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.

Far from being primitives, the Indians (as they have become known since the study of them began in the last century) survive as the wreckage of these prior civilizations. As early as 1952, I asserted that the Nambikwara were regressive. This is even more obvious with the Caduveo. Numbering about one thousand, they are the last descendants of the Guaicuru, whose society was complex and stratified, divided among nobles, warriors, and slaves. For a long time now, the Caduveo have lived like Brazilian peasants. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, they were still close enough to their bellicose past to bring decisive aid to the Brazilian army against Paraguay. In gratitude for this, Emperor Pedro II granted them an extensive reserve that, despite the infringements of cattle ranchers, they have succeeded in keeping.

The Bororo fell victim, by the thousands, to the attacks of eighteenth-century adventurers who, organized in bands, rushed headlong into their gold-rich territory. Since the last century, their villages have shrunk to a skeletal state, reduced to a single incomplete circle of huts, where they had once been arranged in a succession of concentric circles around a central area on which might have stood several men’s houses, instead of the single one seen today. Only such a high population can explain the extreme complexity of the social organization of the Bororo and of their neighbors who speak the Ge language. It is inconceivable that such a social organization would have been elaborated and applied by populations as small as those that survived into the nineteenth century and the first half of our own. The analogies are so great between this social structure—strikingly reflected in the way the villages are planned—and that of ancient Peru, where Cuzco and the country itself were similarly structured, that the high Andean cultures can no longer be opposed (as was done in the past) to those of the tropical lowlands. There is no doubt that in a very distant past, of which we know almost nothing, there was a continuum between them.

In those who, among the Indians, strike us as being most destitute, we must therefore see not examples of archaic ways of life that have been miraculously preserved for millennia, but the last escapees from the cataclysm that discovery and subsequent invasions had been for their ancestors. Imagine, keeping everything in proportion, scattered groups of survivors after an atomic holocaust on a planetary scale, or a collision with a meteorite such as the one that, they say, caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The wonder is that with their numbers reduced to the twentieth, the fiftieth, or the hundredth part, these Indians still managed to recreate viable societies and even, it can be said, reinvented the condition for society. Because, fragile as they were, their societies had stability. Demographic stability first of all. Whether deliberate or not, the rules of marriage and certain practices regulating procreation and child care, which we would characterize as superstitious, had the effect of maintaining the population at a level below which it would become extinct, and above which wisdom would require that the group split up. Next, ecological stability, the result of a natural philosophy that subordinates human exploitation of animal and plant resources to respect for a pact concluded with supernatural powers.

Before our eyes, a new cataclysm is dispossessing the Indians of this way of life which they had succeeded in keeping almost intact for one or two centuries. It is caused by the development of communications and the population explosion, whose repercussion they suffer at the local level when hordes of adventurers invade the last enclaves where they had found refuge. How can my old photographs fail to create in me a feeling of emptiness and sorrow? They make me acutely aware that this second deprivation will be final this time, given the contrast between a past I still had the joy of knowing and a present of which I receive heartbreaking accounts from sometimes unknown correspondents.

I have already made this point concerning the Nambikwara. The Bororo, whose good health and robustness I had admired in 1935, are today being consumed by alcoholism and disease and are progressively losing their language. It is in missionary schools (which, by a curious reversal, have become the conservators of a culture they had in the first place worked at suppressing, and not without success) that Bororo youths are being taught about their myths and their ceremonies. But, for fear that they might damage the feather diadems, masterpieces of traditional art, the missionaries are keeping these objects locked up, entrusting the Indians with them only on strictly necessary occasions. They would be increasingly difficult to replace since the macaws, parrots, and other brightly colored birds are also disappearing…

Far away, in Canada, a contrasting yet strikingly parallel phenomenon is taking place. The Pacific Coast Indians, whom I visited in 1974, are placing in museums—in this case of their own creation—the masks and other ritual objects that were confiscated more than half a century ago and have now been returned to them at last. These objects are brought out and used during ceremonies the Indians are beginning to celebrate again. In this new climate they have lost a good deal of their ancient grandeur. The potlatch, formerly a solemn occasion at once political, juridical, economic, and religious, on which rested the whole social order, has been rethought by acculturated Indians imbued with the Protestant ethic and is degenerating into a periodic exchange of little gifts to consolidate harmony within the group and to maintain friendship. Symbol: displayed next to traditional masks, some of which are among the highest creations of world sculpture, a mask of Mickey Mouse can sometimes be seen, whether made of pâpier-maché or molded plastic I do not know.

Why be surprised? When these Indians speak feelingly of their traditional life, they are not thinking of what had already been nothing but a memory for their great-grandparents. The “good old days” for the latter’s irremediably acculturated descendants is the period before the Second World War, before 1950 even, when their fishing and gathering economy had not yet been destroyed by regulations protecting natural resources plundered not by them, but by the big timber operations, commercial fishing, and organized tourism…

This warped vision of the past is not a purely exotic phenomenon, the unique property of small cultures on the way to extinction. To be convinced of that, one has only to consider what Europe was less than a century ago and what it has become today.

Like most of my contemporaries, I did not realize in 1935 the magnitude of the cataclysm (this one of internal origin) that Europe had had the folly to unleash twenty-one years earlier with the First World War and that would doom it to decline. Its power seemed still intact, its moral domination over the rest of the world unquestioned. It was to the defense of unfortunate exotic cultures menaced by Western expansion that my anthropological colleagues and I thought we should dedicate ourselves.

