Connecting Lisbon-Manaus: Suggested Reading: "1491

March 10, 2011 – 00:00

Photo of a child infected with smallpox by Charles C. Mann *

the landscape of the Beni was constructed by the populous, technologically advanced Indian society more than a thousand years in AugustNomads of the Longbow. Child infected with smallpox ecological release

Universalis Cosmographia, the Waldseemüller wall map dated 1507, depicts the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Ocean separating Asia from the Americas

Illustration depicting Both male and female flowers of maize Que The forests the first New England colonists thought were primeval and enduring were actually in the midst of violent change and demographic collapse.

Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, juvenile (left),
male (center), female (right)

at the Columbus team of the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly touched by human hands.

The proposed route for the de Soto Expedition
based on Charles M. Hudson map of 1997

Map showing the course of the expeditions of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Holmberg's Mistake

A View from Above

(Part 1 and 2)


"Do not touch that tree, " said Balée.
I froze. I was climbing a low, crumbly hill and had been about to support myself by grasping the scrawny, almost vine-like tree with splayed leaves. "Triplaris American, " said Balée an expert in forest botany. "You have to watch out for it." In an unusual arrangement, he said, T. American plays host to colonies of tiny red ants-indeed, it has trouble surviving without Them. The ants occupy minute tunnels just beneath the bark. In return for shelter, the ants attack anything que touches the tree-insect, bird, unwary writer. The venom-squirting ferocity of Their attack gives rise to T. American 's Local nickname: devil tree.
At the base of the devil tree, exposing its roots, was a deserted animals burrow. Balée October scraped some dirt with a knife, then waved me over, along with Erickson and my son Newell, who were Accompanying us. The depression was thick with pottery busted. Could we see the rims of plates and what looked like the foot of a teakettle-it was shaped like a human foot, complete with painted toenails. Balée October plucked half a dozen pieces of ceramic: shards of pots and plates, chipped length of the cylindrical bar que may have been part of the pot's support leg. The much to an eighth of the hill, by volume, was composed of such fragments, he said. You could dig almost anywhere on it and see the like. We were clambering up an immense pile of broken crockery.
The pile is known as Ibibate, at fifty-nine feet one of the tallest known forested mounds in the Beni. Erickson explained to me the que of ceramic pieces were probably Intended to help build up and aerate the soil is muddy settlement and agriculture. But though this explanation makes sense on engineering grounds, he said, it does not make the long-ago actions of the Moundbuilders any less mysterious.Botanical painting of maize The mounds cover such an enormous area que They seem unlikely to be the byproduct of waste. Monte Testaccio, the hill of broken pots southeast of Rome, was a garbage dump for the entire imperial city. Ibibate is larger than Monte Testaccio and but one of hundreds of similar mounds. Surely the Beni did not generate more waste than in Rome-the ceramics Ibibate, Erickson Argues, Indicate que large numbers of people, many of Them skilled laborers, lived for a long time on these mounds, feasting and drinking all the while exuberantly. The number of potters Necessary to make the heaps of crockery, the team required for labor, the number of people needed to Provide food and shelter for the potters, the organization of large-scale destruction and burial-all of it is evidence, to Erickson's way of thinking, that a thousand years ago the Beni was the site of a highly structured society, one que through archaeological investigation was just beginning to come into view.
Accompanying us were two day que Sirionó Indians, Chiro Cuéllar and his son-in-law Rafael. The two men were wiry, dark, and Nearly beardless; beside Them walking on the trail, I had noticed small nicks in Their earlobes. Rafael, almost cheerful to bumptiousness, peppered the afternoon with comments; Chiro, a local figure of authority, smoked locally made "Marlboro" cigarettes Observed and our progress with an expression of amused tolerance. They lived about a mile away, in a little village at the end of a long, rutted dirt road. We had driven there earlier in the day, parking in the shade of a tumbledown old missionary school and some buildings. The structures were clustered near the top of a small hill-another ancient mound. While Newell and I Waited by the truck, and Erickson Balée went inside the school to obtain infor permission from Chiro and the other members of the village council to tramp around. Noticing That We were idle, a couple of kids Sirionó Newell and tried to persuade me to look at a young jaguar in the pen, and to give Them money for this thrill. After a few minutes, and Erickson Balée emerged with the requisite permission-and two chaperones, Chiro and Rafael. Now, climbing up Ibibate, Chiro Observed que I was standing by the devil tree. Keeping his deadpan expression, he Suggested que I climb it. Up top, he said, I would find some delicious jungle fruit. "It will be like nothing you have experienced before, " he promised.
