Through the Brazilian Wilderness/The Work Of the Field Zoologist and Field Geographer in South America

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt
The Work Of the Field Zoologist and Field Geographer in South America

PORTIONS of South America are now entering on a career of great social and industrial development. Much remains to be known, so far as the outside world is concerned, of the social and industrial condition in the long-settled interior regions. More remains to be done, in the way of pioneer exploring and of scientific work, in the great stretches of virgin wilderness. The only two other continents where such work, of like volume and value, remains to be done are Africa and Asia; and neither Africa nor Asia offers a more inviting field for the best kind of field worker in geographical exploration and in zoological, geological, and paleontological investigation. The explorer is merely the most adventurous kind of field geographer; and there are two or three points worth keeping in mind in dealing with the South American work of the field geographer and field zoologist.

Roughly, the travellers who now visit (like those who for the past century have visited) South America come in three categories—although, of course, these categories are not divided by hard-and-fast lines.

First, there are the travellers who skirt the continent in comfortable steamers, going from one great seaport to another, and occasionally taking a short railway journey to some big interior city not too far from the coast. This is a trip well worth taking by all intelligent men and women who can afford it; and it is being taken by such men and women with increasing frequency. It entails no more difficulty than a similar trip to the Mediterranean—than such a trip which to a learned and broad-minded observer offers the same chance for acquiring knowledge and, if he is himself gifted with wisdom, the same chance of imparting his knowledge to others that is offered by a trip of similar length through the larger cities of Europe or the United States. Probably the best instance of the excellent use to which such an observer can put his experience is afforded by the volume of Mr. Bryce. Of course, such a trip represents travelling of essentially the same kind as travelling by railroad from Atlanta to Calgary or from Madrid to Moscow.

Next there are the travellers who visit the long-settled districts and colonial cities of the interior, travelling over land or river highways which have been traversed for centuries but which are still primitive as regards the inns and the modes of conveyance. Such travelling is difficult in the sense that travelling in parts of Spain or southern Italy or the Balkan states is difficult. Men and women who have a taste for travel in out-of-way places and who, therefore, do not mind slight discomforts and inconveniences have the chance themselves to enjoy, and to make others profit by, travels of this kind in South America. In economic, social, and political matters the studies and observations of these travellers are essential in order to supplement, and sometimes to correct, those of travellers of the first category; for it is not safe to generalize overmuch about any country merely from a visit to its capital or its chief seaport. These travellers of the second category can give us most interesting and valuable information about quaint little belated cities; about backward country folk, kindly or the reverse, who show a mixture of the ideas of savagery with the ideas of an ancient peasantry; and about rough old highways of travel which in comfort do not differ much from those of mediaeligval Europe. The travellers who go up or down the highway rivers that have been travelled for from one to four hundred years—rivers like the Paraguay and Paranaacute, the Amazon, the Tapajos, the Madeira, the lower Orinoco—come in this category. They can add little to our geographical knowledge; but if they are competent zoologists or archaeligologists, especially if they live or so-journ long in a locality, their work may be invaluable from the scientific standpoint. The work of the archaeligologists among the immeasurably ancient ruins of the low-land forests and the Andean plateaux is of this kind. What Agassiz did for the fishes of the Amazon and what Hudson did for the birds of the Argentine are other instance of the work that can thus be done. Burton’s writings on the interior of Brazil offer an excellent instance of the value of a sojourn or trip of this type, even without any especial scientific object.

Of course travellers of this kind need to remember that their experiences in themselves do not qualify them to speak as wilderness explorers. Exactly as a good archaeligologist may not be competent to speak of current social or political problems, so a man who has done capital work as a tourist observer in little-visited cities and along remote highwys must beware of regarding himself as being thereby rendered fit for genuine wilderness work or competent to pass judgment on the men who do such work. To cross the Andes on mule-back along the regular routes is a feat comparable to the feats of the energetic tourists who by thousands traverse the mule trails in out-of-the-way nooks of Switzerland. An ordinary trip on the highway portions of the Amazon, Paraguay, or Orinoco in itself no more qualifies a man to speak of or to take part in exploring unknown South American rivers than a trip on the lower Saint Lawrence qualifies a man to regard himself as an expert in a canoe voyage across Labrador or the Barren Grounds west of Hudson Bay.

