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The Patagonian Canoe

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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: tdf_canoa.jpg (134160 bytes)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  yamana_canoe4.jpg (56941 bytes)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.

tdf_beaglecanal_air.jpg (85228 bytes)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.  Tdf_Beaglecanal.jpg (81576 bytes)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.
The miserable and cold weather with its constant dampness  made them carry fire on the boats, on a bed of stones, turf (7 cm thick) and gravel. The boat was meant for use by the family: the husband built it and presented it to the wife who, from then on, stayed in charge of it. She would paddle, tell where to land and how to take special precautions and would request help from the oldest daughter or the husband when wind demanded more power. Trips as long as 200 miles have been heard of. By the way, there was a native word "atégaatas" and it meant "to be clever in paddling". Other words, gleaned form a website: "appi" meant "oar" (more likely "paddle") and "anan" for canoe. For comparison, the Ojibwe words are "abwi" and "tchiman" (Frederic Baraga, 1853).   yamana_cano1.jpg (25738 bytes)The Yamana's life style which included hunting for sea lions and the diving for shellfish would not have been possible without the canoe. The picture on the right depicts such a boat with paddles, bows and harpoons, all arranged arbitrarily for the benefit of the observer. Next yamana_canoe2.jpg (38232 bytes)is a picture of a similar or maybe the same boat, from the same source: the home page of the Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia  


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!Yamana or Alacalouf Portage.jpg (113368 bytes)

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:

  1. A proper tree had to be found, preferrably "lenga", the magellan beech. Its bark is brittle and rough, and thick and I feel sorry for the native that might have remembered the ease of building with birch bark. Finding a straight tree trunk of sufficient length (5 m) was not easy since "lenga" has the tendency to branch out fairly low. I guess that they had to find sheltered coves where trees could grow tall. Tdf_forest.jpg (201552 bytes)In those days, the forests grew down to the shore. Finding a tree close to the water was essential as the bark is heavy and must be kept intact during transport.On the right is a picture of lenga forest close to the shore west of Ushuaia, with a red trail marker.

  2. yamana_canoe5.jpg (64462 bytes)The bark had to be stripped, a difficult process. The men would go in spring (middle of September till end of October) when the bark comes off easiest. One man would climb the tree and stay secured with a rope that was thrown over a higher branch so he was able to work with his hands free. He would make circular incisions at the top and the bottom of the sheet to be peeled, and a lengthwise cut to allow the sheet to be opened. He would work from the top to force a gap to open and, once the gap was big enough, would wedge himself between bark and trunk so that gravity would help prying the sheet off the tree. Each sheet was immediately submerged in swamp water so it would stay pliable until needed. The modern builders of such a canoe noted as a major problem the tendency of the peeled bark to become brittle quickly.

  3. Three sheets were needed to make the canoe: one shorter cigar-shaped piece to form the bottom and two longer pieces for the sides, all cut without the help of any scaling or measuring tools.tdf_canoe_bark.jpg (12576 bytes)The bark was scraped on both sides to remove loose fibers and rough ridges. They were then roasted over a long open fire and turned constantly, until the bark was as pliable as thick leather. The joining edges were mitred with the sharp edges of shells so that later there was less chance of leakage at the seam.

  4. Stakes were pushed into the ground to outline the shape of the hull and then the three pieces were sewn together. At some point, before the sewing was complete, the thwarts were tied into place - why so, was not explained in Gusinde's book but maybe this method puts less internal stress into the bark structure when completed. For thread, the Yamanas preferred strips of walrus hide but the youngest wood under the bark of Ńirre (nothofago antarctica) could also be used.

  5. The seams had to be caulked. The wife would do this as she was acknowledged to be more skilful at this task. The caulking material was moss, grass, clay and fine red algae. The modern group seems to have unsuccessfully tried other means until they finally settled for the "original recipe".

  6. The ends were tied high with string and a supporting stick to counteract the tendency of the canoe ends to bend down during the canoe's life with its constant cycles of soaking and drying.

  7. The gunnels were attached: they took the form of a branch that ran the length of each side and was split lengthwise so that both halves could be clamped over the rim of the hull. Sticks the thickness of a man's index finger served as ribs: they were split lengthwise, ends sharpened, and forced into the inside of the hull and secured by the gunnel. About 50 such sticks, closely laid beside each other, were used. Extra bark strips were installed to allow some comfort for sitting, to build the place where the fire is kept, and to give extra strength to the hull. A gap between the inner bark pieces was left in the centre of the boat to permit easy bailing.

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 coquimbo.gif (50146 bytes)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.

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