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A Reporter at Large (The Amazons)

New Yorker, Mar 24, 1986
THE Nhamunda River rises in the mountainous terra incognita of northern Brazil below the Guyana border and, flowing southeast, enters the Amazon River about threequarters of the way down its fourthousand-mile length. Compared with some of the Amazon’s other tributaries, seven of which are over a thousand miles long, the Nhamunda is minor-league-only around four hundred miles long. Because there is no abundance of gold, bauxite, iron, uranium, rubber, or commercial hardwoods to attract people to the Nhamunda Valley, it is virtually uninhabited. You can paddle for days in its watery wilderness without meeting a soul. There are three towns on the river’s lower reaches-Terra Santa, Nhamunda, and Faro-but the only way to get to them is by boat; no airstrips or roads link them to the outside world. Many of the scientists working in the Amazon Basin today can’t exactly place the Nhamunda. But the river does have a claim to fame: it is thought to have been the home of the legendary Indian tribe that consisted only of women and childrenthe Amazons.       The first Europeans to travel the length of the Amazon River maintained that they had been attacked by female warriors. An account of the engagement appears in the chronicles of the Dominican friar Gaspar de Carvajal, who on December 26, 1541, with the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana and about sixty countrymen, set out in a jerry-built brigantine down the Napo, an Ecuadoran tributary of the Amazon. None of the travellers knew where they were going or what awaited them. They had separated from a large expedition led by the recently ap~ pointed governor of Quito, Gonzalo Pizarro (a half brother of the more famous Francisco). Pizarro’s plan had been to explore the unknown lands to the east–EI Dorado and La Canela, the Land of Cinnamon. By the time the expedition had crossed the mountains east of Quito and descended into the jungle, all two thousand hogs brought along for food had been eaten, most of the four thousand bearers had died of fever and maltreatment, and weakness and despair had set in. Pizarro sent Orellana and his party on ahead to find food, with orders to return within twelve days. But, floating down the N apo, they did not find any food. As Carvajal relates, the men were reduced to eating “leather, belts, and soles of shoes cooked with certain herbs.”  Several went mad after eating some unidentified roots. Unable to return because of the strength of the Napo’s current-or so he later claimed-Orellana kept on going, figuring that eventually he would reach the Atlantic. On February 11, 1542, he came out into the Amazon.
After travelling five months and some fifteen hundred miles, fighting Indians and falling on their food stores along the way, the Spaniards, still nine hundred miles from the Atlantic coast, passed the mouth of a large, dark river. They named it the Rio Negro. Three days later, on June 5th, they met some Indians who said (Orellana, according to Carvajal, was a gifted linguist and was able to understand what they were saying) that they were “subjects and tributaries of the Amazons” and that “the only service they rendered them consisted of supplying them with plumes of parrots and macaws for the lining of the roofs of the buildings that constitute their places of worship.” As the expedition moved downstream, the villages became more numerous. On the twenty-fourth of June, Carvajal recorded, “We came suddenly upon the excellent land and dominion of the Amazons. These said villages had been forewarned and knew of our coming, in consequence whereof they came out on the water to meet us, in no friendly mood. …Orellana gave orders to shoot at them with the crossbows and arquebuses, so that they might reflect and become aware that we had wherewith to assail them.”  Then the Spaniards continued on. But they had not gone half a league before they encountered, “along the edge of the water, at intervals, many squadrons of Indians.” They debarked, and a “very serious and hazardous battle” ensued. Among the Indians, “there came as many as ten or twelve” Amazons, (‘fighting in front of all the Indian men as women captains, and these latter fought so courageously that the Iridian men did not dare to turn their backs, and anyone who did turn his back they killed with clubs right there before us.” The women were “very white and tall, and have hair very long and braided and wound about the head, and they are very robust and go about naked, with their privy parts covered, with their bows and arrows in their hands.” (Carvajal doesn’t say whether the women had cut off their right breasts, to make it easier to draw their bows, as did the female warriors who are said to have fought the Greeks during heroic times. The popular etymology of the Greek amazon traces the word to a-mazos, “without a breast.”) It was only after seven or eight of the women were killed that “the Indians lost heart, and they were defeated and routed with considerable damage to their persons.”
A few days later, Orellana was able to communicate, “by means of a list of words that he had made,” with the chief of his assailants, named Couynco, who had been captured in the battle. Couynco told him that the Amazons lived “a seven-day journey from the shore,” in seventy villages whose houses were made of stone. Though unmarried, they “consorted with Indian men at times,” and had children by male captives. The boys were killed or sent to their fathers, the females raised “with great solemnity” and instructed in the arts of war. Their queen was named Conori. They worshipped the sun and had in their temples “many gold and silver idols in the form of women.” They dressed in “clothing of very fine wool,” from “sheep of the same sort as those of Peru.” They rode “camels” and had “other animals, which we did not succeed in understanding about, which were as big as horses and which had cloven hooves and hair as long as the spread of the thumb and forefinger.” The women held in subjection the tribes living on their borders, made war on others to get male captives, and were visited by the men of yet other tribes, from hundreds of leagues up the Amazon. Couynco warned that “anyone who should take it into his head to go down to the country of these women was destined to go a boy and return an old man.”
SCHOLARS who have tried to reconstruct the journey of the Spaniards from Carvajal’s account have placed the engagement with Couynco’s tribe on the left bank of the Amazon, most likely in the delta of the Nhamunda. But how much of this extraordinary story is true? Like EI Dorado and the Fountain of Youth, the Land of the Amazons was a definite, if undiscovered, place on the Europeans’ still largely blank map of the New World. The women were out there somewhere, and every explorer versed in the classical myth of female warriors, or in the medieval romances that retold or embellished the myth, was on the lookout for them. In February of 1493, Columbus, eager to find proof that he had arrived in the Orient, and wondering if he had sailed near the Island of the Female, which Marco Polo had reported was in the Indian Ocean, wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain that he had heard that on the island of Matremoniopresent-day Martinique-there were women who lived without men, wore copper armor, and took cannibals as lovers. Then, in 1502, Amerigo Vespucci’s expedition supposedly encountered cannibalistic women on an island in the Caribbean; two members of the expedition disappeared, and a third was clubbed to death. In 1524, Hernan Cortes sent his cousin Francisco to explore the Pacific coast of Mexico. One of his instructions was to keep an eye out for the Amazons, who were rumored to be in that neck of the woods. When it came time to name the peninsula the Spaniards found (present-day Baja), Hernan Cortes named it California, after an island “on the right hand of the Indies,” where, according to Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s popular romance “Las Sergas de Esplandian,” black women ruled by a queen named Califia “live in the fashion of Amazons.”
It is reasonable to assume, then, that when Orellana and his companions separated from Pizarro they, too, had Amazons on their mind; and, sure enough, two weeks after sailing out of the Napo and into the Amazon they were told by an Indian named Aparia of the Amazons and of the wealth farther down the river.” One can’t help wonding, especially in ‘fleW (}l
the immense linguistic and cultural gulf that existed between the Spaniards and their Indian informants, whether there wasn’t a strong element of projection in Carvajal’s report, and later ones, about warrior women. Even trained anthropologists have been guilty of unconscious projection-of clothing the subjects of their research in theories brought with them into the field. So it is probably unfair to conclude that Carvajal deliberately made up his report. It would be surprising if the members of Orellana’s expedition, passing through natural and cultural landscapes in which so little was familiar, didn’t to some extent cling to preconceived notions of what was supposed to be there, however fantastic those notions were.
And it could be that the Indians simply told the Spaniards what they wanted to hear. This problem was encountered by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent the years from 1848 to 1852 in Amazonia. He wrote, “In my communications and inquiries among the Indians on various matters, I have always found the greatest caution necessary, to prevent one’s arriving at wrong conclusions. They are always apt to affirm that which they see you wish to believe, and, when they do not at all comprehend your question will unhesitatingly answer, ‘Yes.’ I have often in this manner obtained, as I thought, information, which persons better acquainted with the facts have assured me was quite erroneous.” As for the origin of the myth, Wallace said he could “easily imagine it entirely to have arisen from the suggestions and inquiries of Europeans themselves. When the story of the Amazons was first made known, it became of course a point with all future travellers to verify it, or if possible get a glimpse of these warlike ladies. The Indians must no doubt have been overwhelmed with questions and suggestions about them, and they, thinking that the white men must know best, would transmit to their descendants and families the idea that such a nation did exist in some distant part of the country. Succeeding travellers, finding traces of this idea among the Indians, would take it as a proof of the existence of the Amazons; instead of being merely the effect of a mistake at the first, which had been unknowingly spread among them by preceding travellers, seeking to obtain some evidence on the subject.”
There are other possible explanations for the prevalence of the myth among the early explorers of the New World. It may be that Couynco’s description of the Amazons is a mangled, thirdhand account of real contact with the Incas or one of the other central Andean civilizations. Certain features of the description-the woollen clothing, the stone houses, the clovenhoofed animals, which sound like llamas, the sun worship, the gold and silver-strongly suggest a mountain people. The sun is much less important in the forest cultures of South America than it is in the highland cultures. The Incas even believed that their emperor was descended from the sun. Some scholars contend that the Amazon legend stemmed from cloistered communities of women that the Incas maintained. These women, called mamaconas, were sacred. They belonged to the emperor and the sun. They devoted themselves to weaving. Some took vows of chastity. There may have been a lot of these nunlike women at Machu Picchu, to judge from the ratio of female to male skeletons found there -three to one.
Another possibility is that the “ten or twelve Amazons” who joined the fight against Orellana’s forces were in fact men. Wallace proposed this explanation in the course of a description of the Uaupes Indians, of the upper Rio Negro:
The men… have the hair carefully parted and combed on each side, and tied in a queue behind. In the young men, it hangs in long locks down their necks, and, with the comb, which is invariably carried stuck in the top of the head, gives to them a most feminine appearance: this is increased by the large necklaces and bracelets of beads, and the careful extirpation of every symptom of beard. Taking these circumstances into consideration, I am strongly of the opinion that the story of the Amazons has arisen from these femininelooking warriors encountered by the early voyager. I am inclined to this opinion, from the effect they first produced on myself, when it was only by close examination I saw that they were men; and, were the front parts of their bodies and their breasts covered with shields, such as they always use, I am convinced any person seeing them for the first time would conclude they were women. We have only therefore to suppose that tribes having similar customs to those now living on the river Uaupes, inhabited the regions where the Amazons were reported to have been seen, and we have a rational explanation of what has so much puzzled all geographers.
A final, albeit remote, possibility is, of course, that a tribe of women without men did live on the Nhamunda.
NEWS of a clash with Amazons in the unknown country east of Quito reached Europe in 1543, when Orellana had to defend himself against Pizarro’s charge of desertion before the Council of the Indies. The more discriminating analysts of Orellana’s account were skeptical. Denouncing it as “full of lies,” the historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote in 1552:
Among the extravagant statements that [Orellana] made was his claim that there were Amazons along this river with whom he and his companions had fought. That the women there should take up arms and fight is no novelty, for in Pari a [a peninsula on the Venezuelan coast], which is not very far off, and in many other parts of the Indies, they used to do that; I do not believe, either, that any woman burns and cuts off her right breast in order to be able to shoot with the bow, because with it they shoot very well; or that they kill or exile their own sons; or that they live without husbands, being as they are very voluptuous. Others besides Orellana have proclaimed this same yarn about the Amazons ever since the Indies have been discovered, and never has such a thing been seen, and never will it be seen, either, along this river.
Some accused Orellana of inventing the encounter as a cover-up for his desertion of Pizarro and his discovery of no gold and very little cinnamon. But the vast majority of the Europeans who heard about the Amazons wanted to believe in them. Since 1512, the river that Orellana descended had borne two names, both given by explorers sailing along the coast of Para, who had encountered its torrent of cafe-au-1ait-co10red water flooding the ocean many miles from shore: Mar Dulce, or Freshwater Sea, and Maranon (a name that one of its main source tributaries in Peru still bears). By 1552, these names had been superseded by two new ones: the Orellana River and the Amazons’ River. The former never caught on; it was the latter, the leap of faith-or “imposture,” as Lopez de Gomara called itthat took.
Once the door had been opened, it was impossible to close it again, and the centuries that followed were full of sightings of the women. The next Amazons to be heard about sound almost like characters in Spenser’s “Faerie Queene.” In 1595, a cacique, or Indian chief, who claimed to have personally visited the Amazons “not
far from Guiana,” described them to
Sir Walter Raleigh, who also was in
search of the elusive E1 Dorado. The
Amazons, Raleigh wrote,
doe accompany with men but once in a yere, and for the time of one month, which I gather by their relation, to be in April: and that time all kings of the borders assemble, and queenes of the Amazones; and after the queenes have chosen, the rest cast lots for their Valentines. This one month, they feast, dance, and drinke of their wines in abundance; and the Moone being done, they all depart to their owne provinces. If they conceive, and be delivered of a sonne, they returne him to the father; if of a daughter they nourish it, and retaine it: and as many as have daughters send unto the begetters a present; all being desirous to increase their owne sex and kinde: but that they cut off the right dug of the brest, I do not find to be true.
