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UFV 2005

The Yanomami of Brazil's Amazon

No navigable rivers cross the mountainous rain-forest region of Brazil and Venezuela that the Yanomami call home. They lived in isolation from the rest of the world for, some claim, at least five thousand years. Discovered in the early 1950s, the Yanomami 6were left alone for much of the next three decades. But between 1973 and 1976, Brazilians built a road, the Perimetral Norte, passing along the southern boundary of the Indians' territory. The Perimetral brought the first, 3but short, invasion of gold miners.

A more significant gold rush began in 1987. Thousands of armed 21miners came to the Amazon. Since then, at least two thousand Yanomami 8have been massacred or 7have died of epidemics of measles, tuberculosis, and hepatitis. That's around 10 percent of their total population.

1Although the Yanomami have a reputation for fierceness, in my journeys among them, I 9could scarcely have found a 19friendlier people. 10Those whom I met were 20good-natured and welcoming. The men hunted or worked in their gardens. Women, each usually accompanied by a child, hunted frogs, freshwater crabs, and gathered wild fruits and mushrooms. I never stopped marveling at the amazing agility with which the Yanomami climbed trees to get fruits or honey. In two and a half hours, on average, they easily 14supplied all their daily needs.

5Thus, relatively little work provided the Yanomami with a 15balanced diet. Both men and women spent most of their time socializing in their hammocks, next to their family fires. They cooked,17made arrows, wove baskets, and painted each other. Never were they alone. Never did they miss support from their families or clans. Their society and manners were 22well-regulated.

Yanomami children, at the age of three could join the other kids to play in the central yard. All of 11their games copied their parents' activities. The girls liked to decorate each other with urucu (a vegetable paint) and to bake small flatbreads, made of manioc, on the fire. 12They spent time helping their mothers. Boys used their bows and arrows almost constantly, and though 13they would not eat the lizards and small snakes they killed, they 16cooked their catch with care. Inevitably, they also played war.

I was surprised to find in the Amazon a people so similar to those I deal with every day at home. 4Despite their seclusion, the Yanomami tribe included all the roles typical of a modern society. There was the leader, the lawyer, the politician, the clown, the salesman, the story teller, and even, in spirit, the paper shuffler.

The Yanomami's acute sense of humor and understanding of the comical was another source of wonder for me, as well as a proof of their great intelligence. They were such good company that they made me laugh often. In turn, my laugh, which is much 18lower pitched than their own, proved to be a great source of amusement and delight for the people. At night, when we all rested in our hammocks, the hundred or so Yanomami echoed every one of my outbursts, 2even though they had no idea what I was laughing about – which made me laugh again.

ENGLEBERT, V. A Once Hidden People: The Yanomami of Brazil's Amazon. In The World & I: The magazine for lifelong learners. May 2004, p. 186-195. (adapted)


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