From the top of Ibibate we were able to see the surrounding savanna. Perhaps a quarter mile away, across the stretch of yellow, waist-high grass, was a straight line of trees-an ancient raised causeway, Erickson said. Otherwise the countryside was so flat That We Could see for miles in every direction-or, rather, Could we have seen for miles, if the air in some directions had not been filled with smoke.
Afterward I Wondered about the relationship of our escorts to this place. Were the Sirionó like contemporary Italians living among the monuments of the Roman Empire?Passenger pigeons Erickson and pedi que Balée question During the drive back.
Their answer continued sporadically through the rest of the evening, the we rode to our lodgings in an unseasonable cold rain and then had dinner. In the 1970s, They Said, most Authorities would have answered my question about the Sirionó in one way. Today most would answer it in another, different way. The difference Involves what I came to think of, rather unfairly, the Holmberg's Mistake.
Although the Sirionó are but one of a score of Native American groups in the Beni, They are the best known. Between 1940 and 1942 a young doctoral student named Allan R. Holmberg lived among Them. He published his account of Their Lives, Nomads of the Long Bow , in 1950. (The title Refers to the six-foot bows the Sirionó use for hunting.) Quickly Recognized as a classic, Nomads remains an iconic and influential text; filtered through the countless other scholarly articles and the popular press, it Became one of the main sources for the outside World's image of South American Indians.
The Sirionó, Reported Holmberg, were "among the most culturally backward peoples of the world." Living in constant want and hunger, he said, They had no clothes, the domestic animals, the musical (not even rattles and drums), in art or design (except necklaces of animal teeth), and almost no religion (Sirionó the "conception of the cosmos" was "almost completely uncrystallized"). Incredibly, They could not count beyond three or make fire (They Carried it, he wrote, "from camp to camp in the [burning] brand"). Their poor lean-tos, heaped haphazardly made of palm fronds, were so ineffective against rain and insects que the typical band member "undergoes many a sleepless night During the year." Crouched over meager campfires During the wet, buggy nights, the Sirionó were living exemplars of primitive humankind-the "quintessence" of "man in the raw state of nature, " the Holmberg put it. For millennia, he thought, They had existed almost without change in the landscape unmarked by Their Presence. They then encountered European society and for the first team Their history acquired a narrative flow.
Holmberg was a careful and compassionate researcher Whose detailed observations of life Sirionó Remain valuable today. And he bravely surmounted trials in Bolivia que Caused many others would have to give up. During his months in the field he was always uncomfortable Benthic, usually hungry, and often Do sick. Blinded by an infection in Both eyes, he walked for days through the forest to the clinic, holding the hand of a Sirionó guide. He never fully recovered his health. After his return, he Became head of the anthropology department at Cornell University, from Which position he led Celebrated its efforts to Alleviate poverty in the Andes. Nonetheless, he was wrong about the Sirionó. And he was wrong about the Beni They inhabited the place-wrong in a way that is instructive, even exemplary.
Before Columbus, Holmberg Believed, Both the people and the land had in real history. Stated so baldly, this notion-that the indigenous peoples of the Americas changelessly floated through the millennia until 1492-may seem ludicrous. But flaws in perspective often Do Appear obvious only after They are pointed in October In this case They Took decades to rectify.
The Bolivian government's instability and fits of anti-American and anti-European rhetoric Ensured que few foreign anthropologists and archaeologists Followed Holmberg into the Beni. Not only was the hostile government, the region, the center of the cocaine trade in the 1970s and 1980s, was dangerous. Today there is less drug trafficking, but smugglers' runways can still be seen, cut into remote patches of forest. The wreck of the crashed drug plane sits not far from the airport in Trinidad, the biggest town in the province.Map of the Soto expidition During the drug wars "the Beni was neglected, even by Bolivian standards, " According to Robert Langstroth, a geographer and ecologist range in Wisconsin who did his dissertation fieldwork there. "It was a backwater of a backwater." Gradually a small number of scientists ventured into the region. What they learned transformed Their understanding of the place and its people.
Just as Believed Holmberg, the Sirionó were among the most culturally impoverished people on earth. But this was not because They were unchanged holdovers from humankind's ancient past but because smallpox and influenza Their laid waste to villages in the 1920s. Before the epidemics at least three thousand Sirionó, and probably many more, lived in eastern Bolivia. Holmberg's team by fewer than 150 Remained-the loss of more than 95 percent in less than a generation. So catastrophic was the decline que the Sirionó passed through a genetic bottleneck. (A genetic bottleneck occurs when a population so small que passe Individuals are forced to mate with relatives, Which can produce deleterious hereditary effects.) The effects of the bottleneck were described in 1982 When Allyn Stearman of the University of Central Florida Became the first anthropologist to visit the Sirionó since Holmberg. Stearman discovered the que Sirionó were thirty times more Likely to be born with clubfeet than typical human Populations. And almost all the Sirionó had unusual nicknames in Their earlobes, the traits I had noticed on the two men Accompanying us.
