Thursday, February 10, 2011
This cute little clip from the BBC's new Human Planet series follows a group of young Piaroa children from Venezuela's Amazonas State as they hunt for spiders to snack on.
These are no ordinary spiders, but the largest spider of all, the fearsome Goliath tarantula (Theraphosa blondi) which can give a nasty nip with its venomous fangs and also protects itself with irritating urticated hairs that it flicks off its abdomen when threatened with attack.
The effect is similar to horse-hair itching powder on the skin, but if breathed into the throat it can cause serious respiratory problems.
The clip was first shown on British TV on 3 February 2011.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
For many travellers to Venezuela the biggest worry language-wise is getting a grasp on enough Spanish phrases to book hotels and buses, order drinks and make friends. But what do you do in the areas of Venezuela where Spanish is not the natural first language of the people who live there?
If you're heading for Canaima to see Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, or climbing the Lost World tepui of Roraima your guides and boatmen will be from the local indigenous people, the Pemon.
If you visit the Orinoco Delta you'll be fishing for piranhas with men from the Warao tribe or buying baskets and handicrafts from Warao women.
These distinct indigenous cultures deserve our respect. They are after all the original inhabitants of the continent, surviving in these lands for thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus and preserving their language and culture today against all the odds.
From my experience, there is no better way to raise a smile and show respect for Pemon and Warao culture than to learn a few words of the local language. A simple "hello" might not seem like much but you'll soon discover how eager the indigenous people you meet will be to teach you new words and phrases and show you off to their friends and family.
To help visitors learn a few basic words I've created a short glossary to try out on your travels. You won't find anything like this anywhere else on the internet so print it out and take it with you.
Pemon Language Basics
Hello, how are you? - waküperö
Good - wakü
Bad - awarö
Goodbye - airö
Thanks - waküpe-küruman
I like - waküpeman
Friend - upetoy
House - tapüy (as in flat-topped mountain, also spelled tepuy, tepui)
5. Taükin - yenna
6. Pona taükin
7. Pona saküne
8. Pona seurawöne
9. Pona sakorörö
10. Saküne yenna
Warao Language Basics
How are you? How's things - Katuketi?
Good - Yakera
Very good - Yakera guito
Ok - Yakera sabuka
Bad - Asida
Goodbye - Omi
6. Mojomatana isaka
7. Mojomatana manamo
8. Mojomatana dijamo
9. Mojomatana orabakaya
20. warao isaka (a Warao has ten fingers and ten toes so one Warao = 20)
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Famous UK explorer Ray Mears travels into the Venezuelan jungle to learn some survival skills from the Yekuana and Pemon Indians for a BBC documentary series on bushcraft.
You can find the full documentaries on Youtube but here is my favourite episode, when Ray meets Venezuelan snake expert and naturalist Jesus Rivas and we learn a little more about some of the smaller inhabitants of the rainforest.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
This short film produced by Venezuelan videographer Angel Rizo and Francesca Staasch and directed by Enrique Blein Gerstl documents the life and beliefs of the Yekuana people of the Venezuelan rainforest as expressed through their games.
The filmmakers travelled to Santa Maria del Erebato in the Yekuana heartland to discover the games the Yekuana play to express mythic concepts and train the boys in hunting skills.
The narrator describes how the Yekuana, also known as Maquiritare, believe that the jaguar must only ever be killed in self-defence as he was once a man.
The myth states that a lazy man who refused to take part in the heavy labours of his village was cast out and forced to fend for himself, eventually turning to cannibalism, eating his own to survive.
They also believe that powerful shamans can take on the form of a jaguar to kill their enemies, which is very similar to the Pemon's belief in Canaima, an evil spirit that can bring death and often takes jaguar form.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Sometimes it takes so long to get your hands on a coveted object that you can end up with something that only vaguely resembles the treasured thing you originally set your heart on.
That is what happened to me recently, when I finally got my hands on a Hiwi ceramic figurine (below) after 10 years of fruitless searching.
The Hiwi are an indigenous people who live along the Orinoco River and its tributaries near Puerto Ayacucho, where one bank of the mighty river is in Venezuela and the other in Colombia.
They also inhabit the savannahs along Colombia's Meta and Vichada rivers and some groups are found in Venezuela's Apure, Guarico and Bolivar states. There are nearly 15,000 Hiwi in Venezuela and more than twice that in Colombia.
In Spanish their tribal name is rendered as Jivi, or Guajibo (sometimes spelled Guahibo) and they speak a language which was once thought to be Arawakan but is now classed as Independent.
The Hiwi are noted for their skill at making necklaces and decorated baskets and they produce sought-after hammocks from moriche palm (known as "chinchorro" in Venezuela).
But I've always been fascinated by the ceramics, especially the effigy vessels of male and female Hiwi covered in symbolically-important markings.
Few contemporary Venezuelan tribal groups produce elaborate ceramics, so when I chanced upon a slim booklet about Hiwi pottery traditions by a ceramicist called Alfredo Almeida I was intrigued.