In 1620, six months before the Pilgrims put ashore at Plymouth Rock, a hundred and twenty less famous colonists, English and Irish, led by one of Raleigh’s captains, Roger North, sailed a hundred leagues up the Amazon, with the intention of growing tobacco and harvesting spices and rare woods. The local Indians were extremely hospitable-they helped clear the colonists’ plantations, brought them food, told them about the Amazons-and all “for a small reward and price, either of some Iron worke or glasse beades and such like contemtib1e things.” One of North’s men, Bernard O’Brien, whom the historian John Hemming, in his 1978 book “Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians, 1500-1760,” describes as “a charming young Irishman,” canoed, with five musketeers and fifty Indians, hundreds of miles deeper into the valley and “finally reached a land where he claimed, with perhaps a touch of blarney, to have contacted the Amazons.” Their queen was named Cufta Muchu (the Inca for “great lady,” and highly suggestive of Carvajal’s Coftori). These women, O’Brien reported, “had their right breasts small like men’s, artificially stunted in order to shoot arrows; but the left breasts are broad like other women’s.” In 1639, a Portuguese expedition under the conquistador Pedro Teixeira repeated Orellana’s descent of the N apo and the Amazon. The voyage took ten months. No female warriors were encountered this time, but the chronicler of the expedition, a Jesuit priest named Cristobal de Acufta, picked up many stories about the Amazons and enthusiastically bought them all. “The proofs of the existence of the province of the Amazons on this river are so numerous, and so strong, that it would be a want of common faith not to give them credit,” he contended. “There is no saying more common than that these women inhabit a province on the river, and it is not credible that a lie could have spread throughout so many languages, and so many nations, with such an appearance of truth.” The Indians told of “manlike women” who lived in “great forests” and on “lofty hills” high up the Cufturis River, as the Nhamunda was then called. “Cufturis” also sounds like Carvajal’s Coftori, but the Portuguese were told that it was the name of the first tribe that lived up the river. Beyond the Cufturis were the Guacaras, who, for a few days at a certain time of the year, were received by the women and invited to share their hammocks. Beyond the Guacaras were the women themselves.
In 1735, the French scientist Charles Marie de La Condamine was sent to South America by the Academie des Sciences to measure the meridian of an arc of a degree of latitude at the equator, as part of a project to determine the shape of the earth; the scientific community was divided over whether the earth was an oblate spheroid or a prolate one. La Condamine’s nine years on the continent were climaxed by a rather brisk descent of the Amazon, starting from the Peruvian Andes, during which-it goes without saying-he asked about the celebrated tribe of women. “We questioned everywhere Indians of diverse nations,” he wrote in his “Relation Abregee d’un Voyage Fait dans l’Interieur de l’ Amerique Meridionale,” “and we informed ourselves with great care if they had knowledge of the bellicose women Orellana claimed to have seen and combatted, and if it was true that they lived far from the commerce of men and received them but once a year, as Acufta reports. They all told us the women had withdrawn deep into the interior to the north.” Observing the “unhappy condition” of many of the Indian wives he met, La Condamine decided that the community had probably been started by a group of women who had run away. “The vagabond lives of the women, who often follow their husbands to the wars, and are not a lot happier when at home with their families, might naturally put it into their minds, and at the same time afford them frequent opportunities to escape from the hard yoke of their tyrants, by endeavoring to provide themselves a settlement, where they might live independently, and, at least, not be reduced to the wretched condition of slaves, and beasts of burden,” he reasoned. He compared their defection to that of the “maltreated or malcontented slaves” in the European colonies who “went in bands to the woods and sometimes alone, when they found nobody to go with them, and there passed several years and sometimes their whole lives in solitude.”
On August 28, 1743, the La Condamine party passed “on the left hand the river Jamundas, which Father Acuna called Cunuris and maintained was where the Amazons lived.” This seems to be the first appearance in print of the name Jamundas, which eventually became Nhamunda. According to one source, La Condamine got the name from some missionaries who lived up the river, among a tribe of Indians whose chief’s name was Jamunda. La Condamine doesn’t tell us where he heard the name, or whether it was in general use. At any rate, it appears on maps from then on, and the name Cunuris disappears.

La Condamine continued downstream and, around the mouth of the Tapaj6s, he encountered the few Tapaj6 Indians who still lived there.  (The rest had fled into the forest, or had been enslaved or herded into missions or killed by diseases introduced by the Portuguese.) They showed him their most precious possessions: green stones carved in the form of animals, which they said they had inherited from their fathers, who, in turn, had got them from none other than the cougnantainsecouima-the Tapaj6 word for “women without husbands.”  Many of the chiefs’ wives whom Raleigh met in Guyana a century and a half earlier had been wearing green stones that “they esteem as great jewels,” and that Raleigh understood to have been acquired in trade from the Amazons. The stones that the Tapaj6 brought out were “no different in
colour or hardness from Oriental jade,” La Condamine reported. “One can’t imagine by what artifice the ancient Americans could have cut and shaped them.”
The prestige of green stones in the eighteenth century was, in fact, almost global. Tribal peoples in Asia and in North and Central America had long prized them as fetishes and ornaments. Some tribes in Amazonia traded them for women. According to La Condamine, in Europe they were called pierreries divines and were worn around the neck as a treatment for colic, epilepsy, and “nephritic pains.” (One kind of jade, in fact, is called nephrite, from the Greek for “kidney.”) The green stones of Amazonia are often carved into frogs. While their origin is still unknown, these amulets, which are called muiraquitiis, have so far been found mainly in the Nhamunda- Trombetas- Tapaj6s region. (The Trombetas is the next large left-bank tributary of the Amazon below the Nhamunda.) Today, muiraquitiis can be seen in museums and in private collections, although it is sometimes hard to see the ones in private collections, because of a superstition that showing them brings bad luck. They are probably the most highly prized archeological objects in Brazil, and are an important element of the story about the women without husbands that is told in Amazonia today. The story has many versions but is basically this: The women live on a sacred body of water called the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon. Once a year, at a certain phase of the moon, men from a neighboring tribe travel to the lake by canoe. When the visit is over, the women present their lovers with the male offspring born of the previous year’s visit, and with muiraquitiis, which they have obtained-by diving into the lake-from an aquatic spirit called the Mother of the Muiraquitas. The stones bring the men good luck in hunting.
THE myths about tribes of women are very ancient. In classical Greek mythology, the Amazons were formidable warriors. “Battle with them is considered a severe test of the hero’s valour and. ..as warriors they are ranked with the monstrous chimaera, the fierce Solymi, and picked men of Lycia,” the classicist Florence Mary Bennett writes in a 1912 monograph called “Religious Cults Associated with the Amazons.” The ninth labor of Hercules was to capture the girdle of their queen, Hippolyta. The Amazons were linked to primitive fertility and war rites that involved orgies and the sacrifice of male victims. They may have been votaries or priestesses of the moon goddess, and they may have possessed the powers of enchantment attributed to the moon. They may have worshipped the mother goddess Rhea. They were superb horse women and are credited with being the first warriors to ride horses. They were considered beautiful, as surviving statues of them attest. They lived at the edges of the known world: in Scythia near the Black Sea, and in Liby~. A population of Amazons at the  foot of the Caucasus Mountains was visited once a year by men from a neighboring people. Robert Graves, in his compendium of the Greek myths, wrote, “On an appointed day every spring, parties of young Amazons and young Gargarensians meet at the summit of the mountain which separates their territories and, after performing a joint sacrifice, spend two months together, enjoying promiscuous intercourse under the cover of night. As soon as an Amazon finds herself pregnant, she returns home. Whatever girl-children are born become Amazons, and the boys are sent to the Gargarensians who, because they have no means of ascertaining their paternity, distribute them by lot among their huts.” The Amazons met their defeat when they attacked Athens, whose king, Theseus, had abducted and married Antiope, their queen. A festival, known as the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries, was held every year to commemorate Theseus’ victory and his destruction of the matriarchal system.
The medieval romances about the Amazons, from which the conquistadores’ idea of them was derived, focussed primarily on their warlike and “voluptuous” aspects. Always in the next valley, always just beyond reach, the Amazons became a symbol of ,the conquest. The hope of finding them, vanquishing them, and taking them to bed was one of the fantasies that drove the conquistadores on. “The Amazon is a dream that men created. ..to flatter themselves,” the feminist Abby Wettan Kleinbaum argues in her recent book “The War Against the Amazons.” “The conquest of an Amazon is an act of transcendence, a rejection of the ordinary, of death, of mediocrity-and a reach for immortality. …Men told of battling Amazons to enhance their sense of their own worth and historical significance.”
Like their Greek counterparts, the women without husbands of Amazonia were thought to live at the edge of the known world, in faraway mountains at. the headwaters of cataractfilled rivers. They got together with men from neighboring tribes. They were associated with the moon and with water. They were seductively beautiful but, unlike the Greek Amazons, were not warriors (except for the women who allegedly attacked the Orellana expedition), nor did they remove their right breasts to enhance their skill as archers. These variations, where they occur, are almost certainly European injections. At least two Amazon-women motifs seem to be native to the Amazon Basin, however. According to a myth that occurs sporadically among some Amazonian tribes, like the U aupes and the Mundurucu, which possess flutes they believe to be sacred, the women of the tribe once had control of the flutes. They sat around playing the flutes, and it was the men who had to carry the firewood and fetch the water, cook, and submit to sexual demands. This period of female supremacy ended, however, when the men tricked the women into surrendering the flutes. Today, in some tribes of the Upper Xingu region, in southern Amazonia, women who even look at the flutes are gang-raped. In another myth, quite widespread in the basin, women lived with men but also had animal loverscaimans, tapirs, or perhaps porpoises. The men found out and killed the animals, and the bereaved women left the men and went off to live by themselves in the forest, where they practiced male infanticide. In some versions, they killed the men before leaving.
Many societies have a story about a time when women were dominant. Then something happened, the matriarchy was overthrown, and the women were repressed. Early anthropologists tended to accept the stories about an original matriarchy as historical fact. The nineteenth-century Swiss philosopher Johann Jakob Bachofen wove an entire theory of cultural evolution around it. He hypothesized that the first human societies were promiscuous hordes that evolved into matriarchies, but after the women introduced the institution of marriage as a “mother right” the men became concerned about the paternity of their children and took over the descent system and, eventually, everything else. Few modern scholars take the stories about an original matriarchy literally-no selfperpetuating matriarchy or exclusively female community has ever been authenticated-but there is still disagreement about what the stories mean. Female scholars’ interpretations tend to differ from those of male scholars; for example, Anna Roosevelt, an archeologist who digs in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, sees the myth as “a rationalization of malesupremacist society,” while Robert Murphy, the ethnologist of the Mundurucu, taking a more Freudian view, says, “It is a parable, a statement in mythic form about the current relations between men and women. Men issue forth from women and for several years are dependent on their milk.” He adds, “To become a man, a man must overcome his dependency on his mother.”
Perhaps there is a more straightforward interpretation. Myths are attempts to explain how things got to be the way they are, and one way to do this-a common and effective storytelling device-is to say that things were not always so, that once, in fact, the opposite was the case. What this myth seems to explain is a basic truth that exists today not only in Amazonia but in every known society: that men are politically and economically dominant.
IF, as all the evidence suggests, the Amazons, or women without husbands, never existed except in the various guises of a universal myth, a few questions remain: Why do so many of the stories about them in Amazonia say that the women live on the Nhamunda? What could be up there? Could the stories have an undiscovered basis of truth? My curiosity about the myth and the river was originally piqued by a book called “The Lure of the Amazon,” published in English in 1959 by an Amazonian explorer named Eduardo Barros Prado, who claimed to have landed in a pontoon plane on the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon, “at the foot of some hills, lying parallel to the course of the Nhamunda.” The women there handed him a “fiery” love potion, and he spent several days with them, studying their habits and resisting their advances. A close look at Prado’s geographical and ethnographic information revealed that his account belonged to the blarney tradition started by O’Brien-that it was nothing more than a pastiche of stories that had been circulating about the Amazons since Carvajal, with convincing details about the daily routine of Indian women throughout the Amazon region thrown in. What also emerged from the close look, however, was that there existed almost no information of any kind on the Nhamunda, although a populous and rather advanced culture seems to have been occupying its lower reaches when the first Europeans blundered into the region. That a river longer than the Hudson should still be wild and unexplored seemed astonishing. (Actually, I have since learned, dozens of rivers in the Amazon system remain in this category.) Maybe the women without husbands were no more “real” than the bearded gnomes in “Rip Van Winkle,” whose ninepins games were responsible for thunder in the lower Hudson Valley, but there was only one way to find out.
