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- Equinoctial Regions of America V2 - 90/97 -


mind, with much satisfaction, the scenes where we had reposed in going up the river. We again found the Indians who had accompanied us in our herborizations; and we visited anew the fine spring that issues from a rock of stratified granite behind the house of the missionary: its temperature was not changed more than 0.3 degrees. From the mouth of the Atabapo as far as that of the Apure we seemed to be travelling as through a country which we had long inhabited. We were reduced to the same abstinence; we were stung by the same mosquitos; but the certainty of reaching in a few weeks the term of our physical sufferings kept up our spirits.

The passage of the canoe through the Great Cataract obliged us to stop two days at Maypures. Father Bernardo Zea, missionary at the Raudales, who had accompanied us to the Rio Negro, though ill, insisted on conducting us with his Indians as far as Atures. One of these Indians, Zerepe, the interpreter, who had been so unmercifully punished at the beach of Pararuma, rivetted our attention by his appearance of deep sorrow. We learned that his grief was caused by the loss of a young girl to whom he was engaged, and that he had lost her in consequence of false intelligence which had been spread respecting the direction of our journey. Zerepe, who was a native of Maypures, had been brought up in the woods by his parents, who were of the tribe of the Macos. He had brought with him to the mission a girl of twelve years of age, whom he intended to marry at our return from the Cataracts. The Indian girl was little pleased with the life of the missions, and she was told that the whites would go to the country of the Portuguese (Brazil), and would take Zerepe with them. Disappointed in her hopes, she seized a boat, and with another girl of her own age, crossed the Great Cataract, and fled al monte. The recital of this courageous adventure was the great news of the place. The affliction of Zerepe, however, was not of long duration. Born among the Christians, having travelled as far as the foot of the Rio Negro, understanding Spanish and the language of the Macos, he thought himself superior to the people of his tribe, and he no doubt soon forgot his forest love.

On the 31st of May we passed the rapids of Guahibos and Garcita. The islands which rise in the middle of the waters of the river were overspread with the purest verdure. The rains of winter had unfolded the spathes of the vadgiai palm-tree, the leaves of which rise straight toward the sky. The eye is never wearied of the view of those scenes, where the trees and rocks give the landscape that grand and severe character which we admire in the background of the pictures of Salvator Rosa. We landed before sunset on the eastern bank of the Orinoco, at the Puerto de la Expedicion, in order to visit the cavern of Ataruipe, which is the place of sepulchre of a whole nation destroyed. I shall attempt to describe this cavern, so celebrated among the natives.

We climbed with difficulty, and not without some danger, a steep rock of granite, entirely bare. It would have been almost impossible to fix the foot on its smooth and sloping surface, if large crystals of feldspar, resisting decomposition, did not stand out from the rock, and furnish points of support. Scarcely had we attained the summit of the mountain when we beheld with astonishment the singular aspect of the surrounding country. The foamy bed of the waters is filled with an archipelago of islands covered with palm-trees. Westward, on the left bank of the Orinoco, the wide-stretching savannahs of the Meta and the Casanare resembled a sea of verdure. The setting sun seemed like a globe of fire suspended over the plain, and the solitary Peak of Uniana, which appeared more lofty from being wrapped in vapours which softened its outline, all contributed to augment the majesty of the scene. Immediately below us lay a deep valley, enclosed on every side. Birds of prey and goatsuckers winged their lonely flight in this inaccessible circus. We found a pleasure in following with the eye their fleeting shadows, as they glided slowly over the flanks of the rock.

A narrow ridge led us to a neighbouring mountain, the rounded summit of which supported immense blocks of granite. These masses are more than forty or fifty feet in diameter; and their form is so perfectly spherical, that, as they appear to touch the soil only by a small number of points, it might be supposed, at the least shock of an earthquake, they would roll into the abyss. I do not remember to have seen anywhere else a similar phenomenon, amid the decompositions of granitic soils. If the balls rested on a rock of a different nature, as in the blocks of Jura, we might suppose that they had been rounded by the action of water, or thrown out by the force of an elastic fluid; but their position on the summit of a hill alike granitic, makes it more probable that they owe their origin to the progressive decomposition of the rock.

