Amazing Amazon Explorers

Henry Walter Bates – Naturalist & Explorer (1825-1892)

Henry Bates Amazon ExplorerBorn in 1825, Bates had a passion for wildlife and a spirit for adventure. Bates set off with naturalist companion Alfred Russell Wallace on an Amazon expedition at the age of 23 to collect animals in the name of Natural History. Bates and Wallace split after a year to concentrate on different Amazon areas and eleven years later, Bates returned to England. This time was later recognised by Bates as the best years of his life.

After eleven years, Bates had established a sizable collection that would occupy his time. Bates was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Royal Geographical Society and never returned to Amazonia. Instead, he was consumed by office work. The confinement and stress of this position is possibly linked to his death.

Hentry Bated Amazon ExplorerCharles Darwin wrote that among Bates’ treasure trove of natural wonders were 8000 species unknown to science. His work is still regarded as of great scientific significance and one of his mimicry theories developed while watching Heliconius butterflies flying between the trees is still used today. I was fortunate to commemorate Bates’ life by completing my thesis on Batesian mimicry 150 years after he first published his thoughts and findings from the Amazon Rainforest.

One of the peculiarities Bates mentions about his time in Amazonia, being a British naturalist, came in the months of June and July when the villagers, deprived of meat, shoot the oncoming flock of Cuvier’s toucan (Ramphastos cuvieri), a brightly coloured bird. For several weeks afterwards, each family has the rare treat of daily stewed toucan. If only The Lord’s Prayer was written in the Amazon. Bates mentions in his work ‘The Naturalist on the River Amazons’ that one his worst experiences was not from alligators, serpents, or jaguar, but of the irregularity and absence of news from the outside world. He writes:

Alexander von Humboldt – Naturalist, Geographer & Explorer (1769-1859)

Alexander von Humboldt Amazon ExplorerAlexander von Humboldt was one of Charles Darwin’s influences and Alexander’s exploits in the area of Natuaral History were exceptional. Born in Berlin, Germany, Humboldt traveled South America extensively between 1799 and 1804 collecting, identifying, and exploring for scientific understanding. His aims were to improve physical geography and report on the countries visited, including Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and Mexico.

Humboldt brought many new world animals recognition. One, named the uakari monkey, was encountered by Humboldt while he was at a Jesuit mission. Its local name, cacajao, was what Humboldt reported its name to be. Unfortunately, the local people and all speakers of the language are now extinct and so we will never know its true meaning. Because of the monkey’s distinct look when compared to other New World primates, we can assume the name described the monkey’s appearance (photo below), but it could quite easily refer to spirituality, sound, or taste.

Photo by Aaron Martin on Flickr

In Humboldt’s ‘Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the new continent during the years 1799-1904’ he writes that the locals tell stories of the cacajao monkeys and capuchins placing themselves in circles and striking the extremely hard shells of capucaya with a stone to get to the triangular almond-like seeds. When describing the seeds, Humboldt mentions that “their taste is extremely agreeable when they are fresh; but the oil, with which they abound, and which is so useful in the arts, becomes easily rancid. Although at the Upper Oroonoko we often ate considerable quantities of these almonds for want of other food, we never felt any bad effects from so doing.” This of course is Humboldt’s report on Brazil nuts.

On the banks of the rivers Humboldt sailed, he writes of local Indians harvesting abundant turtle eggs “of which afford an aliment more nutritious than agreeable to the taste”. I had the pleasure of eating turtle eggs in the Peruvian Amazon after I sat down to chat to some locals. They promptly filled and handed me a bowl of what I could identify as a piece of pig fat, some plantains, and turtle eggs. I thought about rejecting the eggs as I had no idea over its sustainability, but as the group were all eager for me to try their food and I didn’t want to appear ungrateful, I tucked in. I have to admit, I understand why turtle eggs didn’t take off in the same way as Brazilian almonds.

