CHAPTER NINE – THE AMAZONS OF THE AMAZON RIVER

[Photographs by Fosco Maraini of ama diver, from. –
http://www.fundoshi-bikini.net/nihon-fundoshi/shigoto/shigoto.html ]

Up until the 1950s the academic world had decided that stories of Amazons by the Greeks and Romans were complete myths. That was until Soviet archaeologists found a skeleton of a young woman, near the River Molochnaya on the northwest coast of the Sea of Azov. Buried with her was a bronze mirror, necklace of glass beads, silver, bronze and glass bracelets. As well as two iron lance blade, a quiver of 20 arrows and a suit of armour. (The armour was of a cloth shirt with small pieces of iron sown to it.) The grave was dated to the third or fourth century BC. Then another grave was found at Kut west of the river Dnieper of a women warrior with also a bronze mirror, glass beads and a quiver of arrows, this grave also had a iron sword in it. More graves have since been discovered in Georgia of female warriors. Most of these finds are north of the Black Sea, which is where Ancient Greek mythology said Amazons were.
Graves of female warriors have been discovered all over Europe though many are in dispute. This is because it is not always easy to tell if a skeleton is either male or female. In many graves the skeleton is assumed male if it has weapons within it and it is only later when someone looks closely at the skeleton, do question arise if the skeleton might be female. For this reason some archaeologists still won’t accept the possibility of Amazons, claiming these skeletons have to be male, as female warriors are an impossibility. In Britain a grave of a female gladiator was even discovered, which many people found very shocking.
The sex of ancient Celtic graves has also caused a lot of controversy, in archaeological circles, because if a grave is obviously of a wealthy person, it is assumed it must be of a male chieftain. Then sometimes feminine items are discovered in the grave and the skeleton is more closely examined it is discovered it is female. Archaeologists are now starting to accept that female leadership and female warriors were commonplace in Europe before it was conquered by Rome. This is not only true of the old world but it seems to have been true of America before Europeans subjugated it.
When the Spanish first conquered South America they claimed to have encountered not only black and white people, but Amazon warriors and tribes ruled by women. These stories tend to be dismissed as simply the result of an overactive imagination, but there are good reasons to believe these stories are true. As there is now evidence to support these claims.
The first reports of Amazon warriors in America come from Christopher Columbus. On March 4, 1493, Columbus wrote that he had encountered women warriors on the island of Martinique; he also claimed they covered used copper plate armour and bows and arrows made of sugar cane. Alfonso Ulloa, who accompanied Columbus on all four of his voyages to the New World, supports this story. He also wrote about the women warriors of Martinique in his book; Historia del Senor Don Fernando Colombo. In this book he wrote that the locals claimed that women only populated the island of Martinique. Men from other islands would only come to the island at a certain time of the year to collect boys, and would take them away and bring them up.
The Spanish also reported other islands called Las Mujeres, (which means women in Spanish) and Cozumel where again women warriors were seen. Unfortunately these early Caribbean people were all killed, raped and enslaved by the Spanish conquistadors.
[Photograph by Fosco Maraini, of an ama diver, from his book Hekura, The Diving Girl’s Island. Note the piece of metal she has tucked in her waistband. This is used to dig out shells from the rocks. The heavy metal also probably acts a weight to allow the ama diver to dive deeper. Also, there has been reports of a few rare shark attacks on ama and haenyo divers, a piece of metal like this would be a very handy weapon to defend yourself from sharks.]
Michele de Cuneo wrote in February 1495 that Columbus captured 1,600 Tainos (the name of the original Caribbean people) and put 550 on ships, but 200 died on the return passage. To discourage the Spanish invading their islands for food the Tainos burnt their own crops, resulting in many dying of hunger, unfortunately this still didn’t stop the Spanish taking them as slaves. Forced labour, diseases such as measles and smallpox, and famine decimated the native people until only 60,000 Tainos were counted in 1509. When the Tainos tried to fight back, killing a few Spaniards, the revenge by the Spanish was extremely brutal. For instance; when the natives of Higuey and Saona killed eight Spaniards, four hundred troops slaughtered the natives of these islands. The Tainos turned out to be so unsatisfactory as slaves, that the Spanish began to import African slaves in 1505. The Spanish in California also reported Amazons, unfortunately these reports are very controversial because not only did women rule these tribes, they were also black. When the Spanish first came to California they found two races of people; the Indian people with Asian features, and black Amazons with African features. The Spanish also noted how good they were at swimming and diving and both sexes would do this. They were observed weighing themselves down with stones to make it easier to dive to the bottom. This is what Sponge divers used to do in Greece before modern diving equipment was introduced. They were also seen diving with spears and spearing fish. They were employed by the Spanish as pearl divers.
Up until 1862 the origins of the name California was a mystery, until a scholar discovered a novel written in 1521 by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo. The book was called; The Exploits of the Very Powerful Cavalier Esplandian, Son of the Excellent King Amadis of Gaul. Within this book was the story of Queen Califia, an Amazon Queen. It seems that when the Spanish first began to explore the Northwest coast of America and discovered tribes of black Amazon women they called the area California after this fictional Queen Califia. If that is the case what happened to these people? It seems they didn’t just disappear, because French and English explorers also saw them. 

