The Evolution of Culture

Early Modes of Navigation


. . . . It requires but little imagination to conceive an idea of the process by which a wooden support in the water forced itself upon the notice of mankind. The great floods to which the valleys of many large rivers are subject, more especially those which have their sources in tropical regions, sometimes devastate the whole country within miles of their banks, and by their suddenness frequently overtake and carry down numbers of both men and animals, together with large quantities of timber which had grown upon the sides of the valleys. The remembrances of such deluges are preserved in the traditions of many savage races, and there can be little doubt that it was by this means that the human race first learnt to make use of floating timber as a support for the body. The wide distribution of the word signilying ship—Latin naris; Greek ; Sanskrit nau; Celtic nao; Assam nao; Port Jackson, Australia, nao—attests the antiquity of the term. In Bible history the same term has been employed to personify the tradition of the first shipbuilder, Noah.

It is even said, though with what truth I am not aware, that the American grey squirrel (Sciurus migratorius), which migrates in large numbers, crossing large rivers, has been known to embark on a piece of floating timber, and paddle itself across.

The North American Indians frequently cross rivers by clasping the left arm and leg round the trunk of a tree, and swimming with the right.

The next stage in the development of the canoe would consist in pointing the ends, so as to afford less resistance to the water. In this stage we find it represented on the NW. coast of Australia. Gregory, in the year 1861, says that his ship was visited on this coast by two natives, who had paddled off on logs of wood shaped like canoes, not hollowed, but very buoyant, about 7 feet long, and I foot thick, which they propelled with their hands only, their legs resting on a little rail made of small sticks driven in on each side. Mr. T. Baines, also, in a letter quoted by the Rev. J. G. Wood, in his Natural History of Man (vol. ii. p. 7), speaks of some canoes which he saw in North Australia as being ’mere logs of wood, capable of carrying a couple of men.’ Others used on the north coast are dug out, but as these are provided with an outrigger, they have probably been derived from New Guinea. The canoes used by the Australians on the rivers consist either of a bundle of rushes bound together and pointed at the ends, or else they are formed of bark in a very simple manner; but on the south-east coast, near Cape Howe, Captain Cook, in his first voyage, found numbers of canoes in use by the natives on the seashore. These he described as being very like the smaller sort used in New Zealand, which were hollowed out by means of fire. One of these was of a size to be carried on the shoulders of four men.

It has been thought that the use of hollowed canoes may have arisen from observing the effect of a split reed or bamboo upon the water. The nautilus is also said to have given the first idea of a ship to man; and Pliny, Diodorus, and Strabo have stated that large tortoise-shells were used by primitive races of mankind (Kitto, Pictorial Bible). It has also been supposed that the natural decay of trees may have first suggested the employment of hollow trees for canoes, but such trees are not easily removed entire. It is difficult to conceive how so great an advance in the art of shipbuilding was first introduced, but there can be no doubt that the agent first employed for this purpose was fire.

I have noticed when travelling in Bulgaria that the gipsies and others who roam over that country usually select the foot of a dry tree to light their cooking fire; the dry wood of the tree, combined with the sticks collected at the foot of it, makes a good blaze, and the tree throws forward the heat like a fireplace. Successive parties camping on the same ground, attracted thither by the vicinity of water, use the same fireplaces, and the result is that the trees by degrees become hollowed out for some distance from the foot, the hollow part formed by the fire serving the purpose of a semi-cylindrical chimney. Such a tree, torn up by the roots, or cut off below the part excavated by the fire, would form a very serviceable canoe, the parts not excavated by the fire being sound and hard. The Andaman islanders use a tree in this manner as an oven, the fire being kept constantly burning in the hollow formed by the flames.

One of the best accounts of the process of digging out a canoe by means of fire is that described by Kalm, on the Delaware river, in 1747. He says that, when the Indians intend to fell a tree, for want of proper instruments they employ fire; they set fire to a quantity of wood at the roots of the tree, and in order that the fire might not reach further up than they would have it, they fasten some rags to a pole, dip them in water, and keep continually washing the tree a little above the fire until the lower part is burnt nearly through; it is then pulled down. When they intend to hollow a tree for a canoe, they lay dry branches along the stem of the tree as far as it must be hollowed out, set them on fire, and replace them by others. While these parts are burning, they keep pouring water on those parts that are not to be burnt at the sides and ends. When the interior is sufficiently burnt out, they take their stone hatchets and shells and scoop out the burnt wood. These canoes are usually 30 or 40 feet long. In the account of one of the expeditions sent out by Raleigh in 1584 a similar description is given of the process adopted by the Indians of Virginia, except that, instead of sticks, resin is laid on to the parts to be excavated and set fire to: canoes capable of holding twenty persons were formed in this manner.

The Waraus of Guiana employ fire for excavating their canoes; and when Columbus discovered the Island of Guanahani or San Salvador, in the West Indies, he found [fire] employed for this purpose by the natives, who called their boats ’canoe,’ a term which has ever since been employed by Europeans to express this most primitive class of vessel.

