Monday, 6 June 2011

Among the Amazons


By A. Hyatt Verrill

From THE WIDE WORLD MAGAZINE, June 1926. Courtesy The Library of Congress; Digital capture by Doug Frizzle, June 2011.

Sir Walter Raleigh found many amazing things in Guiana, from the golden city of Manoa to headless men and fierce female warriors or Amazons. In this interesting article Mr. Verrill shows that some of Sir Walter's strangest stories had a basis of solid fact, and deals particularly with a little-known tribe of Indians whom he believes to be the originals of the great Elizabethan's "Amazons."

If we are to believe Sir Walter Raleigh, Guiana in his day contained even greater wonders and marvels than at the present time. Not only did he believe implicitly in the golden city of Manoa, with its gilded king El Dorado, and its lake whose shores were strewn with nuggets of "the biggnesse of hennes' egges," but he averred that he had gazed upon cataracts of vast size and incredible numbers which no man has seen since.

Not content with these tales, which were enough to fire the imagination and lust for gold of the most apathetic Englishman of the times, Raleigh told stories of headless men whose eyes and mouths were in their chests, of Indians who possessed three claws in place of fingers and toes, and of female warriors or Amazons.

No doubt Sir Walter wrote of such incredible things in perfect good faith, and firmly believed in them himself, for he was a man of vivid imagination and took as gospel truth, and literally, the tales told to him by the aborigines. One can scarcely blame him for this, for in a land as marvellous as Guiana appeared to him and his men, almost anything seemed within reason.

Moreover, his interpreters were of necessity limited in their ability to make clear the Indians' meaning to the Englishman, and vice versa: while—perhaps most important of all—Raleigh had not learned that the South American Indian always says what he thinks will please the white man and invariably exaggerates and surrounds with mystery anything he does not understand.

On the other hand, even the most incredible of Raleigh's stories had a foundation of truth, for the South American Indian does not possess a creative imagination and seldom or never manufactures a tale out of whole cloth, so to speak. Even in their folk-lore there is always a grain of fact about which the tales are woven. Who can say that somewhere, hidden deep in the unexplored jungles of Guiana, there may not be a city, a remnant of some long-dead civilization, whose rulers wore golden ornaments and so laid the foundation for the legend of fabulous Manoa? Passing from mouth to mouth, from tribe to tribe across a vast area of country, the story might well grow to the narrative of the golden city and El Dorado as Raleigh heard it. And such a city is really not half as marvellous or incredible as his three-fingered or headless men or his Amazons, which were no figments of imagination, but actualities that still exist in the Guiana hinterland.

In Dutch Guiana, a few years ago, a tribe was discovered, many members of which had malformed hands, with but three digits. With Indian superstition these freaks were regarded by their fellows as peaimen, or witch-doctors, and as such malformations are often if not usually hereditary it is easy to understand that the chiefs and medicinemen of the tribe are frequently three-fingered, and how another Indian, or even a white man, seeing one or two of these people, might readily assume that three-fingered hands were a characteristic of the whole tribe.

So, too, with regard to Raleigh's headless Indians, which at first thought seem absolutely preposterous. The Atoradis and several other tribes have the custom of painting hideously-grotesque faces upon their chests, and one can readily imagine that warriors thus decorated, with their features concealed by long hair and feather ornaments, might well appear as headless beings to the terrified Indians they attacked on their cannibal raids.

All of this, I should explain, is a sort of preface intended to bring us to Sir Walter's famous Amazons, of whom he narrated most amazing things, and who, in the minds of most people, are as fabulous as the unicorn or the minotaur.

When, one sunny afternoon, after endless weeks of weary travel in the Guiana jungle, a figure suddenly appeared in the trail ahead, I stopped in my tracks and gazed incredulously, for surely, here in flesh and blood was one of Raleigh's female warriors !


Effeminate in features and limbs, with long hair reaching to the waist, with a narrow circlet of scarlet feathers about the head, clad only in a bark loin-cloth and bearing a long javelin and bow and arrows, the apparition at first glance appeared a veritable Amazon.

Almost instantly, however, I realized how Sir Walter had been deceived, for the being before me was no female warrior, but a man, a hunter of the Wai-wois, a timid fellow as much amazed and startled at seeing me as I had been at meeting him.

Perchance, in Raleigh's days, the Wai-wois, or their kinsmen the Barakutos, ranged farther north and east than to-day, or perhaps other tribes then had similar customs and characteristics, for Sir Walter never penetrated to the district of the present-day Wai-wois—the back of beyond of Guiana, the unknown country along the Brazilian frontier.

