Unknown Amazon. (Frontline)

By McEwan, Colin | History Today, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Unknown Amazon. (Frontline)


McEwan, Colin, History Today


THE AMAZONIAN RAINFOREST is one of the most significant and largely intact ecosystems left on earth. It is often characterised as an essentially untouched natural environment in which man's presence is merely incidental. However, the vast reaches of the rainforest have been lived in and shaped by human hands for thousands of years. A new exhibition `Unknown Amazon' at the British Museum brings to life the cultures of the tropical forest both past and present, and invites comparison with the rise of civilization along major fiver systems elsewhere in the world.

The Amazon Basin boasts the largest river system on Earth and harbours an ecosystem of unrivalled complexity. Early European travellers were awed by their first encounters. In 1531, Francisco Pizarro overthrew the Inca emperor Atahualpa, and a decade later his younger brother Gonzalo ventured east from Quito in the Andean highlands in pursuit of the legendary cities of gold and cinnamon thought to be hidden in the jungle fastness. Forging downriver along the Rio Napo, the expedition soon exhausted its supplies and, at Pizarro's behest, his second-in-command Francisco de Orellana led a group sent ahead to reconnoitre for food. Eight months later Orellana emerged at the mouth of the Amazon, having made what would prove to be the first descent of the length of the river.

Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, who accompanied him, wrote a memorable account of their adventures, including mention of the great signal drums that sounded from village to village far in advance of their arrival, warning of the incursion by bearded and helmeted strangers.

Caravajal recounts seeing a multitude of settlements along the river -- on one day they passed more than twenty villages in succession, and some of these are said to have stretched for six miles or more.

Such reports have intrigued anthropologists ever since, for they describe dense populations and sizeable confederations which, if substantiated, would be entirely at odds with modern stereotypes of hidden, thinly scattered tribes eking out a precarious existence.

From the late seventeenth-century a succession of naturalists and explorers recorded and collected many of the everyday objects fashioned from wood and other organic materials that rarely survive the vicissitudes of climate in the tropical lowlands. Among the first to assemble a collection was the Portuguese scholar Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira who, between 1783 and 1792, penetrated northern tributaries of the Amazon. Then, from 1820 to 1834, the Austrian naturalist Johann Natterer amassed an amazing collection of natural history specimens and cultural objects, including a full set of brilliant Munduruku featherwork and trophy heads from the lower Tapajos, now in the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Vienna. Such collections housed in European museums preserve a `window' into cultures that were soon to experience irreversible changes brought about by extraneous diseases and merciless exploitation.

Population collapse and displacement along the principal watercourses has contributed to a distorted impression of the cultural achievements of tropical forest societies. The nomadic bands hunting and foraging deep in the forest interior eventually came to be seen as a kind of `archetypal' tropical forest adaptation. So much so that when archaeological excavations began in earnest at the mouth of the Amazon in the 1950s, the North American investigators argued that the sophisticated archaeological styles they were discovering on Marajo Island could not have originated in the Amazon Basin itself, but must have been derived from more advanced cultures in the Andean highlands. They proposed the tropical forest to be a `counterfeit paradise' incapable of supporting much beyond a simple hunting-and-gathering way of life. This misnomer has exerted a pervasive influence ever since.

Two factors have been instrumental in overturning this paradigm. …

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