A Reporter at Large (The Amazons), Page 2
New Yorker, Mar 24, 1986
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       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.

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