Here, scattered over the vast highlands of the interior, from the tablelands at the headwaters of the Mazaruni, the Caroni and the Potaro, across the upland savannas of the Rio Branco and through the deep forests of the interior to the borders of Dutch Guiana, are many tribes of which little or nothing is known.

To the west are the Arekunas and the savage Myagongs, the latter famed as the makers of the deadly blow-guns, and the only Guiana Indians who are absolutely nude; farther south dwell the Atoradis, the Macushis, the Wapisianas, the Mapidians, and the Powisianas, while beyond these again are the Tarumas, the Parakutos, and the Wai-wois.

Into this land I had come, an interminable journey of days, weeks, and months, in a tiny boat and tinier "woodskins" of bark; hauling through rapids, portaging cataracts, navigating whirlpools, hewing a way through tangled jungles; tramping across sun-baked savannas through seas of waving giant grasses whose pollen parched one's throat and filled eyes and nostrils. But now all our hardships were forgotten as I looked upon the strange figure in my path, for I had reached my goal—I was at last among the original "Amazons."

Strangest and most interesting of all Guiana tribes are the Wai-wois and their neighbours, the Parakutos, a mere handful of people, the remnant of a race, a tribe distinct from all others, dwelling in almost inaccessible country, having no knowledge of the outside world and yet, through the medium of other tribes, trading their handicraft with the most distant Indians.

Peaceable and friendly, but with a queer effeminate way of shyly laying his forefinger alongside his nose and talking with downcast eyes, my Wai-woi friend led us along a narrow trail towards his village. Tired as we were and well-nigh famished—for provisions had run low and alligator-meat had formed our mainstay for days—the trail seemed interminable, but at last, when we had decided that the long-haired figure before us must be bound for Manaos, we heard the yelping of a dog, and presently emerged from the bush into a large clearing.

Before us, its steep, conical roof towering full fifty feet in air, was an enormous cylindrical house with walls reaching to the ground and with an odd, inverted, funnel-shaped cap above the main structure—a clever device to prevent rain from penetrating the opening left for smoke and ventilation in the apex of the roof.


But it was not the strange, immense house which held my attention. Gathered about the clearing and prancing in measured steps upon the smooth, hard-trodden ground were a score or more of the weirdest figures I had ever seen.

Clad from head to heels in crowns and cape-like garments of palms, hanging from their heads and decorated in grotesque patterns, they looked like gigantic, animated Japanese parasols more than anything else. But there was nothing ludicrous about them and I watched fascinated, for I realized that I was looking upon a sight which few white men have been privileged to witness—a sacred dance of the Wai-wois.

Though the dancers gave no heed to our arrival, either because through custom or superstition they could not cease their ceremonies until completed, or from some other motive, the horde of onlookers took to their heels and scurried to cover like frightened partridges. In a flash they were out of sight, some dodging into the surrounding thickets, others into the big house—all save one ancient wrinkled hag who, blind and deaf, sat placidly spinning cotton and totally unaware of our presence. At last the dance was over, the ceremonial palm-leaf costumes were cast aside, and the men gathered about us, all talking and jabbering like a flock of magpies and filled with curiosity at our belongings. Tall and well built for Guiana Indians, and with unusually good, though distinctly effeminate features, the Wai-wois were very different from any of the aborigines I had previously seen. All were hideously painted, all had their long hair enclosed in queue-like cylinders of beautifully-beaded bark or fibre; all wore armlets and leg-bands of closely woven fibre and narrow circlets of yellow or scarlet toucan feathers on their heads. Their ears were pierced and bore enormous discs of shell or dangling ornaments of bright-coloured feathers and beads; the lower lips were also pierced and had bobs of feathers and ornamental seeds hanging from them.

Many had also bored their noses, while a few had openings or apertures in the skin of their cheeks. These, as well as the holes in their noses, were, I found later, intended to hold enormous feather ornaments. Altogether they were the wildest and most savage-looking lot of Indians I had seen, despite their long hair and delicate features, and I did not wonder that Sir Walter regarded them as most dangerous enemies even if he did mistake them for women.

Presently a woman approached with the customary welcoming pot of paiwarrie, and I had another surprise, for her heavy, coarse features, short-cropped hair, and stocky limbs were distinctly masculine. And as the women and children, having overcome their first fears, emerged from their hiding-places and shyly approached, I discovered that with few exceptions this masculine-like aspect of the female Wai-wois was the rule. I also learned that I had reached the Wai-wois at a most opportune time, for chiefs from other villages were here on a visit, as well as rulers from distant Parakuto and Taruma villages.


