Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Who Are The Mysterious Bearded Indians?
Who Are The Mysterious Bearded Indians? Part 1.
A Strange Tribe, With Strange Customs and Strange Physical Characteristics, Is Being Investigated in South America. Are They Truly Indians or Are They Descendants of Some Other People?
By A. HYATT VERRILL
Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine, June 1928. Researched by Alan Schenker; digitized by Doug Frizzle February 2012.
ELSEWHERE in this issue (page 503) the ethnographer, A. Hyatt Verrill, has described a little-known but apparently anomalous tribe of savages who inhabit an inaccessible area in Bolivia. According to his hypothesis these people are not American Indians but some of the island stocks from the distant archipelagos of the Pacific, transplanted to South America. Admittedly, a close scrutiny of the photograph reproduced above lends some support to this suspicion. How these or similar island peoples may have reached South America from across the broad Pacific has perhaps been best explained by the anthropologist, Professor G. Elliot Smith, who believes they came in large canoes. Although this "diffusionist" belief is opposed by the majority of anthropologists, it is nevertheless in good scientific standing and may yet become the accepted doctrine.
Concerning The Author
DURING the past four years Mr. Verrill has made five expeditions to South and Central America and has visited 18 countries. On these trips he has traveled over 60,000 miles by sea and more than 6000 miles by canoes, horseback, afoot, and other means.
He has visited during the same period 33 tribes of Indians and has made ethnological and archeological collections totaling more than 15,000 specimens for the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, and the American Museum of Natural History.
In addition, he has discovered and excavated the remains of an unknown prehistoric civilization in Panama, has written seven books, has made over 100 oil portraits of Indians from life, as well as an equal number of paintings of South American views and street scenes. And still he has found time to contribute more than 150 stories and articles to magazines and periodicals in England and the United States.—The Editor.
MY most recent expedition to Peru and Bolivia was not, as has been stated in the daily press, in search of the bearded Indians, but was primarily archeological, although large ethnological collections and valuable ethnological data were secured among the living Indians of the interior.
The bearded Indians were merely a side issue. Moreover, I lay no claim to having "discovered" them, and neither are they a "new" race. In fact they have been known, or rather rumored, to exist for fully 200 years; but I believe I am the first to secure ethnological specimens and notes of the tribe and to bring them to the attention of science.
SCIENTIFICALLY, the bearded Indians are of the greatest interest, being in many ways unique, and may prove to be the key that will unlock the mystery of the origin of man in South America. Even to the casual observer they are strikingly un-Indian in appearance and have a far greater resemblance to inhabitants of the South Sea Islands than to any aborigines of America.
I have long held to the opinion that the Indians of western South America were of Oceanian and not Asiatic origin, and I am convinced that a further study of the bearded Indians will go far towards proving this opinion. The mere fact that the men are bearded is by no means the most important peculiarity of the tribe, although to the public it might seem so. Many, in fact nearly all, Indians possess beards, but as a rule these are shaved off or plucked out; and when allowed to grow, the beard is thin, scant, stiff and wiry.
The beards of the bearded Indians, however, are heavy, luxuriant, bushy, fine, soft, and slightly wavy; as is the hair on the heads. Neither are their features, their bodies nor the shapes of the heads Indian, although a comparison of their cranial measurements with those of Oceanian tribes will be necessary before direct relationships can be established or disproved.
In height they are well above the average forest Indians of South America, and in color they are darker and more of a brown than an ochre or red.
They are an exceedingly primitive race, wearing no garments whatever, having no knowledge of weaving or spinning, and not even using the bark-cloth which is almost universally used among other tribes. Their huts are scarcely more than rude shelters of brush and thatch; they have no regular villages and no chief, each collection of huts housing the members of one family or of relatives, with the head of the family acting as a local chief.
As far as I could ascertain they have no marriage ceremonies and no true religion. They believe that practically every object, animate or inanimate, is inhabited by a spirit; certain objects and creatures possessing evil spirits and others good spirits. If a tree is cut or a bird or animal killed which is supposed to harbor an evil spirit, there is rejoicing, for the act robs the evil spirit of its home and prevents it from doing harm.
