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Friday, April 18, 2014

Maya Canoes

The Maya, whose civilization was based in the southern Mexico (including the densely forested Yucatan Peninsula) and parts of Central America depended heavily upon waterborne transport to supply goods to their several urban centers. From within their own culture, goods traveled by river from the interior to coastal areas. Coastwise trade also occurred both among Maya and with neighboring peoples.

Christopher Columbus encountered the Maya in the Yucatan on his fourth voyage to the New World. His son Ferdinand wrote:

"...there arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet [2.5m] wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with merchandise from the western regions around New Spain. Amidships it had a palm-leaf awning life that which the Venetian gondolas carry; this gave complete protection against the rain and waves. Under this awning were the children and women and all the baggage and merchandise. There were twenty-five paddlers...."
The cargo in this single canoe included clothing, tools, weapons, foodstuffs, wine and luxury items. Obsidian was also an important import. The reported width of 8 feet seems unlikely for a logboat.

Although no Mayan boats have been recovered, there is ample evidence that dugout canoes were the standard means of transportation. Aside from the matter of size -- we can safely assume that river craft were smaller than seagoing boats -- Maya canoes took several forms. Incised illustrations appearing on bones found in a royal burial in Tikal depict some of these variants. Mayan illustration showed most objects in profile, which limits our understanding of the canoe designs to that view, but shows some clear differences in sheerline, end decoration, and in the forms of the stem and stern.
Mayan canoe
Paddler gods and animal deities vigorously transport a passenger -- probably the royal individual buried in the tomb in which this carving was found -- beneath the surface of the water, possibly into the underworld of death. The canoe accommodates several paddlers and passengers, and the stern is high and decorative. (Click any image to enlarge.)

Mayan canoe
This canoe has an even more elaborate raised stem, shown in perspective overlapping two other fancy canoe bows.

Mayan gods fishing from a canoe
Two gods fishing from a canoe. The straight sheer and overhanging end platforms are less ceremonial, more appropriate to a workboat.
Mayan canoe bone model
Found in Maya territory on Moho Cay, off the coast of Belize, this canoe model agrees with the previous image, including the straight sheer and the overhanging platform ends. The model, possibly a child's toy, was made from manatee rib. It's not clear if the tapered shape is an accurate representation of the canoe form, or if it was necessitated by the taper of the bone from which it was carved.
Mayan gods paddle a canoe
Stingray god and Jaguar god paddle another straight-sheered canoe in an image from a temple in Tikal. The stern is similar to the two previous images, but the bow is more vertical, with less overhang. The paddle blades are entirely to one side of the shafts, which have no end-grips: the upper hand grasps the shaft several inches below the end, and the lower hand several inches above the decorated blade. (Similar paddles can be vaguely made out in images #1 and #3 above.) Stingray appears to be sitting at about the level of the sheerline, possibly on the stern platform, with his feet inside the hull, while Jaguar appears to be sitting cross-legged on the bow platform. (Stingray appears anxious, and Jaguar resigned. We can imagine the conversation: "Jaggy, are you sure you shut off the stove before we left?" "Yes, dear.")
Maya canoe paddle
A paddle discovered at a Mayan saltworks on Punta Ycacos Lagoon on the Yucatan Peninsula in Belize agrees almost perfectly with those in the image above. The paddle does have a very narrow bit of blade opposite the main part of the blade. Total length is 1.43m. The shaft is round, 5cm diameter. The association of the paddle and the saltworks indicates waterborne trade in salt. 
Canoes in Chichen Itza Temple Fresco
A temple fresco from Chichen Itza shows three canoes traveling coastwise, each carrying two warriors. The canoe ends are high and similar to image #1. The single "paddler" in each boat appears to be using his long-shafted paddle to pole from the bow. The paddles have conventional symmetrical blades.
So important was coastwise trade that the Maya established aids to navigation. Marks were erected on trees, and even the massive citadel of Tulum appears to have served at least in part as a lighthouse. 
Tulum El Castillo
At Tulum, two windows in the thick stone walls of El Castillo's upper level face directly toward the harbor entrance. When illuminated from within, the lights would be clearly visible only when a canoe is properly lined up to pass safely through the gap in the protecting coral reef.

