Friday, October 5, 2012

Building an Ashaninka Dugout Canoe

Cutting the five meter section of trunk in half using a chainsaw. This provides material for two canoes.
The art of the dugout canoe, carving a canoe from a single tree, is nearly as old and diverse as human cultures themselves. A wonderful recent post by Bob Holtzman on Indigenous Boats illuminates just how different these canoes can be, given their environment, cultural considerations, and even artistic choices. A labor intensive process, the dugout canoes around the world are rapidly disappearing with newer and market bought boats replacing them. Yet the efforts of many can keep the tradition alive. For example, the recent inspiring work of birchbark canoe educational organization Voyage of Rediscovery in dugouts.

The Ashaninka tradition is changing rapidly as well. The dugout canoe is still of major importance to the scattered villages throughout the rainforest, connected by various river ways, and the main fishing vessel, the main source of protein. Yet with deforestation it is increasingly difficult to find a tree. With a government sponsored dirt road being placed into the region, for the first time in history it may be possible to access these Ashaninka villages from land and not just water.

Using wedges, freshly cut from the surrounding jungle, to free the log section.
The chainsaw, traditionally stone axes, play the first role in building today´s Ashaninka canoe. Cutting out a desired section, this one roughly 5 meters, and then cutting the section in half allows for two canoes to be build from the same section, with the heart of the tree being the above center of each. Even ten years ago this process would have been done by controlled fires, using various tools to hatch out the softer burnt sections, without which it could take months to slowly whittle away with a hard rock.

Designing the canoe.

Once one half is chosen and moved with the heart wood upwards, a design is made. Using charcoal as a base drawing, large fern branches freshly cut from the surrounding jungle and nails made from a hardwood branch, the carefully made design is ready to be cut.

While the chainsaw makes notches for easier digging out, Lioncio gets started with the axe.
Ready for the next ´workshop´.

Replacing fire, the axe, chainsaw, machete and adze are used to digout the majority of the canoe while it is still in its jungle location besides a stream. This is done both to reduce weight and allow for Lioncio to navigate it down river to a beach along side the village where we can more easily shape the canoe. Before this happens, the ends of the canoe are narrowed using the chainsaw.

Lioncio and grandson floating the rough canoe down to the village, where it will be refined.

 From the new building location, just river side from an the Ashaninka village of San Pablo, we use the axe, adze and machete to carve the hull to Lioncio´s liking. After every stage or wave of hacking with a steel tool, Lioncio slowly walks around the canoe and designs the next steps in his experienced mind. A big smile means success, yet with imperfections he quickly begins hacking again.

Using the Adze to carve the hull.

Using an axe to refine the bow.

Flipping the canoe over, we used the same tools to carve the belly of the canoe. Where the corazon or heart wood cracked we simply used wooden nails, and eventually iron nails, to strengthen it.

The careful eye of Lioncio

 Before we pushed the canoe into the water, though a small one it was amazingly heavy, we rejoiced in our work being done. Using a paddle he showed me how to make just a week before, Lioncio softly paddle the canoe to tests its maneuverability before the both of us went for a long ride. I asked him about the holes in the bottom of the canoe drilled by termites and other insects. With a gentle "no problem", I accepted his answer. After days of paddling the boat on the Pichis, I learned the master was right.

Maiden voyage


  1. This is really worth reading, it has too much details in it and yet it is so simple to understand, Thanks for sharing the picture it has great detail in it and i really appreciate your true artistic work!

  2. Very good photographs. This is a good look at the stages of construction. The writing is clear and instructive. I wish I could be there.

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  4. Great!Thanks for sharing. This is details from start to end construction,simple to understand .

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