A Source Book in Geography

Date: 1852


From Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America

Traveling on the Orinoco

During the whole of my voyage from San Fernando to San Carlos del Rio Negro, and thence to the town of Angostura, I noted down day by day, either in the boat or where we disembarked at night, all that appeared to me worthy of observation. Violent rains, and the prodigious quantity of mosquitos With which the air is filled on the banks of the Orinoco and the Cassiquiare, necessarily occasioned some interruptions; but I supplied the omission by notes taken a few days after. I here subjoin some extracts from my journal. Whatever is written while the objects we describe are before our eyes bears a character of truth and individuality which gives attraction to things the least important.

On the 31st March a contrary wind obliged us to remain on shore till noon. We saw a part of some cane-fields laid waste by the effect of a conflagration which had spread from a neighbouring forest. The wandering Indians everywhere set fire to the forest where they have encamped at night; and during the season of drought, vast provinces would be the prey of these conflagrations if the extreme hardness of the wood did not prevent the trees from being entirely consumed. We found trunks of desmanthus and mahogany which were scarcely charred two inches deep.

Having passed the Diamante we entered a land inhabited only by tigers, crocodiles, and chiguires; the latter are a large species of the genus Cavia of Linnæus. We saw flocks of birds, crowded so closely together as to appear against the sky like a dark cloud which every instant changed its form. The river widens by degrees. One of its banks is generally barren and sandy from the effect of inundations; the other is higher, and covered with lofty trees. In some parts the river is bordered by forests on each side, and forms a straight canal a hundred and fifty toises broad. The manner in which the trees are disposed is very remarkable. We first find bushes of sauso, forming a kind of hedge four feet high, and appearing as if they had been clipped by the hand of man. A copse of cedar, brazilletto, and lignum-vitæ, rises behind this hedge. Palm-trees are rare; we saw only a few scattered trunks of the thorny peritu and corozo. The large quadrupeds of those regions, the jaguars, tapirs, and peccaries, have made openings in the hedge of sauso which we have just described. Through these the wild animals pass when they come to drink at the river. As they fear but little the approach of a boat, we had the pleasure of viewing them as they paced slowly along the shore till they disappeared in the forest, which they entered by one of the narrow passes left at intervals between the bushes. These scenes, which were often repeated, had ever for me a peculiar attraction. The pleasure they excite is not owing solely to the interest which the naturalist takes in the objects of his study, it is connected with a feeling common to all men who have been brought up in the habits of civilization. You find yourself in a new world, in the midst of untamed and savage nature. Now the jaguar,—the beautiful panther of America,—appears upon the shore; and now the hocco, with its black plumage and tufted head, moves slowly along the sausos. Animals of the most different classes succeed each other. "Esse como en el Paradiso," "It is just as it was in Paradise," said our pilot, an old Indian of the Missions. Everything, indeed, in these regions recalls to mind the state of the primitive world with its innocence and felicity. But in carefully observing the manners of animals among themselves, we see that they mutually avoid and fear each other. The golden age has ceased; and in this Paradise of the American forests, as well as everywhere else, sad and long experience has taught all beings that benignity is seldom found in alliance with strength.

When the shore is of considerable breadth, the hedge of sauso remains at a distance from the river. In the intermediate space we see crocodiles, sometimes to the number of eight or ten, stretched on the sand. Motionless, with their jaws wide open, they repose by each other, without displaying any of those marks of affection observed in other animals living in society. The troop separates as soon as they quit the shore. It is, however, probably composed of one male only, and many females; for as M. Descourtils, who has so much studied the crocodiles of St. Domingo, observed to me, the males are rare, because they kill one another in fighting during the season of their loves. These monstrous creatures are so numerous, that throughout the whole course of the river we had almost at every instant five or six in view. Yet at this period the swelling of the Rio Apure was scarcely perceived; and consequently hundreds of crocodiles were still buried in the mud of the savannahs. About four in the afternoon we stopped to measure a dead crocodile which had been cast ashore. It was only sixteen feet eight inches long; some days after M. Bonpland found another, a male, twenty-two feet three inches long.

Geophagy among South American Indians

The situation of the mission of Uruana is extremely picturesque. The little Indian village stands at the foot of a lofty granitic mountain. Rocks everywhere appear in the form of pillars above the forest, rising higher than the tops of the tallest trees. The aspect of the Orinoco is nowhere more majestic, than when viewed from the hut of the missionary, Fray Ramon Bueno. It is more than two thousand six hundred toises broad, and it runs without any winding, like a vast canal, straight toward the east. Two long and narrow islands (Isla de Uruana and Isla vieja de la Manteca) contribute to give extent to the bed of the river; the two banks are parallel, and we cannot call it divided into different branches. The mission is inhabited by the Ottomacs, a tribe in the rudest state, and presenting one of the most extraordinary physiological phenomena. They eat earth; that is, they swallow every day, during several months, very considerable quantities, to appease hunger, and this practice does not appear to have an injurious effect on their health. Though we could stay only one day at Uruana, this short space of time sufficed to make us acquainted with the preparation of the poya, or balls of earth. I also found some traces of this vitiated appetite among the Guamos; and between the confluence of the Meta and the Apure, Where everybody speaks of dirt-eating as of a thing anciently known. I shall here confine myself to an account of What we ourselves Saw or heard from the missionary, who had been doomed to live for twelve years among the savage and turbulent tribe of the Ottomacs.

The inhabitants of Uruana belong to those nations of the savannahs called wandering Indians (Indios andantes), who, more difficult to civilize than the nations of the forest (Indios del monte), have a decided aversion to cultivate the land, and live almost exclusively by hunting and fishing. They are men of very robust constitution; but ill-looking, savage, vindictive, and passionately fond of fermented liquors. They are omnivorous animals in the highest degree; and therefore the other Indians, who consider them as barbarians, have a common saying, "nothing is so loathsome but that an Ottomac will eat it." While the waters of the Orinoco and its tributary streams are low, the Ottomacs subsist on fish and turtles. The former they kill with surprising dexterity, by shooting them with an arrow when they appear at the surface of the water. When the rivers swell fishing almost entirely ceases. It is then very difficult to procure fish, which often fails the poor missionaries, on fast-days as well as flesh-days, though all the young Indians are under the obligation of "fishing for the convent." During the period of these inundations, which last two or three months, the Ottomacs swallow a prodigious quantity of earth. We found heaps of earth-balls in their huts, piled up in pyramids three or four feet high. These balls were five or six inches in diameter. The earth which the Ottomacs eat, is a very fine and unctuous clay, of a yellowish grey colour; and, when being slightly baked at the fire, the hardened crust has a tint inclining to red, owing to the oxide of iron which is mingled with it. We brought away some of this earth, which we took from the winter-provision of the Indians; and it is a mistake to suppose that it is steatitic, and that it contains magnesia. Vauque-lin did not discover any traces of that substance in it: but he found that it contained more silex than alumina, and three or four per cent of lime.

From Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America during the Years 1799–1804, trans. and ed. Thomasina Ross (London, 1852), II, 152–154, 494–495.


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Chicago: Ross, ed. Thomasina, trans., "From Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America," A Source Book in Geography in A Source Book in Geography, ed. George Kish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 404–407. Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FV45LIS127G9MQ.

MLA: . "From Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America." A Source Book in Geography, edited by Ross, and translated by Thomasina, Vol. II, in A Source Book in Geography, edited by George Kish, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 404–407. Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FV45LIS127G9MQ.

Harvard: (ed.) (trans.), 'From Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America' in A Source Book in Geography. cited in 1978, A Source Book in Geography, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.404–407. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FV45LIS127G9MQ.