These reed boats are anchored on a marsh island in Lake Titicaca on the border between Peru and Bolivia. The Uros people construct such boats from tight bundles of lightweight reeds.
The earliest known boats were constructed from a frame of animal bone or light wood covered by animal skins or bark. Historians believe people used such boats as early as 16,000 bc. Several thousand years later, round skin boats, called coracles, were developed in Asia, Africa, the British Isles, and the plains of North America. Coracles have been built in Ireland in fairly recent times. They typically have a framework of woven willow shoots or other soft wood suitable for basketmaking.
A kayaker paddles on San Francisco Bay. First used by the Inuit thousands of years ago for fishing and hunting, kayaks are widely used today for recreation. Kayaks have an enclosed deck and an open cockpit, where the rower sits with a double-bladed paddle.
Another type of skin boat is the kayak, a type of canoe created by the Inuit. The kayak is completely enclosed with animal skins stretched over a rigid frame, except for an open cockpit in the center, where the paddler sits armed with a double-bladed paddle. The kayak is wide at the center and tapers to points at both bow and stern. Kayaks in use today have much the same shape that kayaks had centuries ago, although modern kayaks may be molded from plastic, fiberglass, or Kevlar (a synthetic fiber originally developed to replace the steel in radial tires).
Bark-covered boats came into use about the same time that skin-covered boats did. They typically had a light wood frame with a bark covering made of pieces sewn together with root fiber. The frame was separated from the bark covering by a plank sheathing. Gunwales, or side edges, ran from bow to stern and provided longitudinal strength to the frame. The sheathing was held in place by forcing the ribs of the frame under the gunwales. Birchbark canoes up to 14 m (46 ft) long are known to have been built in North America. Modern canoes still have the basic shape and design of their predecessors, but they are usually molded from aluminum, plastic, fiberglass, or other lightweight, durable material.
Ancient Egyptians fashioned reed skiffs by securely binding together bundles of papyrus stems. The extreme lightness of these reed boats made them ideal for fishing in the marshes along the Nile; moreover, they were easy to carry. Equipped with sails and oars, the reed boats also carried cargo and passengers.
Making a Birchbark Canoe
1. The first step in building the canoe was to make the frame. Two long wooden strips, usually of white cedar, were lashed together at the ends with roots of black spruce. These pieces became the inner gunwales, or top edges of the canoe, at a later stage. Thwarts, or crossbars, were fitted between the gunwales to stretch them apart. Stakes were pounded into the ground around the frame to outline the shape of the canoe.
2. The stakes were pulled up and the frame was removed. The canoe makers carefully placed a large sheet of birchbark, white side up, over the stakes. Then the frame was placed over the bark and weighted down with stones to prevent the bark from curling.
3. The builders made slashes, or gores, in the bark so the edges could be easily turned up and formed into the shape of a canoe. The outer stakes were pounded back in their holes and tied to inner stakes, with the bark clamped in between. Long cedar strips, or several smaller strips, were temporarily added between the clamps to keep the bark in place.
4. The frame was lifted to the proper level and set on short posts. Long cedar rails were added as outer gunwales, with the bark sandwiched between the inner and outer gunwales. Using flexible spruce roots, the builders then laced or lashed the bark to the gunwales and sewed the slashes together. If the bark was not wide enough at the center, as was often the case, side panels of bark were sewn to the main sheet.
5. Next, the canoe was turned over and placed on logs so the ends could be cut to shape and bound together with spruce root. Seams were sealed and made watertight with hot spruce gum mixed with animal fat and charcoal.
6. The inside was lined with thin strips of cedar sheathing. These were held in place by cedar ribs bent into shape after boiling or steaming them. A gunwale cover, or cap, was added to protect the gunwale lashings from wear.
7. The canoe was now finished. Some Native American groups decorated their canoes by scraping animal designs or geometric figures in the bark.