Alexander von Humboldt.

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seize and convey them to Lisbon. This project, however,
was not countenanced b}' the government at home, who,
when informed of the zeal of its subaltern agents, gave
instant orders that the philosophers should not be dis-
turbed in their pursuits.

Among the Indians of the Rio Negro they found some
of those green pcl)blcs known by the name of Amazon-
stones, and which are worn as amulets. The form
usually given to them is that of the Persepolitan cylin-
ders longitudinally perforated. These hard substances
denote a degree of civilisation superior to that of the
present inhabitants, who, so far from being able to cut
them, imagine that they are naturally soft when taken

Extent of



out of the earth, and harden after they have been chap.xviii
moulded by the hand. They were found to be jade or "—
saussurite, approaching to compact felspar, of a colour Kicai cha-
passing from apple to emerald green, translucent on the ''''•^'*=''"-
edges, and taking a fine polish ; but the substance usually
called Amazon-stone in Europe is different, being a
common felspar of a similar colour, coming from the
Uralian Mountains and Lake Onega, in Russia.

Connected with this mineral are the warlike women, Amazons.
whom the travellers of the sixteenth century named the
Amazons of the New World ; and regarding whom
Humboldt found no satisfactory accounts, although he
is disposed to believe that their existence was not merely

The travellers passed three daj's at San Carlos, watch- g^n Carioi
ing the greater part of each night, in the hope of seizing
the moment of the passage of some star over the meridian ;
but the sky was continually obscured by vapours. On
the 10th May they embarked a little before sunrise to
go up the Rio Negro. The morning was fine, but as the
heat increased the firmament became darkened. Passing
l)etween the islands of Zaruma and Mibita, covered with
dense vegetation, and ascending the rapids of the Piedra
de Uinumane, they entered the Casiquiare at the distance pritraiice of
of 9| miles from the fort of San Carlos. The rock at the Casi-
the rapids was granite, traversed by numerous veins of ''"'*'' ®
quartz several inches broad. The night was spent at
the mission of San Francisco Solano, on the left bank of
the Casiquiare. The Indians were of two nations, the
Pacimonales and Cheruvichahenas ; and from the lattei
the travellers endeavoured to obtain some information
respecting the upper part and sources of the Rio Negro,
but without success. In one of the huts of the former
tribe they purchased two large birds, a toucan and a Birds.
macaw, to add to the already considerable stock which
they possessed. Most of the animals were confined in
small cages, while others ran at liberty all over the boat.
At the approach of rain, the macaws uttered frightful
screams, the toucan was desirous of gaining the shore in




CUAP.xviiL order to fish, and tlie little monkeys went in search of
Father Zea to oljtain shelter in his large sleeves. At
night the leathern case containing tlieir provisions was
placed in the centre ; then the instruments and cages ;
around which were suspended the hammocks of the
travellers ; and beyond them the Indians slept, protected
by a circle of fires to keep off the jaguars.
LoTiKitiide On the 11th they left the mission of San Francisco
andlaUtudc. golano at a late hour to make a short day's journey, for
the vapours had begun to break up, and tlie travellers
were unwilling to go far from the mouth of the Casi-
quiare without determining the longitude and latitude.
This they had an opportunity of doing at night in the
neighbourhood of a solitary granite rock, the Piedra di
Culimacari, which they found to be in lat. 2° 0' 42"
north, and long. 67° 13' 20" west. The determination
was of great importance in a geographical and political
point of view, for the greatest errors existed in maps, and
the equator had been considered as the boundary between
the Spanish and Portuguese possessions.

Leaving the Rock of Culimacari at half after one in
the morning, they proceeded against the current, which
Avas very rapid. The waters of the Casiquiare are white,
and the mosquitoes again commenced their invasions,
becoming more numerous as the boat receded from the
black stream of the Rio Negro. In the whole course of
the Casiquiare thoy did not find in the Christian settle-
ments a population of 200 individuals, and the free
Indians have retired from its banks. During a great
part of tlie year tlie natives subsist on ants. At the
mission of Mandavaca, which they reached in the evening,
they found a monk who had spent twenty years in the
country, and whose legs were so spotted by the stings of
insects that the whiteness of the skin could scarcely be
perceived. He complained of his solitude, and the sad
necessity which often compelled him to leave the most
atrocious crimes unpunished. An indigenous alcayde,
or overseer, liad a few years before eaten one of his
wives, after fattening her bv a:ood feeding. " You

