Going into Amazonia

The Channel 4 documentary about the hitherto ‘lost’ tribe of Amazonians — one of many along the shore of one ;particular river — was interesting enough, although greatly repetitious of distant river shore scenes with naked bodies and deadly-looking spears.

The Brazilian anthropologist, Carlos Morellis, who was in charge of trying to protect these and similar hunter-gatherers was aware, when first meeting them — or, rather, when they chose to meet him — that they were very fearful of white men and it took him a whole year and a workable knowledge of their language before the penny dropped.

They and many thousands of Amazonian hunter-gatherers had been treated verry badly by white fortune-seekers looking for gold, illegal loggers, and those who enslaved native men to tap rubber trees.  A photo was shown of such a group with chains round their necks and wrists. Those who didn’t comply were, simply, shot. Indeed, in between Morellis’s two visits to one tribe of 20 adults a year apart, only four were left on his second visit.

Anyway, after Morellis had spent a lot of time patrolling up and down their river, one group decided to risk all by approaching him more and more closely over a period of weeks. They’d evidentially decided that not all white men were as heinous as those they had come across so far.  When both parties finally trusted the other, the documentary showed some delightful scenes of a boy, no older than seven or eight years using Morellis’s video camera just like a professional — deciding on unusual camera angles, assessing his work frequently. He was probably the fastest-learning trainee camera man in the whole world during 2014.

What else? Quite besides the overwhelming fear that they still had of white business marauders, they didn’t like living in the rain forest anyway.  Poisonous snakes and jaguars were their natural enemies and they’d be glad to leave them behind.  Also another reason for wanting to leave their jungle habitat was that they seemed to be ashamed of being mostly naked. This puzzled me. In the hot rain forests — warm even at night time, they certainly didn’t need clothes for temperature reasons.

What was unusual about this group is that it had no status ornaments, yet they definitely had a leader and there would almost certainly have been a hierarchy of loyal males below him. In fact, the leader, a young man no older than his late 20s or very early 30s seemed to go to great lengths to show his ability to imitate bird song.  Some of these involved intricate combinations of hand movements and mouth.  I think he was trying to convey to Morellis the reason why he was the leader. Replies from birds — which he always seemed to receive a few seconds later — suggested that he was highly skilled.

Such a skill would always be highly useful in a dense rain forest where one can hardly see more than a yard in from of you. It would give some sort of indication of the life forms around.  Also, one of the most valuable skills is to locate wild honey. A very widespread practice among many hunter-gatherers is the ability in many different regions of the world to imitate a honey bird, attract him (or her !) to your settlement and then follow it while searching out a local wild beehive. The menfolk climb the tree and smoke out the beehive, take the honeycombs and reward the bird with a portion. This is a very widespread example of synergy.

In short, I don’t think that the hunter-gatherers felt any shame in not wearing clothes. But if they had clothes they would be able — just like every culture on earth — to demonstrate clearly just where they ranked in their own social order when they met people — such as Carlos Morellis and his friends.  The hunter-gatherer leader want the dignity of being able to have equal status as Carlos Morellis.

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