Thursday, May 5, 2016

Canoe Paddle from Rio Beni

Canoe paddle from Beni River, Bolivia
Paddle from Beni River, obverse
This wonderful paddle, in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, is from the Beni River, a tributary of the Amazon. It was collected prior to 1909 by a surveyor for a South American railroad. 
Canoe paddle from Beni River
Paddle from Beni River, reverse
The museum's description of the object is sparse, and even the exact location of its origin is ambiguous. The image listing says "Bolivia?," but old collection notes (see pages 311-312) say that it came from "the Beni." Rio Beni is entirely within Bolivia, although it flows into Brazil after joining other major rivers and changing names. The reason for the question mark, therefore, is unclear.

Although the museum's documentation does not say, one assumes the paddle was used with a dugout canoe. It was collected "by native boatmen," whom the surveyor evidently employed in his work. 

The paddle's appeal lies in its geometric purity. The blade is very nearly round, which is strongly emphasized by the painted designs on both sides. The shaft is untapered -- a perfect cylinder. And the grip is a simple triangle (apparently with a rolled top).

The design on the obverse of the blade divides the area into three concentric circles, the outer two of which are divided into quadrants. The reverse is two concentric circles divided into six wedges. The same four colors are used on both sides. A bit of asymmetry in the arrangement of the colors on both sides breaks up what might otherwise be a  too-rigid geometry.

Thanks to Cate Monroe for pointing us to this item.

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