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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bark Canoes of Australia

A few weeks back I wrote about the bark canoes of Australia's Arafura Swamp, noting that the design was unique to that area. Bark canoes of other styles were used elsewhere in Australia, as shown below in this image from Edwin Doran, Jr.'s Wangka: Austronesian Canoe Origins, which I cited a recent post. As always, the image may be clicked to enlarge.

To quote Doran's complete description (items in [square brackets] are mine):
Among the simplest, and presumably most ancient, types of watercraft in Austronesia are boats made of bark. The simplest of all are formed of bark sheets plugged at the ends with clay [top image], whereas others are tied at the ends [center] and more complex ones have sewed ends [bottom]. The principle location [i.e., within Austronesia] of bark canoes is Australia, but a few relicts are found in Indonesia, probably indicating a much wider distribution.

The very simple bark rafts of the Tasmanians allowed some mobility on the water but became waterlogged in about six hours and were never used for distances offshore greater than about eight miles.
The sewn canoe shown differs from those of Arafura not only in the shape of the end but, significantly, in its having gunwale members lashed to the sheerline. The Arafura boats were entirely without added structural members.

Although Doran says that bark canoes were "Among the simplest, and presumably most ancient types of watercraft" (emphasis added), he is not implying that they are the simplest or most ancient. That distinction he applies to log rafts, noting that true rafts rely on the inherent buoyancy of their material of construction, rather than on a designed, built structure that displaces water. Also in support of his argument: it is a simpler matter to tie one floating log to another, thus creating a raft without any tools at all, whereas even the simplest bark canoe requires tools of some sort to strip the bark from the tree.

Doran shows the distribution of the various types of bark canoes in the following map, along with the distribution of dugout-based outrigger canoes with constituted the focus of his study.


  1. Help please.

    Any information on the indigenous boats of Tierra del Fuego, Chile or Argentina? Darwin and others mention that they had boats but no details.



  2. Edwin,
    I was planning a post on this subject in the near future -- I'll move it closer to the top of the list.

  3. Thanks for the post. I was previously unaware of Edward Doran's work and I am attempting to get a copy as soon as possible.
    The following page may have some material of similar interest.
    Geoff Cater