At what point in history did the sail ship technology take off for the first time?
And by that I mean sail ships that significantly eased trade across water and which got produced in significant quantities over significant times.

There were Triremes back in classical times but the image is they were partially powered by slaves rowing down below indicating they weren't that advanced at the time. You can never row your way across large distances cheaply.

Then sailships were continuously becoming better in the 9th century in northern Europe, but I'm not sure how much further back their development goes and what was going on elsewhere.

I find this question important because the ability to send things cheaply from A to B (be it people, ideas or general trade) is a fundamental building block of civilization. Which makes the sail ship a very fundamental technology in history.

  • "never row your way across vast distances cheaply" - so you're only talking about intercontinental trade flows? I'm growing doubtful that I understand the question. I think that Egypt shipped large quantities of grain and goods down the Nile by sailing ship. I think the Triremes to which you refere are primarily warships, and crewed by free men.
    – MCW
    Jan 22, 2013 at 15:51
  • Not intercontinental necessarily but distances of 10km+. If the triremes were just warships then that leaves the state of sailships as unknown. About the Nile ships, its quite important what kind of vessels those were and if they were used in significant quantities to significantly ease trade.
    – user202
    Jan 22, 2013 at 16:38
  • 2
    @MarkC.Wallace, Hermann. Regarding the Nile, there is a particularity worth noting: the Nile stream carries ships downstream. Conversely, the dominating winds blow from North to South and thus carry the ships upstream. This is shown on many antic reliefs on site and in museums (in Mastabas for instance). So, on their way to lower Egypt, sailors would simply use the stream and would instead use the force of the wind on their way back to upper Egypt. This can be interpreted as an indication that sail ships were probably used pretty early in ancient Egypt. Later models have been found as well. Jan 22, 2013 at 23:11
  • @AlainPannetier, I suggest that you've just answered OP's question. (I had a dim memory of that, but you've got the details I lacked). That is evidence that sailing ships were used to move goods 10's of kilometers.
    – MCW
    Jan 23, 2013 at 10:05
  • But I mean that's just a single river and a single project. I'm wondering of where trade has become routine using sails. Guess I should update my question.
    – user202
    Jan 23, 2013 at 10:37

2 Answers 2


I think the real answer to your question is when navigation became effective. The Greeks and Romans had not invented the compass and as such were not known to navigate outside the sight of land. Grain shipments from what is now Tunisia and Libya would travel eastwards to Egypt and north to Turkey and then westwards towards Italy. Someone with a compass would just head north - cutting a significant amount of time off the voyage.

Non-europeans were good navigators, and had sailing vessels, but due to lack of written records, tend to get left out of history books. Recent DNA evidence shows that Polynesians obtained sweet potatoes from South America and distributed them to other Polynesian islands centuries before Europeans reached South America.

Finally, triremes were warships and were not used for cargo carrying.


Archeologists have found the first "picture" of a sailing vessel in a prehistoric period of Mesopotamia, called the Ubaid period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC). Somewhere to be carbon dated between 5500 and 5000 BC.

An actual image of this picture as well as more information can be seen in Antique: "Boat remains and maritime trade in the Persian Gulf during the sixth and fifth millennia BC", Robert Carter.

Boat-related finds consist of a ceramic model of a reed-bundle boat (Figure 3); a painteddisc depicting a sailing boat (Figure 4) and over 50 pieces of bituminous amalgam, mostly with reed-impressions and/or barnacle encrustations, which are interpreted as fragments of the waterproof coating of sea-going reed-bundle boats (Figure 5)

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