Even the the epidemics hit, Stearman learned, the group was fighting the white cattle ranchers who were taking over the region. The Bolivian military aided the incursion by hunting down and throwing the Sirionó Them into what were, in effect, prison camps. Those released from confinement were forced into servitude on the ranches. The Holmberg Traveled with people wandering in the forest had been hiding from Their abusers. At some risk to himself, Them Holmberg tried to help, but he never fully grasped que the people he saw the remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually persecuted the survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and Concluded They Belonged to the que que culture had always been barefoot and starving.
Far from being leftovers from the Stone Age, in fact, probably the Sirionó are relative newcomers to the Beni. They speak a language in the Tupi-Guarani group, one of the most important Indian language families in South America but one not common in Bolivia. Linguistic evidence, first weighed by anthropologists in the 1970s, Suggests que They arrived from the north to the the late seventeenth century, about the team of the first Spanish settlers and missionaries. Other evidence Suggests They may have come a few centuries earlier; Tupi-Guaraní-speaking groups, possibly including the Sirionó, Attacked the Inka empire in the early sixteenth century. No one knows why the Sirionó moved in, but one reason may be simply the que then Beni was little populated. Not long before, the previous inhabitants' society had disintegrated.
To judge by Nomads of the Long Bow , Holmberg did not know of this earlier culture—the culture that built the causeways and mounds and fish weirs. He didn't see that the Sirionó were walking through a landscape that had been shaped by somebody else. A few European observers before Holmberg had remarked upon the earthworks' existence, though some doubted that the causeways and forest islands were of human origin. But they did not draw systematic scholarly attention until 1961, when William Denevan came to Bolivia. Then a doctoral student, he had learned of the region's peculiar landscape during an earlier stint as a cub reporter in Peru and thought it might make an interesting topic for his thesis. Upon arrival he discovered that oil-company geologists, the only scientists in the area, believed the Beni was thick with the remains of an unknown civilization.
Convincing a local pilot to push his usual route westward, Denevan examined the Beni from above. He observed exactly what I saw four decades later: isolated hillocks of forest; long raised berms; canals; raised agricultural fields; circular, moat-like ditches; and odd, zigzagging ridges. “I'm looking out of one of these DC-3 windows, and I'm going berserk in this little airplane, ” Denevan said to me. “I knew these things were not natural. You just don't have that kind of straight line in nature.” As Denevan learned more about the landscape, his amazement grew. “It's a completely humanized landscape, ” he said. “To me, it was clearly the most exciting thing going on in the Amazon and adjacent areas. It may be the most important thing in all of South America, I think. Yet it was practically untouched” by scientists. It is still almost untouched—there aren't even any detailed maps of the earthworks and canals.
Beginning as much as three thousand years ago, this long-ago society—Erickson believes it was probably founded by the ancestors of Arawak-speaking peoples now called the Mojo and the Bauré—created one of the largest, strangest, and most ecologically rich artificial environments on the planet. These people built up the mounds for homes and farms, constructed the causeways and canals for transportation and communication, created the fish weirs to feed themselves, and burned the savannas to keep them clear of invading trees. A thousand years ago their society was at its height. Their villages and towns were spacious, formal, and guarded by moats and palisades. In Erickson's hypothetical reconstruction, as many as a million people may have walked the causeways of eastern Bolivia in their long cotton tunics, heavy ornaments dangling from their wrists and necks.
Today, hundreds of years after this Arawak culture passed from the scene, the forest on and around Ibibate mound looks like the classic Amazon of conservationists' dreams: lianas thick as a human arm, dangling blade-like leaves more than six feet long, smooth-boled Brazil nut trees, thick-bodied flowers that smell like warm meat. In terms of species richness, Balée told me, the forest islands of Bolivia are comparable to any place in South America. The same is true of the Beni savanna, it seems, with its different complement of species. Ecologically, the region is a treasure, but one designed and executed by human beings. Erickson regards the landscape of the Beni as one of humankind's greatest works of art, a masterpiece that until recently was almost completely unknown, a masterpiece in a place with a name that few people outside Bolivia would recognize. link A View from Above


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