The following is based off of Travis Olson’s personal interviews with anthropologist Joseph Koepf and “World of Hammocks” by Koepf and Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger.
Hammocks are commonly known as a symbol of relaxation, but for centuries, they have been a symbol of culture, trade and exploration.
The history of the hammock is a rich one, dating back roughly 4,000 years. Though cave-paintings of what could be hammocks date back to as early as 8,000 B.C., it is generally accepted that hammocks have been in use since 2,000 B.C. Clothing, climate and jewelry have all affected the evolution of the hammock. While not as popular in the world’s northern regions, hammocks have thrived in the world’s warmer regions, being passed off from continent to continent over the centuries.
Hammocks originated in the indigenous tribes of Central and South America and the Caribbean. They were originally made out of leaf fibers, palm leaves and whatever else was available to the group that was building the hammock. There is one exception: a hammock constructed from gold wires was found in Colombia in 1955 and dates back to between 700 and 1500 A.D. However, with this exception, hammocks were almost always made with natural materials found nearby. Even today, hand-crafted hammocks in this part of the world are always made out of such raw materials.
Though nowadays hammocks are typically viewed as a device for sleep and relaxation, there is no indication that they were used for such a purpose before they were discovered by people outside of South America. The Mayans used the apparatus as a symbol of ruling, as a woven mat already carried such a nature of symbolism in their culture. The rich and religious would use hammocks as a means of transportation, lying in its bed while suspended from a pole that two people carried. The tribespeople also used hammocks to bury their dead; the oldest hammock ever discovered was found in a grave wrapped tightly around a dead body.
Hammocks spread outside the Americas
For most of their existence, Mezzo-America was the exclusive locations of the hammock. But on Nov. 3, 1492, explorer Christopher Columbus became the first person outside of Central and South America and the Caribbean to be exposed to the hammock. Columbus’ discovery prompted him to take the newfound invention back to Portugal, where he traded them with other explorers. From there, the explorers began to utilize the hammock as a useful instrument in travel.
After Columbus’ discovery, hammocks only grew in popularity, especially among sailors and explorers. It wasn’t until after this popularization that the hammock began to evolve in different ways. Before Columbus’ discovery, hammocks were simply a tarp or net that was tied around two different surfaces and wrapped around the user’s body. But when hammocks started to be used on ships, they began to be developed in ways that had not previously been seen. Sailors began to place wooden spokes on either end of their woven hammocks to expand the body, making them more suitable for ships (this is where many kinds of textile and rope hammocks have come from). These hammocks also served as flotation devices and were able to keep a sailor afloat for up to six hours if wrapped correctly.
As hammocks traveled around the world, they began to change more and more. While their makers have always employed a variety of techniques when assembling them (woven, minimal, etc.), the material used in the assembly of a hammock has changed drastically over the centuries.
Further innovation and popularity
The more hammocks were used by groups who traveled overseas regularly, the more they spread to other parts of the world. After being brought back to Portugal by Columbus, the hammock grew in popularity among the literate class of Europe. Portugese slavers spread the hammock to the African countries of Guinea, Angola, Loango and the lower Congo. The hammock also found popularity among missionaries and colonists, who used it because of its comfort and availability. They eventually made their way over to the eastern world through trade with the Americas. Although in Eastern Asia they simply served as a means of transport, in Oceania, hammocks were used for lounging as well.
The early 20th century, that is, the tail end of the age of invention, was a time when hammocks became a subject of innovation. During this time, several different takes on the hammock were patented, including the now-famous hammock chair and hammock stand. These inventions gave birth to new styles of hammock and inventions that are now used to give versatility and further relevance to an old invention.
Today, many different versions of the hammock can be found being used for relaxation all over the world. China, a country that only used them as a means for carrying things, has become the world’s leading exporter in hammocks. Brazil is currently one of the largest hammock producers in the world, an homage to the fact that it was one of the countries that fostered its creation. Europe is home to architecture and furniture companies such as Heri & Salli and Splinter Works, who have continued to push the creative boundaries for hammock innovation. As time goes on, hammocks have continued to evolve and be used for a variety of tasks, just as they have for 4,000 years.
All Illustrations by David MerkleyThere are many ways to sit in a hammock. How many of them do you know?