Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The People Who Eat Alone


This article is believed to be roughly equivalent to parts 5 and 6 of ‘In Unknown Guiana’ but published three years before them. We have never been able to locate part 6; it may never have been published. Part 5 is here, in text form. The two illustrations are oil paintings by Verrill; we hope they are Carib Natives! Since the original article was not illustrated, we have added them./drf

The People Who "Eat Alone."*

By A. Hyatt Verrill.

From The Daily Chronicle Christmas Annual, 1916. Georgetown, British Guiana. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, December 2011.

A narrow lane of brown and tranquil river with its glassy surface broken by innumerable tacubas, their gaunt water-worn trunks and branches standing sharply forth like half submerged skeletons of prehistoric monsters, and on either hand, the towering walls of giant forest trees rearing their dense canopy of foliage, tangled rope-like vines and vivid flowers a hundred feet and more above their mirrored counterparts.

Such was the scene upon which I looked as my fragile woodskin sped swiftly and silently down the upper Barama to the steady strokes of my Indians' paddles.

Suddenly, through the silence of the vast wilderness, came a faint, far away sound; a rythmatic, pulsating beat. Instantly the flashing strokes of the paddles ceased, and we rested motionless, listening with eager ears, for the sound, though so thin and dim that it seemed felt rather than heard, was unmistakable,—the measured boom of an Indian drum. And, as once more the throbbing noise was borne to us on the bosom of the forest bordered river, my pulses quickened, for there is something indescribably wild, something that savors of primitive savage man, of cannibal feasts and weird orgies in the sound of an Indian tom-tom quivering through the still and humid air of a tropic jungle.

Then, as the paddles dipped once more and the woodskin leaped forward, the centuries seemed swept away and in my mind I saw another boat upon the river in the wilderness, a boat filled with mail-clad men whose faces blanched at the booming drum beats and who with muttered curses, urged their Indian slaves to greater efforts, and crossing themselves prayed that they might escape from the accursed spot ere twas too late. And good cause had those voyagers of old to fear for their lives, for they were in the heart of the Carib country, the district inhabited by that once implacable, unconquerable, indomitable race the mere mention of whose name brought terror to the heart of red man or white, the one tribe to defy the armed intruders from over seas; the tribe to whom bloodshed and battle were as the breath of life; who feasted upon the bodies of their vanquished and who gave the word "cannibal" to our language. But unlike those mail-clad men of centuries past I was hurrying towards the sound of the Carib drum, for there was nothing to fear, the Caribs' warlike ways have long since been forgotten and the tom-tom called the tribesmen to a festive dance instead of to a ghastly cannibal feast.

I had long wanted to visit the Caribs of Guiana for I had dwelt among the Caribs of Dominica,—the last survivors of the race in the Antilles,—and I was most anxious to study the resemblances and differences between the two tribes.

By a long and no means easy journey I had reached the upper waters of the Barama; but the 140 miles of sea in the ill-found, wallowing apology for a steamer; the 36 hours spent bucking the Barima in a noisy kerosene launch where sleep was impossible; the 30 odd miles of jungle road through torrential downpours with shelterless nights in the bush, these were but incidentals and all hardships and discomforts were forgotten as the dull resonant throb of the Carib drum reverberated louder and louder while we swept towards the half-hidden entrance to a narrow-creek.

In a moment the river was lost to view, and rounding a bend of the creek, the woodskin was run gently upon the muddy shore beside a dozen others of its kind.

Up from the landing place a gigantic fallen tree trunk formed a natural bridge and pathway to the summit of the bank, and, in single file, we picked our way along the slippery tacuba and entered a narrow winding trail through the forest.

Ever louder boomed the drum as we proceeded and presently, emerging from the woods, we came forth upon a good sized clearing within which stood half a dozen thatched benabs. I had reached the Carib camp, had come unannounced and unbidden to the merry making, and I gazed about with interest at the scene to which good fortune had led me.

Close at hand stood a neatly wattled hut, adjoining it was a large open benab and in its shelter, standing about, reclining in hammocks or squatting on low wooden stools, were a score or more of women. Some were naked,—save for their blue laps, or loin cloths,—others wore a single baglike garment suspended by a string about the neck and exposing shoulders and breast, but all were arrayed in barbaric finery and gay with paint and colour. All wore their glossy blue-black hair coiled in neat braids above their napes and decorated with innumerable scarlet streamers; all had arms and legs tightly bound with woven ornamental bands of cotton; all wore immense necklaces of beads, teeth and seeds; all had faces painted in strange designs of scarlet and black and all wore a tuft of white vulture down upon their foreheads,—the tribal mark of the true Carib.

