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A View from the Headwaters

In this remarkable essay the late Colombian anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff presents a powerful view of the Amazon river as seen by the area's tribal inhabitants. In doing so, he questions the validity of our modern views of landscape and nature.

This article is adapted from Gerard Reichel-Dolmatoff's opening address to the First International Congress of Ethnobiology, which took place in Belem Do Para, Brazil, in July 1988. It was published in The Ecologist Volume 29 Number 4, July 1999.

Coming from Colombia, I can say that I come from the head-waters of the Amazon. When I leave the country, I fly over its many arms and branches stretching out from this great body of water. In saying this I have used the vocabulary of anatomy. In speaking of the river I have mentioned its head, its body, and its arms. Many languages use anatomical terms when describing landscape features, but most people, when being reminded of this fact, would find themselves at a loss when asked to explain the reasons for this choice of words. To people belonging to a scientific, technological, rationalistic age, it does not make much sense to use such animistic terminology, to speak of a river mouth, of the body of a lake, or the foothills of a mountain. If we come to think of it, there is something archaic, something romantic about this kind of language.

Amazonian Indian boy in traditional dress.

Every part of the Indians' dress is imbued with significance." Herbert Grade / Still pictures.

But the Indians can tell us what is meant by all this, and we should heed the Indian words because they convey to us the true meaning of these terms, a meaning we have lost in the course of our frantic advance towards what we call progress.

To most Colombian Indians, and especially to those of the north-west Amazon, the river is a human body, a living organism. The river is life itself, stretched out in a linear sequence of vital events, between two power spots: the headwaters and the river mouth. There has always been something strangely enticing about headwaters the world over. They are thought to be the sources of great energies, the sources of wisdom, the spots where essential transformations may occur under the guardianship of benevolent nature spirits.

According to the Indians, people who live at the headwaters of a river are more tradition-oriented; they have more esoteric knowledge than others. Besides, there is more wildlife at the headwaters and so they are good hunting grounds. But hunting, of course, is not devoid of danger because all game animals stand under the protection of powerful spirits that might cause harm to the hunter who kills too many of their species. So the headwaters are very sacred; they are a very special part of a river drainage.

The other extreme of the river's lifeline is its mouth. The true power of a river is said to reside at its mouth. It is thought that both the headwaters and the mouth of a river are enclosed by invisible boundaries forming a hexagonal space, modelled on a rock crystal. The hexagon of a river mouth is larger and more powerful than that of the headwaters. When leaving the hexagonal space of the river mouth, shamans say that one has become a transformed person, that one is better and wiser, that from now on one will avoid noisy places and bad company.

The Indians say that the river is life: this idea is expressed in many images. In the first place, in many Creation Myths, embryo-genesis is said to have taken place in a lake, in a riverbed, in a deep pool of the river. The slow evolution of embryonic and foetal development took place in a strictly sequential line of womb-like pools in which the incipient being acquired the faculties that made it human.

In another image, the river is a model of ethnogenesis, of cultural origins. The Tukano Indians call themselves Anaconda people and believe that mankind was born at the river mouth and then travelled upstream in a huge canoe shaped like an anaconda. At certain spots, people went ashore and, one by one, acquired the fundamental institutions of their society and culture. There is a spot where they danced for the first time; another spot where they learned the first songs; a spot where they cleared the first fields; a spot where they built the first maloca; another spot where they had their first hallucinatory experience; a spot where the rules of exogamy were established. In this manner the entire river landscape comes alive, because every spot along the river has its name, its place in myths and visions, its place in genealogies and its particular significance to the passer-by. Every bend in the river is a reminder of the great serpent's coils and, at the same time, the anaconda of mankind's and nature's origin is a projection of the Milky Way.

