Bearding the Bearded Indian in his Den
Few White Explorers Ever Return From the Jungle Haunt of the Strangest of South American Wild Tribes
By A. Hyatt Verrill
The author recently returned from an expedition for the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, and the American Museum of Natural History.
BEARDED Indians! The term savors of the strange, the bizarre, the unknown. The bearded Indians of Bolivia, whose existence I reported after my last expedition into Peru and Bolivia are strange indeed, yet they are not freaks, like the "white Indians" who aroused so much interest a few years ago. They are a distinct tribe, and every adult male member wears a full bushy beard. Most Indians of North or South America have beards, although as a rule these are shaved off or pulled out, and when allowed to grow unhindered, are sparse, thin, stiff and wiry. The hirsute growths of the bearded Indians are thick, soft and somewhat wavy, and often reach half way down the chest, giving them a most un-Indian appearance. In fact, these men bear a stronger resemblance to natives of the South Sea Islands of New Guinea than to aborigines of South America. This striking similarity is not confined to their bearded faces. It seems probable that in the bearded Indians we may find the answer to the question of the origin of man in America, or at least in South America, and that may prove the truth of the theory that the South Americas Indians are of Polynesian or Melanesian stock, or, perhaps better, of Oceanian stock.
To reach the country of the bearded Indians is no simple undertaking. Their home is in the vast tropical jungle area of the Brazil-Bolivia border, an area that stretches almost unbroken and unknown from the Gran Chaco of Paraguay and Southeastern Bolivia to Southern Colombia, perhaps the largest unexplored inhabited area in the world.
Here, hidden in the forests, hundreds of miles from civilization, in a district well-nigh impossible to reach from the Atlantic Coast and far beyond the mighty Andes to the west, dwell innumerable Indian tribes. Some of these, living near the borders of the "montana," or tropical interior, are peaceful and visit the outlying villages and outposts of Peru and Bolivia. Tribes fairly well known are the so-called Chunchos of Peru, mainly belonging to the Campas and the Amuenaha, and the Panos of Bolivia, as well as the Jivarros of Ecuador. But by far the greater number of the Indians dwelling in this forest area are unknown to ethnologists and have never been visited by any white man who returned to tell of his experiences.
Even to the missionaries the existence of these tribes and their very names are little more than mythical. Some are reputed to be cannibals, some are known to be head-hunters, but their relationships, their habits, their dialects, their physical characteristics no one knows. Their land holds few temptations to induce civilized man to visit it, and the perils of rapids, cataracts, fever and insects, not to mention the dangers from the Indians themselves, are enough to discourage all but the boldest. No doubt the tales of the Indians' savagery are exaggerated, but if only a tenth is true, one would think twice before attempting to enter the country. And all accounts, tales and rumors agree that the most savage, the most implacable, the most hostile tribes are the Sirionos, the Bearded Indians of Bolivia.
Although the existence of these people has been rumored for at least 150 years, yet until recently no outsider had ever returned from their territory, and every expedition, whether armed or peaceful, that had attempted to pass through the country of the bearded Indians had been driven back or wiped out. I was told by a Redemptorist priest that despite constant efforts for a century it had been impossible to plant a mission in or near the district. Even Indians of other tribes were barred from the Siriono region and the near-by Indians, savage fighters as they were, had a wholesome dread or their bearded and perhaps cannibalistic neighbors.
Within recent years the bearded savages have become a bit tamer and less aggressive, and have entered into a virtual armed truce with the surrounding peoples. A few traders and natives have visited the outlying members of the tribe, and it is no longer an exactly suicidal thing to do. I lay no claim to having "discovered" the tribe, nor: are they a "new" tribe; but as far as I am aware, I am the first to secure scientific and ethnological data and specimens from the tribe and to bring them to the attention of science.
These bearded aborigines are of particular interest to students who believe that the so-called Indians of Western South America are the descendants of emigrants from the Pacific islands, from Polynesia, Melanesia, Malaysia or possibly from some archipelago ages ago submerged. Such an archipelago once existed in the vicinity of mysterious Easter Island, as Professor Thompson has proved. The original migrants to South America's Pacific coast might have been refugees from that archipelago. Such an assumption is by no means necessary, however. Any large South Sea canoe or catamaran could safely cross the Pacific. In the long ago, when such a migration must have occurred, if at all, there may have been islands forming a series of stepping stones, so to say, between the archipelago and the mainland.
