23. THE COLONEL’S BONES

The chief of the Kalapalos will meet with us,” Paolo told me, relaying a message that had been radioed in from the jungle. The negotiations, he said, would take place not far from Bakair? Post, in Canarana, a small frontier town on the southern border of Xingu National Park. When we arrived that evening, the city was in the midst of a dengue-fever epidemic, and many of the phone lines were down. It was also Canarana’s twenty-fifth anniversary, and the city was celebrating with fireworks, which sounded like sporadic gunshots. In the early 1980s, the Brazilian government, as part of its continuing colonization of Indian territories, had sent in planes filled with cowboys-many of German descent-to settle the remote area. Though the town was desolate, the main roads were bafflingly wide, as if they were superhighways. Only when I saw a photograph of a guest parking his airplane in front of a local hotel did I understand the reason: for years, the city had been so inaccessible that the streets doubled as runways. Even today, I was told, it was possible for a plane to land in the middle of the road, and in the main square sat a passenger airplane, the town’s only apparent monument.

The Kalapalo chief, Vajuvi, showed up at our hotel accompanied by two men. He had a tanned, deeply lined face and appeared to be in his late forties. Like his two companions, he was about five feet six, with muscular arms. His hair was trimmed in a traditional bowl cut high above the ears. In the Xingu region, tribesmen often dispensed with clothes, but for this visit to the city Vajuvi wore a cotton V-neck shirt and sun-bleached jeans that hung loosely around his hips.

After we introduced ourselves and I explained why I wanted to visit the Xingu, Vajuvi asked, “Are you a member of the colonel’s family?”

I was accustomed to the question, though this time it seemed more loaded: the Kalapalos had been accused of killing Fawcett, an act that could require a family member to avenge his death. When I explained that I was a reporter, Vajuvi seemed accommodating. “I will tell you the truth about the bones,” he said. He then added that the village wanted the sum of five thousand dollars.

I explained that I didn’t have that kind of money and tried to extol the virtues of cultural exchange. One of the Kalapalos stepped toward me and said, “The spirits told me that you were coming and that you are rich.” Another Kalapalo added, “I’ve seen pictures of your cities. You have too many cars. You should give us a car.”

One of the Indians left the hotel and returned moments later with three more Kalapalos. Every few minutes another Kalapalo appeared, and the room was soon crowded with more than a dozen men, some old, some young, all of them surrounding Paolo and me. “Where are they coming from?” I asked Paolo.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Vajuvi let the other men argue and haggle. As the negotiations continued, many of the Kalapalos grew hostile. They pressed against me and called me a liar. Finally, Vajuvi stood and said, “You talk to your chief in the United States, and then we’ll talk again in a few hours.”

He walked out of the room, the members of his tribe following him.

“Do not worry,” Paolo said. “They are pushing and we are pushing back. This is the way it happens.”

Dispirited, I went up to my room. Two hours later, Paolo called on the hotel phone. “Please come downstairs,” he said. “I think I reach an agreement for us.”

Vajuvi and the other Kalapalos were standing at the entryway. Paolo told me that Vajuvi had agreed to take us into Xingu National Park if we paid for transportation and for several hundred dollars’ worth of supplies. I shook the chiefs hand, and, before I knew it, his men were patting me on the shoulders, asking about my family, as if we were meeting for the first time. “Now we talk and eat,” Vajuvi said. “All is good.”

The next day we prepared to leave. To reach one of the largest headwaters of the Xingu, the Kuluene River, we needed an even more powerful truck, and so after lunch we said farewell to our driver, who seemed relieved to be going home. “I hope you find this Y you are looking for,” he said.

After he departed, we rented a flatbed truck with tractor-size wheels. As word spread that a truck was heading into the Xingu, Indians emerged from all quarters, carrying children and bundles of goods, hurrying to climb on board. Every time the truck seemed full, another person squeezed on, and as the afternoon rains poured down we began our journey.

According to the map, the Kuluene was only sixty miles away. But the road was worse than any that Paolo and I had traveled: pools of water reached as high as the floorboards, and at times the truck, with all its weight, tipped perilously to one side. We drove no faster than fifteen miles an hour, sometimes coming to a halt, reversing, then pressing forward again. The forests had been denuded here as well. Some areas had recently been burned, and I could see the remnants of trees scattered for miles, their blackened limbs reaching into the open sky.

Finally, as we neared the river, the forest began to reveal itself. Trees gradually closed around us, their branches forming a net that covered the windshield. There was a constant clattering as the wood drummed against the sides of the truck. The driver flicked on the headlights, which bobbed over the terrain. After five hours, we reached a wire fence: the boundary of Xingu National Park. Vajuvi said that it was only half a mile to the river, and then we would travel by boat to the Kalapalo village. Yet the truck soon got stuck in the mud, forcing us to remove our equipment temporarily to lighten the weight, and by the time we reached the river it was pitch-black under the canopy of trees. Vajuvi said that we would have to wait to cross. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “The river is filled with logs and branches. We must not disrespect it.”

