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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Very Early Maori Canoe

A sizable component of a large canoe found in New Zealand gives clues to the type of boats used to settle the islands, which probably occurred sometime between 1050 and 1250 CE. Found at Anewaka, on the northwest coast of South Island, the artifact has been dated to around 1400. Given the slowness with which technology changes in traditional societies, it seems probable that the boat it came from was similar to those used by the islands' first colonizers.
Canoe fragment recovered at Anewaka, New Zealand
Canoe fragment recovered at Anewaka, New Zealand (click any image to enlarge)
More than 6m long and 85cm wide at its widest point, the part was a piece of what must have been a large composite canoe. For convenience, we'll call it a plank, though it was carved "in the round," following the shape of the tree trunk from which it came, and it is therefore somewhat closer to dugout technology than to plank-on-frame boatbuilding. (The proper term for this kind of component is ile.) The boat was, however, by no means a dugout. The part represents less than one quarter of one hull which may have been from a single-outrigger canoe but was more likely half of a double canoe.

Stitching holes exist around the entire perimeter of the plank, and pounded tree bark that was used to caulk these holes was recovered from some of them. Carved ribs and a longitudinal stringer on the inner surface of the plank show sophisticated carpentry and structural design. The stringer has notches and lashing holes along its whole length which were obviously used to locate and lash other parts of the boat's structure, but the exact nature of those other parts and the connections between them is unknown.

Partial hull reconstruction of Anekawa canoe
Partial hull reconstruction through duplication and mirror-imaging of the single recovered plank 
The authors of a paper on the find suggest that the part would have had a mirror-image to itself opposite, plus a similar pair of parts extending the hull at least a comparable distance from its butt end. To avoid having the mirror-image parts meet along the hull's "keel" line, where lashings would have been exposed to rapid wear when grounding the boat (an arrangement that, the authors state, is unknown ethnographically), it is necessary to accept another part between them -- call it a keel plank if you will. Although the two ends of the hull need not have been identical, it seems fair to assume that they were of similar length. There is nothing to preclude more sections between the two end pieces, for a much longer hull.

Carving of a sea turtle on the Anewaka canoe plank
Carving of a sea turtle on the canoe plank
A sea turtle appears carved in relief on the outer surface of the plank. If one assumes that it is depicted swimming forward, then the plank must be from the after part of the hull. Sea turtles are not important in the iconography of the New Zealand Maori, so its carving here is thought to be a lingering transmission from pre-colonization Maori culture, which arrived in New Zealand by way of the Society Islands.

Proposed reconstruction of the Anewaka canoe as a double-hulled voyaging canoe
Proposed reconstruction of the Anewaka canoe as a double-hulled voyaging canoe with a single oceanic sprit rig
Relying on internal and ethnographic evidence and historical records, the authors created a reconstruction showing a double-hulled sailing canoe with dissimilar ends, a house aft of amidships, and a steering oar. The single sail is an inverted triangle held by two spars: known as an oceanic sprit rig, this is a tacking rig.

A Tahitian tipaerua, drawn by John Webber
A Tahitian tipaerua, drawn by John Webber
As the authors note, the Tahitian tipaerua has a similar hull configuration, though the sailing rig depicted by John Webber on James Cook's third voyage to the Pacific was different. The authors suggest that the Anewaka canoe and the tipaerua had a common ancestor.

Thanks for Yoram Meroz for alerting us to this item.

With the exception of the final image, all images are from An early sophisticated East Polynesian voyaging canoe discovered on New Zealand's coast by Dilys A Johns, Geoffrey J. Irwin, and Yun K. Sung.