The biggest difficulty in reconstructing the pre-Colombian past is the absence of voices from that past. Mesoamerican peoples left behind texts that are slowly giving up their secrets, but in other areas the lack of written languages has left a great silence. Hints of past events can be found in Native American oral traditions, to be sure, but these are concerned more with interpreting eternal truths than the details of journalism and history. The Bible has much to teach, yet professors must use it judiciously, supplementing it with other sources, when they teach ancient Middle Eastern history. In the same way, preserved Indian lore throws a brilliantly colored but indirect light on the past. To understand long-ago Indian lives, one cannot avoid the accounts of the first literate people who saw them: European swashbucklers, fortune hunters, and missionaries.

As historical sources, colonial reports leave much to be desired. Their authors often were adversaries of the Indians they wrote about, usually did not speak the necessary languages, and almost always had an agenda other than empathetic description of indigenous folkways. Some wrote to further their careers; others, to score political points. Nevertheless these chronicles cannot be dismissed out of hand for these reasons. Used carefully, they can corroborate, even illuminate.

Consider Gaspar de Carvajal, author of the first written description of the Amazon, an account reviled for its inaccuracies and self-serving descriptions almost since the day it was released. Born in about 1500 in the Spanish town of Extremadura, Carvajal joined the Dominican order and went to South America to convert the Inka. He arrived in 1536, four years after Atawallpa’s fall. Francisco Pizarro, now governor of Peru, was learning that to avoid outbreaks of feckless violence he needed to keep his men occupied at all times. One of the worst troublemakers was his own half brother, Gonzalo Pizarro. At the time, conquistador society was abuzz with stories of El Dorado, a native king said to possess so much gold that in an annual ritual he painted his body with gold dust and then rinsed off the brilliant coating in a special lake. After centuries of these baths, gold dust carpeted the lake floor. A lake of gold! To twenty-first-century ears the story sounds preposterous, but it did not to Gonzalo Pizarro, who had already helped seize an empire laden with jewels and precious metals. When he decided to search for El Dorado, Francisco encouraged him—he practically shoved Gonzalo out the door. In 1541 Gonzalo left the high Andean city of Quito at the head of an expedition of 200 to 280 Spanish soldiers (accounts differ), 2,000 pigs, and 4,000 highland Indians, the latter slaves in all but name. Accompanying the troops as chaplain was Gaspar de Carvajal.

Gonzalo’s quest descended rapidly from the quixotic to the calamitous. Having no idea where to find El Dorado, he blundered randomly for months about the eastern foothills of the Andes, then as now a country of deep forest. Because the mountains catch all the moisture from the Amazon winds, the terrain is as wet as it is steep. It is also pullulatingly alive: howling with insects, hot and humid as demon’s breath, perpetually shaded by mats of lianas and branches. Within weeks most of the horses died, their hooves rotting in the mire. So did most of the Indian laborers, felled by being worked to exhaustion in a hot, humid land twelve thousand feet below their cool mountain home. Having lost their beasts of burden, animal and human, the conquistadors painfully cobbled together a crude boat and floated their guns and heavy equipment down the Napo River, an upper tributary of the Amazon. Meanwhile, the soldiers slogged along the banks, a parallel but more laborious course.

The forest grew yet thicker, the countryside less inhabited. Soon they were utterly alone. “Not a bark dimpled the waters,” William H. Prescott wrote in his History of the Conquest of Peru. “No living thing was to be seen but the wild tenants of the wilderness, the unwieldy boa, and the loathsome alligator basking on the borders of the stream.” With no Indian villages to rob for supplies, the expedition ran short of food. The forest around them had plenty of food, but the Spaniards didn’t know which plants were edible. Instead they ate all the surviving pigs, then the dogs, and then turned to spearing lizards. More and more men were sick. Having previously heard vague tales of a wealthy country further down the Napo, Francisco de Orellana, Gonzalo Pizarro’s second-in-command and cousin, suggested that he split off part of the expedition to see if he could obtain supplies. Pizarro agreed, and Orellana set off in the expedition’s prized boat on December 26, 1541, with a crew of fifty-nine, Carvajal among them.

