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Amazonia – Paths to the Indians
tuesday, 5 july 2011, 12:54 am
Amazonia often figures in the news and on the front pages of newspapers. Public attention turns at times to its unmatched natural wealth or the destruction of that wealth, at other times to its “savage” inhabitants living out of sight. Almost every day we hear about the disappearance of its unique flora and fauna, of the processes that may be having a harmful impact on the atmosphere of the entire planet.
Sometimes among the people protesting on the spot and around the world against these happenings we catch a glimpse of the Indians who have always lived in the Amazon jungle. Their existence is intertwined with the natural world around them that ensures their livelihood: the fate of forest and man are closely linked.

In the eyes of many the world’s largest single expanse of rainforest has become the symbol of virgin Nature, that many people imagine or know as having two faces. One is untouched Nature, the unspoiled realm of countless species of plants and animals. A comfortable home providing abundant food for people living in harmony with nature, where little effort is needed to obtain the basic necessities of life, the remnant of the Golden Age found in the mythology of many peoples.

The other face is the hostile, fearsome, unknowable jungle, the Green Hell. The home of insects that cause fatal diseases, poisonous plants, dangerous wild animals. Those who enter may be attacked by the warlike natives living in the depths of the jungle, far from civilization, people who until quite recently still practised cannibalism.

In reality for thousands of years the jungle has been a hospitable territory for people who know and respect its laws. According to the evidence of archaeological finds, people have been living here for around 10,000 years. But the image thought to be characteristic of hunters living exclusively from prey is typical of only a few isolated groups living in forests and fringe areas remote from the rivers that represent the main travel routes. The great majority are cultivators whose diet consists largely of the domesticated plants they grow in their gardens.

Until recent decades, up to roughly the middle of the 20th century, there still existed here although to an ever smaller extent, a way of life relatively untouched by European civilization, essentially largely the same as that described by travellers a hundred years ago. Even today there are still small groups that have withdrawn into the depths of the jungle where they try to maintain that way of life and avoid contact with the outside world. From time to time what are said to be sensational aerial photos of huts hidden deep in the jungle appear in the news: an unknown tribe has been discovered! Of course, such a thing no longer exists; there are no truly untouched groups that have never come into contact in any way with civilization.

The aim of the exhibition is two-fold: on the one hand it wishes to show the traditional way of life in the jungle that was the starting point of the changes now taking place and on the other hand to give an idea of the developments in this region in recent decades. Accordingly, the exhibition, arranged with the contribution of the Hungarian Natural History Museum and the environmental organisation Greenpeace, covers three main themes. The first gives a glimpse into the natural history of Amazonia, especially through a few interesting examples of the fauna. The main body of the exhibition consists of ethnographical material dating from the 1960s-1970s, presenting objects from the traditional forest life. We have tried to illustrate the fact that only small groups that adapted well and continuously cultivated the land could survive in this “Paradise”.

The unavoidable penetration of civilization now basically allows the native peoples two options. The countries with territory in Amazonia are setting up nature conservation parks that can ensure for the Indians too the possibility to withdraw and preserve their traditional way of life. But the majority are already assimilating to some extent, they are moving to more accessible settlements where they can receive education and medical care. With their agriculture they can participate in supplying the local population, and they can sell their traditional products as folk art objects. Tourism has reached even this exotic part of the world: river tours, luxury jungle bungalows and shaman-wellness attract wealthy travellers.

Because deforestation could become a process affecting the climate of the whole planet, countless movements locally and world-wide are opposing this spread of civilization. The final section of the exhibition deals with this theme.

Natural history of Amazonia

In giving a general picture of the natural history of the region, besides showing the structure of the flora and examples of the fauna, we mention the three Hungarian zoologists best known in Amazonian research: Gábor Molnár (1908-1980), who collected mainly reptiles for zoos and museums until he lost his sight in an accident. He later became famous for travel books describing his adventures. József Hidasi (1926-), who established a world-famous ornithological museum in Brazil, also enriched the Budapest Natural History Museum with birds he collected. Finally, György Oláh (1983-) who is currently on a grant in Peru, working on a parrot project.

Indians in the jungle

The Museum of Ethnography’s first Amazonian objects entered the collection around the turn of the 19th to 20th century, with the largest group coming from an exhibition held in 1896. That exhibition, titled “Ethnographical Mission” showed exotic artefacts collected by Catholic missionaries all over the world and included a group of ceramic and gourd vessels made by Caribbean Indians of Suriname. However, the overwhelming majority of items in the collection arrived in the 1960s-1970s, the result of the activity of Lajos Boglár, an associate of the museum. Born in Brazil but living in Hungary, Boglár was in an exceptional position among researchers in the socialist countries because, unlike the others, thanks to his family connections he was able to do fieldwork. He visited and collected mainly among the Nambikwara in Mato Grosso, then in 1967-68 and 1974 among the Piaroa in Venezuela. In the 1980s-1990s he carried out research in different areas of Brazil and among the Wayana Indians in French Guiana.

