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Friday, January 12, 2018

Canoes and Canoeists of Ancient Ecuador

The Inca are certainly the best-known pre-European culture of Ecuador, but they were hardly the only one. In fact, they were latecomers on the scene, invading from Peru less than one hundred years before Francisco Pizzaro arrived from Spain to destroy their civilization. Prior to the Inca's arrival, the land that is present-day Ecuador had been occupied by a succession of regional cultures, several of which used small watercraft.

Dugout canoes played an important enough role in some Ecuadorian cultures to have warranted frequent representation in ceramic miniatures. Although we don't know the purpose of these sculptures, it's probable that they had ritual significance, as is the case with almost all art from almost all ancient societies. In spite of their pleasing aesthetics, it is unlikely that they were made for purely decorative purposes.


With the exception of the anchor, the following photos were taken through glass exhibit cases. The first three boats (six photos), the paddlers without canoes, and the anchor are at the Museo Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneo in Guayaquil. The last canoe miniature (three photos) is at the Archaeological Museum of the University of Cuenca. Click any image to enlarge.

Chorrera dugout canoe with two paddlers
Chorrera dugout canoe with two paddlers. ("Existing in the late formative period the Chorrera culture lived in the Andes and Coastal Regions of Ecuador between 1000 and 300 BC." [Wikipedia]). The canoe has overhangs at both ends upon which the paddlers squat.
Chorrera dugout canoe with two paddlers
With its full-width bow and stern platforms, the canoe is nearly rectangular in plan view. The deep interior may simply represent a real canoe's hold, or the sculture might have been used as a vessel for food or other ritual offerings. Both paddles are held to the same side of the canoe. 
Chorrera canoe paddler miniature
The squatting bowman holds a paddle with a long blade that tapers into the shaft and a square bottom end. There is no end grip on the shaft. The paddler wears decorative ear plugs and a helmet of some kind.
Tolita canoeist and canoe miniature
Tolita canoeist and canoe. More crudely fashioned or "schematic" than the previous one, this canoe nonetheless shows small bow and stern platforms. Although the canoeist lacks a paddle, he is otherwise well-equipped. The Tolita lived on the northern coast of Ecuador from 500BCE to 500CE. 
Tolita canoe miniature
An elaborate Tolita canoe with several notable features, including:
  • a bow platform
  • structures that appear as side decks fastened to the outside of the hull from about midships to the stern
  • an arched shelter amidships
  • a coaming or seat backs aft of the shelter

The seat backs, and possibly the shelter, indicate the boat was used for transportation of people, although carrying cargo in addition cannot be ruled out. These features also appear to indicate a boat for a user of high status, perhaps a merchant who could afford to sit back and relax while others worked the boat.
The "side decks" are a curiosity Did men stand on them to paddle or pole the boat, leaving more room in the hull for passengers and/or cargo? If men stood on both of them simultaneously, the boat would have adequate balance. But if one paddler were to step or fall off, the boat might become highly unstable. Perhaps, instead of decks, they represent sponsons to increase the boat's stability and buoyancy, or simply planks that would provide momentary resistance if the boat were to heel suddenly.
Tolita canoe miniature
This angle shows a clearer view of the seat backs or coaming.
Tolita canoe paddlers miniatures
Two Tolita canoe paddlers. I speculate that in this and the following image, the missing canoes were made of wood, which disintegrated prior to the recovery of the ceramics. Unlike the Chorrera paddles, these have lanceolate blades. The paddlers squat, holding their paddles in a more realistic fashion than the Chorrera paddler, with their top hand nearer the end of the shaft (which, like the Chorrera example, lacks an end-grip). The paddlers appear to be wearing skirts and helmets.
Tolita canoe paddlers miniatures
Three more Tolita paddlers. The middle and rear figures sit with their bodies facing front and their legs extended. The front figure is in a more dynamic pose: his torso is twisted to his "on" paddling side and his onside leg is crossed over his offside leg. All three figures wear helmets but, unlike the previous example, their legs are bare. 
Miniatures of Tolita canoes and paddlers
Another angle showing the two groups of paddlers (and, behind them, the covered boat [left], two pieces of spondylus shell [right], which were used as currency and for decorative work, and the rude canoeist). 
Tolita canoe and canoeists miniature
Tolita canoeists in a dugout canoe. The canoe, which is broken crosswise amidships, has bow and stern platforms and a nearly rectangular plan view. The paddlers' disc-shaped headgear with side flaps is similar to that worn by the aft-most paddler in the group of three above. They hold their paddles on opposite sides of the canoe. Their legs are bare, and the bow paddler's legs are crossed.
Tolita canoe and canoeists miniature
The same item as above. Although simply rendered, the figures have the realistic energy of paddlers concentrating at their work, straining to push forward. 
Tolita canoe and canoeists miniature
Aft view of the same item, showing the canoe's broad stern platform, slab-shaped sides, and rounded bottom.
Stone anchor from the Manteño civilization
Stone anchor from the Manteño civilization, which dominated Ecuador's central coast from 850CE to 1600CE. The Manteño used large sailing rafts of balsa logs to conduct intensive trade along the coast of Ecuador and as far north as Central America. This anchor, however, appears much too small to have been used on an oceanic raft and was probably used with a smaller watercraft. (American currency is for scale. Rope is not original). 