Before Charles Darwin left England on the Beagle in 1831, his Professor, John Stevens Henslow , who was the first person to recognise and nurture Darwin’s ability, handed Darwin a gift: the seven volumes of Helen Maria Williams’ English translation of Humboldt’s Relation historique du voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent. Darwin writes in his diary aboard the Beagle:

“I spent a very pleasant afternoon lying on the sofa, either talking to the Captain or reading Humboldt’s glowing accounts of tropical scenery. — Nothing could be better adapted for cheering the heart of a sea-sick man.” – Charles Darwin

Percy Fawcett – Artillery Officer, Archaeologist & Explorer (1867-1925)

Percy Fawcett Amazon ExplorerPercy Fawcett was a lieutenant in the British army and once released from duty set out on a personal mission. He had previously explored South America extensively and believed there were things to be found in the Tapajos, Xingu, Araguaya and Tocantins Amazonian regions of great geographical and archaeological interest.

He had previously attempted an exploration mission in 1920 but had to return as his comrades could not cope, which was not unusual for those travelling with Col. Fawcett. He returned to England and immediately started planning another attempt. Instead of carrying supplies, which he calculated would only last him and his men three weeks, he decided to travel light and live off the forest. Fawcett’s reports were promising for their expedition as the weather was in their favour and all of their equipment arrived undamaged. Fawcett and a small group consisting of his son and his son’s best friend entered the forest.

Letter received by the Secretary – 20 May 1925

“Just a line from this outpost of civilization to advise you that we are about to go out of communication. We are all three well and fit, and there is every hope of a successful issue to the expedition, risky as it is in some ways.”

Letter to his wife – 29 May 1925
“Here we are at Dead Horse camp, latitude 11? 43′ south and longitude 540 35′ west, the spot where my horse died in 1920. Only his white bones remain. My calculations anticipate contact with the Indians in about a week or 10 days, when we should be able to reach the waterfall so much talked about.”

Letter received by the North American Newspaper Alliance – 30 May 1925
“From Fort Bakairi, whence I sent my previous dispatches, our journey has been no bed of roses. We have cut our way through miles of cerraba, a forest of low dry scrub ; we have crossed innumerable small streams by swimming and fording ; we have climbed rocky hills of forbidding aspect ; we have been eaten by bugs. . . . Our two guides go back from here. They are more and more nervous as we push further into the Indian country. All our animals survive. Seven or eight will go on with us, the rest go back to Cuyaba with the guides. We shall not get into interesting country for another two weeks. I shall continue to prepare despatches from time to time, in hopes of being able to get them out eventually through some friendly tribe of Indians. But I doubt if this will be possible.”

This was the last time anyone would hear from Colonel Percy Fawcett and his expedition. His wife was paid a pension of military widows and his disappearance sparked mystery inspiring numerous books and movies. The locals of the region Fawcett was exploring tell stories of rich gold mines, incredible walled cities in the jungle, and native Indians ruled over by warrior women. The area has an unusual wealth of fables and folklore that seem to share an element of truth for even the most passionate sceptic.

From an expedition to find Colonel Fawcett and his team, expedition leader George M. Dyott writes that “Colonel Fawcett was a man of indomitable will, infinite resource, fearless of danger, and with a decided leaning toward mysticism. A veteran explorer in tropical jungles, he had a score of expeditions to his credit in South America. “ Dyott writes that in the area of Fawcett’s last known position, there were no long term trails, only those of wandering tapir. After crossing turbulent rivers and cutting through thick forest, Dyott and his small party came across the Anauqua Indians who apparently had contact with Fawcett. Led by the natives, they headed to the Anauqua village. Welcomed by the natives who were excited at the foreign guests, they sat down with the chief and gathered information regarding Fawcett using very basic signing.

As Dyott handed out gifts for the natives, he saw a trinket hanging from the neck of the Chief’s child that read “W. S. Silver and Company, King William House, Eastcheap, London.” This was a name plate that must have been removed from Fawcett’s luggage. For Dyott, there was little doubt over its origin, however, the plate was later found to be from Fawcett’s previous expedition. After much time trying to gain information, Dyott found that a small group of Indians had guided Fawcett a day’s march east of the Kuluene River. Dyott attempted to organise volunteers from the village to take him, which was met with the word “Suya” and looks of disagreement with each man hitting the back of his head with a flattened hand. The Suya were a warlike tribe in these parts who would appear welcoming and kind and, when opportunity arose, hit the unsuspecting traveller over the back of the head. Dyott offered gifts to men who would escort him and managed to acquire the services of the two men who had led Fawcett, by the names of Cabuzala and Aloique.

