The Facination of the Amazonian Indians
A people of early Mongoloid origin, they arrived in the Amazon some 10,000 years ago. They had crossed the land bridge of the Bering Strait, hunting mammoth and giant cats, and over thousands of years had migrated through North and Central America into the Andes and down into the Amazon basin. There they evolved from hunter-gatherers into semi-nomadic agriculturists, cultivating the manioc root and, later, corn. They spread in several hundred tribes along the Amazon and its tributaries, divided into three main linguistic groups, the Carib to the northeast, the Tupi to the south and the Aruaque to the west.
When the first Europeans reached the Amazon in the 16th century, the number of Indians is estimated to have been as high as three million.
Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, travelling with a Spanish expedition in 1542, wrote that Indian villages lined many parts of the river “each not a crossbow shot from the next”.
Today there remain fewer than 250,000 Indians in Brazil, of whom perhaps 50,000 still live in the jungle in the Amazon basin. The remainder have been wiped out over the past 400 years by war, enslavement for sugar and rubber plantations, and above all by the white man’s diseases – smallpox, influenza, measles and tuberculosis against which they had no resistance.
Their lands were often seized for exploitation. Tribal remnants retreated deeper into the jungle. Those who remained in contact with European civilization often became drunkards and beggars.
Yet those who have survived in the forest still cling to their ancient culture. They live in great round or oval communal houses of palm leaves and tree-trunks, bound together with lianas, which shelter perhaps 20 families, each with their own cooking fire and own area to sling their hammocks.
They hunt and fish with bow and arrow. Apart from manioc, which they treat by scraping, washing and squeezing to remove the poisonous prussic acid, they grow chillies, yams, papayas, bananas, peanuts and beans in jungle clearings; they also eat nature’s gifts, wild nuts, fruits and berries, fish, game and insects.
They resent and will often kill intruders. Their shamans still conduct rites to protect the group against sorcerers. Some tribes ensure the continued survival of their dead by eating their ashes, mingled with boiled banana.
Even today, some of the Amazonian Indians share with primitive peoples in Asia the use of the blow-pipe and the penis-sheath, suggesting a common ancestry.
The original Indian Protection Service, set up by the Brazilian government to watch Indian interests and make humane cont act, was disbanded in 1967 after some members had been found guilty of massacring and poisoning Indians so that their lands could be seized. It has been replaced by FUNAI (National Indian Foundation), whose permission is needed before contacting an Indian group. It is FUNAI’s responsibility to try to bring the Indians out of the stone age into the Space Age without destroying their culture. Part of the answer seems to lie in the establishment of huge reserves, such as that already set up on the Xingu river.
Local Indian tribes have suffered much since the arrival of the Europeans in the i6th century, but one of the earliest and most brutal assaults on their way of life came with the bandeirantes, ruthless profiteers of generally mixed Portuguese and Indian ancestry who set out on slave-raiding missions (bandeiras) from SĂŁo Paulo. The first raid was organized in 1628 with the object of seizing as many Indians as possible to work on the sugar plantations of the south. A bandeira would number anywhere from 50 to several thousand men and might last for years at a time, which meant they were able to penetrate into the vast, un-mapped interior of the South American continent all the way to the Amazon.
These days the bandeirantes are seen as pioneers who opened up the country and secured the interior for Portuguese-speaking Brazil far beyond the line agreed upon with Spain in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. But it’s fair to say that though they established a nation, they wreaked havoc on the Indian communities they encountered, and precipitated a decline in the Amazon’s Indian population that has continued to this day.