A Brief History of Amazon Exploration

By Devon Graham; Project Amazonas, Inc.

Great rivers deserve great stories, and the Amazon, greatest of all rivers, has many amazing stories to tell. This is a very brief condensation of just a few of them! Unlike most other major rivers of the world, the Amazon was first navigated by Europeans from its' headwaters to the mouth of the river. In fact, the Europeans who first encountered the upper reaches of the Amazon had no idea where the other end of the river might be. This may be, in part, because the mouth of the Amazon is so huge (over 200 miles across) that early explorers navigating the Atlantic coastline of South America simply didn't recognize the mouth of the river as a river!

Despite the fact that indigenous people had been living in the Amazon for at least 10,000 years, and possibly for as long as 15,000 year, the Amazon River itself was "discovered" by a Spanish explorer and conquistador. Don Francisco de Orellana left Quito, Ecuador in February of 1541 in the role of lieutenant to the company of Gonçalo Pizarro (whose brother Francisco, had conquered the Inca Empire with a mere 150 soldiers!). The company was in search of vast forests of cinnamon, and of course, the elusive El Dorado, fabled city of gold, which the Indians wisely and repeatedly assured the conquistadors really existed. After all, as long as guides were needed, the Indians wouldn't be summarily "saved" by execution, and escape was always possible!

The expedition struggled from Quito (on the Pacific slope of modern-day Ecuador) over the icy heights of the Andes, then suffered through the continual rain and treacherous slopes of the eastern side of the mountains. Men sickened and died, Indians deserted whenever possible, cattle, pigs, horses and eventually dogs were slaughtered for food. As the company ran out of food, they headed eastward into flatter terrain in search of supplies. (Macho rules #1 and #2 were strictly enforced - #1- never turn back; #2-never ask directions). When the expedition couldn't continue further on foot because of the many rivers they encountered, they stopped and built a "brigantine" (boat) at the junction of the Rio Napo (which Orellana called the "Rio de los Omáguas") and the Rio Aguárico, a site in present-day Ecuador. As the last horses and dogs disappeared into the cooking pots, Orellana and Pizarro split the party in two, with Orellana and his small company boarding the brigantine and heading down the Napo River at the end of 1541, with promises to return when they found food. Orellana's party consisted of 55 Spanish soldiers (all named in the subsequent accounts), two 'negros' (who were never named), and two Fratres, of which Frey Gaspar de Carvajal became the chronicler of the voyage.

Orellana's company did find friendly Indians and food after a weeks' travel further downriver, but the fast current made any return to the rest of the expedition completely impossible. The company also had to build another boat, for which the making of 2000 nails took a full 20 days! For several centuries, Orellana was wrongly denounced as a traitor for his apparent abandonment of his fellow conquistadors.

The expedition found neither cinnamon nor gold, but rather the greatest river on earth, arriving at the junction of the Napo and the Amazon on 11 February 1542. Don Francisco de Orellana, in the modest fashion of his time, promptly named the newly discovered river the "Rio de Orellana", a name that European geographers later abandoned in favor of the sexier Rio Amazonas, named after the mythical tribe of warrior women (read and weep, Xena, warrior princess...) who severed one breast in order to improve their archery skills. (Remember, at this point in time, unexplored parts of the world were also inhabited by men with the heads of animals, men without heads but with eyes and mouths on their chests, and all sorts of fearsome beasts on both land and sea! All you needed to do was look at the illustrations on a map of the world to confirm that such creatures existed).

Swept downriver by the current, the expedition arrived at the Atlantic Ocean on 26 August, 1542.

Frey Gaspar's account of the voyage tells little about the natural history and people of the Amazon. Rather, he described events on board the ship, described at length how terribly the expedition members suffered, and how they invoked the Holy Virgin. He does note, however, that the Indian population grew ever more numerous as they traveled downriver, and how the Spaniards attacked and burned the villages, and killed any Indians that did not flee. Not surprisingly, news of the friendly newcomers soon preceded the Spaniards by messenger and bush drum, and the Indians became increasingly hostile and did what they could to augment the terrible suffering of the persecuted Spaniards! One trip on the Amazon apparently wasn't enough for Orellana, however, and he died in November 1546 at the ripe old age of 35, one of many victims of an ill-planned and disastrous expedition to reverse his previous steps by traveling up the Amazon.