Mosquitoes pricked my skin, and macaws and cicadas chanted. Above our heads, some creatures howled. “Do not worry,” Paolo said. “They are only monkeys.”

We walked a bit farther and arrived at a shack: Vajuvi pushed the door, which creaked as it opened. He led us inside and fumbled around until he lit a candle, which revealed a small room with a corrugated-tin roof and a mud floor. There was a wooden pole in the middle of the room, and Vajuvi helped Paolo and me string our hammocks. Though my clothes were still damp with sweat and mud from the journey, I lay down, trying to shield my face from the mosquitoes. After a while, the candle went out, and I swung gently in the darkness, listening to the murmurings of cicadas and the cawing of monkeys.

I fell into a light sleep, but woke suddenly when I felt something by my ear. I opened my eyes with a start: five naked boys, carrying bows and arrows, were staring at me. When they saw me move, they laughed and ran off.

I sat up. Paolo and Vajuvi were standing around a wood fire, boiling water.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Five thirty,” Paolo said. He handed me some crackers and a tin cup filled with coffee. “It’s still a long way,” he said. “You must eat something.”

After a quick breakfast, we walked outside, and in the light of day I could see that we were at a small encampment overlooking the Kuluene River. On the shore were two flat-bottom aluminum boats, into which we loaded our gear. Each boat was about twelve feet long and had an outboard motor-an invention that had been introduced into the Xingu only in recent years.

Paolo and I climbed into one boat with a Kalapalo guide, while Va-juvi and his family traveled in another. Both boats sped upriver, side by side. Farther north were rapids and waterfalls, but here the water was a calm, olive green expanse. Trees lined the banks, their boughs bent like old men, their leaves skimming the surface of the water. After several hours, we docked our boats along the shore. Vajuvi told us to gather our gear, and we followed him up a short path. He paused and waved his hand proudly in front of him. “Kalapalo,” he said.

We stood at the edge of a circular plaza that was more than a hundred yards in circumference and dotted with houses much like those described by the old woman at Bakair? Post. Resembling the overturned hulls of ships, they appeared to be woven, rather than constructed, out of leaves and wood. Their exteriors were covered with thatch, except for a door in the back and the front-both low enough, I was told, to keep out evil spirits.

Several dozen people were walking across the plaza. Many of them were unclothed, and some had adorned their bodies with exquisite ornamentations: monkey-tooth necklaces, swirls of black pigment from the genipap fruit, and swaths of red pigment from the uruku berry. Women between the ages of thirteen and fifty wore loose cotton dresses, the upper half dangling around their waists. Most of the men who weren’t naked had on spandex bathing suits, as if they were Olympic swimmers. Physical fitness was clearly a prized trait. Some of the babies, I noticed, had strips of cloth pulled tightly around their calves and biceps, like tourniquets, to accentuate their muscles. “For us, it is a sign of beauty,” Vajuvi said. The tribe continued to commit infanticide against those who seemed unnatural or bewitched, although the practice was less common than previously.

Vajuvi led me into his house, a cavernous space filled with smoke from a wood-burning fire. He introduced me to two handsome women who had long jet-black hair that fanned down over their bare backs. The older woman had a tattoo of three vertical stripes on her upper arms, and the younger one wore a necklace with glittering white shells. “My wives,” Vajuvi said.

Before long, more people stepped out of the shadows: children and grandchildren, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. Vajuvi said that nearly twenty people lived in the house. It seemed less like a home than like a self-contained village. In the center of the room, near a pole supporting the roof, from which corn had been hung to dry, one of Vajuvi’s daughters knelt in front of a large wooden loom, weaving a hammock, and next to her was a boy wearing a blue-beaded belt, holding fish in an elaborately detailed, brightly painted ceramic pot, and beside him an elderly hunter sat on a large hardwood bench carved in the shape of a jaguar, sharpening a five-foot-long arrow. Fawcett wrote of the southern basin of the Amazon, “The whole of this region is saturated with Indian traditions of a most interesting kind,” which “cannot be founded upon nothing” and which suggest the prior presence of “a once-great civilization.”

The village, which had about a hundred and fifty residents, was highly stratified. These people were not wandering hunter-gatherers. Chiefs were anointed by bloodlines, as with European kings. There were taboos on diet which forbade them to eat most red meats, including tapir, deer, and boar-dietary restrictions that were among the strictest of any in the world and seemed to contradict the notion that the Indians were threatened with a constant state of starvation. At puberty, boys and girls were held in extended seclusion, during which a designated elder taught them the rituals and the responsibilities of adulthood. (The son who was in line to become chief was sequestered for up to four years.) Dyott, during his journey in the Xingu with Aloique, passed through the Kalapalo village and was so impressed by the scene that he wrote, “There is reason to believe that Fawcett’s stories of a forgotten civilization are based on fact.”