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Fishing Canoe from the Ecuador Coast

Continuing our series on boats and related artifacts that we observed recently at museums in Ecuador, we'll look now at a examples from a very fine exhibit of the country's diverse cultures at the Museo Pumapungo in the lovely city of Cuenca. (For the first post in this series, see this article about an Amazonian logboat.)

The first item, the canoe that follows, was built by cholo pescadores -- literally "mixed-race fishermen" -- on the Pacific coast. Like many Ecuadorians, cholo are of mixed Indian and Spanish descent. The more common term for that genetic mixture in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America is mestaje (i.e., mestizo, literally meaning "miscegenation," but used in a nonperjorative sense to mean simply "mixed race"), but the cholo pescadores are considered a distinct culture. What follows is my sadly unfluent translation of the exhibit card, the only information provided about the boat and related items:
Cholo Pescador  
They are so called because of mixed Indian/Spanish ancestry and their primary economic activity. They live at the seashore in small towns or compounds.  
Fishing in canoes and bongos*, using cast nets, trammel nets and other devices, is done at night or at dawn, as a group, and they return at noon. They tend to be organized in cooperatives and are abandoning traditional techniques and boats.  
The mangrove is an important part of the coastal ecosystem; However, in the places where the fisherman lived traditionally, shrimp farms and logging are now causing major alterations in the life of the inhabitants and in the natural balance.  
The cholo pescador's language is Spanish, with unique modalities and tones. It has a rich poetic and narrative oral tradition. (The culture's) main festivals are those of the Virgin of Monserrate, María Auxiliadora, San Jacinto and St. Peter the Fisherman.

*The meaning of "bongo" as a type of watercraft is unknown. Reader input is requested.

Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe
Th cholo canoe on display is small, probably 12 feet long or less. It is plank-built, with a flat bottom that rises at both ends, hard chines, and nearly vertical sides. Given its small size, we conclude the boat is used by a single fisherman in protected waters, possibly amidst the local mangrove swamps that cover much of the coast. The presumed stern is to the right. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe
There are no frames or floor timbers. A single sitting thwart (beneath the religious statue) is the only interior structure. A ringbolt (not visible here, but shown below) near the end at the left of the photo presumably designates the bow. The associated fishing net seems to have a drawstring at the bottom. We believe this is a cast net with a purse-type closure.
Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe - stern transom
Both ends have small, shaped transoms well above the waterline at the ends of the upward-rising flat bottom. The garboard plank is rabbeted into the sides of the transom. There appear to be at least four strakes of varying height per side. The planks are quite thick and the boat is probably too heavy to be carried by one man. We could not make out the method of fastening, but suspect the planks are edge-nailed to one another. Several sheet metal patches have been fastened with nails on the exterior to repair damage, and painted over. 
Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe - bow detail
Ring bolt fastened through the bottom at the presumed bow to secure the painter.
Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe - stern plan view
Plan view of the stern shows that the bottom is made of three strakes, the center one being the widest. The rising ends of the bottom are separate pieces from the central bottom plank, and they are hollowed, dugout-style. This is an interesting, rarely-seen stage of boat development, representing a small step between the extended dugout and the purely plank-built craft.
Also apparent is the substantial shaping of the side planks. (The bow is similar.) Given their thickness, we presume the planks are hewn to the desired curves near the ends rather than bent to shape. The builders may find it easier to build the canoe with a transom than with stemposts and sharp ends, but the substantial hollow of the planking curve just inboard of the transom appears to have no functional explanation, and is probably aesthetic, or perhaps a design holdover from earlier dugout construction. It is somewhat reminiscent of the extended platforms at the ends of many dugout canoes from Ecuador and elsewhere.
Ecuadorian cholo pescador boat model
This model is also part of the cholo pescador section of the same exhibit. It depicts a larger, more seaworthy, double-ended type with sharp ends, probably used by the same people in more open waters along the coast. It shows two sets of internal, sawn frames, two heavy thwarts, and seats at both ends. It is unclear whether it represents a large extended dugout or a boat that is entirely plank-built. The boat would accommodate a larger crew than the small canoe shown above and be capable of taking significantly larger catches. 
Ecuadorian cholo pescador fishing implements
Fishermen's tools. Top: net needles. Bottom: harpoon heads

