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Do you know what experimental archaeology is? It is the production of scientific data on artefacts or their traces from present-day experiments by attempting to reproduce techniques of the past. In this way, we can rediscover and better understand the history of manufacturing methods, functions or uses of disappeared objects. This is the experimental archaeology that was at the heart of a crazy project within the Karisko association: to rebuild a kanawa (Amerindian dugout canoe) as it was in the past and to redo the sea crossings of our Kalinagos ancestors. Today, I am talking about a bilingual book (French/English), Kanawa, aventures en mer des Caraïbes / Caribbean Sea Adventures, which recounts this reconquest of know-how and, beyond that, a rich human adventure.
Rebuilding skills around the kanawa
Since 2008, some men and women have crossed the Dominica Channel in a kanawa weighing more than a ton, using only their paddles, and have then sailed across the sea to various islands, from the Grenadines to Antigua… But before achieving these feats, it took months of work, as it had been several centuries since this type of boat had been seen sailing on the Caribbean Sea.
First of all, the art of building a pirogue to sail on the sea had to be found among the Amerindian communities of the Caribbean and the Guiana Shield. If you think that all you had to do after that was to set off on an expedition on the water, you are way off! The Kanawa is a dugout canoe, made from a hollowed-out trunk, used in the past by the Kalinagos of the Caribbean to travel from one island to another. There is no sail (which arrived in the Americas with the European colonisation) on this boat, it is the propulsion with the paddle by a crew rowing in rhythm which allows the displacement. It was only after testing, discussing with people who practised other forms of rowing, testing again and again, that this forgotten know-how was revived. Only once the art of navigation was recovered was it possible to make the island-to-island crossings again, as once undertaken by the Kalinagos of the Lesser Antilles.
Adventures at sea and human adventures around the kanawa
The reconstruction of kanawa construction know-how, kanawa navigation know-how and expeditions to various points in the Lesser Antilles have made it possible to confirm the Kalinagos’ navigation hypotheses, to better understand their movements, to better understand their history and to produce ethnoarchaeological scientific data on this theme. But this is only one aspect of this human adventure which brought together men and women from different communities, places and interests for this project. For a time, these people shared their thoughts, their creations, their emotions and the reappropriation of a forgotten knowledge. And this is also what the book Kanawa, Adventures in the Caribbean Sea is about.
The book Kanawa, Adventures in the Caribbean Sea
I did not participate in these crossings. At the time, I was engaged in another time-consuming adventure, that of my PhD thesis. I only discovered the history and the richness of this marvellous project afterwards, when it was time to keep the memory of it.
There were thousands of photos, several multidisciplinary scientific texts, testimonies of crossings, personal reflections, some maps and technical diagrams, historical, archaeological and anthropological data… collected from some and others during the project and preciously kept by Marcel Rapon, the president of the association at the time; documentation and a story that only asked to be gathered and told in a coherent whole.
I didn’t take part in these crossings, but I immersed myself in all this documentation. I spent weeks looking, reading, rereading, selecting, separating and then putting the pieces together, until I formed the framework of this book recounting these adventures, both in the reconstruction of knowledge and know-how, and in the crossings at sea. Then, it was the publishing professionals and the original supporters of the project who did most of the work to correct, rework, complete, and do whatever was necessary to obtain a quality book, bilingual, and full of beautiful photos that will take you, the reader, on a Kanawa from « the tree dug with an adze to the hollows of the sea in a storm, towards new horizons ».
To purchase the book, visit Ginkgo, the publisher’s website, or contact your usual distributors. If you live in Martinique, you can also see with the Karisko association (at the Robert or Fort-de-France offices) by contacting Yoan Jorite 0696 71 85 08 or Jimmy Alexandre 0696 54 16 66 or by e-mail at email@example.com
Update 01/12/2022: added kanawa’s travels video link.
- Benoît Berard, Thierry l’Etang, Marcel Rapon (dir), Kanawa, aventures en mer des Caraïbes/Caribbean Sea Adventures, Ginkgo, 2021.