One afternoon in the spring of 1984, not long after I had decided to go up the Nhamunda, a good friend of mine, the Belgian ethnomusicologist Benoit Quersin, looked me up in New York. He was between planes, on the way from a daughter’s wedding in Phoenix to Kinshasa, Zaire, where he heads the oral-traditions section of that country’s Institut des Musees Nationaux. We had met two years earlier in Zaire, while I was doing some ethnological research. A slender, deeply tanned man with short gray-blond hair (he was now fifty-six), a large Gallic nose, and half-framed glasses hanging from a chain around his neck, he was cultivated but cool; fifteen years earlier, he had been touring Africa with a jazz band (he plays bass and once backed up Lena Horne) when an anthropologist introduced him to tribal music and persuaded him that it should be recorded. UNICEF came through with funding for an anthology of Zairian tribal music, and he was now nearing the end of the project: he had got to and recorded most of the country’s tribes. I told him that I was going to the Amazon in the summer to chase a legend up a river called the Nhamunda. Then it occurred to me how nice it would be to have Quersin along; with his understanding of rain forests and their people, he would be the perfect companion. He wouldn’t be put out by the inevitable foul-ups and delays, and his African perspective would be stimulating. I asked him if he would like to join me, and, to my delight, he said that he had always wanted to see the Amazon and had been waiting for an opportunity,
and sure, he’d love to. We both had about a month to spend. I suggested that he take care of the audiovisual end of the expedition-the tape-recording and picture-taking. This would be my fourth trip to the Amazon, so it made sense for me to handle the negotiating and get us from place to place. He was only too happy not to have to worry about logistics for the first time in years.
On June 30th, Quersin flew west from Africa, I flew south from New York, and we met in Rio de Janeiro. Quersin picked up Portuguese with amazing rapidity, improvising, when necessary, with an entertaining repertoire of sound effects and gestures he had perfected in the field for communicating with people he couldn’t converse with. We went to a money changer in the Centro and exchanged two thousand dollars for four bricks of crisp, mint five-thousand-cruzeiro notes-three million four hundred thousand cruzeiros in all. In the Museu Nacional, we saw some fine green jade muiraquitas, carved into frogs and other creatures; one seemed to represent a cicada. The pieces had been acquired long ago, and the only information about them was that they were from the Trombetas Valley. We flew to Brasilia and spoke with anthropologists at FUNAr, the National Indian Foundation, about the tribes of lower-middle Amazonia-the Mundurucu, the Satere-Maue, the Hixkaryana, the W ai- Wai, and the Tiri6. The anthropologists told us that, as far as they knew, none of these tribes had green amulets or a myth about Amazon women, or had ever had either. They said that the Hixkaryana, who live on the Upper Nhamunda, above the rapids, had been thoroughly worked over by missionaries and had forgotten many of their legends. In the anthropologists’ opinion, chartering a bush plane to visit them wouldn’t be worth the effort and expense. The Satere-Maue Indians, who live up the Andira River, across the Amazon from the mouth of the Nhamunda, were the most traditional Indians in the vicinity, and were accessible by boat; if anybody knew anything, they would. We were given permission to visit the tribe for a month (Brazil’s tribal Indians, who number roughly two hundred thousand, are legally wards of the state, and permission to visit them must be obtained from FUNAr), to ask them about the women and the stones.
From Brasilia, we flew to Manaus, twelve hundred miles northwest, and from there took a plane east to Santarem, the largest city between Manaus and Belem, at the mouth of the Tapajos River. We were now a hundred and fifty miles downriver from the Nhamunda. In Santarem, we discovered that a duffelbag containing ninety per cent of our gear, which we had checked through at Brasilia, hadn’t been put on the second plane. The dispatcher assured us that the bag would come tomorrow, on the next plane from Manaus-or, if not tomorrow, maybe the day after. We did our best to impress on the dispatcher how badly we needed it, then took a taxi into the city, with the driver blaming the potholes on the mayor-as Brazilian taxi-drivers always do.
Santarem, with a population of around two hundred thousand, had become a lot more modern since my last visit, seven years earlier. A luxurious tourist compound, the Hotel Tropical, had sprung up outside the city, but instead of going there we checked into a cozy two-story wooden affair, with slowly turning overhead fans, called the Camino Hotel, overlooking the market and, beyond, the Tapaj6s, which just above its confluence with the Amazon seems as vast as an ocean. By seven the next morning, a Sunday, the square below us was seething with life. Stalls brimmed with fruit; a Baptist with an accordion was singing hymns into a microphone. We bought machetes and cotton hammocks, which are probably the two most useful pieces of gear for travelling in the Amazon. Quersin didn’t see why he needed a hammock-he never used one in Africa-but by the end of the trip he would be raving about its virtues. A hammock is like a portable cocoon-it can be set up and settled into anywhere. It can serve as a chair, a bed, and a burial shroud.
I wanted to revisit a village called Alter do Chao, an hour or so up the Tapajos, where I had spent a memorable afternoon in 1977, swimming and drinking cashew liqueur. The village had consisted of a square with a church and a few dirt streets lined with thatch huts. The river, a couple of miles wide, had been warm and clear blue, with banks of clean white sand. Below the village, a large, limpid green lagoon had sat at the foot of a lone hill clothed with grass and small, contorted trees. The spot had been sacred to the Tapajo Indians: they had told La Condamine that most of their green stones came from the lagoon at Alter do Chao.
We caught a bus and pulled into Alter do Chao at about one in the afternoon. It was unrecognizable. It had been “discovered” and developed into a weekend resort for people from Santarem. Thatch huts were interspersed with stucco villas along many new streets, and thousands of young people-among them the copperskinned, high-cheekboned, rather small descendants of the Tapajo-were on the beaches. (The next generation, Quersin predicted, would be inches taller.) Coca-Cola, water skis, speedboats, jeeps with roll bars-all the standard American consumer items associated with summer fun-were in evidence. It was the year of Michael Jackson. He was the new myth, the new universal culture hero. Children were break-dancing and moon-walking on the beach to tapes of his music. We met no one who knew the old legends of the place; the only bit of information we picked up was that somebody there was supposed to have a boat called the Muiraquita. A regional salesman of bluejeans told us that the market around Santarem was “fantastic.” Settlement of the fringes of the Transamazon Highway during the seventies, followed by a gold rush in 1980, had brought progress to the south side of the Amazon almost overnight, and nobody seemed to be looking back.
When we returned to Santarem in the eyening, we found that we were in luck: our duffelbag had arrived, and there was still time to catch the boat across ~nd up the Amazon to the city of Obidos; we hadn’t been delayed after all. The boat had two open decks with railings and was called the Vitoria Regia III, after the gigantic Amazonian water lily. We hung our hammocks among those of dozens of other passengers, and soon we were chugging through the warm, insect-filled darkness. At about three in the morning, we reached Obidos.

Not many travellers came to the north side of this stretch of the Amazon-the modernity that was making over the Santarem area was still perhaps fifteen years off-and the only lodgings in Obidos were private homes that took in guests; staying in one was like becoming a member of the family. Our homey little pension was called the Hotel Braz Bello. The ten-yearold daughter of the house made up our beds and served us some breakfast. Later in the morning, we walked around the city. It had originally been a fort, built by the Portuguese, in 1697, on a strategic bluff overlooking the “throat” of the Amazon-a spot where the river is little more than a mile wide. As we were walking in a muddy lane by the harbor, thousands of Brazil-nut shells suddenly slid out of a second-story chute to our right and landed in a heap on the ground. We went up some rickety stairs and looked into the room from which they had been discharged. It was like a nineteenth-century sweatshop. Four rows of women were sitting at leveroperated nutcrackers, cracking open the nuts one by one. Nobody was talking, which was unusual for a group of Brazilians. These were second-quality Brazil nuts, the foreman told us, destined for Belem, where they would be used in making soap. The women were paid about fifteen cents a kilo, and they put in a six-day week. On Saturday evening, the average sheller took home twenty-five thousand cruzeiros, or about fifteen dollars.
American rock hits were gushing from municip~l loudspeakers at most corners, but Obidos, with a population of roughly forty thousand, was still basically a traditional Amazon town. Its general layout was similar to that of the next four towns we would visit (and to what Santarem’s had been until recently), although, as we discovered, the personalities of these communities were quite different. In each place, the commerce was on the water, and the houses went up a hill behindthe stucco houses of the well-to-do, with red tile roofs, giving way to tinroofed shacks and finally to thatch huts. The population was young and mostly female, many of the men having g°!1e elsewhere in search of work.
In Obidos, we called at the parish house of some Franciscan monks, who also have a mission in a Tirio Indian village near Suriname. A young Tirio man we met in the courtyard told us in broken Portuguese that the Tirio didn’t have an Amazon-women legend, but a mulata schoolteacher we interviewed in the library said she had heard that “near the Tirio” there was a tribe of tall, fair, blond, blue-eyed Indians who were “the remnants of the Amazons.” She had recently assigned her students to ask around the community for stories about the women. A fisherman interviewed by a seventeen-year-old girl in the class had said that once when he was fishing along !1 creek several leagues upriver from Obidos he had felt the tail of a horse graze his cheek from behind. He had fallen to the ground and hidden his face, because he knew it was the Amazons, and he didn’t want to look and be enchanted. “To us, the Amazons are horsewomen, female cavaleiros ,” the schoolteacher explained.
Quersin and I talked with one of the monks, Brother Angelico, who was seventy-three and had a flowing white beard. He told us that he had lived for twenty years with the Tirio and had never heard about this fairskinned tribe but that the Tirio esteemed fair skin. “Their chief, Yunure, says he is white, but he is Indian,” Brother Angelico said. “The darkest of his four wives told me when she was expecting her first child that if the baby came out dark she would kill it.” Among the Tirio, he went on, there was a group of Kaxuiana Indians, who had originally lived on a tributary of the middle Trombetas called the Rio Cachorrinho (“little dog” in Portuguese, and perhaps an attempt to approximate the tribe’s name). They had been befriended by a missionary named Protasio Frikel. Brother Angelico showed us a paper that Frikel had written on the Kaxuiana, which explained that they left the Rio Cachorrinho because they were dying of diseases caught from neighboring Brazil-nut gatherers and descendants of fugitive slaves. By 1968, only seventy-one were left, of whom many were suffering from tuberculosis and venereal disease. There weren’t enough marriage possibilities in the new generation, so sixty-four of them had gone to live with the Tiri6. The seven others, I read with interest, went up the Nhamunda. I wondered if they were still there.
After we left the parish house, we met a woman who said that not far above the mouth of the Nhamunda there was a lake called the Mirror of the Moon. She hadn’t been there, but she understood that that was where the muiraquitas came from and where the Amazons had lived. The women removed the right breast, she said. They would come down to the Amazon, visit men from the tribes there, and go back pregnant. The male children would be sacrificed and thrown into the lake or would be turned over to the men.
“Good news,” I told Quersin. “It looks as though the actual lake where the women are supposed to have lived exists.”
OUR next destination was a place called the Costa do Paru, on the southern shore of a large island in the Amazon, eighteen miles above the mouth of the Trombetas. (The Trombetas comes in about ten miles below
Obidos.) In the early eighteen-seven ties, the Brazilian botanist, explorer, antiquarian, and Indian pacifier Joao Barbosa Rodrigues, who looked deeply into the Legends of the Amazon women, visited the Costa do Paru, and found there a jade muiraquita and “an infinity” of pottery fragments. He concluded that he had found the village of the tribe that attacked Orellana and his men, and he argued that these “inappropriately named Amazons” must have been the ancestors of the Uaupes Indians, whom he had visited on the Rio Negro several years earlier, because the U aupes still made muiraquitas, of cylindrical quartz, and had told him that they originally lived on the Amazon itself, along a lake inhabited by the Mother of the Waters. One day, they said, the Mother of the Waters took the form of an animal and was accidentally killed by an Indian hunter, causing a “revolution of the waters,” which forced the U aupes to move. Barbosa Rodrigues eventually came to believe that there had been a devastating flood in the Amazon not long after 1580, and this fitted neatly into his theory, explaining to his satis~ faction “what to this day was unexplained”-the disappearance of the Amazons.
On our second morning in Obidos, we went down to the harbor and asked the men lounging around gaily painted boats if any of them were interested in going to the Costa do Paru. By noon, we had found a boat to take us there. It was a very sturdily built cattle boat made of itauba, or stonewood, and, with a capacity for maybe a dozen head of cattle, was a good deal larger than what we needed,~but nothing else had been available in Obidos. The boat was a typical Amazonian motor, as this type of craft is called: flat-roofed, open-sided in front, a temperamental African Queen-like rig in continuous need of love and understanding from its crew of two-the motorista, who sat at the wheel, in the bow, and the mech’nico, who tended the thirty-horsepower diesel engine, enduring the din with the help of cachat;a, the raw white Brazilian rum.
Although the river was receding from its high-water mark, of a month earlier, it was still up, and much of the varzea, or floodplain, was still under water. At this time of year, the only way the people who lived in the varzea could get around was by canoe. Most of them raised cattle, and we could see that their main business now was to paddle around and gather grass to take to the marombas, the elevated corrals, built on pilings, where the animals were penned. After several hours, we reached the little settlement of N ucleo Sagrado Cora       We spent a pleasant hour on Antonio’s porch but learned nothing that either supported or sank Barbosa Rodrigues’s theory; whatever evidence there may have been either was under water now or had washed away in the century since his visit. If the Amazons had lived here, it was news to Antonio and his family. This was pretty clearly a blind alley. We got on the boat and chugged back to the mouth of the Trombetas, and there we were caught in a fantastic storm, with gale-force winds and high waves that forced us to tie up to a tree for an hour. Then we went up the Trombetas about twenty miles, and were dropped off at the city of Oriximina in time for a late supper.