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Shuar Dugout from the Ecuadorian Amazon

On a recent visit to Ecuador, we did not have an opportunity to observe any boats in the field, but we did manage to visit museums in Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil that had items of interest on exhibit. These included miniatures of dugout canoes and canoeists, and boat-related artifacts, from a number of precolumbian societies, as well as a couple of contemporary canoes, related implements, and models. We'll organize them in more than one blog post according the museums in which they appear.

First up: a contemporary dugout canoe of the Shuar people of Ecuadorian Amazonia, i.e., el Oriente, in the Museo Amazonico in Quito:

Shuar dugout canoe, side view
The canoe was perhaps 16 feet long but, with its (presumed) bow partially hidden behind other display items, it was not possible to get a good full-length photo. Maximum beam is probably 14" to 16". The bottom has a flat run (no rocker). The charming museum guide is included for scale. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Shuar dugout canoe, view from stern
A view of the stern shows: rather straight sides and a flat bottom meeting at a hard chine; a sharp, angular transition where the bottom begins to rise toward the end; and a large overhanging stern platform where the paddler might sit. 
In the foreground is a scale model of a fish trap. Although an explanation was absent, I believe it is installed on a river bed with the right (higher) end facing downstream. Fish enter over the (submerged) lower end and find themselves aground on the upward-sloping poles, being prevented by the current from backing out before the fishermen can gather them. (This is speculation. Reader input is solicited.)
Shuar dugout canoe, interior stern view
Top view from the stern. From bottom of image: the stern platform; the flat, angular transition between the platform and the interior bottom, which is flat; nicely thinned sides, somewhat bulged outward amidships.
Shuar dugout canoe, interior bow view
The bow is pointed in plan view, rounded in section view and curving smoothly into the flat bottom. The interior appears to have been treated against rot and insect infestation by charring. Adze marks are visible.
Shuar dugout canoe, bow profile
Exterior side view of the bow shows a somewhat sharp, angular transition between the bottom and cutwater -- a surprising element, given the bow's appearance when viewed from above. Tool marks are visible on the exterior surface, showing capable adze or ax work but no attempt at smoothing through abrasive methods.
paddles for Shuar dugout canoe
The accompanying paddles are carved entire. They feature extremely large, heavy blades, short shafts, and triangular grips. The triangle of the grip of the paddle on the left departs from the shaft more abruptly than the one on the right and has a more distinct concave curve on its top edge. On both, the shaft extends somewhat into the blade and tapers gradually to the flat surface.



Shuar fishing gear
Fishing gear associated with the canoe:
a. The weighted net is little more than a foot in height; it is presumably stretched across a shallow, narrow stream or a constrained section of a wider one; an alternate explanation is that it might be stretched between two canoes and trawled.
b. Two fish traps: the lower one is roughly 3 feet long. With their very small openings, it's unclear how they work. (Perhaps bait is placed in the narrow end and a fish, after entering the trap to obtain the bait, is unable to back out?) Reader input is solicited.
c. The metal shaft might be part of a lance or harpoon. No explanatory material appeared.