Life Among the Anthros

Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon

by Patrick Tierney
Norton, 417 pp., $27.95

“This is the Brewer Explorer Survival knife,” said Charlie,… “6 1/4-inch stainless steel blade, Rockwell Hardness 56–58; 2 3/4-inch saw extending from the handle towards the point; on the left here a 180-degree clinometer for calculating the height of mountains; on the right instructions for five ground-to-air signals…. [It] converts…into wire cutters…. It can also be made into a harpoon [and holds] six fish hooks,… nylon fishing line, two lead sinkers, one float, an exacto blade, two sewing needles, three matches, a flint stick and a suture needle with suture material attached. It’s made by Marto of Toledo and imported into the US by Gutman at $150. But you and Simon can have one. It’s good for skinning alligators. And when the Yanomami have had a go at you you can sew each other up round the arrow holes.”

“The Yanomami?”

“Yeah. The most violent people on earth. Some anthropologists think they were the first people to reach South America from the North. They have very fair skins, occasionally green eyes. They are the largest untouched group of Indians left in the rainforest. The other Indians are terrified of them. My friend Napoleon Chagnon called his book on them The Fierce People—I’ll give you a copy, and Jacques Lizot’s too, Tales of the Yanomami. It’s all perfectly understandable—they grow a few plantains, but basically they’re hunter-gatherers and there’s not much food in these forests. So when times are bad they kill the new-born girls; so there are never enough women to go round; so they fight over them. Within the tribe, in formalised duels, they hit each other over the head with ten-foot-long clubs. Outside the tribe they raid each other’s settlements for women and kill the enemy men with six-foot-long arrows tipped with curare. And on top of all that they’ve no concept of natural death, so if anyone dies from a fever it’s the result of malign magic worked by an enemy shaman. Each death must be avenged.”

I stood there stupidly, holding the enormous Brewer Explorer knife.

“And this still goes on?” I said, shaken.

“They are killing each other,” said Charlie, “right now.”

—Redmond O’Hanlon1

Anthropologists have left an indelible imprint upon the Yanomami. In fact, the word anthro entered the Indians’ vocabulary, and it is not a term of endearment. For the Indians, anthro has come to signify something like the opposite of its original Greek meaning, “man.” The Yanomami consider an anthro to be a powerful nonhuman with deeply disturbed tendencies and wild eccentricities—an Olympian in a funk.

—Patrick Tierney2

Our land, our forest will only die off if the white man destroys it. Then the streams will vanish, the earth will become parched, the trees will dry up, and the rocks of the mountains will split with the heat. The xapiripë spirits who live on the mountains and play in the forest will run away. Their fathers, the shamans, will no longer be able to call them…

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