A hundred years ago, even seventy or eighty years ago, before the age of steamboats and railroads, it was more difficult than at present to define the limits between this class and the next; and, moreover, in defining these limits I emphatically disclaim any intention of thereby attempting to establish a single standard of value for books of travel. Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” is to me the best book of the kind ever written; it is one of those classics which decline to go into artificial categories, and which stand by themselves; and yet Darwin, with his usual modesty, spoke of it as in effect a yachting voyage. Humboldt’s work had a profound effect on the thought of the civilized world; his trip was one of adventure and danger; and yet it can hardly be called exploration proper. He visited places which had been settled and inhabited for centuries and traversed places which had been travelled by civilized men for years before he followed in their footsteps. But these places were in Spanish colonies, and access to them had been forbidden by the mischievous and intolerant tyranny—ecclesiastical, political, and economic—which then rendered Spain the most backward of European nations; and Humboldt was the first scientific man of intellectual independence who had permission to visit them. To this day many of his scientific observations are of real value. Bates came to the Amazon just before the era of Amazonian steamboats. He never went off the native routes of ordinary travel. But he was a devoted and able naturalist. He lived an exceedingly isolated, primitive, and laborious life for eleven years. Now, half a century after it was written, his “Naturalist on the Amazon” is as interesting and valuable as it ever was, and no book since written has in any way supplanted it.

Travel of the third category includes the work of the true wilderness explorers who add to our sum of geographical knowledge and of the scientific men who, following their several bents, also work in the untrodden wilds. Colonel Rondon and his associates have done much in the geographical exploration of unknown country, and Cherrie and Miller have penetrated and lived for months and years in the wastes, on their own resources, as incidents to their mammalogical and ornithological work. Professor Farrabee, the anthropologist, is a capital example of the man who does this hard and valuable type of work.

An immense amount of this true wilderness work, geographical and zoological, remains to be done in South America. It can be accomplished with reasonable thoroughness only by the efforts of very many different workers, each in his own special field. It is desirable that here and there a part of the work should be done in outline by such a geographic and zoological reconnaissance as ours; we would, for example, be very grateful for such work in portions of the interior of the Guianas, on the headwaters of the Xingu, and here and there along the eastern base of the Andes.

But as a rule the work must be specialized; and in its final shape it must be specialized everywhere. The first geographical explorers of the untrodden wilderness, the first wanderers who penetrate the wastes where they are confronted with starvation, disease, and danger and death in every from, cannot take with them the elaborate equipment necessary in order to do the thorough scientific work demanded by modern scientific requirements. This is true even of exploration done along the courses of unknown rivers; it is more true of the exploration, which must in South America become increasingly necessary, done across country, away from the rivers.

The scientific work proper of these early explorers must be of a somewhat preliminary nature; in other words the most difficult and therefore ordinary the most important pieces of first-hand exploration are precisely those where the scientific work of the accompanying cartographer, geologist, botanist, and zoologist must be furthest removed from finality. The zoologist who works to most advantage in the wilderness must take his time, and therefore he must normally follow in the footsteps of, and not accompany, the first explorers. The man who wishes to do the best scientific work in the wilderness must not try to combine incompatible types of work nor to cover too much ground in too short a time.

There is no better example of the kind of zoologist who does first-class field-work in the wilderness than John D. Haseman, who spent from 1907 to 1910 in painstaking and thorough scientific investigation over a large extent of South American territory hitherto only partially known or quite unexplored. Haseman’s primary object was to study the characteristics and distribution of South American fishes, but as a matter of fact he studied at first hand many other more or less kindred subjects, as may be seen in his remarks on the Indians and in his excellent pamphlet on “Some Factors of Geographical Distribution in South America.”

Haseman made his long journey with a very slender equipment, his extraordinarily successful field-work being due to his bodily health and vigor and his resourcefulness, self-reliance, and resolution. His writings are rendered valuable by his accuracy and common sense. The need of the former of these two attributes will be appreciated by whoever has studied the really scandalous fictions which have been published as genuine by some modern “explorers” and adventurers in South America;[1] and the need of the latter by whoever has studied some of the wild theories propounded in the name of science concerning the history of life on the South American continent. There is, however, one serious criticism to be made on Haseman: the extreme obscurity of his style—an obscurity mixed with occasional bits of scientific pedantry, which makes it difficult to tell whether or not on some points his thought is obscure also. Modern scientists, like modern historians and, above all, scientific and his-torical educators, should ever keep in mind that clearness of speech and writing is essential to clearness of thought and that a simple, clear, and, if possible, vivid style is vital to the production of the best work in either science or history. Darwin and Huxley are classics, and they would not have been if they had not written good English. The thought is essential, but ability to give it clear expression is only less essential. Ability to write well, if the writer has nothing to write about, entitles him to mere derision. But the greatest thought is robbed of an immense proportion of its value if expressed in a mean or obscure manner. Mr. Haseman has such excellent thought that it is a pity to make it a work of irritating labor to find out just what the thought is. Surely, if he will take as much pains with his writing as he has with the far more difficult business of exploring and collecting, he will become able to express his thought clearly and forcefully. At least he can, if he chooses, go over his sentences until he is reasonably sure that they can be parsed. He can take pains to see that his whole thought is expressed, instead of leaving vacancies which must be filled by the puzzled and groping reader. His own views and his quotations from the views of others about the static and dynamic theories of distribution are examples of an important principle so imperfectly expressed as to make us doubtful whether it is perfectly apprehended by the writer. He can avoid the use of those pedantic terms which are really nothing but offensive and, fortunately, ephemeral scientific slang. There has been, for instance, a recent vogue for the extensive misuse, usually tautological misuse, of the word “complexus” —an excellent word if used rarely and for definite purposes. Mr. Haseman drags it in continually when its use is either pointless and redundant or else serves purely to darken wisdom. He speaks of the “Antillean complex” when he means the Antilles, of the “organic complex” instead of the characteristic or bodily characteristics of an animal or species, and of the “environmental complex” when he means nothing whatever but the environment. In short, Mr. Haseman and those whose bad example he in this instance follows use “complexus” in much the same spirit as that displayed by the famous old lady who derived religious—instead of scientific—consolation from the use of “the blessed word Mesopotamia.”