Before the journey, Dyott discovered that Cabuzala and Aloique had accompanied Fawcett one day’s hike from the Kuluene River and that one of Fawcet’s party had difficulty walking. Aloique communicated his ideas that Fawcett had died of thirst in the jungle after they had delivered him to his chosen destination, however, Dyott was suspicious that Aloique was not telling the whole truth. He wanted to follow Fawcett’s trail but Aloique and Cabuzala adamantly disagreed shouting “Suya, Suya”. At the time, a few men were visiting Aloique from a nearby tribe and decided it was time to leave. Aloique decided to leave with them and to escort Dyott and companions on their journey as an easy means to earn a few knives and metal items.

After a while canoeing and hiking in the forest, they came across the charred remains of some malocas (it is custom that when a native indian group leaves an area they burn down the malocas). In the charred remains, Aloique found Fawcett’s powder flasks. After encountering the camp of the Indians who were visiting Aloique known as the Kalapalos, they hiked a further five hours on and noticed the unusually dry nature of the surrounding forest. Dyott thought that the likelihood Fawcett and party had died from thirst was increasingly likely.

They reached the main Kalapalo camp and were greeted in a way they thought friendlier still than the Anauquas, noting the subtle differences in language, the elaborate jewellery, unusual bodily ornaments, and the dolls held by the children reminiscent of Inca art. Dyott found that Fawcett had stayed one night with the Kalapalos. The chief was questioned to the whereabouts of Fawcett and he communicated that they had been killed. When asked more, the chief mentioned that Anauqua Indians were bad people and apparently some kalapalos had followed Fawcett and reported back.

When Dyott confronted Aloique with what was mentioned, Aloique just said “Suya” and that he too had followed Fawcett. Dyott focussed on the discrepancy of Aloique’s stories and tried to get Aloique to show him the murder site. A few days later, Aloique and the other Indians abandoned Dyott, adding to Dyots’ assumptions that they had killed Fawcett. Dyott and his team, now convinced Fawcett had met his end at the hands of indian tribes, fearful of their own lives at the hands of increasingly hostile native groups, fled indian territory and back to England to deliver their report with accusations of murderous Indians. But just maybe, he lived his life in the Lost City of Z among gold adorned warrior women.

Sydney Possuelo – Ethnographer, Social Activist & Explorer (Born 1940)

Sydney Possuelo was the Brazilian government’s leading expert on isolated tribes of the Amazon. He has received numerous awards and is highly regarded by humanitarian groups for his efforts defending Amazon indian rights.

Amazon Indigenous groups have had a long struggle against the developing world with farmers, loggers, miners, rubber tappers, and oil companies constantly encroaching on their land treating indigenous forest dwellers as a less-than-animal obstacle in need of eradication. Often, this has resulted in inhuman and uncivilised acts towards the Indians by members of the so called civilised world, as it has in every other country where indigenous groups have clashed with foreign colonists. Not surprisingly, the indian groups have learnt that they cannot trust foreigners and fought back defending their lives and their forests from any and all who come near their settlements.

Domingo Neves de Souza was a rubber tapper in Brazil’s Amazon. In May 1999, while walking with his children near his father’s plantation for fishing trip to Igarape River, he decided to walk into unknown jungle to follow the stream. He had been told about the Indians that roamed the forest, but as they had hardly been seen, saw them as a non-existent entity, until a group of indians armed with bows and clubs ran out from the trees. His children shouted and were told to run for their lives, but for Souza it was too late. An hour later, a small group found Souza’s body laying on the forest floor pierced with arrows, cuts on his arms and legs, pools of blood where his eyes once were, and his scalp removed from his skull.

