Monday, February 22, 2010

Whence the Kayak?

For over a week now, I've been on this detour from working on my book where I've tried to figure out where kayaks came from. The origin of the kayak was supposed to be just a page or two in my book in a chapter on the history and evolution of the baidarka. Unfortunately, I have found out that there isn't much to be found on the topic. At least not where I've looked. I imagine if I trucked on down to the university library whereever they hide the archaeology journals, I could probably find something, but would this be worth the effort?

I'm starting to get pessimistic about the prospect. Nevertheless, let me throw out what I've found. None of this is coherent, it is more in the nature of dots that can't be connected, or maybe dots that can be connected in any way you like provided you have an active enough imagination.

So here goes – random facts about kayaks and their possible origin.

  1. The use of kayaks more or less died out after WWII due primarily to a glut of cheap energy. People throughout the Arctic could afford to buy aluminum skiffs and put outboard motors on them. That plus high-powered rifles made it possible for two people, one of them steering and the other one shooting to run down just about any kind of game and bag it.

  2. In the historical period, that is, from the time that European whalers moved into the arctic, kayaks were found in Greenland, across the Canadian North, Alaska and the part of Siberia closest to the Bering strait. Kayaks did not spread any farther west across Siberia than the Bering Sea Coast. I don't know much about Siberia, but it seems that a kayak along the Arctic Coast would have been a handy thing. Why then didn't these people have any? My guess is reindeer herding. There might be other factors, but it seems that the people of most of Siberia did not depend primarily on the sea for sustenance but lived off the reindeer herds which they followed and tended.

  3. The kayak could have been invented in one place and then spread out across its current range from there. Or the kayak could have been invented in more than one place.

  4. The kayak could have been invented by the ancestors of the Eskimo-Aleuts and brought with them into what is now Alaska. Or the kayak could have been invented after people had already migrated into Alaska.

  5. Open boats are generally more handy than closed deck kayaks for just about everything other than solitary hunting. My guess is that kayaks were used primarily in places where survival depended heavily on sea mammals as food and as a source of skins.

  6. People who first migrated to Alaska were of two types, people of the interior and people of the coast. These two types of people had different hunting technologies. The people of the coast traveled by water and also got their food primarily from the water.

  7. It was the people of the coast that invented the kayak.

  8. We don't know much about the people of the coast before 10,000 BP (before the present) because the coast that they lived on is under 300 feet of water.

  9. The earliest evidence for the use of boats in Alaska is 8500 BP at Anangula. The evidence is indirect. Anangula is an island and could only have been reached by boat.

  10. By 6000 BP people had moved to Adak in the middle of the Aleutian chain.

  11. The people who migrated down the Aleutian chain may already have had kayaks. They had to have boats to make the migration. Most likely those were larger open boats. However, I don't know whether the open boats would have been suitable for hunting. It is possible that the ecology of those days was different and that there was enough food available for people that didn't have kayaks or that they had different hunting techniques in those days. But to venture out on the ocean in an open boat requires a pretty large open boat, one that requires a sizeable crew. At least in historical times, t he open boats were only used for whale hunting. But the Aleuts, at least in historical times, did not hunt whales from open boats.

  12. There is a good deal of similarity between the baidarka of the Aleuts and the baidarka of their neighbors down the coast in Kodiak. There is also a fair amount of similarity between the baidarka of the Aleuts and the kayaks of the Bering Sea shore up to Bering Strait. Perhaps they all had a common ancestor or perhaps key design features spread throughout the whole region over a period of centuries. Apparently as early as 2000 BP, kayaks at Seward Peninsula already used the four stringer, round hulled design that is still in use today. This is based on a piece of kayak skin found on the Seward Peninsula by Danish Archaeologist, Helge Larsen.