The municipality that includes Oriximina (also called Oriximina) containssixty-eight thousand square miles of mostly unexplored wilderness that extends up to Suriname and the Guyanas. It is the fourth-largest municipality in Brazil. About fifty miles upriver from the city, one of the world’s largest deposits of bauxite is being mined by the government and an international consortium. Oceangoing freighters have become a common if startling sight on the Tromhetas. Above its rapids the modern world stops. About a thousand W ai-Wai Indians live on one of its tributaries, the Mapuera, and other W ai-W ai live on the north-flowing Essequibo, over the Guyana border. At the Oriximina headquarters of some Catholic missionaries working with the Wai-Wai, we met a member of the tribe, a twenty-year-old named Rocinaldo, who spoke a little Portuguese. Eager to be of help, he kept saying yes to my questions until he finally understood them, and then he said that the WaiWai don’t have an Amazon-women legend or muiraquitas but that women of the tribe wear yellow necklaces called eletanos, which bring luck.
The town had a tiny branch of the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, and there we met a young dental interne from Rio who had been studying the local superstitions in his spare time. Fear of the bb’to, the freshwater dolphin of Amazonia, was very strong, he told us (as it is throughout the animal’s range in the valley), among both caboclos and Indians. (C aboclos are the mestiifo peasants and backwoods people of Amazonia.) The bb’to is believed to be a kind of merman, who comes ashore and seduces women or penetrates them in the water. In Oriximina, this belief was used to explain awkward pregnancies. It was so generally accepted that women registering the birth of a child sometimes gave the bb’to as the father. A woman who had slept with a bb’to, it was believed, never slept with a man again. There was a stall in the market where dolphin perfume and amulets made from dolphins’ genitals were sold to men who. weren’t having success with the opposite sex. A female counterpart of the bb’to was the matitapere, the striped cuckoo; at night it became a woman, who dressed in black and seduced men, and sometimes provided a convenient explanation for venereal disease.
On the right bank of the Trombetas is a big lake, the Lago de Sapucua, whose shores were thickly populated in late prehistoric times. Several frog muiraquitas and many potsherds have been found there. We called on the mayor of Oriximina, Raimundo Oliveira, and told him of our interest in visiting the lake. He told us that his people were from there, and promised to arrange a boat and a guide for us. There was a bizarre, ancient-looking ceramic object on Mayor Oliveira’s desk, which he said was from the Lago de Sapucua. It had four protuberances, each with a round hole at the end, that were suggestive-to me, at least-of bulging frog eyes. It seemed to represent something that lived in the water–or perhaps the general concept of things that live in the water, rather than a specific organism. Noticing that I was fascinated by it, he gave it to me. All told, I collected twenty-one such pieces, mostly animal figurines, from local people, who attached no value to them (and, in fact, though they are pre-Columbian and wonderfully imaginative, they have almost no monetary value, because no market has been established for them) and simply gave them to me as a gesture of friendship, as I handed out postcards. They called them caretas (contorted faces); archeologists refer to them as adb’rnos. I wrapped them in tissue and packed them carefully in a rusty kerosene can. After my trip, I showed them to Anna Roosevelt, and she dated all but perhaps one from somewhere between 500 and 1500 A.D.
THE Lago de Sapucua is the largest expanse of open water in the soggy maze of lakes, islands, and interconnecting channels between the Trombetas and the Nhamunda, and one of the largest lakes in the state of Para. Mayor Oliveira told us that the name Sapucua comes from sapo (Portuguese for “frog”) and qua (the sound of a frog croaking). The boat that was waiting for us at six the next morning was a lot smaller than the cattle boat. Its crew consisted of two withdrawn young brothers, Orlando and Francisco, with whom conversation during the next two days was minimal; our guide was an old fisherman. named Antonio Gado. Our plan was to tour the terras pretas do indio -the ancient dwelling sites along the lake, capped with a foot or so of rich, black soil, which are now inhabited by scattered families of caboclos but until about the sixteenth century had been the sites of substantial settlements of the Uaboi or Conduri ,Indians, about whom very little is known. Similar black-earth districts, the former dwelling places of the Tapaj6 people, are found along the right bank of the Amazon. Bits of pottery, particularly caretas, usually litter the black-earth sites. There is even a ditty in the Trombetas-Nhamunda area to the effect that wherever there are terras pretas you will find caretas. The blackness of the earth is a result of human occupation, of cinders from centuries of fires binding to the soil particles.
At the entrance to the lake, we saw silhouetted against the sky, on the highest branch of a dead tree, a pair of vigilant orange-billed toucans; and for a moment we were caught in a blizzard of monstrous green dragonflies. Then we went on to the first terra preta, a settlement called Uaimy, of about thirty inhabitants, most of them named Sousa. The air smelled of wood smoke mixed with the fragrant black resin of the breu tree, which a man was heating up to caulk his canoe with. The history here was as obscure as it had been at the Costa do Paru. Nobody remembered a jade frog muiraquita that a woman at Uaimy named Catita Arara had sold in the twenties to the great Amazonian anthropologist Curt Nimuendaju. I had read about the transaction in a fiftyyear-old paper on the frog motif among South American Indians. One old woman, though, remembered Catita Arara, who was long gone; she was amazed when I produced the name. She told us that, according to her mother, the Indians who had lived here stole children. r asked her about the boto. “A woman who has been with the boto slowly grows pale and dies, unless she is treated by a spiritist with the help of certain leaves,” she said. “The boto can do the same thing to a man. He can come to you in your dreams.” A woman who lived nearby had had a baby who was “spotted like a cali” and was considered to be a child of the boto; the dolphin, it seemed, was also used to explain illness and birth defects. The matitapere, the old woman said, came during the floods, “whistling a seductive tune,”but nobody at Uaimy had actually seen her. The old woman gave me a careta, which Anna Roosevelt later tentatively identified as the head of a king vulture.

On the north shore of the lake, there was a hill that was of particular interest, because it is called the Serra de Cunuri-a variant of the name that keeps cropping up in connection with the Amazon women. Conori was the queen in Carvajal’s account, and Cunuris was both the first recorded name of the Nhamunda and the name of a tribe that lived up the river in the seventeenth century. In this century, Nimuendaju classified as Conduri not only the prehistoric inhabitants of the Trombetas and Nhamunda Valleys but also contemporaries who lived south of the Amazon and west of Santarem and made the same sort of stippled, amusingly grotesque caretas.
The meaning of the name variously written as Conori, Cunuris, and Conduri can only be guessed at, because the language of theConduri was never recorded, but the sounds are suggestive. A cunha is an Indian or halibreed girl. Cuna muchu is Inca for “great lady.” The cunauaru is an Amazonian tree frog-which is interesting in light of the connection between the Amazons and frog amulets. The croaking of this frog, which figures in many Indian myths, is supposed to sound like cunha cunha.
The Serra de Cunuri rose a little over three hundred feet. We asked a local caboclo to take us to the top. He led us through scrubby pasture, shooing away emaciated zebu cattle, which kicked up black dust as they trotted off. The terra preta here was extensive-this must have been one of their main centers. It went back more than a mile from the lakeshore
and stopped just below the summit of the serra, where it gave way to red upland soil. Here the going got rough. The final rise became steep, and was covered with near-impenetrable grass that towered over our heads. After fifty feet of flailing with machetes in the searing midday heat, we decided to take the caboclo’s word for it that there was nothing up there. In any case, nothing was going to be learned here without digging, and that required time, training in modern stratigraphic archeology, and permits, none of which we had. No Conduri site has been systematically dug. The best study of Conduri pottery, which was published in 1955, was based only on surface finds, like the caretas we had been given. So no one knows what heights the Conduri may have reached in the centuries before the Europeans arrived.
We picked up another boto story from an old man who had planted a grove of rubber trees in his terra preta, farther along the lakeshore. “Once, I was turning a tracajii”-a large river turtle-“on the beach,” he told us as we sat in his outdoor kitchen. “I looked up and saw a man heading into the swamp nearby. My dogs went after him and dragged him down into the water, and he turned into a boto and swam away.” The eyes and mouths of his grandchildren, who had crowded around the table, were wide open. “When the boto turns into a man, the first thing he does is stun the woman, so she can’t move,” he continued. “Then he does what he wants. When the woman revives, she turns yellow. He takes her blood, the boto does. If you don’t kill him while he’s on land, as a man, the woman dies. His children are born crazy, writhing, screaming, with a hole on top of the head just like his blowhole.”
At dusk, we pulled up to the dock of a friend of Antonio Gado’s named J oao Bente, and asked if we could spend the night. Bente’s hut was out on a point at the mouth of a creek. It was idyllic, like the lone-hut-in-the jungle Amazon scenes that are standard decor in bars and restaurants all over Brazil. As we got out of the boat, the mosquitoes launched a concerted attack, and for several minutes we felt as if we were on fire. Bente had been drinking and was at first belligerent,
but, at the urging of his wife, he gradually became more than hospitable. We ended up sleeping, at his insistence, in their bedroom, while they hung their hammocks in the hall.
In the morning, we made our way over to a smaller lake to the southwest, the Lago de Pirarucua, crossed it, and entered a black-water channel that wasn’t much wider than the boat and went on for maybe ten miles. It was lined with floodedjauari palms, whose segmented trunks bristled with black needles. In several places, a palm had fallen in the way, and we had to stop until Orlando could hack out a passage. Sometimes grass got caught in the propeller, and Francisco had to dive under the boat and take it off. The brothers’ teamwork-with Orlando yanking the bell cord and Francisco accelerating, reversing, or cutting the engine in response-was smooth and tight. At one point, the channel opened into a pool, and we watched an osprey swoop down, snatch a large fish from the water, and flyaway with it in its claws. Shortly before noon, we reached the town of Terra Santa, on a beautiful blackwater lake.
There had been an outbreak of yellow fever a few months earlier in one of Terra Santa’s outlying communities. Six of thirteen confirmed cases had been fatal, and a rash of psychosomatic cases-people with colds thinking they had come down with it-had followed. The Brazilian health agency, SUCAM, had vaccinated the population and sprayed houses to kill the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which transmit the virus. Several years earlier, SUCAM had stopped spraying, because yellow
fever, which had taken thousands of lives in the Amazon in the last century, was thought to have been eradicated; but this year the virus had reappeared in several remote communities, here and across the Amazon. A specialist had come from France to investigate the outbreak in Terra Santa. He had stayed at the Loureiros’ house, the only lodging in town, and had been the last foreign visitor before us, we were told by a short, dark woman in her mid-thirties named J oselia Loureiro, who showed us to a room where we could hang our hammocks.
When we told Joselia that we wanted to go up the Nhamunda, she said it would be hard to find a boat and provisions in Faro or Nhamundatowns twenty miles to the west, above the point where the Nhamunda begins to break up into the many channels of its delta. We were hoping to get at least as far as the first rapids-about two hundred miles. Joselia introduced us to a man named Emir D’ Antona, the son of Terra Santa’s pharmacist, who had spent a month the year before exploring the Nhamunda and its tributaries for gold and diamonds. He had taken an outboard instead of a motor, and he said that with three hundred litres of gas we could get to the first rapids and back, no problem. An outboard, he went on, had advantages: you could make side trips up creeks and into oxbow lakes, and you went twice as fast.
Joselia arranged for us to rent the municipal outboard of Terra Santa, which was aluminum, seated six, and had “ADMINISTRACAO DO TEODORO LOBATO” stencilled on the side. Her younger brother Joao, a currently un
employed gold prospector, was interested in going along. “Fantastico,” I said. But Joao had never been up the Nhamunda, so we would have to find somebody in Faro or Nhamunda who knew the river. D’Antona recommended his guide, a man in Faro named Preginho.
While Joao saw to the gas, Joselia took us to a friend who sold provisions, and he fixed us up with eight kilos of rice, four kilos of ground and roasted manioc farinha, two kilos of salt, six kilos of sugar, three hundred oranges, a dozen limes, six bottles of cachaqa, two cans of cooking oil, ten cans of meat-and-bean feijoada, three hundred grams of seasoning, a dozen tins of sardines, two packets of coffee, six packets of tobacco, some thick monofilament fishing line, a dozen large fishhooks, and two wide-brimmed straw hats. Another man lent us a map of the Nhamunda that he had drawn himself. It was much more detailed than our map, which was based on high-altitude infrared photographs. It named the major bends and creeks along the first hundred miles or so; then it became increasingly sketchy.
