Heart of Louisiana: Dugout Canoe

Updated: Nov. 7, 2017 at 9:16 PM CST
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(WVUE) - Two centuries before Christopher Columbus discovered a new world, Caddo Indians were paddling a dugout canoe along the Red River in northwest Louisiana.

"Just riding real slow, looking, just looking at the bank, pottery arrowheads, anything like that, that sticks out," said artifact hunter Robert Cornett.

Robert Cornett and a friend were looking for artifacts when they spotted an odd-looking log, wedged under a fallen tree.

"And we looked at each other and said we need to check that out," said Cornett.

What they found was a nearly-34-foot-long dugout canoe.

When asked if this was the biggest find of his life, Cornett responded, "Oh yeah."

"Rarely do you find something that large from the pre-historic era here in Louisiana, or for that matter, almost any part of the southeastern United States," said Louisiana State archeologist Chip McGimsey.

McGimsey led a team that recovered the 1500-pound water-logged canoe.

"It's so well-preserved," said McGimsey. "It's missing a section along one side and part of the bow. But it's probably 75% complete."

The massive artifact is temporarily at the conservation research laboratory at Texas A&M University.

"So all of this is wet. It's all nice as you can see, except that this here it started to dry out to quit and started checking," said Peter Fix of Texas A&M as he pointed to the canoe. "And if we were to leave it here in the nice, even the nice Fall Texas sun by this afternoon, you would start seeing really heavy checking on the sides."

You can still see the markings where Native Americans carved out the canoe, including two seats, one in the front and another in the rear.

"It would have been chipping with stone tools," said Fix. "And most likely although we haven't found any specific evidence for it yet. They probably started a fire on the inside to start burning it away and then to make it easier to chisel out."

As the dugout soaks, the water will be displaced by a synthetic wax to preserve the log. And then it will spend months in a freeze-dryer. The conservation of a solid-wood canoe is a very slow process. It will be up to three years before this ancient artifact is ready to go on display in a Louisiana museum.

"The Carbon-14 analysis, 1300 to 1450," said Fix.

Fix is in charge of the conservation effort of a canoe that was state-of-the-art 700 years ago.

"They just didn't chop it off square in the back, they actually put a nice transom on the back," said Fix.

The type of canoe was an important form of transportation that has survived into the space age, preserved for centuries in the mud and water of the Red River, and now destined for a new life that reveals its ancient past.

A similar dugout canoe was found along the Red River in the 1980's and is now on display at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport.

For more information on the dugout canoe, visit the Louisiana Department of Culture and Tourism page by clicking here, the State Exhibit Museum page by clicking here and the Texas A&M Conservation Research Laboratory page by clicking here.

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