Shortly after I landed in Altamira to live for a year, carrying a suitcase and enough funding to continue my reporting projects during that time, I went on an expedition organized by William Balée, a professor of anthropology from Tulane University, in the United States. Bill, as he is better known, is one of the main exponents of the concept of historical ecology, the field of study that explores how humans have interacted with the environment across space and time. This interaction forms “landscapes” but not in our usual understanding of the term.
“Landscapes are…encounters of places, humans and nonhumans whose histories are imprinted in the environment,” Balée wrote poetically. What each of us sees is not the same, ever. When Bill looks at the forest, he tries to uncover the conversation among the trees, bushes, vines, and everything classified as botany and the people who lived there centuries or millennia before. He wants to comprehend the landscape they created, beyond what meets the eye today. And also comprehend what this landscape can tell us about the future.
Bill was investigating the hypothesis that this part of the Amazon rainforest was planted by the ancestors of today’s Indigenous people and that the presence of contemporary traditional societies isn’t incompatible with forest conservation principles. Most whites believe that when the European colonizers encountered the world’s largest tropical forest, it was a creation free of human fingerprints. A kind of fifty-million-year-old “virgin.”
This belief has no basis in the reality laid bare through the research of scientists like Bill Balée. Part of the Amazon is a cultural forest, meaning it has been sculpted over the course of thousands of years, mainly by humans, but also by nonhumans, the ones we call “animals,” through their interactions with the environment. And not by all human persons, but by the same ones who ensure that the remaining forest still stands and who are shot to death for it: the Indigenous and, in more recent centuries, the members of traditional forest communities known as beiradeiros, along with quilombolas, the descendants of runaway slaves.
Archaeologists like Eduardo Neves, a Brazilian, have proven that the forest was much more inhabited by humans in the past than today. “The Amazon has been occupied for more than ten thousand years, in some cases by populations of thousands of people,” says Eduardo, one of the most endearing white men to pilgrimage through the forest in search of terra preta, the dark earth that signals human occupation, rich soil darkened by layers of intense, intelligent interaction with this place.
It’s impossible to understand the natural history of the Amazon without taking the influence of human populations into account. Similarly, you can’t understand the history of the Amazon peoples without taking into account the relationships they established with nature. In addition to its natural history, the forest that now overlies archaeological sites has a cultural history.
The reduction of the number of human inhabitants in the Amazon (original peoples, clearly put, because the number of whites just keeps growing) has been the result of European colonization, at least in more recent centuries. Invaders exterminated a large percentage of these peoples through the viruses and bacteria loaded on their bodies and also through the violence of their onslaughts.
When researchers like Eduardo and Bill investigate and demonstrate the Amazon’s human past, they are joining the forces of resistance that oppose the destruction of the forest and its peoples and that also oppose the preservationist groups that want to remove from the forest the traditional communities who reached the Amazon in recent centuries, like beiradeiros, all in the name of preserving the ecosystem. But humans—this generic term invented to conceal asymmetries—are not a threat to the forest; rather, some humans are. Others interact with it, transform it, and even plant it.
This language is white, because I’m writing mainly to the non-Indigenous, just as researchers write to the non-Indigenous. For the original peoples, there is no nature and humans, one thing and the other. There is only nature. Indigenous people aren’t in the forest, they are forest. They interact with what whites call “forest,” just like nonhuman persons interact with it. The forest is everything, visible and invisible.
Davi Kopenawa explains the forest much better than a white woman like me can:
In the forest, we human beings are the “ecology.” But it is equally the xapiri [spirits], the game, the trees, the rivers, the fish, the sky, the rain, the wind, and the sun! It is everything that came into being in the forest, far from the white people: everything that isn’t surrounded by fences yet.
In his interviews with the French anthropologist Bruce Albert in the magisterial book The Falling Sky, Kopenawa says that words of the creator deity Omama are “the center of what the white people call ecology.” When the Yanomami leader began traveling to cities like New York, London, and Paris to talk about the destruction of the forest, he realized whites used another name for something that had been passed down by the ancient ones “since the beginning of time.”