Orellana's astonishing voyage down the Amazon was duplicated a mere 13 years after his death. This second expedition, however, was considerably bloodier - at least when it came to the blood of the conquistadors! Once again, the objective of the voyage was to find the incredible riches and deposits of gold that just had to exist in the region! The "hero" of this expedition was the infamous Lope de Aguirre. Aguirre, before the trip was over, had seized leadership of the expedition, declared himself King of Peru, wrote a nasty and insubordinate letter to the King of Spain, and quickly and gruesomely dispatched any and all who might, or might not be plotting against him. The expedition made its way downriver to the Atlantic, then up the coast to Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. Eventually his fellow rebels deserted him, and two of them dispatched him with arquebuses. His head was presented to the local governor, to be permanently displayed in an iron cage. His hands were presented to the men of the two towns primarily responsible for his overthrow. These ended up being thrown in a river and to dogs, respectively, when their odor began to outweigh their souvenir value.. Aguirre's expedition of horror must surely be one of the most infamous in the annals of western civilization.

Orellana's company did find friendly Indians and food after a weeks' travel further downriver, but the fast current made any return to the rest of the expedition completely impossible. The company also had to build another boat, for which the making of 2000 nails took a full 20 days! For several centuries, Orellana was wrongly denounced as a traitor for his apparent abandonment of his fellow conquistadors.

The expedition found neither cinnamon nor gold, but rather the greatest river on earth, arriving at the junction of the Napo and the Amazon on 11 February 1542. Don Francisco de Orellana, in the modest fashion of his time, promptly named the newly discovered river the "Rio de Orellana", a name that European geographers later abandoned in favor of the sexier Rio Amazonas, named after the mythical tribe of warrior women (read and weep, Xena, warrior princess...) who severed one breast in order to improve their archery skills. (Remember, at this point in time, unexplored parts of the world were also inhabited by men with the heads of animals, men without heads but with eyes and mouths on their chests, and all sorts of fearsome beasts on both land and sea! All you needed to do was look at the illustrations on a map of the world to confirm that such creatures existed).

Swept downriver by the current, the expedition arrived at the Atlantic Ocean on 26 August, 1542.

Frey Gaspar's account of the voyage tells little about the natural history and people of the Amazon. Rather, he described events on board the ship, described at length how terribly the expedition members suffered, and how they invoked the Holy Virgin. He does note, however, that the Indian population grew ever more numerous as they traveled downriver, and how the Spaniards attacked and burned the villages, and killed any Indians that did not flee. Not surprisingly, news of the friendly newcomers soon preceded the Spaniards by messenger and bush drum, and the Indians became increasingly hostile and did what they could to augment the terrible suffering of the persecuted Spaniards! One trip on the Amazon apparently wasn't enough for Orellana, however, and he died in November 1546 at the ripe old age of 35, one of many victims of an ill-planned and disastrous expedition to reverse his previous steps by traveling up the Amazon.

Orellana's astonishing voyage down the Amazon was duplicated a mere 13 years after his death. This second expedition, however, was considerably bloodier - at least when it came to the blood of the conquistadors! Once again, the objective of the voyage was to find the incredible riches and deposits of gold that just had to exist in the region! The "hero" of this expedition was the infamous Lope de Aguirre. Aguirre, before the trip was over, had seized leadership of the expedition, declared himself King of Peru, wrote a nasty and insubordinate letter to the King of Spain, and quickly and gruesomely dispatched any and all who might, or might not be plotting against him. The expedition made its way downriver to the Atlantic, then up the coast to Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. Eventually his fellow rebels deserted him, and two of them dispatched him with arquebuses. His head was presented to the local governor, to be permanently displayed in an iron cage. His hands were presented to the men of the two towns primarily responsible for his overthrow. These ended up being thrown in a river and to dogs, respectively, when their odor began to outweigh their souvenir value.. Aguirre's expedition of horror must surely be one of the most infamous in the annals of western civilization.

It was a great many years later before another Amazon expedition, and the first one to travel all the way upriver, was to take place. In 1637-38, the Portuguese general Pedro Teixeira was the first European to ascend the river from Belém (near the mouth of the Amazon) to Quito, Ecuador, and then to return the same way. Teixeira's expedition was massive - some 2000 people in 37 large "canoas" (canoes), and was intended in part, to combat the increasing presence of the British and Dutch who had begun building forts along the lower Amazon. Father Cristobal de Acuña, S. J., accompanied the expedition and provided the first detailed information on the Amazon and its natural history and people. Acuña's writings included astonishingly exact data on the length and size of the Amazon, and the topography of its course. His account also includes the first reference to a water connection between the Amazon and the Orinoco River, another major South American river system.

Father Acuña wrote extensive and quite accurate descriptions of the flooded forest areas along the Amazon, the farming systems and crops of the Indians, and the aquatic fauna of the rivers. He greatly admired the abundance and diversity of fish in the river, the huge numbers of turtles, and was very impressed by the 'manati' (Amazonian manatee). Acuña was also perplexed by the electric eel, whose effect on anyone touching it he likened to an attack of malaria.