Rnck of

Soli tan-


cannot imagine," said the missionary, " all the perversity chap.xvhi
of this Indian family. You receive men of a new tril)e ^., —
into the village ; they appear to he good, mild, and in- of tiie
dustrious ; but suffer tlicm to take part in an incursion ^"'^"'"*-
to bring in the natives, and you can scarcely prevent
them from murdering all they meet, and hiding some
portions of the dead bodies." The travellers had in
t-lieir canoe a fugitive Indian from the Guaisia, who in a
few weeks had become sufficiently civilized to be very Camubalism
useful. As he was mild and intelligent, they had some
desire of taking him into their service ; but discovering
that his anthropophagous propensities remained they
gave up the idea. He told them that " his relations (the
I^eople of his tribe) preferred the inside of the hands in
man, as in bears," accompanying the assertion with
gestures of savage joy.

Although the Indians of the Casiquiare readily return inteiiiirence
to their barbarous habits, they manifest, while in the »'"i iiuiustry
missions, intelligence, industry, and a great facility in
leai'ning the Spanish tongue. As the villages are usually
inhabited by three or four tribes who do not understand
each other, the language of their instructor affords a
general means of communication. The soil on the
Casiquiare is of excellent quality. Rice, beans, cotton,
sugar, and indigo, thrive wherever they have been tried ;
but the humidity of the air, and the swarms of insects,
oppose almost insuperable obstacles to cultivation. Im-
mense bands of white ants destroy every thing that comes
in their way ; insomucli, that when a missionary would
cultivate salad, or any European culinary vegetable, he
fills an old boat with soil, and having sown the seeds
suspends it with cords, or elevates it on posts.

From the 14tli to the 21st the travellers continued to Ascent of
ascend the Casiquiare, which flowed with considerable the Casi-
rapidity, having a breadth of 426 yards, and bordered ^^^''^•
by two enormous walls of trees hung with lianas. No
openings could be discovered in these fences ; and at
night the Indians had to cut a small spot with their
hatchets to make room enough for their beds, it being



CD shore.

Channel of
the Orinoca

ciiAP.xvilI. impossible to remain in the canoe on account of the
DifflcdHes mosquitoes and heavy rains. Great difficulty was ex-
perienced in finding wood to make a fire, the branches
being so full of sap that they would scarcely burn. On
shore the pothoscs, arums, and lianas, furnished so thick
a covering, that although it rained violently they were
completely sheltered. At their last resting-place on the
Casiquiare, the jaguars carried off" their great dog while
they slept.

On the 21st May they again entered the channel of
the Orinoco, three leagues below the mission of Esme-
ralda. Here the scenery wore a very imposing aspect,
lofty granitic mountains rising on the northern bank.
The celebrated bifurcation of the river takes place in
this manner : The stream, issuing from among the
mountains, reaches the opening of a valley or depression
of the ground which terminates at the Rio Negro, and
divides into two branches. The principal branch con-
tinues its course toward the west-north-west, turning
round the group of the mountains of Parime, while the
other flows off southward and joins the Rio Negro. By
this latter branch our travellers ascended from the river
iust mentioned, and again entered the Orinoco, four
weeks after they had left it near the mouth of the

Guaviare. They had still a voyage
perform before reaching Angostura.

of 863 miles to



Route from Esmeralda to Angostura,

Mission of Esmeralda — Curare Poison — Indians — Duida Moun-
tain—Descent of the Orinoco — Cave of Ataruipe — Raudaiito of
Carucari — Mission of Uruana — Character of the Otomacs —
Clay eaten by the Natives — Arrival at Angostura — The Travel-
lers attacked by Fever — Ferocity of the Crocodiles.

Opposite the point where the division of the river takes cHAP. XIX.
place, there rises in the form of an amphitheatre a group j)„j,|~
of granitic mountains, of which the principal one bears mountain.
the name of Duida. It is about 8500 feet high ; and
being perpendicular on the south and west, bare and
stony on the summit, and clothed on its less steep decliv-
ities with vast forests, presents a magnificent spectacle.
At the foot of this huge mass is placed the most solitary
and remote Christian settlement on the Upper Orinoco,
— the mission of Esmeralda, containing eighty inhabi-
tants. It is surrounded by a beautiful plain, covered
with grasses of various species, pine-apples, and clumps
of Mauritia palm, and watered by limpid rills.