  13. The region of kayak cultures has in the past been occupied by a number of different cultures. Each culture had different technologies for manufacturing hunting weapons and other tools. As a matter of fact, it is primarily stone artifacts that survive over long periods of time and it is these artifacts that define cultures. Not much else remains to tell us who lived where and when. The existence of kayak is deduced from the type of hunting implements found. At least during the historic period, certain types of weapons were associated only with kayaks. The presence of these weapons could suggest the existence of kayaks. Kayak parts themselves are hard to find. The only thing that would survive would be deck toggles to hold weapons and such. However, kayaks were not stored indoors and it is at house sites that archaeologists typically dig.

  14. Archaeology in the Arctic is paced by the number of people willing to work at it. There is still quite a bit of territory that hasn't been explored. Archaeologists had to make a choice between going out and digging or staying home and analyzing their finds and publishing their findings. During the latter part of the twentieth century they leaned toward digging.

  15. The fact that the Arctic has been populated by a number of different cultures with different technologies implies that whatever boat technology existed may also have changed drastically from one culture to the next.

  16. Unlike humans who in their DNA carry a record of their ancestry, nothing of the kind exists for kayaks and other inanimate objects. What you see is what you get and you can only guess where the idea to make a thing a certain way first came from. For kayaks, this sort of speculation is especially difficult because kayaks decay rapidly and little or nothing remains behind after a few thousand years. So when we look at a Bering Sea kayak and an Aleut baidarka, we can see some sort of design similarities and obvious mutual influences, but without some physical record, we have no way of knowing who came first and who influenced whom. Perhaps in the future, more digging and analysis will establish a sequence of cultures for the Arctic and the Aleutians and that sequence in time as well as in location will give us some clue how people and technologies moved around the region.

  17. Recently, stone tools were found on the Island of Crete in the Mediterranean. The tools were dated at 130,000 BP. Crete has been an island that whole time. The only way that the tool makers could have gotten to the island was by boat. Boat building is obviously a very ancient human activity. There is nothing in principle that would have prevented the invention of the kayak in the Arctic from t he time that people first moved there. The question is only whether they did.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Aleut Prehistory

Prehistory is the time before written records. For the Aleuts that would be the time before the Russians appeared in the middle of the 18th century.
Trying to determine the prehistory of the Aleuts is not simple, not because nobody has tried to discover it but rather because much of the land that people occupied during the migration from Asia to America is now under water. In any case, I will share what I have found.
Language analysis suggests that Eskimos and Aleuts both shared a common language at one time which in turn suggests that they shared a single culture in the past and probably the same group of ancestors.
Genetic evidence suggests that the group ancestral to both Eskimos and Aleuts crossed over to America roughly 15,000 years ago during the early post-glacial period and took refuge in what is now southern Alaska. From there, the ancestors of today's Eskimos and Aleuts migrated north to populate their present-day territories. An earlier theory had the Eskimo-Aleut ancestors migrating to America from the Siberian interior roughly 6000 years ago.

The pink/orange area is the extent of glacier-free land during the last ice age. It is here in ice-free Alaska that the ancestors of the Eskimos and Aleuts migrated to and that they dispersed from later to settle the Aleutians and the Arctic coast of North America.

The earliest evidence of human habitation in the Aleutians was found on the island of Anangula off the coast of Umnak island in the eastern Aleutians. The site was dated 8500 BP (before the present). Occupation of the settlement was ended by a nearby volcanic eruption that covered the island in six feet of volcanic ash. There is some dispute whether this settlement was peopled by ancestors of present day Aleuts or whether it was peopled by a group that was not a cultural ancestor of the Aleuts.

In any case, whoever settled Anangula had boats because Anangula was an island even 8500 BP.
Other archaeological evidence places Aleuts in the eastern Aleutians about 4000 years ago and in the western Aleutians 2000 years ago. Migration was clearly east to west from the direction of the Alaskan Peninsula and not west to east from Kamchatka.

The island of Anangula is about a mile from Umnak which is in the center of this map. Also extending upward from Umnak you can see the edge of what is the shallow part of the Bering Sea which during the last ice age was above water and formed part of Beringia.

