The river of sorrows

September 1, 1995

The Indians of the Amazon, remnants of advanced civilisations decimated by genocide and disease, now face extinction. Claude Levi-Strauss revisits photographs he took more than 50 years ago and muses on the past of a people with no future.

When I open my notebooks, I can still smell the creosote with which, before setting off on an expedition, I used to saturate my canteens to protect them from termites and mildew. Almost undetectable after more than half a century, this trace instantly brings back to me the savannas and forests of Central Brazil, inseparably bound with other smells - human, animal, and vegetable - as well as with sounds and colours. For as faint as it now is, this odour - which for me is a perfume - is the thing itself, still a real part of what I have experienced.

Is it because too many years have elapsed that photography does not bring any of that back to me? My negatives are not a miraculously preserved, tangible part of experiences that once engaged all my senses; they are merely their indices - indices of people, of landscapes, and of events I am aware of having known, but after such a long time I no longer always remember where or when. These photographic documents prove to me that they did exist, but they do not evoke them for me.

Upon re-examination, the photographs leave me with the impression of a void, a lack of something the lens is inherently unable to capture. I realise the paradox of offering them again, in greater number, better reproduced, and often displayed differently from what was possible within the format of Tristes Tropiques, as if I thought that the pictures could offer something substantial to readers who have never been there and who therefore must content themselves with this silent imagery, especially since, if they went to see it for themselves, this world would be unrecognisable and in many respects would have simply vanished.

Decimated by smallpox epidemics in 1945 and again in 1975, and reduced in numbers to 700 or 800, the Nambikwara today lead a precarious existence close to the religious missions and government posts that watch over the Indians; or else they camp by the side of a road travelled by heavy trucks; or again on the outskirts of Vilhena, a city of 60,000 inhabitants (that was ten years ago; the figure must be higher now) that is rising in the heart of their territory, where in my day the only signs of civilisation left after an abortive attempt at penetration were a dozen shanties made of mud-plastered wattle in which a few mixed-blood families languished, dying of hunger and disease.

Nevertheless, it would seem that even quite recently tiny groups of Nambikwara managed to remain, as far as possible, faithful to their traditional life, hunting with bows and arrows in areas not yet invaded by the giant agricultural conglomerates that have taken over the region.

Yet when, in 1992, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, representatives of a dozen Amerindian peoples were flown to Mexico City to appear in a movie, the Nambikwara among them were not all disconcerted by the experience. According to an eyewitness, they arrived equipped with a supply of pamphlets in English, Spanish, and Portuguese denouncing the crimes committed by gold prospectors. They went back home delighted by their trip and bringing with them transistors, which they said were cheaper than those available in Vilhena, where the shops are full of Japanese products.

The reader must be warned against another illusion: the belief that the Indians whom I show -in my pictures they are completely naked (although it often gets cold at night and in the early morning), sleeping on the ground under makeshift shelters of palm leaves and branches; who produce (and then rarely) only rudimentary pottery and, as for textiles, weave nothing but small decorative items; who cultivate very small gardens between nomadic periods - give us an accurate vision of primitive humanity. I have never believed this, and over the past 20 years evidence has accumulated to show that the present picture does not reflect archaic conditions. The peoples of Central Brazil and elsewhere are remnants - who have either sought refuge in the interior or have been left stranded there - of more advanced and more populous civilisations whose indisputable vestiges are being exhumed or recorded at the mouth and along the whole course of the Amazon by archaeologists employing up-to-date techniques.

When, in 1541, a Spanish expedition that had lost its way sent some 50 men in a boat to look for food, the detachment set off on an unknown river later named the Amazon. After weeks of fruitless navigation that cut them off from their base, the men, as a last resort, let themselves be carried downstream by the current. They eventually reached a region where veritable cities appeared before their eyes. According to the expedition's chronicler, Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, each city spread over several leagues along the banks of the river and comprised hundreds of houses of a dazzling whiteness. A very dense population lived here, apparently organised into many great chiefdoms, some allied, others hostile, judging from the fortifications adorned with monumental sculptures and the fortresses built on the heights. Well-maintained roads, planted with fruit trees, crossed cultivated fields. They went great distances to who knows what other inhabited centres. The raids the Spaniards made, at some cost to themselves, in order to survive yielded, when successful, huge reserves of food, each sufficient to feed "a troop of 1,000 men for a year."

Exactly one century later, an expedition 1,000-strong, with a few dozen ships, went (again for the first time) up the Amazon with the express mission of eliminating all the Indians. According to one member of the expedition, they were so numerous that an arrow shot at random into the air was sure to fall back on to somebody's head.

These eyewitness accounts (as well as others that corroborate and complete them) were, if not ignored by historians and ethnologists, at least looked upon with suspicion. It was more convenient, and more soothing for the European conscience, to treat them as exaggerations ascribable to the naivete or boastfulness of adventurers than to gauge the extent of the massacres by these reports. By the time the voyages of scientific exploration and ethnographic research began in the 19th century, the illusion was firmly established that the condition of the Indian communities at that time was the same as it had been in the age of discovery. Travellers and scientists endorsed it.