There was no monk at the village ; but the travellers HospitaWe
were received with kindness by an old officer, who, reception,
taking them for Catalonian shopkeepers, admired their
simplicity when he saw the bundles of paper in which
their plants were preserved, and which he supposed the}-
intended for sale. Notwithstanding the smallness of the
mission, three Indian languages were spoken in it ; and
among the inhabitants were some Zamboes, mulattoes,




CHAP. XIX. and copper-coloured people. A mineralogical error
IsmenUda. ^^^6 celebrity to Esmeralda, the rock-crystals and
cliloritic quartzes of Duida having been mistaken for
diamonds and emeralds. The converts live in great
poverty, and their misery is augmented by prodigious
swarms of mosquitoes. Yet the situation of the estab-
lishment is exceedingly picturesque ; the surrounding
country is possessed of great fertility ; and plantains,
indigo, sugar, and cacao, might be produced in abun-

Tliis village is the most celebrated spot on the
Orinoco for tlie manufacture of the curare, a very active
poison employed in war and in the chase, as well as a
remedy for gastric obstructions. Erroneous ideas had
been entertained of this substance ; but our travellers
had an opportunity of seeing it prepared. When they
arrived at Esmeralda, most of the Indians had just
finislied an excursion to gather juvias or the fruit of the
bei'tholletia, and the liana which yields the curare.
Their return was celebrated by a festival, which lasted
several days, during which they were in a state of
intoxication. One less drunk than the rest was employed
in preparing the poison. He was the chemist of the
place, and boasted of his skill, extolling the composition
as superior to any thing that could be made in Europe.
Tlie liana which yields it is named bejuco, and appeared
to be of the Strychnos family. The branches are
scraped with a knife, and the bark tliat comes off is
bruised, and reduced to very thin filaments on the
stone employed for grinding cassava. A cold infusion
is prepared by pouring water on this fibrous mass, in a
funnel made of a plantain-leaf rolled up in the form of
a cone, and placed in another somewhat stronger made
of palm-leaves, the whole supported by a slight frame-
work. A yellowisli fluid filters through the apparatus.
It is the venomous liquor; wliich, however, acquires
strength only when concentrated by evaporation in a
large earthen pot. To give it consistence, it is mixed
witli a glutinous vegetable juice, obtained from a tree


Mode (if


named kiracaguera. At the moment when this addition CHAP. xix.

is made to the fluid, now kept in a state of ebulHtion, .r — ,.

the whole blackens, and coagulates into a substance poison.

resembling tar or thick syrup. The curare may be

tasted without danger ; for, like the venom of serpents,

it only acts when introduced directly into tlie blood,

and the Indians consider it an excellent stomachic. It

is universally employed by them in hunting, the tips of

their arrows being covered with it ; and the usual mode

of killing domestic fowls is to scratch the skin with one

of these infected weapons. Other species of vegetable

poison are manufactured in various parts of Guiana.

After seeing this composition prepared, the philo- Festival of
sophers accompanied the artist to the festival of the tiiejuvias.
juvias. In the hut where the revellers were assembled,
large roasted monkeys blackened by smoke were ranged
against the wall. Humboldt imagines that the habit
of eating animals so much resembling man has in some
degree contributed to diminish the horror of anthropo-
phagy among savages. Apes when thus cooked, and
especially such as have a very round head, bear a hideous
likeness to a child ; and for this reason such Europeans
as are obliged to feed upon them separate the head and
hands before the dish is presented at their tables. The
flesh is very lean and dry.

Among the articles brought by the Indians from their interestinj,'
expedition were various interesting vegetable produc- vegetable
tions ; fruits of different species, reeds upwards of fifteen
feet long, perfectly straight and free of knots, and bark
used for making shirts. The women were employed in
serving the men with the food already mentioned,
fermented liquors, and palm-cabbage, but were not per
mitted to join in the festivities. Among all the tribes
of the Orinoco the females live in a sort of slavery,
almost the whole labour devolving upon them. Poly-
gamy is frequently practised, and on the other hand a
kind of polyandry is established in places where the
fair sex are less numerous. When a native who has
several wives becomes a Christian, the missionaries



Summit of
llic Uuidii.


