The Ancient Freediving

The Ancient Freediving

Instructor course handout

Rakel Calderer

Chinchorro civilization (Chinchorro can be translate to fishing boat).

One of the first evidence of freediving humans can be found more than 7,000 years ago to the Chinchorro civilization, the people who lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert in what is present day northern Chile and southern Peru.

They are the oldest artificially mummified human remains, having been buried up to two thousand years before the Egyptian mummies.

While the earliest mummy that has been found in Egypt dated around 3000 BC, the oldest Chinchorro mummy dates from around 5050 BC, and the oldest mummified mummy recovered from the Atacama desert is dated around 7020 BC

Many of the Chinchorro sites where along the coast and many are in the Atacama Desert. They have discovered evidence of ancient lakes in the desert, large enough to sustain small human populations.

The Chinchorro was people who freedive for food, as studies in the mummies proved that diet was 90% seafood. In big parts of the city it’s still found in the sand rests of this population, they are big amount of shells, all tools where used like harpoons, hooks, nets, all this elements associate with a daily sea life.

Also in more detail studies, they realized that mummies had exostosis. What is called a diver, surfer windsurfer …disease, irritation from cold wind and water causes the bone surrounding the ear canal to new bony growth which constrict the ear canal. When the ear canal start to be blocked, it’s easy to get infection as water and wax can get trapped. Can happen in cold water, or warm waters. So a long term will make the ear canal thinner or can also be totally closed.

It’s known that chinchorro civilization was existing during 3000 years approx, if we compare that christianism its little more than 2000.

A part of the Chinchorro civilization another ancient evidence of freediving was found on the coast of the Baltic Sea, where a civilization that has been given the Danish name of Kojkkenmodinger or ‘the shellfish eaters’ was also around 7,000 and 10,000 years ago.

The name was choose after they discover fossilized shells, evidence that this civilization had knowledge and freediving skills to collect shellfish from the bottom of the sea.

In the excavations between Mesopotamian civilizations(4,500BC) and the six dynasty of Egypt (3,200) there were found ornamental objects from pearl, a material that can only be obtained by diving to the bottom of the sea.

Apnea was practiced in all of Mediterranean, and this has been confirmed by different scriptures in the Greek and Latin literature, describing the commerce of popora, purple, this substance was used for the clothing for king and emperors. This royal colouring was extracted from the hypobranchial glands of either Murex brandans or Bolinus brandans.

Ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia & Persia

There have been plenty of archeological evidence of spearfishing in Mesopotamia (Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) which dates back to 4,500 BC and in ancient Egypt in 3,200 BC.

The Greeks have been freediving for more than 4,000 years.

From the Minoan civilization, from 2,700 BC to 1450 BC on Crete and other Aegean islands, they also used figures of seashells and make colours of the seashells in the Minoan ceramic art.

The Greek diving for sponges in Kalymnos islands using skandalopetra to descend fast to 30 meters doesn’t have an exact dates where they start, but around 388BC, as Plato (Greek philosopher) and Homer (writer) mentioned the use of sponge for bathing.

The first apparatus that Greek was using to dive longer time was called Lebeta, and was a rustic bell.

The philosopher Aristotle also have story of Grecians, that destroyed barricades of the port in Tyre and explains that to be available to stay longer underwater they used lebeta; Aristotle tells of the most common problems pain in the ears, nosebleeds etc, and mentions “an upside down pot full of air, that remains sealed, and in which the man keeps his head”

Also Persians been in the history of using freedivers as a warfare. They conquered Lebanon in 539 BC when King Cyrus was using the divers to cut the anchor cables of Alexander the Great ships, which they been using battering ram.

The Urinators

The Roman urinators were the first unit of military divers as a professional that has historical record. Even if before the Greeks or Assyrians had divers for warfare, Romans were the first to create a military group dedicated to underwater operations, trained to hold their breath, swimming and diving skills. They only used knifes, they had missions as attack, sabotage, recover anchors, install underwater defences, transport food or weapons…

It’s written, that to recover a treasure that was sank, the Urinators jumped in the water with stones, and with a sponge impregnated with oil in the ears and mouth, so on the descend the sponge was squeezed and the oil was creating a film on their eyes to get better vision.

Freediving in Sri Lanka (Ceylon)

For thousands of years, the coast of India and Sri Lanka was well known for the pearls and chanks, the large spiral shells. The boats was going out at midnight, to be ready in the morning, they already been using counterweights systems to pull the freediver down fast, so they could stay for around a minute, collecting the shells and pearls, and with a pull on the rope attached to the hips they pull them back quickly.

Freediving in Japan, Ama (sea woman)

Many ancient references indicate that the Ama have existed for at least 2000 years. One of the oldest references which refers to the Ama is the Gishi- Wajin-Den, which is believed to have been published in the year 268 B.C.

The Chinese character indicating the male Ama was equivalent to «sea warrior» or the «samurai of the sea. » The Japanese word «samurai» refers to the ancient warriors of Japan. The Chinese character for the female Ama means «sea -women. «

The male Ama is fishing with the use of a spear or grabbing them by hand. The female Ama collect shellfish and seaweed from the bottom of the sea. Also they collect pearls animals and other plants.