Regardless of which direction the Aleuts came from and regardless of when they first arrived in the Aleutians, they must have made the migration by boat. Nobody knows what kinds of boats the Aleuts used to settle the Aleutians. Did they have open boats and closed deck kayaks when they started the migration or did they only have open boats and invented the kayaks later?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Louis Choris and the Uncertainty of the Past

Over the course of the past few weeks, I have been taking artists' drawings of baidarkas and put them in chronological order to get some sense of how the design of baidarkas may have evolved between 1760 and 1849. In the process of looking closely at these drawings, I found any number of improbable aspects to them, enough to make me wonder to what extent any of these drawings can be trusted. Comparison of drawings by various artists reveals a good deal of commonality, and the weight of numbers gives us some assurance that the things that all the drawings have in common are probably true. But there are also a number of differences between the various drawings and they make me wonder to what extent the differences were actually there and to what extent they are the product of invention or poor observation.
Let us look in detail at the drawings of Louis Choris because he is typical of the expedition artists that brought back pictures of the Aleutians.
For the sake of convenience I reproduce here a large chunk of Wikipedia's entry on Choris:

Louis Choris (1795-1828) was a famous German-Russian painter and explorer. He was one of the first sketch artists for expedition research. Louis Choris, who was a Russian of German stock, was born in Yekaterinoslav on March 22, 1795. He visited the Pacific and the west coast of North America in 1816 on board the Ruric, being attached in the capacity of artist to the Romanzoff expedition under the command of Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue, sent out for the purpose of exploring a northwest passage.

Choris is said to have "painted nature as he found it. The essence of his art is truth; a fresh, vigorous view of life, and an originality in portrayal." The accompanying illustrations may therefore be looked upon as faithfully representing the subjects treated by the artist. After the voyage of the Ruric, Choris went to Paris where he issued a portfolio of his drawings in lithographic reproduction and studied in the ateliers of Gerard and Regnault.
End of quote.

I don't know who it was that said that Choris painted nature as he found it. Had they actually compared Choris' paintings with nature, they might have changed their mind. Before we look at Choris' drawings, let's take a detour and examine what we are actually looking at.
Before the advent of various photographic processes, artists made drawings or watercolor or ink sketches. The artists' drawings were then transferred by hand to a lithographic stone or metal plate from which multiple copies could be printed. Several things are worth noting about this process. The person who did the drawing on the stone or on the metal plate was usually not the artist, but a specialist in copying drawings. If the handedness of the drawing was important, then the person doing the copy would have to produce a mirror image of the drawing on the stone or plate. Certainly, if there was any writing, that would have to be created as a mirror image since the print is a mirror image of the printing plate. Secondly, the image on the plate or stone would often have more detail than the original sketch. Things that were vague in the original had to be detailed out in the copy. If the artist was not on hand or if the artist couldn't remember the details, then the person doing the copy would invent the details. To summarize, when we look at the lithographs based on Choris' drawings, we are looking at images that may have been altered or embroidered on by the lithographer.
So without any further delay, here are the works of Louis Choris as interpreted by an unknown lithographer.

This is one of my favorite Choris drawings. It depicts and Aleut man and woman. The man is wearing his gut raincoat and wooden paddling visor. The woman is wearing a European dress and a cross. This is quite surprising since in 1816 when Choris made this drawing, the Russians had been in the Aleutians for only a little over 50 years. In any case, what is noteworthy here is that Choris seems to have done a pretty good job of depicting nature as he found it. The raincoat shows the individual seams in the raincoat running horizontally across the garment and some other details. Of particular interest are the sea lion whiskers on the man's hat. The whiskers on a visor would go on the off-side of the hunters hat so they wouldn't interfere with the throwing of harpoons or darts. This means that the hunter was either left-handed or the lithographer didn't bother to reverse the image.