CHAP. XIX compel him to choose her whom he prefers and to
— dismiss tlie others.

The summit of Duida is so steep that no person has
ever ascended it. At the beginning and end of the
rainy season, small flames, which appear to shift, are
seen upon it. On this account the mountain has been
called a volcano, which, however, it is not. The granite
whereof it is composed is full of veins, some of which
being partly open, gaseous and inflammable vapours
may pass through them ; for it is not probable that the
flames are caused Ity lightning, the humidity of the
climate being such that plants do not readily take fire.

The travellers had an opportunity of seeing at Esme-
ralda some of the dwarf and fair Indians, that ancient
traditions had mentioned as living near the sources of
the Orinoco. The Guaicas, or diminutive class, whom
they measured, were in general from 4 feet 10^ to 4
feet 1 1 i^ inches in height ; and it was said that the
whole tribe was of the same stature. The Guahariboes,
or fair variety, were similar to the others in form
and features, and differed only in having the skin of a
lighter tint.

^ ^ On the 23d May the travellers left the mission of

departure i i - r- 1 i i i i_

from Esmer- ii.smeralda m a state of languor and weakness caused by

'^^'^•^ the torment of insects, bad nourishment, and a long

voyage performed in a narrow and damp boat. They

had not attempted to ascend the Orinoco towards its

sources, as the country above that station was inhabited

by liostile Indians ; so that of the two geographical

problems connected with the river, — the position of its

sources and the nature of its communication with the

Rio Negro, — tliey had been obliged to content themselves

with the solution of the latter. When they embarked

they were surrounded by tlie mulattoes and others who

considered themselves Spaniards, and who entreated

them to solicit from the governor of Angostura their

return to the Llanos, or at least their removal to the

missions of the Rio Negro. Humboldt pleaded the

cause of these proscribed men at a subsequent period *


but his efforts were fruitless. The weather was very CHAP. Xix.

stormy, and tlie summit of Duida was enveloped in <,

clouds ; but the thunders which rolled there did not wentUer.
disturb the plains. Nor did they, generally speaking,
observe in the valley of the Orinoco those violent
electric explosions which almost every night, during the
rainy season, alarm the traveller along the Rio Magda-
lena. Alter four hours' navigation in descending the
stream, they arrived at the bifurcation, and reposed on
the same beach of the Casiquiare, where a few days
before their dog had been carried oflf by the jaguars.
The cries of these animals were again heard through the
whole night. The black tiger also occurs in these
districts. It is celebrated for its strength and ferocity,
and appears to be larger than the other, of which, how-
ever, it is probably a variety.

Leaving their resting-place before sunrise, and sailing passape

with the current, they passed the mouths of the Cunu- ''o^^'" ^^^

. •^ ^ river,

cunumo, Guanami, and Puruname. The country was

entirely desert, although rude figures representing the

sun, the moon, and different animals, are to be seen on

the granite rocks ; attesting the former existence of a

people more civilized than any that they had seen.

On the 27th May they reached the mission of San g,^„ j.gj._
Fernando de Atabapo, where they had lodged a month "undo de
before on their ascent toward the Rio Negro. The '' '^^'^
president had allowed himself to become very uneasy
respecting the object of then- journey ; and requested
Humboldt to leave a writing in his hands, bearing testi-
mony to the good order that prevailed in the Christian
settlements on the Orinoco, and the mildness with
which the natives were treated. This, however, he
declined. From this point they retraced their former
route, and passed the cataracts. On the 31st they
landed before sunset at the Puerto de la Expedicion, for
the purpose of visiting the cave of Ataruipe, which is the
sepulchre of an extinct nation.

