This is a day by day, sometimes hour by hour documentary of a 3 month trek through the Amazon with brilliant, infamous, & controversial Sydney Possuello and his crew - 34 men total. Possuello invited National Geographics journalist Scott Wallace and photographer Nicolas Reynard along to document the trip - both hand-picked because of their extensive experience working in the Amazon. Journalists and photographers were usually excluded on these trips but Possuello sought world-wide media coverage for his cause. His stated purpose was to document on the ground the presence of isolated and uncontacted tribes and their villages as seen from the air - counteracting assertions of loggers and others who want to deny these tribes exist - landgrabs have been historically justified by the claim that no one was there. Possuello also had several secondary purposes concerning monitoring of possible illegal activity in the reserve.
*The official Brazilian approach, championed by Possuello, was to prevent contact with any of the 20-30 known isolated tribes - some 4,000 Indians - that thrive in the deepest parts of the Amazon. This approach also placed millions of acres out of reach from the logging, fishing, and gold-prospecting industries - and shutting out missionaries and anthropologists. Possuello had a lot of enemies.
*Possuello's primary rationale for the no contact policy was the Indians' extreme vulnerability to contagious disease. Like the North American and South American Indians during the times of Columbus and other explorers, the indigenous populations simply had no resistance to the germs whites carried. Other reasons included the inevitable decline if not eradication of every tribe after contact, regardless of whether the contact was friendly or hostile. Possuello had seen this happen over and over again in the "assimilated" tribes. "The Indians weren't assimilated: they were segregated and relegated to the lowest rungs of society" - a phenomenon readily apparent in the villages of the Indians hired for the expedition, as well as demonstrated by history all over the world.
*Possuello himself was controversial, not only in Brazilian politics, but with his men. At times he was a charismatic story-teller; a born entertainer - capable of endearing himself to anyone and always diplomatic with the indigenous people. In every village and from every Indian vessel on the river, "Indians called and waved to Possuello with undisguised adulation. They adored him, plain and simple....with Indians, he was always possessed of charm, patience, and good humor." With his men he could be the same, entertaining them every night with stories, however, he could be an unreasonable taskmaster who might explode at any time. He could be punitive for no reason and might, for example, hold back rations to "keep his men from getting soft," even when the trip was almost over and the extra eggs would just spoil.
*Possuello took 20 Indians from 3 separate tribes, both for their jungle skills and for a variety of indigenous languages, should inadvertent contact with the Arrow people happen despite their best intentions. The Matis tribe had the strongest gropup with 12. They all had identical nose piercings, parallel streaks tattooed on their cheeks, white clamshell earrings, and fine bamboo shoots that sprouted from the sides of their nostrils, resembling jaguar whiskers. When morale was at its worst, these tribe members always managed to be upbeat, constantly bantering with each other and ribbing Wallace and the others. Their positive attitudes is probably why Possuello took so many of them. All 34 members were issued identical military camo outfits. Possuello also brought a formidable arsenal of 20 guage shotguns and 22 rifles, although if attacked by the Arrow people, they were to only fire in the air. Right before they left the last boat, one of the Matis gave each explorer a military buzz haircut.
*When the Matis killed paca for the group, they ate the heads themselves and saved the paca incisors to make sights for their blowguns. Blowguns, hollowed out shafts of cane up to 8 feet long, were better than guns for monkey-hunting because they were quiet. By the time the monkeys realized what was happening, several could have already dropped to the ground.
*Wallace estimated that during the overland trek they burned 6,000 calories per day but ate an average of only 800 calories, the major meat of their diet coming from monkeys. There were no medical people on the trip and little to no chance of evacuation in case of injury. At the end of the trek the whites looked significantly worse than the Indians. Many of the men, especially the whites, had malaria. Almost all, especially the whites, had various forms of dysentery, and Wallace lost 33 pounds. Why the lack of calories occurred in a rainforest rife with life, I'm not sure. They were on a tight schedule and didn't hunt during their daily marches during which they carried 80 pound backpacks, even if game was sighted or heard. The hunters were sent out only when they broke to build a camp, which was quite an elaborate endeavor - the impressive community stucture only to be abandoned the next morning. They didn't take the time to dig for grubs or forage for food and apparently fruits and vegetables weren't available.
*Soldado was culturally white but his dad was a Marubo Indian who was kidnapped from the riverbank by whites when he was nine. This happened around WWII when another Amazon Rubber Boom was in full swing - an industry which devastated every tribe it touched. The Rubber Booms had been to the tribes of the Amazon what the US Cavalry had been to the Indians of the western United States. Soldado lived with a wife and 12 children in a riverhouse on stilts. He'd been on 6 expeditions with Possuello over the years and eating monkeys made him feel like a cannibal. "A lot of people don't like that I work for FUNAI but one has to make a living," he told Wallace. Possuello confirmed, "Any of them could find themselves marked men when this is over and they go home." Illegal activity created jobs. Wallace built personal relationships with most of the 33 other men on this trip and he relates many of their stories.
