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Chapter Three: Apocalypse And Exodus

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Carbon Cowboys and REDD Indians

In his fascinating 2006 book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann tells the story of Allan Holmberg, a young doctoral student who spent the early 1940s living with an indigenous people called the Sirionó.

“Crouched over meager campfires during the wet, buggy nights, the Sirionó were living exemplars of primitive humankind – the ‘quintessence’ of ‘man in the raw state of nature,’ as Holmberg put it,” Mann relates. “For millennia, [Holmberg] thought, they had existed almost without change in a landscape unmarked by their presence.”

Holmberg’s observations – which Mann calls “Holmberg’s Mistake” – became enshrined in high-school history books around the world, and most of us grow up believing that indigenous people of the Amazon had always lived as they did when Europeans started encountering them after Columbus. In actual fact, it now appears, the civilizations of the Amazon were incredibly advanced and populous prior to the arrival of Whites on the shores of Brazil in 1500. Mann describes bustling metropolises along the shores of the Amazon River and offers evidence of massive earthen structures now reclaimed by the forest. Rather than being the naïve, untouched “noble savages” of our more romantic notions (or the savages of our darker prejudices), the forest people who Europeans encountered as they moved deeper into the forest were survivors of an undocumented apocalypse that swept the continent well beyond the areas of White settlement.

“Holmberg…never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture,” says Mann. “It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.”

Something similar appears to have happened to the Paiter-Surui, whose ancestral songs describe an ancient civilization down near Cuiabá, which is the modern-day capital of Mato Grosso. The history describes the Great Betrayal, the Exodus, and over a century of wandering in the woods, during which they migrated an astonishing 750 kilometers. Because they had no written language, the history was preserved in the form of songs their fathers would sing as they worked, warred, and walked.

“My father sang these songs to me when I was a child, and Itabira’s father sang them to him when he was little,” says Almir. “Each version is a bit different, like the Gospels of the Christian Bible. There’s the Gospel According to Itabira, and the Gospel According to Anine, and the Gospel of my father, Marimop.”

Compared to the Gospels, however, the differences between the various accounts are quite minor – at least based on what I heard. Itabira offered more detail than Almir did, but there weren’t any glaring contradictions between the two versions, and they both had some frustrating gaps. Here, in the combined words of Almir and Itabira, is the history of the Paiter-Surui – back before the word “Surui” had entered the vernacular, and they simply called themselves “Paiter” (for reasons we’ll explore shortly):

The Great Betrayal

Three hundred years ago, when the Paiter still dwelled in the land of cliffs and canyons and waterfalls known as the Chapada dos Guimarães, a neighboring people introduced them to a tribe of strange, pale visitors who covered their bodies in cloth instead of ink. These visitors carried exploding sticks as weapons, and they offered glittering tools of hard metal – machetes – in exchange for access to a yellow metal that glowed in the sun – gold. The Paiter, however, didn’t know what gold was, and as much as they wanted the machetes, they declined the offer.

Soon thereafter, several members of their people went missing, and the Paiter leadership suspected they’d been kidnapped by a neighboring people they often warred with. But as the Paiter prepared a rescue mission, they found the bodies of their missing brethren. Each had been sliced open cleanly, as only machetes can do, and one had a bullet in his head. They now knew this wasn’t the work of their traditional enemies, but of the White invaders. So they donned war paint and attacked the White settlements in the night.

Soon they were at war, which in the forest meant raids and ambushes – not the pitched battles that Europeans were used to. The Paiter would track the Whites invisibly and strike before the Whites could react. Then they would take their weapons and disappear. It was bows and arrows against guns and machetes, but the Paiter knew the terrain, and they outnumbered the Whites as well. Soon, the Paiter arsenal was stocked with guns and machetes as well – although the guns refused to work for them.

One day, a young Paiter warrior named Chamoya approached the chief of the Gabgir, one of the 13 clans that made up the Paiter back then. The chief’s name was Amoana-iga, which means “long-haired grandfather”. Chamoya’s name has since come to mean “traitor to his people” because of what happened next.

“I have spoken to the Whites,” Chamoya said. “They are weary of this fight, and want to make restitution for all the harm they have caused.”