Dr. Mouat says that, in Blair’s time, the Andaman islanders excavated their canoes by the agency of fire; but it is not employed for that purpose now, the whole operation being performed by hand. Symes, in 1800, speaks of the Burmese war-boats, which were excavated partly by fire and partly by cutting. Nos. 1276 and 1277 of my collection are models of these boats. In New Caledonia, Turner, in 1845, says that the natives felled their trees by means of a slow fire at the foot, taking three or four days to do it. In excavating a canoe, he says, they kindle a fire over the part to be burnt out, and keep dropping water over the sides and ends, so as to confine the fire to the required spot, the burnt wood being afterwards scraped out with stone tools. The New Zealanders, and probably the Australians also, employ fire for this purpose [Cook]. The canoes of the Krumen in West Africa are also excavated by means of fire.

A further improvement in the development of the dug-out canoe consists in bending the sides into the required form after it has been dug out. This process of fire-bending has already been described on p. 87 of my Catalogue (Parts i and ii), when speaking of the methods employed by the Esquimaux and Australians in straightening their wooden spears and arrow-shafts. The application of this process to canoe-building by the Ahts of the north-west coast of North America is thus described by Mr. Wood in his Natural History of Man, vol. ii. p. 732. The canoe is carved out of a solid trunk of cedar (Thuja gigantea). It is hollowed out, not by fire, but by hand, and by means of an adze formed of a large mussel-shell; the trunk is split lengthwise by wedges. All is done by the eye. When it is roughly hollowed it is filled with water, and ret-hot stones put in until it boils. This is continued until the wood is quite soft, and then a number of cross-pieces are driven into the interior, so as to force the canoe into its proper shape, which it ever afterwards retains. While the canoe is still soft and pliant, several slight cross-pieces are inserted, so as to counteract any tendency towards warping. The outside of the vessel is then hardened by fire, so as to enable it to resist the attacks of insects, and also to prevent it cracking when exposed to the sun. The inside is then painted some bright colour, and the outside is usually black and highly polished. This is produced by rubbing it with oil after the fire has done its work. Lastly, a pattern is painted on its bow. There is rio keel to the boat. The red pattern of the painting is obtained by a preparation of anato. For boring holes the Ahts use a drill formed by a bone of a bird fixed in a wooden handle.

A precisely similar process to this is employed in the formation of the Burmese dug-out canoes, and has thus been described to me by Capt. O’Callaghan, who witnessed the process during the Burmese War in 1852. A trunk of a tree of suitable length, though much less in diameter than the intended width of the boat, is cut into the usual form, and hollowed out. It is then filled with water, and fires are lit, a short distance from it, along its sides. The water gradually swells the inside, while the fire contracts the outside, till the width is greatly increased. The effect thus produced is rendered permanent by thwarts being placed so as to prevent the canoe from contracting in width as it dries; the depth of the boat is increased by a plank at each side, reaching as far as the ends of the hollowed part. Canoes generally show traces of the fire and water treatment just described, the inner surface being soft and full of superficial cracks, while the outer is hard and close.

It is probable that this mode of bending canoes has been discovered during the process of cooking, in which red-hot stones are used in many countries to boil the water in vessels of skin or wood, in which the meat is cooked. No. 1256 of my collection is a model of an Aht canoe, painted as here described. No. 1257 is a full-sized canoe from this region, made out of a single trunk; it is not painted, so that the grain of the wood can be seen.

The distribution of the dug-out canoe appears to be almost universal. It is especially used in southern and equatorial regions. Leaving Australia, we find it employed with the outrigger, which will be described hereafter (pp. 218–9), in many parts of the Polynesian and Asiatic islands, including New Guinea, New Zealand, New Caledonia, and the Sandwich Islands. It was not used by the natives of Tasmania, who employed a float consisting of a bundle of bark and rushes, which will be described in another place (p. 203). Wilkes speaks of it in Samoa, at Manilla, and the Sooloo Archipelago. De Guignes in 1796 and De Morga in 1609 saw them in the Philippines, where they are called pangues, some carrying from two to three and others from twelve to fifteen persons. They are (or were) also used in the Pelew, Nicobar, and Andaman Isles. In the India Museum there is a model of one from Assam, used as a mail boat, and called dâk nao. In Burmah, Symes, in 1795, describes the war-boats of the Irrawaddy as 80 to 100 feet long, but seldom exceeding 8 feet in width, and this only by additions to the sides; carrying fifty to sixty rowers, who use short oars that work on a spindle, and who row instead of paddling. Captain O’Callaghan, however, informs me that they sometimes use paddles (Nos. 1276 and 1277). They are made in one piece of the teak tree. The king had five hundred of these vessels of war. They are easily upset, but the rowers are taught to avoid being struck on the broadside; they draw only 3 feet of water. On the Menan, in Siam, Turpin, in 1771, says that the king’s ballons are made of a single tree, and will contain 150 rowers; the two ends are very much elevated, and the rowers sit cross-legged, by which they lose a great deal of power. The river vessels in Cochin China are also described as being of the same long, narrow kind. At Ferhabad, in Persia, Pietro della Valle, in 1614, describes the canoes as being flat-bottomed, hollow trees, carrying ten to twelve persons.

In Africa, Duarte Barbosa, in 1514, saw the Moors at Zuama make use of boats, almadias, hollowed out of a single trunk, to bring clothes and other merchandise from Angos. Livingstone says the canoes of the Bayeye of South Africa are hollow trees, made for use and not for speed. If formed of a crooked stem they become crooked vessels, conforming to the line of the timber. On the Benuwé, at its junction with the [Yola], Barth, for the first time in his travels southward, saw what he describes as rude little shells hollowed out of a single tree; they measured 25 to 30 feet in length, 1 to 1½ foot in height, and 16 inches in width; one of them, he says, was quite crooked. On the White Nile, in Unyoro, Grant says that the largest canoe carried a ton and a half, and was hollowed out of a trunk. On the Kitangule, west of Lake Victoria Nyanza, near Karague, he describes the canoes as being hollowed out of a log of timber 15 feet long and the breadth of an easy-chair. These kind of canoes are also used by the Makoba east of Lake Ngami, by the Apingi and Camma, and the Krumen of the West African coast; of which last, No. 1272 of my collection is a model.

In South America the Patagonians use no canoes, but in the northern parts of the continent dug-out canoes are common. One described by Condamine, in 1743, was from 42 to 44 feet long, and only 3 feet wide. They are also used in Guiana, and Professor Wilson says that the dug-out canoe is used throughout the West Indian Archipelago. According to Bartram, who is quoted by Schoolcraft, the large canoes formed out of the trunks of cypress trees, which descended the rivers of Florida, crossed the Gulf, and extended their navigation to the Bahama Isles, and even as far as Cuba, carrying twenty to thirty warriors. Kalm, in 1747, gives some details respecting their construction on the Delaware river already referred to (p. 191), and says that the materials chiefly employed in North America are the red juniper, red cedar, white cedar, chestnut, white oak, and tulip tree. Canoes of red and white cedar are the best, because lighter, and they will last as much as twenty years, whereas the white oak barely lasts above six years. In Canada these dug-outs were made of the white fir. The process of construction on the west coast of North America has been already described (p. 192).

In Europe Pliny mentions the use of canoes hollowed out of a single tree by the Germans. Amongst the ancient Swiss lakedwellers at Robenhausen, associated with objects of the stone age, a dug-out canoe, or Einbaum, made of a single trunk 12 feet long and 2½ wide, was discovered (Keller, Lake Dwellings, Lee2 , P. 45). In Ireland, Sir William Wilde says that amongst the ancient Irish dug-out canoes were of three kinds. One was small, trough-shaped, and square at the ends, having a projection at either end to carry it by; the paddlers sat flat at the bottom and paddled, there being no rowlocks to the boat. A second kind was 20 feet in length and 2 in breadth, flat-bottomed, with round prow and square stern, strengthened by thwarts carved out of the solid and running across the boat, two near the stem and one near the stern. The prow was turned up; one of these was discovered in a bog on the coast of Wexford, 12 feet beneath the surface. The third sort was sharp at both ends, 21 feet long, 12 inches broad, and 8 inches deep, and flat-bottomed. These canoes are often found in the neighbourhood of the crannoges, or ancient lake-habitations of the country, and were used to communicate with the land; also in the beds of the Boyne and Bann. Ware says, that dug-out canoes were used in some of the Irish rivers in his time, and to this day I have seen paddles used on the Blackwater, in the south of Ireland. Professor Wilson says that several dug-out canoes have been found in the ancient river-deposits of the Clyde, and also in the neighbourhood of Falkirk. In one of those discovered in the Clyde deposits, at a depth of 25 feet from the surface, a stone almond-shaped celt was found. Others have been found in the ancient river-deposits of Sussex and elsewhere, in positions which show that the rivers must probably have formed arms of the sea, at the time they were sunk.


All vessels of the dug-out class are necessarily long and narrow, and very liable to upset; the width being limited by the size of the tree, extension can only be given to them by increasing their length. In order to give greater height and width to these boats, planks are sometimes added at the sides and stitched on to the body of the canoe by means of strings or cords, composed frequently of the bark or leaves of the tree of which the body is made. In proportion as these laced-on gunwales were found to answer the purpose of increasing the stability of the vessel, their number was increased; two such planks were added instead of one, and as the joint between the planks was by this means brought beneath the water line, means were taken to caulk the seams with leaves, pitch, resin, and other substances. Gradually the number of side planks increased and the solid hull diminished, until ultimately, it dwindled into a bottom-board, or keel, at the bottom of the boat, serving as a centre-piece on which the sides of the vessel were built. Still the vessel was without ribs or framework; ledges on the sides were carved out of the solid substance of each plank, by means of which they were fastened to the ledges of the adjoining plank, and the two contiguous ledges served as ribs to strengthen the boat; finally, a framework of vertical ribs was added to the interior and fastened to the planks by cords. Ultimately the stitching was replaced by wooden pins, and the side planks pinned to each other and to the ribs; and these wooden pins in their turn were supplanted by iron nails.