The reason that it is worth while to enter this protest against Mr. Haseman’s style is because his work is of such real and marked value. The pamphlet on the distribution of South American species shows that to exceptional ability as a field worker he adds a rare power to draw, with both caution and originality, the necessary general conclusions from the results of his own observations and from the recorded studies of other men; and there is nothing more needed at the present moment among our scientific men than the development of a school of men who, while industrious and minute observers and collectors and cautious generalizers, yet do not permit the faculty of wise generalization to be atrophied by excessive devotion to labyrinthine detail.

Haseman upholds with strong reasoning the theory that since the appearance of all but the lowest forms of life on this globe there have always been three great continental masses, sometimes solid sometimes broken, extending southward from the northern hemisphere, and from time to time connected in the north, but not in the middle regions or the south since the carboniferous epoch. He holds that life has been intermittently distributed southward along these continental masses when there were no breaks in their southward connection, and intermittently exchanged between them when they were connected in the north; and he also upholds the view that from a common ancestral form the same species has been often developed in entirely disconnected localities when in these localities the conditions of environment were the same.

The opposite view is that there have been frequent connections between the great land masses, alike in the tropics, in the south temperate zone, and in the antarctic region. The upholders of this theory base it almost exclusively on the distribution of living and fossil forms of life; that is, it is based almost exclusively on biological and not geological considerations. Unquestionably, the distribution of many forms of life, past and present, offers problems which with our present paleontological knowledge we are wholly unable to solve. If we consider only the biological facts concerning some one group of animals it is not only easy but inevitable to conclude that its distribution must be accounted for by the existence of some former direct land bridge extending, for instance, between Patagonia and Australia, or between Brazil and South Africa, or between the West Indies and the Mediterranean, or between a part of the Andean region and northeastern Asia. The trouble is that as more groups of animals are studied from the standpoint of this hupothesis the number of such land bridges demanded to account for the existing facts of animal distribution is constantly and indefinitely extended. A recent book by one of the most learned advocates of this hypothesis calls for at least ten such land bridges between South America and all the other continents, present and past, of the world since a period geologically not very remote. These land bridges, moreover, must, many of them, have been literally bridges; long, narrow tongues of land thrust in every direction across the broad oceans. According to this view the continental land masses have been in a fairly fluid condition of instability. By parity of reasoning, the land bridges could be made a hundred instead of merely ten in number. The facts of distribution are in many cases inexplicable with our present knowledge; yet if the existence of widely separated but closely allied forms is habitually to be explained in accordance with the views of the extremists of this school we could, from the exclusive study of certain groups of animals, conclude that at different periods the United States and almost every other portion of the earth were connected by land and severed from all other regions by water—and, from the study of certain other groups of animals, arrive at directly opposite and incompatible conclusions.

The most brilliant and unsafe exponent of this school was Ameghino, who possessed and abused two gifts, both essential to the highest type of scientist, and both mischievous unless this scientist possess a rare and accurate habit of thought joined to industry and mastery of detail:—namely, the gift of clear and interesting writing, and the gift of generalization. Ameghino rendered marked services to paleontology. But he generalized with complete recklessness from the slenderest data; and even these data he often completely misunderstood or misinterpreted. His favorite thesis included the origin of mammalian life and of man himself in southernmost South America, with, as incidents, the belief that the mammalian-bearing strata of South America were of much greater age than the strata with corresponding remains elsewhere; that in South America various species and genera of men existed in tertiary times, some of them at least as advanced as fairly well advanced modern savages; that there existed various land bridges between South America and other southern continents, including Africa; and that the ancestral types of modern mammals and of man himself wandered across one of these bridges to the old world, and that thence their remote descendants, after ages of time, returned to the new. In addition to valuable investigations of fossil-bearing beds in the Argentine, he made some excellent general suggestions, such as that the pithecoid apes, like the baboons, do not stand in the line of man’s ancestral stem but represent a divergence from it away from humanity and toward a retrogressive bestialization. But of his main theses he proves none, and what evidence we have tells against them. At the Museum of La Plata I found that the authorities were practically a unit in regarding his remains of tertiary men and proto-men as being either the remains of tertiary American monkeys or of American Indians from strata that were long post-tertiary. The extraordinary discovery, due to that eminent scientist and public servant Doctor Moreno, of the remains of man associated with the remains of the great extinct South American fauna, of the mylodon, of a giant ungulate, of a huge cat like the lion, and of an extraordinary aberrant horse (of a wholly different genus from the modern horse) conclusively shows that in its later stages the South American fauna consisted largely of types that elsewhere had already disappeared and that these types persisted into what was geologically a very recent period only some tens of thousands of years ago, when savage man of practically a modern type had already appeared in South America. The evidence we have, so far as it goes, tends to show that the South American fauna always has been more archaic in type than the arctogeal fauna of the same chronological level.

To loose generalizations, and to elaborate misinterpretations of paleontological records, the kind of work done by Mr. Haseman furnishes an invaluable antiscorbutic. To my mind, he has established a stronger presumption in favor of the theory he champions than has been established in favor of the theories of any of the learned and able scientific men from whose conclusions he dissents. Further research, careful, accurate, and long extended, can alone enable us to decide definitely in the matter; and this research, to be effective, must be undertaken by many men, each of whom shall in large measure possess Mr. Haseman’s exceptional power of laborious work both in the field and in the study, his insight and accuracy of observation, and his determination to follow truth with inflexible rectitude wherever it may lead—one of the greatest among the many great qualities which lifted Huxley and Darwin above their fellows.

1^ It would be well if a geographical society of standing would investigate the formal and official charges made by Colonel Rondon, an officer and gentleman of the highest repute, against Mr. Savage Landor. Colonel Rondon, in an official report to the Brazilian Government, has written a scathing review of Mr. Landor. He states that Mr. Savage Landor did not perform, and did not even attempt to perform, the work he had contracted to do in exploration for the Brazilian Government. Mr. Landor had asserted and promised that he would go through unknown country along the line of eleven degrees latitude south, and, as Colonel Rondon states, it was because of this proposal of his that the Brazilian Government gave him material financial assistance in advance. However, Colonel Rondon sets forth that Mr. Landor did not keep his word or make any serious effort to fulfil his moral obligation to do as he had said he would do. In a letter to me under date of May 1, 1914—a letter which has been published in full in France—Colonel Rondon goes at length into the question of what territory Mr. Landor had traversed. Colonel Rondon states that—excepting on one occasion, when Mr. Landor, wandering off a beaten trail, immediately got lost and shortly returned to his starting-point without making any discoveries—he kept to old, well-travelled routes. One sentence of the colonel’s letter to me runs as follows: "I can guarantee to you that in Brazil Mr. Landor’s did not cross a hand’s breadth of land that had not been explored, the greater part of it many centuries ago." As regards Mr. Landor’s sole and brief experience in leaving a beaten route, Colonel Rondon states that at São Manoel Mr. Landor engaged from Senhor José Sotero Barreto (the revenue officer of Matto Grosso, at São Manoel) a guide to lead him across a well-travelled trail which connects the Tapajos with the Madeira via the Canama. The guide, however, got lost, and after a few days they all returned to the point of departure instead of going through to the Canama.

Senhor Barreto, a gentleman of high standing, related this last incident to Fiala when Fiala descended the Tapajos (and, by the way, Fiala’s trip down the Papagaio, Juruena, and Tapajos was infinitely more important than all the work Mr. Landor did in South America put together). Lieutenants Pyrineus and Mello, mentioned in the body of this work, informed me that they accompanied Mr. Landor on most of his overland trip before he embarked on the Arinos, and that he simply followed the highroad or else the telegraph-line, and furthermore, Colonel Rondon states that the Indians whom Mr. Landor encountered and photographed were those educated at the missions.

Colonel Rondon’s official report to the Brazilian Government and his letter to me are of interest to all geographers and other scientific men who have any concern with the alleged discoveries of Mr. Landor. They contain very grave charges, with which it is not necessary for me to deal. Suffice it to say that Mr. Landor’s accounts of his alleged exploration cannot be considered as entitled to the slightest serious consideration until he has satisfactorily and in detail answered Colonel Rondon; and this he has thus far signally failed to do.

Fortunately, there are numerous examples of exactly the opposite type of work. From the days of Humboldt and Spix and Martius to the present time, German explorers have borne a conspicuous part in the exploration of South America. As representatives of the men and women who have done such capital work, who have fronted every hazard and hardship and labored in the scientific spirit, and who have added greatly to our fund of geographic, biologic, and ethnographic knowledge, I may mention Miss Snethlage and Herr Karl von den Steinen.