The Amazon Rain Forest—Shrouded in Myth
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN BRAZIL
THE Irimarai Indians living along Peru’s Napo River could not believe their eyes! Two square-rigged ships, nothing like their own slender canoes, came sailing toward their village. They spotted bearded warriors aboard—different from any other tribe they had ever seen. Bewildered, the Indians scrambled for cover and looked on as the white-skinned aliens jumped ashore, devoured the village food supply, and then sailed off again—fired by the thought of making history as the first expedition to plod across the entire rain forest, from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.
During that year, 1542, one Indian tribe after another suffered similar shocks as those European explorers, flashing crossbows and harquebuses, pushed ever deeper into South America’s tropical forest.
Francisco de Orellana, the Spanish captain in charge of the conquistadores, soon discovered that word of his troops’ looting and shooting had traveled faster than their two brigantines. Indian tribes farther downstream (near today’s Brazilian city of Manaus) with their arrows at the ready were awaiting the 50-odd invaders.
And good shots those Indians were, admitted crew member Gaspar de Carvajal. He spoke from experience, for one of the Indians’ arrows had landed between his ribs. “Had it not been for the thickness of my habit,” scribbled the wounded friar, “that would have been the end of me.”
‘Women Fighting as Ten Men’
Carvajal went on to describe the driving force behind those bold Indians. ‘We saw women fighting in front of the men as women captains. These women are white and tall, with their long hair braided and wound about their heads. They are robust and, with their bows and arrows in their hands, are doing as much fighting as ten men.’
Whether the explorers’ sighting of women warriors was real or, as one source puts it, “merely a mirage born of jungle fever” is unknown. But according to at least some accounts, by the time Orellana and Carvajal reached the mouth of the massive river and sailed into the Atlantic Ocean, they believed they had glimpsed the New World’s version of the Amazons, the fierce female warriors described in Greek mythology.a
Friar Carvajal preserved the tale of the American Amazons for posterity by including it in his eyewitness account of Orellana’s eight-month-long expedition. Captain Orellana, for his part, sailed to Spain, where he gave a vivid account of his journey along what he romantically called the Río de las Amazonas, or Amazon River. Before long, 16th-century cartographers were scratching a fresh name across the budding map of South America—the Amazon. So the Amazon forest became shrouded in myth, but now that forest is plagued with realities.
a The word “Amazons” likely comes from the Greek word a, meaning “without,” and ma·zosʹ, meaning “breast.” According to legend, the Amazons removed the right breast to handle the bow and arrow more easily.
[Picture Credit Line on page 3]
Top background: The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck