The History of the Kayak – Where Was the Kayak Invented?


Ah the humble kayak. A vessel that over 100's of thousands of people enjoy in Ireland and the UK alone.

But where did it all begin?

Who invented the kayak and what was it originally used for?

In this article, we will be looking at the history of the kayak. We’ll be going in-depth about the kayaks routes and finding out where it came from, who invented it, when they first started appearing, and how they were made.

Where Did it All Begin?

So, where did it all begin?

When were the first kayaks developed, who made them, and why?

It is believed the first kayaks were invented by the Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik tribes around 4000 years ago. Over here we generalise these tribes and call them the Eskimo people. Although we use one name, the Eskimos are made up of several different tribes spread around the Arctic lands of the world.

These tribes resided (some still do) in the Northern parts of the globe. Eskimo tribes have inhabited the wildlands across Greenland, Canada, the United States, and Siberia (Eastern Russia) for thousands of years. These people used the kayaks for navigating the water during the summer months, but it’s believed that they were invented with one specific purpose in mind – hunting.

The name kayak actually stems from the old Greenlandic language and means “hunter’s boat”. As you can probably guess, the kayak was originally used as a hunting vessel. It gave hunters a way to silently stalk unsuspecting prey on the bank. It also gave ancient tribes a way to transport their quarry from the hunting grounds to the village.

The kayak was also likely used as a fishing vessel of sorts as time went on. Tribesmen may have used the boats to set nets in order to trap fish to be caught and consumed.

What Were the First Kayaks Made From?

The first kayaks certainly weren’t made from the durable, hard-wearing materials that they are made with now. The Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik tribes definitely didn’t have the facilities or the materials to craft moulded polyethylene or rubberized inflatable kayaks back then!

So, what were they originally made from?

It is believed the first kayaks were made from animal by-products. A bone frame, usually made from whale bones, would have been covered with animal hides to create a buoyant craft for navigating the waters. Other designs featured a wooden frame with animal hides stretched over them.

Later kayaks were crafted using a variety of materials and building techniques. Pine frames with a birch bark skin, similar to the Canadian birch-bark canoe were crafted. These kayaks were low to the water and had an open top unlike the animal skin sit-in kayaks of the past.

Surprisingly, the original kayak designs are relatively similar to the sit-in kayaks we’re used to today. Sure, the designs have changed slightly over the years and nowadays much more advanced materials are used. However, as far as basic design and function are concerned modern day kayaks are almost identical to the kayaks that were around 4000 years ago!

What Came First – The Kayak or Canoe?

This is a difficult question that no one has a concrete answer to however it’s believed the canoe was invented first as they are more prominent in ancient cultures around the world. There is also solid evidence in the form of canoe remains that pose as proof. The original traditional kayaks on the other hand, have been lost in time through rot and decay.

The canoe can be seen in multiple climates around the world. Remains have been found in Europe, America, Australia, and Africa. There is much more known about the canoe because of this. The kayak was specifically used by the Arctic tribes from the north and the design took much longer to reach the lands beyond the Arctic Circle. For this reason, it’s harder to track its history compared to the canoe.

The canoe, in its primitive form can be found all over the world but the oldest known canoe was discovered in the Netherlands. It is dated between 8200 and 7600 BC, so it could be almost 10,000 years old!

The oldest remaining kayak now resides in Munich, Germany at the Five Continents museum. It is estimated to be around 450 years old, pretty young if you compare it to the oldest found canoe! As we mentioned, these kayaks were far more susceptible to decay and were quickly taken back into nature’s depths from where they came.

The kayak as a design is believed to be around 4000 years old, but it’s possible it could be older. However, when you look at the solid evidence, the canoe has a number of years on the kayak (sorry kayakers).

When you look at both vessels design-wise, the kayak is actually far more complicated than the canoe, so it comes as no surprise that the canoe is a more primitive mode of transport than the kayak.

Moving Forward in Time…

As we mentioned, the original kayaks weren’t much different to what we know and love today. Well, at least when design is concerned. We’re not crafting kayaks from bone and skin anymore, but that age-old design can be seen clearly in modern kayaks.

In modern times we use a variety of materials and advanced construction techniques to build the reliable watercraft that so many of us enjoy here in the British Isles.

Perhaps there is less craftmanship involved in the construction process of the kayak nowadays, but modern innovations in factory manufacture have made kayaks much more versatile, durable, and user-friendly.

You’ll find a range of kayaks that are made from different materials, but hard-plastics dominate the scene.

The modern manufacturing process involves pouring molten plastic into two moulds (one for the hull and one for the deck). Once both the hull and deck have been formed, they are combined together and sealed to create a hard-wearing and damage-resistant kayak. Next time you look at a kayak you’ll be able to see where both halves have been sealed together. A seam will run all the way around the kayak. A little different from the stitching of multiple animal skins, but a pretty neat manufacturing process none-the-less.

Final Words:

If you’ve enjoyed this article and want to know more about the kayak be sure to check out “the chats”. We have plenty of informational and instructional content that’ll help you get out on the water. We also have some good reads to fill your brain with random facts about kayaks and the sport as a whole.

Be sure to check out our range of kayaks in the store if you’re interested in kitting yourself out. Unfortunately, we don’t have any bone and skin kayaks in our range, but we do have some cutting edge kit that’ll help you get out exploring the diverse waterways that our beautiful country has on offer!

1 comment

  • David Daly

    Hi, I used to own a Native Watercraft Manta Ray 14 kayak and I am looking for something similar. I want to use it for touring and photography. I currently live on the river Barrow in Kildare. The closest that you have which I can see is the Skip jack 14.1 but I want to enquire if the seat can be changed to a lower version for better stability ? Best regards,
    Dave Daly

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