BUT if any object supposed to contain a good spirit is injured or destroyed, or a creature with a good spirit killed, offerings must be made and profuse apologies and sorrow expressed. Moreover, a new home for the spirit must be provided. This may consist of a bit of hair from the Indian's head or beard; a rudely formed, unrecognizable image; a crudely drawn mark in the earth or sand; or even a bit of the hide or feathers of the slain animal or bird.
Their burial customs are very peculiar and interesting. The body is placed in a roughly woven container or net of bark and vines and is buried in the earth. After a sufficient time has elapsed for the body to decompose thoroughly the bones are disinterred and cleaned and the skeleton is suspended from a tree in a rude basket-work receptacle.
The dialect of these bearded Indians is wholly unlike any of those of the neighboring tribes. It is low and guttural but not inharmonious, and is spoken in a sing-song monotone.
The vocabulary obtained shows many striking resemblances to dialects of the Pacific archipelagos, some of the words being almost identical and having precisely the same meanings. This is not, however, confined to this tribe, for words in many of the Indian languages of western South America, even the Quichua and Aimara, in fact, show similar resemblances; all of which tends to sustain the theory that these people are all descendants of migrants from Oceania, although doubtless more or less mixed with the races of Asiatic origin farther north.
For weapons the bearded Indians use rude wooden clubs and bows and arrows. The latter are most remarkable, the bows being often eight feet in length and the arrows seven to eight feet long, over an inch in diameter and with feathers 18 inches or more in length and from two to three inches wide. (See page 488.) In using these gigantic bows and arrows, the string and arrow are grasped in the right hand which is braced, against the right hip. The lower end of the bow is rested upon the ground against the great toe of the left foot and the bow is pushed forward to the full extent of the left arm, instead of being drawn by the string in the usual manner. Why these people should prefer such immense unwieldy weapons, especially as the arrows are poisoned, is a mystery.
ALTHOUGH the existence of these people has been known, more or less traditionally, for centuries, yet until recently no one had ever been able to enter or pass through their territory and live to tell of it. I was told by a Redemptorist priest that his order had been trying for over 100 years to establish a mission in the bearded Indian country but without success, although they had flourishing missions among other tribes within a few miles of the borders of the bearded Indians' district.
Not only were the bearded Indians reputed to be savage, implacable, hostile cannibals but they were well protected by nature. Their country was remote; it held little or nothing to attract prospectors or other adventurers, it was in the heart of impenetrable jungle country and it could be reached only by traveling over rapid-filled and dangerous streams.
FEW persons who have not had experience in exploring the South American jungles realize how completely isolated such a tribe may remain, or how dangerous and difficult it is to reach it. The perils of the tropical jungles of South America have been greatly exaggerated by many a traveler and even more greatly exaggerated by romancers who have never entered the jungles. They have told hair-raising tales of gigantic serpents attacking men, of poisonous snakes at every turn, of multitudinous wild beasts and wilder men, of pestilential miasmas and noxious insects.
Much of this is pure fiction. Giant snakes are not common and are not particularly gigantic, and they never molest a man. During nearly 30 years of exploration in South and Central America I have never seen or found a snake over 24 feet long, despite large rewards offered for larger specimens, and a 20-foot anaconda or boa is about as dangerous to man as an ordinary black snake here in the United States. They are sluggish, timid, and will not attack any creature larger than a small deer, for example.
Poisonous snakes are about the rarest denizens of the tropical jungles of America and are seldom seen unless one is clearing or burning land. Even when present they keep out of man's way if possible. The Indians wander barefoot and nude everywhere, and in all my years of experience I have known of only one Indian who was bitten.
Insects there are, it is true, sometimes in swarms, sometimes not, and while jiggers or chigoes, ticks and ants are at times a nuisance, mosquitoes are rarely seen except in low swamp areas. Nowhere in the tropics have I ever experienced as much trouble with insects as in our northern woods when the black fly season was at its height.
LEAST of all dangers are wild animals and Indians. There is not a wild animal in the whole of South or Central America that will attack a man unless wounded, and personally I do not believe that any Indian ever molested a white man unless the white man started trouble or unless the Indians had suffered at the hands of white men and did not discriminate. I have visited and lived among innumerable tribes, many of whom had never met white men and still more of whom were supposed to be savage and hostile, and never yet have I received anything save the most friendly and hospitable reception.
