Alexander von Humboldt.

The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt online

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the three stations jointly may be supposed to furnish
6000. It requires 5000 eggs to fill a jar ; and if we
estimate at 100 or 116 the number which one tortoise
produces, and allow one-third to be broken at the time
of laying, we may presume that 830,000 of these animals
assemble every year, and lay 33,000,000 of eggs. This
calculation, however, is much below the truth. Many
of them lay only 60 or 70 ; great numbers of them again Number of
are devoured by jaguars ; the Indians take away a con- '"itoises.
siderable quantity to eat them dried in tlie sun, and
break nearly as many while gathering them ; and,
besides, the proportion that is hatched is such, tliat
Humboldt saw the whole shore near the encampment of
Uruana swarming with young ones. Moreover, all tlie
arraus do not assemble on the three shores of the en-
campments, but many lay elsewhere. The number
which annually deposite their eggs on the shores of the
Lower Orinoco may therefore be estimated at little
short of a million. The travellers were shown the shells
of large turtles which had been emptied by the jaguars.
These animals surprise them on the sand, and turn tliem
on their back in order to devour them at their ease :
they dig up the eggs also ; and, together with the
gallinazo-vulture and the herons destroy thousands of
their brood.




tion of the

Moon li gilt

of the IJio

Dangers of
Uie rivers.

After procuring some frcsli provision, and taking leave
of the missionary, tliey set sail in tlie afternoon. The
wind blew in srjualls, and after they had entered the
mountainous part of the country, they found the canoe
not very safe when under sail ; but the master was
desirous of showing off to the Indians, and in going close
upon the wind almost upset his vessel, which filled with
water and nearly foundered. In the evening they
landed on a barren island, where they supped under a
beautiful moonlight, with turtle-shells for seats, and in-
dulged their imagination with the picture of a ship-
wrecked man, wandering on the desert shores of the
Orinoco amid rivers full of crocodiles and caribe fishes.
The night was intensely hot, and not finding trees on
which to sling their hammocks, they slept on skins spread
on the ground. To their surprise the jaguars swam to
the island, although they had kindled fires to prevent
them ; but these animals did not venture to attack them.

On the 7th they passed the mouth of the Rio Arauca,
which is frequented by immense numbers of birds. They
also saw the mission of Uruana, at the foot of a moun-
tain composed of detached blocks of granite, in the
caverns formed by which hieroglyphic figures are sculp-
tured. Measuring the breadth of the Orinoco here,
they found it, at a distance of 670 miles from the mouth,
to be 5700 yards, or nearly three miles. The tempera-
ture of the water at its surface was 82°. As the strength
of the current increased, the progress of the boat became
much slower, while at one time the woods deprived
them of the wind, and at another a violent gust descended
from the mountain-passes. Opposite the lake of Capa-
naparo, which communicates with the river, the number
of crocodiles was increased. The Indians asserted that
they came in troops to the water from the savannahs,
where they lie buried in the solid mud until the first
showers awaken them. Humboldt remarks, that the
dry season of the torrid zone corresponds to the winter
of the temperate regions of the globe ; and that while
the alliijators of North America become torpid through


excess of cold, the crocodiles of the Llanos are reduced CHAP.yvii.
to the same state throup;h deficiency of moisture.

They now entered the passage of the Baraguan, where Passage of
tlie Orinoco is hemmed in by precipices of granite, *'": ^'"■^"
forming part of a range of mountains through whith it
has found or forced a channel. Like all the other
granitic hills which they observed on this river, they
were formed of enormous cubical masses piled upon each
other. Landing in the middle of the strait, they found
the breadth of the stream to be 1895 yards. They
looked in vain for plaftts in the fissures of the rocks ;
but the stones were covered with multitudes of lizards.
Tliere was not a breath of wind, and the heat was so Intense
intense tliat the thermometer placed against the rock ^'^^^
rose to 122-4°. " How vivid," says Humboldt, "is the
impression which the noontide quiet of nature produces
in these burning climates ! The beasts of the forest re-
tire to the thickets, and the birds conceal themselves
among the foliage or in the crevices of rocks. Yet
amid this apparent silence, should one listen attentively
he hears a stifled sound, a continued murmur, a hum of
insects, that fill the lower strata of the air. Nothing is
more adapted to excite in man a sentiment of the extent
and power of organic life. Myriads of insects crawl on jfynadsof
the ground, and flutter round the plants scorched by the '"sects,
heat of the sun. A confused noise issues from every
busli, from the decayed trunks of the trees, the fissures
of the rocks, and from the ground, which is undermined
by lizards, millepeds, and blindworms. It is a voice
proclaiming to us that all nature breathes, that under a
thousand different forms life is diff'used in the cracked
and dusty soil, as in the bosom of the waters, and in the
air that circulates around us." The water of the river
was very disagreeable here, as it had a musky smell and
a sweetish taste. In some parts it was pretty good ; but
in others it seemed loaded with gelatinous matter, which
the natives attribute to putrefied crocodiles.