In different countries we find representations of the canoe in all these several stages of development. Of the first stage, in which side planks were added to the body of the dug-out canoe, to heighten it, the New Zealand canoe, No. 1259 of my collection, is an example. Capt. Cook describes this as solid, the largest containing from thirty men upwards. One measured 70 feet in length, 6 in width, and 4 deep. Each of the side pieces was formed of an entire plank, about 12 inches wide, and about 1½ inch thick, laced on to the hollow trunk of the tree by flaxen cords, and united to the plank on the opposite side by thwarts across the boat. These canoes have names given to them like European vessels.

On the Benuwé, in Central Africa, Barth describes a vessel in this same early stage of departure from the original dug-out trunk. It consisted of ’two very large trunks joined together with cordage, just like the stitching of a shirt, and without pitching, the holes being merely stuffed with grass. It was not watertight, but had the advantage,’ he says, ’over the dug-out canoes used on the same river, in not breaking if it came upon a rock, being, to a certain degree, pliable. It was 35 feet long, and 26 inches wide in the middle.’ No. 1258 of my collection is a model of one of these. The single plank added to the side of the Burmese dug-out canoe has been already noticed (p. 193). Although my informant does not tell me that these side planks are sewn on, I have no doubt, judging by analogy, that this either is or was formerly the case.

The Waraus of Guiana are the chief canoe-builders of this part of South America, and to them other tribes resort from considerable distances. Their canoe is hollowed out of a trunk of a tree, and forced into its proper shape partly by means of fire and partly by wedges, upon a similar system to that described in speaking of the Ahts of North America (p. 192) and the Burmese; the largest have the sides made higher by a narrow plank of soft wood, which is laced upon the gunwale, and the seam caulked. This canoe is alike at both ends, the stem and stern being pointed, curved, and rising out of the water; there is no keel, and it draws but a few inches of water. This appears to be the most advanced stage to which the built-up canoe has arrived on either continent of America, with the exception of Tierra del Fuego, where Commodore Byron, in 1765, saw canoes in the Straits of Magellan made of planks sewn together with thongs of raw hide; these vessels are considerably raised at the bow and stern, and the larger ones are 15 feet in length by I yard wide. They have also been described by more recent travellers. Under what conditions have these miserable Fuegians been led to the employment of a more complex class of vessel than their more advanced congeners of the north?

In order to trace the further development of the canoe in this direction, we must return to Africa and the South Seas. On the island of Zanzibar, Barbosa, in 1514, says that the inhabitants of this island, and also Penda and Manfia, who are Arabs, trade with the mainland by means of ’small vessels very loosely and badly made, without decks and with a single mast; all their planks are sewn together with cords of reed or matting, and the sails are of palm mats.’ On the river Yeou, near Lake Tchad, in Central Africa, Denham and Clapperton saw canoes ’formed of planks, rudely shaped with a small hatchet, and strongly fastened together by cords passed through holes bored in them, and a wisp of straw between, which the people say effectually keeps out the water; they have high poops like the Grecian boats, and would hold twenty or thirty persons.’ On the Logon, south-east of Lake Tchad, Barth says the boats are built ’in the same manner as those of the Budduma, except that the planks consist of stronger wood, mostly Birgem, and generally of larger size, whilst those of the Budduma, consist of the frailest material, viz. Fogo. In both, the joints of the planks are provided with holes, through which ropes are passed, overlaid with bands of reed tightly fastened upon them by smaller ropes, which are again passed through small holes stuffed with grass.’ On the Victoria Nyanza, in East Central Africa, Grant speaks of ’a canoe of five planks sewn together, and having four cross-bars or seats. The bow and stern are pointed, standing for a yard over the water, with a broad central plank from stem to stern, rounded outside (the vestige of the dug-out trunk), and answering for a keel.’

Thus far we have found the planks of the vessels spoken of, merely fastened by cords passed through holes in the planks, and stuffed with grass or some other material, and the accounts speak of their being rarely water-tight. Such a mode of constructing canoes might serve well enough for river navigation, but would be unserviceable for sea craft. Necessity is the mother of invention, and accordingly we must seek for a further development of the system of water-tight stitching, amongst those races in a somewhat similar condition of culture, which inhabit the islands of the Pacific and the borders of the ocean between it and the continent of Africa.

The majority of those vessels now to be described are furnished with the outrigger; but as the distribution of this contrivance will be traced subsequently (p. 218 ff.), it will not be necessary to describe it in speaking of the stitched plankwork.