Things have changed a great deal since then. The victim of circumstances of its own making, Western civilization now feels threatened in its turn. It has, in the past, destroyed innumerable cultures in whose diversity lay the wealth of humankind. Guardian of its own fraction of this collective wealth, weakened by dangers from without and within, it is allowing itself to forget or destroy its own heritage, which—as much as any other—deserves to be cherished and respected.

The population explosion, for which the West shares the responsibility, is reducing the living space between humans at an alarming rate. As for progress, it is devouring itself. More and more, the advances of science and technology, including medical breakthroughs—a blessing for individuals, an evil for our species—have as their principal objective, often used as a pretext, the correction of the harmful consequences of previous innovations. And when that end is achieved, further ill-fated consequences will result, for which it will be necessary to devise other inventions as a remedy. Dispossessed of our culture, stripped of values that we cherished—the purity of water and air,* the charms of nature, the diversity of animals and plants—we are all Indians henceforth, making of ourselves what we made of them.

No longer as an anthropologist, but as a member of my civilization, I feel this dispossession profoundly when I look at the pictures of the São Paulo of sixty years ago. I would undoubtedly feel the same looking at photographs of Paris, New York, or Tokyo. But to have seen the city on two occasions, with an interval of half a century in between, makes the shock infinitely more brutal. And São Paulo is an even better example because the changes already under way when I lived there have continued at an accelerated rhythm. From 35,000 inhabitants around 1890, the city’s population rose to 340,000 in 1910, reached a million in 1930, and today is twelve or fifteen times that.

In 1935, the city center included two hills linked by a bridge, the viaduto do Chá, or “Tea Viaduct,” so called because of the plantations that used to occupy the land when it was constructed at the end of the nineteenth century. An English-style public garden, planted with palm trees, was laid out beneath it. When I revisited them in 1985, both the bridge and the park seemed deprived of sunlight, trapped at the bottom of a well. The same suffocating sensation had seized me when crossing the Nihonbashi in Tokyo, which I had imagined as it was 150 years ago—made of wood and dominating the low houses on each side—as in the first woodcut of Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stages of the Tokaido (or, better still, in Eisen’s print in the Kisokaido series).

When I was living in São Paulo there were, of course, a few tall buildings to be seen here and there, most of them under construction. Only one, still unfinished, towered above the rest. Its architectural style had nothing modern about it. Save for its candy-pink color, it recalled the pre-1914 New York skyscrapers. Despite these relative novelties, the city’s history could be seen in clearly visible layers. Civic or religious edifices of the colonial era, long streets lined with shops or dwellings, all of them one-storied and tinted in soft hues. Later, office buildings and commercial establishments dating from the end of the nineteenth century or from around the First World War. These old São Paulo districts, of mixed periods, rose in tiers between ravines that were still left to run wild all the way down to the formerly marshy flats through which the Tietê River meandered. On the highest ground ran the Avenida Paulista, a near equivalent of what the Avenue du Bois must have been in the Paris of the Second Empire. It was lined on both sides by palacetes, the mansions of the richest families, already out-dated because on the other, southern slope luxurious housing developments called jardims, or “gardens,” were proliferating, their sinuous avenues serving Spanish-California-style residences that nestled in the greenery.

I myself was renting a place overlooking the city, in a more modest quarter, below the eastern end of the Avenida Paulista, a one-story house of a “modern style” that I would later rediscover in the petit-bourgeois streets of Rome. This style had left its mark as far away as the towns of central Brazil, doubtless the work of Italian immigrant masons (at the time of my stay, half the population of São Paulo was Italian or of Italian descent).

Situated on Rua Cincinato-Braga, my house was part of an old development consisting of twelve dwellings, all alike except that they were built in twin units, each with symmetrical plans. One entered through an iron gate (mine was framed by a thick jasmine) into a small enclosed garden whose walls extended to the back. My yard had two or three palm trees, a carambola, and a medlar tree. I added a banana tree, and there I would take out for an airing my parrots and my capuchin monkey, brought back from my first travels in the interior.

One descended by way of the suburban-looking Avenida Brigadeiro-Luis-Antonio to the city center, the famous commercial and business triangle that bordered upon the oldest part of São Paulo. In 1985, in the course of a lightning visit arranged by a program not under my control, I wished to see again not my house, which must surely have been destroyed, but at least the street. It proved impossible to get to it, however, in the course of my only free morning. I was held back by traffic jams (daily occurrences, I am told) in the Avenida Paulista, now confined between two walls of high-rises. A clearing allowed me to get just a glimpse of an ocean of other high-rises to the south where, in the old days, the jardims (Paulista, Europa, America) had offered a charmed life to the well-to-do.

The still half-colonial city I had known, whose population had reached just one million, is today part of an urban conglomeration of twenty-two million. I recently read in a Brazilian journal that, along the east-west axis, one can now drive 170 kilometers without using a highway, only streets. But when I arrived there in the early days of 1939, coming from the Nambikwara with two monkeys, my companions of fortune, the Esplanada, then the most luxurious hotel in the city, made no difficulty at all—not even one remark—in giving us a room where I settled down with my menagerie. In those days in Brazil, still not far removed from the days of Jules Verne, São Paulo had not yet completely lost the memory of its pioneering past. Moreover, the virgin forest was still in evidence on the slopes of the plateau that dropped abruptly to the sea only a few tens of kilometers away. In 1935, the shops still carried maps less than twenty years old where the whole western portion of the state was left blank, with this terse notation: “unknown territories inhabited by the Indians.”

Translated from the French Sylvia Modelski

This Issue

December 21, 1995