It is claimed that disease wiped them out in the 19th century, but there could be other reasons. Certainly, the genocide of native people wasn’t unknown in 19th century America. Yet it is possible that members of these tribes did survive. As black slaves from Africa were imported into America they were probably confused in the minds of the European settlers with the Native Black people. So they could have been taken by black slavers and become mixed with the black slaves from Africa. As these people had no voice in the white man’s history, there origins were obscured and forgotten.
The Spanish found these black people sailing in ships and were told that they traded with islands far out into the Pacific. This is similar to what was told to the Spanish by the Incas in Peru. An Inca ruler called Tupac took a fleet of balsa rafts. (Similar to the Kon-Tiki raft that Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Pasific) to the islands of Avachumbi and Ninachumbi. After a year the sailors came back with booty and many black people. (No one knows which of these Pasific islands they were). This story creates an interesting possibility. The black people were probably Melanesians.
There is clear evidence that the Central American Olmec civilization was African. They not only left behind large carvings of heads, weighing between 20-40 tons, but their writing system reflects in many of its symbols the writings used by the Vai people of West Africa. What is more, the later Mayan writing, which comes from the Olmec, when broken down into its constituent parts is analogous to the ancient Libyco-Berber writings of North Africa.
As previously mentions the Bijago People of West Africa had large ocean going canoes that could hold up to 70 people. The Polynesian sailed across the Pacific in similar canoes, so it would be reasonable to assume that Africans could sail to South America in pre-historic times.
The most famous sighting of Amazons in America comes from Francisco de Orellana who was a member of the conquistadors that conquered Peru. In 1541 Orellana was part of a Spanish army, which went to find El Dorado in the Amazon jungle. After a few months they were running out of supplies; Orellana was ordered to build a boat and sail down the river in search of food. He and his men were successful in building the boat but was unsuccessful in finding food, and at their agreed meeting point he missed the main Spanish force. He and his crew then continued down the river until they came to an Indian village that gave them food. They stayed there to build an even larger ship and heard tales about the Coniupuyara, which means “great women” that lived further down the river. After they finished the new ship they drifted further down the river, coming upon more Indian villages, most of which were hostile towards them. Then they arrived at a city set upon platforms in the middle of a clearing. Orellana managed to communicate with friendly natives who told him this was the city of their rulers. They went on to explain that the rulers were called; “the women who live alone” and they ruled over the land. It seems that when the female rulers visited their villages, the people gave them feathers of parrots and macaws, to decorate the roofs of their altars.
After this friendly meeting Orellana continued down the river but when he tried to go ashore again near another large settlement he met fierce resistance. In the ranks of the natives they saw tall, naked white women who seemed to be in charge. The Spanish fired at these Amazons, killing several of them and the attack weakened, allowing the Spanish to make their escape. The story of tall white women at first seems to be very improbable yet reports of white people in pre-Columbian America come from other parts of South America.
The Incas told the Spanish that they were not the first white people they had met. They had mistakenly welcomed the Spanish into their cities thinking they were white Viracocha people, not knowing that the Spanish were only interested in conquest. As previously mentioned archaeologists have confirmed the existence of these white people with the Kennewick man and Penon woman.
It is claimed that these skulls are of the Ainu people of Northern Japan. Unfortunately these people are also very controversial. It seems that the Ainu people were the original inhabitants of Japan until Chinese people invaded it. Since then they have interbred with the Chinese invaders, but originally they were white people. What is more they are a lot taller than the average Chinese and Japanese people. This echoes the Kennewich man who was a tall and strong individual, which is what Oraellana saw; tall and strong white women. But others claim the skulls are European. There is no way of proving, which is true though there are now attempts to extract DNA from Penon woman.
After they escaped, Orellana questioned an Indian prisoner about the Amazons. To quote from the book Women Warlords by Tim Newark –
As Orellana steered his ships towards the middle of the river, he questioned an Indian prisoner about the Amazon attackers. The Indian admitted he knew about the women because he took them tribute on his chieftain’s behalf. His chieftain was called Couvnco and his land was a vassal state of the Amazons, who lived some seven days’ journey inland. He also said the women were not married. Orellana wanted to know more. At last, they were nearing El Dorado. Through a language of general Indian words and signs, the prisoner explained all he knew of the land of the Amazons.
“The women were very numerous and dwelled in seventy villages,” recorded Fray Gaspar. “Their houses were built of stone and provided with doors. The roads from one village to another were fenced on both sides and guarded at regular intervals so no one could approach without paying toll.”
“But who is the father of these women’s children?” asked Orellana.
“The women make war against a great lord nearby,” replied the Indian, “and bring back warriors as captives and live with them in their villages. When a woman becomes pregnant, the prisoners are sent back to their land. When a son is born, he is killed and his body sent to the father. When a daughter is born, she is cared for and taught the ways of war.”
“Who is the lord of these women?”
“They are subject to a female chieftain called Conori,” said the Indian. “The Amazons possess great wealth in silver and gold. The household utensils of the most important Amazon women are made of precious metals. They have five great houses or temples dedicated to the sun, containing idols of gold and silver representing the figures of women. Their clothing is made of fine llama wool and it covers their bodies from breast to knee and is sometimes fixed by buttons, sometimes by laces. They have long hair and wear gold crowns two inches in width adorned with coloured designs.”
All these details Fray Gasper recorded. It was the high point of Orellana’s expedition and the reason why the mighty river was so named.
Orellana continued down the river to the open sea and then managed to sail his two homemade ships back to Spain. He named the river The Amazon after the female warriors who attacked him. He was to mount another expedition to the Amazon but died soon after reaching the river. Without its leader the expedition returned.