After we had got our supplies, D’ Antona invited us to a bar. He was thirty and had gone to high school in Belem, then travelled all over Brazil. About a year before, his mother had fallen ill, and he had returned to Terra Santa to take care of her. Sixteen weeks ago, he had started a weekly newspaper called Solidariedade, which the local padre let him run off on his mimeograph machine. Its circulation was up to two hundred and fifteen. “The population of Terra Santa is about seventy-five hundred, not counting hundreds of street dogs they just shot thirty dogs yesterday,” he told us. “We have five dancing clubs, and a hundred and twenty-five festas during the year-generally three a week. In January, there is the feast of St. Sebastian for two weeks, and then, sometimes in February and sometimes in March, pre-Carnaval and Carnaval. May is the month of flowers. June has the June festival. July is the feast of St. Isabel, the patron saint of Terra Santa. Each outlying community and creek mouth has its saint. There are two cars, four horse carts, four boatbuilders, two soccer fields, one grandstand, six football teams, one youth club, one mothers’ club, and about twenty people you can carryon a conversation with in Terra Santa. People with better incomes send their children to Belem, Manaus, or Parintins”-the nearest big city, out the delta and across the Amazon, about four hours away by boat-“for high school, and they usually don’t come back, so there isn’t much influx of new ideas. Everybody is a known entity. Because the television reception is unpredictable-and there are only two sets in town, anyway-the main entertainment for grownups is gossip, and for children it’s a soccer ball and a fishing line. Sex starts at twelve.”
The year before, D’ Antona told us, the state telecommunications franchise had installed a telephone in Terra Santa, and it was now possible to call anywhere in Brazil-or, for that matter, the world. When Quersin heard this, he went to see if he could reach his wife, who lives in a village in Vaucluse, in France. It was her birthday. (He came back about an hour later, beaming: he had got through.)
D’ Antona told me that he had been to the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon. It was under a mountain on the right bank, not far above Faro. “It isn’t very big, just a few hundred yards across,” he said. “The day I saw it, there was no breeze, and the water was dead calm, full of leaves, and pretty dirty. As I understand it, it was called the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon because the Indians used to make up their faces in it before ceremonies.”
THE town of Faro started as a mission for the Uaboi Indians.  In 1758, it was secularized and became a town, and in 1798 its authorities began to make frequent use of a pillory; as a result, three years later the U aboi bolted en masse into the forest. They haven’t been heard of since 1840. There is good linguistic evidence that they regressed to hunting and gathering and became the Hixkaryana.
The Faro that Barbosa Rodrigues found in 1878 was so depressed and demoralized that he was moved to compare it with the “campus ubi Tt:oya fuit.” He had come up the river in a long dugout manned by ten tapuios, or detribalized Indians, and from a distance Faro presented “a most agreeable aspect;” its setting, with a view across miles of water to hilly forest on the other side, was spectacular. But when he got there and walked the town’s three parallel streets he found that twenty-one of a total of seventy-five houses he counted (all but twelve of which were crudely made thatch huts) were in ruins and many of the others abandoned. The walls of the church were crumbling, and the municipal chambers were in such a precarious state that the local administrators had been holding their meetings in some one’s house. There were only five commercial establishments. The inhabitants-about a hundred in the town and about thirtythree hundred scattered over the municipality-were apathetic; they lived by fishing and raising cattle, and weren’t interested in growing anything.
Barbosa Rodrigues was unable to find anybody on the Lower Nhamunda who remembered the women without husbands, or even recognized the term for them in lingua geral-icamiabas -and he succeeded in picking up only a few stories about them.  One he heard from a ninetyyear-old Indian woman in Faro, who told him that the women without husbands got their muiraquitas, which they gave to the men who fathered their children, from the Lago Yacyuarua, the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon; the muiraquitas were originally alive, she said, swimming around in the form of various animals. When a woman saw a muiraquita that she wanted, she would cut herself and let her blood drip into the water over the creature; that would stun it, and as she brought it up into the air it would turn to stone.
In the century since Rodrigues’s visit, Faro has fared little better. At one point, the urban population seems to have dropped to twelve. During the thirties, a family of Germans from Sao Paulo named Rossy came up to Faro and began to harvest the trees of the Nhamunda Valley-especially paurosa, a tree in the laurel family whose essential oil is a valuable raw material for some perfumes. The Rossys employed many people at their sawmill, and the town became dependent on them. But by 1970 the pau-rosa was gone, and Mario Rossy, one of the sons, moved the sawmill across the Amazon to Parintins, whereupon Faro went into decline again. In the early seventies, a comprehensive survey of the Amazon Valley by a government commission described Faro as “a stagnant town making a comeback.”
The following morning, Joao, Quersin, and I set out for Faro in the municipal outboard. A series of grasschoked channels led from the labyrinthine delta of the Nhamunda into the river’s lower section, which seemed like a vast lake and is, in fact, known as the Lago de Faro. Like most of the Lower Amazon’s tributaries, the Nhamunda is a “drowned river” for some distance from its mouth. At the end of the last Ice Age, around ten thousand years ago, sea level rose some three hundred feet, and the Nhamunda’s waters backed up and flooded its valley.
On our way up the Lago de Faro, we saw two canoes under sail. The sails were square and red. One man paddled at the bow of each canoe while another, at the stern, held his paddle as a rudder. The Lago de Faro is one of the few places in the Amazon where these craft, which are known as igarites, haven’t been displaced by boats with engines. Continuous strong breezes and poverty have delayed their disappearance here. On the left bank, beyond the canoes, was Faro, as austere in its monumental surroundings as an Alpine village.
Knowing that the mayor of Far!;) was away, Joselia had written a letter to the vice-mayor, Roduval Machado, identifying us as researchers and asking him to put us up on the second floor of the municipal building, since there were no lodgings in the town. Machado, a languid young man with a pencil mustache, turned out to be one of half a dozen citizens standing on the dock when we arrived. The floor of the room to which he took us was littered with bat droppings that had fallen through a large hole in the ceiling. “We don’t get many foreigners,” Machado told us as the custodian swept them up. “Six years ago, I think, two Germans came looking for a tree that flowers blue in October.”
When Machado learned what we were after, he said, “I am in doubt about the Amazons.” As he under stood it, the women had made up their faces in the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon, and, according to an account he had read by a Frenchman who claimed to have been captured by them and held as their sexual slave (earlier in this century, as he recalled), they had gone in for headshrinking. “Old man Rossy had a plantation on top of the mountain overlooking the lake, and he drained the lake to see if there were any muiraquitas in it,” he went on. “I don’t know if he found any. There is supposed to have been a smaller lake on top of the mountain, but I walked across the mountain one time and didn’t find a thing. There is also a story about a spring there that gushes out of a stone and never dries up and has brilliant golden fish in it. I didn’t find that, either.”

I asked Machado what the population of Faro was, and he sent somebody to get me the most recent census, for 1981. It revealed a total population of 4,635, of whom 2,234 were “urban”-all told, hardly any more people than Faro had had a century ago. The place had stood still economically, too; there was no sign of a “comeback.” The fifty registered business establishments were mostly bars; the pharmacy was the sorriest-looking one I had seen in Brazil. D’ Antona had said there was a lot of drunkenness, stealing, and prostitution in Faro, and that people there weren’t above asking for handouts-something that never happened in Terra Santa.
“Faro is isolated,” Machado explained. “It has poor communication with the rest of the world. The municipality itself is broke; what little money comes from Brasilia has to be shared with the four other communities in its jurisdiction, including Terra Santa. We are the ‘poor father.’ The Indian influence is predominant here. Most of the people have no initiative, and for those with initiative there is nothing to do.”
Joao, who had gone to find D’ Antona’s guide, the man named Preginho, returned with him. Preginho was a carpenter (preginho means “little nail”); he said he was busy and couldn’t go with us but had talked to his brother, who was available and would meet us in the morning. Preginho looked trustworthy, so it seemed safe to assume that we would be in good hands with his brother. This settled, we went back down the lake several miles to the town of Nhamunda, to top off the fuel supply (this being our “last chance for gas”), and to see a man named Nogueira, who had a floating store permanently moored at the Nhamunda dock and was said to own a frog muiraquitii. Nhamunda is on the Amazonas side of the river-the right bank-and is about the same size as Faro.
Nogueira’s merchandise took up two decks of a large motor and spilled over onto an adjacent barge. (Nogueira and his family lived on the third deck.) There were sacks of rice, beans, and farinha; dried and salted slabs of pirarucu, an enormous primitive fish; rope, hoses, shoes, hats; fresh eggs, candy; a pharmacy in one cabin with all kinds of colorfully packaged medicines; a restaurant and bar; lots of mestiqo children running around; a dozen full-time employees; a halfdozen men snoozing on railings with straw or leather hats pulled down over their eyes; two guitarists playing chorinhos, an extravagantly romantic, highly syncopated type of Brazilian music.. Life on Nogueira’s boat seemed like a continuous party. I bought a kilo of onions, and Quersin bought a black rubber slingshot to drive the pigeons off his roof when he got back to Zaire. We found Nogueira, a blithespirited man in the white uniform of a pharmacist, and the mayor of Nhamunda, a sullen young man, sitting in sundeck chairs at the prow. Nogueira told us that he lived on a boat “for philosophical reasons” and that his muiraquitii was frog-shaped and smoky gray. He couldn’t show it to us, he said, because it was in a safe in Belem.
In the morning, we found Preginho’s brother waiting at the dock with a shotgun and a ditty bag. He introduced himself as Edson Carvalho, but, as we later discovered, to everybody up the river he was known by his Indian name, Songa. He was thirtythree, quiet, handsome, and stronglooking. Although he was a Maue on his mother’s side and had grown up in one of the tribe’s villages, he was no more Indian in appearance than the average caboclo.
With a fourth person in the boat, it rode very low, and even when Joao turned the throttle to full and held it there we went very slowly through the water. We crossed the lake at a diagonal and continued along the Amazonas side. After ten miles or so, we had to stop and transfer gas from one of the large plastic drums to the metal tank that fed the engine. Quersin and I stepped out into the warm black water; it was so inviting that we sank into it. The shore here was clean
white sand in which a low, dry type of forest known as campina, bristling with branches and festooned with air plants-orchids, bromeliads, fernsmanaged to grow. A nearby bird, a trogon, hidden in the trees, kept calling, usurping the silence as completely as the pulsing shrieks of a police car.
After skirting for several hours a series of low, flat-topped serras that broke off at the water’s edge and were spattered with violet-blossomed Tabebuia trees, we approached the Serra do Espelho, the Mountain of the Mirror, at the foot of which was the lake that had been the seat of the women-with out-husbands myth for at least the last hundred years. From afar ,the serra looked no different from the others we had been passing; it gave no indication of its legendary importance. On the bank below it, a man who Songa told us was named Chico de Brito was standing before his hut, trying to make us out. Songa shouted to him that we had come to see the lake and would stop to visit him on the way back, and then we entered a channel that came into the river just below the hut.
After about a hundred yards, the channel widened into a pool that doglegged to the right. The pool was maybe two hundred yards in diameter and, as D’ Antona had said, it was still, murky, and full of leaves. So this was it. I wouldn’t even have called it a lake; to me it was a pond. (The word lago can mean “pond” as well as “lake.”) The French explorer Henri Coudreau, who went up the Nhamunda in 1899 with his wife, described the lake, with understandable exasperation, as a mauvais petit lac, writing in his journal, “If. ..the Amazons discovered or invented by Senor Orellana and cultivated by so many lovers of the marvellous ever manufactured the sacred stone”-the muiraquitii”and invoked the moon from the borders of this mauvais petit lac, it must be well recognized that time has completely effaced all trace of their passage.” Coudreau asked the local people if they remembered Barbosa Rodrigues, who had visited the lake twenty years earlier and had found no trace of either the women or the stones. They had no memory of him, and they themselves had never seen a muiraquitii; they had only heard of the amulets from “people who came from the city.”
In the early fifties, a German archeologist named Peter Paul Hilbert climbed the Serra do Espelho and re
ported that it was a hundred and twenty-eight metres high and was capped by a small, shallow expanse of terra preta, which suggested to him that at one time there had been a settlement there of a few huts-a seasonal farming community, perhaps, occupied at planting and harvest time. For some reason, he didn’t investigate the shores of the lake. We discovered more terra preta, covered by half-dead bacaba-palm and hardwood forest, on the north shore. It wasn’t extensive; almost immediately it ran up against the flank of the serra, which was too steep for settlement, and seemed hardly enough for a matriarchal chiefdom. If any women without husbands had lived here, there couldn’t have been more than a couple of dozen of them. The southern shore had been cleared and planted by Chico de Brito. As there was nothing more to be learned without digging, we went to talk to him.
De Brito was a sun-beaten, grizzled man of about fifty. He had been living at Espelho for twenty years. His
wife and seven of their children were standing in the doorway of their hut. A metal sign next to the door said, in Portuguese, “MALARIA NOTIFICATION STATION.” One of his sons, de Brito explained, had been taught how to draw blood; the samples went to Parintins for analysis. But the results and the medication could take weeks to arrive, he said, by which time the patient might have died.
“When I got here, old man Rossy was already dead,” de Brito told us. “He’s buried up on the serra, where his house was. He wouldn’t let anybody up there. They say he had a shortwave radio. During the war, two Germans visited him and left him a boat.” (We had heard in Obidos that a U-boat had gone up the Jar!, a leftbank tributary of the Amazon close to its mouth, and that one of the crew had died of fever and was buried, under a cross with his name and serial number, on a serra overlooking the river. )
De Brito took us over to the edge of his yard, where we could see a green pool, maybe fifty yards across, through the trees.