A few yards away, beneath another thatched benab, were the men,—splendidly muscled, beautifully proportioned, clean-limbed and physically as perfect as statutes of bronze, —clad only in their long, befringed, embroidered and beaded laps; but one and all with hideously painted faces and their long forelocks of hair covered with the snowy vulture down, the symbol of their race.

At the entrance to the men's benab a tall Carib was seated, holding, between his knees, a drum of cedar and babboon hide upon which he beat the monotonous rythm of the wahnoo dance with jaguar bones for drumsticks.

Close by, stood two great troughs of Paiwarrie and ever back and forth between these and the men and women passed a young and comely maiden with her face curiously adorned with scarlet, the "Paiwarrie Governor," whose duty is to keep the drinkers' calabashes constantly filled with the vile liquor.

It was by merest chance I had come upon the camp during a paiwarrie spree, when, from far and near, the Caribs had foregathered for the dance, and by this good luck I had obtained an exceptional opportunity to see the Caribs when all restraint was thrown aside.

* A Chapter from Mr. Verrill's forthcoming book "Among the Indians of the Guiana Wilderness." It is to obtain photographs and material for this work that the author is now visiting the Colony.

With true Indian stoicism the Caribs showed no surprise at my arrival on the scene, and, seating myself in an empty hammock, I took the proffered calabash of Paiwarrie, for he who would win the confidence of the red men and would obtain an insight of their lives and ways must perforce do as they do in as far as possible. As yet the dance had not commenced and as I wandered at will among the people and explored their benabs I learned much of Carib life and ways. Soon we were on friendly terms; presents of tobacco, pipes, knives, mirrors, etc., serving to establish myself in their good graces and even old Komahrie,—the Peaiman and master of ceremonies,—unbent from his surly aloofness, and vowing I was his brother, posed for his portrait, and then, leading me to his benab, furnished me with a vocabulary and other information of the greatest value, besides disposing of his choicest possessions to add to my collection.

Meantime the drinking was continuing without cessation, but much to my surprise, there were no signs of intoxication, although the Indians had consumed enormous quantities of the sour, ill-smelling concoction. The only visible effect of the liquor was to produce a lethargic, listless, dull condition, the men and women lying or sitting motionless and silent, but with no signs of drowsiness, and apparently wrapped in the most serious and profound thoughts, and often so inert that they would not trouble to lift the drink to their lips, but opening their mouths, waited for the serving maid to pour the liquor down their throats.

In a short time, however, the Paiwarrie commenced to act as a cathartic and emetic, but there was nothing of the nauseating filthy orgy of which I had heard; the people discreetly retiring to the bush, to return and continue drinking, as before.

In an hour or two after my arrival the Paiwarrie began to exert its secondary effect; the lethargic morose attitude of the Caribs gave way to laughter and gaiety, they chattered and sang, the droning boom of the drum became a lively tattoo, rude fiddle-like instruments squeaked, bone flutes added their shrill notes to the barbaric discord, and the boys and girls commenced to prance about, turning and twisting, stamping their feet, and stepping high in time with the drum beats.

Soon the men joined the dance, always in couples, and, casting aside their single garments, the women followed in rapid succession. Each sex, however, formed a separate group, the women and girls dancing on the smooth open space before their benab and the men occupying a similar space before their shelter, while the boys dashed about, here there and everywhere, shaking calabash rattles and yelling like fiends.

No doubt there were definite steps and figures to the dance and these unquestionably had their symbolic meanings for the "spree" was held to celebrate the end of the period of mourning for a deceased member of the tribe and the desertion of the field wherein she had been buried. But only a Carib could have interpreted the meaning of the intricate movements and the gyrations of the dance or the significance of the various forms of ceremonial clubs wielded by the men. To civilized eyes it appeared a confused jumble of leaping, prancing, naked bronze figures; a kaleidoscopic whirl of colour and a deafening din of yells, shouts, the piercing sound of flutes, the thumping of wooden clubs, the stamp and shuffle of bare feet and the whirl of rattles, the whole punctuated and impelled by the resonant hollow boom of the drum.

For a time I watched,—an interested spectator, and taking photographs as opportunity offered; but as Paiwarrie was constantly pressed upon me and I had no desire either to drink more or to offend the Indians by refusals, and as there was nothing more to be accomplished, I prepared to leave the dancing half-drunken throng to themselves.