Yet 100 years later when the next European expedition explored the river they found no trace of the fabulous cities reported by Orellana, or the Amazon warriors. As a result Orellana was to be labelled a liar by historians, and his stories of marvellous cities, female rulers and Amazon warriors exaggerated fantasies. This was to be confirmed in more modern time when it was realized that the soil in the rain forests is very poor for growing crops. At present farmers are destroying the Amazon forest by the slash and burn method. They cut down a large area, and then burn it, and plant crops. Yet after a few years the soil is so depleted that crops no longer can be grown. So they have to go on to cut down another area and do the same thing.
For this reason modern experts claimed that an ancient civilisation existing in the Amazon basin was impossible because all civilisations in the past have relied on intensive farming for food. The soil was too poor to feed a civilization. So it seems to be that Orellana was clearly a liar because there was no evidence of any kind to support his stories.
Then very recently archaeologists began to find large earth mounds in the Amazon forests. It occurred to some of them that these mounds might be artificial, so they began to dig in them and quickly found large amounts of pottery and other man made artefacts. Not only this, some of these fragments suggested they came from very large pots, far too large to be carried around by anyone. It means that these mounds were the remains of ancient settlements. As the archaeologists explored further they found ancient roads, (which although were overgrown the natives in the area were still using), linking these mounds, demonstrating the complex infrastructure of an ancient civilisation. If this was so, how did they feed themselves? As previously mentioned, without intensive farming they could not feed a large population.
The archaeologists then noticed the soil in the mounds was very different to the normal soil of the rain forest. It was reasoned that this ancient civilisation must have found a way to fertilize this normally barren soil. Tests were done on the soil and it was discovered to be full of charcoal. What became clear was that this ancient civilisation used the slash and burn method, but instead of burning the vegetation they cooked the wood instead. (This is the method of making charcoal all over the world). The charcoal was then able to retain the nutrients in the wood. Not only that, this charcoal rich soil was full of bacteria, which fed the plants growing in it. Modern scientists have reproduced this method and been greatly impressed by the results. In experimental plots, adding a combination of charcoal and fertilizer into the rain-forest soil boosted yields by 880% compared with fertilizer alone. This has now been hailed as a solution to the world’s hunger problem. It seems that this ancient civilisation found solutions to the problems of poor soil that modern science with all its sophisticated chemical fertilizers was unable to find.
This soil has been found in many other areas along the Amazon River, with ancient artefacts within it wherever it is found. All these mounds are in the places where Orellana claimed he saw cities and towns.
Although this Amazon civilization did find ways of greatly increasing productivity of the soil it may not have been the only way they fed their population. Orellana didn’t claim to see vast areas where the jungle had been cut down and given over to farmland. While the archaeologists have only discovered the charcoal soil in mounds and not in vast areas of the forest. So it doesn’t look like they relied on agriculture alone to feed themselves.
Orelana says the towns and cities were built on platforms, while the archaeologist have found the roads of this civilization were also built high. The reason for this is that every year the Amazon River floods, flooding the surrounding forest. This then is why the houses and roads had to be built high, they were built on a flood plain, so they won’t be flooded in the wet season. This was probably true of their agriculture land, the fact that the charcoal soil was in mounds, suggests the farmed land was also built high to protect it from flooding. Now this would require a lot of work to do this, suggesting that the agriculture land they used wasn’t very large. So they needed other ways of obtaining food.
The very fact that it seems that women were in charge suggests they were also the main breadwinners. Which means the women were diving and gathering food in the river. The Amazon has all the advantages of living on the coast, as it has an abundance of freshwater crustaceans and shellfish, as well as over 3,000 different species of fish. The river is so large that it can accommodate a species of fresh water dolphin. Also in the wet-season it would have vast wetlands that semi-aquatic people would have the knowledge to exploit it. It is true that in the Amazon you do have piranhas, crocodiles and even sharks, but these predators are only a problem in certain areas of the Amazon. The local people would be very aware of when and where it is safe to swim in the river.
So what happened to this ancient civilisation? Scientists can only speculate, but it is known that the Europeans brought with them diseases that were unknown to the native population, like small pox and influenza. Not having any immunity to these diseases the native population was decimated. It means that the Orellana expedition brought to the native population these diseases, which would have wiped out most of them very quickly. The civilisation collapsed and the jungle soon overgrew the cities and town. So by the time the next Europeans came to the same area all they would have seen was virgin jungle. The problem with this theory is that no civilization has been destroyed by disease alone. Even the Black Death plagues that swept Europe were not enough to destroy European civilization. Also both in America and Australia historians have used the excuse of disease to cover-up the acts of genocide against the native population. The two things that have destroyed civilizations in the past have been years of drought and famine or conquest and genocide. We can rule out famine, because the Amazon basin has shown no sign of this for thousands of years. So this only leaves conquest and genocide.
The original expedition that Orellana was a part of, was searching for El Dorado, on the strength of native stories. Likewise, the Indian whom he questioned told him that; “The Amazons possess great wealth in silver and gold. The household utensils of the most important Amazon women are made of precious metals. They have five great houses or temples dedicated to the sun, containing idols of gold and silver representing the figures of women”. It was probably this that sealed the Amazon civilization’s fate. The Spanish were gold crazy and would have wanted to find and loot this gold. This is why Orellana came back to the Amazon with another expedition, but he was beaten back by the natives, and had the problems of trying to sail against the current of the Amazon River. He himself died and the expedition returned empty handed.
Yet it would be inconceivable that no one else tried to do the same, with reports of gold within this Amazon civilization. So the obvious thing would be that another expedition came back to the Amazon, destroyed the society completely and looted all the gold it had.
If that is the case, why hasn’t it been reported in history? If the Spanish did find gold they wouldn’t want to world to know about this, because they were competing against the Portuguese and the English for gold in the New World. If it was known they found gold on the Amazon River English, or even French or Dutch ships would be waiting for Spanish treasure ships at the mouth of the Amazon.