“Is this the spring with the golden fish?” I asked.
De Brito said that it was, but that he had never seen any of the fish himself.  “But Rossy found a lot of muiraquittis in there,” he said.
I asked de Brito if he had ever found any muiraquittis himself, and he said no.
What about caretas?
He went into his hut and brought out seven he had picked up on the bank the previous October. Six of the pieces represented animals, among them a catfish and a howler monkey. The catfish was strikingly realistic. The seventh piece was a complete departure in both style and subject: a head of a woman with elaborately coiled hair. No ordinary woman would have had such a hairdo; this woman must have been important. Her mouth and her eyes (overarched with lightly incised brows) were simple slits. This careta looked-more than any native New World art work I was familiar withalmost Grecian. One of the earliest theories about the female warriors in the Amazon Valley was that they were an emigre remnant of the original mythical Scythian Amazons-a theory that can probably be ruled out.
Very little is known about prehistoric Amazonian hair styles, but it is possible that they were similar to or
influenced by Inca coiffure. The hair of Inca women is known to have been elaborately braided, as is that of the Quechuan women, who are their present-day descendants. Carvajal, it will be recalled, described the women who attacked him and his companions as having “hair very long and braided and wound about the head.” Could the sculptor of this careta have been familiar with the Carvajal account or the classical Amazon mythr Back in New York, several experts I showed the piece to suggested that it could have been made after contact with Europeans, and that its design could have been influenced by pictures that the Indians had seen in books or by designs on European armor or weapons. I explored the possibility of having the piece carbon-dated, but it was uncertain whether enough carbon could be extracted from it without destroying it, and whether a reliable date could be obtained, so I decided not to.
To me, the careta looked just like the head of an Amazon, and it revived my interest in the myth, which had suffered after I saw the lake. As we pulled away from de Brito’s dock, I wondered what had been there. The surface of the lake had been absolutely still. On a moonlit night, it would have made a perfect mirror, offering a rare opportunity, in the centuries before the arrival of silvered glass from Europe, for people to examine themselves. In a way, the fact that the lake was nondescript argued in favor of its being the seat of the Amazons. If the legend had been arbitrarily assigned to a place, wouldn’t a more picturesque one have been chosen.
We decided not to climb the serra. It was thickly overgrown, and de Brito assured us that we would find nothing. Instead, we crossed the river and examined an old Uaboi burial ground that was still a cemetery for the local caboclos. In a clearing along the forested bank, there were about a hundred weathered gray wooden crosses, all from this century, some radically tilting. Small waves of warm black water lapped the black-earth shore in quick succession.

TOWARD evening, we reached the Boca do Nhamunda, the “mouth” of the river, where the drowned lower section, the Lago de Faro, gave way to the extravagant meandering typical of a lowland river, with oxbow lakes thrown off at nearly every change of direction. Another lone family who were friends of Songa had settled at the Boca do Nhamunda. Their homestead was called Castanhal, “wild grove of Brazil-nut trees.” We arrived at its dock just as the light was failing, and unloaded the boat in choppy, milky water, with Songa urging us to hurry, because stingrays would be moving into the shallows for the night. The head of the family, Casimiro Gomes, a muscular man of about forty-five, with the hairless copper skin of an Indian, came down the bank and helped us pile our things under a large thatched roof on poles-a structure known as a barracao, which he had built for the annual festival of Castanhal’s patron saint, Sao Miguel.
The Gomes family consisted of four people: Casimiro; his mother, Rosa, an energetic and strong-willed woman in her sixties; his half sister, Sabena; and Sabena’s son, Adenildo. The family had cleared land extending five hundred metres along the river and fifteen hundred metres back, and were growing manioc, two kinds of bavanas, soursop, guava, cherimoya, and inga, but no greens except some onions in a kerosene can. Rosa had a little herb garden in which she grew seasoning for fish, lemon grass for colds, and mint for coughs. Certain wild fruits -sorva, mat;aranduba, pixuna-were gathered in season; and in December and January the Brazil-nut trees whose towering crowns loomed in the forest behind dropped their ripe fruit, heavy globes the size of volleyballs, which contained from one to two dozen seeds-the Brazil nuts of commerce. The sale of the nuts provided the family with virtually its only cash. “Money is hard to come by here,” Casimiro told us. “I tried lumbering. It was heavy work and got me nowhere. The regatoes exploit you. You end up always owing.” The regatoes were river traders who came up in motores with kerosene, cloth, shotgun shells, batteries, and other modern items, obtained mostly from Nogueira, and went back down with what the caboclos had grown or hunted or harvested in the forest.
Life at Castanhal had an austerity whose like we had not yet seen. The people along the Lago de Sapucua were better off, Joao explained, because they could get to Oriximina in one day and sell their goods there without being ripped off by regatoes. Casimiro had canoed from Castanhal to Faro in one day, but the wind on the Lago de Faro was often bad, he said, and it was easy to flip. So the family had to be almost completely self-sufficient-almost completely outside the cash economy. Quersin asked Casimiro why the families on the Nhamunda lived so far apart-such independence is unknown in Africa. “Each has its own work,” he said.
After it grew dark, Songa mixed us some outstanding caipirinhas-the Brazilian national drink, which is made of cachat;a, sugar, and lemon, and has the taste and the kick of a Margarita-and we lay back in our hammocks and watched the full moon come up over the Lago de Faro, flooding its surface with sparkles of ghostly light. I asked about the rest of the river. Neither Casimiro nor Songa had been above the first rapids, but Casimiro said that it was two days by canoe from there to Kasawa, the main village of the Hixkaryana, and from Kasawa “only three days” on foot to Guyana. The Hixkaryana went up to Guyana all the time, he said. If this was true, we could conceivably trek right over the border-if we could get up the rapids.
Casimiro picked up the faint purr of a motor coming up the lake, listened intently for a moment, and then said, “Jose.” So few boats came up this far that the local people could recognize the sound of each engine from miles away. Jose was another of Songa’s brothers, who had some business upriver. We didn’t see his spotlight; he was navigating by moonlight. Casimiro stood on the bank and blinked his flashlight downriver for several minutes. By the time Jose arrived, Quersin and I had turned in. I was vaguely aware of a succession of sounds in the night: first, people talking in animated Portuguese; then hundreds of cunauaru-tree frogs-croaking in long, staccato volleys; and, at about three o’clock, half a dozen male howler monkeys roaring from a mile or so away, perhaps warning each other to keep back, or defending a fruit tree. The roaring sounded like cold wind rushing through a mountain pass. It is one of the loudest sounds made by any animal.
The next morning, we got off by six-thirty, and, having left the extra gas and the heavy baggage for Jose to bring up later in the morning, we were finally able to zip along with the bow out of the water, which boosted Joao’s morale considerably. He was worried about our weight and the gas, and was anxious to return to Terra Santa; he was about to go to work for his brother-in-law, who owned several bush planes and supplied mining camps in the jungle up the Tapaj6s.
At midmorning, we arrived at a settlement on the left bank called J acamim. The jacamim is the graywinged trumpeter, and one of these birds was strutting around. Trumpeters tame easily and are said to be good at catching snakes. Several caboclo families lived there, and some Indians were camped there temporarily, helping the headman of J acamim, whose name was Almerindo, convert his recently harvested manioc into farinha. This was being done in a well-organized operation under AImerindo’s supervision. In one corner of a barracao set up for the purpose, a black woman and a young Indian man were nimbly nicking the coarse brown skins off the tubers with machetes. The peeled white tubers were soaked for several days, then fed into a gaspowered machine that grated them into pulp. The pulp was stuffed into a long, weighted tube of latticed palm fronds, known as a tipiti, which hung from the rafters and squeezed out the poisonous prussic acid. Then the pulp was sifted by hand through a sieve. The big nuggets that remained in the sieve were baked into cakes that looked and tasted like unleavened bread and were called beiju, or else they were made into a porridge. The fine bits were placed in shallow metal pans four feet in diameter and roasted into golden farinha. Almerindo’s harvest had been good, and he was hoping to get forty sacks of farinha out of it and to take them in his motor to Nhamunda and sell them for about seven dollars apiece to a passenger boat that stopped there once a week on its way to Manaus.
D’Antona had told us he met some “nomadic” Indians on the Nhamunda. These must have been the ones. He didn’t know what tribe they weremaybe Tiri6. I wondered if they could be the seven Kaxuiana who, according to Protasio Frikel, had moved to the Nhamunda in 1968. Their chief, known to the caboclo~s at Jacamim simply as Antonio Indio, wasn’t around at the moment but would be back in a few hours, we were told. Maybe he knew some Amazon myths. Antonio’s wife, Temso, was a dignified woman of about sixty. She was sifting manioc pulp; their daughter Maria was bagging the farinha. I asked the Indian man peeling tubers if he was a Kaxuiana from the Rio Cachorrinho, and he said, in Portuguese, that he was. His name was Kanati. He was twenty-two, with high cheekbones and a bent nose like a hawk’s beak. Rolling himself a cigarette, he told us, “I left the Cachorrinho when I was five years old, with my father and my brother, and we went to live with the Wai-Wai in Guyana, in the village of Caxineu, on the Essequibo River. Eight years ago, I came here to the Nhamunda, where Maria’s parents were living. I made love to her, and I’ve been here ever since.” Maria, who was his age, ~as tall and light-skinned, with long, straight black hair and a large, beautiful face-strikingly different from the caboclo women and from Kanati himself. There is considerable phenotypic variation from tribe to tribe in the Amazon Basin. The Kaxuiana, who, except for the ones here on the Nhamunda, had all been absorbed by the Tiri6, had themselves been a mixed group. They had come originally from “the high serras to the west,” which Frikel guessed were the Andes, and had later been joined, in a bloody process of fusion, by two waves of an Amazonian tribe called the Warikyana. Maria was Warikyana, and Kanati said he was half Tikiano, another small tribe of the Upper Trombetas, now also scattered.
Francisca sang a mournful, monotonous song, an “old dance” of the Kaxuiana, into Quersin’s tape recorder, and Maria sang two hymns in W ai- Wai. I asked Kanati how long it took to trek from Kasawa to Guyana. He said from two to three weeks, if you kept moving-he had once spent three months doing it with some WaiWai. So that was out. He said that he would go with us to Cafezal, the place upriver where the Kaxuiana livedthere were four couples now, three with children-and see if he could get his brother-in-law, Bernardinho, who had a canoe and was a cachoeirista, a good man in white water, to take us up to Kasawa.
Jose came up the bend but wouldn’t dock at Almerindo’s; they were feuding over something-were politicando, as Kanati put it. We decided to save gas by hitching our boat to Jose’s motor and riding with him to the Lago Jacytara, just a few miles upriver, which was as far as he was going. There seemed no point in waiting for Antonio; these Kaxuiana were so acculturated that if they had ever had a women-without-husbands myth they had probably forgotten it, I decided. To offset the new weight of Kanati, we advanced him the sack of oranges, and he left it with Maria. We soon reached the Lago Jacytara, and when we were under our own power again Kanati squatted at the bow and, propping his elbows on his knees, stayed there without moving or talking for the next hour or so.
The river was like a smooth black corridor, about seventy-five feet wide, gently insinuating itself between walls of green that rose to a fairly uniform height of about thirty-five feet. The terrain was mostly flat and choked with vegetation. There was a lot of standing water, in large lakes that opened to the right or left at most major bends, and under the trees on both banks. Often, the lower branches of the trees were smothered with a purple-flowering creeper, a member of the pea family, which was everywhere. Over much of the Nhamunda’s length for much of the year, there was nowhere you could go ashore, let alone build. No wonder it was so deserted. The only artifacts we saw that afternoon were two makeshift huts that lumberjacks had put up in front of one lake. Sometimes the descending river, as it made one of its gradual swings to the right or left, would collide with a rib of terra firma, and a high, slumped bank of red clay, “created by the weight of the water that throws itself here,” as Kanati nicely put it, would be exposed. Songa didn’t know many of the trees by name, and neither did Kanati, and J oao knew almost none. I knew a few, and it was comforting to be able to put a name to some conspicuous element of the forbiddingly complex vegetation that closed in from every quarter-to know that that long spike up there studded with red florets was the bromeliad il echmea huebneri, or that this exquisitely slender palm shooting up twenty feet higher than its neighbors before bursting into a sparse, wispy crown was the ar;ai, whose berries could be made into a refreshing drink.
As Kanati and I talked, it became clear that he had already had a full life. At fourteen, he was drafted into the Guyana Defense Force and served for three months as a policeman; then, because he “hated beating up people,” he left the army and took off for Suriname to visit the other Kaxuiana, including his father, who were living with the Tiri6 on Xaparwini Creek. From there, he made his way to Paramaribo, the capital, where he had some Tikiano relatives. He had been exposed to seven languages: he was fluent in Kaxuiana, W ai- W ai, and Hixkaryana, which are quite similar; he knew some Tiri6, which is quite different; he had learned English from a Protestant missionary at Caxineu but had forgotten most of it; he had a smattering of lingua geral; and now he was speaking Portuguese, in which he had taken a crash course with the padre in Faro for several months when he first came down to the Nhamunda. He had a better idea of the world that Quersin and I were from than Songa or Joao did. “New York is near Americar” he asked. “I will go there.”
