural interchange facilitating dissemination.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 21:51
  • The development of seafaring capabilities in Eurasia occurred primarily in two locales: The mediterranean, and later the North Atlantic area -> arguably it first flourished on the Red Sea
    – Evargalo
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 9:25

Depends how big 'big' is. The Tlingits had 70 foot long ocean-going 'canoes'. They didn't sail, but they weren't small:

Head Canoe: A large ocean-going canoe that was up to 70 feet long with a large prow and stern, used for long voyages and warfare. As trade flourished along the Northwest coast, this type of canoe became less prominent.

Northern Canoe: Designed for long journeys over open-ocean. It had flaring sides and a rounded bottom, designed for buoyancy and speed; the beam was from 5 to 9 feet and ranged from 40 to 60 feet in length. The Northern canoe had the ability to cut through small waves and ride over large swells. The large Northern canoe allowed for long voyages and the trans- port of goods and supplies. It also supported trade along the Northwest coast.

Small Canoes: From 10 to 20 feet in length, they were used for local transport and fishing. They were usually paddled in the kneeling position and used in protected bays and estuaries.

There might have been incentive to build even larger ships, but you also have to realize that most Native American trade tended to be from the interior to the coast (and back) instead of along the coast, as the available items to trade varied more as you go inland as opposed to going down the coast.


At the time of discovery of America, the Europeans also did not have especially large sailing ships. The epoch of large sailing ships starts only in 17s century.

In general the American civilizations when discovered by the Europeans were very far behind of the Europeans (ans Asians) in technology. They did not use wheels or iron on large scale, the things which were already common in Europe for more that 2500 years. So boats and ships of the native Americans should be compared with boats and ships of the Bronze age Europeans, not with 19 century Europeans (as you do when you mention clippers:-)

Polynesians certainly do not fit to the general pattern. Because the very existence of the Polynesians is due to ability of their ancestors to sail in the ocean. How else could these islands be populated?

Another important reason was geographical. The more developed American civilizations did not depend much on the sea. Unlike the Europeans North Africans, Middle Easterners and Far Easterners in Asia. And those living in the Caribbean were really very far behind in the technological development.

EDIT. I could predict that this answer will result in commentaries blaming me in violation of PC rules. And I am perfectly aware that Americans had some achievements. Nevertheless the fact remains: their technology in general was thousands years behind, in those respects which are important for shipbuilding. Perhaps this can be explained by geographical reasons that I mentioned: there was no much need in seafaring. Unlike in Mediterranean and East Asia.

EDIT2. It is an interesting question by the way, whether native Americans used sail at all. I am aware of T. Heyerdal's theories, but as I understand they were never widely accepted.

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    To describe 15th-century ships as small because there were even bigger ships a little later is a little silly. A caravel is still far bigger than a canoe. In any case, I think you're mostly dodging the question here; was iron working really necessary for building ocean-going ships? If so, please describe. If not, then native Americans being Bronze Age in general technology is really beside the point.
    – user4139
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 22:12
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    @Jon of all Trades. Iron tools are not absolutely necessary to make a good ship. But some general development of knowledge and technology is necessary. When the Europeans were on the stage of development of native Americans, they also had no ocean going ships.
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 1:51
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    @MaskedBandit1: care to give an example of an area where a native American civilization was ahead of European technology in, say, the 1,000 years leading up to Columbus? Plumbing, possibly. Remember, this question is not asking about Arabia or China.
    – user4139
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:17
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    Let's stick to the facts, please, labeling is not helpful. By what basis do you describe pre-Columbian agricultural as better than European? Europe had wheeled iron plows, three-field rotation, waterwheels, and of course far more domesticated species. Yields? North and South America combined had roughly the same population as Europe in 1492, with far more arable land. The largest city in North America, Cahokia, wouldn't have scratched the top ten in Europe. Dismissing the difference in metallurgy "mixed" is a bit rich; iron household tools are a big improvement over stone and wood.
    – user4139
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 11:27
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    @RISwampYankee: Indeed, but at the time, Paris, Bruge, Amsterdam, Milan, Florence, Venice, and Genoa were all bigger, to name a few, and Naples rivaled the largest cities of Mesoamerica. My point is that a large continent (North America) with a vast fertile agricultural basin supported just one medium-sized city, while smaller Europe had at least a dozen larger cities, and the warmer Mediterranean basin included cities of millions (Naples, Constantinople, Baghdad). So it's hard to credit native agriculture being "better." I have read 1491; I actually have it open on my desk right now.
    – user4139
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 17:51

They really didnt need to sail anywhere on a large scale. I suspect that the largest native american ships would be near the hudson river, but other than that, nope. They had a 3000 mile land mass to work with. No boats needed.

