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Aboriginal Dugout Canoes

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Title: Aboriginal Dugout Canoes  
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Subject: Scarred tree, History of Indigenous Australians, Dennis E. Puleston, Culture of Oceania, Hivinau
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Aboriginal Dugout Canoes

Aboriginal Canoes were a significant advancement in canoe technology. Dugouts were stronger, faster, and more efficient than previous types of bark canoes. The Aboriginal peoples' use of these canoes brought about many changes to both their hunting practices and society. The Australian Aboriginal people began using these canoes around the 17th century in coastal regions of Australia. As the popularity of dugouts grew their use quickly spread across the continent.


Aboriginal canoes were constructed much more easily than previous types of vessels, such as bark canoes. This ease of construction played a significant role in the dugout canoes’ widespread use. While earlier vessels required a great deal of labor and time-consuming sewing to make, dugout canoes were constructed easily and in a shorter period of time.[1] First, one would have to cut down a tree and shape the exterior into an even form. The sides of the canoe were shaped in one of two ways. They were either carved straight up and down or in a "u" shape, curving in towards the center of the boat. Next, one would literally dig out the inner wood of the log to make space for the oarsmen to sit and paddle.[2] In some early dugout canoes, Aboriginal people would not make the bottoms of the canoes smooth, but would instead carve "ribbing" into the vessel. Ribbing (literally sections of wood that looked like ribs) was used to stabilize bark canoes, and though not necessary to dugout canoes, was a carryover in the transition from one canoe type to the other.[2] Both the chopping down of the tree and the digging out of the log were easily done with an iron-axe.[3] They also made their canoes out of tree frogs, sticky tree sap to hold it together, and fallen tree limbs.

The wood used in the construction of dugout canoes was essential to its strength and durability. A wide variety of trees were used depending upon the location of a particular people, but in most cases the Aboriginal people used a type of sycamore. Sycamores are strong and extremely durable, making them suitable for use in the construction of dugout canoes.[2]


Both sea turtles and dugongs were essential components of the Aboriginal diet.[1] The transformation from bark canoes to dugout canoes greatly increased the ability of the tribal hunters to catch and kill both of these types of sea creatures due primarily to a more formidable structure. Dugout canoes included a stronger and better platform for harpooning that greatly increased the stability of an upright hunter by providing essential footing.[1] In order to capture dugongs and sea turtles, the hunters needed to maintain the utmost degree of stealth. Perfect balance was required and the new dugout canoes gave the hunters this necessary edge.[4]

Additionally, the shift towards using dugout canoes maximized the overall possibilities of seafarers. Not only did increased sturdiness, speed and stability of Dugout canoes make hunting easier, but these characteristics also allowed for long-distance travel.[5] Whereas Bark canoes had been only used for inland use or travel extremely close to the shore, Dugout canoes offered a far greater range of travel which allowed for trade outside the area of the village. Dugout canoes were capable of traveling distances over 500 km.[1] This new vessel gave the Aboriginal people the ability and opportunity to explore, trade and locate additional resources located outside the central location.


The widespread use of dugout canoes had many impacts on Aboriginal life. The most significant were results of the Aboriginal peoples' ability to hunt larger prey. With the strength to transport larger prey over longer distances, dugout enabled the Aboriginals to vastly expand their hunting grounds. This larger prey also enabled the Aboriginals to support a larger group of people over a longer period of time. This increase in the ability to support population led to both population growth and expansion.


  1. ^ a b c d Mitchell 2005
  2. ^ a b c Thomas 1905,
  3. ^ Bellwood and Hiscock 2005
  4. ^ Thompson 1905
  5. ^ Worsley 1955,


  • Bellwood; Hiscock (2005). Chris Scarre, ed. The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. pp. 275–300. 
  • Thomas, N.W. (Jan–Jun 1905). "Australian Canoes and Rafts". The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) 35: 56–79.  
  • Mitchell, Scott. "Dugongs and Dugouts, Sharptacks and Shellbacks: Macassan Contact and Aboriginal Marine Hunting on the Cobourg Peninsula, Northwestern Arnhem Land". Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association Bulletin 2: 181–191. 1. 
  • Worsley, Peter (Apr 1955). "Early Asian Contacts with Australia". Past and Present (7): 1–11. 5. 
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