After sleeping at the foot of an eminence they con-
tinued their voyage, and passed the mouths of several



ment of

CHAP.XVII. rivers ; and on the 0th anuveJ, early in the morning, at
BcacTof ^^^^ beach of Pararunia, ^vhel•e they found an encamp-
Puraruma. ment of Indians, who Iiad assembled to search the sanda
for turtles' eggs. The pilot wlio had brought them from
San Fcriiantlo de Apure would not undertake to accom-
pany them farther ; but tliey procured a boat from one
of the missionaries who had come to the egg-harvest.

This assemblage or encampment afforded to the tra-
vellers an interesting subject of study. " How difficult,"
says IIum])oldt, " to recognise in this infancy of society,
this collection of dull, taciturn, and unimpassioned
Indians, the original character of our species ! Human
nature is not seen here arrayed in that gentle simplicity
of which poets in every language have drawn such en-
chanting pictures. The savage of the Orinoco appeared
to us as hideous as the savage of the Mississippi, described
by the philosophical traveller who best knew how to
paint man in the various regions of the globe. One
would fain persuade himself that these natives of the
soil, crouched near the fire, or seated on large shells of
turtles, their bodies covered with earth and grease, and
their eyes stupidly fixed for whole hours on the drink
which they are preparing, far from being the original
type of our species, are a degenerated race, the feeble
remains of nations which, after being long scattered in
the forests, have been again immersed in barbarism."

Red paint is the ordinary decoration of these tribes.
The most common kind is obtained from the seeds of the
BLrn orellana, and is called anotto, achote, or roucou.
Another much more expensive species is extracted from
the leaves of Bignonia chica. Both these are red ; but
a black ingredient is obtained from the Genipa Americana,
and is called caruto. Tlicse pigments arc mixed with
turtle-oil or grease, and are variously applied according
to national or individual taste. The Caril)sand Otomacs
colour only the head and hair, while the Salivas smear
the whole body ; but there ])revail3 in general as great
a diversity in the mode of staining as is found in Europe
in respect to dress ; and at Pararunia the travellers saw

Red painta


some Indians painted with a blue jacket and black CHAP.xvii,
buttons. Women advanced in years are fonder of being jjoj^T^
thus ornamented than the younger ladies ; and so ex- pjinting.
jDensive is this mode of decoration, that an industrious
man can hardly gain enough by the labour of a fortnight
to adorn himself with chica, of which the missionaries
make an article of traffic. After all, the paintings that Difficulty of
cost so much are liable to be effaced by a heavy shower ; removuL
although the caruto long resists the action of water, as
the travellers found by disagreeable experience ; for
having one day in sport marked their faces with spots
and strokes of it, it was not entirely removed till after a
long period. It has been supposed that this usage pre-
vents the Indians from being stung by insects : but this
was found to be incorrect. The preference given by the
American tribes to the red colour, Humboldt supposes
to be owing to the tendency which nations feel to
attribute the idea of beauty to whatever characterizes
their national comj^lexion.