In addition, two Hungarian doctors living in Venezuela, Dr. János Baumgartner and Dr. János Halbrohr donated their private collections to the museum. Both men built up their collections between the 1940s and 1960s which thus contained material that was earlier but similar in nature and quality to that collected by Boglár. Baumgartner’s objects include many early Piaroa items, while Halbrohr collected mainly from the slightly more remote Taurepan (Taulipang) Indians.

After the section presenting the formation and composition of the Museum of Ethnography’s Amazonian collection, visitors can see typical objects of the traditional tropical rainforest culture, as they were found in the mid-20th century. The greater part of the collection originating from some 30 tribes is from the north-western, Guianan part of the territory, with particular emphasis on Piaroa material.

The rain forest culture is characterised by the cultivation of tropical root vegetables (principally manioca), use of the hammock, efficient water vehicles and ceramics. The soil in the area around the settlement is prepared for gardens won from the forest by the slash-and-burn method; this work is done by the men. They also manipulate the vegetation in the surrounding forests, planting many useful plants and keeping track of the plants in the old gardens for many years. It is very difficult for outside observers to notice these interventions.

Besides raising children, the women’s time is spent on agriculture, tending and processing the plants and preparing food. We are only able to show a small selection of their household implements made of varied materials. They too wear jewellery and feather ornaments, although these are not as splendid as the men’s.

In addition to hunting and fishing, the religious ceremonies and rites also belong to the men’s world, only the men can take part in them or the women and children are allowed to see only certain parts of them. The shaman or medicine man was the spiritual and often also the social leader of the group, who acted as healer, teacher and the most important person preserving the traditions. He performed his task mainly under the influence of yopo, a hallucinogenic substance.

The principal ceremony of the Piaroa was the warime, in which the participants were dancers wearing masks of the monkey, the peccary (warime, a wild pig) and Redyo, the Spirit of the Forest. The event performed to the accompaniment of ritual instruments often ended with the initiation of adolescents.

Feather art is a typical genre of Amazonia. The feathers are not merely ornaments; just like feather and jewellery in other environments, here the feathers indicate the wearer’s age, gender, social status and tribal allegiance. Some birds have ritual significance, for example among the Piaroa only the shaman can wear ornaments made from the toucan. The colours and colour combinations are characteristic of the different tribes and countless forms are used for jewellery ornamenting every part of the body.

Amazonia in the modern world

Amazonia, with its vast “free” forests and its raw materials, is becoming increasingly attractive to the outside world. Rubber fever caused the first rush in the early 20th century, and by now prospectors for valuable minerals and possibly oil have reached practically every part of the region. To facilitate travel the Trans-Amazonian highway was built, bringing masses of settlers in its wake. The original inhabitants retreated ever further into the forest, but encounters are not unavoidable. Violent clashes between settlers and natives are not rare, the Indians no longer represent a real danger for the newcomers. A solution must be found for their physical survival and the preservation of their culture, and the representatives of western civilization also feel responsibility for this.

The Xingu National Park is an example of one possibility. Many tribes, some of them previously mutually hostile, have found a home in the nature conservation territory, under the protection of the Brazilian army. There are a number of these national parks in the Amazonian countries. However, most of the Indians have chosen a different path, either voluntarily or under constraint: adaptation to the changed environment. Some of the Piroa Indians, who are presented in the exhibition as representatives of the traditional rain forest culture – in particular, for example, the group where Boglár collected – moved into the state settlements in the 1970s and joined in the production of goods for the market, the tourism handcrafts industry. They sell profane versions of their former ritual masks, under the supervision of the shaman who makes sure that they are not real sacral objects.

Amazonia’s global role

The Earth’s largest single expanse of rain forest plays an important part in shaping our planet’s climate. Its capacity to produce oxygen is especially important, but it also has a significant role in maintaining the circulation of water. However, the soil of the rain forest is very thin, nourished only by the remains of the vegetation on it. Loss of the vegetation leads to rapid erosion and irreparable destruction of the soil.

This is why the process causing the rapid reduction of the green surface is creating such alarm. The causes are numerous. The biggest problem is caused by the felling of trees and burning of the seemingly endless forest, also increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. The reasons for clearing the forest include road building and the subsequent creation of settlements, as well as the use of the cleared areas for vast plantations and cattle grazing. During the extraction of raw materials toxic substances are released into the ground and the waters. All these factors together are causing the rapid destruction of the flora and fauna known for their high degree of biodiversity, and endangering the livelihood of the native peoples. 

The fate of Amazonia has aroused concern among ecologically-minded people around the world and countless actions are being organised to save the rain forest. The big conservation organisations, such as Greenpeace and WWF, as well as celebrities are taking the lead, helping local activists who now include a growing number of Indians living in the region.

The governments of the Amazonian countries, partly as a result of their own recognition of the problem and partly under the influence of the international protests, are trying to curb the destruction and achieve some kind of sustainable equilibrium between nature in need of protection and the economic interests imposed by the modern world.

Amazonia – Paths to the Indians
Museum of Ethnography
July 15, 2011– April 8, 2012

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