We were in a hurry to reach before dark a place called Banho (Bath), where there was an abandoned hut and barracao; the owner had gone to Belem, Songa told us. When we got there, Songa and Joao took the boat into a little cove upstream and threw out lines baited with tapir meat.  Kanati got a fire going and started to cook rice, onions, farinha, and sardines. As the sky darkened, the fishermen returned with two white piranhas -a disappointing catch. Nighthawks made nervous forays over the river, gliding, flapping, snapping up insects, emitting little nasal sounds, and then night fell. Quersin produced another marvel of Japanese microtechnology, a small nine-band shortwave radio, and tuned in Washington, Paris, Jerusalem-the big time-and a Spanishspeaking country (we couldn’t tell which one), where something that sounded like “la jlexibilizaci6n del estado de urgencia” had just gone into effect.

The next morning, Kanati gave us English nicknames: Quersin was Father, I was Chief. We reviewed the lakes and creeks and bluffs we would be going by: Inferno, Casimira, Piriquita, Baraozinha, Barao Grande, Jauari. “From here on up, there is nobody except Indians and the watchman of the companhia,” Songa told us. The companhia was a calcite mine whose operation had been discontinued in the early seventies. We crossed from bank to bank, keeping to the inside of each bend, sometimes having to skirt a tree that, craning out from shore toward the light as the water ate at its roots, had finally toppled, bringing its attendant vines down with it and stretching them taut as cables. The river remained about seventy-five feet wide. Quersin said that this section of it reminded him of the Ubangi. He had found ancient dwelling sites up the Ubangi that looked like terras pretas, with beautifully decorated potsherds of a kind that nobody made anymore, and he had recorded a fantastic bird song, of which he gave a tour-de-force imitation. “In fifteen years of going allover Zaire, I never heard it again, and nobody has identified it,” he said. “It must have been the Charlie Parker of that species.”
Each of us spent much of the afternoon in his own thoughts and projects. Quersin, sitting beside me wearing his straw hat and with two pairs of glasses -reading and sun-perched on his nose, filled page after page of a notebook with swift, meticulous, minute writing. Then he reviewed a FrenchPortuguese phrase book he had picked up in Rio, getting a chuckle from the “En Bateau” section, given our present circumstances: “Can you show me the way to my cabinr The sea is rough. I don’t feel well.” Kanati, at the bow, was feasting his eyes on the advertisements in a sumptuous gloss magazine I had brought from New York. A lot of the pictures were of things he wasn’t familiar with. He asked what an American Expres Gold Card and a nuclear submare were, and I tried to explain.
We passed a succession of lakes and creeks without event: Fusil, Veado Focinho da Anta, Chave, Bemtevi Remanso Grande, Areia, Torre Ma. caco, Gaviaozinho, Gaviao Grande At last, we came to the Pitinga, on OUJ right, the largest of the Upper Nha. munda’s tributaries, which was no much wider than a country road. Tw( pink dolphins, the first b8tos we ha( seen on the trip, were swimmin~ around at the Pitinga’s mouth. We go! out at a small clearing on the bank ani watched them racing up and down perhaps alarmed at our presence, perhaps chasing fish. Every few moments one would surface and blow witt a sucking, snorting sound. D’ Anton. had said that he followed the Piting. for two days, until he was stopped by a waterfall, at which point ht could see a serra with a savanna ir the distance. We checked our gas: seventy-five litres. It was obvious tha1 that wasn’t going to be enough to ge1 us even to the first rapids and back tc Faro. I felt dumb and duped. Wh}
had D’ Antona said that three hundred litres would be enough? Why hadn’1 Songa been able to tell us that Wt couldn’t make it? Because, he said, ht had never gone up the river in an outboard; he knew the distance only in diesel fuel. “Maybe there’s some gas at the companhia,” he suggested.
An hour later, we arrived at the companhia. There were half a dozen small prefabricated buildings there, an airstrip, and a huge gouge in the bank where barges could be run up and loaded. The mine had shut down eight years earlier, but there was a chance that it might resume operation-so we were told by the assistant watchman, who lived in one of the buildings with his wife and four children. He-said he had only ten litres of gas, but we were welcome to it.
When we pulled into Cafezal, about an hour later, the whole community came running down the bank, letting out excited, high-pitched yelps-the way Indians greet returning loved ones. Kanati’s brother-in-law, Bernardinho, shook my hand. His father, Antonio, the chief, had left him in charge until he returned from J acamim. At twenty-seven, Bernardinho was the senior male of his generation. Kanati, who was younger and a relative newcomer, and didn’t have a canoe, deferred to him. Bernardinho introduced his wife, who was Kanati’s fifteen-year-old sister, Regina. Regina already had three children. Then, there was Bernardinho’s twenty-sixyear-old sister, Karauki, a half sister of Kanati’s wife; they were daughters of Antonio by different women. Karauki was married to her paternal first cousin Moritiuro. They had five children. The compound was not noticeably different from a caboclo settlement, except that the huts were sided with slats of split saplings instead of wattle and daub. The usual dogs, cats, chickens, andjacamims were in residence. But this place seemed somehow earthier and cozier, and the Indians seemed more alive to their surroundings than the caboclos we’d met had been to theirs. I asked Bernardinho how he spent his time, and he said, “Here we never stop. We make farinha, we sell lumber downriver, we take people on trips when they come.” The last such people, a party of German missionaries, had come three years before. They had wanted to go up to Kasawa but had also underestimated their gas. Bernardinho said that he and the others at Cafezal grew Cayenne bananas, a long and especially rich and filling variety. The fishing was poor locally, so they did a lot of hunting. The edges of the clearing were littered with the bones of past meals, including the small but strikingly human-looking skull of a howler monkey. Bernardinho asked for some batteries for his flashlight, so that he and Moritiuro could go shoot something for dinner, and as he went off with his shotgun Regina slapped him lustily on the back and said, “Mata” (“Kill”). Soon we heard two pops in the darkness, and the hunters returned, each with a paca-a large brown nocturnal rodent with four rows of white spots running the length of its body. “The pac a comes at night to the bank to eat a little flower,” Bernardinho explained, “and there we wait for him.” Quersin took a flash group portrait with Bernardinho and Moritiuro holding up the pac as, and then the pacas were turned over to Regina and Karauki to prepare for supper. We contributed some onions. They fascinated Bernardinho; he had never seen an onion before. He asked if they grew above the ground or below it.

While we were waiting for dinner, Bernardinho showed me some of the things in Antonio’s room. There was a wooden club with a vulture’s head, carved in masterly fashion by Antonio. “We used to kill people with this fifty years ago,” Kanati said. A cotton hammock intricately woven by Temso thirty years ago, and still strong, hung in one corner. Bernardinho said that it had taken his mother a month to make. (I wondered how literally to take these time spans.) The knowledge of how to make such things had apparently not been passed on to his generation; nor, apparently, had the ability to tell any of the Kaxuiana myths. The language had-Regina, for instance, spoke very little Portuguese-and so, apparently, had some plant lore. (There was an arrow  root growing in a kerosene
can, in whose juices Bernardinho said he bathed his dogs, so that they would hunt better.) It looked as if the next generation would be absorbed into the caboclo population and would become more or less like Songa. The Kaxuiana population here had probably fallen below replacement level. Being Indian had no prestige in the world below the rapids, but the members of this small group still had tribal solidarity, perhaps heightened by the knowledge that they were the last of their kind.
We tried the pacas, which had been grilled over the fire, and they were superb. I had known that these rodents are rare over much of their wide range, from Mexico to Paraguay; now I understood that the reason wasn’t only that their habitat was being destroyed. Kanati belted out, wretchedly off key, a Wai-Wai hymn he had learned in Guyana, for which he gave an English translation: “No smoke, no drink rum, go to Heaven with Jesus.”  Tens of thousands of feet above us, the blinking red and green lights of a jet plane, headed north, slowly crossed the star-encrusted sky.
“Where is it going?” Bernardinho asked.
“Maybe to Caracas, or even the U.S.A.,” I said.
“It goes by six times every morning,” he said.
As we got ready for bed, Kanati warned us not to leave our bare toes dangling out of our hammocks, because vampire bats might come and suck them.
Just after sunup, Bernardinho, Kanati, Moritiuro and his oldest boy, Quersin, and I loaded up our gear in two canoes and set out for the rapids. We had paid Songa and Joao and had left some of the food with them. 1£ the rapids were passable, we would go up them, and the seventeen others above them, in the canoes, to Kasawa, and from there either we would proceed with Kanati and maybe some Hixkaryana to the W ai- W ai on the Mapuera, who could take us down to Oriximina in about a week, or we would fly out on the next plane. 1£ we didn’t come back to Cafezal that night, Songa and Joao were to wait a few days, as we would try to send back some gas with Bernardinho. Bernardinho said he couldn’t tell whether we could make it up the rapids until he took a look at them.
TRAVELLING by canoe (I was in the first one, between Bernardinho and Moritiuro’s son), we were much more aware of the life of the river; the teeming sounds within the trees were no longer drowned out. We moved more slowly and closer to the bank, often right under overhanging branches. All sorts of details that we had been missing presented themselves now: the sound of the river straining against a snag; lots of little brown bats suddenly flying up together from a tree trunk, to which they had been clinging, perfectly camouflaged; the scent of white mimosa flowers; the citronella smell of ants that lived symbiotically in the hollow stems of a taxi tree, paying their rent by biting anything that brushed against it (Bernardinho said their bite was very painful but not as painful as that of wasps. “1£ we get attacked by wasps, jump in the river. That’s the only way to survive,” he said); a large butterfly mimicking a sunlit leaf, with wings divided in horizontal zones of brown, yellow, and brown; scores of water striders slipping off a branch and sprinkling the water; a black-collared swallow skimming the mirror surface of the river for a distance of maybe fifty yards, then pulling out in a graceful climb; a loud crash back in the woods, which Bernardinho said could only be a tapir; dark toucans with white bibs gorging themselves on attai berries; a Carib grackle, a redcrested cotinga, a black-fronted nunbird rustling, darting among branches; a morning-glory vine blossoming in lavender trumpets; three blue-and-yellow macaws coming overhead, calling raucously; a king vulture soaring highup; a small anaconda, about five feet long, stretched out along a branch ahead, languid-looking but in fact ready to drop on anything that passed below it. Bernardinho flicked some water at the snake with his paddle, and in one blurred motion it thrashed off the branch and dropped into the river.
At about one o’clock, we began to hear a loud, dull roar upriver. The water became choppy, opaque, foamy, and full of eddies, and the air became moist with spray. Turning a final lefthand bend, we were confronted by a smooth, solid sheet of water about a hundred yards across, with a drop of ten feet or so-a kind of mini-Niagara -and with a quarter mile of whitewater riffles behind it. This was the cachoeira porteira, the gateway cataract. There was no need to confer with Bernardinho. The expedition had run up against a literal wall of water.
We paddled over to a large motor that was anchored in the flooded bushes below the falls. It was being painted by a young Hixkaryana man, who told us that the boat belonged to FUNAI; when the river was lower, goods were ferried between here and Kasawa by outboard. He said he had nothing-neither diesel fuel for his boat nor gasoline for ours. This was a rather bold lie; he was sitting on a drum of diesel fuel, as I pointed out. He then said that he wasn’t authorized to use any fuel or to give any out or to take the motor anywhere, and that he didn’t even know how to run the engine.
I asked Kanati if it was possible to walk up along the river. He said it was “too ugly,” and then, “We are sad. You will come back in August with a motor and an outboard and we will go to Guyana. Songa is no good. He ruined your trip. He knew, but he didn’t want to tell you.”
Quersin was exasperated. “The lack of reliable information here-it’s no better than Africa,” he said.
To me, the confusion about the gas and the rapids seemed to be related somehow to the confusion about the Amazons-both were part of the great confusion that prevails in most Amazonian endeavors.
There was nothing to do but accommodate ourselves to the situation. Quersin and I recalled that we hadn’t been sure we would get past the rapids in the first place. Kanati remembered that the padre was coming up to Jacamim from Faro in eight days to officially marry him and Maria, so it was just as well that he got back; and Bernardinho said that one of his teeth was hurting and he wanted to go down with us to Nhamunda to get it taken care of. So we headed back for Cafezal. Not far below the rapids, Kanati spotted a sloth up in a tree. As we passed under it, it slowly rotated its small, round, crude head and looked down at us.
The next morning, a Friday, a small convoy set out from Cafezal. It was made up of the outboard, with the five people who had come up in it, and, in tow, a dugout with Bernardinho and his family in it. The plan was for all of us to go downriver together until the gas ran out-there was now about sixty litres left. Then Kanati, Quersin, and I would take off in the canoe and try to catch Almerindo at Jacamim before he went down to Nhamunda with his farinha on Sunday morning. 1£ we missed Almerindo, we would just keep going, and the others would have to paddle the outboard down to Jacamim and make their own arrangements with Almerindo when he got back. Joao wasn’t very pleased with this plan, but as he had to stay with the boat there was no alternative. Songa, passive as ever, said, “Whatever happens is the same to me.”
