Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Logboat Under Construction in Amazonian Ecuador

In June, I went searching for logboats along a portion of the drainage of the Rio Napo in el Oriente -- that part of Ecuador that lies to the east of the Andes Mountains. The Napo and all other rivers here drain ultimately into the Amazon.


Kichwa canoe builder
Fernando Vargas-Tapuy, Kichwa farmer and canoe builder, at the base of a chunchu tree. (Click any image to enlarge.)
On my first day in the forest, accompanied by a guide/translator and a driver, I explored the Rio Jatunyaco, a tributary of the Napo. In the dispersed rural community of Ichu Urku, I met Fernando Vargas-Tapuy. Like almost everyone in this area, Fernando is Kichwa (i.e., Quichua). He lives with his wife and toddler daughter on a small farm where they grow cacao, maize, yuca, plantain, and guava, consuming 5-10% of it and selling the surplus in the nearby city of Tena. He also pans for gold in the Rio Yucho Pino (in spite of the "rio" in its name, this tributary of the Jatunyaco is really just a mountain stream), typically collecting 1.0 to 1.5 grams in a day of work. Fernando's farm has no electricity, but he does have mobile phone coverage. 

Fernando told my guide that with the help of an uncle, he was building a dugout canoe nearby, and he was willing to take us there to see it. With Fernando leading, we walked through his farm, across muddy fields, then up a slick, narrow, steep path over a low mountain. Although the sun was overcast, the humidity was oppressive, and the 40- minute walk proved to be the hardest hike I have ever done. At one point, Fernando stopped to cut me a walking stick with his machete. This helped a great deal, especially when crossing and recrossing the rocky Rio Yucho Pino several times. 


dugout canoe construction in Ecuador's Amazon
Fernando at the canoe building site, high on the side of a steep hill.
High on the mountain we came to the canoe building site. The canoe was being carved where the trunk had been felled, on a fairly steep slope. At first sight, it looked abandoned, for it was full of sodden wood chips and partially covered in fungus. In fact, it was being actively worked, but the environment is so moist, and fungus grows so rapidly there, that a pause of just a few days suffices to give rise to a substantial crop. 

The canoe had been under construction since April and, working with his uncle, Fernando expected to finish it in June. It would not be moved, however, until the flow in the Rio Yucho Pino went down. Too steep to paddle, the Yucho Pino represents an impediment, not a canoe corridor, until it dries out. 

When it does, Fernando will call for a minga -- a Kichwa tradition in which the people of a community work together in a system of shared obligations. Approximately a dozen men will help carry the boat down the mountain and to the river, a process that will take about two days. Fernando will provide food and or drink to his helpers, but no payment. What is expected is Fernando's participation the next time a neighbor calls a minga.

Fernando plans to use the canoe to transport his produce to Tena and to bring his daughter to school when she is old enough. He says he will paddle it himself and not fit it with an outboard engine. With more than three people aboard or a heavy cargo, more than one paddler would be required. Based on observations of other canoeists nearby, I believe the canoe will also be poled as often as it is paddled, although I did not discuss this with Fernando. 


dugout canoe construction in Ecuador's Amazon
The canoe measures 7.50 meters LOA and 61cm beam. It is roughly 36 cm from the exterior bottom to the top of the gunwale and 25cm deep on the interior, but according to the builder, the bottom will be hollowed another 5cm or so, for a final interior depth of about 30cm and a bottom thickness of about 6cm. The sides are 27mm thick at the sheer. 
dugout canoe, Ecuador, detail
Fungus growth is apparent on the exterior. Rough exterior shaping was done with a chainsaw, tool marks of which are visible.
stump from canoe tree, Ecuador
Fernando called the tree from which the trunk was cut a chunchu, the wood of which he says is hard and durable.  He expects the canoe's lifespan to be four years. The stump was deeply lobed, not at all round. Its extreme measurements at the cut were 142cm x 86cm. (A blue pen was placed on the trunk for scale.)