" We climbed," says Humboldt, " with ditticulty and
not without danger, a steep rock of granite, entirely


CHAP. XIX. destitute of soil. It would have been almost impossible
AscentTo a ^^ ^^ ^^^^ ^^^^ ^" *''^^ smooth and hif^hly inclined sui -
si-pulchral face, had not large crystals of felspar, which had resisted
'^"^^ decomposition, projected from the roc'k so as to present

points of support. Scarcely had we reached the summit
of the mountain when we were struck with astonish-
ment at the extraordinary appearance of the surrounding
country : The foamy bed of tlie waters was filled with
an archipelago of islands covered with palms. Toward
Remarkable the west, on the left bank of the Orinoco, extended the
view. savannahs of the Meta and Casanare, like a sea of

verdure, the misty horizon of which was illuminated
by the rays of the setting sun. The mighty orb, like a
globe of fire suspended over the plain, and the solitary
peak of Uniana, which appeared more lofty from being
wrapped in vapours that softened its outlines, contri-
buted to impress a character of sublimity upon the
scene. We looked down into a deep valley enclosed on
every side. Birds of prey and goatsuckers winged their
solitary way in this inaccessible circus. We found
I)leasure in following their fleeting shadows as they
glided slowly over the flanks of the rock,
Masses of " -^ narrow ridge led us towards a neighbouring

granite. mountain, the rounded summit of which supported
enormous blocks of granite. These masses are more
than 40 or 50 feet in diameter, and present a form so
perfectly spherical, that, as they seem to touch the
ground only by a small number of points, it might be
supposed that the slightest shock of an earthquake
would roll them into the abyss. I do not remember to
have seen any where else a similar phenomenon amid
the decompositions of granitic deposites. If the balls
rested upon a rock of a different nature, as in the case
witli the blocks of Jura, it might be supposed that they
had been rounded by tlie action of water, or projected
by the force of an elastic fluid ; but their position, on
tlie summit of a hill of the same nature, renders it more
probable that they owe their origin to a gradual decom-
position of the rock.


" The most remote part of the valley is covered by a cuap. xix
dense forest. In this shady and solitary place, on the ^^^ ~r
declivity of a steep mountain, opens the cave of Ata- Aturuipe.
ruipe. It is less a cave than a projecting rock, in which
the waters have scooped a great hollow, when, in the
ancient revolutions of our planet, they had reached to
that height. In this tomb of a whole extinct tribe we
soon counted nearly 600 skeletons in good preservation,
and arranged so regularly that it would have been
difficult to make an error in numbering them. Each skeletons,
skeleton rests upon a kind of basket formed of the
petioles of palms. These baskets, which the natives
call mapires, have the form of a square bag. Their size
is proportional to the age of the dead ; and there are
even some for infants which had died at the moment of
birth. We saw them from ten inches and a half to
three feet six inches and a half in length. All the
skeletons are bent, and so entire that not a rib or a
bone of the fingers or toes is wanting. The bones
have been prepared in three different ways, — whitened
in the air and sun, dyed red with onoto, a colouring
matter obtained from the Bixa orellana ; or, like
mummies, covered with odorous resins, and enveloped Mummies.
in leaves of heliconia and banana. The Indians related
to us, that the corpse is first placed in the humid earth,
that the flesh may be consumed by degrees. Some
months after it is taken out, and the flesh that remains
on the bones is scraped off with sharp stones. Several
tribes of Guiana still follow this practice. Near the
mapires or baskets there were vases of half-burnt clay,
which appeared to contain the bones of the same family.
The largest of these vases or funereal urns are three feet
two inches high, and four feet six inches long. They
are of a greenish-gray colour, and have an oval form
not unpleasant to the eye. The handles are mado in
the form of crocodiles or serpents, and the edge Ls en-
circled by meanders, labyrintlis, and grecqucs, with
narrow lines variously combined. These paintincs are
seen in all countries, among nations placed at the


CHAP. XIX. greatest distances from each otlicr, and tlie most different
^ in respect to civilisation. Tlie inhabitants of the little

pottery. mission of Maypures execute them at the present day
on their most common pottery. They adorn the shields
of the Otaheitans, the fisliing-instruments of the Esqui-
maux, the walls of the Mexican palace of Mitla, and
the vases of Magna Gra;cia.

Cranio. " ^^® opened, to the great concern of our guides,

several mapires, for the purpose of attentively examining
the form of the skulls. They all presented the charac-
ters of the American race, — two or three only ap-
proached the Caucasian form. We took several skulls,
the skeleton of a child of six or seven years, and those
of two full-grown men, of the nation of the Atures.
All these bones, some painted red, others covered with
odorous resins, were placed in the mapires or baskets
already described. They formed nearly the whole
lading of a mule ; and, as we were aware of the super-

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 19 of 35)