Saturday, September 18, 2010

A South American Canoe-Based Culture

Light at the Edge of the World, by Wade Davis, is not primarily about boats. Its subtitle, A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures, does a good job describing the subject matter. But it does treat with the culture of the Warao, the largest indigenous society in Venezuela, and so it is of interest to us.

The Warao live on the Orinoco River delta, and their homes are raised above the water or thoroughly wet land on stilts. Whole villages are connected by raised walkways between houses. Naturally, watercraft play an important role in their lives. And deaths. The dead are "buried" in a canoe raised on a platform and protected by a thatched roof.

The Warao rely upon their shamans to mediate the spirit world, and many common objects come into play for ritual use. From here, I'll quote:

The most sacred object of all...was also the most utilitarian, the very canoes that had carried us for days now into the forests. Warao means "Owners of canoes," and in a world of water, the people not only travel by canoe, they virtually live in them: sleeping, playing, cooking, trading. To be a builder of canoes is to become a man. Not to possess a canoe is to be relegated among the undistinguished souls of the dead, impoverished, unfed, the lowest of the low. An infant's first canoe is the flat root of a sangrito tree, a plank laid down on the floor of the hut, a surface to practice upon. Before a child can walk, he can paddle, and after a week in Winikina, I grew used to the sight of three-year-old boys and girls, alone, fearlessly maneuvering small dugouts across the wide expanse of the river.

Canoes, in addition to providing an essential means of transportation, moving goods and people throughout the delta, are, more profoundly, the vessels of Warao culture. The toy-like dugout of the child, the discarded hull slowly rotting beneath the landing, the massive seagoing craft that once journeyed to Trinidad and beyond -- all represent the mystical knowledge transmitted by the master builder and acquired by the apprentice during their construction, every step of which is dominated by shamanic insight and regulation.

No tree can be felled without the permission of the ancients, the ancestral carpenters who receive offerings of sago starch and tobacco. The spirit of the trees lives on in the canoes, which are carved from the embodiment of Dauarani, the Mother of the Forest, whose womb is both birth canal and coffin. The master builder, who must abstain from sex with his wife until the canoe is consecrated, is visited daily by the spirit of the tree; and as the canoe takes shape as the vulva of the goddess, the very act of carving becomes a mystical act of love, intercourse with the divine.

I quote at length because Davis is such a lyrical writer, so adept at capturing something of the essence of the cultures he has visited. In addition to its worthwhile text, Light at the Edge of the World is also a coffee-table-type book of Davis's photographs although, unfortunately, there are no photos of the Waraos' canoes. (There is a smattering of photos of canoes from other cultures, however.)

The book appears to have been produced as a companion project to a video of the same title, but I have not seen that. And just FYI, the title appears to have come from a Jules Verne book, Le Phare du bout du monde, the light (phare) in question meaning "lighthouse." The Verne book was made into a 1971 movie with Kirk Douglas.


  1. The TONGVA ti'at is alive and well in Southern California. Her name is Moomat 'Ahiiko which means "Breath of the Ocean".!/profile.php?id=1672482629

  2. CT - we'd be glad to learn more about TONGVA ti'at. Feel free to email me:
    bob (at)