In another image, the river is a model for individual adult life, a metaphor which is explained in the following terms: a river always adapts its course to the relief of the landscape by flowing along its deepest parts: by sheer gravity it hollows out its bed, by moulding itself around mountains and hills, and across plains and swamps. This is how a person's life should be: a slow process of adaptation to whatever circumstances that might arise. When the river meets an obstacle, a range of hills or a huge rock, it gently flows around it: but when it arrives at an abrupt drop, a steep decline of the surface, then it shoots straight ahead and throws itself in thundering falls and rapids over the boulders, only to expand again peaceably after it has reached flat ground. This is the way life ought to be. It should adapt itself, it must avoid head-on collisions, but it should also be prepared to run risks and push straight ahead until the landscape opens up again and the current flows undisturbed.

The river is life because water is life. In some languages of the north-west Amazon, the word for river or water is the same as the word for health, for medicine. When the Indians see stagnant, polluted waters they say the river is ill: but when the current is swift and clear the river is healthy. When a man works hard and perspires profusely he is in good health because then "the water circulates", as the Indians say.

On a higher level of abstraction, the river becomes a model of man's process of spiritual development. It is what the Indians call "the path", what other religions or philosophies would call tao, the Way to Perfection, to fulfilment, to oblivion. In fact, in the shamanic idiom, the Vaupés river is called "river of transformation".

We all have been marked by a cheap stereotype of Amazonian Indians: a man or a family peacefully paddling a canoe. But to the Indians, the meaning of this picture is immensely more complex. River travel is life but it is much more than life. On the river, man finds food; it is there he meets his kinsmen and where he meets women; it is on the river that he listens to the sounds of the waters and the forests and, often, it is on the river that he meets his death. River travel, the image of man penetrating upriver, over rapids and falls, over whirlpools and from one bend of the river to another, constitutes a recurrent visionary theme in dreams, hallucinations and myths.

And then there is the forest. The forest has different dimensions; it offers other resources and all of these have their spirit-owners and therefore require different behavioural norms. Above all, there are the game animals. Between the hunter and the animals he kills, there exists a relationship of reciprocity. The spirits of dead or frightened animals take their revenge by causing illness to the hunter and his family. In fact, the animals are "hunters" in their own right, in that they "hunt" people with diseases, accidents and nightmares.

In order to establish and maintain a viable relationship between the hunter and the hunted, people must observe many dietary and sexual restrictions. The former have two complementary functions: on the one hand they act as controls, as deterrents to over-hunting; on the other hand, they serve to mask human body odours. The consumption of peppers, for example, or the smoke of burning pitch will make the game animals disregard any human scent while the consumption of fatty or oily substances "makes the hunter visible" (as the Indians say) by his strong body odour.

To the Indians of the north-west Amazon, the river and the forest are living organisms, kept alive and fertile by the cosmic energy of the Sun Father. This father figure is in continuous exchange with our Earth, which is a female principle. Between the two - solar energy and the Earth's fertility potential - exists a circuit; whatever man subtracts from it for his sustenance, be it fishing, hunting or harvesting, he must return by saving energy through personal sacrifice. This principle of "saving" is reflected in the conscious and planned conservation of natural resources.

Must adult people are quite aware of this principle, but the true power of planning and decision-making in these ecological matters lies in the hands of shamans and elders. I have seen shamans carefully measuring out the adequate amount of fish poison to be put in a creek; I have heard them interpret dreams in terms of game conservation, explaining that the frightening appearance in a dream, of a certain animal, was a warning that the species was being over-hunted. Shamans will control the felling of trees, the firing of clearings; they will control house construction, canoe making, the brewing of beer, the processes of daily food preparation, and a great multitude of other activities.

In the evening, the men will sit around their fires and talk, and in these nightly conversations they will refer to the change of seasons, the appearing in the sky, the water level and the current of the rivers and creeks, the animals they have seen and heard, the fruits that are ripening in the fields or in the forest. Every few weeks there will be a slight change in the subject matter of these nightly talks, and the seasonal cycle or rainy or dry months will mark major changes in emphasis. There will he talk of bird migrations and of fish runs; fields must he fired and planted. And night after night people talk while the shamans and elders listen and occasionally ask some questions.