The encampment of Pararuraa also afforded the tra- j^'ative
vellers an opportunity of examining several animals animals,
they had not before seen alive, and which the Indians
brought to exchange with the missionaries for fish-hooks
and other necessaries. Among these specimens were
gallitoes, or rock-manakins, monkeys of different species,
of which the titi or Simia sciuroa seems to have been a
special favourite with Humboldt. He mentions a very sagacity ot
interesting fact illustrative of the sagacity of this creature, the titi.
One which he had purchased of the natives distinguished
the different plates of a work on natural history so well,
that when an engraving which contained zoological re-
presentations was placed before it, it rapidly advanced
its little hand to catch a grasshopper or a wasp ; which
was the more remarkable as the figures were not
coloured. Humboldt observes, that he never heard of
even the most perfect picture of hares or deer producing
the least eflfect upon a hound, and doubts if there be a
well-ascertained example of a dog having recognised a
fall-length portrait of its master.






cnAr.xvii The canoe which they had i^rocured was forty-two
— feet long and three broad. The missionary of Atures
tionrfortiie and Maypures had offered to accompany them as far as
voyage. ^^^^ frontiers of Brazil, and made preparations for the
voyage. Two Indians who were to form part of the
crew were chained during the night to prevent their
escape ; and on the morning of the 10th the company
set out. The vessel was found to be extremely incom-
modious. To gain something in breadth a kind of frame
had been extended over the gunwale in the hinder part
of it ; but the roof of leaves which covered it was so low,
that the travellers were obliged to lie down, or sit nearly
double, while iu rainy weather the feet were liable to
be wetted. The natives, seated two and two, were
furnished with paddles three feet long, and rowed with
surprising uniformity to the cadence of a monotonous
and melancholy song. Small cages containing birds and
monkeys were suspended to the shed, and the dried
plants and instruments were placed beneath it. To
their numerous inconveniences was added the continual
torment of the mosquitoes, which they were \inable by
any means to alleviate. Every night, when they esta-
blished their watch, the collection of animals and instru-
ments occupied the centre, around which were placed
first their own hammocks, and then those of the Indians,
while fires were lighted to intimidate the jaguars. At
sunrise the monkeys in the cages answered the cries of
those in the forests, affording an affecting display of
sympathy between the captive and the free.

Above the deserted mission of Pararuma the river is
full of islands, and divides into several branches. Its
total l)readth is about G395 3'ards. The country becomes
more wooded. A granitic prism, tenninated by a flat
surface covered with a tuft of trees, rises to the height
of 213 feet in the midst of the forest. Farther on, the
river narrows; and upon the east is an eminence, on
whicli the Jesuits formerly maintained a garrison for
l)rotecting the missions against the inroads of the Caribs,
and for extending what, in the Spanish colonies, was




called the conquest of souls, which of course was effected chap.xvii.
through the conquest of bodies. The soldiers made in- panati~
cursions into the territories of the independent Indians, violence
killed all who offered resistance, burned their huts, de-
stroyed the plantations, and made prisoners of the old
men, women, and children, who were afterwards divided
among their establishments. The river again contracted,
and rapids began to make their appearance, the shores
becoming sinuous and precipitous. In a bay, between
two promontories of granite, they landed at what is
called the Port of Carichana, and proceeded to the port of
mission of that name, situated at the distance of two Ciiriciiani.
miles and a half from the bank, where they were
hospitably received at the priest's house. The Christian
converts at this station were Salivas, a social and mild
people, having a great taste for music.

Among these Indians they found a white woman, the AMiitc
sister of a Jesuit of New Grenada, and experienced great '*^'cma^-
pleasure in conversing with her without the aid of a
third person. In every mission, says Humboldt, there
are at least two interpreters, for the purpose of com- interpreters
municating between the monks and the catechumens,
the former seldom studying the language of the latter.
They are natives, somewhat less stupid than the rest,
but ill adapted for their office. They always attended
the travellers in their excursions ; but little more could
be got from them than a mere affirmation or negation.
Sometimes, in attempting to hold intercourse with the
Indians, he preferred the language of signs, — a method useofsipn?
which he recommends to travellers, as the variety of
languages spoken on the Meta, Orinoco, Casiquiare, and
Rio Negro, is so great, that no one could ever make
himself -understood in them all.

The scenery around the mission of Carichana appeared p;j,e
delightful. The village was situated on a grassy plain, scenery,
bounded by mountains. Banks of rock, often more than
850 feet in circumference, scarcely elevated a few inches
above the savannahs, and nearly destitute of vegetation,
gave a peculiar character to the country. On these




Harks of

CHAP.xvii. stony flats they eagerly observed the rising vegetation
— in the different sttiges of its development : Lichens
cleaving the rock and collected into crusts ; a few
succulent plants growing among little portions of quartz-
sand ; and tufts of evergreen shrubs springing up in the
black mould deposited in the hollows. At the distance
of eight or ten miles from the religious house they found
a rich and diversified assemblage of plants, among which
M. Bonpland obtahied numerous new species. Here
grew the Dipterix odorata, which furnishes excellent
timber, and of which the fruit is known in Europe by
the name of tonkay or tongo bean.