The major error in Acuña's account had to do with the richness and fertility of the landscape, a mistaken impression that has persisted to this day. Alonzo de Rojas, who also wrote an account of the expedition though he seems not to have been a member, wrote "The discoverers of the Amazon maintain that its campos (fields) seem to be paradises, its islands gardens, and that, if art would support the fertility of the soil, these parts would be well treated paradises and gardens... The river abounds in fishes, the mountains are extremely rich in game, the air is over-abundant in birds, the trees are full of fruits, the fields give very rich crops, and the earth is full of mines". Indeed, one wonders how Orellana and Pizarro's expedition ever ran out of food! Both Acuña and Rojas emphasize, however, that the mountains containing the headwaters of the Amazon are the richest in silver and gold in all the earth, and their enthusiasm in describing the riches of the lower Amazon were undoubtedly intended to influence and fuel the competing territorial rivalries of Spain and Portugal and win favor with their respective sovereigns.

A fascinating sideline to these accounts is the fact that the Indian population along the Amazon was apparently very large at the time of the first European exploration. The Indian population rapidly crashed, however, as over 90% of the indigenous population was wiped out by the mercifully civilized westerners and their introduced diseases, especially smallpox, to which the Indians had no immunity. Other introduced diseases like malaria and yellow fever also took their toll. One writer (Antonio Vieira, 1842) estimated that in the 37 years between 1615 and 1652, more than two million Indians living on the lower Amazon were killed. What the Amazonian population was at the time of the first exploration will never be known, but increasing evidence indicates that the population of the Americas was quite large, and probably over 50 million, several million of which lived in the Amazon region. There is also ample evidence from archeological and soil analysis and the distributions of various plant species (especially useful palms) to indicate that large and relatively permanent and sophisticated settlements were common in many parts of the Amazon, and that the Indians had long-lasting effects on the natural environment. There is some evidence that humans may have been in the Amazon region for as long as 50,000 years (as opposed to the 12,000 to 20,000 years often accepted as the length of human colonization of the Americas), and one author maintains that "There are no virgin forests today, nor were there in 1492" (Denevan, 1992 - cited in Henderson, 1995).

Following Teixeira's expedition, the next major accounts of the Amazon were by missionaries, who under orders from Rome and Spain, set out to convert any surviving Indians. The missionaries were actually the first Europeans to penetrate the depths of the Amazon away from the main river systems.

The first 'modern' scientific exploration of the Amazon region was by the great Prussian naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, often called the last 'universal man', whose ambitious aim was to discover "the laws which wind a uniting bond round a multitude of isolated fact". Most of Von Humboldt's exploration was in the Orinoco basin of Venezuela, where he traveled in the company of the French botanist Aimé Bonpland. Their best known accomplishment (other than prodigious collections of specimens and extensive notes on landscapes and natural history) in Amazonia was to prove the existence of a water connection, the famous Canal or Rio Cassiquiare, between the Amazon and Orinoco river systems. Unfortunately, after passing though the Cassiquiare and reaching the Rio Negro in Portuguese Brazil, Von Humboldt was forced to return immediately to Venezuela on suspicion of being a Spanish spy!

After Von Humboldt and Bonpland, came a number of scientific explorers and adventurers. Von Spix and Von Martius made huge botanical and zoological collections in the Brazilian Amazon in 1817-1820. The worlds loneliest bird, Spix's Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) with only one individual left in the wild (27 more in captivity as of 1992) is named after Von Spix. Another notable scientific explorer was the Englishman Henry William Bates, who spent 11 years (1848-1859) in the interior of Amazonia, and who amassed the single largest collection of insects ever made by one individual in the region. Bates' book detailing his travels and endeavors, A Naturalist on the River Amazons, is such a fine example of natural history writing and introduction to the Amazon that it has been republished several times and is still available!

For his first four years in the Amazon, Bates traveled with Alfred Russell Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, although Charles Darwin published the theory first. When Wallace returned to Britain, however, his ship caught fire, and though he escaped with his own skin, all his collections and notes went both up in smoke and down into the depths.

Following Bates, far too many scientific explorers contributed to the increased knowledge of Amazonia to detail here, and much basic work is still being conducted at the present time. The surface of the Amazon has been scratched, so to speak, but a great deal of polishing is still required before we can claim to have a reflection of the true image of Amazonian natural history. Over the same period of time, the human and political history of the Amazon has undergone many fascinating changes.

NOTE: An excellent and fascinating book about the early history and exploration of the Amazon is Explorers of the Amazon, by Anthony Smith (1990). The book is available from the University of Chicago Press (ISBN: 0-226-76337-4; 344 pages). A review of the book can be found in the Recommended Reading section.

Sources of information used in the preparation of this 'history' include: Explorers of the Amazon (see above), The Palms of the Amazon (Andrew Henderson, 1995, Oxford University Press), and The Amazon: Limnology and landscape ecology of a mighty tropical river and its basin (Harald Sioli, editor, 1984, Dr. W. Junk, Publishers).

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