But my "civilized" Carib boatmen could not be coaxed, cajoled or threatened into leaving,—such an event as a Paiwarrie spree did not fall to their lot every day and they were determined to make the most of their opportunity. Luckily one of my men was of another tribe, and being unfamiliar with the Carib tongue, found himself a mere wall flower. With him and my trusty black Sam I slipped away unnoticed, and embarking in my woodskin, headed for the open river and our camp.

As we paddled up stream in the waning light, the distant boom of the drum was borne to us on the breeze and far into the night the faint, far away reverberations told us that hilarity still reigned among the Caribs.

Much of interest was obtained among these Caribs of the upper Barama and much additional and valuable data was secured from other Caribs, both before and after my first participation in a Paiwarrie feast.

That they are very different from all other Guiana Indians is evident, but who they are, whence they came and what their relationship with the other tribes, are problems which have long puzzled ethnologists and are still unsolved.

Of the same stocky build as the other aborigines, yet the Caribs differ markedly in features, proportions and physical characteristics and are still more distinct in habits, traditions, language, weapons and customs. Thus, among all the other British Guiana tribes, the women wear aprons or queyus of beads, whereas, the Carib women never use queyus, but adhere to plain cloth laps or loin cloths, while the laps of the men, instead of being of plain cloth devoid of decoration, are fringed, ornamented with strips of coloured cloth and braid and are often beaded.

In place of the tattooing, so common among the Akawoias, Patamonas, Arekunas and other tribes, the Caribs use pigments or paints, exclusively and, moreover, the painted designs on their faces have no significance as charms or beenas,—as do the tattoo marks of their neighbours,—but are merely ornamental.

Feather crowns and mantles also are unknown among the Caribs, the only feathers used for decorative purposes being the soft white down of the King Vulture which, gummed to the foreheads of the women or to the forelocks of the men, constitutes the tribal mark or emblem of the race. In order to afford a spot for attaching this down the Carib men wear a long lock of hair, extending from the centre of the head above the ears to the forehead, the rest of the hair being clipped short; So inherent and deep seated is this ancient custom that even the civilized Caribs of the riverside towns cut their hair in the same manner, although they have not the remotest idea as to why they do so.

In their necklaces and other adornments the Caribs also differ materially from other tribes, the women wearing immense necklaces of beads consisting of innumerable strings held together by polished rings cut from palm nuts, while ankles and limbs are tightly bound with fringed cotton bands woven in place and which cannot be removed without cutting.

Like nearly all the other Indians, the Caribs have their ears pierced, but in addition, the women have the lower lip perforated and in the aperture carry one or more pins, which are used to extract jiggers from the feet. The women are adept at removing these pins and reinserting them with the tip of the tongue and it is almost fascinating to watch the pins appear and disappear from the lip without apparent cause. But the strangest feature of this custom of carrying pins in the lip lies in the fact that it exists among no other British Guiana Indians with the exception of the Macusis and their related tribes of southern Guiana, and as these people also use white down on their foreheads on festive occasions there is little doubt that they are of Carib stock, although so widely separated geographically and so totally distinct in many other ways.

The weapons of the Caribs are also very different from those of the other British Guiana Indians. The bows are, as a rule, very crude and primitive, but some are well made and these differ from the bows of the Arekunas, Patamonas and other races in their form and size, as well as in the depth of the groove along the back.

The Caribs arrows, however, are much superior to those of most other tribes and are usually shorter, while, in addition to bows and arrows, the Caribs employ long throwing lances or javelins for hunting large game, as well as true harpoons for capturing large fish. Blow pipes and poisoned darts are unknown among the Caribs,—save where Ackawoias have intermarried with them, but they make ceremonial clubs of many different types and which are often of immense size and weight.

In their domestic arts and crafts the Caribs are very primitive, their basketry being inferior to that of other Indians, their wooden stools rough and crude, their earthenware poorly made and their hammocks of inferior grade; but their water calabashes are well designed and neatly stoppered, their drums are marvels of ingenuity and patience and their strange fiddles,—made from the hollow limbs of the trumpet tree or "Gunga pump,"—are very cleverly designed and are far from unmusical.