This is why we understood these new white people words as soon as they reached us. I explained them to my kin and they thought: “Haixopë! This is good! The white people call these things ‘ecology’!” As for us, we say urihi a, earth-forest, and we also speak of the xapiri, for without them, without ecology, the land gets warmer and lets the epidemics and the evil beings get closer.
Intrinsic to the very existence of Indigenous peoples, ecology has reached whites only recently.
In the past, our elders were not able to make their words about the forest heard by the white people because they did not know their language. And when the white people first arrived at our elders’ houses, they did not yet speak about ecology. They were more eager to ask them for jaguar, peccary, and deer skins! At that time, these white people did not possess any of these words to protect the forest.
For thinkers like Kopenawa, “the white people’s thought remains full of forgetting”; they don’t perceive Earth as a being that “has a heart and breathes.” Or, in the words of Viveiros de Castro, they don’t know “what it is to be in your place, in the world as a home, shelter, and environment.” The white-centrism denounced by Kopenawa underlies a misconception shared even by respected academics: the idea that the Amazon is a kind of “virgin.”
From this ill-informed viewpoint, the solution to keeping the forest alive is to get rid of all humans, as if they were all predators. Both the original peoples (Indigenous) and traditional communities (beiradeiros, quilombolas, etc.) are forest peoples. With the white people’s offensive, they have become the forest’s greatest stewards as well, placing their very existence and bodies as obstacles to the destruction not only of their home but also of what they are collectively.
Brazil is among the countries that kill the highest number of environmental defenders, representing the systematic execution of humans who are nature. In its hegemony, what white- centrism erases is the fact that not all humans have white minds. Or, to echo the words of Davi Kopenawa once again, not all human persons have their thought filled with forgetting.
The purpose of the first scientific expedition to Terra do Meio Ecological Station, in 2017, was precisely to combat white people’s forgetting. The researchers were in search of possible pasts—to reach possible futures.
Very white, and overweight, Bill evoked the foreign naturalists who traveled the Amazon’s rivers in the nineteenth century, except a heartier version. When the forest dwellers laid eyes on the “professor” for the first time, they had major doubts about his ability to withstand the omnipresent Amazon sun, the legendary hunger for fresh flesh shown by the Amazon’s voracious bloodsucking mosquitoes, and the trails where you sometimes have to rappel from one spot to another. Not to mention the times you have to take flight or scramble up a tree because hundreds of peccaries are traversing the forest. Their hooves sound like the end of the world, and if you can’t get out of their way as nimbly as a spider monkey, you’re pounded to pulp.
When the beiradeiros first saw the curious human specimen named Bill Balée, they concluded: “Yeah, right . . .”
And right they were. On his first expedition alone, Bill lost over twenty pounds. In October 2017, he traveled in the company of two archaeologists, Vinicius Honorato and Márcio Amaral. It was the first time a group of scientists had investigated the region of this ecological station from the perspective of either historical ecology or archaeology. Evidence of a remote human past is a truism for the forest peoples, but not for science, since little scientific research has been done in Terra do Meio—just as little research has been done in most of the Amazon, which is being destroyed by large hydroelectric dams, mining projects, railroads and highways, cattle and soybeans. All the marks inscribed on the forest by a human history thousands of years long are being swept away, along with the forest itself.For archaeologists like Vinicius and Márcio, a people’s infrastructure does not consist solely of clay pots or ceramic vases but is everything living as well.
Exploitation by white people in the name of “progress” is a political operation meant to erase everything that existed before they crushed life in the tropics under their boots. Whites have the galling obsession of thinking every history begins with their own arrival. But what generally happens is that their boots, chain saws, and weapons put an end to these histories.
