Since humans began to live together in groups, the canoe has been a staple of life and civilization. Canoes have spanned from 10,000 year old dugouts, carved from trees with animal bone, to the highest tech contemporary canoes, made of fibers infused with high temperature epoxy resin.
The spread of humanity and possibility of human diversity was largely made possible by canoes. While the English word ‘canoe’ comes from ‘kenu,’ a Caribbean word meaning ‘dugout’ by way of Spanish, the story of canoes is not the story of a single culture developed at a specific historical point, but a panoramic world view and an ever evolving narrative.
The earliest known canoe artifact is the Pesse Canoe in the Netherlands. Carbon dated between 8040 and 7510 BC, the canoe was discovered by a farmer in 1955 when an area near his home in Pesse was being dug up to make a roadway.
It is lucky the farmer recognized the simple object as the relic that it was and got in contact with a local museum, where it has been displayed ever since.
In the early 2000’s, there was controversy surrounding the canoe. Some began to doubt the seaworthiness of the object purporting, instead, that the relic was an animal trough. The theory was ultimately disproven by the Drenthe museum’s archaeologist Jaap Beuker.
Beuker spent five days exhaustively replicating the Pesse canoe; hollowing out a tree with animal bones similar to those thought to be used in its original carving. He then paddled his replica around a pond, which utterly disproved the canoe’s detractors. It’s important to note that while this is the earliest extant artifact, it is probably not the world’s first canoe.
When humans first left Africa around 100,000 years ago, they likely transported themselves by water. Moreover, 8,000 year old canoes were discovered in Kuahuqiao, China and Dufuna, Nigeria, a 7,000 year old reed boat was found in Kuwait, and a wide variety of prehistoric boats have been discovered across the America’s.
This illustrates that ancient canoes were widespread and, while the Pesse canoe is a fascinating artifact, it does not imply that the Netherlands is the only place from which canoeing sprung.
While it’s hard to give a specific date to their construction (due largely to Western Colonialism), the Senegalese coast in West Africa has a fascinating canoeing tradition. From stalwart ocean craft, to behemoth lagoon vessels, African civilizations were created and spread through watercraft.
In 1506, German explorer Valentim Fernandez was flabbergasted by canoes in Sierra Leone he said could carry 120 soldiers at once. These canoes, which could be over eighty feet long, were said to navigate lagoons and slow moving rivers bearing entire communities. They were so large and thick, they would often have several cook fires burning right into the hull of the boat without risk to its structural integrity.
Smaller ocean craft were constructed not through digging out heartwood with tools, but by burning it out. By burning the tree at high temperatures, sap turned into a resin-like material that stopped salt water from damaging the vessel and kept insects at bay. This technology allowed these smaller boats to navigate rough seas, which helped spread culture and integrate some African communities.
Technological advances in canoe making were also at work in the precolonial New World. The Chumash people, a Native American community based out of what is now Southern California, began constructing plank canoes, or tomol. Tomol are an incredibly sophisticated vessel. Requiring approximately 500 days of human labor, the tomol was constructed by sewing together planks of redwood with fibers made from twisted milkweed. The awl holes were reinforced with heated asphaltum (the stone from which asphalt is made) mixed with pine pitch.
These vessels were decorated in red ochre, inset with shells and precious stones, and constituted a family’s wealth and status. The ability to construct such a sturdy craft as the tomol had an enormous impact on Chumash culture. This plank canoe allowed sailers to venture further into the ocean where they could hunt enormous fish. Swordfish, in particular, became a staple of Chumash diet and religion.
The Chumash believed that every ocean creature was correlated to an animal on land; sardines were thought to be an ocean lizards and lobsters equivalent to potato bugs. Because of the deep sea abilities gained through plank canoe construction, the Chumash people discovered swordfish, which they believed were the ocean’s version of humans.
Contemporary American canoe design pursues the tradition of birch bark canoes, constructed by Native American’s since the Pre-columbian period and admired by settlers during westward expansion. Made out of skinned birch bark over a light wooden frame, these canoes (which are still used today) were admired for their agility, sturdiness, and light weight.
In their journals, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark often remarked on these canoes, “I have seen the natives near the coast riding waves in these canoes with safety and apparently without concern where I should have thought it impossible for any vessel of the same size to lived a minute.”
They also recount how easy it was to navigate treacherous water features with the canoes, as they could simply pull them out of the water and carry them on one shoulder to less formidable territory.
Passage over water has been an essential part of human life since time immemorial. Understanding the history of canoes does not allow a simple understanding of history as a straight line, beginning at a point of origin and ending in the present. Various cultures have used and still use a variety of sophisticated means to travel by water.
Historically, this ability has led to amazing ethnographic advances. Peoples from across the globe met due to sea travel, exchanging ideas and shaping our modern society. From the Polynesians, whose enduring canoes crossed the wide seas to reach the Americas 1,500 years ago, to East Asian and Oceanic outriggers which outmaneuvered and outstripped ships by a week’s time, the history of canoes is as expansive as global culture itself.
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