Ama girls will dive only with the underwear to be more efficient on movements, and they will cover the hair. They will go attached with a rope to a wooden barrel to use as a buoy.

They carry a metal pallet called a «Kaigane» to help collecting shells, seaweed…

They are trained as early as 12 or 13 years old by elder Ama. At this age they call them Koisodo or Cachido and dive in shallow depths of only two or four meters from the beach.

After they have been trained a few years (15 to 20 years old), they graduate as a Nakisodo, Okazuki or Funedo and they dive to four to seven metres in groups from a boat controlled by a boatmen for safety.

A fully trained Ama is known as an Ooisodo, Okiama or Ookazuki. Usually more than 20 years old, they dive up to 10 to 25m.

There are different diving patterns, can have access to the dives by the shore, they carry a floating devise, can be like a buoy, or like a wood basket, where is attached the net to use as a container.

They go by boat 5 to 10 girls, and one or two men, the girls will dive attached to a tube, and the men will watch for safety, the girls will dive until they cold down, on this time they will return to shore to warm up close to the fire.

They use counterweights like a lead belt or a counterweight (haikara) connected to the boat with a rope and a pulley for a fast descent and are then pulled up quickly, diving up to 25 m.

They will dive almost all year around, collecting different sea life depending on the season.

Freediving in Korea Hae-Nyeo

Like the Ama of Japan, the Hae-Nyeo are the women who make their living collecting shellfish and seaweed from the seabed. They are popular in south of Korea,, especially Jeju island and the beginning of freediving is not known, but early as 434 AD, pearls were found in the Shilla Kingdom.

Same as the Japanese Ama, they also been trained around 12 years old, diving until 70’s.

Diving goggles were use it around 1930s, with eye glasses used for almost two decades before diving face masks became available.

All the shells they get on the day, it will be measured, and if it’s still too small they will put it back to the sea.

They pass the skills from generation to generation, unfortunately, each time its less women who is still living as a Ama, specially young.

Die AMA und ihre Arbeit” (‘The Ama and their work”)

by Dr. Gito Teruoka – Japan – 1889/1966

Dr Terouka was working on the physiological limit of human capability of physical work, amount others, that’s why its not surprising he become interested in the Ama girls.

In 1932 a paper appeared entitled «Die Ama und ihre Arbeit, » by Dr. Teruoka.

It was unique in many ways, was the first scientific description and the first measurements of various aspects of breath-hold diving operations. It also illustrated with pictures the Ama diving skills.

In his studies, he described in detail dive patterns, frequency, depth, duration, and also how it change in water temperature during different seasons of the year.

Then described the gas exchange by analysing the first exhalation after dives of deep as 25 m and as long as 118 seconds. The alveolar CO2and O2 concentrations are recorded in his tables. The values of the CO2 and O2 were much more lower than a breath hold on dry.

But it was not until Dr. Hong obtained similar values in the Korean divers, and Dr. Lanphier, in simulated dives in a pressure chamber, that we were finally able to understand and interpret the results presented by Teruoka 30 years earlier.

Also he briefly discussed the effects of the N2 increasing during the dive.

He believed a short period of compression of N2 was not enough N2 is dissolved in the blood to produce any disease. This was accepted until not too many years ago.

Terouka was long interested in the studies of Ama even if he was focus on other studies. Unfortunately his studies of the aspects of social medicine of the Ama remain unpublished.

Sea Nomads, Sea Gypsies

Several ethnic groups of southeast Asia

  • Moken people, Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific Ocean.

  • Sama Philippines, Sabah, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and parts of Sarawak

  • Orang laut, a group of Malay people living in the Riau Islands of Indonesia

  • Tanka people, they live on boats in Southern China


It’s not clear the historical origins of the Moken people. It is thought that, due to their Austronesian language, they originated in Southern China as agriculturalists 5000-6000 years ago. And some moved to South Asian Islands. It looks like they were forced off of these coastal islands into a nomadic lifestyle on the water due to rising sea levels.

For most of the year, the Moken live on their boats called kabang, which serve not just as transportation, but also as a house. In monsoon season, they set temporary camps on the mainland.

The kids doesn’t need goggles or mask to see underwater, they dive to collect shells, clams, and sea cucumbers, they manage to see small underwater objects.

A Swedish scientist, Anna Gislen, has studies that Moken people develop better vision underwater, they test european kids and Moken kids and the results was impressive.

Out of the water, the test of the pupils was not so different, found to have the same pupil size (Moken children, 2.33 – 0.06 mm, European children, 2.30 -0.04) But underwater acuity is more than twice as good as that of european child, they constrict the pupil (1.96mm compared to 2.50 mm in European children).

Unfortunately, each time it’s also less Moken communities, they are not allowed any more to fish in most of the areas in Thailand, as it’s reserved areas.

They want to go back at the sea nomad life, but also they are not allowed to do a new boats, as they can not cut trees.