All these dangers and hardships—and the latter are enough without any exaggeration—are nothing when compared with the perils and hardships of river navigation which, oddly enough, are seldom mentioned in tales of adventure in the vast stretches of any of the American jungles. And yet, in order to penetrate any distance into the interior or to reach such a country as that of the bearded Indians, one must depend entirely upon river travel. The craft used may be a frail canoe of bark or as it is called a "woodskin"; it may be a cranky dugout; or it may be a strong, well built craft with a dugout shell built up with planking. But in any case it must be small and is in constant momentary danger of being capsized, smashed to bits, sunk or hurled over a cataract. Manned by Indians or half-breeds, the craft is paddled through the short stretches of smooth water, is dragged, hauled and lifted by main strength upstream through foaming, churning, roaring rapids; is carried laboriously through the jungle around falls and, in many cases where falls are too high or too long to portage, it must be abandoned and a new boat built in order to proceed.
PROGRESS is exceedingly slow. Hauling up streams, the boat crew do well if they cover 20 miles a day, and very often only four or five miles are gained by a day's unceasing, terrific toil.
Going down stream is in some ways even worse. To be sure, progress is anything but slow. The boat sweeps through rapids with the speed of an express train, in a few hours covering the distance which required weeks of labor to overcome on the upstream journey. But the dangers are a thousand times greater. One's life is in jeopardy every instant, and I know of nothing so exciting and thrilling as to descend some unmapped tropical jungle river in a native canoe manned by naked Indians and with one's life and all one's possessions and food staked against the chance of a broken paddle, an unseen rock or an error of judgment on the part of the Indians. Tearing through the foaming water and upflung spray, missing jagged rocks and certain disaster by a hair's breadth; skirting the swirling eddies of vast whirlpools, swinging about sharp bends at the very brinks of cataracts for hour after hour, day after day, one gradually becomes so accustomed to dangers and acquires such a confidence in the Indians that it all seems a matter-of-fact, everyday affair.
AND yet, should an accident occur, should the boat be capsized, "washed out" or sunk and no lives lost—which would be a real miracle— still the explorer and his men would be face to face with death. Without outfit, arms or provisions there is not one chance in 10,000 of reaching civilization or a distant Indian village. Despite all tales to the contrary it is practically impossible to live off the tropical jungle even when equipped with fire-arms and fishing tackle. Game is scarce and wary, and, as a rule, it cannot be found when most needed, and even the native forest Indians cannot sustain life on the game and fish alone. Of nuts, fruits and roots there are practically none. What there are are usually devoured by birds and animals before they are fairly ripe.
One's only hope if thus stranded is to reach an Indian camp or village and, very often, in fact usually, an Indian village is an unknown number of miles distant. These tropical forests are very sparsely inhabited. Often, for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, there will be no Indians, and when they do exist their homes are usually carefully hidden near some small stream deep in the jungle, and the stranger who hopes to find succor at one of these camps usually finds the Indians short of supplies themselves.
Once we understand this and realize the difficulties and dangers, the innumerable hardships and the heart-breaking dreary days of toil, the incessant drenching rains, the steaming heat of days and the bone-chilling misty nights which are all a part of penetrating these districts, we can understand how and why such a tribe as the Sirionos has remained isolated for so many years.
BUT, of recent years they have established a sort of armed truce with their neighbors and little by little have permitted strangers to visit their outlying homes and to trade with them, Moreover, with the improvement of transportation methods in the settled portions of the country, and with the pacification of tribesmen occupying the districts between the settlements and the Siriono country, the tribe has become more easy of access.
I cannot state positively whether, or not these Indians are cannibals. I have visited many reputedly cannibal tribes, but as yet have never actually witnessed cannibalism nor found positive proofs of the custom: But there is no reason to doubt that the Sirionos are cannibals, as cannibalism is not uncommon among the tribes of the interior of Peru, Brazil and Bolivia,
Next month the author will give his reasons for the belief that the tribes he describes are not actually Indians.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.