  • With one exception, all content is from "The Earliest Watercraft: From Rafts to Viking Ships" by Margaret E. Leshikar, in Ships and Shipwrecks of the Americas: A History Based on Underwater Archaeology, George F. Bass, Editor, Thames & Hudson, NY, 1988.
  • The content about the Punta Ycacos paddle is from "Finds in Belize document Late Classic Maya salt making and canoe transport," Heather McKillop, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol.102, #15.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lockley's Curragh

R.M. Lockley The Seals and the Curragh jacket
(click any image to enlarge)
A skilled naturalist and prolific writer, R.M. Lockley (1903-2000) wrote more than 50 books, many of them about the wildlife of the British Isles. While recovering from injuries suffered while on service during the Second World War, he discovered, on a secluded beach at the base of a cliff on a remote part of the Welsh coast, a breeding colony of harbor seals. A year later, with the war still underway, he sailed there in a curragh, beneath which, overturned, he camped for months while studying the seals' breeding habits.

The Seals and the Curragh is Lockley's account of that idyll. And though the curragh gets major billing in the title, it plays a minor role in the book, which concentrates more on the seals, on conservation, and on Lockley's charming relationship with Tessa, a 13-year-old girl, a refugee from London who lived in the home of a local Welsh farmer and who brought Lockley milk, helped him in his studies, and kept him company at his secluded campsite. This was a time when a man's intentions toward minors were assumed to be honorable (or, at least, those of men of a certain class), and Lockley's description of his innocent relationship with Tessa recalls what seems now a time of great naivete and purity (strange, that, during the most destructive war in history, describing a relationship between an injured soldier and a girl who had lost her mother to a German bomb and whose soldier father was presumed dead in Singapore).

So the curragh gets fairly short shrift, overshadowed by the seals, Tessa, and Lockley's progressive concern for the natural environmental. We are, however, treated to the following:
Giddy  -- that's how the Irish describe a curragh in one natural word of caution; but it gave you a marvellous feeling to watch a Dingle or Blasket man handle one. Like a fleet-toed dancer the curragh skimmed over the white breaking currents, a living bird of the waves, safe in the skilled hands of the men of the Irish south-west.
The Welsh fishermen had gasped at her long length of twenty-five feet and narrow beam of four feet with horror. Nor had these men of the grey coast appreciated the smiling eye and shark teeth which I had painted each side of the bow, in the Iberian fashion, to give life to the black tarred hull. It was the evil eye to them; they were afraid of that which they could not understand.
Lockley's curragh under sail
Lockley's extraordinarily painted curragh running before the wind. The lightweight boat appears to be on plane.
Aside from this, we learn only a little about the boat itself: The tarred skin over its wooden framework was of canvas. It had a small lugsail which, in the book's only photo of the boat, is turned athwartships with its peak lowered almost to horizontal, a virtual squaresail for when the boat runs before the wind. Two sets of reef points are visible, but no forestay, and one suspects the absence of shrouds and backstay. There was a sloping transom, but no keel or other underwater plane. It had tholepins (single or double is not clear) for rowing. And steering was by means of a paddle held over the starboard quarter. It was capable of being easily rowed, dragged ashore, and overturned, all by one man, and it could carry some number of sheep between the mainland and islands off the coast. Judging by Lockley's description of sailing through a storm while alongshore, it was extremely seaworthy.
R.M. Lockley curragh sketch
Lockley and Tessa voyaging to a small island near the seal nursery to check on Lockley's sheep. Illustration by Lockley.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Red Paint People, and Status Among Marine Hunter-Gatherer Societies

The enigmatic Red Paint People are the subject of The Swordfish Hunters: The History and Ecology of an Ancient American Sea People by Bruce Bourque. Living in a sharply-defined coastal area between Maine's Kennebec River and the St. John River in New Brunswick, this stone-age culture -- also known as the Moorehead Phase -- appeared mysteriously about 4,500 years ago, thrived for some 500 years, then just as mysteriously disappeared. (The name "Red Paint People" comes from their habit of adorning their numerous graves with red ochre. Bourque coined "Moorehead Phase" for the first archaeologist to describe their sites in detail.)