Chunchu tree, Ecuador's Amazon
A chunchu tree on Fernando's farm -- not nearly as large in girth as the tree he and his uncle cut on the mountain for the canoe.
leaves of Chunchu tree
Leaves and branches of a chunchu.
dugout canoe building in el Oriente, Ecuador
After initial shaping with a chainsaw, the canoe is slab-sided with angular ends. The forefoot will be cut back later for an easier entry, and the square chines will be relieved for a round bottom. Fernando took a few swipes with his machete near the top of the bow to show that the red-colored wood was sound beneath the covering of fungus. 
dugout canoe in el Oriente, Ecuador
Another view of the rough-cut bow.
dugout canoe stern in el Oriente, Ecuador
A seat for the paddler is carved into the stern just forward of the aft platform. This feature is typical of the canoes on the upper Napo drainage.
dugout canoe stern and builder in el Oriente, Ecuador
A more complete view of the stern.
dugout canoe detail, el Oriente, Ecuador
From the cross-hatch marks in the bottom interior, it appears that gross material removal was performed with a chainsaw, although I did not confirm this with the builder. Later shaping was done with an axe and two-handed and one-hand adzes, marks of which are clearly visible on the sides.
dugout canoe transom, el Oriente, Ecuador
The end of the trunk split when the tree was felled. A cleat was nailed across the transom to prevent the split from spreading further. A large percentage of the dugouts I saw in this area were split at the stern, with heavy wire more typically used to prevent further splitting. 


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Ancient Boat Artifacts at National Museum of Ecuador


Watercraft played central roles in the economic, social, and spiritual lives of Ecuador’s prehispanic coastal cultures. Referring to the period of the region’s first civilizations, from 2000 to 200 BCE, Karen Olsen Bruhns states that “Transportation on the coast was … almost entirely by boat, and canoe models are common in the art of the region.”

Artifacts on display at the newly renovated National Museum of Ecuador in Quito demonstrate the importance of watercraft to Ecuador’s prehispanic populations and illustrate some of the ways in which they were used.


Canoe paddlers, Tolita culture
The ceramic canoe paddlers in this and the following image, from the Tolita culture (600 BCE to 400 CE) have been found in significant numbers (see previous post for similar figures of Tolita paddlers), testifying to the importance of the canoeist in daily life. (Click any image to enlarge.) 
Canoe paddlers, Tolita culture
The bulging cheeks show that the paddlers are chewing coca leaves. Since coca is not native to Ecuador’s coast, this suggests regular trade between the coast and the Andes or even the Amazon. And because the medicinal effects of coca at countering altitude sickness are irrelevant on the coast, it may indicate that even common people – not just shamans – used coca for its stimulant/hallucinogenic effects.
Model of a Tolita canoeist with a stabilized logboat
A Tolita paddler in his ceramic canoe. Unlike the previous paddlers, who sat with their legs spread, this one sits with his legs together. Behind him are the remains of a second paddler with his legs spread to clear the first one’s hips, while in the bow are the feet of an otherwise missing standing or squatting passenger or high-status individual. The modeling of the complete paddler is more sophisticated than in the previous photos.
Model of a Tolita canoeist with a stabilized logboat
The canoe has stabilizer boards attached to both sides, at or just above the waterline. In case of a sudden loss of balance, these boards would provide some resistance to further tipping  and give the paddlers a precious moment in which to apply bracing strokes to prevent a capsize.
Jama Coaque figurine-drinking vessel
The item, from the Jama Coaque culture (350 BCE – 1532 CE) is identified on the exhibit card as a “paddler attached to a vessel” (Remero adosado a recipiente). I question the identification and suggest that the figure represents a warrior, not a paddler, as the item he holds looks more like a spear than a paddle to my eyes, and I have not seen the kneeling posture in other prehispanic depictions of Ecuadorian canoeists. The figure’s attachment to a drinking vessel strongly suggests ritual usage, which is not surprising for a warrior figure, somewhat more so for that of a canoeist. If the figure does indeed represent a paddler, this places canoeists at a high level of social significance.
Silver raft model from Bahia culture
A model raft in silver from the Bahia culture (500 BCE to 650 CE), manned by two paddlers, a steersman, and an individual of high status.
Silver raft model from Bahia culture
The logs are lashed together with silver wire. The figures are severely flattened sagitally, meant to be viewed only frontally, regardless of their orientation on the raft.
Silver raft model from Bahia culture
The longer logs are outboard and shorter ones inboard, counter to common practice of Ecuador’s later Manteño culture (500-1532 CE) and of many other raft-building cultures around the world, in which longer logs tend to be placed closer to the centerline, giving the raft a pointed bow (and sometimes stern as well).
Manteño tools for collecting Spondylus
Tools used by the Manteño culture to collect thorny oysters (Spondylus). On the left is a weight used by divers to enable them to descend rapidly to the depth where spondylus are found. On the right is a chisel used to loosen the mollusks from the rocks to which they attach themselves. Spondylus was important to many of Ecuador’s prehispanic coastal cultures for its spiritual symbolism, for the production of jewelry and other ornaments, and as an item of exchange.
Manteño collecting Spondylus
A fish's-eye depiction of diving for spondylus from a three-log raft using tools like those in the previous photo.