In a narrow jiart of the river the marks of the great
inundations were 45 feet above the surface ; but at
various places black bands and erosions are seen, 106 or
even 138 feet above the present highest increase of the
waters. " Is this river, then," says Humboldt, " the
Orinoco, which appears to us so imposing and majestic,
merely the feeble remnant of those immense currents of
fresh water which, swelled by Alpine snows or by more
abundant rains, every where shaded by dense forests,
and destitute of those beaches that favour evaporation,
formerly traversed the regions to the east of the Andes,
like arms of inland seas 1 What must then have been
the state of those low countries of Guiana, which now
experience the effects of annual inundations ! What a
prodigious number of crocodiles, lamantines, and boas,
must have inhabited these vast regions, alternately con-
verted into pools of stagnant water and arid plains !
The more peaceful world in which we live has succeeded
to a tumultuous world. Bones of mastodons and real
American elephants are found dispersed over the plat-
Antediluvian forms of the Andes. The megatherium inhabited the
plains of Uruguay. By digging the earth more deeply
in high valleys, which at the present day are unable to
nourish i)alms or tree-ferns, we discover strata of coal
containing gigantic remains of monocotyledonous plants.
There was therefore a remote period, when the tribes of
vegetables were differently distributed ; when the ani-

state of tlie



mals were larger, the rivers wider and deeper. There CHAKXVII
stop the monuments of nature which we can consult. ~: —
We are ignorant if the human race, whicli at the time iaccs.
of the discovery of America scarcely presented a few
feeble tribes to the east of the Cordilleras, had yet
descended into the plains, or if the ancient tradition of
the Great Waters, which we find among all the races of
the Orinoco, Erevato, and Caura, belongs to other cli-
mates, whence it had been transferred to this part of the
new continent."

On the 11th they left Carichana at two in the after- piedradel
noon, and found the river more and more encumbered '^'gre.
by blocks of granite. At the large rock known by the
name of Piedra del Tigre, the depth is so great that no
bottom can be found with a line of 140 feet. Towards
evening they encountered a thunder-storm, which for a
time drove away the mosquitoes il'Mt had tormented
them during the day. At the cataract of Cariven the cataract of
current was so rapid that they had great difficulty in Curiven.
landing ; but at length two Saliva Indians swam to the
shore, and drew the canoe to the side with a rope. The
thunder continued a part of the night, and the river in-
creased considerably. The granitic rock on which they
slept is one of those from Avhich travellers on the
Orinoco have heard subterranean sounds, resembling
those of an organ, emitted about sunrise. Humboldt
supposes that these must be produced by the passage of
rarified air through the fissures, and seems to think,
that the impulse of the fluid against the elastic scales of
mica which intercept the crevices may contribute to
modify their expression.*

* Many examples of mysterious sounds produced under similar
circumstances are on record. In the autumn of 1828, a recent tra-
veller crossinjj;' the Pyrenees, when in a wild pass with the jNIala-
detta mountain opposite, heard " a dull, low, moaning, ^Eolian sound,
which alone broke upon the deathly silence, evidently proceeding
from the body of this mighty mass." The air was perfiectly calm,
and clear to an extraordinary defjree ; no waterfall could be seen
even with the aid of a telescope, and no cause could be assigned for
the phenomenon, unless the suu's rays, " at that moment impinging


CHAPXVIL On the 12th they set off at four in the morning. The
. Indians ro\YcJ 12 liours and a half without intermission,

TOwei" during wliicli time they took no otlier nourishment

than cassava and plantains. The bed of the river, to
the length of 1280 yards, was full of granite rocks, the
channels between which were often very narrow, inso-
much that the canoe was sometimes jammed in between
two blocks. When the current was too strong the
sailors leaped out and warped the boat along. The rocks
were of all dimensions, rounded, very dark, glossy like
lead, and destitute of vegetation. No crocodiles were
seen in these rapids. The left bank of the Orinoco,
from Cabruto to the mouth of the Rio Serianico, a
distance of nearly two degrees of latitude, is entirely
uninhabited ; but to the westward of these rapids an

