Northwest Coast Dugout Canoes

Early Watercraft in Pacific North America

Dugout canoes were among the most important elements of Northwest Coast subsistence beginning very early. Archaeologists propose that watercraft existed along the Northwest Coastas early as 5000 B.P., if not earlier. Deepwater fish and marine mammal remains recovered in middens on Vancouver Island have been proposed as evidence for the existence of open sea watercraft. Other indirect evidence for the use of ocean-going canoes by about 3500 B.P.

consisted in the presence of dentalium shells, dating around 3500 B.P., whose collection requires open sea navigation.

Canoes were traditionally carved out ('dug out') from whole red cedar or spruce logs, and were often decorated with images of marine animals, sea monsters or the crests of the owner. Several members of the historical Northwest Coast population excelled in carving canoes, many of which are considered art masterpieces. Examples of cedar canoes, probably used for whaling and/or war expeditions were recovered at Ozette.

Archaeologists suggest that large canoes, however, were probably used to transport large amounts of food and items, in addition to fishing. Salmon, one of the basic resources among Northwest Coast people, was in fact caught in rivers through nets and weirs and then transported via canoes to the settlements.

Dugout Canoe Use

Different types of canoes existed for different sea conditions along the coast and different activities, such as whale hunting, warfare, trade expeditions, food transportation and house moving.

Northwest Coast people, in fact, used to transport their household, belonging and stores from one settlement to another as part of their year-round moves.

Finally, in the prehistoric and modern periods, canoes were also markers of social prestige and economic power for Northwest Coast societies. Only a few affluent members of the community could have afforded the equipment and crew of a whaling expedition, and ocean navigation included a fair amount of symbolic leadership and specific knowledge.


This glossary entry is a part of the guide to the American Northwest Coast, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Ames Kenneth M. and Herbert D.G. Maschner, 1999, Peoples of the Northwest Coast. Their Archaeology and Prehistory, Thames and Hudson, London

Arnold, Jeanne E., 1995, Transportation Innovation and Social Complexity among Maritime Hunter-Gatherer Societies, American Anthropologist, 97 (4), pp, 733-747

Browman, David L., and David A. Munsell, 1969, Columbia Plateau Prehistory: Cultural Development and Impinging Influences, American Antiquity, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 249-264.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Maestri, Nicoletta. "Northwest Coast Dugout Canoes." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2016, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2016, February 16). Northwest Coast Dugout Canoes. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "Northwest Coast Dugout Canoes." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 24, 2017).