It was in their honour that the dance was held, and a series of entertainments had been planned for several days following.

Our guide had spoken of a "village," and I looked about expecting to see the other houses, but in vain. To my questions he replied that this was the "village," and when, a few moments later, we entered the big house I found that he had spoken the truth, for the place was literally a hamlet in itself.

Nearly seventy feet in diameter, it housed over thirty families, totalling more than a hundred Indians—a happy, friendly community with each family occupying its own allotted space. In the centre was a smouldering fire, and grouped about were women and a few men busily working at various occupations.

Some of the women were weaving beautiful fibre hammocks, others were cooking: some were weaving bead aprons or queyus, and others were spinning cotton, while one old dame was manufacturing one of the cleverly-made wooden graters on which the cassava roots are ground.

The men were engaged in making bows and arrows and in feather-work, at which these people excel all the Guiana Indians. Their feather crowns are enormous, ornate affairs, often topped off with egret plumes which would be the envy of any civilized lady, and with immense bobs of feathers and bird-skins hanging down the back. These elaborate crowns are worn only at dances and ceremonials, but, unlike the other Indians, the Wai-wois and Parakutos constantly wear the small head-circlets of toucan feathers already mentioned.

In addition, they use beautifully-made ear and lip pendants of feathers, feather arm-tufts, feather nose and cheek ornaments, and feather wristlets and leg-bands. Moreover, the men, and women also, stick tufts of white down on their hair—a positive proof that they are of Carib stock, for the tribal insignia of the Caribs is a tuft of white down from the king vulture attached to a lock of hair on the forehead.

One man in the Wai-woi house was working at an elaborately carved hardwood pig-sticker, an implement peculiar to this tribe, while another was poisoning some wicked-looking arrows with wurali. This custom of poisoning arrows, as well as spears is confined to the Wai-wois and Parakutos, for while other tribes smear wurali on their blow-gun darts they do not make use of it on their arrows. All this was extremely interesting to me, but in our half-famished condition the call to dinner was of far greater importance. Watched with curiosity by the crowd of Indians, we ate a hearty meal of cassava cakes, broiled venison, and roasted yams kindly furnished by our new hosts.

Then, as usual, trading commenced, and the Wai-wois crowded close as they examined and admired the various trinkets, tools, and other articles in my trade chest. Although they had been visited by white men from outlying cattle ranches and possessed many knives, beads, and other articles of civilization, as well as a few old-fashioned guns, yet they had never seen many of the commonest articles of barter, and were wildly excited over small mirrors, scented soap, perfumes, and mouth-organs.

The latter I invariably carried as presents for the children, but the Wai-wois would have none of this and insisted upon mouth-organs for grown-ups. The noise that ensued, as a score or more of Indians all blew weird discords on these instruments, can be imagined. Everyone was now in high spirits and immediate preparations were made for an impromptu dance in honour of the unexpected white guest and his men.

This was a very different affair from the solemn ceremonial which I had already witnessed, and every man seemed to vie with his fellows as to who could pile on the most paint and the greatest assortment of feather decorations. When at last all were ready the sight was remarkable; no lily of the field, much less Solomon, could have outshone the Wai-wois in their dance costumes.


If a prize had been offered for the most gorgeous and elaborate costume it certainly would have been won by the stout old chief, who was fairly loaded down and almost concealed by his wealth of feather ornaments. From head to foot he was painted a vivid scarlet, set off by white decorations; upon his head was an enormous crown of red and yellow macaw feathers, edged with a band of contrasting black and white, and finished off by hundreds of long egret plumes and three long blue and scarlet tail-feathers of the macaw.

Hanging down his back from this and reaching to the ground was a bob of bright-hued feathers of a score of different birds, the orange skins of cock-of-the-rocks, toucans' bills, humming birds, and cotingas. Plastered over his long, black hair were tufts of snowy down; thrust through the hole in his nose and standing out on either side of his face like a huge moustache was an ornament composed of two brilliant blue feathers trimmed with scarlet and yellow toucan down, and from ears and lip hung scarlet feather pendants.

Upon each upper arm were bound great plumes of feathers and egrets. Around his wrists, ankles, and legs were circlets of fibre and feathers; from his handsome bead belt hung string after string of feathers and musically-rattling seeds; across his broad chest were draped ropes of beads and strings of jaguar and peccary teeth, and to finish this amazing costume off, his bark loin-cloth was dyed a deep crimson!

