A Canoe or Horn Effigy Bottle

The American Indians made many odd and interesting effigy ceramic vessels during the Late Prehistoric through the Historic Periods, especially in the Mississippi River Valley.  One of the more unique types is today called a Canoe or Horn Effigy Bottle.

The canoe, as was used by the Indians, was unknown in Old World prior to the Europeans coming to America.  On his fourth and final voyage to the Western Hemisphere in 1502, Christopher Columbus encountered a long and slender boat off the coast of Honduras which he examined and wrote about.  This type watercraft was later named canoe either from the Carib Indian word kenu or the Arawak Indian word canoa.  This was a dugout type canoe that was made by felling a large tree and hollowing the interior using fire and shell and/or stone cutting tools.  It was used throughout much of Eastern North America as well as the Caribbean Islands and Central America for maybe as many as 8,000 years.  Later, about 500 to 1000 years ago, the natives in the upper Midwest of our country and into Canada, began making a smaller and much lighter version of this vessel by constructing a framework of pliant tree limbs and covering the frame with the bark of the white birch or other trees and sewing the bark together with the split roots of the white pine tree.  The seams would have then been coated with pine resin for waterproofing and the canoe was ready to take to the streams and lakes.  Since this country had no automobiles and interstate highways, the prehistoric natives had to make their own thoroughfares which were the rivers and streams that crisscrossed the land, many of which ended in the great Mississippi River.  It is very logical that the Amerinds would have lived close to the large riverine systems so their extensive travel would have been easier using their canoes.

The American Bison is a large animal that is descended from the now almost extinct Eurasian Bison and they most likely came to this country across the Bering Strait during one of the ancient ice ages.  This animal evolved into two recognized types, the Wood Bison and the Plains Bison. The Wood Bison lived as far east as the western edges of the Appalachian Mountains and as far west as the eastern edge of the Great Plains.  The Plains Bison, which is smaller than its eastern cousin, lived on the American plains westward to the Rocky Mountains.  Prior to the invasion of North America by the Europeans, there was an estimated 50 to 60 million Bison roaming our continent from Canada into northern Mexico but because of their slaughter by early Euro-Americans, that number has today dwindled to about 500,000.  The prehistoric natives would certainly have used this plentiful horned beast for food and for supplies to make tools and shelter.  And they may have used their canoes to travel to the best Bison hunting regions.

It is easy to understand that the American Indians would have revered their mode of transportation as well as one of their major food and living materials sources.  So they probably did make effigies of one or both during the AD 1400 to 1700 period.  But which did they choose?  The vessels that we choose to call either canoe or horn effigy bottles seemingly appear to be very similar to both the boat and the horns of the shaggy beast.  We know that the natives made effigies of many plants and animals that they encountered on a daily basis.  Vessel replicas of fish, frogs, turtles, gourds and corn, while not plentiful, were certainly made in somewhat considerable numbers.  But these are all botanical stylizations and the canoe is not a member of the plant or animal kingdom.  The Wood Bison would have been living along both sides of the lower Mississippi River three to six hundred years ago and the bovine would certainly have been utilized by the natives living in that region, the same as the fishes, frogs and turtles.  The canoe would also have been utilized by the people living near the big river but almost no Mississippian Period pottery represents man-made objects. Why, though, should they have not done so considering the importance of this boat?  So are the rare vessel motifs with the long horizontal pointed appendages replicas of Bison horns or canoes?

The bottle pictured with this article was found in Cross County, Arkansas which is in the east central portion of the state and near the Mississippi River and which was the heart area of ceramic pottery production.  It was probably made during the AD 1400 to 1700 time period and is finished with a paint slip called Nodena Red and White.  It measures 8 3/8 inches tall by 10 ½ inches from tip to tip of the canoe/horns.  It rests on a flared pedestal base that is perforated with eight holes and the top has an applied ring of clay circling the rim.  The paint motif includes alternating horizontal bands of red and white on the effigy body while the vessel neck includes the stair step design as well as the square cross and sun circles all of which are recognized Southern Cult symbols.  The vessel body itself is somewhat thick which would be considered more indicative of a boat than the horns of the bovid ruminant.  But, again, replicas of man made objects are essentially unknown from the period though with the reverence of the canoe that the populace must have had, why should they not have made symbols of that watercraft.  Knowing the thoughts of the ancient ceramist as this bottle was being made will always remain a mystery so for now this vessel will have to simply be A Canoe or Horn Effigy Bottle.




Galloway, Patricia, Editor                              1989



Hathcock, Roy                                                            1976


Hudson, Charles                                             1976


Maus, James E.                                               2000

            “An Unusual Red & White Horned Waterbottle”, PREHISTORIC AMERICAN,

            Vol. XXXIV, No. 2

Phillips, Phillip                                               1951