In the shamans' minds, all this information will be organised into structured knowledge which henceforward, for the next few weeks, determines their activities, be they expressed in ritual, in recommending hunting strategies or in arranging social gatherings. For each season of the year, for each distinct shorter time-span, and for each ecosystem, all behavioural norms have to be re-adapted and co-ordinated anew.

And this is why the Indians' knowledge is so vital. The great "energy" potential of soils, plants, game animals and fish has to he redistributed to the cosmic energy circuit by rituals, recitals, myths and admonitions which, in their totality, prescribe a way of life. If observed in their full context, these norms constitute an integrated system. For thousands of years, the Amazon Basin has been inhabited by Indians who knew how to conserve their habitat; we have archaeological evidence for their demographic density and the cultural inventiveness of these peoples.

Of course, I am quite aware of the fact that, occasionally, the Indians have contributed to the destruction and degradation of their lands, especially when acting under the pressure of encroaching mestizo peasants, but as a general rule they have managed their natural environment with ecologically-sound land use planning. But the pressure of outside forces upon the Amazon environment is increasing day by day. In the course of my travels, and of long years of field experience in Colombia, I have seen many irreparable changes in the natural environment brought about by human agency; I have seen the ancient deserts of central Asia and I have seen the rapid expansion of modern deserts on the plains and mountains of Colombia. But no single case has impressed me more than what is happening, and what might be happening, in the Amazon Basin.

In speaking of Colombian Indians, I have mentioned some isolated customs; some animistic beliefs and shamanistic images such as might be described for many aboriginal societies of the tropical rainforest or the Andes. But what I want to emphasise is this: these beliefs and attitudes toward life, these visions of the universe, these hundreds of little things a person does or thinks or avoids, form a highly-structured order.

In myth and ritual, in conversation and daily activities, the Indians express deeply-felt beliefs. During an Indian's entire life, there is a constant, more or less conscious, interplay between the individual and the way in which he perceives the environment. There are shapes and colours, movements and gestures, sounds and smells; there are different temperatures, different flavours to taste, things to touch, air to breathe. There is the power of the spoken word, the rhythm of music, the bond of kinship. All these manifold sensations, perceptions and feelings are consistently coded and carry specific meanings, the total message of which is life - a well-adapted life.

Every single musical instrument, every single feather in a headdress, every dance-step or body gesture is imbued with a specific meaning. And to these are added dietary restrictions, the rules of food processing, hunting and fishing, the clearing of a field, the firing of a clay vessel or the manufacture of a basket. And then there are dreams and visions, visions induced by the controlled use of hallucinogenic drugs, or by deep meditation; and from these visions, a person awakes with the certainty that what he has seen or heard and felt in that other dimension was true.

The sounds of the river and the forest, at different times of day or night, may he warnings or encouragements; the screech of a parrot, the eyespot pattern on a fish tail, the smell of rotten wood or of an aromatic herb may determine a man's activities and thought for a day or a week. In this manner the person is continuously exposed to messages which, in all essence, are of a biological nature because they mainly refer to the following rules: to find the right person to marry, to find the right food to eat, and to obtain both in the right way, without upsetting the balance - "the energy-circuit" - that links man to his society and his environment.

How to read the signals the environment is sending out, a person has to learn through myth and ritual, through the long recitals of genealogies, the casting of spells, and above all, through the nightlong conversations of shamans and elders who are the true suppliers and transmitters of knowledge made wisdom. We should never underestimate this learning process, because it is an exacting mental discipline which eventually enables people to live in nature and with nature, and in society.