In the Friendly Isles Captain Cook, in 1773, says ’the canoes are built of several pieces sewed together with bandage in so neat a manner that on the outside it is difficult to see the joints. All the fastenings are on the inside, and pass through kants or ridges, which are wrought on the edges and ends of the several boards which compose the vessel.’ At Otaheite he speaks of the same process, and says that the chief parts are formed separately without either saw, plane, or other tool. La Perouse gives an illustration of an outrigger canoe from Easter Island, the sides of which are formed of drift wood sewn together in this manner. At Wytoohee, one of the Paumotu, or Low Archipelago, Wilkes, in 1838, says that the canoes are formed of strips of coco-nut tree sewed together. Speaking of those of Samoa, he describes the process more fully. ’The planks are fastened together with sennit; the pieces are of no regular size or shape. On the inside edge of each plank is a ledge or projection, which serves to attach the sennit, and connect and bind it closely to the adjoining one. It is surprising,’ he says, ’to see the labour bestowed on uniting so many small pieces together, when large and good planks might be obtained. Before the pieces are joined, the gum from the husk of the bread-fruit tree is used to cement them close, and prevent leakage. These canoes retain their form much more truly than one would have imagined; I saw few whose original model had been impaired by service. On the outside the pieces are so closely fitted as frequently to require close examination before the seams can be detected. The perfection of workmanship is astonishing to those who see the tools with which it is effected. They consist now of nothing more than a piece of iron tied to a stick, and used as an adze; this, with a gimlet, is all they have, and before they obtained their iron tools, they used adzes made of hard stone and fish-bone.’ The construction of the Fiji canoe, called drua, is described by Williams in great detail A keel or bottom board is laid in two or three pieces, carefully scarfed together. From this the sides are built up, without ribs, in a number of pieces varying from three to twenty feet. The edges of these pieces are fastened by ledges, tied together in the manner already described. A white pitch from the breadfruit tree, prepared with an extract from the coco-nut kernel, is spread uniformly on both edges, and a fine strip of masi laid between. The binding of sennit with which the boards, or vanos, as they are called, are stitched together is made tighter by small wooden wedges inserted between the binding and the wood, in opposite directions. The ribs seen in the interior of these canoes are not used to bring the planks into shape, but are the last things inserted, and are for uniting the deck more firmly with the body of the canoe. The carpenters in Fiji constitute a distinct class, and have chiefs of their own. The Tongan canoes were inferior to those of Fiji in Captain Cook’s time, but they have since adopted Fiji patterns. The Tongans are better sailors than the Fijians. Wilkes describes a similar method of building vessels in the Kingsmill Islands, but with varieties in the details of construction. ’Each canoe has six or eight timbers in its construction; they are well modelled, built in frames, and have much sheer. The boards are cut from the coco-nut tree, from a few inches to six or eight feet long, and vary from five to seven inches in width. These are arranged as the planking of a vessel, and very neatly put together, being sewed with sennit. For the purpose of making them water-tight they use a slip of pandanus leaf, inserted as our coopers do in plugging a cask. They have evinced much ingenuity,’ he says, ’in attaching the uprights to the flat timbers.’ It is difficult, without the aid of drawings, to understand exactly the peculiarities of this variety of construction, but he says they are secured so as to have all the motion of a double joint, which gives them ease, and comparative security in a seaway.

Turning now to the Malay Archipelago, Wallace speaks of a Malay prahau in which he sailed from Macassar to New Guinea, a distance of 1,000 miles, and says that similar but smaller vessels had not a single nail in them. The largest of these, he says, are from Macassar, and the Bugi countries of the Celebes and Boutong. Smaller ones sail from Ternate, Pidore, East Ceram, and Garam. The majority of these, he says, have stitched planks. No. 1268 of my collection is a model of a vessel employed in those seas. Wallace says that the inhabitants of Ke Island, west of New Guinea, are the best boat-builders in the archipelago, and several villages are constantly employed at the work. The planks here, as in the Polynesian Islands, are all cut out of the solid wood, with a series of projecting ledges on their edges in the inside. But here we find an advance upon the Polynesian system, for the ledges of the planks are pegged to each other with wooden pegs. The planks, however, are still fastened to the ribs by means of rattans. The principles of construction are the same as in those of the Polynesian Islands, and the main support of the vessel still consists in the planks and their ledges, the ribs being a subsequent addition; for he says that after the first year the rattan-tied ribs are generally taken out and replaced by new ones, fitted to the planks and nailed, and the vessel then becomes equal to those of the best European workmanship. This constitutes a remarkable example of the persistency with which ancient customs are retained, when we find each vessel systematically constructed, in the first instance, upon the old system, and the improvement introduced in after years. I wonder whether any parallel to this could be found in a British arsenal. The psychical aspect of the proceeding seems not altogether un-English.

Extending our researches northward, we find that Dampier, in 1686, mentions, in the Bashee Islands, the use of vessels in which the planks are fastened with wooden pins. On the Menan, in Siam, Turpin, in 1771, speaks of long, narrow boats, in the construction of which neither nails nor iron are employed, the parts being fastened together with roots and twigs which withstand the destructive action of the water. They have the precaution, he says, to insert between the planks a light, porous wood, which swells by being wet, and prevents the water from penetrating into the vessel. When they have not this wood, they rub the chinks, by which the water enters, with clay. In the India Museum there is a model of a very early form of vessel from Burmah, described as a trading vessel. The bottom is dug out, and the sides formed of planks laced together. A large stone is employed for an anchor. Here we see that an inferior description of craft survived, upon the rivers, in the midst of a higher civilization which has produced a superior class of vessel upon the seas. . . . .


