Humboldt, Yanomamis, and Charles

Humboldt, Yanomamis, and Charles

Source: Detail from the cover of The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

One of Charles’s favorite painters, Frederic Edwin Church’s work was greatly influenced by one of his favorite scientists – Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian naturalist. I’ve been reading a newly published graphic novel by Andrea Wulf, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt and her Humboldt biography The Invention of Nature and have discovered some interesting things Humboldt and Charles had in common.

On July 16, 1799, Humboldt (and his companion French botanist Amie Bonpland) landed at Cumana, Venezuela.*  Here he began choosing instruments, engaging guides and preparing for his expedition to the Orinoco River. During Humboldt’s stay in South America, he studied the topography, flora, and fauna of the continent mapping more than 1,700 miles of the Orinoco River. He encountered tribes of indigenous people in remote regions living in extremely primitive states, unchanged since Columbus’s first set foot on the continent. The Orinoco, of which parts are remote and little-traveled even today, was mostly unknown to Europeans in 1800.

One hundred and fifty-five years later, in 1954, Charles worked for the Venezuelan Geodetic Department. He described his experiences in Isla de Margarita, his master’s thesis from the University of Michigan in 2000; in his book Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance published in 2012 and in a letter he wrote to his granddaughter in 2001 re a college essay she was writing.

Edited excerpts from Charles’s letter (written from his hospital bed in 2001) to his granddaughter are below.

“Before completion of the River Caroni bridge in November 1954, the Venezuelan Geodetic Department borrowed me from Marcel [Charles’s boss at the time] to establish benchmarks to map the region south of the Orinoco river for the Cartografía Nacional.  The seemingly uneventful work left me with an unforgettable 100 days of time with one of the oldest human cultures in the world, the Yanomami Indians.  My party of eight surveyors, helpers and a cook covered the territory southwest from the river Orinoco and Cerro Canapiare, already in the Brazilian territory.  We hired the natives to help us in the jungle.  Frequently the army helicopter would bring us supplies and charge the batteries we used for radio communication.  I suffered very much from mosquito bites.  Repellent didn’t work.  I was going to give up my job.  One of the Yanomamis went through a laborious explanation to help me with my dilemma.  The secret was quite simple.  Don’t wash, and after meals just rub the food that remained on your hands into your skin.  Just don’t wash!  –  the Indian motioned to me.  I just washed what was covered with clothing and the rest of my body I diligently rubbed with remains from the food.  Soon I stunk like an Indian and the bugs didn’t bother me.

The above rather short statement in my master’s project was purposely just that, short.  Of course, the 100 days could be described with a much longer essay.  I will write for you just enough to give you an overview so you can compare it with your own research written by anthropologists.  I will write for you some factual events what I remember and as they occurred.  I will follow your own line-by-line questioning, that you can use as if you would have interviewed me.

What was your relationship with the Yanomami?  Did you become friends with any? 

During the 100 days in Orinoco I lived in two different encampments (villages).  The Yanomami were the inhabitants of a rather rough and unfriendly environment for one from a civilized world.  I came there with my engineers and surveyors to perform a scientific study of a terrain, which if not impenetrable, it was very difficult to stay in.  The jungle had many fascinations, but even more dangers.  The Venezuelan government gave us detailed instructions before they brought us there.  About Indians our instructors were rather superficial, just later I assumed they wanted us to get acquainted with them on our own.  Namely each tribe had slightly different customs.

I made sure at all times to be a friend with all of them.  It took several days to get used to their lifestyle, get acquainted with everyone, and tolerate smells both outside the encampments and inside their huts.  I knew the friendship would be temporary while living there.  Later communication would be difficult.  The only psychology I knew was limited to what I read in Sigmund Freud’s works, what I learned from my wife and the short contact I had with the natives on Margarita Island.  I knew enough, however, to distinguish a good-natured intent and how to nurture it.  To answer your question, yes, I was a friend with all of them.  They liked me, perhaps as soon as they made out that I was in charge, gave me the advantage, but I also think that my approach towards them was important.  We needed them more than they needed us.  In all, our relationship with them was the need of their help in the jungle and their need of our gifts (government gave us objects, tools the Indians liked) we gave them from time-to-time.  I also paid them the government established scale for their services.  I was not allowed to give more or less.  Only men who worked for us in the jungle were getting paid.  We were not the first group of people from the north.  They knew how to buy tools for money.  For that they had to walk many days to inhabited regions.

Did you live in their houses or on your own?  What were your quarters like?  

Yanomamis had no houses.  Their huts were put together with grass, plantain, banana and palm branches arranged so rain did not penetrate.  The huts were of all shapes, mostly square or rectangular.  Some smaller ones were round reinforced with bent branches around embedded stakes.  The front of the hut had an entry opening sometimes covered with a hanging branches and leaves.  Some of the better shelters evidenced tie ropes or even steel wire.  The encampment huts were built in a large egg-shaped formation around a football field like playing ground.  They played – competed, sometimes against a visiting group of neighboring village, kicking a ball with bent stick similar to our hockey.  The object was to get the ball to a field of the opposing team.

Our employer, the Cartografía Nacional, furnished us tents equipped with beds, mosquito nets and floors, all to protect us from crawling venomous centipedes and snakes.  Once I got used to the moist heat the sleeping accommodations became acceptable.

What were their reactions to you?

We were not too much of a novelty to them.  They had seen other white men.  I soon found out that the rule was, how you treat me so I will treat you.  Most of them were nice and good people.  The stigma of the other worked both ways!

What food did you eat, where did you get water?

We all had to be careful with food prepared by the Indians, because our biological systems hadn’t built up sufficient antibodies and we could get ill quickly.  It took several months to “acclimatize.” I didn’t like their foods.  Cassava made of fermented corn was a relatively new food in Yanomami territory.  It was brought from the Caribbean.  The roasted meats were not spiced to my liking and one never knew when they were preparing monkeys.  Morocoy (turtle), iguana, rodents and fish were frequent meals of the Indians.

Water was abundant in small ponds and streams.  Drinking water our cook boiled and filtered in special gravity stone filters.  We all consumed much whiskey.  The army helicopter every week replenished our supply.  We tolerated in well and it seemed necessary in the blasted moist heat.

Did you ever witness any wars, or any ceremonies?

No.  There were no wars.  The only competitive play was the ball play I talked about above.

The way Yanomamis liked and respected their relationships with the opposite sex seemed almost ceremonial, but as such I have not seen any ceremonies.”

*Charles and I traveled to Cumana from Isla de Margarita 200 years later for research he was doing on his master’s thesis.

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