Reporter at Large (The Amazons)
New Yorker, Mar 24, 1986
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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
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:
A final, albeit remote, possibility is, of course, that a tribe of women without men did live on the Nhamunda.
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:
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,
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.