Indian enterprising individual, Don Felix Relinchon,had formed

village. a village of Jaruro and Otomac Indians. At nine in the
morniiig they arrived at the mouth of the Meta, whicli,
next to the Guaviare, is the largest river that joins the
Orinoco. At the union of these streams the scenery is
of a very impressive character. Solitary peaks rise on
the eastern side, appearing in the distance like ruined
castles, while vast sandy shores intervene between the
bank and the forests. They passed two hours on a
large rock in the middle of the Orinoco, upon whicli
Humboldt succeeded in fixing his instruments, and in

in all their f^lory on every point and peak of the snowy heifjhts,"
had some share " in vibrating;' these mountain-chords." — A''- M.

Alag. XXX. 341 The granite statue of Memnon is well known to

have emitted sounds when the morninjj beams darted upon it ; and
iNIM. Jomard. Jolloi=, and Deviiliers, Tieard a noise resemblinfj that
ot the breakiufi; of a strinjr, wliich proceeded at sunrise from a
monument of f^ranite situated near the centre of the spot on which
stands the p;ilace j)f (Jarnac. Sinfrular sounds have been heard
from the interior of a mountain near Tor, in Arabia Petraea. They
are familiar to the natives, who ascribe them to a convent of monks
miraculously preserved under t;round, and were heard by M. Seet-
zen and Mr Gray, the only iMiropean travellers who have visited
the place. For an acrount of these curious phenomena, the reader
may be referred to I)r IJrewster's Letters on Natural Ma>^ic, form
injr No XXX 111. of the Family Library.


determining the longitude of the embouchure of the CllAPXVii
Aleta, — a river whicli will one day he of great political niveriieta.
nnportance to the inhabitants of Guiana and Venezuela,
as it is navigable to the foot of the Andes of New Grenada.
Above this point the current was comparatively free
from shoals ; and in the evening they reached the
Rapids of Tabaje. As the Indians would not venture to
pass them they were obliged to land, and repose on a
craggy platform having a slope of more than eighteen
degrees, and having its crevices filled with bats. The
cries of the jaguar were heard very near during the
whole night ; the sky was of a tremendous blackness ;
and the hoarse noise of the rapids blended with the
thunder which rolled at a distance amongst the woods.

Early in the morning they cleared the rapids, and Rapids of
disembarked at the new mission of San Borja, where tabaje.
they found six houses inhabited by uncatechis'ed Guahi-
boes, who differed in nothing from the wild natives.
The faces of the young girls were marked with black
spots. This people had not painted their bodies, and
several of them had beards, of which they seemed
proud, taking the travellers by the chin, and showing
by signs that they were like themselves. In continuing
to ascend the river they found the heat less intense, the
temperature during the day being 79° or 81 '5°, and at
night about 75° ; but the torment of tlie mosquitoes
increased. The crocodiles which they saw were all of
tlae extraordinary size of 24 or 25 feet.

The night was spent on the beach ; but the sufferings island of
inflicted by the flies induced the travellers to start at Guachaco
five in the morning. On the island of Guachaco, where
they stopped to breakfast, they found the granite covered
by a sandstone or conglomerate, containing fragments of
quartz and felspar cemented by indurated, clay, and ex-
hibiting small veins of brosvn iron-ore. Passing the mouth
of the Rio Parueni, they slept on the island of Panu-
mana, which they found rich in plants, and where they
again observed the low shelves of rock partially coated
with the vegetation which they had admired at Carichana.




Voi/age up the Orinoco continued.

Mission of Atures — Epidemic Fevers — Black Crust of Granitic
Rocks — Causes of Depopulation of the iMissions — Falls of Apures
— Scenerj' — Anecdote of a Jaguar — Domestic Animals — Wild
Man of the Woods — Mosquitoes and other poisonous Insects —
Mission and Cataracts of Maypures — Scenerj- — Inhabitants —
Spice-trees— San Fernando de Atabapo — San Baltasar — The
Mother's Rock — Vefj^etation — Dolphins — San Antonio de Javita
— Indians — Elastic Gum — Serpents — Portage of the Piniichin —

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 16 of 35)