Almeida's book was on sale at the past-its-glory-and-a-bit-dusty-but-still-fascinating Monsenor Enzo Ceccarrelli Ethnological Museum in Puerto Ayucucho, the capital of Amazonas State.
As I studied a display of Hiwi ceramics from the museum's collection I was able to compare the originals with Almeida's illustrations of male effigy vessels, which he called "Jivitonuu" and female effigy vessels which he called "Jivitovaa".
It was clear the female figurines in the museum all had the geometrical markings of squares within squares, which Almeida said corresponded to "Ikuli Itanee", the tortoise, used specifically as a design in face painting by Hiwi women.
Almeida had done his research into Hiwi pottery in the 1970s in a tribal community called la Reforma.
Along the way he had met Guillermo Guevara Kukubi who explained that "the history of Hiwi pottery goes back to the very origin and appearance of the first guajibo on Planet Earth.
"As the Jivi have taught us we come from inside the Earth, from a place called Unianato, a place located 5 kilometres west of the Atures rapids on the left side of the Orinoco, today Colombian territory," explained Guevara.
"Each Jivi man who came out of the Earth carried with him an earthenware jar to drink water from. But more than an earthenware jar for practical use, it was also a model for the creation of the varied forms of Jivi pottery that we have today," he wrote.
Guevara says the figures and designs were introduced by Kuvai, or Kuwai, the Hiwi culture hero, who first created the Shaman's prayers and the symbolic designs emerged from them and were passed on to the Hiwi so they could remember the stories of creation and the sacred prayers.
Pressed for time I missed the chance to buy myself some figurines from the Hiwi vendors in the market outside the museum but vowed I would return.
Twenty years later, when I finally got the chance to visit the market again after a tremendous river trip to Cerro Autana, the figurines on sale had changed almost completely. No longer did they have a slight glaze to the pottery or dark designs painted on the surface.
Time had moved on and the Hiwi figurines seemed to have lost touch with their mythical past. They looked slick and slightly generic, objects made to sell to tourists rather than meaningful expressions of Hiwi culture.
I bought one of the figurines anyway, at least to have something to take home.
But the question remains. Are there communities of Hiwi in Venezuela or Colombia still making traditional figurines?
My search is not over yet.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
This myth from the Warao people of the Orinoco Delta appears in a book by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called "The Raw and The Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology", a sometimes head-scratchingly intense attempt to tease abstract meanings out of indigenous myths from across the Americas and show the psychological patterns underlying them.
Levi-Strauss, who died aged 100 in October 2009, was an inspired thinker who tried to deconstruct indigenous mythology to try and answer fundamental questions about human thought and motivation and the differences between the "raw" elements of nature and the "cooked" elements of human culture.
Although sometimes baffling in places, my dog-eared copy of "The Raw and the Cooked" has been a constant companion on my travels into the jungle regions of Venezuela ever since I bought it in the British Museum bookshop in 1989.
Frustratingly, most of the Venezuelan myths Levi-Strauss refers to in the book are only presented in summary form but this Warao myth is published in its entirety.
The Origin of the Stars
Once upon a time there were two brothers, the elder of whom was a celebrated hunter. Each day he went farther afield in search of game, with the result that finally he came to creek he had never seen before. He climbed into a tree standing at its edge so as to watch for the animals that came to drink. Suddenly he saw a woman wading through the water toward him and he thought her behaviour very curious. Each time she put her hand into the creek she brought out two fish, and each time she ate one of them and put the other into her basket.
She was a very big woman, a supernatural being. On her head she was wearing a calabash, which she occasionally took off and threw into the water in such a way as to make it spin like a top. When she did this, she would stop to watch it, and afterwards she would walk on again.
The hunter spent the night up the tree and returned to the village the next day. He told the story to his young brother, who begged to go with him in order to see "such a woman who can catch so many fish and can eat them as well."
"No", was the reply,, "because you are always laughing at everything and you might laugh at her."
But the young man promised to keep a straight face, and the elder brother allowed himself to be persuaded.
When they reached the stream, the elder brother climbed into his tree, which stood a little way back from the edge; the younger one insisted on taking up his position in a better-placed tree, so as to miss nothing, and he sat on a branch overhanging the water. The woman soon arrived and began behaving as before.
When she reached the spot directly beneath the young brother, she noticed the reflection of his shadow in the water. She tried to catch hold of it, and when she failed, kept on trying.
She put her hand in quickly, first to this side and then that, but of course she did not succeed, and what with all her queer gesticulations and funny capers she made so ridiculous an appearance that the brother up above could not resist laughing at her vain attempts to seize the substance of the shadow. He laughed and laughed and could not stop laughing.
Thereupon, the woman looked up and spied the two brothers. Furious at having been laughed at, she launched an attack with poisonous ants (Eciton species [New World army ants]); they bit and stung the boy so badly that to escape from them, he had to throw himself into the water, where the woman caught him and ate him.
Afterwards, she captured the other brother and put him in her well-secured basket. On returning to her hut, she put the basket down and forbade her two daughters to touch it.
But as soon as her back was turned, her daughters lost no time in opening it. They were delighted with the hero's physical appearance and his talents as a hunter. Both of them, indeed, feel in love with him, and the younger one hid him in her hammock.