By lunchtime, we were back at the Pitinga. Bernardinho threw in a line, and in less than a minute he pulled out four white piranhas. A fifth sliced the line clean. Songa and Kanati skinned, gutted, and spitted a red howler monkey that Kanati had just shot, and we ate it, too.
The gas lasted until midafternoon. People and goods transferred crafts, and Quersin, Kanati, and I started off in the dugout just as it began to rain a local downpour coming from a lone dark cumulus. We were somewhere in the middle of the hundred-mile stretch between the Pitinga and Banho, where nobody lived and there was very little dry ground for even a temporary shelter. Kanati said that we would just have to keep paddling through the night, but Quersin and I valued our sleep, and we kept looking for somewhere to put in. Finally, about half an hour before dark, we saw a little rise in the forest and got out. Kanati said, “Wait here,” and went into the forest with my machete. We could hear him running around and cutting materials for a lean-to-poles, vines, palm fronds. Two of the poles he planted firmly in the ground about six feet apart. Then he placed a third pole horizontally against them, about six feet up, and lashed it with vine. At each juncture of the upright poles with the cross pole, he laid two more poles and lashed them together at a slight incline to a tree about six feet away. Then he laid seven saplings across this triangular frame and lashed them down. Then he covered the frame with fronds. Their leaflets were sparse and thin and not the best roofing, he explained, but there were none of the right kinds of palm around. We added a plastic sheet for extra protection, and it was good that we did because at about two in the morning a heavy rain started to come down, but we kept dry in our hammocks below. The lean-to took Kanati no more than half an hour to put up from scratch. He said that it was called a rabo-de-jaca, which means “caiman’s tail.”
We made a fire, heated up and ate the rest of the monkey, and then lay in our hammocks watching enormous cool-green fireflies streak through the darkness and listening to the dense, pulsing rhythm of frog and insect choruses, which blended together almost like a band, with the frogs on bass. It sounded not unlike Brazilian samba. I have often wondered whether the night sounds of the jungle helped inspire this infectious music; to my knowledge, the connection hasn’t been investigated. (Quersin recorded the concert with a multidirectional external microphone, and six months later a cassette labelled “Nhamunda/ nuit” came in the mail, with a note from him that said, “Binary/ternary, like all forest music.”)
We went about forty or fifty miles the next day, and stopped in a channel off the river where there was a !Jarracoo belonging to a family that had gone to work downriver several months earlier. It was as well kept a compound as Castanhal. The dirt floor had been neatly swept, and a stack of firewood, an axe, and a bar of breu had been left in the kitchen area. We ate and turned in early, so we could get an early start and reach Jacamim before Almerindo left. A spider monkey maybe five hundred feet away started to call. Kanati reproduced the timbre and the spacing of the calls with a series of short whistles, which the monkey answered.
The next morning, we were back in lake country. Kanati knew little allees, called juros, in the inundated forest that led to the lakes. We took a few, cutting straight across the lakes back to the main channel and avoiding miles of circuitous loop. The entrance to the juro leading to the Lago Jacytara, however, proved elusive. At last, Kanati thought he had found it, and, gliding into a dark, flooded forest, we proceeded mainly by pushing off with our paddles from tree trunks, many of which were buttressed to help them stay up. This juro seemed not to have been used in some time. Vines had grown across it, and it was clotted with debris. A hundred yards in, a troop of squirrel monkeys passed about thirty feet overhead, too intent on spanning the fifteen feet or so between trees to notice us. Cautiously, one at a time, they would walk out to the end of a branch and then hurl themselves into the air. Small and light, they were spectacular leapers. About fifty of them, some with babies clinging to their backs, passed, flowing through the treetops like a stream with several interwoven channels. Half a dozen capuchin monkeys came with the last of them; it was a mixed troop, the hyperactive squirrels stirring up insects for the larger capuchins, and the capuchins, in turn, with their more powerful jaws, opening up fruits for the squirrels.
Shortly after this, we got hopelessly lost, and eventually we found ourselves right back at the entrance of the juro; giving up, we continued down the main channel. I asked Kanati when we would get to J acamim; it was nine o’clock, and we were an hour overdue. “It’s not very far,” he said, and then added, “And it’s not very near.” I leaned out over the water and threw my weight into each stroke, and we started to really move. At ninethirty, we heard the sound of a motor still a good ways below us. That would be Almerindo heading off to Nhamunda. We had missed him. When we finally pulled into.Jacamim, two hours later, Antonio Indio, the chief of the Kaxuiana and Kanati’s father-in-law, hailed us from shore with what seemed to be the standard greeting on the Nhamunda: “Where are the fish?”
ANTONIO INDIO’S real name was Kauka. He was, at six feet, the tallest of his family, and he looked about sixty, with sparse white stubble on his chin, although the skin around his well-developed torso was still tight. “I am from the time when they didn’t count years of age,” he told me as we sat down together in the barracao. He had on a homemade Gandhi cap and projected calm, humility, simplicity, dignity, and wisdom. I asked how it was that he had come to live at Cafhal. “In 1968, Father Protasio came in a boat to our village on the Cachorrinho and took away ten of us at a time. The whole tribe went up the Paru do Oeste to live with the Tiri6, near Suriname. We were the last seven to leave: my wife Temso and my wife Augusta, who is dead now, and our children Bernardinho, Karauki, and Maria. Father Protasio told us to wait. He would be back. But we didn’t wait. A cariwa”~Kaxuiana for “other people;” that is, non-Indians-“gave me a gun and told me to go hunting. But it wasn’t good for my wives to be left alone. When I came back, they said the cariwa had been bothering them. So we all went up the Mapuera to hunt tapir. We thought we’d be back in two or three weeks. But we have never returned. We canoed up cachoeiras and then followed paths we had never seen before, and after fifteen days we came to Kasawa; there were no Wai-Wai on the Mapuera yet, and the only Indians up there were the Hixkaryana. We stayed two years at Kasawa; then Nonato, the chief of FUNAI’s post there, told us to go down to the cachoeira porteira and be watchmen. He said to work with the regatao, moving supplies up to Kasawa, and not to let anybody pass. We did this for a while, but we weren’t getting any money for it, so we decided to go off on our own, and moved down to where we are now.”
I asked him if he knew any stories about the women without husbands, and he said, after a long silence, “I can’t remember any.”
Three hours after our arrival, the outboard, with Songa, Bernardinho, and Joao paddling full steam, arrived. They were way ahead of schedule, having not stopped either night but taken turns sleeping in the boat. J oao, eager to get back to Terra Santa, was devastated to hear that we would be stuck at J acamim until at least Tuesday, when Almerindo was due back from Nhamunda. But we weren’t stuck: a few hours later, Bernardinho and Kanati canoed down to the trading post of a regatao named Moura and arranged for him to come up that night with his motor and tow us down to Nhamunda. As we pulled out of Jacamim at about 2 A.M., I found myself crying in the darkness. What a beautiful world this was, what a privilege it had been to hang out in it for a while. And, as Quersin put it, what a beautiful cat Kanati was.
Late that afternoon, Kauka and I had sat together in the barracao and talked some more. Angled sunlight flooded the clearing. The women and girls had gathered on a log at the edge of the water and were singing softly while combing each other’s hair. Several dozen tiny pium gnats, whose bite leaves a small blood blister that itches terribly, were trying to feed at my ankles, but a few drops of repellent kept them away. Some of the children were swimming. Almerindo’s wife warned them to stay close to shore; the day before, Almerindo had shot a big anaconda from the dock, but not fatally. Kauka had brought out to show me another of Temso’s intricately woven cotton hammocks, called a makira, and a rectangular tanga, or pubic covering, made of red, blue, and white beads woven in a crenellated pattern. They were fine work. He said, “Nobody will ever make these things again. My daughters don’t know how to, and you can’t get the right cotton or the right beads anymore.”
I was ready to conclude that the Amazon-women myth, if it had ever existed among the Kaxuiana, was extinct, and, trying to find out if Kauka knew any other myths, I asked him, for starters, if the Kaxuiana had any stories about how the moon had got there. But he had been thinking about my earlier question, about the women without husbands, and he had remembered a story about them (or perhaps he had remembered it all along but had not been sure he wanted to tell it). Looking out across the river, he began to speak in a melodious storytelling voice: “My father used to say that the old people said the Amazon women lived on the serra. There were five women: Tiaruui, Amacoco, Carawiki, Coyatinu, and Woru. One day while their husbands were sleeping-they had been having a festa and dancing all night-the women left. They clutched hot peppers to their breasts and started to dance in a circle. Slowly, they started to leave the ground. Higher they rose. When the men awoke, they were flying. They threw down the peppers. They pelted the men’s eyes with a rain of peppers, so that the men couldn’t shoot them with their bows. The women went to live on the serra.”
“What serrar?” I asked.
“The big serra at the end of the Cachorrinho,” he said. “All these rivers end in serras.” He went on, “One of the women had a child, whom she left behind, under a basket. The men turned over the basket and found the child, a girl. One man-the shaman -took the child and cut it into pieces. As when a hunter gives pieces of meat to the people in his family, the father gave the pieces of his child to his companions. Each man took two pieces. The father let the shaman keep the child’s ear and vagina. They all hid the pieces in their rooms. Eight days passed. The father said, ‘Today we will see our women. Let’s go..’ Each man went into his room”-here Kauka traced a series of adjoining rooms in the dirt with his finger”and he discovered that each of the pieces of the child had grown into a fully formed woman. But the shaman went into his room and he found that the ear had become a bat and the vagina a little bird. The shaman cried. ‘Give me one of the women,’ he said. But no one would. He went walking along the riverbank with his bow and arrow asking. He saw one of the birds tha sing tik-wa”-Kauka imitated its cal in falsetto. “I don’t know its name The shaman became the bird, and left The women who were from the flesl of the child had children at thei] breasts, but the children had not beer made by men. The children werl called imroyana. They were thl founders of the Kaxuiana.”
And what about the wives who hac gone to live on the serra?
“The man in the house on the serra the owner of the serra, saw thesf women and asked how it was that the} had got here,” Kauka said. “He tried to find out what had happened. Thf women said, ‘Nothing happened. We just flew up here.’ And they flew again to make him believe. The women lived there for many years, and they had :hildren, but the children were not made by men. If the child was a boy, :hey gave it to other Indians.”
Kauka continued, “A thousand men went to see the women of the serra. They were taken there by the owner )f the serra. First, they went up the -iver, then overland. It took three nonths’ walking. The husbands were with them, too. Finally, they got to he big serra. The owner said, ‘Here I ive. On top of the serra. Let’s go up.’ ‘fter two hours of climbing, they ar.ived. They heard noise and conversaion. The owner said, ‘Here the 7Vomen live. Let’s go see them. Don’t )e scared. They will offer us supper lnd something to drink.’ They came 0 a big house. It was about this time .f day. Everybody sat down. The vomen arrived. They were beautiful, vearing tangas. The owner of the erra said to the women, ‘If you have omething to eat and drink, you can Iring it now.’ Each woman lay down In her bed with her breasts pointing in he air and lifted her tanga and said, Supper is ready.’ The men star.ted to ;et on top of the women, but they just quatted over them; they were not sup,osed to make love to them. But one rlan, squatting over the most beautiful f the women, could not control himelf. He wanted her and put his wood rlto her. The other women killed him n top of her. Didn’t I tell you they on’t like men? For this-because the Women don’t like men-the men went way. They went away, and none of ile women wanted to go back with ilem. The owner of the serra arranged plane for the men to go away.”
Amazonian myths are full of such nachronisms; as in dreams, logic and historical authenticity are irrelevant. I asked Kauka about the plane existing so long ago, and he said, “They madf it themselves. It was small. This planf made no noise. It was like a vulturf gliding in the air.” Then he went on, “The men got to Belem and with the women who had grown up from pieces of the child founded the Kaxuiana. Belem then was a maloca”a large communal house, containing a whole village-“called Xurutahumu. From there they went to Kurumukuri, which is now Santarem, and to Pauwiti, which is now Oriximina. And from there they spread out everywhere. Thus all Indians were founded. Each tribe has its own language and its own story of who they first were. But the first Indians were those who came down from the serra.”
I asked Kauka if the words “Cofiori,” “Cufiuris,” or “Conduri” meant anything to him.
He said, “The Cofiori were a tribe around here. It was also the name of my father, who was the chief of the Kaxuiana before me. His name was Jose Sarubi Cofiori, and he called me Cofiori.”
When Kauka began talking, Maria and Regina had come to the edge of the barraciio, and they had been standing there, nursing their babies in the gathering darkness and listening. “They sing Kaxuiana songs to their children, but they don’t tell the stories,” Kauka said. “Only I know this story. Nobody else can tell it anymore. How the Kaxuiana were founded and spread.”
When I told Quersin, who had been shaving at the end of the dock, that, the myth was still alive, and that these people were the descendants of the men who had been left behind by the I Amazon women, his eyes widened, and he said, “So you see, we had to miss Almerindo’s boat.”
-ALEX SHOUMATOFF