Almost as striking, though less elaborate, for he had left his most glorious regalia at home, was the visiting Parakuto chief Tufona, with bristling, bright-coloured feather ornaments in cheek and nose apertures, enormous shell discs in his ears, veritable ornithological collections hung from belt and neck, and arm plumes reaching above his head. In contrast to his Wai-woi friend he was painted bright yellow, with blue decorations.

There was really little to choose, however, among the gaily-decorated crowd, and as they danced and pranced about to the sound of a huge tom-tom, the rattle of seed-filled gourds, and the shrill notes of bone flutes, they produced a dazzling, ever-changing kaleidoscopic blaze of colour. To add to the savage din, many of the dancers carried strange instruments made of the shells of land tortoises and waxed or resined string, with which they produced a terrifying howling sound, while every man-Jack of the crowd incessantly blew upon his newly-acquired mouth-organ.

In fact, I believe the dance was merely an excuse for using these—to them—marvellous things, for the Wai-wois seemed to glory in the discord they produced and almost drowned the sounds of the tomtom and flutes. For a time the dance appeared to follow no particular steps or time, but presently the men fell into rhythmic movements, stepping high in single file, each man with one hand on the shoulder of the fellow before him and weaving in and out in serpentine figures.

Then, with fiendish cries, a crowd of boys, naked as the day they were born and painted black and red, dashed from the house and rushed madly backwards and forwards among the dancers, shaking rattles as they ran and yelling at the top of their lungs. Although vastly different in many ways, I instantly recognized the similarity of this dance to one of the Caribs; and I was convinced, as I had been from the start, that the Wai-wois were of pure Carib descent.

Every few moments the dancers would fall out of the ranks to drink great gourds of paiwarrie, and within an hour they were one and all hilariously drunk.

I had expected that after the incredible quantities of liquor which they had consumed the Wai-wois would be utterly exhausted and exceedingly ill the following day, but in this I was mistaken. I was aroused soon after daybreak by the people moving about and learned that a party was about to start out on a peccary, or wild-pig, hunt. Anxious to see all that was possible of Wai-woi life and habits, I joined the little group of hunters and presently left the clearing behind and plunged into the forest. There is no place in the world quite like a tropical forest at dawn. Dripping with moisture, filled with purple shadows, dim with mist in which the enormous tree trunks disappear as though lost in the clouds, and with a curious, tomb-like chill in the air, the jungle at dawn is a weird and mysterious place.

From the unseen branches a hundred feet or more above one's head come the sounds of bird notes, the chatter of monkeys, and the screams of parrots. From out of the mist bits of seeds and fruits come pattering down to the jungle floor. Vague shapes like flitting spirits slip into the shadows, and the drooping lianas assume the semblance of great serpents writhing and swaying towards the intruder.


Presently we reached a large fallen tree, and our Wai-woi friends hurried round it and began prodding and striking at some object with the sharpened and carved hardwood spears which they carried. Reaching the spot an instant later, I found they were killing a full-grown peccary which was wedged fast in a cleverly-made trap, a sort of funnel-shaped arrangement so made that while a pig could get its head in to secure the bait it could not withdraw it.

After securing this peccary the Wai-wois reset the trap and hurried along to another. It was a very tame sort of pig-hunt, but a decidedly successful one, and with ten fat peccaries the Wai-wois were well satisfied with their work and declared the hunt over. As we were returning towards the village an enormous ant-bear suddenly confronted us, half rising on his hind legs and waving his huge hooked front claws in a menacing manner. Instantly, the Wai-wois beat a hasty retreat and stood at a respectful distance.

The ant-bear, evidently disgruntled at being disturbed at his meal, uttered a curious sound something between a growl and a hiss, and began ambling in my direction. Remembering an experience I had once had with a captive ant-bear, and not wishing to kill the beast, I lost no time in joining the Wai-wois. After moving a few yards, the creature apparently forgot all about us and returned to his interrupted work of tearing apart a rotten stump in search of ants.

I do not know if these ant-bears ever actually attack man unless cornered or wounded, but I do know that all the Indians, and the blacks as well, fear them and give them a wide berth, and I have known of a wounded one chasing a man for several hundred yards. Spite of its clumsy and ungainly appearance, the ant-bear can move very rapidly when he desires, and although a man can easily keep out of their way on smooth ground there is always the danger of tripping and falling when hurrying through the bush, and I, for one, should not care to lie helpless in the path of an enraged ant-bear.