[Photo of ama divers in some sort of dispute, probably about the price of seaweed or shellfish. From.-
http://www.fundoshi-bikini.net/nihon-fundoshi/amafun/amafundoshi.html]
The Portuguese arrived in Brazil in 1500 and it became a Portuguese colony in 1549. As early as 1530 forests were being chopped down and convert into sugar plantations, while the local Indians were forced to work on these plantations as slaves. So if the Spanish did come back they wouldn’t want the Portuguese to know, as this could start a war between the two countries. (Though Spain did conquer Portugal in 1580 in a surprise attack). It would also attract the attention of the English and other European countries.
In the same year as Orelana was exploring the Amazon River, a Germanic adventurer Phillip von Hutten was searching for El Dorado near the mouth of the Amazon River. Later on Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595 led an English expedition to the Amazon to also try and find El Dorado. So a secret expedition would be the best idea and the Spanish would be in a better position to do this than any other country. Trying to sail up the Amazon River, against the current, is very difficult, before the invention of motorboats. So the obvious way would be to do exactly what Orelana had done, start off from the other side of the continent, build ships at the source of the Amazon and sail them down the river. It would have to be a far larger expedition, large enough to take on the Amazon led warriors and the Spanish had the advantage of muskets, as well as armour helmets and breastplates that could stop an arrow.
The civilization wasn’t completely destroyed because a hundred years later, 1641, the next recorded visit to this area was by a Spanish Priest Cristobal d’ Acuna. He never saw the fabulous cities reported by Orelana but he met an Indian tribe called the Guarcaras and traded with the women of this tribe, who seem to be in charge. He was to write about them. –
The Amazons are women of great valour. They have preserved themselves without ordinary intercourse with men. And even when they receive them, once every year, they brandish their bows and arrows at them until they are satisfied that the men come with peaceful intentions. They then drop their weapons and take them to their hammock in their houses and receive the Indians as their guests for a few days. After this the men return to their own country.
Again he repeats what Fray Gasper said that they kill any boys they give birth to and only keep the girls. The very fact he claims that, “the Amazons are women of great valour”. Suggests he has information about there fighting skills, perhaps when they have tried to defend their cities against the Spanish. If this Amazon civilization was hit hard by the Spanish looking for gold they then might also be open to attack by other patriarchal tribes in the area, after the Spanish had left. In a weakened state the Amazons would be less able to defend themselves, and probably overrun. Or it could be that having been attacked by the Spanish looking for gold, the Amazons realised their cities were a target for the gold hungry Spanish. So they may of abandon them and lived in the jungle, to ensure they wouldn’t be attacked again.
[Ama squeezing water out of her hair, from. –

