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Tentative Chronology of Indigenous Canoes of Eastern Australia

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 26 Jun 2012

In early June this year Stan Florek presented a paper at the conference ‘Nawi – exploring Australia’s indigenous watercraft,’ held at the Australian National Maritime Museum (31 May – 1 June 2012). This is a summary of this presentation.

Canoe from Cardwell, Queensland E13452

 © Australian Museum

Indigenous people of eastern Australia used their canoes in fishing and hunting dugong and turtle, also in crossing rivers and estuaries, as well as visiting offshore islands along the Queensland coast and, in a limited way, in Tasmania. Only Torres Strait Islanders, in their dugout canoes with outriggers, travelled long distances, mainly to New Guinea.

The ethnographic canoes of the East Coast can be grouped into four broader categories.
• Dugout seafaring canoe of north Queensland,
• Stitched bark seafaring canoe of the central and southern coast of Queensland,
• Folded-ends bark canoe, unsuitable for sea-travel, of southeast Australia,
• Bundle of bark or reed canoe of maritime-design of Tasmania,

These canoes seem to have originated from different cultural and technological traditions. It is unlikely they evolved from one into other, which suggests different roots and times of their origin.

Dugout canoes of different forms, with single or double outriggers in Cape York, could have been adopted from Torres Strait and New Guinea neighbours, as early as 3,000 years ago. The range and integration of cultural borrowing from Melanesia, including bark cloth, shell fishhooks and smoking pipes, would support their early adoption and may leave open the possibility of even earlier origins, extending to contacts with pre-Lapita people more than 3,000 years ago.

Some variants of Queensland seafaring bark canoes must predate dugouts because they, or their earlier prototypes, allowed visiting offshore islands (e.g Whitsunday Island, Great Keppel Island) from at least 8,000 years ago. Different variants of such canoes are prevalent along Arnhem Land, the Gulf of Carpentaria and along the east coast of Queensland, where the Asian and Pacific influence (respectively) was evident. This influence could have inspired a construction of a sea-worthy canoe, before dugouts appeared in north Queensland.

Bark canoes with very low folded ends in south-east Australia are strongly associated with ancient bark technology, visible in containers of this region. They were designed for coastal lakes, bays and estuaries, not for sea navigation. These canoes may have their roots in the period when the current coastline was formed and stabilised in about 7,000 years ago.

Unlike other Aboriginal canoes, the Tasmanian type is not a vessel – a large container – but a combination of bark or reed bundles made into maritime watercraft. It typically carried 4-6 passengers and occasionally 7-8 people ‘with dogs and spears.’ This canoe may have been used at least 6,000 years ago to visit Bruny Island, but possibly much earlier, as Tasmanians were unable (or unwilling) to borrow the idea of bark canoes from their mainland brothers after Tasmania was separated from the mainland about 10,000 years ago.

Tasmanian canoe-design may be affiliated with the bamboo rafts of Southeast Asia, invoked as probable watercraft of prehistoric times, which would predate the renowned dugout canoe of the region. It is possible that Tasmanians retained a boat design of much greater antiquity, linked, indirectly, to the ancient watercraft of prehistoric humans who must have used boats to migrate from Sunda (now Southeast Asia) to Sahul (New Guinea and Australia) about 40,000–50,000 years ago.