In the last few years, archaeological research has validated the original observations. At the mouth of the Amazon, the island of Marajo, 50,000 square kilometres in area, reveals a multitude of artificial hills, each occupying up to several hectares. They are man-made, erected for defence and to protect the inhabitants and cultivated fields from flooding. On the lower Amazon, remains have been unearthed of cities where, apparently, several tens of thousands of people once lived, as well as traces of unbaked bricks, substantial fortified constructions and a network of roads leading to distant regions. Still-discernible differences in types of abode suggest that these societies were strongly hierarchical. Based on these data, it is estimated that the population of the Amazon basin was once seven or eight million.

These investigations also show that human occupation of Amazonia dates from much earlier times than the tenth millennium. Need we recall that many archaeologists in the United States still subscribe to the dogma that this was the millennium when human beings crossed the Bering Strait and set foot in America for the first time? Yet here and there in the Southern Hemisphere, and more specifically in Brazil, settlements far more ancient than that, of the order of 30-40,000 years, have been ascertained by carbon-14 dating. Some of these are arguable, but there is no doubt that thinking about the peopling of America is undergoing radical change.

In Marajo and on the lower Amazon, superbly polished stone objects, and painted ceramics decorated with moulded designs whose existence had long been known, were attributed to the influence of Andean civilisations. The belief was that this art would have degenerated when it reached the moist tropical forest environment, with its scant animal and plant resources and a soil and climate that discouraged human settlement. This shows a lack of appreciation of the agricultural potential of the alluvial plains along the river and streams and, above all, of the fact - proven by botanists working on the ground and shown in aerial photographs - that the Amazon forest is not as "primaeval" as people liked to think. In many places, the forest reclaimed the land only after the Indians who had cleared and cultivated it were exterminated or pushed to the high ground between the valleys.

Recently, archaeological digs have uncovered artefacts that antedate, perhaps by several thousand years, the oldest ceramics from Peru and Ecuador, where it was believed that this art had originated. If there was influence, therefore, it must have been in the opposite direction: Amazonia could be the cradle from which Andean civilisations have sprung.

It is often said that imported diseases, more than massacres, were responsible for the demographic collapse that followed discovery. This may be true in many cases, but it cannot erase the fact that, from the Atlantic to the Amazon, the Portuguese committed a monstrous genocide. It began in the 16th century and continued uninterrupted through the 18th and 19th centuries, the work, principally, of the bandeirantes, adventurers in the service of government agencies and of colonists, who used the most horrible methods to reduce the Indians to a state of slavery or simply to destroy them. After the bandeirantes came the rubber companies, followed by the real-estate developers who, until a few years ago, took their clients on aerial surveys of vast territories that they promised to deliver limpiados, "cleansed" (meaning, of all indigenous presence): today they have been succeeded by gold and diamond prospectors.

One would have to go back to archaeological levels from the third millennium bc. to find a way of life comparable to that of today's Indians. Is it imaginable that they would remain stagnant for 4,000 or 5,000 years, while in Amazonia itself the lifestyles evolved, in the course of the first millennium bc, towards a complex political organisation and an agricultural economy based mainly on corn?

Not only in Amazonia, but also in its periphery - in Bolivia, in Colombia - aerial photographs have revealed the vestiges of advanced agricultural systems dating from the first centuries of our era. Over tens, at times hundreds, of thousands of hectares of floodland, man-made embankments several hundred meters long and separated by drainage canals, guaranteed year-round irrigation while protecting fields from rising floodwater. Here the Indians practised an intensive type of agriculture based on tubers which, combined with fishing in the canals, could support more than a thousand inhabitants per square kilometre.

Far from being primitives, the Indians, as they have become known since the study of them began in the last century, survive as the wreckage of these prior civilisations. As early as 1952, I asserted that the Nambikwara were regressive. This is even more obvious with the Caduveo. Numbering about 1,000, they are the last descendants of the Guaicuru, whose society was complex and stratified, divided among nobles, warriors, and slaves. For a long time now, the Caduveo have lived like Brazilian peasants. In the middle of the 19th century, however, they were still close enough to their bellicose past to bring decisive aid to the Brazilian army against Paraguay. In gratitude for this, Emperor Pedro II granted them an extensive reserve that, despite the infringements of cattle ranchers, they have succeeded in keeping.