The use of bark for canoes might have been suggested by the hollowed trunk; but, on the other hand, we find this material employed in Australia, where the hollowed trunk is not in general use. Bark is employed for a variety of purposes, such as clothing, materials for huts, and so forth. Some of the Australian shields are constructed of the bark of trees. The simplest form of canoe in Australia consists, as already mentioned, of a mere bundle of reeds and bark pointed at the ends. It is possible that the use of large pieces of bark in this manner may have suggested the employment of the bark alone. Belzoni mentions crossing to the island of Elephantine, on the Nile, in a ferry-boat which was made of branches of palm trees, fastened together with cords, and covered on the outside with a mat pitched all over. The solid papyrus boats represented on the pavement at Praeneste, before mentioned, have evidently some other substance on the outside of them; and Bruce imagines that the junks of the Red Sea were of papyrus, covered with leather. The outer covering would prevent the water from soaking into the bundle of sticks, and thus rendering it less buoyant. Bark, if used in the same manner, would serve a like purpose, and thus suggest its use for canoe-building. Otherwise I am unable to conceive any way in which bark canoes can have originated, except by imitation of the dug-out canoe.

For crossing rivers, the Australian savage simply goes to the nearest stringy-bark tree, chops a circle round the tree at the foot, and another seven or eight feet higher, makes a longitudinal cut on each side, and strips off bark enough by this means to make two canoes. If he is only going to cross the river by himself, he simply ties the bark together at the ends, paddles across, and abandons the piece of bark on the other side, knowing that he can easily provide another. If it is to carry another besides himself, he stops up the tied ends with clay; but if it is to be permanently employed, he sews up the ends more carefully, and keeps it in shape by cross-pieces, thereby producing a vessel which closely resembles the bark canoe of North America. I have not been able to trace the use of the bark canoe further north than Australia on this side of the world, probably owing to its being ill adapted for sea navigation; nor do I find representatives of it in any part of Europe or Africa, although bark is extensively used, in the Polynesian Islands and elsewhere, for other purposes.

It is the two continents of America which must be regarded as the home of the bark canoe.

The Fuegian canoe has been described by Wilkes, Pritchard, and others. It is sewn with shreds of whalebone, sealskin, and twigs, and supported by a number of stretchers lashed to the gunwale; the joints are stopped with rushes, and, without, smeared with resin. In Guiana the canoe is made of the bark of the purple-heart tree, stripped off and tied together at the ends. The ends are stopped with clay, as with the Australians. This mode of caulking is not very effectual, however, and the water is sure to come in sooner or later.

The nature of the material does not admit of much variety in the construction; suffice it to say that it is in general use in North America, up to the Esquimaux frontier. Its value in these regions consists in the facility with which it is taken out of the water and carried over the numerous rapids that prevail in the North American rivers. The Algonquins were famous for the construction of them. Some carry only two people, but the canot de maitre was thirty-six feet in length, and required fourteen paddlers. Kalm, in 1747, gives a detailed account of the construction of them on the Hudson river, and Lahontan, in 1684, gives an equally detailed description of those used in Canada. The bark is peeled off the tree by means of hot water. They are very fragile, and every day some hole in the bottom has to be stopped with gum. . . . .


As we approach the Arctic regions, the dug-out and bark canoes are replaced by canoes of skin and wicker. As we have already seen, in the case of the bow, and other arts of savages, vegetable materials supply the wants of man in southern and equatorial regions, whilst animal materials supply their place in the north.

The origin of skin coverings has been already suggested when speaking of bark canoes. The accidental dropping of a skin bottle into the water might suggest the use of such vessels as a means of recovering the harpoon, which, as I have already shown elsewhere, was almost universally used for fishing in the earliest stages of culture. The Esquimaux lives with the harpoon and its attached bladder almost continually by his side. The Esquimaux kayak, Nos. 1253 and 1254 of my collection, in which he traverses the ocean, although admirable in its workmanship, and, like all the works of the Esquimaux, ingenious in construction, is in principle nothing more than a large, pointed bladder, similar to that which is lashed to the harpoon at its side; the man in this case occupying the opening which, in the bladder, is filled by the wooden pin that serves for a cork.

This is, I believe, a very primitive form of vessel, although there can be no doubt that many links in the history of its development have been lost. Unlike the dug-out canoe, such a fragile contrivance as the wicker canoe perishes quickly, and no direct evidence of its ancestry can be traced at the present time. It is only by means of survivals that we can build up the past history of its development; and these are, for the most part, wanting.

The skin of an animal, flayed off the body with but one incision, served, as I have elsewhere shown, a variety of purposes: from it the bellows was derived, the bagpipes, water-vessels, and pouches of various kinds; and, filled with air, it served the purpose of a float. Steinitz, in his History of the Ship, gives an illustration of an inflated ox skin, which in India is used to cross rivers; the owner riding upon the back of the animal and paddling with his hands, as if it had been a living ox.