Needless to say, this loss of life and act of aggression by Indians reached the Brazilian government. The man called to investigate was Sydney Possuelo. Sydney’s mission was not to defend the rubber tappers and plantation owners or to bring anyone to justice, it was to investigate the presence of an uncontacted Amazon tribe close to settlers. Sydney was an indian tracker by occupation and can recognise an indian’s footprint from a settler’s simply by the gap between the big and second toe. Unlike his agency’s mission before him, which was to ‘civlise’ indigenous groups by exposing them to our technology and medical advances (ironically, the exposure to white settlers led to diseases we take for granted having a great toll on indian lives due to immune system unfamiliarity). Possuelo’s mission was to keep isolated tribes isolated for as long as possible. In the 1990s, Possuelo helped establish the largest indian protected area, 20.5 million square acres for 23,000 Yanomami Indians and now he hopes to protect this tribe named the Korubu.

In his struggle for indigenous rights, Possuelo has been attacked on numerous occasions and there are photos of arrows embedded in his chest. He is aware that this is simply a reply to how foreign colonists treated the tribes’ neighbours and families in the past. As a truly empathetic person, Possuelo can see the big picture. Despite his love for indian culture, traditions and the people he has met, his dream is for no one, not even himself, to receive further news of their existence.

Richard Spruce – Botanist & Explorer (1817-1893)

Richard Spruce Amazon ExplorerRichard Spruce followed Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace to the Amazon having a passionate interest in plants. He is perhaps best known for his participation in the cultivation of quinine used extensively in the treatment of Malaria, a disease that has killed more people than any other. Spruce is also regarded as one of the greatest tropical plant explorers of all time. His collections in South America were the most extensive since Alexander von Humboldt.

On his exploration in the Amazon, Spruce lived with indigenous people, held scientific ideas beyond his time and learnt several languages. Spruce provided the first detailed and accurate information on a jungle vine now known by the scientific name of Banisteropsis caapi, or simply Caapi in Brazil and Ayahuasca in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

“I have been stung by wasps I suppose hundreds of times, once very badly, having above twenty stings in my head and face alone. Yet I have always admired their beauty, ingenuity, and heroic ferocity” – Richard Spruce

Spruce first noted the vines use among the Tukanoan tribe of the Rio Negro region of Brazil. It was recorded as giving the participants incredibly detailed, coloured visual hallucinations and a feeling of immense bravery. As well as an extensive collection of botanical specimens, Spruce collected vocabularies of 28 indigenous Amazon languages.

Despite stories of encounters with Pumas, murderers and snakes, Spruce’s main complaints come from the humble caterpillar. He writes, “I had always made light of caterpillars’ stings until one evening at Tarapoto, in gathering specimens of an Inga tree, I got badly stung on the right wrist … That was the beginning of a time of the most intense suffering I ever endured.” It’s the little things that get you in the end.

Francisco de Orellana – Conquistador & Explorer (1511-1546)

Francisco de Orellana Amazon ExplorerFrancisco de Orellana is the most famous explorer of the Amazon Region. If you’ve heard of warrior women in the Amazon, it was thanks to this man. The Amazon is now named after the warrior women in Homer’s Iliad who would cut off one breast in order to improve their skill with a bow. Orellana was Gonzalo Pizarro’s second in command on his expedition into South America’s interior to locate the ‘land of cinnamon’.

After exploring the forest and suffering from many sick and starving crew, Pizarro learnt from Indians that 10 days on they would find a settlement full of gold, supplies, food, and shelter. He immediately assigned his lieutenant and a group of 50 men to investigate the claims. Orellana was then to return to the ship to relieve the men on board. He set off and within three days had navigated the distance but did not find any settlement, no gold, nor supplies. He decided he would not return with the news as it would take much time to fight the strong current back. Instead, he traveled on ignoring Gonzalo’s orders. The crew objected but Orellana swayed them in his favor, threatening some with leaving them behind if they did not approve. He then elected himself captain renouncing obedience to Pizaro.

Orellana had many skuffles with the local Indians and noted that on some occasions women would fight side by side with their husbands. Because of this and the mystery of the name, Orellana called it the valley of the Amazons. Orellana voyaged on and discovered an inhabited settlement with friendly Indians who gave Orellana and his crew food and supplies. His crew stayed a few days before sailing to the Isle of Trinidad. He bought a ship and sailed to Spain. Orellana asked for, and was granted, commission from His Majesty to conquer the country magnifying his experiences by saying it was a land full of gold, silver, and precious stones. Upon his journey back, Orellana met his death at sea and his crew dispersed.

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