The Bororo fell victim, by the thousands, to the attacks of 18th-century adventurers who in bands rushed headlong into their fold-rich territory. Since the last century, their villages have shrunk, reduced to a single incomplete circle of huts, where they had once been arranged in a succession of concentric circles around a central area on which might have stood several men's houses, instead of the single one seen today. Only such a high population can explain the extreme complexity of the social organisation of the Bororo and of their neighbours who speak the Ge language. It is inconceivable that such a social organisation would have been elaborated and applied by populations as small as those that survived into the 19th century and the first half of our own. The analogies are so great between this social structure - strikingly reflected in the way the villages are planned - and that of ancient Peru, where Cuzco and the country itself were similarly structured, that the high Andean cultures can no longer be opposed (as was done in the past) to those of the tropical lowlands. There is no doubt that in a very distant past, of which we know almost nothing, there was a continuum between them.

In those who, among the Indians, strike us as being most destitute, we must therefore see, not examples of archaic ways of life that have been miraculously preserved for millennia, but the last escapees from the cataclysm that discovery and subsequent invasions had been for their ancestors. Imagine, keeping everything in proportion, scattered groups of survivors after an atomic holocaust on a planetary scale, or a collision with a meteorite such as the one that, they say, caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The wonder is that with their numbers reduced to the twentieth, the fiftieth, or the hundredth part, these Indians still managed to recreate viable societies and even, it can be said, reinvented the condition for society. Because, fragile as they were, their societies had stability.

Demographic stability first of all. Deliberate or not, the rules of marriage and certain practices regulating procreation and child care, which we would characterise as superstitious, had the effect of maintaining the population at a level below which it would become extinct, and above which wisdom would require that the group split up. Next, ecological stability, the result of a natural philosophy that subordinates human exploitation of animal and plant resources to respect for a pact concluded with supernatural powers.

Before our eyes, a new cataclysm is dispossessing the Indians of this way of life they had succeeded in keeping almost intact for one or two centuries. It is caused by the development of communication and the population explosion whose repercussions they suffer at the local level when hordes of adventurers invade the last enclaves where they found refuge.

How can my old photographs fail to create in me a feeling of emptiness and sorrow? They make me acutely aware that this second deprivation will be final this time, given the contrast between a past I still had the joy of knowing and a present of which I receive heartbreaking accounts.

The Bororo, whose good health and robustness I had admired in 1935, are today being consumed by alcoholism and disease and are progressively losing their language. It is in missionary schools (which, by a curious reversal, have become the conservators of a culture they had in the first place worked at suppressing, and not without success) that Bororo youths are being taught about their myths and their ceremonies. But, for fear that they might damage the feather diadems, masterpieces of traditional art, the missionaries are keeping these objects locked up, entrusting the Indians with them only on strictly necessary occasions. They would be increasingly difficult to replace since the macaws, parrots and other brightly coloured birds are also disappearing.

When these Indians speak feelingly of their traditional life, they are not thinking of what had already been nothing but a memory for their great-grandparents. The "good old days" for the latter's irremediably acculturated descendants is the period before the second world war, before 1950 even, when their fishing and gathering economy had not yet been destroyed by regulations protecting natural resources plundered not by them, but by the big lumbering operations, commercial fishing and organised tourism . . .

This warped vision of the past is not a purely exotic phenomenon, the unique property of small cultures on the way to extinction. To be convinced of that, one has only to consider what Europe was less than a century ago and what it has become today.

I did not realise in 1935 the magnitude of the cataclysm that Europe had the folly to unleash 21 years earlier with the first world war and that would doom it to decline. Its power seemed still intact, its moral domination over the rest of the world unquestioned. It was to the defence of unfortunate exotic cultures menaced by western expansion that my anthropological colleagues and I thought we should dedicate ourselves.

Things have changed a great deal since then. The victim of circumstances of its own making, Western civilisation now feels threatened in its turn. It has, in the past, destroyed innumerable cultures in whose diversity lay the wealth of humankind. Guardian of its own fraction of this collective wealth, it is allowing itself to forget or destroy its own heritage, which - as much as any other - deserved to be respected.

The population explosion, for which the West shares responsibility, is reducing the living space between beings at an alarming rate. As for progress, it is devouring itself. More and more, the advances of science and technology, including medical breakthroughs - a blessing for individuals, an evil for our species - have as their principal objective the correction of the harmful consequences of previous innovations. And when that end is achieved, further ill-fated consequences will result, for which it will be necessary to devise other inventions as a remedy. Dispossessed of our culture, stripped of values that we cherished - the purity of water and air, the charms of nature, the diversity of animals and plants - we are all Indians henceforth, making of ourselves what we made of them.

Claude Levi-Strauss is professor emeritus of social anthropology, College de France. Between 1935 and 1939, while professor of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, he took more than 3,000 photographs, many on expeditions among the natives of Southern Amazonia. Some appeared in his seminal work Tristes Tropiques. Others will be published for the first time in the UK in December in Saudades do Brasil, A Photographic Memoir, University of Washington Press, Pounds 26.95. The book, (the above is an edited extract from the prologue), can be ordered via Trevor Brown Associates, 114-115 Tottenham Court Road, London. Tel: 0171-388 8500.

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