The Patagonian Canoe
The canoes of Patagonia are similar to their North American cousins, but there are differences.Indians in North America built bark canoes that were pretty uniform i.e. it's easy to tell the builders were related. Sure, shapes differed from one culture to the next, reflecting the demands of the predominant watercourses of the culture and the material on hand.
What about the remainder of the Americas? If the people of North America all built canoes, and the settlement of the continent proceeded from the north, then one should expect bark canoes in South America, and these canoes should be similar to their cousins in the north. On a recent trip to the southern tip of South America, I had the chance to explore this possibility. Here's what I found:
Two traditional canoes can be viewed by the public: the one on the left is in the museum of the Silesian Mission in Punta Arenas, Chile. It is a canoe that Yamanas had paddled into Punta Arenas in the first half of this century and been bought for preservation. The other example of a canoe is the result of an attempt in the 1980's to build one using original methods. The resulting replica is on exhibit in Ushuaia, Argentina, in the museum of the old prison.
To understand the boat, let's look at the job it was supposed to do and the material used.
The Yamanas used the boat for transportation in the channels
and bays of the southern archipelago. Martin Gusinde asserts that the shores down there
are not suitable for travel and thus the canoe was indispensable for the natives. Ferocious winds and
braking waves necessitated to build a canoe that is higher than its northern counterpart.
In the picture on the left above, the shore line of the Beagle Canal somewhat east of
Ushuaia is shown and one can get a feel for the strength of the winds. The picture on the
right was taken on a hike along the same body of water, but to the west of Ushuaia, near
the border with Chile. the apparent calm near the sheltered shore belies the conditions
further out in the open channel.
There is a book that documents what a boy observed as he grew up near Yamanas that were living the traditional way: Lucas Bridges, son of the author of the famous Yamana dictionary, published "Uttermost Part of the Earth" in 1949 and, since it is no longer in print, I have extracted comments that shed more light on how the canoes and the Yamanas. Click here to read the observations by someone who lived to see these canoes being built and used in the 1800's!
Recently, I came across "Patagonia - Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography" which shows a number of pictures of people and boats, and even a portage in the Strait of Magellan. That portage looks like it could have been used by dragging dugout canoes across the 350m strip of land. I am not sure how one would have handled a heavy waterlogged bark canoe - maybe that's one of the reasons these canoes (at best) lasted only for one year.
Martin Gusinde's book "Die Feuerlander Indianer, volume 2 (Yamanas) " documents how such a canoe is built. I owe access to this rare book to Father Ambrosio Lipovec, the temporary librarian of the museum in the Silesian Mission in Rio Grande:
Thus, the building of such a boat takes two to three weeks for a dedicated worker, all work done in the shade to avoid drying out the bark. According to Gusinde, the boats do not exceed 5 m in length, 1 m in width and .7 m in depth. Individuals were highly respected when they were known to build good boats. The boat would typically last less than a year, and then another boat had to be built. As this happens before the proper boat building season, the boat will be makeshift and of less quality.
Necessary accessories were paddles, a painter (rope for typing up the canoe) about 1.6 m in length and a bailer made of bark. The paddles were made from split wood, the blade with a width of up to 20 cm and the shaft making up one third of the total length of the paddle.
Today's people, and some of them of partially native origin, have no bark canoes, just boats made from planks or steel. The only reminder of the forgotten canoes are tourist souvenirs: bark canoes up to 40 cm long, with nicely sewn gunnels. To appear complete, there are always paddles placed at the bottom of such toy canoe. But Alas! These "paddles" always have the shape of rowing oars.....
Note: the Darwin expedition noted these boats but did not go into details. Darwin documented geology, plants and animals so well on this trip, but he certainly was remiss in his observations of the human members of Patagonia's ecology.
In the Journal of Syms
Covington is a sketch (' Coquimbo',
reproduced courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales [Mitchell
Library reference PXD 41 f. 3c]). This boat is different from what I saw in the museums:
it seems to have a double-hull construction and a double-blade is used. Also, the
depiction of a single person paddling in front does not jive with the descriptions that I
came across and I thus don't know what to make of this particular item.