Nine days and six hundred miles down the Napo, Orellana found villages with food—a society he called Omagua. His men gorged themselves and then considered their options. They did not relish the prospect of ferrying supplies back up the river to Gonzalo Pizarro and the rest of the expedition; rowing against the current would be difficult, and, as they knew all too well, there was nothing to eat along the way. Orellana decided instead to leave the starving Gonzalo to his fate and take the boat to the mouth of the river, which he correctly believed emptied into the Atlantic (incorrectly, he believed that the river was not too long).

Knowing that Gonzalo, in the unlikely event that he survived, would regard Orellana’s actions as treasonous, Carvajal took upon himself the task of creating a justificatory paper trail: an account “proving” that the choice to abandon Gonzalo had been forced on them. To satisfy Spanish legal requirements, Orellana made a show of resigning his temporary command rather than leave Gonzalo. The crewmen, Carvajal claimed, then swore “by God…by the sign of the Cross, [and] by the four sacred Gospels” that they wanted Orellana to return as leader. Bowing to pressure, Orellana accepted the post. Then they built a second vessel and set off downstream.

Their worries about Gonzalo’s reaction were well-founded. Half a year after Orellana’s departure, the surviving members of his expedition staggered in rags into Quito. Gonzalo was among them. He wasted no time in demanding Orellana’s arrest and execution. In taking the boat, most of the canoes, and some of the weapons from his famished troops, Orellana had displayed, Gonzalo said, “the greatest cruelty that ever faithless men have shown.”

Meanwhile, Orellana and his men had spent five months floating down the Amazon, Carvajal recording every moment. It is inconceivable that their surroundings did not induce awe. Vastly bigger than any river in Europe or Asia, the Amazon contains a fifth of the earth’s above-ground fresh water. It has islands the size of countries and masses of floating vegetation the size of islands. Half a dozen of its tributaries would be world-famous rivers anywhere else. A thousand miles up from the Atlantic, the river is still so broad that at high water the other side is only a faint dark line on the horizon. Ferries take half an hour to make the crossing. Seagoing vessels travel all the way up to Iquitos, Peru, 2,300 miles from the river’s mouth, the furthest inland deep-ocean port in the world.


The conventional view of Amazonia: endless untouched forest. The forest indeed exists, but humankind has long been one of its essential components.

The prospect of a mutiny trial constantly in mind, Carvajal wrote relatively little about his extraordinary surroundings. Instead he focused on creating a case for the value and necessity of Orellana’s journey. To the contemporary eye, he didn’t have much to work with. His case had three main elements: (1) the forcing of Orellana’s hand (see above); (2) the crew’s devotion to the Holy Virgin; and (3) the degree to which they suffered en route. In truth, the last does not seem feigned. In Carvajal’s account, pain and sickness alternate with starvation. “We were eating leather from the seats and bows of saddles,” runs one all-too-typical reminiscence. “Not to mention the soles and even whole shoes [with] no sauce other than hunger itself.”

Encounters with the river’s inhabitants were frequent and often hostile. Passing the native domains strung along the river was like passing a line of angry hives. Forewarned of the visitors’ arrival by drum and messenger, Indians awaited them behind trees and in concealed canoes, shot fusillades of poisoned arrows, then withdrew. A few miles downriver would be the next group of Indians, and the next attack. Except when demanding food, the expedition navigated as far as possible from every village. Nonetheless three Spaniards died in battle. An arrow hit Carvajal in the face, blinding him in one eye.

Carvajal wrote little about the peoples who spent so much time trying to kill him. But the small amount he did write depicts a crowded and prosperous land. Approaching what is now the Peru-Brazil border, he noted that “the farther we went the more thickly populated and the better did we find the land.” One 180-mile stretch was “all inhabited, for there was not from village to village a crossbow shot.” The next Indians down the river had “numerous and very large settlements and very pretty country and very fruitful land.” And just beyond them were villages crowded cheek by jowl—“there was one day when we passed more than twenty.” In another place Carvajal saw a settlement “that stretched for five leagues without there intervening any space from house to house.”

