A South American Forest (December 1879)

Number 5 in a series. Starting in 1878, Ernest T. Morris began writing an infrequent column on his many travels in the Amazon River basin as a “Special Correspondent” for the New York World. All of his trips are described in my biography of Morris, A Boy Naturalist in the Amazon, but in that text I only quote fragments of some of his World columns. Morris’s own writing is wonderfully evocative, and conveys his remarkable appreciation of natural beauty. The column below was written in December, 1879. It recounts Morris’s visit to a Yagua Indian village, which took place in early December, 1879–meaning that the events pre-date an earlier column published in the New York World.

With Yaguas Indians, Fifty Miles East of Pevas [Pebas], Peru, December 29. — To the southeast of Pevas, Peru, there is a path which leads through the dense forests to the malocas or houses of the Yagua and Tucuna Indians. These two tribes are but little known to the civilized world, yet they prepare and supply all the poison used by the Indians west of the river Japura in Brazil to the head-waters of the Marañón [Amazon] in Peru. The venom of the Tucuna and that of the Yaguas, which is called Ramuau, form a considerable article of trade in Pevas, whence it is sent to Iquitos and thus finds its way to the numerous tribes of Indians who inhabit the banks of the Napo, Ucayali, Huallaga and other rivers. This poison is known in the United States as woorara [woorari], but woorara, If I am not mistaken, is prepared by the Indians of Guiana out of a species of Strichnos, namely Strichnos toxifera [Strychnos toxifera], a climbing shrub, specimens of which I saw nearly a year ago in the possession of Dr. Jules Crevaux, a Frenchman who had but lately arrived from Guiana and who has since explored the lower waters or the river Japura.

The poison made by Tucunas differs but little from that of the Yaguas Indians, and I am positive that the Strychnos toxifera is not used in its preparation, for after weeks of hard work I have succeeded in witnessing the preparation of the ramuau (not the woorara), and have gathered with the Indians the numerous ingredients used in its preparation. I send to-morrow my collections to Pevas, so I hastily write THE WORLD, by the light of a fire surrounded by dirty women and children—-the men don’t bother and therefore don’t count—-and millions of mosquitoes. It is necessary to sleep in the woods at night, and although there are many rare plants to interest me in these forests, it requires a high degree of botanical enthusiasm to endure the sufferings inflicted by the insect pests.

In early December, accompanied by an interpreter and a Yagua Indian, I left the town–if, indeed, the collection of shanties made of poles and thatched with palm which composes Pevas can be called a town—for the interior. Our course lay south. The land is all up and down hill, being intersected by numerous streams, which at this season of the year are rushing torrents, but in the dry season are deep ravines with very steep sides and a small stream at the bottom. The soil is a rich, blackish or red, greasy clay, which when wet clings to the feet, and a few hours’ rain is sufficient to make the paths almost impassable and the descent of the steep banks equally so unless one sits down and slides. We wound our way through a most beautiful forest. Tall trees–so tall that one could with difficulty make out the shape of the leaves—-rose in straight columns, but far up in the air spread out canopies of shade. Dwarf palms grew in wild confusion, some smooth with rich silvery foliage and others armed with formidable spines. Plants that have their homes far above in the trees sent down great masses of aerial roots. The smaller trees and bushes presented foliage of every possible form and every shade of green. Berries of every color, but none of them edible, were plenty, and the ground was a mass of delicate ferns, graceful lycopodiums, interspersed with richly colored caladia. One great bush was especially noticeable. It had coarse, light-green, oval-pointed alternate leaves, and every shoot had a head of small yellowish white crowded flowers, or dark blue pulpy seeds. Were this all we should pass it by, but every head of flowers had around it a large, bright scarlet, two-parted bract, which wholly concealed the flower and gave to the bush the appearance of being covered with immense scarlet tulips.

As we entered the dense forest all was deep shade, and nothing had awakened from sleep. It was bright sunshine outside, but the greater part of the forest was so thick as not to permit the entrance of the sun’s rays. The air was warm and heavy with moisture, great drops of water hanging on the bushes and ferns. We brush through and are as wet as if after the heaviest rain. The absence of all sound is most oppressive. But listen! the sun has touched the tree-tops and the birds at last have awakened; what a burst of song, some of it pleasant and some harsh, but rising above all the loud chatter of hundreds of noisy parrots. All the morning the air had been full of a rich spicy odor. The air in these woods is always fragrant and usually the odors are very pleasant, although often from their intensity overpowering. These odors do not generally come from the large flowers, but from the trees, which are covered with an infinite number of small blossoms. Close the eyes and you would at one time think you were in the midst of a field of white clover; again the strong smell of the syringa fills the air, and still again you might be pushing your way through masses of the spicy Missouri currant. But open your eyes and you realize how far you must be from clover, syringa or currant.