In physical appearance, in religion, in dialects, in certain customs many of the South American tribes are strikingly like the natives of the South Pacific islands, and are in no way Mongolian. It is true that among some of them one sees individuals of the Mongol, or the Asiatic, type; but these might easily indicate ancient admixtures with races from Central or even North America. The fact that the insular type disappears and the Mongol type increases as we go northward would tend to bear out this hypothesis.
Moreover, we know from archaeological remains in ancient graves and mounds that there was a considerable trade in prehistoric times between Peru and Central America and Mexico, as well as between the west coast of North America and the Pacific Islands. Mexican shells are frequently found in pre-Incan and Incan graves; Peruvian ceramics and implements are found in Central America and Mexico. In the prehistoric graves on the Californian coast expeditions from the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, discovered adze heads and other objects indisputably from the Hawaiian and other mid-Pacific islands. My own discoveries in Central Panama, which revealed the former presence of an extremely ancient civilization on the Isthmus, brought to light certain objects which can only be explained by the assumption that the members of the race were in direct and frequent communication with Southern Asia.
It was to seek further proofs of the Oceanian origin of the Indians of Western South America that I made my recent expedition to the interior of Peru and Bolivia, probably the richest field for archaeological research in America. Here, scattered over an area of nearly half a million square miles, are innumerable remains of civilizations that flourished and disappeared thousands of years ago. Despite the fact that scientists have delved among these ruins and graves and that volumes have been written regarding their discoveries and conclusions, still this treasure ground of archaeology has scarcely had its surface scratched.
Great temples, immense fortresses, vast cities, magnificent palaces and millions of graves have never been studied nor even seen by civilized man, and many more lie hidden in the jungle and in the inaccessible heart of the Andes. Concealed beneath the disintegrated adobe and crumbling masonry of buildings, and burled in the graves with the mummies, lies a wealth of archaeological material beyond calculation, and somewhere amid these ruins or in the graves is the key that, when discovered, will end the mystery of the origin of the races that first inhabited the land and built up marvelous civilizations ages before the white man set foot on American soil.
In the heart of the Andes and on the tablelands of Peru and Bolivia, at an altitude of two to three miles above sea level, one is in a bleak, cold climate, where, even in Summer, snow squalls and hailstorms are frequent, where perpetual snow and great glaciers cover the mountains in an unbroken, dazzling white rampart, where heavy rains fall, and where the present-day Indians find stone huts a necessity. To travel in this country, once one leaves the beaten track, is far from comfortable. Transportation is by mule back and llama train or on foot. The so-called towns are mere villages of squalid Indian huts. Even In the localities where the fairly level desert makes it possible to travel by Ford, one must depend on the hospitality of the Indians for food and shelter.
One must not inquire too closely as to the origin of the food one eats, else one goes hungry. Frozen potatoes are the principal food of the Indians, in the more sheltered and fertile spots pounded or roasted maize is used, and where there is a body of water one may sometimes obtain fish or even wild duck and snipe. But the Indian's menu seldom includes meat of any sort. If an animal is injured or becomes otherwise useless, its flesh may be stripped from its bones and dried in the air. Usually it smells to high heaven and is so tough, hard and rancid as badly cured rawhide; and since fuel is precious and water boils at a low temperature in the high altitudes, food of any sort is usually less than half cooked.
THESE Indians, among whom one must eat and sleep when on an expedition in the district, are of two races—the Quichuas in Peru and the Almarás in Bolivia. There are many tribes and sub-tribes of each. The Quichuas are mild mannered, hard working and friendly, whereas the Almarás are boastful, quarrelsome, suspicious and far from hospitable. Both tribes till every available Inch of soil, cultivating the mountains by means of terraced plots of ground to their very summits. Both use the leaf of the cocoa, which, chewed with a bit of lime, enables them to endure fatigue and hunger for days without other sustenance; both are fond of dancing and fiery liquor, and both are filthy.
Whence they originally came no one can say. That they are of incalculably ancient origin is certain. The Almarás tongue is conceded to be the Sanskrit of the New World. In fact, the Almarás take their name from the dialect. Among them are many of a decided Mongolian type, whereas the Quichuas are often indistinguishable in appearance from natives of the Pacific Islands.
Back of the Quichua territory are the Campas, the Amuenshas and others of totally different stock and language, while back of the Almarás territory are the Yungas and Collas, the latter of Aimará stock, the former of an entirely different race, speaking a distinct tongue and, in many respects, far more Malaysian than Mongolian in appearance. Further south, about the Beni River, are the wild and usually hostile Panos, while still further inland, isolated in almost impenetrable jungles, are the strange bearded Indians, who might well be natives of New Guinea or the Oceanic Islands transported bodily to the heart of South America.
Much taller than the other Indians of South America, powerfully built, with slender limbs, dark skins, thick hair and bushy beards, the men are most formidable looking. Their weapons are immense bows seven or eight feet in length, and arrows of incredible size, often seven feet long, an inch in diameter and feathered with vanes eighteen inches or more in length and several inches wide. These are weapons such as one might expect the fabled giants to use. Why these savages, who are not large men as judged by our standards, should prefer such enormous and unwieldy weapons is a mystery.
The bearded Indians are expert archers with their huge bows and arrows. The lower end of the bow is braced between the great toe and the second toe of the left foot, the arrow and the string are held in the right hand and braced against the right hip, and the bow is pushed forward with the left hand to the full extent of the arm, instead of being drawn by pulling on the string with the right hand. Rude wooden clubs are also used, as well as wooden spears tipped with fire-hardened, poisoned points.
They are a most primitive race, ignorant of weaving or spinning, and not even using the bark-cloth which is commonly seen among the other South American tribes.
Neither the men nor the women wear clothing of any sort. Their only ornaments are rudely made necklaces of human and animal teeth, shells and seeds and headdresses consisting of split feathers attached to a twisted fiber which is fastened to one ear, passed over the head and looped about the other ear.
Their homes are the simplest of conical huts of leaves and grass on a rude frame of branches; they kindle fire by rubbing two sticks together, and they eat much of their meat raw; in fact, the rarer the better and by preference barely dead. As far as I could learn, the bearded Indians have no definite religion, but believe that every object, animate or inanimate, is the abode of a spirit, good or evil, and that upon killing any creature supposed to contain a good spirit they must beg its forgiveness and provide the spirit with a new home. This new home may be a bit of their own hair, a feather or piece of hide from the creature itself, or even a mark made in the earth.
Apparently they have no marriage ceremonies, nor have they any conception of time. They cannot count above five by units, but can count to fifty or more by "hands." They do not tattoo, and, as far as I can say, they do not paint their faces or bodies.
Their dialect is wholly different from any other South American dialect with which I am familiar. It is guttural but not inharmonious, and is remarkable for its monotone. Many of the words are almost identical with words with the same or similar meanings used by Oceanian tribes. A comparison of the cranial measurements of these people with similar measurements of races from the Pacific islands will unquestionably go a long way toward proving or disproving their relationship, but without these the most casual observer will note, in the features and other physical characteristics of the race, an astonishing resemblance to the inhabitants of the South Sea Archipelagoes.
To me there is no question of the bearded Indians being of Oceanian stock, but much more time must be spent with the tribe and more extensive ethnological collections and a more detailed study of their beliefs, dialect and customs must be made before conclusions can be reached. This work must be done in the dry season, for during the rainy season it is hardly possible to reach the district and even less possible for a white man to live therein. In many years devoted to ethnological studies of the Indians of South and Central America I have visited and lived among some tribes supposedly hostile, others who are reputed never to permit a civilized man to enter their territory, and still others who had never met a civilized man. But in no case have I been molested, threatened or treated otherwise than with friendliness and hospitality. I can only judge these savages by my own experience, and I do not believe that any Indian has ever killed or molested a white man unless the white man was the aggressor or unless the Indians had suffered at the hands of white men.
To visit hostile or questionable tribe when one is carrying arms is to invite trouble. It is like parading Broadway with a cocked revolver in one's hand. I never carry arms when visiting an unknown tribe or a tribe not positively known to be friendly, and neither do I permit my Indians to carry arms under such conditions. To appear unarmed convinces the savages that one's mission is peaceful, and since one man or a dozen men, no matter how well armed, would not stand a ghost of a show among several hundred Indians if trouble should start, one is just as safe without weapons as with them.
In ports of South America certain dialects are so widely used for trade among tribes that they have become a sort of lingua franca of the bush, and one who speaks these dialects has a means of communication among many tribes. But in most cases I am obliged to depend on interpreters. At the outposts of civilisation Indians may usually be found who speak Spanish or English and one or more Indian dialects. Among the tribes with whom these fellows can communicate, others can be obtained who speak still other dialects. I have been obliged to use three or even four Indians as intermediaries in order to converse with some remote tribe.
Familiarity with the South American natives has not bred contempt, but has fostered a wholesome respect for them, although I cannot say that I ever fear them. Actually one is in far greater danger in the streets of New York than in an Indian village in the depths of the Amazonian jungles, and I am far more afraid of motor traffic than of the most savage Indians, bearded or not.