That restitution, he said, would come in the form of guns and machetes delivered at a massive celebration to take place on an island, with food and drink and music. It was to be the start of a new partnership between the Paiter and the Whites, but Amoana-iga was skeptical.

“I will not bring my clan until I have spoken to the chief of the Whites,” he said.

“But this is to be the greatest celebration we have ever seen,” Chamoya answered. “The Whites have invited our neighbors as well, and we will begin a new era of peace.” Amoana-iga could not be persuaded, and neither could the chiefs of the Gameb and Makor.

The day before the celebration, Chamoya brought news to the three holdout clans. “The Whites will meet you,” he said, “But they ask that you meet them early in the day, so that they can continue preparing for the celebration.”

Amoana-iga and the chief of the Gameb, whose name is lost to the ages, received the same news, and the two chiefs painted themselves in wejoh and adorned themselves with their finest beads. Each of the chiefs brought his eldest son, forming a party of four, and the party met with Chamoya and began following him into the forest. But after only a few hundred meters, Chamoya stopped and turned to them.

“Wait here,” he said. “I will bring the Whites to you.”

The sun moved slowly across the sky as the four waited for Chamoya’s return, but when the forest parted and a visitor approached, it wasn’t Chamoya. It was another member of their people – a scout who had not been seen for days.

“Chamoya has betrayed us,” he said. “He sold his knowledge of our defenses to the Whites, and he detailed for them our governance structure.”

After much contemplation, Amoana-iga chose to keep his appointment with the Whites, but to approach them by boat instead of by land. So he loaded two canoes and set out for their encampment, with Amoana-iga in the lead. As the canoes approached the encampment, he sang songs of trade – of axes, machetes, and knives, for this is how the Paiter made their presence known in the forest when the intent was peaceful.

The response, however, was anything but peaceful. The doors and windows on the huts of the Whites slammed shut, and no one emerged to greet them.

“That’s not how friends welcome visitors,” Amoana-iga shouted to the Gameb chief as the doors of one hut burst open. Two shots silenced the forest, and both Amoana-iga and his son convulsed and fell into the water. The invader who shot them then emerged from the hut and raised his gun to finish them off, but the son of the Gameb chief then let his arrow fly, hitting the invader in the neck. As the invader fell into the water, others emerged from their huts and began shooting. The Gameb chief and his son jumped into the water and started paddling alongside their canoe to hide from the musket balls.

The son cried in agony as a giant caiman – an Amazon alligator – closed its jaws over his torso and pulled him into the water, but the Gameb chief managed to swim ashore. He then ran back to his village, where he told of what had happened.

“My son is gone,” he said. “Amoana-iga is gone. Amoana-iga’s son is gone, and I fear that everyone who attended the summit is gone as well.”

He sent a team of scouts to the island where the Whites had arranged their celebration, and the scouts returned with a gruesome description of their drugged brethren being eaten alive in a river of blood and limbs.

“A churning cauldron from bank to bank, clogged with the remains of our fellows,” they said. “We saw the last surviving members of those sorry clans being led as if in a trance, their hands tied behind their heads with their own bowstrings, as they marched into roiling red water, where piranhas and caimans fought for the right to devour them.”

The Paiter knew that certain herbs and venoms disrupt and sometimes enhance the normal workings of a man’s mind and body, and to this day they also have plants that can elevate you or destroy you – or both, depending on your disposition and circumstance. On this particular day three centuries ago, they learned that the Whites had their poisons, too.

That lesson cost them 10 of their 13 clans, and it sent them on a century of wandering in the woods, during which they became the devils in many a people’s lore, slipping as they did repeatedly into territory they thought was unoccupied, only to learn it had been occupied for centuries.

But as they bounced from foe to foe, they encountered one people over and over again. They were fierce, curly-haired warriors who wore large black belts around their mid-sections, and they seemed to end up fighting them everywhere they went. The Paiter-Surui called them the “Amiah”, but the Amiah called themselves the “Matétamãe”, and when the Whites encountered the Amiah a century later, they called them the Cinta Larga – the “Wide Belts”. For clarity, we’ll call them Cinta Larga.

