Skip to main content

Sacred Vessel or Toy? Rare Native Boat Carving Found

Navy archaeologists have found a canoe boat effigy carved by Native Americans 90 miles west of San Diego on San Clemente Island.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Native Americans living in the California Channels and adjacent southern California before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s carved small boats out of submarine volcanic material. Navy archaeologists have found one such effigy 90 miles west of San Diego on San Clemente Island.

The volcanic material used to carve the boats was a rare form of lava, it was harder than molten rock that flows on the mainland and its vesicles were smaller, making it more brittle, says the an article from Navy News.

“Boat effigies like the one found are exceedingly rare in the archaeological record, with this being my first one recovered during my 30 year tenure with SCI [San Clemente Island,” Dr. Andy Yatsko, Senior Archaeologist and Region Southwest Archaeologist for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest in San Diego, said in the Navy article. “Finding artifacts on the surface of archaeological sites at the island is not unusual, but a rare one like this is always exciting to come across.”

The effigy is of a traditional sewn plank canoe, or a ti’at in Gabrielino. They were usually made of redwood that drifted south from the rivers in northwestern California. The canoes ranged from 8 feet to 30 feet long and were paddled, making trips between islands physically demanding.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The stone boat effigy is about nine inches long and weighs about three and a half pounds. Yatsko estimates it dates back 500 to 1,000 years.

The Navy has some 4,000 dig sites around the and has found a number of items, but this boat effigy is by far the most unusual. Its cultural significance is not yet clear.

“If it had been a religious aspect, it could be symbolic or representative of something important in their culture,” Yatsko told the San Diego Union Tribune. “On the other extreme, it may just be a toy.”