Andean reed boats – ingenious AND lovely

We recently went over to The National Museum of the American Indian again (nice having the place so close) and in the big, main foyer, where recreations of native watercraft are on display, I found this boat, a miniature version of a reed boat used by the people who lived around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and Peru hundreds of years ago. Ayamara <i/>totora reed boat” />According <a href=my colleague from Bolivia, the area around the Lake, which sits at ~12,000 feet, is considered tundra. There are just dry grasses, some scrub, and only a few scattered trees (which I imagine are fairly gnarled and windblown). In other words, not much in the way of good boatbuilding material.

Unless you get creative and take another look at available materials, as these people did. These craft are built from bales of native reeds tied together with dried grass.hull cross section from Archeology Magazine's The construction method doesn’t allow you to have much internal hull space, but it is plenty buoyant. Apparently there is some thought that these people carried massive stones across the lake with these boats. So while these boats might be tough in some weather, they are probably stable and certainly unlikely to go anywhere if worse comes to worse.

The other thing that strikes me about these boats (follow the link above to see more pictures), is that they are really lovely. As with some many traditional small craft, someone thought to make a boat good looking, even if it was utilitarian in nature. It doesn’t even appear that the builders were conforming to an easy, natural shape – those sweeping, high ends were clearly done with a reason. Those same ends are, I would think, fairly impractical – I mean, if you are trying to make way with those winds screaming off the high Andes, the last thing you would want is a lot of extra windage in the bow and stern. It must, however, have mattered to the builders and owners. The same seems to be true for other traditional boats – birchbark canoes, dugouts from various places, Greenland kayaks, Arabian dhows, and others – they are all lovely “designs” in their own right. The notion then, that the boat is both a tool and a piece of art, must be embedded in humanity from the first “seafarers,” and that is refreshing to think about. It means there may be hope that the current rage of bulbous, misshapen, pieces of junk adorning shores everywhere will never be able to stamp out the beautiful craft clinging to their places in their harbors. Maybe, just maybe, they will even rise again…

Location: Copacaban, Boliva

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