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Saudades Do Brasil

Claude Levi-Strauss, translated from the French by Sylvia Modelski


When I barely open my notebooks, I still smell the creosote with which, before setting off on an expedition, I used to saturate my canteens to protect them from termites and mildew. Almost undetectable after more than half a century, this trace instantly brings back to me the savannas and forests of Central Brazil, inseparably bound with other smells—human, animal, and vegetable—as well as with sounds and colors. For as faint as it now is, this odor—which for me is a perfume—is the thing itself, still a real part of what I have experienced.

Is it because too many years have elapsed (the same number of years for both, though) that photography does not bring any of that back to me? My negatives are not a miraculously preserved, tangible part of experiences that once engaged all my senses, my physical strength, and my brain; they are merely their indices—indices of people, of landscapes, and of events that I am still aware of having seen and known, but after such a long time I no longer always remember where or when. These photographic documents from sixty years ago prove to me that they did exist, but they do not evoke them for me or bring them materially back to life.

Upon re-examination, the photographs leave me with the impression of a void, a lack of something the lens is inherently unable to capture. I realize the paradox of offering them again to the public, in greater number, better reproduced, and often displayed differently from what was possible within the format of Tristes Tropiques, as if I thought that, in contrast with my own case, the pictures could offer something substantial to readers who have never been there and who therefore must content themselves with this silent imagery, especially since, if they went to see it for themselves, this world would be unrecognizable and would in many respects have simply vanished.

Decimated by smallpox epidemics in 1945 and again in 1975, and reduced in numbers to seven or eight hundred, the Nambikwara today lead a precarious existence close by the religious missions and government posts that watch over the Indians; or else they camp by the side of a road traveled by heavy trucks; or again on the outskirts of Vilhena, the city of 60,000 inhabitants (that was ten years ago; the figure must be higher now) that is rising in the heart of their territory, where in my day the only signs of civilization left after an abortive attempt at penetration were a dozen shanties made of mud-plastered wattle in which a few mixed-blood families languished, dying of hunger and disease.

Nevertheless, it would seem that even quite recently tiny groups of Nambikwara managed to remain, as far as possible, faithful to their traditional life, hunting with bows and arrows in areas not yet invaded by the giant agricultural conglomerates that have taken over the region.

Yet when, in 1992, on the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, representatives of a dozen Amerindian peoples were flown to Mexico City to appear in a movie, the Nambikwara among them were not at all disconcerted by the experience. According to an eye-witness, they arrived equipped with a supply of pamphlets in English, Spanish, and Portuguese denouncing the crimes committed by gold prospectors. They went back home delighted by their trip and bringing with them transistors, which they said were cheaper than those available in Vilhena, where the shops are full of Japanese products.

Those about to browse through these photographs must be warned against another illusion: the belief that the Indians whom I show completely naked (although it often gets cold at night and in the early morning), sleeping on the ground under makeshift shelters of palm leaves and branches; who produce (and then rarely) only rudimentary pottery and, as for textiles, weave nothing but small decorative items; who cultivate very small gardens between nomadic periods—that these Indians give us an accurate vision of primitive humanity. I myself have never believed this, and over the past twenty years evidence has accumulated to show that the present picture does not reflect archaic conditions. The peoples of Central Brazil and elsewhere are remnants—who have either sought refuge in the interior or been left stranded there—of more advanced and more populous civilizations whose indisputable vestiges are being exhumed or recorded at the mouth and along the whole course of the Amazon by archeologists employing very up-to-date techniques.

When, in 1541, a Spanish expedition that had lost its way sent some fifty men in a boat to look for food, the detachment set off on an unknown river later named the Amazon. After weeks of fruitless navigation that had cut them off from their base, the men, as a last resort, let themselves be carried downstream by the current. They eventually reached a region where, for a distance of 3,000 kilometers, veritable cities appeared before their eyes. According to the expedition’s chronicler, Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, each city spread over several leagues along the banks of the river and comprised hundreds of houses of a dazzling whiteness (this notation recurs like a leitmotif, indicating that these were not simply huts). A very dense population lived here, apparently organized into many great chiefdoms, some allied, others hostile, judging from the fortifications adorned with monumental sculptures and the fortresses built on the heights. Well-maintained roads, planted with fruit trees, crossed cultivated fields. They went great distances to who knows what other inhabited centers. The raids the Spaniards made, at some cost to themselves, in order to survive yielded, when successful, huge reserves of food, each sufficient to feed “a troop of one thousand men for a year.”

