The canoe and the kayak are some of the world’s oldest forms of transport. Clearly these forms of transportation have been around since people have lived in areas with substantial bodies of water. At the time of writing, the oldest known canoe is a dugout canoe, discovered in the Netherlands, where it is currently housed in the Drents Museum. At more than 9000 years old this astonishingly impressive Pesse canoe, as it is known, is one of the oldest extant boat in the world. The Dufuna canoe, discovered in 1987 in Nigeria, is a boat also from the Stone Age and is the oldest boat in Africa. At some 8000 8500 years old the Dufuna Canoe rivals the Pesse canoe in its antiquity. Having been a part of human history for so long, it’s interesting to think that despite the various technological advances over the intervening millennia, the canoe still remains a part of humans lives.
We may never know how early human felt about their canoes, whether they used them simply as tools for crossing rivers and lakes or if they used them for pleasure, for escape and mediation, and for recreational purposes such as racing. We do know that today there is a massive canoe industry worldwide and a great number of associated industries such as camping, races (and betting on races), trade fairs, and boating tourism.
Whether or not our ancient ancestors used canoes as sources of pleasure may remain a mystery for us modern human, but it is undeniable that we use them as such. In recent years, in Europe, it has become more and more common for people to do river trips, paddling up—and more often—down the great rivers in a manner not necessarily unlike how the Pesse canoe might have been used.
In North America, the canoe is often associated with the Native American peoples and their contribution to the world of watercraft has is palpable even today. Unlike in highly urbanised Europe many of the canoe trips throughout North America involve paddling through areas of wilderness, yet to be populated (perhaps never to be populated) by humans. For anyone with a taste for that sort of adventure and with something of a competitive spirit, a trip to Canada might be just the prescription for fighting cabin fever.
Canoes and canoe races however are not just confined to the Western world. In places like the Philippines and Indonesia, a very different tradition of canoeing was developed. In archipelagos cultures the focus of water travel was on ocean transport. There the outrigger canoe was developed, with one or two floats that run parallel to the main body of the boat and provide added stability in choppy ocean waters.
So, whether you’re inclined towards the American wilderness, the waves and waters of the South Pacific or the city-laden stream of Europe, next time you hope in that canoe and start paddling you’ll be carrying on a human tradition thousands of years old.