What happened to them since then is unknown. The Indians of the Amazon rain forest were slowly wiped out, even as late as the 20th century Amazon Indian tribes were being decimated. It was not until 1988 that Brazil recognized constitutionally that the surviving Indians had rights. (Which now means it is a crime to shoot Indians).
The charcoal soil called preta is now seen as a way of combating world poverty and global warming. To quote Discover Magazine . –
A few years of Amazonian rains will wash away the nutrient-laden ash from land that was cleared by slash-and-burn techniques, but the charcoal in the terra preta soils persists. The terra preta soils at the Central Amazon Project goes back in many places as much as 2,500 years. Creating new terra preta in the Amazon today would have several advantages, Lehmann says. First, because the enriched soil remains fertile for a long time, its use would discourage farmers from moving on and burning more forest to open up new fields. Second, because of the added charcoal, terra preta holds up to 10 times as much carbon as unaltered soils. The late Wim Sombroek—a legendary soil scientist whose long interest in terra preta earned him the epithet “the godfather of dark earth”—began to wonder if dark earth could be used to sequester carbon. Lehmann’s studies have shown that it can: Fifty percent of the original carbon in plants and trees used to make biochar remains in the terra preta soils after the conversion.
What does this mean for fighting global warming? Brazil is the world’s eighth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and most of those emissions come not from industry and cars but from loggers, ranchers, and farmers burning the forest. Just substituting slash-and-char for slash-and-burn could reduce human-produced carbon emissions in the Amazon by 12 percent.
Even better, burning agricultural wastes in a controlled process called pyrolysis can convert wood and other organic waste into useful volatile gases, heat, electricity, and bio-oil. The process is win-win: Burning the biomass produces substantial amounts of rich biochar from waste material like peanut shells and rice husks, and mixing this biochar into soil could more than offset the carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere—not only during the burning process itself, but also when the derived fuels are used.

“You wouldn’t just be carbon neutral, you would be carbon negative, drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, producing energy and improving the climate in the process,” Lehmann says. Through workshops with other scientists, he is trying to spread the gospel about terra preta worldwide.

Update. This method is now being touted as the solution to global warming, as we can see in the following interview in New Scientist magazine with James Lovelock. (The originator of the famous Gaia Theory).

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126921.500-one-last-chance-to-save-mankind.html

New Scientist: So are we doomed?

James Lovelock: There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

New Scientist: Would it make enough of a difference?

James Lovelock: Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.

 

[Ama divers pulling boat out of the water. From Japanese web-site. –
http://www.fundoshi-bikini.net/nihon-fundoshi/amafun/amafundoshi.html]

Update

Amazon explorers uncover signs of a real El Dorado

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/05/amazon-dorado-satellite-discovery?CMP=AFCYAH

Swimming in rainforest rivers

http://dinets.travel.ru/amazon.htm

Latest Archeology findings on the Amazon
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/03/AR2010090302302.html?hpid=moreheadlines&sub=AR

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