Our cosmovision is based upon our science; the Indians' is based upon their knowledge. Of course, we want to continue in our world which, for better or for worse, is our creation. But in order to live in it, here, today, tomorrow and in the future, we need the Indian's knowledge. And here I am referring not only to the practical knowledge of the Indians, to the sort of things a peasant knows. What I am trying to say is that the Indians' way of life reveals to us the possibility of a separate strategy of cultural development; in other words, it presents us with alternatives on an intellectual level and on a philosophical level. We should keep in mind these alternative cognitive models.

The conservation of the Amazonian is not a visionary scheme of ecologists and romanticising anthropologists; it is a vital necessity for mankind on a global scale: for the study of biological evolution, the study of soil-plant co-evolution, the study of species diversity; to understand the linguistic, ethnographic, and biological diversity of human societies. We need the Amazon for its enormous human potential, quite apart from its economic or technological promises.

Up to this point, I have been writing this article as a humanist, as an intellectual, as an anthropologist who is profoundly concerned about the future of the Indians and their natural environment. But now I shall begin to write as a rationalist too: as a person who is acutely aware of the realities of our present times, and who knows that the future lies in the hands of the intelligentsia, of the technologists and bureaucrats. It is they who have the power, and according to them the Indians are primitives who have to be integrated; according to them, nature is something that has to he exploited for the benefit of man.

We may know that we need the Indians; we may know that the ruthless exploitation of natural resources has limits; but the leading intelligentsia and their development agencies recognise no limits to their all-embracing technology. We have to be realistic, and accept the fact that the Indian world is on the wane. The Amazon basin and many, many other, formerly remote, regions of the Third World are being opened to outside influences and to technological development. In some regions this process will be slower and less turbulent than in others; some aboriginal societies will he able to re-adapt, but others will become profoundly modified, and some will perish altogether, biologically, culturally, linguistically. As anthropologists and biologists, we know only too well that these changes are part of the historical scheme of things.

These are disturbing thoughts, to say the least, and I wish I could be more positive when thinking of the future of rainforest Indians and aboriginal peoples in general. But in fitly y ears, I have seen too many traditions being lost; I have seen entire tribes disappear; I have seen too much misery among gentle, helpless people.

Although I know that the Indians' world is on the wane, I believe that this knowledge does not exempt us from certain obligations. So, here, I shall attempt to suggest a few approaches to these problems; I shall try to make an effort to envisage a better future for the Indians, by suggesting a few personal ideas.

In the first place, I think we should make a combined effort to study the Indians' knowledge of their biotype, taking into account not only our, but above all their, concepts of ecosystems. Every square kilometre of forest contains a library of important biological, cultural and psychological information, and if we study it in the company of the Indians our insights in all these fields will be enormously enriched. The death of an old Indian who never had the chance to share with us his knowledge of the forest and the river is the equivalent of a whole library disappearing. If we undertake this study alone, we will get a mere inventory but if we work together with the Indians our insights will be greatly enriched by a kind of knowledge which, at present, still lies beyond our experience. For 500 years we have witnessed and played along with, the destruction of the Indians; now we are witnessing the destruction of the natural habitat. What are we waiting for?

There can also be no doubt that as anthropologists, biologists and ecologists we possess an enormous amount of information, or practical field experience, and of the many forms of human vulnerability and of the destruction of the natural environment. By transforming this information into practical knowledge, in a manner that would make it understandable and convincing to national leaders and planning agencies, we can influence the process of decision-making; we can convince those in power of the biological and social necessity to Conserve these lands; and we can convince them of the dignity and value of our Indian societies.

It is not sufficient to say that what we owe to the Indians is potatoes, maize and quinine. It is not sufficient to retell their myths and tales in florid Portuguese or Spanish or to stage their dances in a pseudo-Indian setting on television. What we must show is the Indian's philosophy of life, their cosmogonic and cosmological schemes, their ethical and aesthetical attitudes. What we must show is their courage of choice, their option of other ways of life, different from ours; the courage and genius of having built their societies, their cultures based upon an astonishing combination of realism and imagery.

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