*Pidgin Portuguese emerged as the official language and the group all began to parody themselves and each other, deliberately using mangled phrases with a certain knowing irony. One of the Matis, Ivan Arapa, began calling Scott Wallace "Scotchie." The whole group liked the name and it stuck. Ivan told Wallace about his tribe's first contact with the white man and the lethal diseases that followed. As many as 2/3 of the tribe perished. Later on, Ivan showed Wallace a jaguar track on a beach. "Scotchie! Come! Look!......Maybe jaguar comes to visit Scotchie tonight?"
*After village men determined visitors were not hostile the women would follow with official greetings. They would arrive singing a high-pitched song, bringing caisuma for their visitors to drink, made from chewed cassava root and human saliva. It was considered bad form to refuse such hospitality. Various villages had slightly different recipes but it was all horrible and Wallace never managed to swallow it without a strong sense of revulsion. Diplomacy demanded they make at least a cursory stop at each hamlet along the river before their trek. At one of them Possuello recruited 4 more Kanamari Indians. One of them, Alfredo, became Wallace's servant at $3/day, the non-negotiable price set by Posseullo. The Kanamaris called the Arrow people "Capybaras" and had other animal names for other tribes. The Indians at all Kanamari villages agreed the Arrow people were dangerous, untamed, and they all avoided Capybaras land upriver.
*The sky was magnificent at night on the river but once they got into the jungle they may not see the sky for weeks, night or day - creating a sense of claustrophobia. After Wallace briefly got lost in the jungle a couple of times he took up praying every morning - a thing he hadn't done since childhood and his prayers got more detailed as the trip wore on.
*Mauro, an affable Brazilian hired as a cook, hated preparing and cooking the monkeys. At night he would frequently wake up screaming with a recurring dream that the monkeys were threatening his private parts with big knives. "Hey, Mauro, what happened last night - had a go with a couple of monkeys?" He greeted the jokes with a toothless smile. "Monkey meat was tough and rubbery. It had a strong, gamey flavor and the smell was nauseating but we had eaten almost nothing else all day and it was sustenance." They never knew where their next meal was coming from and once robbed a honey bee nest containing a sweetness they hadn't had in weeks.
*For a while, following Possuello's GPS - one of the few things they had over Lewis & Clark - they averaged 16 hills a day; 16 inclines and 16 descents, all slick with mud after the first few men. "Even Possuello was surprised by the ferocity of the terrain." At the end of one of these horrible days, Possuello made them camp in an area infested with a particularly nasty breed of carpenter ant, despite warnings from the Matis. "Dinner was a grim affair. Monkey yet again."
*They endured mosquitoes, ants that eat anything and everything, nasty wasps with stingers like darts, venomous snakes, caimans, anacondas, hairy spiders that cause infections if their hair touches your skin, oversized scorpions with stingers like hypodermic needles, caterpillars with poisonous hair, frogs with poisonous skin, funnel-shaped poisonous mushrooms, and inch long bullet ants whose pinchers were used by many tribes in sacred rites of passage to sting and bite the pubescent boys. Their pincer jaws were also ingeniously used as field sutures - lacerations being closed by a series of bites. Once the ant locks its pincers on the wound, its head is twisted from his thorax, leaving the jaw suture in place.
*"fungal mycelia provide a pipeline of crucial minerals to the trees...they're one of the reasons why the soils of these forests are so poor, completely unfit for large-scale agriculture, yet able to sustain the giant trees." One day at lunch the Matis concocted a potion from the forest that made color vision more vivid and provided boundless energy. It was administered as eyedrops from a makeshift dropper made from palm leaves and burned like fire but everybody lined up for their dose. It made for an energetic 3D trek the rest of the day. "One quarter of all prescription drugs have their origin in rain forests."
* Among the things they ate were piranha, eel, pirarucu, catfish, turkey and other game birds, paca, agouti, caiman, tortoise, monkey, boar, tapir, and turtle eggs - no fruit, no vegetables. Niceties went out the window: At lunch, Wallace ate the monkey meat with his bare hands: "My fingers were caked with filth but normal standards of hygiene had long since gone out the window. Worm in the soup? No problem, flick it out and keep eating. Fly crawling on a piece of meat? No big deal."
*The Arrow people became acutely aware of the expedition and Posseullo was missing 2 of the Kanamari Indians. Possuello told Paulo Welker, "It looks like the Kalamari have been killed. Maybe they've been captured. Go back and warn the others. Tell them to prepare for an attack......move to the far side of the creek, clear the brush, form a defensive perimeter." Later, "We have to get out of here," Possuello said. "Maybe the Indians will let them go but we can't wait here for them."
This book is wonderfully written by Wallace and flows like a novel, complete with an epilogue documenting Possuello's unfortunate termination from FUNAI and the death of photographer Nicolas Reynard in a plane crash. FUNAI's future stance on the Indians is not assured due to Brazil's change in leadership but Peru has come around a bit. Some of the photos from the expedition are available on an internet link provided by one of the other reviews. This is one great book.