As might be expected of a race whose ancestors for countless centuries lived by the sword, figuratively speaking, the Caribs are less inclined to pastoral and agricultural pursuits than the other Guiana tribes, but they are adept fishermen, splendid hunters and unexcelled boatmen. These inherited characteristics of their warlike, nomadic forbears tend to make them lazy and improvident however, and, compared with the Arekunas, Macusis or even the Patamonas, they are miserably poor,—if indeed we can consider any one poor whose every want is supplied by nature and who has no ambitions or desires other than to live an uneventful, easy existence with as little effort as possible. Whereas the benabs of the other Indians are usually well supplied with baskets for various purposes, several spare hammocks, numerous cooking utensils, an ample assortment of bows and arrows, often times a gun, great balls of spun cotton and baskets of raw cotton; the houses of the Caribs usually contain but the barest necessities. Few own guns, more than a single bow with its set of arrows is rarely seen, the baskets are usually few and show signs of long hard usage, a single earthen pot or a battered pail is the ordinary extent of cooking utensils and the hammocks are smoke-browned with age and patched and repaired in innumerable places.

But despite their lack of industry and their poverty, the Caribs are intelligent, honest, scrupuously neat and cleanly in habits and, when beyond the sphere of influence of civilized man, strictly moral according to their own tenets. Indeed, the cleanliness of their villages and persons is most striking and the satin-like smoothness of their skins is in sharp contrast to the scarred and scratched bodies of many other tribes and speaks eloquently of their physical condition and personal habits. No doubt this is partly due to the fact that the women constantly wear the loose bag-like frocks peculiar to their tribe when in the bush, for they state that this is donned to protect their skins from thorns, brush and insects; but the men go about nude save for their laps and their skins are also clean and free from sores, scars or blemishes.

In colour the Caribs average lighter than the other tribes, their skins ranging from a light golden-brown or dark olive to a reddish, coppery hue; the women as a rule being lighter coloured than the men and their faces, strangely enough, being often lighter than their bodies.. Their features are more regular and finer cut than the other Indians, their noses are often straight or even slightly aquiline, their lips fairly thin, their mouths small and their eyes seldom oblique or almond shaped and often hazel or tawny-brown colour. On the whole they are far less Oriental in appearance than the other tribes, many are decidedly Caucasian in features, there is a distinctly Semitic cast to their faces and, if dressed in civilized garments, they might readily pass for natives of southern and eastern Europe or Asia Minor.

In stature the Caribs average taller than the other tribes, the average height of 34 men being 5 ft. 6 inches and that of 33 women being 4 ft. 9 inches while one man was measured who stood 5 ft. 10 inches in height and the tallest woman seen was 5 ft. 3 inches.

The Carib language differs essentially from all other Guiana tongues and while the dialect of each tribe is distinct yet the differences are often so slight that very often a member of one tribe has no difficulty in conversing with members of another. Thus, the Arekunas and Ackowoias can understand each others tongue, but in the case of Carib it is different, for neither Arekuna nor Akowoia can speak or understand Carib (unless the knowledge is acquired) or vice versa. Indeed, there are scarcely a dozen Carib words which even remotely resemble the words having the same meaning in the tongues of the other tribes, although, certain words, such as "toona " (water), "oorapa" (bow) and "poorooua" (arrow) are common to several tribal tongues. This however, is to be expected for such words were of prime importance, and necessity compelled the various peoples to adopt universally understood names for the articles on which their lives depended.

To the student of ethnology the Caribs are perhaps the most interesting, as well as the most puzzling, tribe of northern South America for once their origin or relationship can be definitely established great light will be thrown upon the aborigines of the continent. It has been customary to consider the Caribs of the South American mainland and the Caribs of the Lesser Antilles as identical, the theory being that the insular aborigines were merely wanderers from the coast who, by stress of weather or by choice, had migrated to the islands that rim the Caribbean Sea. But with this theory I cannot fully agree for in many ways the two races are totally different. Putting aside the question of physical characteristics, which might easily be altered by environment, there are many important points to be considered.

Thus, the first Europeans to visit South America found the Indians using hammocks which, to the aborigine, is perhaps the most important of articles with the exception of his weapons, But the early voyagers make no mention of hammocks among the Indians of the Antilles and the few survivors of the insular Caribs never use hammocks and have no knowledge of their manufacture. To my mind it is inconceivable that an article of such ancient origin and so indespensible as the hammock should not have been carried by any Indians who strayed or migrated to the islands, for no South American Indian goes forth, even on a short journey, without his hammock.

Moreover, the bows and arrows used by the natives of the Caribbees were very different from those common to the Indians of the mainland, while the heavy wooden clubs of the latter are unknown to the insular Indians. Of course such clubs may have been in use before the advent of the whites (they are scarcely more than ceremonial among the Guiana tribes to-day) but Pere Labat and other early chroniclers make no mention of them or of the white down tribal marks, when describing the aborigines of the islands. As these early visitors to the West Indies described the Caribs and their ways quite fully and in detail, they could scarcely have failed to note such conspicuous characteristics of the natives had they existed. The fact that they were not mentioned is ample proof, to my mind, that they were unknown to the aboriginal inhabitants of the islands.