By noon we had left the well-beaten path, and often it became necessary for us to cut our way through the bushes, or climb over fallen logs, or ford some stream. At 6 o’clock in the afternoon we emerged from beneath the dark forest into a very small clearing. In the midst of which was a palm hut, resembling a haystack. We entered by a hole cut in the side into a large room, faintly lighted by a few smouldering fires, around which crouched naked women and children. The men were in the forests, but we were made welcome by the chief’s two wives, one of whom was a young girl of no more than twelve years of age, the only Yagua I have ever seen with good teeth. Throwing off our heavy loads, I took a rapid survey of the large room. Small cord hammocks swung from pole to pole, blow-guns and poisoned lances were on the wall and the usual dirt and filth were everywhere. Everything–even some of the half-starved dogs—was smeared with red paint which smelled vilely.

By 7 o’clock the men had returned from the forest, and we explained to them the object of our journey. Soon the fires were burning brightly, and green bananas were thrown on them to roast. I noticed that the women frequently spit on the bananas to keep them from burning; nevertheless we made a hearty meal, and for seven days bananas and yuca formed our only diet. During my stay at this maloca I wandered in the forest with the Indians collecting the plants and roots used in preparing ramuau poison. Having but a limited knowledge of botany, it is difficult for me to describe the numerous plants and shrubs which are used by the Yaguas. The following is a list of those used in the preparation of the ramuau, the names being spelled just as they are pronounced by the Indians:
No. 1 Ramuau–This is the principal Ingredient. It is a sepoy or climbing woody vine, varying from two to four inches in diameter, and is covered with a thin yellowish bark which is exceedingly bitter to the taste. The leaves are very large, oblong and deeply veined and are of a light green color. The fruit and flower both unknown. Is a native of high land. The bark alone is used. No. 2 Wagana—-A large vine from four to six inches in diameter, with very small heart-shaped leaves, a native of low, flooded lands. It is very abundant. The roots alone are used. No. 3 Tuna–A small, tuberous plant with thick, glossy green leaves and beautifully variegated stalk, a native of low lands. The roots alone are used and emit a very powerful and disagreeable odor, reminding one of asafoetida. No. 4 Ru-umi–A small bush with light-green foliage, growing to the height of two feet, a native of low land. The bark and roots are both used and are extremely bitter. No. 5 Cenu–A very large bush with long, narrow-pointed leaves and very small white flowers, which are borne in clusters of three at the ends of branches. It is a native of high land, and is also bitter to the taste. No. 6 Ne-wa-tu–A small tree growing about twelve feet high. The trunk, which varies from two to five inches in diameter, is covered with a thin, light green bark. The leaves are oblong and of a dark green. It is a native of high land. No. 7 No-wu-se; No. 8 Putpetu. No. 9 Ramr–These are all small trees, the bark of which is used. No. 10 Mucutu and No. 11 Newatu, are small shrubs. No. 12 Ramawe–A bush attaining the height at three feet, with alternate fleshy, dark green leaves, which upon being pressed yield a whitish liquid, which No. 9 gives to the poison that intensely bitter taste which it possesses when fresh. No. 13 Yellow peppers.

Many of the ingredients used in preparing this poison could, in my opinion, be dispensed with. From four to six days are required to make one little pot, or two tablespoonfuls, of the ramuau. After the Indiana have obtained a sufficient quantity of the plants and roots–and one would be astonished at the number they collect–they sit down on the floor, and both men and women carefully scrape the bark from the vine ramuau (No. 1), which I have before said is the principal ingredient. The bark is thrown into an earthen vessel, after which it is beaten and then pressed. It yields a whitish liquid, strong-smelling and very bitter. This liquid is put into a small earthen pot, conical in shape and a great curiosity in itself, and suspended by a cord about 18 inches above a slow fire. After a few hours Nos. 2 and 4 are added, after they have been treated in the same manner as No. 1. After the second day the mixture becomes almost black and has the consistency of molasses. All this time it is very carefully watched by the Indians who now and then taste it. Great attention in paid to the fire beneath the pot, for if the poison becomes the least scorched or burnt it is entirely worthless. After thirty-six hours No. 6 is added. During this time I had repeatedly tried the strength of the poison upon frogs. Grasping the animal by the hind leg we would, with a sharp-pointed stick, insert the fresh poison into the foot, but without any effect. But when Tuna (No. 3) was added, the poison became very black and, upon tasting it, I found that even if it was not strong enough to kill the frog it was strong enough to take all the skin off my tongue. This was now left to simmer for about ten hours, when the Indians tried its strength upon frogs, which are the hardest animal to kill with this poison. A few moments after being pierced with the poisoned arrow the animal died–too quickly, my interpreter said. So the Indians added one ingredient after another, the last being the small yellow peppers. Again and again they experimented, and when the frogs made one or two hops and then died, the poison was announced completed.

Thereupon I produced my little stock of trade and bought that pot of poison and the remaining plants. The poison trade by the Tucuna and Yagua Indians is put in little earthen pots, made expressly for it, and never in gourds. These pots are hidden in the damp woods where the poison does not become hardened. Often the poison is so strong as to be almost worthless, as birds and game show with arrows tipped with it prove unfit to eat and in a few hours putrefy.

I next visited the Tucuna Indians. The flora and fauna of these vast forests are almost unknown and visitors will find much to interest them also in the curious customs of the people.
–Ernest Morris

View All Posts in This Series

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