For archaeologists like Vinicius and Márcio, a people’s infrastructure does not consist solely of clay pots or ceramic vases but is everything living as well. Like trees. What today’s white people see as infrastructure and agriculture, for example, is not how the ancient peoples of the forest saw things. Theirs is another way of being and becoming in the world, a narrative told by other “artifacts,” in this case living ones.
This understanding that archaeological riches are limited to huge monuments or vast treasures, like those of the pharaohs or the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans, has become a commonplace with the help of Hollywood and its various iterations of Indiana Jones—the most violent, colonialist, and likewise incompetent archaeologist in all of fiction. This deliberately distorted viewpoint leaves the Amazon devoid of any apparent archaeological interest for most. And it feeds a fabrication that has served various interests and ideologies.
The business-military dictatorship that oppressed Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and consummated the first great project of massive forest destruction expanded on this fabrication, strengthening and taking great advantage of it. To this end, Brazil’s generals launched an ad campaign that solidified an imagination still reigning in many people’s minds today: the idea of the Amazon as a virgin untouched by humans.
The dictatorship spread this intentional ignorance through terms like “human desert” and “green desert” to justify the operation of invading and destroying the forest, with the purported goal of “integrar para não entregar,” of integrating to avoid handing over— integrating the rainforest into the only civilization they deemed valid, the civilization of white exploiters, supposedly to avoid handing anything over to foreign white exploiters.
The generals defended—and still defend—a strategy of war: occupying territory in the name of national interests. They wanted to be the first to “devirginize” the forest and thus guarantee their dominion. The most appalling slogan of the era was “the Amazon—a land without men for men without land.” The message was clear: for the dictatorship’s generals, the original peoples who occupied the forest before the existence of this convention called Brazil did not fall into the human category.
In an epochal special edition on the Amazon published in October 1971 by the magazine Realidade, the large construction company Queiroz Galvão—one of those then thrashing the forest to build the Transamazonian Highway—published an explicit ad that speaks to the ideology driving this destruction. The caption alongside an image of a newborn dangling upside down from an obstetrician’s hand read: “Minister, Transamazonian is doing well.” This message followed:
His full name is Juarez Furtado de Araújo Transamazonian.
HE IS THE FIRST BOY BORN IN THE BRAVE NEW WORLD we are helping to build— erecting it within the biggest green space on Earth. Where nothing existed but woods. And legends. Myth and fear. The other day, the message was delivered straight to Minister Andreazza himself by the settler Joaquim Félix Araújo, the father of Transamazonian— this big boy [is headed to] the year 2000. He was born precisely where we are starting out. Better put: where Brazil is being discovered again. God bless you, Transamazonian!
Fifty years later, now in the twenty-first century, Brazil’s armed forces show through their actions and statements that they still consider, and treat, the original peoples and traditional communities of the forest as less than human. In 2020, Jair Bolsonaro actually said “more and more, Indians are becoming human beings just like us.”
The anti-president tried to convince his listeners that the greatest dream of the Indigenous peoples is to open their lands to livestock, soybeans, and mining. Hence, they would complete their humanization by embracing predatory capitalism’s project and leasing or selling their ancestral lands— by beginning to treat the forest as a commodity.
The landmark construction of the Transamazonian Highway, a pharaonic project that symbolized “the conquest of this gigantic green world,” is emblematic of the generals’ phallic relationship with the forest. Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1905–85) was president of Brazil during the bloodiest period of the dictatorship, when more than eight thousand Indigenous people and hundreds of white resisters were killed and thousands of others tortured. In 1970, the dictator traveled to Altamira to commemorate the inauguration of highway construction and produce images of the conquest of the Amazon for those in the press who were submissive to the generals. Intended to demonstrate humankind’s power over nature— and so typical of modernity— Médici’s symbolic act was to chop down a Brazil nut tree towering more than one hundred sixty feet.