But perhaps the strongest argument against the theory that the islands were peopled by Caribs from South America is found in the canoes of the two races.

To navigate the stretch of open sea that separates Guiana from the Antilles would require seaworthy, staunch, large craft for while a stray canoe might be blown to sea and reach the islands in safety, still, in order to transport enough people to populate the islands, not one but many boats must have made the passage. Any one familiar with the light, fragile woodskins, or the narrow, cranky, dugout corials of the Guiana Indians will be skeptical of the latter's ability to migrate in numbers to the islands in such craft. Even granting that this occurred, what then became of these types of boats when the wave-tossed Indians reached a safe haven on the Leeward coasts of the Antilles?

One would suppose that having made the journey in corial or woodskin the Caribs, who are preeminently canoe Indians, would have continued to build similar craft for use in their new home. But such is not the case, for wood-skins are unknown in the Antilles and such dugouts as are used are peculiar to the Caribbean and are so totally distinct from all types of South American canoes that it is scarcely possible to conceive that they are merely evolutions from the corial type. And that these insular Caribs’ canoes are not of recent origin is proven by the records of the European discoverers who described the canoes of the island Caribs as precisely like those of the present day. Staunch, seaworthy, swift and often of enormous size, the canoes of the island Indians could easily have weathered the seas of the Atlantic or the Caribbean and with little danger could have reached the shores of South America in numbers. In fact it is my firm conviction that this is exactly what did occur and that instead of the South American Caribs migrating northward to the islands, the original Caribs were insular people and migrated southward to the mainland. There, finding a land of promise with forests teeming with game, rivers swarming with fish, and an abundance of inoffensive, timid, people on which to prey, the fierce wanderers established themselves, and finding no further use for the sea-going heavy boats in which they had reached their new home, they gradually abandoned the type in favour of the lighter craft of the Arowaks and Warraus which were adapted to river and creek navigation. This theory, too, would account for the hammocks, the white feather tribal emblem and the other peculiarities of the mainland Carib which are non-existant among the Caribs of the Antilles.

Thus, in the islands, where there were no indigenous poisonous snakes, no carnivorous animals, no swampy inundated ground and few insects dangerous to man, there would be no necessity for hammocks, or similar devices. So too, in the islands where all the inhabitants were of one race there would be no need of distinguishing tribal marks, even though the denizens of one island warred upon their next door neighbours. But once upon the mainland, conditions would be very different. Here, in a low land often inundated, where poisonous snakes were common, where prowling beasts abounded and where countless insect pests made sleeping on the earth dangerous, hammocks would be required and their advantage would quickly be grasped by the newcomers and the useful articles would be adopted for their own use. So too, in this land already inhabited and where the handful of warlike strangers was surrounded by hordes of other tribes, a distinctive mark of recognition was necessary. Why the white down of the King Vulture was selected is easy to guess, for this bird invariably flies alone and eats by itself while the common black vultures stand aloof, waiting until the King's appetite is glutted and he retires from his feast. And truly symbolical of the Caribs' ways is the mark they chose, for like the King Vulture, they were a race apart from the timid darker skinned natives; a race holding themselves aloof as superiors of the Warrau and the Arowak, as do their descendents of to-day: a people who "ate alone," for they had cannibal propensities and only the pickings they left from their forays or their hunts fell to the lot of their neighbours. To-day, the Warrau and the Arowak still looks upon his Carib neighbour as a superior being; to-day the Carib still looks down upon his fellow redmen and scorns to eat food touched or prepared by the Warrau, who, as of old stands aside while the Carib. "eats like the King Vulture," alone.

But whether or not the Caribs spread, from the islands to the mainland or vice versa, the question of their origin is yet unanswered.

Perchance, the ancient legend of Atlantis was no myth; the forest-clad volcanic peaks of the Antilles may be the last vestiges of that submerged land and the Caribs the descendents of its people. For aught we know, they may be of Phoenician or Mediterranean lineage, a race whose ancestors were carried by tempest or baffling winds across the wide Atlantic and who, unable to make headway back against the trade winds, settled on the fair islands of the west. Or again, they may be one of the lost tribes of Israel who, wandering westward along the African coast, were borne out to sea and found the New World, ages ere Columbus set forth upon his perilous quest.

There are equally good arguments for each theory and it is idle to speculate. The chances are the truth will never be known and that long after the last of the Caribs has passed into the great beyond the origin of the race will still remain as much a mystery as ever.

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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.