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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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Madan Boat Use


In the prior post we examined the watercraft of the Madan or Marsh Arabs. Now we'll look at how the Madan used those boats -- particularly the plank-built ones. As in the last post, all the photos and essentially all the content are from The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger.

Almost all of the economic activities of the Madan depended upon their boats. The most important were raising buffaloes, fishing, wildfowling, reed cutting, mat-making, and smuggling. Others included raising sheep and goats and growing wheat, barley, and rice. Some entire communities specialized in boat building. 

Madan boatman with reed mats ready for export
Huge stacks of rolled mats at the extreme right and left of the image are ready for export downstream. (Click any image to magnify.)
Mat-making relied upon the reeds and rushes that were ubiquitous in the marshes. Two passages from The Marsh Arabs are illustrative:
“We passed . . . a large two masted boat loaded high with reed mats, being laboriously poled toward the Tigris. Later we passed a great raft made of dry reeds. Forty feet long and ten feet high, it was aground and temporarily abandoned. When the water-level rose, this stack of reeds would be floated downstream, perhaps as far as Basra, and there broken up and sold.”
and
“The Nuafil [one of the many tribes Thesiger visited] kept some buffaloes, but their livelihood depended on the weaving of mats, which they exported in great numbers. Large sailing boats, like the one we had already seen, fetched the mats when the water was deep enough.”
Although the Madan, as devout Moslems, do not eat pig, they frequently mounted hunting expeditions in which several boatloads of men would go after the wild pig that abounded in the marshes and played havoc with their crops. Some of the hunting may have been done for the pure sport of it, however.

Madan boats on market day
Boats congregating in great numbers on market days.
Aside from economic uses, virtually every aspect of life in the marshes depended upon boats. All visits to other villages, for courting, weddings, funerals, the prosecution of feuds, visits by itinerant circumcisers, etc., were made by boat. As few of the reed islands or marsh dwellers had privies, the call of nature was often answered by hopping into a canoe, paddling a short way off, and squatting over the side. Drinking water, by the way, was drawn from the same source.

Madan boat carrying a load of passengers
Even with full load of passengers, there are still several inches of freeboard on this balam. Three men are paddling: one in the bow, and two (on opposite sides) in the stern.
Thesiger described a scene in which a family was moving their settlement by boat:
“Two boys in a canoe urged on half a dozen buffaloes, following behind a balam that was paddled by an elderly man and another boy, who made yodelling cries to encourage the swimming animals. A woman and three small children, one of them wearing nothing but a silver collar round his neck, shared the back of the boat with two buffalo calves, a kitten, and a lot of hens. The front was piled high with their belongings, including the dismantled framework of their house, reed mats, water jars, cooking pots, sacks of grain and a pile of quilts. A dog stood on top of all this between the wooden legs of a churn, and barked at us as we edged past.”
As a social convention, it was customary for a man in boat to greet a man on shore first, rather than the reverse, and for boats traveling downstream to issue the first greeting to those traveling upstream. Perhaps the first of these traditions arose because a person traveling was more likely to have news for one at home than vice-versa, or that a stranger passing by one’s home was viewed as a potential threat, so it behooved the boatman to be the first to express good intentions. As to the second tradition, perhaps those traveling downstream were assumed to be coming from home, while those traveling upstream were returning from market. News from home might have been valued more highly than news from the city. These are just speculations.

Fishing methods

Fishing, much of it done from boats, was the primary economic activity of many individuals and tribes in the marshes, and an important secondary one for others. Some fished on a subsistence basis, while others caught fish for market. The most common catch seems to have been different species of barbel, some of which are types of catfish, others being related to them. Several fishing methods were used, including spearing, netting, and poisoning. Also noodling – more on that in a bit.

Among those who used nets, differing tribes favored different types of nets and different associated methods, including the use of cast nets from shore, setting a net across a flowing channel, wading with a scoop net, and setting seines either from boats or by wading. Another shore-based fishing method involved setting up a barrier of reeds in a shallow area of current to provide fish with a resting place. When fish bumped up against the reeds, their movement alerted men waiting on the shore with spears

Fish poisoning was done in winter and early spring, before the water began to rise. Datura, a poison derived from a genus of plants of the same name, was purchased from local merchants, mixed with flour and chicken droppings or inserted into freshwater shrimps which were cast upon calm stretches of water. Fish ate the bait and were stupefied by the datura, causing them to float to the surface where they could be easily collected. This was a more productive method of fishing than spearing.

Noodling (a Southern United States term for catching catfish by hand) was also practiced, particularly for a large fish called gessan, which was probably a type of barbel. Gessan would shelter beneath floating islands of reeds, where they were safe from spear and net. They were targeted by teams of two men in a canoe. One man stayed in the boat while the other dove beneath the island with a rope tied around his leg. The swimmer would grab the fish (probably by the gills, if Southern practice is an indication) and be pulled back out by the man in the canoe.

Naturally, there was rivalry between different cultures and different tribes living in the marshes, and while this was probably based on simple “tribalism” (in the modern, nonanthropological sense), it manifested itself in a focus upon each others’ fishing habits. To quote Thesiger again:
“Far out on the lake, Berbera were fishing from boats. We could hear the beating of tins, and the smack of poles on water as they drove the fish into their nets. The Madan had a profound contempt for the Berbera and, except that they would eat with them, despised them hardly less than the Sabeans who were at the very bottom of the social scale. Yet no tribesman ever suggested to me that the Berbera were of a different origin. The prejudice was solely against their occupation. At first sight this appeared to be illogical, since the Madan themselves caught fish. But the Berbers netted fish to make money, whereas the Madan speared fish for food.”
This was changing however, and Madan were beginning to sell both fish and buffalo milk, which they previously had not done, instead keeping both commodities solely for their own use. Thus, when Thesiger visited, the Madan’s stated basis for their prejudice was in the process of shifting away from the occupation itself to the Berberas’ different method of fishing.

Madan fishing with spears from boats
Madan fishing with spears, their boats proceeding in line abreast to herd fish before them. One man paddles in the stern in each canoe. 

Of all the fishing methods employed by the Madam, the greatest prestige was associated with spearing – at least among the tribes with which Thesiger spent the most time. “In spring, before the water rose, the Madan collected in parties of forty or fifty canoes. They swept up and down a lagoon, in line and some four or five yards apart, while the spearmen tried to impale the fish as they broke back under the canoes. In summer they speared fish at night by the light of reed torches.”

During the height of fishing season, hundreds of boats might work a single lake at once. Merchants would set up buying stations on the shore, buying boatloads of fish, packing them in ice, and sending them by truck to Baghdad. (Fish were also salted.) There was fierce competition between groups employing spearing and netting methods, racing each other to the next favored spot and intentionally blocking each other’s access. Thesiger even described spearmen poaching a seine net already full of fish and in the process of being drawn in. This would seem to be strong evidence of the superiority of net fishing, but the spear-wielding Madan evidently didn’t see it that way.