Not explicitly depicted by these artifacts are other activities for which prehispanic coastal Ecuadorians used watercraft, including: fishing for finfish, carrying produce and trade items, and traveling for social purposes and for war. According to Bruhns, “Canoes seem to have been the major means of transport in northern Ecuador, whereas the river rafts appear to have been much used in the huge, meandering rivers of the Guayas Basin [at the mouth of which is Guayaquil, modern Ecuador’s largest city], later being converted to coast-wise transport as well.”

Source: Karen Olsen Bruhns quotations from Ancient South America, Cambridge University Press, 1994 (reprint 1999), pp.148-9

Friday, May 25, 2018

Shuar Logboat at National Museum of Ecuador

Following a two-year closure caused by money problems and the need for extensive renovation, the National Museum of Ecuador at La Casa de Cultura in Quito reopened last Saturday. The essentially new museum is attractive, sophisticated, and free.

In the current fashion of most museums, this one takes pains to tell stories. Artifacts are displayed in service of narratives constructed by the curators (and, one suspects, by the museum's board of directors and management). This means that one might not find an extensive display of items from a particular culture or artistic movement all in one place. Instead, one or a few such items might appear in a conceptually linear display with different types of items from different eras, movements, or cultures, in order to illustrate, for example, the evolution of a national identity, art movement, or economy, the widespread effects of colonialism, racism, or nationalism, or some other major theme. In terms of public education and opinion-shaping, this is probably a good approach, but for visitors interested in a particular, narrow subject, it can be disappointing or frustrating. Count me in the latter group, even while I acknowledge that the museum is a fine one and well worth a visit.

I was there on opening day (ticket #36) and went searching for boat-related content. In this post we'll look at one notable item, a beautiful 20th century logboat (i.e., dugout canoe) of the Shuar people of Ecuador's Amazonian region, on loan from Museo Pumapungo in Cuenca, Ecuador. (We posted previously about another Shuar logboat of a different design on display in Quito.) As always, click any image to enlarge it.


Shuar dugout canoe
The Shuar logboat is about 17' LOA with a narrow beam of about 15.5". Type of wood was not identified. (Dimensions are either eyeballed or based on armspan and handspan measurements.)
Shuar dugout canoe
The sides are straight and parallel. The ends are virtually identical, leading to square-ended  extensions or platforms.

Shuar dugout canoe
The interior sections are rather square. Sides and bottom are flat and at very close to right angles. The sides are about 7/8" thick at the sheer. The bottom is roughly 1.5" - 1.75" thick.

Shuar dugout canoe
The platforms/extensions are fairly narrow, rising out of thickened "gunwales" near the ends. A slight ridge appears on the underside of the platform.


Shuar dugout canoe end view
The exterior of the hull shows rounded chines and a flat bottom. A single bent nail appears sticking out to the right of the end extension/platform. It does not appear to be robust enough to serve as a tying-off point. Might it be a guide for a fishing line?
Shaur logboat detail
Even while the sides and bottom retain a sharp angle between them, the interior hollowing tapers and rises to a sharp point, leaving a large amount of timber intact at the ends. This visually appealing feature probably helps the hull resist cracking.

Shuar dugout canoe adze marks
The boat was hollowed out using an adze, marks from which are clearly visible.

Shuar dugout canoe decoration
Applied decoration near one end does not appear to be paint. Perhaps it is derived from a plant resin (?).

Shuar dugout canoe decoration
Decoration near midships. Ax and/or adze marks can be seen on the exterior of the hull. 

Shuar dugout canoe paddle
The paddle is about 5'6" long, but the upper end of the shaft is missing, along with any end-grip that may have existed (unlikely). The shaft and blade are carved from the whole. The shaft is flat on its front and back surfaces, but the sides are rounded and the edges are relieved. The blade has wide shoulders and tapers toward a broadly rounded tip.  

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