Here is another drawing of a man and a woman. This time, both the man and the woman are wearing traditional garb. Only now, Choris hasn't bothered to draw the horizontal lines on the rain coat but made it look as if it was made out of a single piece of fabric. The paddle is also curious. The shape seems reasonable, but assuming typical short stature of Aleuts of the time, the paddle would be a little less than 5 feet long and the loom would barely be big enough to get both hands on. My guess is that Choris liked the idea of the man leaning on his paddle and made it appropriately short. Or he might have seen a man leaning on a single bladed paddle but decided to substitute the double bladed paddle.
Someone familiar with Greenland paddles might suggest that the paddle in the picture might work like a Greenland storm paddle. However, the blades would be too wide for the paddler to slide his hands along the blade the way the Greenlanders do.

This picture is a closeup of an area to the right of the woman in the previous picture. It shows two baidarkas, a double in the foreground and a single in the background. What is interesting is that the paddlers in the double seem to be using single-bladed paddles while the paddler in the single is using a double-bladed paddle.
So the question is, should we take Choris at face value and accept that the Aleuts at one time had short paddles, perhaps for special conditions or that Choris was being inventive? Let's look at some more pictures before we decide.

This picture shows a paddler approaching a colony of Stellar sea lions. Most of the picture looks quite reasonable but two things don't. The first unreasonable thing is the way the paddler is holding his paddle. His left hand is overhand and his right is underhand. That is the way you would hold a canoe paddle. The only reason for making a double bladed paddle is that you can put both hands on top of the loom and shuttle the paddle from side to side without losing time changing the grip as in a single bladed paddle.
It is possible that Aleuts invented double bladed paddles without realizing that they could put both hands on top of the loom. Certainly, the invention of photography eliminated this particular kind of grip.
The second unreasonable thing is the length of the kayak's back deck. It appears as if Choris shortened it up to fit in the frame of the picture. If we take Choris at face value, we would expect the back of the kayak to sit much lower.
Choris is guilty of two things here, the grip on the paddle is the result of poor observation. The shortness of the back deck makes Choris guilty of distortion for the sake of composition.

This picture shows two baidarkas, a one holer with the skin on and a double with the skin off. The one holer seems to have been drawn from life. The frame of the two holer appears to be a work of the imagination. Choris was probably in the Aleutians for only a brief period and then only in the summer when the baidarkas would not have been without their skins. While the drawing of the double seems correct in some ways, it seems wrong in more ways than it is right. Choris may have briefly stuck his head inside a baidarka to see how they were put together. He got the longitudinal stringers and keelson right, but the spacing and placement of the ribs look like works of the imagination. It's hard to see in this small reproduction, but Choris also put the stringers inside the ribs. If you covered this imagined frame with skin, the ribs on the outside of the stringers would make bumps in the skin and a very slow boat.
The drawing of the single is actually pretty good. In a larger reproduction you can see three ribs inside the cockpit, evidence that this part of the lithograph was actually based on a sketch of a live baidarka and not the artist's memory and imagination.

Finally, here is a picture of two men in a double. Again, both of them are using the canoe grip on their paddles. The baidarka seems to have reverse sheer, the line of the gunwales being highest in the middle of the boat and dropping off toward both ends. This picture is a combination of a static shoreline and the dynamic kayakers in the foreground. It is most likely a union of two different sketches, a detailed study of the unmoving shoreline and an invented view of the two kayakers based in part on memory and in part on sketches from life.