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    Have you considered the 7,000+ islands of the Caribbean, or the Canadian Atlantic provinces, or the Alaskan archipelago, or the 36,000 islands of the Canadian arctic, or the 5,000 islands off the coast of Chile? Granted, the greatest native civilizations started inland, but there certainly were places to go. Rivers generally entail boats, too.
    – user4139
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:23
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    @JonofAllTrades - No, the answer is incomplete, but not incorrect. There was nothing in the Caribbean until the Europeans brought sugarcane. No reason to risk sea travel on regular trade routes - there was no equivalent to the Mediterranean, Black, Red, Baltic or Caspian seas, ringed by civilizations, no equivalent of the great archipelagos of South and East Asia. The Great Lakes and Gulf of St. Lawrence didn't have enough population to make maritime trade worth the considerable risk. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 17:55
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    @RISwampYankee: Really - Did the Iroquois, Huron and Algonquians (amongst others) of North-Eastern and Central North America know that navigating the inland waterways of the continent was worthless, but perfected the art of canoe-making none-the-less. Commented May 17, 2017 at 3:07
  • @PieterGeerkens - They certainly didn't build sailing ships to do it. The Mississippi and other North and South American waterways don't have the same favorable trade winds the Nile and the Tigris/Euphrates does. Europeans with millennia of sailing tech were able to navigate some New World rivers, but it's hard to see how it would take root in the indigenous cultures. Birch canoes were easier to build and maintain than pole barges for cultures without metal tools. I don't think there's an example of a riverine pole barge predating the Iron Age. Commented May 22, 2017 at 17:21

There is a problem here. The native Americans had access to the largest body of fresh water in the world....the Great Lakes. And yet they had no sailing vessels despite having one of the largest forested areas in the world....hardwoods and soft woods of amazing varieties to build all kinds of ships with of many shapes and sizes. The people of the Nile and the Euphrates and Tigress had them with Egyptian sail vessels operating 3400 BC or some 6500 years ago. The natives also had access to animal skins which could have been used as sails. I do not know if they had cloth, as the Mesopotamians did 5000 years ago.

Many tribes lived around the Great Lakes but, other than canoe, there does not appear to have been any interest in developing larger sailing vessels to traverse the Great Lakes as well as the numerous rivers in North America - eg. Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Hudson etc.

In addition, why didn't the natives of North America sail south along the Atlantic Ocean or south along the Pacific coast to explore the North, Central, and South American continents? Or why didn't the natives of South America sail north? (Along the coast of the Atlantic or the Pacific). Not sure if Jared Diamond has a theory about this.

What we do know is that water did not appear to create a barrier to ancient civilizations in Europe and the mid East , -Phinecians, Greeks,, Chinese, Phoenicians, Romans or Vikings.

During the same eons when Europeans were exploring their own continents and seas and oceans, we have little evidence North Americans were exploring North, Central and South America

Why not? That is the ultimate question. It is not about cows and pigs and goats as Diamond would have us believe. It is simply about curiosity

Europeans, Chinese, Muslims, and Polynesians were curious. North, South and Central Americans natives for some reason were not. And that has made a big difference.

Q. Why did you climb the mountain?

A. Because it was there.

  • The canoe, as perfected by the Indian tribes surrounding the Great Lakes, is designed as a very shallow draft vessel suitable for ranging far upstream on shallow waterways. This in turn made it very unsuitable for navigating the Great Lakes themselves, except in near ideal conditions. It was an ideal means of traveling the myriad inland lakes, streams and rivers that flow into the Great Lakes, but not the big Lakes themselves. Recall the Edmund Fitzgerald. Commented May 17, 2017 at 3:13
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    This doesn't seem to provide any answer to the question.
    – justCal
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 3:48
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    I merged your newer answer with this one, since it had flags and delete votes, and they both seem to be driving at the same point. Multiple posts subtly driving at a single point is just not how we do things on StackExchange sites. This isn't a discussion board. I'd suggest looking over our Help Center entry on writing good answers.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 13:56
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    @PieterGeerkens - Also worth noting that the Inuit were clearly better than the Vikings at living in the conditions of Greenland and North America, as both tried it and only the Inuit survived. So I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss their boating tech.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 13:58
  • What on earth gave you the idea that idle curiosity was the (main) reason behind the European Age of Discovery ? Vasco da Gama's route to India and Columbus' voyages seem to have been driven by much more pragmatical concerns.
    – Lucian
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 23:02

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