They were the enemies of the Surui over that long trek, but the two peoples became brothers through forced marriage, for it was only by kidnapping and marrying Cinta Larga women that the Paiter managed to replenish their numbers. Soon, the children of these marriages were numerous enough to be considered a new clan, and one son of a Cinta Larga woman decided to honor his mother by formally declaring himself – and all the joint offspring of Cinta Larga and Paiter – to be the “Fruit of the Natives”, or the Kaban.  Today the Kaban are the most numerous of the four Paiter clans, and their members often have the curly hair of the Cinta Larga – like Itabira.


As the Paiter moved deeper into the wet desert of the Amazon, they adapted their slash-and-burn farming techniques to the terrain and circumstances they encountered, and their agricultural plots – or “metares” – gradually took on the form they have today. Once they settled into a place, half of their members would stay in the village to tend the metare – raising corn, manioc, and other foods – while the other half would walk in the woods, hunting and gathering and surveying and protecting.  Those in the woods would return to the village whenever they had a big kill, summoning others with calls.

The metares became central to the Paiter-Surui culture, and their calendars are based on the opening of new ones. They created the festival of Ngamangaré to celebrate the opening of a new metare, as well as a feast called Mapimaí, which is the feast of birth and renewal.

Mapimaí takes place when those who were living in the villages swapped places with those who were walking in the woods. Then, those who were hunting in the forest would tend the metares, and those who had been tending the metares would move into the forest. Symbolically, Mapimaí echoes the beginning of the world, when the god Palob molded the raw spirits into humans, jaguars, snakes, and turkeys.

“For us as individuals and as clans, Mapimaí is a time to end outstanding conflicts and celebrate our creation,” says Almir. “It’s also a drinking game built around an adult beverage called makaloba, which is a beer made from fermented corn, yams, or manioc. It’s our own form of a beverage called chicha, which indigenes across the Amazon drink.”

The women of each clan spend weeks chewing the corn, yams, or manioc and then spitting the mixture into a giant bowl to ferment. During Mapimaí, everyone who’s going to drink gets painted in the colors of war, but in reverse: the face and body are red, while the sides of our heads are dark blue.

“We have different patterns for different animals,” says Itabira. “The jaguar is polka-dots and a blue mouth, and there are other patterns for the jacamin, which is a black bird about a half-meter tall that lets out a trumpeting sound, and patterns for the fish.”

Each clan appoints someone to administer the makaloba to members of other clans, and he doesn’t drink himself.

“If you’ve ever seen a Catholic mass, you have an idea of what I’m talking about, because it’s a lot like Communion, complete with unleavened cornbread,” says Almir. “The only difference is that the Catholics return to their pews, but we keep coming back – and that’s where the drinking game comes in: the clan that drinks the most wins.”

This festival helped the clans live in peace and unity with each other even as they battled their way through the forest before settling into their current territory – which they defend to this day.

The Disappearing Grandmother

It’s hard to know how long they wandered before settling into their current territory, but Itabira says they were well-established there before small groups of Whites started showing up in the mid-1800s. The early relations appear to have been peaceful, but some unknown betrayal or misunderstanding in the late 1800s sparked a decades-long series of tit-for-tat skirmishes that continued until the 1920s – a date that Itabira calculates because those years correlate with the birth and disappearance of his grandmother, who is also Almir’s great-grandmother (Itabira’s sister, Weitã, is Almir’s mother).

Itabira – who loves using analogies to explain the Paiter to the outside world, said that in the lore of his people, his grandmother was on a par with the queen of England or the First Lady of the United States, but he says her name is lost to the ages. Everyone agrees, however, that she despised war and gave herself to the Whites at the age of 40.

“Don’t you see what’s happening?” she often asked. “They’re killing us because they don’t see us as people; if they knew us, then all of this would stop.”

Then, one morning, she awoke in a state of tranquility after a particularly fierce battle.

“I’ve had a dream,” she told her young son, Noa, who would eventually father Itabira. “I dreamed the Whites will take me when we engage them again, and when this happens, the war will end.”

