Heart of Louisiana: Ancient Native American dugout canoe

Heart of Louisiana: Ancient Native American dugout canoe

(WVUE) - The oldest Native American dugout canoe ever found in Louisiana is on its way to being preserved for the future. The ancient boat was found nearly 30 feet underground in a dirt pit a mile from Bayou Lafourche in Assumption Parish.

Jamie Ponville has been digging in this Assumption Parish dirt pit for the past seven years.

“Normally whenever I’d hit a tree or a piece of wood, I’d just dig straight through it,” he said.

But for three days last October, Ponville says he was watching online videos about Native Americans. And on the fourth day, his backhoe hit something.

“My heart was about to jump out of my shirt,” ponville said. “Here’s a V-shaped pattern that I hit whenever I was digging, and that’s when I stopped. And I knew that I had hit a dugout canoe.”

He got his hunch confirmed by Dr. Chip McGimsey, the state’s archaeologist. The 16-foot-long canoe has been carbon-dated at well over a thousand years old.

“We know that the tree died somewhere between 450 and 620AD, so the canoe would date back, you know, 13-14 hundred years, which makes it in Louisiana the oldest dated canoe that we have in our records,” McGimsey said.

After the discovery, the dugout was wrapped and reburied in the pit to keep it from drying out until it could be transported to Texas A&M’s Marine Conservation Laboratory. There it will join another Louisiana artifact, this dugout from the Red River in Northwest Louisiana. It’s twice as long, but only half the age of the new Assumption Parish canoe.

In Texas, it will take several years to replace the water with a type of dissolved plastic that will bind the wooden fibers and preserve the ancient dugout.

“So this is a smaller, you know, not intended probably for long distance use, heavy traveling, you know, but probably more just day trips up and down the bayou,” McGimsey said.

Slowly and carefully the soil is scraped away, exposing the canoe to the air and sunshine. The thick, moist clay that has kept the wood intact is peeled away. One of those digging is Gabriel Parro, a member of Louisiana’s Chitimacha Tribe, whose ancestors lived in this area.

“Compare it to what we used to be back in the day,” Parro said. “We’re a lot smaller as a tribe, and I don’t think of it as only certain families are my ancestors. I think of all of them as my ancestors, because there’s not a lot of us. So I’m going to kind of do my best to make them happy.”

After several hours of digging, the bundled piece of history is slowly lifted onto the back of a trailer for a new and unexpected journey.

“Feels good,” Ponville said. “Feels good to have it up out of the ground. Hopefully it stayed intact enough to get a well-done preservation on it, and I can’t wait to see it once it’s complete.”

It’s an important connection to history and family for a people who have called this area home for thousands of years.

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