A long, long time ago, someone in southern Louisiana, or perhaps several people, cut down a cypress tree and made a boat.

Well, not a “boat” per se, but a dugout canoe. It wasn’t an Acadian, ousted from their home in Nova Scotia, who fashioned it; nor was it a living member of the many Native Americans living in the swamps and bayous when the Cajuns arrived. But it was one of their ancestors.

Just south of Donaldsonville, Louisiana in Belle River, Jamie Ponville owns a dirt-fill business that he excavates from a very large and deep site. Last October, the excavator’s bucket struck something and Ponville knew what it was on sight.

“My father and brother were moving some material for me,” Ponville said. “I had a little puddle of water that was standing in the middle of the pit and I wanted to get it out to my drainage ditch. So I just started scraping the ground, just about an inch at a time…and I exposed, in the ground, about a six-inch piece. It was a perfect V, about six inches on each side. And right away, the feeling that came over me, it’s unexplainable.”

The 16-foot-long canoe has been carbon-dated at well over a thousand years old.

He knew what it was. “I called my wife, and I said, ‘Baby, start heading to the dirt pit because I just uncovered a dugout canoe.”

No one can know whose hands felled that tree or shaped and hollowed that log, likely used for fishing and visiting neighboring villages of the Chitimacha nation, who pre-contact occupied about a third of southern Louisiana. No one can know if it was grounded there, or washed away by a tide, or lost by its maker, or discarded when it was time to build another.

But in some way, it found its place not far from Bayou Lafourche, which the very earliest European explorers named, “River of the Chitimachas.”

The vessel Ponville discovered lay some 30-foot lower than the surrounding terrain.

They are the only Louisiana tribe that still reside on a sliver of their ancestral lands and waters. “Chitimacha” is a Europeanized derivation of Siti imaxa, meaning “people of the many waters.” Upon that third of Louisiana they occupied pre-contact, most of it was water, and vessels such as the one Ponville discovered were abundant.

Scientists have various estimations of how long these people have lived in the southern reaches of Louisiana. Artifacts and evidence provide some indications, but if you ask most Chitimacha, they will likely say, “We have always been here.”

Perhaps new discoveries await, in the ground, beneath the waters, that will one day show they were right all long.

Responses to "The oldest Native American dugout canoe ever found in Louisiana"

  1. Unknown says:

    was it the only thing found and is the dig still in process?

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