All the canoeists – both men and women – feature full body painting in combinations of red and black. The red pigment is derived from the seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana); the black designs are painted with seeds of the genip tree (Genipa americana). This was another way of dressing the body for a variety of reasons – from special occasions such as feasts and ceremonies, to every day ornament.
The early Spanish accounts mention that the people would be painted in a wide variety of ways – likely entirely down to the preference of the individual, or the skills of the artists who painted them (in contemporary South American indigenous cultures, it is usually the women who paint their husbands and children). Columbus, for example, noted that on Hispaniola, a man “…had his face all stained with charcoal, although everywhere they are accustomed to staining themselves in different colours”.
Body painting was not simply for aesthetics: it offered protection from the sun and mosquitos. In this scene, the full body paint not only protects the canoeists from the scorching sun, but it is an expression that celebrates the successful completion of the long journey. Even the dog is painted for the arrival home!