Study Guide

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon Foreignness and the Other

By David Grann

Foreignness and the Other

In the 1970s, Claudio Villas Boas, who was one of the great defenders of Amazonian Indians, told a reporter, "This is the jungle and to kill a deformed child—to abandon the man without family—can be essential for the survival of the tribe. It's only now that the jungle is vanishing, and its laws are losing their meaning, that we are shocked." (3.8)

There is a different type of morality in the jungle. Some people believe they should go impose their own morality on these people, Book of Mormon-style, while others believe their culture should be observed without interference.

After studying members of the Siriono tribe in Bolivia in the early 1940s, [anthropologist Allan R.] Holmberg described them as among "the most culturally backward peoples of the world," a society so consumed by the quest for food that it had developed no art, religion, clothes, domesticated animals, solid shelter, commerce, roads, or even the ability to count beyond three. […] They were, he concluded, "man in the raw state of nature." (3.9)

The word "backward" implies that the rest of the world is "forward," which is a fallacy that leads to a lot of misinterpretations about Amazonian cultures. Is it really so wrong to not be able to count beyond three if you don't need to? The French can't even count past 70.

Just as Fawcett had been taught to see the contours of the earth, he was not taught how to observe the Other—what Hints to Travelers referred to as "savages, barbarians, or the lower civilised [sic] nations." The manual warned each student against "the prejudices with which his European mode of thought has been surrounded," even as it noted that "it is established that some races are inferior to others in volume and complexity of brain, Australians and Africans being in this respect below Europeans." (6.11)

People are still trying to figure out how to relate to other cultures at this time. At times they are sensitive and insensitive simultaneously.

In the journal of the Royal Geographic Society, Fawcett wrote that "the wretched policy which created a slave trade, and openly encouraged a reckless slaughter of the indigenous Indians, many of them races of great intelligence," had imbued the Indians with "a deadly vengeance against the stranger" and constituted one of "the great dangers of South American exploration." (8.21)

Fawcett is forward thinking for his time—and for today's time. He realizes that one reason some of the South American natives are violent against explorers is that explorers were once violent against them.

Many theologians debated whether these dark-skinned, scantily clad peoples were, in fact, human; for how could the descendants of Adam and Eve have wandered so far, and how could the biblical prophets have been ignorant of them? (14.17)

These theologians seem to forget that Adam and Eve themselves were the most scantily clad of them all. And considering they lived in a time before SPF protection, they were probably pretty dark-skinned themselves. Womp womp.

In the process, however, [Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar], contributed to a conception of the Indians that became an equal staple of European ethnology: the "noble savage." According to Las Casas, the Indians were "the simplest people in the world," "without malice or guile," "never quarrelsome or belligerent or boisterous," who "are neither ambitious nor greedy, and are totally uninterested in worldly power." (14.18)

Both the road to hell and the road to harmful racial stereotypes are paved with good intentions. Um, or, well, at least sometimes. Most of the time the intentions are just pretty bad.

The Victorians wanted to know, in effect, why some apes had evolved into English gentleman and why some hadn't. (14.20)

Considering the barbaric way some of these "gentleman" act, we're not quite sure the apes evolved all that much.

"My experience is that few of these savages are naturally 'bad,' unless contact with 'savages' from the outside world has made them so." (14.22)

Again, Fawcett is very forward thinking here. He realizes that the white explorers might be the true savages in the jungle.

"A nineteenth-century German traveler wrote that "from that time onwards [the Xavante] no longer trusted any white man… These abused people have therefore changed from compatriots into the most dangerous and determined enemies. They generally kill anyone they can easily catch." (20.68)

If the classic Jennifer Lopez film Enough taught us anything, it's that a person—or in this case an entire group of people—can only take so much abuse before they turn the tables on their attackers.

"Anthropologists," Heckenberger said, "made the mistake of coming into the Amazon in the twentieth century and seeing only small tribes and saying, 'Well, that's all there is.' The problem is that, by then, many Indian populations had already been wiped out by what was essentially a holocaust from European contact. That's why the first Europeans in the Amazon described such massive settlements that, later, no one could ever find. (25.81)

Modern anthropologists have the benefit of hindsight: they can see the mistakes their forebears made and correct their erroneous thought processes. Who knows what future anthropologists will think about today's anthropologists? After all, the human capacity to screw things up is limitless, even when we think we're doing things right.

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