They are without question the most powerful animals for their size in the Guiana jungle, and as they possess too little intelligence to be afraid or to realize what they are attacking, they make most formidable foes. The Wai-wois assured me that an ant-bear would kill a jaguar, and that the big cat seldom attacked one unless driven by hunger. They added that they had recently discovered the skeletons of a jaguar and ant-bear lying together and volunteered to take me to the spot.

This offer I at once accepted and, after a walk of about a mile, the Wai-wois pointed out a pile of bones lying in a little opening beside a gully. As they had stated, the skeletons were those of a good-sized jaguar and a huge ant-bear, and evidently the two creatures had died together in a terrific combat. The ant-bear's head was smashed to pulp and his neck was crushed, the jaguar's teeth still holding the vertebras in their grip, while the bear's strong, recurved front claws were dug deep between the big cat's ribs.

As near as I could judge, the bear had ripped the jaguar open at the first onslaught and had maintained his vice-like hold even in death, while the mortally-injured jaguar had smashed the bear's head and chewed his neck in his death struggles.

Oddly enough, none of the Guiana Indians consider the ant-bear fit to eat, and yet I have eaten them and have found the meat excellent, although rather tough. Their flesh closely resembles pork in flavour and is usually fat, which is exceptional with most of the bush mammals.

During the several days I remained in the Wai-woi village I found them a most interesting people. They were the best-natured and jolliest Indians I had met, and delighted in playing practical jokes and in making fun of one another, laughing uproariously at anything which amused them. One object which sent them into paroxysms of merriment was a trick mirror—one of those concave affairs. They would look into this at various angles and scream with laughter. Another thing which excited their curiosity, and of which they never tired, was a pocket electric torch. At first they were frightened half out of their wits by the dazzling light, but soon curiosity overcame fear and they watched breathlessly as I placed it in my mouth and behind my ears, and when they noted the blood-red effect thereby produced they uttered long-drawn, hissing sighs of wonder.


Finally I handed it to the old chief, who at once repeated my performance, but through his brown skin the light gave only a dull glow, at which their wonder increased still more. The old fellow was so tickled with the torch that I made him a present of it, but unfortunately I had no extra batteries, and I have often wondered, since then, what he thought when the battery became exhausted and the magic light failed. The reactions of these primitive people when they see for the first time some mechanical or other contrivance of the white man are most interesting. Many tribes seem to take everything as a matter of course and are not impressed—or at least pretend not to be—at whatever the white man produces. Others regard everything they cannot understand as peai or taboo, and keep at a safe distance from it, while others “want to see how the wheels go round," and, monkey-like, investigate and tear the object to bits in order to satisfy their curiosity.

Still others are dumbfounded with surprise, but as a rule the Indian of Guiana who has ever seen a white man has a feeling that the Caucasian can do or make anything, and hence nothing in the shape of a man-made object greatly surprises or impresses him.

On one occasion I took a party of Indians from the far interior to Georgetown. They were not in the least surprised or afraid when for the first time they saw steamships, motor-cars, railways, or other works of civilized man. All these, they knew, were the handiwork of the whites, and quite to be expected. But at the first glimpse of a horse they turned tail and ran away screaming with terror. Here was something the white man had not made, and beyond their comprehension—a gigantic, unknown, terrible beast, to their eyes a most savage and fearsome creature.

A curious note published in the American Anthropologist follows:


DR. WALTER E. ROTH of the Christianburg Magistrate’s Office, Demerara River, writing on June 8th, 1927, encloses an article from The Daily Argosy (Georgetown, British Guiana) of May 22, 1927, in which he challenges Mr. A. Hyatt Verrill’s article on the Wai Wai in the Wide World Magazine of May 1926. According to Dr. Roth the only approach to this people is by water and the sole difficulty is that of finding appropriate timber for suitable boats, the Wai Wai living on the uppermost reach of the Essequibo, a twelve days’ boat trip from the head of the Kuyuwinni in country belonging to the Wapishana, their nearest neighbors to the north and west. According to Dr. Roth, Mr. Hyatt erroneously describes the women, not the men, as manufacturing hammocks, and a chief as wearing a loin cloth of bark instead of finely woven and dyed cotton. Dr. Roth mentions other inaccuracies and arrives at the conclusion that “Mr. A. Hyatt Verrill has never been to the Wai Wai country or seen its people.”

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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.