I asked Vajuvi whether he knew if the people of this region, who were known as Xinguanos, had once descended from a larger civilization, or if there were any significant ruins in the surrounding jungle. He shook his head. According to legend, however, the spirit Fitsi-fitsi built giant moats in the area. (“Everywhere he went that seemed like a nice place to stay, Fitsi-fitsi would make long, deep ditches and leave part of his people there, and he himself would continue traveling.”)

While Vajuvi, Paolo, and I were talking, a man named Vanite Kala-palo entered the house and sat down beside us. He seemed despondent. It was his job, he said, to guard one of the posts on the reservation. The other day, an Indian had come to him and said, “Listen, Vanite. You must come with me down the river. The white people are building something in Afasukugu.” The word “Afasukugu” meant “the place of the big cats;” at this site, the Xinguanos believe, the first humans were created. Vanite picked up a stick and drew a map on the mud floor. “Here is Afasukugu,” he said. “It is by a waterfall.”

“It is outside the park,” Vajuvi, the chief, added. “But it is sacred.”

I remembered Fawcett had mentioned in one of his last letters that he had learned from the Indians of a sacred waterfall in the same area, which he hoped to visit.

Vanite continued with his story: “So I said, ‘I will go with you to Afasukugu, but you are crazy. Nobody would build anything at the place of the jaguars.’ But when I get there the waterfall is destroyed. They blew it up with thirty kilos of dynamite. The place was so beautiful, and now it is gone. And I ask a man working there, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, ‘We are building a hydroelectric dam.’ ”

“It is in the middle of the Kuluene River,” Vajuvi said. “All the water from there flows right into our park and into our territory.”

Vanite, who was becoming agitated, didn’t seem to hear the chief. He said, “A man from the Mato Grosso government comes to the Xingu and tells us, ‘Do not worry. This dam will not hurt you.’ And he offers each of us money. One of the chiefs from another tribe took the money, and the tribes are now fighting with each other. For me, the money means nothing. The river has been here for thousands of years. We don’t live forever, but the river does. The god Taugi created the river. It gives us our food, our medicines. You see, we don’t have a well. We drink water right from the river. How will we live without it?”

Vajuvi said, “If they succeed, the river will disappear and, with it, all our people.”

Our search for Fawcett and the City of Z suddenly felt trivial- another tribe appeared to be on the verge of extinction. But later that night, after we bathed in the river, Vajuvi said that there was something he had to tell Paolo and me about the Englishmen. The next day, he promised, he would take us by boat to where the bones had been discovered. Before going to bed, he added, “There are many things about the Englishmen that only Kalapalo people know.”

* * *

THE NEXT MORNING, as we got ready to depart, one of the girls in our house removed a piece of cloth from a large object in the corner of the room, near an array of masks. Underneath was a television set, which was powered by the village’s sole generator.

The girl turned a knob, sat down on the mud floor, and began watching a cartoon featuring a raucous Woody Woodpecker-like bird. Within minutes, at least twenty other children and several adults from the village had gathered around the set.

As Vajuvi came to retrieve us, I asked him how long he had owned a television. “Only a few years,” he said. “At first, all everyone did is stare at it in a trance. But now I control the generator, and it is on only a few hours a week.”

Several of the men watching the television got their bows and arrows and went out to hunt. Meanwhile, Paolo and I followed Vajuvi and one of his sons, who was five years old, down to the river. “I thought we would catch our lunch, the way Kalapalos do,” Vajuvi said.

We climbed into one of the motorboats and headed upriver. A mist that covered the forest slowly dissipated as the sun rose. The river, dark and muddy, occasionally narrowed into a chute so tight that tree branches hung over our heads like bridges. Eventually, we entered an inlet covered by a tangle of floating leaves. “The green lagoon,” Vajuvi said.

He cut the engine, and the boat slid quietly through the water. Terns with yellow beaks fluttered amid the rosewood and cedar trees, and swallows zigzagged above the lagoon, shimmering white specks on the blanket of green. A pair of macaws cackled and screamed, and on the shore deer stood as still as the water. A small caiman scurried up the banks.

“You must always be careful in the jungle,” Vajuvi said. “I listen to my dreams. If I have a dream of danger, then I stay in the village. Many accidents happen to white people because they don’t believe their dreams.”

The Xinguanos were famous for fishing with bows and arrows, their bodies perched silently on the fronts of canoes-a pose that Jack and Raleigh had excitedly caught on camera, sending the images back to the Museum of the American Indian. Vajuvi and his son, however, took out some fishing lines and baited the hooks. Then they spun the lines over their heads like lassos and sent the hooks sailing into the center of the lagoon.