In the Assyrian sculptures there are numerous illustrations representing men floating upon skins of this kind, which they clasp with the left hand, like the tree trunks, already mentioned, that are used by the American Indians, and swim with the right. Layard says this manner of crossing rivers is still practised in Mesopotamia. He also describes the raft, composed of a number of such floats, made of the skins of sheep flayed off with as few incisions as possible; a square framework of poplar beams is placed over a number of these, and tied together with osier and other twigs. The mouths of the sheep-skins are placed upwards, so that they can be opened and refilled by the raft-men. On these rafts the merchandise is floated down the river to Bagdad; the materials are then disposed of and the skins packed on mules, to return for another voyage. On the Nile similar rafts are used, the skins being supplanted by earthen pots, which, like the skins on the Euphrates, serve only a temporary purpose, and after the voyage down the river are disposed of in the bazaars.

This mode of floating upon skins I should conjecture to be of northern origin, and to be practised chiefly by nomadic races; but we find it employed on the Morbeya, in Morocco, by the Moors, who no doubt had it from the East. It is thus described by Lempriere, in 1789. A raft is formed of eight sheep-skins filled with air, and tied together with small cords; a few slender poles are laid over them, to which they are fastened, and that is the only means used at Buluane to convey travellers, with their baggage, over the river. As soon as the raft is loaded, a man strips, jumps into the water, and swims with one hand, whilst he pulls the raft after him with the other; another swims and pushes behind. This reminds us of the custom of the Gran Chaco Indians of South America, who, in crossing rivers, use a square boat or tub of bull’s hide, called pelota. It is attached by a rope to the tail of a horse, which swims in front; or the rope is taken in the mouth of an expert swimmer. . . . .


The trunks of trees, united by mutual attraction, as they floated down the stream, would suggest the idea of a raft. The women of Australia use rafts made of layers of reeds, from which they dive to obtain mussel-shells. In New Guinea the catamaran, or small raft formed of three planks lashed together with rattan, is the commonest vessel used. Others are larger, containing ten or twelve persons, and consist of three logs lashed together in five places, the centre log being the longest, and projecting at both ends.

This is exactly like the catamaran used on the coast of Madras, a model of one of which is in the Indian Museum; they are also used on the Ganges, and in the Asiatic isles. At Manilla they are known by the name of saraboas; but the perfection of raft navigation is on the coast of Peru. Ulloa, in 1735, describes the balzas used on the Guayaquil, in Ecuador, and on the coast as far south as Paita. They are exiled by the Indians of the Guayaquil jungadas, and by the Darien Indians puero. They are made of a wood so light that a boy can easily carry a log 1 foot in diameter and 3 or 4 yards long. They are always made of an odd number of beams, like the New Guinea and Indian rafts, the longest and thickest in the centre, and the others lashed on each side. Some are 70 ft. in length and 20 broad. When sailing, they are guided by a system of planks, called guaras, which are shoved down between the beams of different parts of the raft as they are wanted, the breadth of the plank being in the direction of the lines of the timbers. By means of these they are able to sail near the wind, and to luff up, bear away, and tack at pleasure. When a guara is put down in the fore part of the raft, it luffs up, and when in the hinder part, if bears away. This system of steering, he says, the Indians have learnt empirically, ’their uncultivated minds never having examined into the rationale of the thing.’

It was one of these vessels which Bartholomew Ruiz, pilot of the second expedition for the discovery of Peru, met with; and which so astonished the sailors, who had never before seen any vessel on the coast of America provided with a sail. Condamine speaks of the rafts in 1743, on the Chinchipe, in Peru. They are also used on the coast of Brazil, where they are also called jungadas, from which locality there is a model of one in the British Museum, and another in the Christy collection. Professor Wilson thinks it was by means of these vessels, driven off the coast of America westward, that the Polynesian and Malay islands were peopled; and this brings us to the consideration of the peculiar class of vessel which is distributed over a continuous area in the Pacific and adjoining seas, viz. the outrigger canoe, which, I shall endeavour to show, was derived from the raft.


The sailing properties of the balza, or any other similar raft, must have been greatly impeded by the resistance offered to the water by the ends of its numerous beams. In order to diminish the resistance, the obvious remedy was to use only two beams, placed parallel to each other at a distance apart, with a platform laid on cross-poles between them.

Of this kind we find a vessel used by the Tasmanians, and described by Mr. Bonwick, on the authority of Lieut. Jeffreys. The natives, he says, would select two good stems of trees and place them parallel to each other, but a couple of yards apart; cross-pieces of small size were laid on these, and secured to the trees by scraps of tough bark. A stronger cross-timber, of greater thickness, was laid across the centre, and the whole was then covered by wicker-work. Such a float would be thirty feet long, and would hold from six to ten persons.

In Fiji, Williams describes a kind of vessel called ulatoka, a raised platform, floating on two logs, which must evidently be a vessel of the same description as that used in Tasmania.

From these two logs were derived the double canoe on the one hand, and the canoe with the outrigger on the other. . . . .