Exactly one century later, an expedition a thousand strong, with a few dozen ships, went (again for the first time) up the Amazon with the express mission of eliminating all the Indians. According to one member of the expedition, they were so numerous that an arrow shot at random into the air was sure to fall back onto somebody’s head.

These eyewitness accounts (as well as others that corroborate and complete them) were, if not ignored by historians and anthropologists, at least looked upon with suspicion. It was more convenient, and more soothing for the European conscience, to treat them as exaggerations ascribable to the naiveté or boastfulness of adventurers than to gauge the extent of the massacres by these reports. By the time the voyages of scientific exploration and ethnographic research began in the nineteenth century, the illusion was firmly established that the condition of the Indian communities at that time was the same as it had been in the age of discovery. Travelers and scientists endorsed it.

In the last several years, archeological research has validated the original observations. At the mouth of the Amazon, the island of Marajo, 50,000 square kilometers in area, reveals a multitude of artificial hills, each occupying up to several hectares. They are man-made, erected for defense and to protect the inhabitants and cultivated fields from flooding. On the lower Amazon, remains have been unearthed of cities where, apparently, several tens of thousands of people once lived, as well as traces of unbaked bricks, substantial fortified constructions, and a network of roads leading to distant regions. Still-discernible differences in types of abode suggest that these societies were strongly hierarchical. Based on these data, it is estimated that the population of the Amazon basin was once seven or eight million.

These investigations also show that human occupation of Amazonia dates from much earlier times than the tenth millennium. Need we recall that many archeologists in the United States still subscribe to the dogma that this was the millennium when human beings crossed the Bering Strait and set foot in America for the first time? Yet here and there in the Southern Hemisphere, and more specifically in Brazil, settlements far more ancient than that, on the order of thirty to forty thousand years, have been ascertained by carbon-14 dating. Some of these are arguable, but there is no doubt that thinking about the peopling of America is undergoing radical change.

In Marajo and on the lower Amazon, superbly polished stone objects, and painted ceramics decorated with molded designs, whose existence had long been known, were attributed to the influence of Andean civilizations. The belief was that this art would have degenerated when it reached the moist tropical-forest environment, with its scant animal and plant resources and a soil and climate that discouraged human settlement. This shows a lack of appreciation of the agricultural potential of the alluvial plains along the river and streams and, above all, of the fact—proven by botanists working on the ground and shown in aerial photographs—that the Amazon forest is not as “primeval” as people liked to think. In many places, the forest reclaimed the land only after the Indians who had cleared and cultivated it were exterminated or pushed to the high ground between the valleys.

Recently, archeological digs have uncovered artifacts that antedate, perhaps by several thousand years, the oldest ceramics from Peru and Ecuador, where it was believed that this art had originated. If there was influence, therefore, it must have been in the opposite direction: Amazonia could be the cradle from which Andean civilizations have sprung.

It is often said that imported diseases, more than massacres, were responsible for the demographic collapse that followed discovery. This may be true in many cases, but it cannot erase the fact that, from the Atlantic to the Amazon, the Portuguese committed a monstrous genocide. It began in the sixteenth century and continued uninterrupted through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the work, principally, of the bandeirantes, adventurers in the service of government agencies and of colonists, who used the most horrible methods to reduce the Indians to a state of slavery or simply to destroy them. After the bandeirantes came the rubber companies, followed by the real-estate developers who, until a few years ago, took their clients on aerial surveys of vast territories which they promised to deliver limpiados, “cleansed” (meaning, of all indigenous presence): today they have been succeeded by gold and diamond prospectors.


One would have to go back to archeological levels from the third millennium BC to find a way of life comparable to that of today’s Indians. Is it imaginable that they would remain stagnant for four or five thousand years, while in Amazonia itself the life styles evolved, in the course of the first millennium BC, toward a complex political organization and an agricultural economy based mainly on corn?

Not only in Amazonia, but also in its periphery—in Bolivia, in Colombia—aerial photographs have revealed the vestiges of advanced agricultural systems dating from the first centuries of our era. Over tens, at times hundreds, of thousands of hectares of flood-land, man-made embankments several hundred meters long, and separated by drainage canals, guaranteed year-round irrigation while protecting fields from rising floodwater. Here the Indians practiced an intensive type of agriculture based on tubers which, combined with fishing in the canals, could support more than a thousand inhabitants per square kilometer.

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