Oldest and First ‘Wampo’ Ritual Canoe Burial Found in Argentina
An almost 900-year-old canoe burial of a 17–25-year-old Mapuche woman has been found by archaeologists in the Argentinian Patagonia region, near the current border of Chile and Argentina. The recent find is the earliest canoe burial in southern South America, and the southernmost example of this burial form on the South American continent. A study published in the PLOS One journal describes this significant Mapuche culture canoe burial, shedding new light on these people and their beliefs before the Spanish came.
The young woman was buried more than 800 years ago in a wampo, or ceremonial canoe, that researchers think symbolized a boat journey to the land of the dead. (Pérez et al., 2022, PLOS ONE / CC-BY 4.0)
The Newen Antug Canoe Burial and Pre-Hispanic Traditions
The Patagonia site where the Mapuche canoe burial and other burials were found has been named the “Newen Antug site.” The burial was easily dated from the characteristic Late Pottery period ceramics (dated to roughly 1140 AD) unearthed at the dig site. The dating is significant because it proves that ritual canoe burials were practiced in the region long before the conquistadors arrived.
"We hope this investigation and its results will resolve this controversy. The previous evidence was important and was based on ethnographic data, but the evidence was indirect," said Alberto Enrique Pérez, an archaeologist at the Universidad Católica de Temuco in Chile and the study’s lead author.
It is also important to note that this is the first pre-Hispanic canoe burial in the entire region. The canoe, which was in fragments, was identified as a Chilean cedar trunk that had been hollowed out with fire.
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The Patagonia canoe burial confirms ethnographic and historical accounts which attest to canoe burials being prevalent throughout much of pre-Hispanic South America.
“At first we did not understand what we saw, since it was something unknown for Patagonian Argentina. We were pleasantly surprised,” stated Perez in an email exchange with Gizmodo.
The archaeological site, where the canoe burial was unearthed, was excavated between 2012 and 2015 before a well was built at the site, which is on private land. In total, three skeletons were found. The PLOS One study only focused on the canoe burial. (Pérez et al., 2022, PLOS ONE / CC-BY 4.0)
The Canoe Burial Woman Tells Us So Much More
The deceased woman buried in the canoe has been named Individual 3 (with her burial dated to roughly 1142 AD) to differentiate her from the other two burials found at the site before the canoe find. The PLOS One study only focused on the canoe burial.
Individual 3 had been buried on her back in a wooden structure crafted from a single tree trunk, with her arms above her torso, and raised head and feet. This was deduced after the canoe’s remaining 600 fragments of wood were put under a microscope.
Mapuche canoes created from burning the tree trunk and hacking away the burnt sections are known as “ wampo.”
The amazing canoe burial discovery in the Patagonia region of South America required a canoe known as a wampo to be constructed by hollowing out a single tree trunk with fire. (Pérez et al., 2022, PLOS ONE / CC-BY 4.0)
“Historical sources refer more to burials in wampo or trolof [wooden canoes] among male individuals, but that is more recent,” Pérez added. “The Newen Antug find may show that it was a more widespread practice amongst both genders.”
This practice was common in South America’s local Mapuche culture, and evidence of such burning has been found in Chile, but this is the first time that such evidence has been found in Argentina.
The woman buried in the canoe also had a large jug placed next to her head, decorated with white glaze and red geometric patterns, also a first for this region, reported Live Science. These decorative motifs suggest a connection with the "red on white bichrome" tradition of pre-Hispanic ceramics on both sides of the Andes mountains.
The living members of the canoe-burial woman prepared her remains in such a manner that she could embark on her last ride or final journey across the waters to “the destination of souls.” The proximity of the burial site to the Pacific Ocean and the adjacent lakes suggests that water was a very important natural element in the life of the Mapuche people, who’ve inhabited the region since 600 BC.
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According to Mapuche beliefs, dead souls went to "Nomelafken," a Mapuche word that translates to the "other side of the sea." The newly dead would complete a metaphorical boat journey that lasted for up to four years before they arrived at a mythical island called Külchemapu, Pérez and his colleagues wrote in the study.
According to Nicolás Lira, an assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Chile, who wasn't involved in the research, the canoe-burial discovery is highly significant for archaeological and anthropological research in the Patagonia region.
Top image: The young woman was buried more than 800 years ago in a wampo, or ceremonial canoe, that researchers think symbolized a boat journey to the land of the dead. Source: Pérez et al., 2022, PLOS ONE / CC-BY 4.0
By Sahir Pandey
Metcalfe, T. 2022. 1,000 years ago, a woman was buried in a canoe on her way to the 'destination of souls'. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/indigenous-canoe-burial-argentina.
Schultz, I. 2022. 900-Year-Old Burial of Woman in a Canoe Uncovered in Argentina. Available at: https://gizmodo.com/900-year-old-canoe-burial-woman-argentina-1849451126.
Perez, A.E., Tesmer, R. M., et al. 2022. A pre-Hispanic canoe or Wampo burial in Northwestern Patagonia, Argentina. PLOS One. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0272833.