Judging from swordfish remains recovered from some Moorehead Phase middens, it's clear that swordfish were an important food source. Swordfish are dangerous prey that can only be hunted from boats, but essentially no wood artifacts of any kind have been been recovered from Moorehead sites, and this means no boat remains. Numerous, beautifully-crafted stone adze and gouge blades have been found, however, in Red Paint cemeteries and dwelling sites, and it is most likely that the Red Paint People used dugout canoes. 
stone adzes, Red Paint People
Stone adze blades from a Red Paint cemetery in Brunswick, Maine. (Click any image to enlarge.) 
Stone gouge, Red Paint People
Rendering showing how a stone gouge might have been hafted. Gouges would have been efficient tools with which the Red Paint People might have hollowed dugout canoes.
Bourque discounts the possibility that they used birchbark canoes due to the absence in the archaeological record of the microplanes and stone scrapers that would have been needed to form the framework, and bone awls used to sew the bark covering. (Indeed, there is little or no evidence for bark canoes in the Northeast much before European contact.) Skin boats, too, would have been unlikely, due to their very short lifespan in the temperate climate.

Harpoon heads, Red Paint People
Bone harpoon heads from Red Paint sites in Maine. Largest one is a bit less than 4" long. 
Most hunter-gatherer societies have at most two forms of social distinction beyond the natural ones of age and gender: those of the shaman and the headman. But maritime hunter-gatherer societies have one additional position of power and distinction: that of boat captain. Bourque's comments are of interest and I'll quote at length:
The power of this high-status or powerful chief emerges from hunting dangerous animals in the sea. The cause-and-effect relationship between hunting prowess and wealth is difficult to work out, but there seems to be a link between risk taking and the ability to acquire the wealth, in labor and material, needed to build a boat and maintain it and provide for its crew. On the northwest coast [of North America], for example, "only chiefs command the resources to pay for a great canoe." Among the whale-hunting Nootka of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, "[w]haling was the noblest calling, and the whaler was always a chief." And among the Tareumiut, the coastal Inupiat of northern and northwestern Alaska, senior male family heads are called umialik, meaning "umiak captain," the umiak being a large boat used to hunt whales. While umialik have no chiefly power, the title implies a degree of wealth and enhanced status. Finally, among the Alutiiq people of Kodiak Island, though they hunted from small kayaks and lacked high status, whalers were deemed too powerful and dangerous to live or be buried among normal people. These examples of high-status boat builders, boat captains, and even solitary whale hunters among societies that pursue dangerous marine prey suggest that some similar situation prevailed among the Red Paint People as well.
In many North American maritime cultures, the status of boat captains was further enhanced by the activities they alone could undertake. Thus, in addition to directing hunts, umialik used their watercraft to conduct trade and diplomacy. [Note: there is evidence that the Red Paint People conducted trade with Newfoundland, at least 400 miles away by sea.] Through gift giving and wife exchange, they competed to attract and hold onto good boat crews. Umialik can also be glossed "whaling captain." The case of the swordfish-hunting Chumash is similar in that men who could muster the support in labor to buy a plank canoe...thus attained relatively great wealth.... In sum, the hunting of dangerous marine animals tends to create status differentials of a sort rarely seen in other hunter-gatherer societies. [footnotes omitted]
stone pendants, Red Paint People
Stone pendants from Red Paint cemeteries. Bourque suggests that the crescent-shaped ones (largest: 4.7" wide) might have symbolized swordfish tails.
slate bayonettes, Red Paint People
Slate "bayonets" from a Red Paint cemetery; longest 16". These beautifully crafted artifacts are thin and fragile and almost certainly did not serve as weapons, although they may have symbolized weapons or, as Bourque suggests, the rostrums (swords) of swordfish -- or possibly both. 
The Swordfish Hunters is a nice mix of straight archaeology, personal narrative of Bourque's experience researching the topic, extrapolation of archaeological findings to broader ecological issues, and commentary on how diverse scientific disciplines can and should collaborate in uncommon ways. Normally, such a broad mixture of topics would result in an unfocused, of not confused, narrative, but Bourque pulls it off, leading from one topic to the next through smooth transitions and logical conclusions that make it an easy and thought-provoking book, especially for one that trends more toward "serious" than popular science.