In summary, I would say that the drawings of Choris do a good job of pointing out the problems of attributing historical significance to the drawings of any artist. A drawing is simply not the same thing as a photograph. The artist has certain limitations which are difficult to overcome. For one thing, drawings take some time to produce. They can be quite accurate if the artist is drawing a static subject. If the scene that the artist is trying to depict is dynamic, the artist has a number of options. He can do quick sketches of parts of a scene and then combine them to create a unified whole. All this takes time and the sketches may be all that the artist had time to make. The final product may not have been produced until the artist returned to his studio after the trip was complete.
Once photography was available, artists used it widely to get recordings of details that were too difficult or cumbersome to draw on the spot. Back in the studio, they would create their composition and fill in the details using the photographs.
Prior to the invention of photography, artists had to rely on their sketches to record factual details. Where they hadn't recorded the details, they resorted to their imagination or memory.
When people build replicas of baidarkas in artists' drawings, they might want to ask themselves how accurate these drawings are. Worst case, a baidarka based on an artist's rendering will simply be a bad boat and evidence of the artist's deficient skills of observation. Best case, a baidarka based on an improbable looking drawing may actually reveal useful design features that have been lost to following generations.

Wind-powered baidarkalounger

I don't know how much I already revealed about the baidarkalounger project, but here's a recap and update on recent developments.
Recap: The concept was simple - build a baidarka that is wide enough to be stable but not so wide that you can't paddle it. The baidarka should also be large enough so you can move around in it without capsizing and the cockpit should be large enough so you can lay down in the boat if you want to. In other words, I was going to build something on the order of a partially decked over canoe. This basic concept was then expanded to add features to the boat to make it sailable, namely, rudder, mast steps and lee boards.
Update: Here's the story in pictures.

Here's the cockpit coaming, 24 inches wide and 6 feet long,
long enough for just about anybody to lay down in the boat.

Here's the completed frame. As you can see, plenty big and the back of the cockpit is high enough to lounge against.

The boat with the skin on. Total length, 18 feet of which 6 feet is cockpit.

The boat set up with a sailing rig courtesy of Time Anderson. The sail was cut down from a wind surfing sail.

The boat floating empty. Note both the bow and stern clearing the water.

The boat with a paddler. Note that the stern no longer is out of the water. Correct trim with a single paddler is with the paddler forward of the back of the cockpit.

With the paddler sitting all the way to the back of the cockpit, the bow comes up some. That's Joe Karr doing the test drive.

And here's the boat running before the wind. Both lee boards are up to reduce drag. The sail is reefed. I'm still not real bold with the sailing, given that the water is cold right now and I wasn't wearing a dry suit. Maybe next time, dry suit and full sail.

Closeup on one of the lee boards. For now, the apparatus is held to the gunwales with C-clamps. Once I figure where the ideal location is for the lee boards, I will rig up something more elegant. As this sail test revealed, I also need a bigger rudder.

And here it is, sailing done, lee boards strapped to the roof. I suppose they'll help the car track better in a beam wind.

Conclusion so far: The sailing rig needs more testing. I am already thinking of making a 15 foot long version of this design. At 18 foot it's a lot of work to push along with a paddle. It will go 4mph. With two people, it will go 6mph, but both paddlers have to paddle in synch or the paddles will clash. Great boat though for taking out a few kids or the family dog or a few hundred pounds of camping gear.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Giving Credit

model of three-hole baidarka by Sergie Sovoroff at the Alaska State Museum

Mike Livingston, Unangan (Aleut) boat builder has been working on bringing more recognition to traditional Aleut kayak builders, especially Sergie Sovoroff who was one of Mike's teachers. Sergei made models of baidarkas, complete with paddlers and all the accessories that went on the baidarkas. When I went to the Alaska State Museum in Anchorage with Mike last July, he showed me one of Sergie's models on display, and sure enough, the label that came with the model made no mention of Sergei.

In defense of the museum, we might point out the the people who donated the model to the museum may not have known who made the model and so the curators at the museum put what they knew on the label, namely the name of the donor.
But things are changing. Native artists are signing their works and are being represented by galleries and are starting to get paid reasonably for their work.
But if you're not an artist and just a person who makes stuff you still don't get to sign your work. The corporation puts their logo on it, but that's it. The only commercial product that I've seen with the name of the person on it who made the thing is cardboard boxes.
Moral of the story: if you want to be recognized for your work, put your name on it.