When the time came for the ogress to kill and eat her prisoner, the daughters confessed to their misdeeds. The mother agreed to spare her unexpected son-in-law, on condition that he go fishing on her behalf. But however big the catch he brought back, the ogress would devour it all, apart from two fish. Eventually, the hero was so worn out that he fell ill.
The younger daughter, who was by now his wife, agreed to run away with him. One day he told his mother-in-law that he had left his catch in his canoe, and that she should go and fetch it (a fisherman was not supposed to carry the fish himself, since this would spoil his luck). However, he had arranged for a an alligator to be under the canoe, and the ogress was devoured.
The elder daughter, discovered the murder, sharpened her knife and pursued the culprit.
When she was about to catch up with him, he ordered his wife to climb a tree, and followed after her. But he was not quick enough to prevent his sister-in-law cutting off one of his legs.
The detached member sprang to life and became the mother of birds (Tinamus species).
You can still see, in the night sky, the hero's wife (the Pleiades); lower down, the hero himself (the Hyades) and lower still, his severed leg - Orion's belt.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Since coming to power in Venezuela in 1999, President Hugo Chavez has renamed the country, the currency and the mountain that separates the capital city from the Caribbean sea. Now he's turned his attention to the country's most famous landmark Angel Falls, or Salto Angel in Spanish, which at 979 metres (3,212 feet) is the highest waterfall in the world, Venezuela's greatest natural treasure and a top tourism destination.
The falls are currently named after the US aviator and adventurer Jimmie Angel, who first saw the record-breaking natural wonder from the cockpit of his plane in 1933 while searching for a river of gold.
Speaking on his weekly radio and TV programme "Hello, President", Mr Chavez said: "How can we accept this idea that the falls were discovered by a guy who came from the United States in a plane?"
"If we do that, that would be like accepting that nobody was living here," he added, suggesting that from now on Angel Falls should be renamed to show respect to the Pemon Indians who inhabit the remote Gran Sabana region in the south of Venezuela, and who were there centuries before the US bush pilot saw the falls.
The waterfall gushes forth from an enormous heart-shaped mesa mountain, which already has an indigenous Pemon name: Auyan-tepui, or Aiyan-tepuy, which means "Devil Mountain", according to Father Cesareo Armellada's "Diccionario Pemon".
Following his first flypast of the falls in 1933, Jimmie Angel attempted a landing on Auyan-tepui in 1937 but his Flamingo monoplane "El Rio Caroni" sank into soft ground.
The crash left Jimmie, his wife Marie (shown left with Jimmie) and the Venezuelans Gustavo Heny and Miguel Delgado stranded atop the isolated mountain. They had limited supplies and had to trek to safety through unexplored terrain.
It took Angel and his party 11 exhausting days to make their way down to the Pemon village of Kamarata.
As news of their adventure spread across the globe, Jimmie Angel's name became inextricably linked with the waterfall, which was named Angel Falls in honour of his exploits.
The "Rio Caroni" was eventually taken down from the top of Auyan-tepui by the Venezuelan Air Force in the 1970s and now stands outside Ciudad Bolivar airport, where modern-day tourists start their trips to Canaima Camp, the starting point for river trips to Angel Falls and flyovers in small planes.
Angel died aged 57 of injuries sustained in a plane accident in Panama in 1956.
In July 1960, in line with his wishes, Jimmie Angel's ashes were scattered over the falls by his two sons.
President Chavez acknowledged that Angel "was the first one to see it from a plane", but insisted it should have an indigenous name.
"That is ours, and was a long time before Angel ever got there... how many millions of indigenous eyes saw it, and prayed to it?" he added.
Referring at first to Churun-Meru, the Pemon name for a smaller waterfall that cascades from the Auyan-tepui mountain, Mr Chavez was subsequently corrected by his daughter Maria, who passed him a note stating the correct Pemon name for the falls is Kerepakupai-Meru, meaning "waterfall of the deepest place".
"Nobody should speak of Angel Falls any more," said the president.
However, there could be a challenge to the new name. While some Pemon refer to the waterfall as Kerepakupai-Meru, it is referred to in older reports as Parekupa-Meru, from the Pemon words kupa meaning "deep water", pare meaning "more", and meru meaning "waterfall".
The Venezuelan president's call for a name change comes at a moment of increasing interest in the world's highest waterfall. It featured as "Paradise Falls" in the Pixar/Disney movie "Up" and has made it into the final 28 candidates of a global internet campaign to find the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
By Russell Maddicks
Report on Jimmie Angel and the "discovery" of Angel Falls
Auyan-tepui, Angel Falls and Pemon myths
Angel Falls competing to be one of the 7 Wonders of Nature
Video clip of Angel Falls from David Attenborough's BBC series "Planet Earth"
Pixar's movie "Up" explores Venezuela's Lost World of Roraima, Angel Falls
Spectacular video clip of oldest base Jumper to leap from the top of Angel Falls
View of the falls from a pool below the "Mirador", where in the dry season visitors can bathe in the waters of Salto Angel. (All photos are the property of Russell Maddicks)