The most remote part of the valley is covered by a thick forest. In this shady and solitary spot, on the declivity of a steep mountain, the cavern of Ataruipe opens to the view. It is less a cavern than a jutting rock in which the waters have scooped a vast hollow when, in the ancient revolutions of our planet, they attained that height.* (* I saw no vein, no hole (four) filled with crystals. The decomposition of granitic rocks, and their separation into large masses, dispersed in the plains and valleys in the form of blocks and balls with concentric layers, appear to favour the enlarging of these natural excavations, which resemble real caverns.) In this tomb of a whole extinct tribe we soon counted nearly six hundred skeletons well preserved, and regularly placed. Every skeleton reposes in a sort of basket made of the petioles of the palm-tree. These baskets, which the natives call mapires, have the form of a square bag. Their size is proportioned to the age of the dead; there are some for infants cut off at the moment of their birth. We saw them from ten inches to three feet four inches long, the skeletons in them being bent together. They are all ranged near each other, and are so entire that not a rib or a phalanx is wanting. The bones have been prepared in three different manners, either whitened in the air and the sun, dyed red with anoto, or, like mummies, varnished with odoriferous resins, and enveloped in leaves of the heliconia or of the plantain-tree. The Indians informed us that the fresh corpse is placed in damp ground, that the flesh may be consumed by degrees; some months afterwards it is taken out, and the flesh remaining on the bones is scraped off with sharp stones. Several hordes in Guiana still observe this custom. Earthen vases half-baked are found near the mapires or baskets. They appear to contain the bones of the same family. The largest of these vases, or funeral urns, are five feet high, and three feet three inches long. Their colour is greenish-grey, and their oval form is pleasing to the eye. The handles are made in the shape of crocodiles or serpents; the edges are bordered with painted meanders, labyrinths, and grecques, in rows variously combined. Such designs are found in every zone among nations the farthest removed from each other, either with respect to their respective positions on the globe, or to the degree of civilization which they have attained. They still adorn the common pottery made by the inhabitants of the little mission of Maypures; they ornament the bucklers of the Otaheitans, the fishing-implements of the Esquimaux, the walls of the Mexican palace of Mitla, and the vases of ancient Greece.

We could not acquire any precise idea of the period to which the origin of the mapires and the painted vases, contained in the bone-cavern of Ataruipe, can be traced. The greater part seemed not to be more than a century old; but it may be supposed that, sheltered from all humidity under the influence of a uniform temperature, the preservation of these articles would be no less perfect if their origin dated from a period far more remote. A tradition circulates among the Guahibos, that the warlike Atures, pursued by the Caribs, escaped to the rocks that rise in the middle of the Great Cataracts; and there that nation, heretofore so numerous, became gradually extinct, as well as its language. The last families of the Atures still existed in 1767, in the time of the missionary Gili. At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants said, and the fact is worthy of observation, that they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures.

We opened, to the great concern of our guides, several mapires, for the purpose of examining attentively the form of the skulls. They were all marked by the characteristics of the American race, with the exception of two or three, which approached indubitably to the Caucasian. In the middle of the Cataracts, in the most inaccessible spots, cases are found strengthened with iron bands, and filled with European tools, vestiges of clothes, and glass trinkets. These articles, which have given rise to the most absurd reports of treasures hidden by the Jesuits, probably belonged to Portuguese traders who had penetrated into these savage countries. May we suppose that the skulls of European race, which we saw mingled with the skeletons of the natives, and preserved with the same care, were the remains of some Portuguese travellers who had died of sickness, or had been killed in battle? The aversion evinced by the natives for whatever is not of their own race renders this hypothesis little probable. Perhaps fugitive mestizos of the missions of the Meta and Apure may have come and settled near the Cataracts, marrying women of the tribe of the Atures. Such mixed marriages sometimes take place in this zone, though they are more rare than in Canada, and in the whole of North America, where hunters of European origin unite themselves with savages, assume their habits, and sometimes acquire great political influence.

We took several skulls, the skeleton of a child of six or seven years old, and two of full-grown men of the nation of the Atures, from the cavern of Ataruipe. All these bones, partly painted red, partly varnished with odoriferous resins, were placed in the baskets (mapires or canastos) which we have just described. They made almost the whole load of a mule; and as we knew the superstitious feelings of the Indians in reference to the remains of the dead after burial, we carefully enveloped the canastos in mats recently woven. Unfortunately for us, the penetration of the Indians, and the extreme quickness of their sense of smelling, rendered all our precautions useless. Wherever we stopped, in the missions of the Caribbees, amid the Llanos, between Angostura and Nueva Barcelona, the natives assembled round our mules to admire the monkeys which we had purchased at the Orinoco. These good people had scarcely touched our baggage, when they announced the approaching death of the beast of burden that carried the dead. In vain we told them that they were deceived in their conjectures; and that the baskets contained the bones of crocodiles and manatees; they persisted in repeating that they smelt the resin that surrounded the skeletons, and that they were their old relations. We were obliged to request that the monks would interpose their authority, to overcome the aversion of the natives, and procure for us a change of mules.

One of the skulls, which we took from the cavern of Ataruipe, has appeared in the fine work published by my old master, Blumenbach, on the varieties of the human species. The skeletons of the Indians were lost on the coast of Africa, together with a considerable part of our collections, in a shipwreck, in which perished our friend and fellow-traveller, Fray Juan Gonzales, the young monk of the order of Saint Francis.

We withdrew in silence from the cavern of Ataruipe. It was one of those calm and serene nights which are so common in the torrid zone. The stars shone with a mild and planetary light. Their scintillation was scarcely sensible at the horizon, which seemed illumined by the great nebulae of the southern hemisphere. An innumerable multitude of insects spread a reddish light upon the ground, loaded with plants, and resplendent with these living and moving fires, as if the stars of


Equinoctial Regions of America V2 - 90/97

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