International Scientific Conference "Archeology of the Arctic"
November 19-23, 2017

Bark and skin boats of Northern Eurasia.

W. Fitzhugh1, H. Luukkanen2.

1Smithsonian university, Washington, USA. 2Helsinki, Finland.


Watercraft have been a crucial part of the adaptation of indigenous peoples of the northern regions and a popular subject of modern fishermen, sportsmen, and amateur boat-builders. Negotiating waterways and lakes, along coastlines, and even across seas have been part of human history for at least one hundred thousand years. Human expansion to Australia and into the Americas depended on watercraft, and once people reached these and other destinations, boats were necessary for survival, exploitation of resources, trade, and warfare. Yet despite the watery nature of human wanderings, precious little evidence exists about the types of craft involved or the history of their development. The fragile nature of boats has made them as intangible as music, dance, and social relations. What remains is a tiny fraction of this 100,000-year history, and most of its physical evidence comes from recent times. The history of northern boating traditions seen as rock art reaches into the mid-Holocene, but physical remains are rarely older than a millennium, and most of our evidence comes from historical literature, museum specimens, and models.

Despite its popular and scholarly interest, information on boat history is a relatively recent phenomenon. Here we are concerned only with boats of the northern taiga and arctic zones. The first major work to summarize this tradition in North America was Adney and Chapelle's Smithsonian publication, "Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America" (1964), which became a classic and has remained in print ever since. This is a remarkable work, but it covers only half of the northern world, from Alaska to Greenland. In 2018 the Smithsonian will publish a sister volume describing small boat traditions of the Eurasian North. Unfortunately, ours does not include Adney and Chapelle-style nautical boat drawings, but it does compile information on the history and use of small boats for most of the indigenous peoples of northern Eurasia from Scandinavia to Alaska. The book describes the major bark and skin boat types and traditions, what is known of their history and use, and their connections with America. Boat history and relationships, like other elements of material culture, can be traced far and wide based on their design features.

Our work builds on the pioneering research of Valentina V. Antropova and offers a preliminary synthesis. Our work on bark canoes is largely a compilation of historical and ethnographic data, photography, and museum specimens. We identify four major bark canoe types that generally correspond to the major river systems: Ob, Yenisey, Lena, and Amur. Sharing and borrowing occurs across these boat type zones, and we believe all may have originated in the southern Siberian and Altaian region as forests expanded northward during the Holocene. At present, except for paddles, there is virtually no direct archaeological evidence of this early history, and of its relationship to the expansion and merging of ethnic groups, until Western documentation begins, although the oldest reference can be found in the China. One of the major drivers of changes in boat design was the gradual expansion, beginning 2500 years ago, of the expanded dug-out log boat, and that of keeled and nailed lapstrake plank boats, beginning 1500 years ago in North Europe; both boat technologies gradually replaced bark canoes due to their more sturdy construction, leaving East Siberia and Far East as the last users of bark canoes in the early 20th century.

The history of skin boats is even more complicated but shows similar trends and probably has origins in frame-constructed bark canoes. Like bark canoes, the origin of skin boats is unknown, but there are indications that such craft were widespread throughout the Eurasian coastal zone. Rock art of northern Scandinavia and the White Sea once were thought to illustrate Eskimo-like open skin boats dating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age; but today most interpret these vessels as dogouts with expanded plank sides and animal effigy prows. 16th century explorers encountered small kayak-like skin boats in the Swedish Lapland and in the Kara Sea, and in coastal estuaries in Ob and Taz, but these traditions were quickly replaced by plank boats, with skin crafts remaining into the historical period only east of Taimyr. It is likely that open skin boats similar to Eskimo umiaks or angyapiks were used from the Amur to the Lena mouth beginning at least 2000 years ago, as judged by boat models from Ancient Old Bering Sea sites in Chukotka. Their history is associated with the need for hunting amidst pack ice, leading to the highly refined umiaks of the Bering Sea and North Pacific zone. Kayaks may have been a later development, emerging from the need to spear reindeer at river and lake crossings, and seal-hunting along the Arctic and subarctic coasts. As in western Eurasian north, early peoples of the Amur and Okhotsk Sea and Kuril-Japan seem to have lost their skin boat traditions due to the spread, 1000 years ago, of larger and sturdier Chinese-type planked boats and planked log-based boat construction. Our review extends the discussion of Eurasian boats into Alaska, whose bark and skin boats are closely linked to Asian prototypes that then spread through the North American Arctic and subarctic forest regions.

Throughout this history, people continued to keep small bark and skin boat tradition alive due to their importance in small-scale fishing and communal reindeer hunting societies. Today some of these styles are being revived by the utility of fiberglass construction following ancient designs.

Our canoe history work is only a preliminary statement. It does not diverge much from the conclusions advanced by Antropova in 1961, and it calls desperately for archaeological evidence. Our contributions are from an exhaustive search of literary sources printed mainly in German language and a cursory search of Russian museum and archival records. We are aware that much more documentary and physical data exists and could be retrieved by Russian language experts. Our hope is to stimulate more research, and especially archaeological investigations on Eurasian boat history. Today this field is known mostly from the pioneering work of Ole Crum Pedersen on the history of plank boat evolution in Denmark, especially in Roskilde.

Electronic versions of printed documents