Philippines, Sabah, eastern Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and parts of Sarawak The Sama-Bajau have been a nomadic living off the sea by trading and fishing.

They kept close to the shore by erecting houses on stilts, and travelled using lepa, handmade boats which many lived in.

The oldest research of the Sama-bajau it has happen around 840 AD, in the Maranao, ancestors of the hero Bantugan is a Maranao prince who married a Sama-Bajau princess.

The Bajau might have evolved the spleen size necessary to sustain long during long time dives.

Studies suggest that the Bajau experience the most extreme low-oxygen situations humans encounter.

Nielsen, who has investigated how humans living in low-oxygen environments like Tibetans adapted to live at oxygen-poor high altitudes and selecting specific mutation that prevented chronic high red blood cell levels, which can cause medical problems.

In 2015, studies with a portable ultrasound machine, to measure the spleen one Bajau community they test 59 Bajau in addition to 34 who do not dive.

The Bajau had spleens about 50 percent larger than those of Saluans. According to Nielsen, this means they could mobilize perhaps 10 percent more red blood cells during a dive than those not adapted to the low-oxygen conditions of breath-hold diving.

There was no difference in spleen size between Bajau who dived and Bajau who did not dive.

Orang Laut

The Orang Laut (sea people) lived and travel on their boats

Historically, the Orang Laut patrolled the adjacent sea areas, repelling real pirates, directing traders to their employers ports and maintaining those ports dominance in the area.

The earliest description of the Orang Laut may have been by the 14th century Chinese

The Tankas

The Tankas or boat people are an ethnic subgroup in Southern China who have traditionally lived on junks in coastal parts of Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Hainan, and Zhejiang, as well as Hong Kong, and Macau. Now most of them live onshore, some from the older generations still live on their boats and pursue their traditional livelihood of fishing. Tanka origins can be traced back to the native ethnic minorities of southern China known historically as the Baiyue who may have taken refuge on the sea.

Some Chinese myths claim that animals were the ancestors the Tanka people, and water snakes were the ancestors of the Tanka, saying that they could last for three days in the water, without breathing air.

Stefan Randig and the great relationship with the Sama community

I’m not sure where to start, maybe starting with that they don’t appreciate being called «Bajao» it is a kind of derogatory term, so we use to call them «Sama». Within the Sama community there are numerous tribes all across the Philippines. Not all of them are diving and actually most of them are not «nomads» any more but settled. They usually live in stilt houses built on the water, mostly because they have very little to no rights in the Philippines. When we got the first Sama diver to enroll in an official AIDA competition we saw how where they really stand in society here… We invited Eldio Gulisan («Imam») to compete here in May this year. For this we had to buy him a plane ticket from Mindanao to Bohol.

None of the Sama have any ID’s let alone passports. So in order to get him to travel we started the process to get him a Philippine ID. For this he needed a birth certificate. None of the Sama have Birth Certificates. So we started that process as well, what was kind of funny but at same time also sad was that especially the elders like Imam don’t know their age or birthdays. So in order to get his birth certificate he made himself an age and birthday up.

Since Imam competed in May he has attracted a lot of attention from local and international Media outlets. I have visited their community and I am now trying my best to support them as a lot of the youngsters there have huge potential in Freediving and even though there is not much profit to be made from Freediving, it can give especially the younger generation some purpose and even a way out of poverty. What our goal is, getting them into modern Freediving draws attention to their struggle and we are hoping for Sponsorships and more support in the future to get those kids out on the world stage.

What I want to mention also. The Sama have in previous documentaries often been portrait as invincible divers that have adapted to the ocean over generations, can see underwater without mask and walk on the seabed for 10 minutes. I have been training with them and they are definitely coming with the advantage of being in the ocean right from birth and then life long. They are at home in and underwater. However they dive fishing to survive. Their style of diving is very different from what we do. So getting them ready for line training, competition rules, safety procedures etc we see that they struggle just as much as any other trained athlete would do. However they learn incredibly quickly. Imam is competing here in Bohol again next week and will be attempting his first NR of 66m FIM”

My conclusion

We all know that freediving comes from long time ago, during this little presentation I get the opportunity to know and understand a bit more.

People all over the world, been living from the sea for many years, fishing, collecting underwater shells, pearls, sponges… and as a way of life.

All different countries was trying to find a way to be underwater, curious for the unknown, they wanted to dive breathing, or without breathing.

Many different reasons brings the different communities to live in and from the sea, they all adapt more, genetically and physically, their home is underwater.

We are lucky that we still have time to discover and to meet them, and see their culture, but it’s sad that also they start to get banned of their lifestyle, or that it’s also a bit sad, as it’s not to much communities left.

But what we get from all that many ages of sea live, it’s our own love to de sea and freedive in the present times, and hope more people like Stefan, will collaborate and help the lasts communities to live as they do since always.

Bibliography Manual Of Freediving: Underwater On A Single Breath PDF – AZPDF.TIPS Urinatores, la unidad de buceadores del ejército romano | Leyendas de los Mirdalirs

the-evolution-of-freediving –

Deja un comentario