All the various items of evidence which I have collected, and endeavoured to elucidate by means of survivals, whether in relation to modes of navigation or other branches of industry, appear to me to tend towards establishing a gradual development of culture as we advance northward. Although Buddhism and its concomitant civilization may have come from the north, there has been an earlier and prehistoric flow of culture in the opposite direction—northward—from the primaeval and now submerged cradle of the human family in the southern hemisphere. This. I venture to think, will establish itself more and more clearly, in proportion as we divest ourselves of the numerous errors which have arisen from our acceptance of the Noachian deluge as a universal catastrophe.

As human culture developed northward from the equator toward the 40th parallel of latitude, civilization began to bud out in Egypt, India, and China, and a great highway of nations was established by means of ships along the southern margin of the land, from China to the Red Sea.

Along this ocean highway may be traced many connexions in ship forms which have survived from the earliest times. The oculus, which, on the sacred boats of the Egyptians, represented the eye of Osiris guiding the mummy of the departed across the sacred lake, is still seen eastward—in India and China—converted into an ornamental device, whilst westward it lived through the period of the Roman and Grecian biremes and triremes, and has survived to this day on the Maltese rowing-boats and the xebecque of Calabria, or has been converted into a hawser-hole in modern European craft. The function of the rudder—which in the primitive vessels of the southern world is still performed by the paddlers, whilst paddling with their faces to the prow—was confided, as sails began to be introduced, to the rearmost oars. In some of the Egyptian sculptures the three hindermost rowers on each side are seen steering the vessel with their oars. Ultimately one greatly developed oar on each side of the stern performed this duty; the loom of which was attached to an upright beam on the deck, as is still the case in some parts of India. In some of the larger Malay prahaus there are openings or windows in the stern, considerably below the deck, by which the steersmen have access to two large rudders, one on each side; each rudder being the vestige of a side oar.

Throughout the Polynesian Islands the steering is performed with either one or two greatly developed paddles. Both in the rudder of the Egyptian sculptures and in the gubernaculum of the Roman vessels, we see the transition from the large double oar, one on each side, to the single oar at the stern. The ship of Ptolemaeus Philopator had four rudders, each thirty cubits in length. The Chinese and Japanese rudder is but a modification of the oar, worked through large holes in the stern of the vessel; which large holes, in the case of the Japanese, owe their preservation to the orders of the Tycoon, who caused them to be retained in all his vessels, in order to prevent his subjects from venturing far to sea. The buccina, or shell trumpet, which is used especially on board all canoes in the Pacific, from the coast of Peru to Ceylon, is represented, together with the gubernaculum, in the hands of Tritons, in Roman sculptures, and the shell form of it was preserved in its metallic representatives.

The sail, in its simplest form, consists of a triangular mat, with bamboos lashed to the two longer sides. In New Guinea and some of the other islands, this sail, which is here seen it its simplest form, is simply put up on deck, with the apex downwards and the broad end up, and kept up by stays fore and aft. When a separate mast was introduced, this sail was hauled up by a halyard attached to one of the bamboos, at the distance of about one-fifth of its length from the broad end, the apex of the bamboo-edged mat being fastened forward by means of a tack. By taking away the lower bamboo the sail became the lateen sail of the Malay pirate proa, the singular resemblance of which to that of the Maltese galley of the eighteenth century (a resemblance shared by all other parts of the two vessels) may be seen by two models placed side by side in the Royal United Service Institution. Professor Wilson observes that the use of the sail appears to be almost unknown on either continent of America, and the surprise of the Spaniards on first seeing one used on board a Peruvian balza arose from this known peculiarity of early American navigation (p. 218). Lahontan, however, in 1684, says that the Canadian bark canoes, though usually propelled by paddles, sometimes tarried a small sail. He does not, however, say whether the knowledge of these has been derived from Europeans. Mr. Lloyd also mentions small sails used with bark canoes in Newfoundland.

The crow’s-nest, which in the Egyptian vessels served to contain a slinger or an archer at the top of the mast, and which is also represented in the Assyrian sculptures, was still used for the same purpose in Europe in the fifteenth century, was modified in the sixteenth century, and became the mast-head so well known to midshipmen in our own time. The two raised platforms, which in the Egyptian vessels served to contain the man with the fathoming pole in the fore part, and the steersman behind, became the prora and the puppis of the Romans, and the forecastle and poop of modern European vessels. The aplustre, which, in the form of a lotus, ornamented the stern of the Egyptian war-craft, gave the form to the aplustre of the Greeks and Romans, and may still be seen on the stern of the Burmese war-boats at the present time. . . . .—A. LANE-FOX PITT-RIVERS, , 4:399–435. Reprinted in , 189–227.

Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: The Evolution of Culture

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Evolution of Culture

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: The Evolution of Culture in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 405–419. Original Sources, accessed July 22, 2024,

MLA: . The Evolution of Culture, Vol. 4, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 405–419. Original Sources. 22 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , The Evolution of Culture. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.405–419. Original Sources, retrieved 22 July 2024, from