We can interpret this gesture as an allusion to the regime’s power over the bodies then being butchered in dungeons, their very subjecthood drained from them. It is essential to highlight the special sadism reserved for women during torture sessions; they were repeatedly raped by agents of the state, who, in addition to applying electric shocks to these women’s genitals and breasts, took particular pleasure in shoving rats and cockroaches up their vaginas.
Back then, Dom Erwin Kräutler, the legendary bishop of the Xingu, was still a young priest, who had just arrived from his native Austria. By the time we met, he had already spent ten years accompanied by an around-the-clock police escort so he wouldn’t be murdered. He told me about the day he had witnessed General Médici celebrating the Transamazonian Highway— a monumental road paved with Indigenous blood:
He [Médici] broke ground. People on stage went wild…they really went wild! Clapping! Listen, chopping down a tree like that! And saying it was the arrival of progress. It cut my heart. How could they applaud when the queen of the trees of Pará or the Amazon was felled, and with a tremendous crash? How is that possible?
The sign marking this “historic moment” (a sign that would later be stolen) bore the following inscription: “On these banks of the Xingu, in the middle of the Amazon jungle, the President of the Republic has set in motion the construction of the Transamazonian Highway, a historical kickoff toward the conquest of this gigantic green world.” In Altamira, the place marking this event is known by a telltale name: Pau do Presidente—the President’s Wood.
None of the governments that came in the wake of Brazil’s late- 1980s return to democracy ever abandoned this view of the forest as a body to be assaulted, exploited, and pillaged. But never was this perspective reinforced or intensified as much as when Bolsonaro ushered back in the militarization of the state, starting in 2019. The rainforest is now perilously close to the point of no return, the moment when forest will no longer be forest and cannot play its role in regulating the climate.
In opposition to this death project, archaeologists are looking toward the future when they investigate the Amazon’s remote past. Terra do Meio— Middle Earth— is a front line in this century’s great battle, the fight for the Amazon. This region is so named because it is a resistant enclave of forest conservation lying between two powerful forces that guide and protect it: the mighty Xingu River and its tributary, the Iriri, a river edged by gardens of stones and plants so exceedingly delicate it makes you cry. With mounting assaults on all flanks, Terra do Meio, like the entire Amazon, is under attack.
This is not a place we can simply check off like an item on some tourist itinerary: “There’s the capitol.” “Here’s the monument to the pioneers….” No. The ecological station alone covers more than thirteen thousand square miles of forest that is formally protected by federal government decree but persistently invaded, sometimes by the president’s supporters and even his friends.
Terra do Meio—certainly the loveliest name in the entire Brazilian Amazon (or at least in Portuguese, because there are other marvelous names in Indigenous languages)—is a mosaic composed of some thirty-eight thousand square miles of protected areas. There is no consensus about what constitutes the territory called Terra do Meio. The definition I am using here encompasses all Indigenous lands that are tied to conservation units.
Within this space, Terra do Meio includes three protected areas known as extractive reserves (Riozinho do Anfrísio, Rio Iriri, and Rio Xingu); an ecological station bearing its name; the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area; Serra do Pardo National Park; and the lands of the Assurini, Araweté, Parakanã, Arara, Mebêngôkre Kayapó, Xipaya, Kuruaya, and Mebêngôkre Xikrin original peoples and also of isolated peoples.
Some of these were among the most heavily deforested and invaded Indigenous lands of the 2010s, particularly Cachoeira Seca, of the Arara; Ituna-Itatá, where there are reports of isolated peoples; and Trincheira Bacajá, of the Xikrin. As of 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, land-grabbing and timber theft also advanced far into the extractive reserves inhabited by traditional beiradeiro communities.
It was quite the gringo idea to travel to this universe filled with so many worlds during the dry season, in October 2017. We left Altamira, the nearest city, and spent six taxing days on a voadeira—or “flyer,” the fastest motor canoe on Amazonian waters. The rivers were so low that the boat kept running aground on the rocks and had to be pulled out by rope, bloodying unaccustomed hands.