And that’s just what happened: Itabira’s grandmother and her three youngest children disappeared in the midst of a particularly brutal battle shortly after this dream. Some say she gave herself up, while others say she was captured, but all they know for sure is that, when the fighting ended, she was gone, and a trail of blood led into the forest. A team of scouts followed the blood to a patch of medicinal herbs that their shamans used as a disinfectant. From this, they concluded that she was communicating with the Whites. She never returned, and the fighting ceased.

“I’m convinced the fighting ceased because my great-grandmother did just what she said she’d do,” says Almir. “She humanized us to the White invaders, who we now know were rubber-tappers. They’d come to extract latex from rubber trees, and many of them had borrowed money from their employers to pay their way into the Amazon. They fought us because they were desperate to feed their families, and we fought them for the same reason, but over time they became forest people like us. Also like us, they adapted their society to the forest, and that adaptation is what binds us today.”

Both Itabira and Almir talked a lot about adaptation, but Almir often found some of the topics sensitive to say the least. At one point, he mentioned that his great-grandmother had five husbands, and when I asked him to elaborate, he changed the subject. Itabira, however, said it’s another example of adaptation.

“My grandmother took three children with her when she disappeared,” he said. “But she left Noa and 11 others behind – together with five husbands – because that was the custom then.” It turns out the Paiter practiced a form of polyandry that emerged from a shortage of women, which itself may have emerged from high rates of death in childbirth. “Whatever caused the shortage, the solution worked like this: a young man of merit – a warrior, say, or a shaman – would court an older woman from another clan. She had to be from another clan, because that’s how we prevented close relatives from marrying. If he won her heart, she’d give him her first-born daughter for marriage. If the woman liked another man a little less, she’d promise him her second-born daughter, and so on.”

He laughed as he told the story. “It sounds funny now,” he said. “But the daughter didn’t just marry the man – she married all the unmarried men of his family. They shared her bed and performed her chores, and they acted as father to all of her children, but only one of these fathers was considered her husband. The others were her co-husbands, for lack of a better word, and none of the co-husbands could belong to another woman. If one of them also got married, he was dropped from the first wife’s stable.”

“Didn’t you get jealous back then,” I asked.

“Of course we got jealous,” he laughed. “Everyone gets jealous.”

“How did this system end?”

“Some time around 1950, our demographics changed, and we had more women than men, because the system worked, so we flipped it. Now, men take multiple wives.”

When Almir hears the story, he just shakes his head.

“I’d never have survived that system,” he says. “We can’t adapt to everything.”

The Discovery of Global Warming

While the Paiter were settling into their current territory, scientists were beginning to notice that the massive scratching and etchings in the steppes and plains of Europe and North America looked a lot like the marks left in the wake of slow-moving glaciers in Scandinavia, Switzerland, and the Rockies.

“The scraped-down rock beds, the bizarre deposits of gravel found all around northern Europe and the northern United States … looked exactly like the effects of Alpine glaciers, only immensely larger,” writes Spencer Weart in The Discovery of Global Warming1, as he chronicles the discovery of previous ice ages and British scientist John Tyndall’s inquiry into the role that “hothouse gasses” like water vapor could have played in generating them, as well as Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius’s insight into the role the carbon dioxide could play.

In 1958, while the Paiter were switching from polyandry to polygamy, American scientist Charles Keeling was beginning to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii – an exercise that eventually yielded the “Keeling Curve”: a diagonal line that zigzags upwards as CO2 levels increase year-to-year.

The upward slant continues to this day, as CO2 continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, while the zigzags reflect the rhythm of farms and forests in the Northern Hemisphere coming alive in summer, when they sponge up CO2, and falling dormant in the winter. If this natural rythm had such a pronounced effect on the atmosphere, scientists began to wonder, what impact does rampant deforestation have? How much of our greenhouse gasses come from industrial emissions, and how much form chopping trees?

[1] To get a better feeling for the historical shape of the discovery of global warming, and to explore particular topics more fully, visit


Steve Zwick

I edit Ecosystem Marketplace, which is a news service focused on environmental finance. With this blog, I hope to offer coverage that is a bit lighter and more holistic than what we offer on EM.

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