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

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