We set our feet down amid all sizes and species of rays, beautiful yet sinister. There is no living being I respect more in the water than a ray. I’ve seen many limbs pierced by their stingers, and they make me shiver when it’s one hundred degrees out, just thinking about my poor, pasty-white feet.
When we reached the ecological station, we pitched camp on an island with a woman’s name, Marisa. In the Amazon, pitching camp entails not only setting up a camp stove and protecting your provisions but also finding well-spaced trees where you can hang a hammock and some mosquito netting. Then you need to find a way to cover it all up with a tarp, because it will surely rain. In the tropical forest, rainfall means the gods open their huge mouths and vomit rivers over the land. When thunder and lightning hit, the forest writhes and what was hot goes cold.
After days of trails, excavations, and classifications, we devoted our nights to talking and eating hot food—fish or jerky, black beans, rice, and lots of cassava meal. Bill retired to his hammock early, protected by an impressive mosquito net evocative of a king’s canopy. Inside his netting, he would open his Kindle to read Raymond Khoury’s bestselling historical novel The Last Templar. Although Bill was born in Florida, he was reading it in French, one of his languages. He is fluent as well in Ka’apor, part of the Tupi-Guarani linguistic family. Bill lived with the Ka’apor for about a year.
I also retired early because I was the only woman in the group. The expedition’s beiradeiros felt a bit bashful since they believed certain topics— “men’s”— shouldn’t be broached in my presence. I didn’t have a princess hammock but a small synthetic structure with an attached mosquito net that, when closed, fit in the palm of my hand. Better to sleep in the fetal position for weeks than carry a lot of weight or have to display my alarming incompetence at manual tasks like hanging a hammock. I’ve always been a right- handed person with two left hands.
The best conversations took place after Bill and I disappeared from the center of the campsite—because he was the “boss” and I was a woman. To my good fortune, Márcio and Vinicius were always willing to fill me in on the evening’s highlights the next day.To honor the world, we need all languages.
If you plan to accompany researchers into the rainforest, make sure you pick archaeologists. They’re the best. They know how to walk in the woods, and they’re fun, good-humored, and really enjoy what they do, even when they’re exhausted, which is almost every day. It’s curious how people who quite literally excavate the past, penetrating heavy layers of earth and stone, can be so light, as if the weight stayed there in the ground and not on their shoulders.
I suspect that because they have to pick up a spade to do their work, it saves them from the arrogance peculiar to many academics. It may be that investigating the remote past imbues them with a more eloquent notion of the fleeting unimportance we all have, rendering any degree of vanity useless and even ridiculous.
What did these white researchers and forest dwellers talk about after a heavy workday? Women. Of course. But, since they were interesting men, they didn’t boast crudely. To the contrary. They talked about how to give a woman pleasure.
One night Vinicius was trying to explain to the beiradeiros that there was a certain spot of the female anatomy that, if caressed, would make your partner very happy and appreciative of the attention. “Clitoris,” he said to eyes bulging in amazement. How had the men of the forest lived all those centuries without knowing about this wonder?
The fog of misunderstanding gradually lifted. Before the brown howlers began crooning one of the loveliest songs in the Amazon, Zé Boi (Joe Steer, a beiradeiro who lives up to his name with his massive trunk of pure muscle—and also shows how cattle go far into the forest, where they shouldn’t be) gave a shout, as if watching the machine of the world open up before his eyes: “Ooooh! The castanhinha—the little Brazil nut!”
They went off to sleep in their hammocks with a feeling of relief. It wasn’t a lack of basic information, just a difference in nomenclature. In the life of forest dwellers, where Brazil nut groves are so important, something so treasured could only be known by a term worthy of its shape and flavor. The clitoris—such a scientifically sanitized name, where Portuguese speakers can’t figure out where to put the phallic acute accent and many English speakers can’t figure out whether to stress the first or second syllable—was replaced by a word that represented it. To honor the world, we need all languages.