A young woman buried inside a canoe in South America almost 900 years ago appears to be the earliest example of a boat burial in this part of the world. Archaeologists have recently been trying to decipher the meaning behind this unique burial, concluding that the canoe likely represents an attempt to help the spirit of the deceased voyage into the afterlife.
As reported in the journal PLOS ONE, the individual was discovered at Newen Antug, a burial site of the Mapuche people located in the Chapelco mountain range in Argentinian Patagonia, not far from the border with Chile.
Dating to approximately 890 years old, their bones suggest this was a woman who died at around 17 to 25 years of age. She appears to have laid in the canoe with red pigment on her face and forearms, alongside a collection of objects to take into the afterlife, including a ceramic vessel and almost a dozen freshwater mollusk shells.
The canoe, known as a wampo, was fashioned out of a single Chilean cedar tree trunk that was hollowed using fire. While this method of boat-making and burial has been documented in area places in South America in different time periods, this is its earliest record in Argentina.
The young woman at Newen Antug is a standout example for a few reasons. Oddly, the site contains the remains of two other individuals, but they were simply buried in the ground without any grand wampo burial.
Furthermore, later examples of boat burials in the greater area are usually found in the graves of men, making the burial even more exceptional.
It’s a mystery why this young woman was singled out for a boat burial, although the researchers were keen to figure out the symbolism and meaning behind the ritual.
Boat burials have been practiced throughout history by a variety of cultures. They are perhaps most closely associated with the sea-hardy Vikings of Scandinavia who are well-known to have buried their warriors and leaders in traditional Viking long boats.
Most examples of ship burials are found in seafaring cultures that have sailing deeply intertwined with their identity, but this latest discovery from the foothills of the Andes doesn’t quite fit this bill.
Instead, it’s suspected that the boat had a much more metaphorical role, acting as a symbolic vessel to help the deceased travel into the afterlife. The artifacts found inside the canoe, it seems, may be relics to pay off mythological figures along this dangerous voyage.
“In the framework of the Mapuche cosmovision, the wampo or canoe is conceived to be a means for passing to the other life. The mythical figure of the ferryman (nontuefe) is a porter who helps souls through this ordeal. His services are paid for with llangka, blue-coloured stones considered of great value. This transitional voyage feeds Mapuche oral narratives, which describe souls travelling in wampos down subterranean rivers,” the study authors write.
“Burial in a wampo… is a metaphor of the dead soul’s transition or voyage down rivers and across the sea to its final abode," they conclude.