|An experimental replica built by Carlos Pedro Vairo and described in The Yamana Canoe: The Marine Tradition of the Aborigines of Tierra del Fuego. (Click this or any image to enlarge)|
(Might was well get this out of the way here: living in a climate where the average temperature is just 40 degrees Fahrenheit and winter temperatures go far below freezing, the Yamanas wore no clothing – none at all, until early missionaries got them to don loincloths. Given the fact that they were capable users of a basic stone-age toolkit, with ready access to large mammal hides, this is a tremendous enigma. They adapted to their climate through a number of behavioral measures, such as smearing their bodies with animal grease or oil, resting in heat-conserving postures, cuddling, constantly having fire available, and relying on a diet rich in animal fat. It is also speculated that they may have adapted physiologically over the centuries to maintain a high body metabolism.)
Unfortunately, though, and in spite of a number of descriptions of the Yamanas by European observers, not much is known for certain about their canoes. This is not because those canoes were not observed, described, or even illustrated. But the extant descriptions and drawings disagree with one another so frequently and in so many fundamentals that it is difficult to sort the facts. Even photographs taken during an exploring expedition in the 1880s, when the Yamana culture was tottering toward extinction and the boats may or may not have remained unaltered from their pre-contact forms, are often too dark and blurry to clarify some of the issues.
Some illustrations show a bow that divides into two prows, or possibly even a twin-hulled form, while others show a simpler shape coming to single points at each end.
Likewise, some of the boats were reportedly 25 or even 30 feet long, capable of carrying five or six people, while other reports limit the length and crews to maybe half those figures. No observer seems to have mentioned two different types of canoes, but it seems unlikely that descriptions and illustrations could vary so greatly for a single type.
|Above and below: Yamana canoes photographed by a French expedition, 1883.|
Only as the culture reached its end did any samples of the canoes come into European hands for close examination, and these were all of the smaller, single-pointed variety, about which, naturally, more information exists. Even so, I have not seen any lines drawings, offsets or anything of the sort, and much about the true shape and construction is somewhat speculative.
Compared to the North American bark canoe, the Yamana canoe was a rather crude affair – though more sophisticated than bark canoes found in Australia and Africa. The hull was formed of three main pieces: a bottom section, curved up at the ends, and two side panels, cut in profile to match the rockered shape of the bottom. On longer examples, triangular sections of bark were added to the fore and aft ends of the bottom to lengthen it. Where the sides met the bottom, it is possible that the edges were beveled to fit flush against one another.
Amidships, the half-breadths were somewhat like a Banks dory, with flat floors and flared sides, although the bottom was wider than on a dory relative to the maximum beam, and the sides somewhat more vertical, and sporting some tumblehome due to natural warpage of the bark. Toward the ends, though, the topsides tumble home to meet the fore and aft "transoms," which narrow to a point. The waterlines were somewhat like a sampan, though narrower.
Light poles lashed to the upper edges of the side panels served as gunwales, and a small number of widely-spaced frames and thwarts stiffened the sides and bottom. All of these structural members were left round in section. Short, narrow lengths of bark were creased in thirds and laid between the frames to serve as ceiling, protecting the inner surfaces of the hull bark from damage. Loose bark floorboards were laid atop the ceiling for further protection, and probably to elevate cargo and passengers above the bilge water that would inevitably accumulate.
|This photo by the 1883 French expedition shows details of the framework, lashings, and bark panels. The boy looks obviously embarrassed, probably because the missionaries made him overdress for the occasion.|
|Interior of the Vairo replica shows bark floorboards, bark ceiling, and frames between sections of ceiling.|
|Fiber caulking and lashings between side and bottom panels in the Vairo replica.|
In The Yamana Canoe: The Marine Tradition of the Aborigines of Tierra del Fuego, Carlos Pedro Vairo is undecided whether the canoes were built frame-first or shell-first. But his team's experience attempting to recreate a Yamana canoe of this sort argues strongly against the notion of frame-first building. Even proceeding shell-first and thus allowing the bark to bend more or less naturally, they found it nearly impossible to avoid cracking the bark into uselessly small pieces. This being the case, attempts to bend the bark to the shape of a pre-made framework would certainly have failed. Perhaps more to the point, the frame clearly appears to be a stiffening structure, as in a lapstrake hull, and not a structural skeleton as in a carvel one.
There is, I'm sure, much value in The Yamana Canoe, but it is unfortunate that its English translation is just plain awful. Much of it is difficult or impossible to make sense of, and it's possible that what sense can be made of some passages is just wrong.
Some elements of Vairo's research project itself also seem dubious. The extreme difficulties his team experienced with the bark of evergreen beeches that they used for the canoe's construction seems to indicate that something was amiss with the project nearly from the start. Even after weeks of attempts during which apparently dozens of trees were stripped of their bark, the team was unable to obtain pieces large enough for a canoe more than 10 feet long -- probably at or below the minimum length of the canoes actually built by the Yamana. They experienced further difficulties transporting bark sections, curing, bending, and sewing them, and with the boat finally, if tenuously assembled, they found that it suffered cracks during every single usage, necessitating major repairs.
The photo below shows the poor quality of lashing at a thwart and numerous cracks in the bark hull side panel. Although it's impossible to know just how difficult the evergreen beech bark was to work, this photo makes one seriously question the boatbuilding aptitude of Vairo's team and their choice of materials.
|Gunwale and thwart lashing on the Vairo replica. Note the badly cracked bark.|
The Yamana maintained a distinctive division of canoe-related labor between the sexes. Men stripped the bark and did most of the construction work, although women may have done the sewing or lashing. Once the canoe was complete, women were solely responsible for its maintenance. Women were also the primary paddlers, calling upon a man for assistance only when a paddling task demanded it. All paddling appears to have been done to starboard, with the canoe heeled far over to that side. There is no evidence for the use of sails prior to European contact, although simple square sails were adopted soon after contact was made.
|1883 French photo showing the heeled-to-starboard paddling position.|
Seeing daily use, and being constructed of bark that – even if Vairo had it wrong – was clearly not as durable or flexible as the paper birch bark used by North American Indians, Yamana canoes were short-lived, typically lasting only three to six months, and a year at the most. Steps were taken, however to maximize their life where possible. Rather than landing on hard rocky shores, it was common to tie the canoe up to beds of kelp growing nearby and then swim ashore. Kelp was also torn up and placed on the rocky shore as padding when the canoe did need to be landed. And in established portage locations where canoes were repeatedly dragged long distances, semi-permanent skidways of poles were constructed, similar to the canoe ladders used by Hawaiians. But given the canoe's short lifespan, the culture placed a high value on the ability to build them. A man who could not build or did not own a canoe was considered to be incomplete – not fully human in the sense that the culture understood itself to be.
The climate of Tierra del Fuego has ensured that no pre-contact canoe artifacts remain for study, so it is unknown how long the bark canoe in the form described may have been in use. Vairo cites indirect but convincing evidence for the probable existence of a maritime culture in the region going back about 6,000 years, but it is impossible to know what kinds of boats might have preceded the Yamana canoe or if, conceivably, the Yamana design goes back to the earliest days of seafaring in the region.
(All images from Vairo, except image #2, from Paul Johnstone, The Sea-Craft of Prehistory. Content derived from Vairo and the following sources:http://www.andaman.org/BOOK/chapter54/text-Fuego/Yamana/text-Yamana.htm