Near the mouth of the Tapajós, about four hundred miles from the sea, Orellana’s ragtag force came across the biggest Indian settlement yet—its homes and gardens lined the riverbank for more than a hundred miles. “Inland from the river, at a distance of one or two leagues…there could be seen some very large cities.” A floating reception force of more than four thousand Indians—two hundred war canoes, each carrying twenty or thirty people—greeted the Spanish. Hundreds or thousands more stood atop the bluffs on the south bank, waving palm leaves in synchrony to create a kind of football wave that Carvajal clearly found peculiar and unnerving. His attention riveted to the scene, he for once noted some details. Approaching in their great canoes, the Indian soldiers wore brilliant feather cloaks. Behind the canoe armada was a floating orchestra of horns, pipes, and rebecs like three-stringed lutes. When the music played, the Indians attacked. Only the tremendous surprise created by the Spaniards’ firearms provided the opportunity to escape.

Orellana died in 1546 on a second, failed voyage to the Amazon. Carvajal went on to achieve modest renown as a priest in Lima, dying peacefully at the age of eighty. Neither Orellana’s journey nor Carvajal’s account of it received the attention they merited; indeed, Carvajal’s work was not formally published until 1894. Part of the reason for the lack of attention is that Orellana didn’t conquer anything—he simply managed to emerge with his life. But another part is that few people believed Carvajal’s description of the Amazon.

The main cause for skepticism was his notorious claim that halfway down the river the Spaniards were attacked by tall, topless women who fought without quarter and lived without men. When these “Amazons” wanted to reproduce, Carvajal explained, they captured males. After the women’s “caprice [had] been suited,” they returned the spent abductees to their homes. Any bravo who saw the prospect of some caprice-suiting as inviting enough to visit the Amazons himself, Carvajal solemnly warned, “would go a boy and return an old man.” This absurd story was viewed as proof of Carvajal’s untrustworthiness and Orellana’s faithlessness. “Mentirosa [full of lies],” historian Francisco López de Gómara scoffed soon after Carvajal finished his manuscript.

Physical scientists were especially unwilling to accept his depiction of the Amazon. To ecologists, the great tropical forest in South America was and is the planet’s greatest wilderness, primeval and ancient, an Edenic zone touched by humankind lightly if at all. Constrained by its punishing climate, poor soil, and lack of protein, these scientists argue, large-scale societies have never existed—can never exist—in the river basin. Amazonia thus could not have been the jostling, crowded place described by Carvajal.

As anthropologists have learned more about the vagaries of fieldwork, they have treated Carvajal more kindly. “He may not have been making up the Amazons out of whole cloth,” William Balée, the Tulane anthropologist, told me. “It is possible that he saw female warriors, or warriors whom he believed were female. If he asked Indians about them, he could have misunderstood their answers. Or he could have understood them correctly, but not understood that his informants were pulling his leg. We now understand that ethnography is complex, and it’s easy to go wrong.” In recent years, these blanket dismissals have been challenged.

More important, anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers, and historians who were reassessing the environmental impact of indigenous cultures in North and Central America inevitably turned to the tropical forest. And in growing numbers researchers came to believe that the Amazon basin, too, bears the fingerprints of its original inhabitants. Far from being the timeless, million-year-old wilderness portrayed on calendars, these scientists say, today’s forest is the product of a historical interaction between the environment and human beings—human beings in the form of the populous, long-lasting Indian societies described by Carvajal.

Such claims raise the hackles of many conservationists and ecologists. Amazonia, activists warn, is sliding toward catastrophe so rapidly that saving it must become a global priority. With bulldozers poised to destroy one of the planet’s last great wild places, environmentalists say, claiming that the basin comfortably housed large numbers of people for millennia is so irresponsible as to be almost immoral—it is tantamount to giving developers a green light.

The Amazon is not wild, archaeologists and anthropologists retort. And claiming that it is will, in its ignorance, worsen the ecological ailments that activists would like to cure. Like their confreres elsewhere in the Americas, Indian societies had built up a remarkable body of knowledge about how to manage and improve their environment. By denying the very possibility of such practices, these researchers say, environmentalists may hasten, rather than halt, the demise of the forest.

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