As Vajuvi pulled in his line, he pointed to the shore and said, “Up that way is where the bones were dug up. But they were not Fawcett’s bones-they were my grandfather’s.”

“Your grandfather’s?” I asked.

“Yes. Mugika-that was his name. He was dead when Orlando Villas Boas began to ask about Fawcett. Orlando wanted to protect us from all the white people coming in, and he told the Kalapalo people, ‘If you find a tall skeleton, I will give each of you a rifle.’ My grandfather was one of the tallest men in the village. So several people in the village decide to dig up his bones and bury them out here by the lagoon and say they are Fawcett’s.”

As he spoke, his son’s line went taut. He helped the boy pull it in, and a silvery white fish burst out of the water, flapping wildly on the hook. I leaned in to inspect it, but Vajuvi jerked me out of the way and began to club it with a stick.

“Piranha,” he said.

I looked down at the fish, with its low-hung jaw, lying on the aluminum floor of the boat. Vajuvi opened its mouth with a knife, revealing a set of sharp interlocking teeth-teeth that the Indians sometimes used to scrape their flesh in purification rituals. After he removed the hook, he continued, “My father, Tadjui, was away at the time, and he was furious when he found out what the people did. But the bones had already been taken away.”

Other evidence seemed to corroborate his story. As Brian Fawcett had noted at the time, many of the Kalapalos told contradictory versions of how the explorers had actually been killed: some said they were clubbed, others maintained that they were shot with arrows from afar. In addition, the Kalapalos insisted that Fawcett had been murdered because he had not brought any gifts and had slapped a young Kalapalo boy, yet this was at odds with Fawcett’s long history of gentle behavior toward Indians. More significant, I later found an internal memo in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute, in London, which had examined the bones. It stated:

The upper jaw provides the clearest possible evidence that these human remains were not those of Colonel Fawcett, whose spare upper denture is fortunately available for comparison… Colonel Fawcett is stated to have been six feet, one and a half inches tall. The height of the man whose remains have been brought to England is estimated at about five feet, seven inches.

“I would like to get the bones back and bury them where they belong,” Vajuvi said.

After catching half a dozen piranhas, we glided to shore. Vajuvi gathered several sticks and built a fire. Without skinning the piranhas, he laid them on the wood, grilling one side, then the other. He put the blackened fish on a bed of leaves and tore several pieces off the bone. He wrapped the fish in beiju, a kind of pancake bread made from manioc flour, handing each of us a sandwich. As we ate, he said, “I will tell you what my parents told me really happened to the Englishmen. It is true that they were here. There were three of them, and no one knew who they were or why they had come. They had no animals and carried packs on their backs. One, who was the chief, was old, and the two others were young. They were hungry and tired from marching for so long, and the people in the village gave them fish and beiju. In return for their help, the Englishmen offered them fishhooks, which no one had seen before. And knives. Finally, the old man said, ‘We must be going now.’ The people asked them, ‘Where are you going?’ And they said, ‘That way. To the east.’ We said, ‘Nobody goes that way. That’s where the hostile Indians are. They will kill you.’ But the old man insisted. And so they went.” Vajuvi pointed eastward and shook his head. “In those days, nobody went that way,” he said. For several days, he continued, the Kalapalos could see smoke above the trees-Fawcett’s campfire-but on the fifth day it disappeared. Vajuvi said that a group of Kalapalos, fearing that something bad had happened to them, tried to find their camp. But there was no trace of the Englishmen.

I subsequently learned that what his parents had shared with him was an oral history, which had been passed down for generations with remarkable consistency. In 1931, Vincenzo Petrullo, an anthropologist who worked for the Pennsylvania University Museum, in Philadelphia, and who was one of the first whites to enter the Xingu, reported hearing a similar account, though amid all the sensationalist tales few had paid much attention to it. Some fifty years later, Ellen Basso, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, recorded a more detailed version from a Kalapalo named Kambe, who was a boy when Fawcett and his party arrived in the village. She translated his account directly from the Kalapalo language, maintaining the epic rhythms of the tribe’s oral histories:

One of them remained by himself.

While he sang, he played a musical instrument.

His musical instrument worked like this, like this…

He sang and sang.

He put his arm around me this way.

While he was playing we watched the Christians.

While he was playing.

Father and the others.

Then, “I’ll have to be going,” he said.



Kambe also recounted how they could see their fire:

“There’s the Christians’ fire,” we said to one another.

That was going on as the sun set.

The next day as the sun set, again their fire rose up.

The following day again, just a little smoke, spread out in the sky.

On this day, mbouk, their fire had gone out…



It looked as if the Englishmen’s fire was no longer alive, as if it had been put out.

“What a shame! Why did he keep insisting they go away?”

When Vajuvi finished his version of the oral history, he said, “People always say the Kalapalos killed the Englishmen. But we did not. We tried to save them.”

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