Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/August 1889/Savage Life in South America

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By Captain JOHN PAGE,


THE Gran Chaco derives its name, according to Charlevoix, from those great Indian battues, or collections of wild game, which, surrounded by a cordon of fire and hunters, were gradually driven to a given center. It is a vast central tract of country lying between the southern tropic and 29° south latitude, bounded on the north by Brazil and Bolivia, on the south by the Argentine province of Santa Fé, on the east by the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers, and on the west by Santiago del Estero and Salta. It contains about one hundred and eighty thousand square miles, or considerably more than the superficies of Great Britain and Ireland. About one third part of this vast area belongs to Paraguay, but the exact demarkation of the limits between the Argentine Republic, Bolivia, and Paraguay has still to be made, although between the first and last of these countries an arrangement was entered into through the arbitration of President Hayes, of the United States, which must necessarily be called satisfactory. The Gran Chaco has been called, particularly in allusion to the low-lying Paraguay section, the "Oceano firme," or solid ocean. In fact, owing to the comparatively limited means of communication, it was formerly considered too vast for an undivided control, and the Argentine part was constituted into two territorial governorships—one called the Chaco Austral and the other the Chaco Central. A third section is that belonging to Paraguay, part of which, along its northern side, is disputed by Bolivia, and goes by the name of Province of Azero. The Chaco Austral is the most favored in natural riches of these three great sections, and has extensive primeval forests.[1] The principal water-courses of these territories are the Pilco-mayo and Bermejo, which are undoubtedly destined to become highways of commerce. The waters of these rivers differ in color, those of the Pilcomayo being dark and sometimes brownish, and those of the Bermejo red, as its name indicates; both are narrow and tortuous, and both, run in a general southeast direction, preserving a remarkable parallelism throughout their course, at a distance of about one hundred and eighty miles. Their depths and general characteristics correspond, and they are frequently obstructed by narrow argillaceous beds and fallen trees. The waters of both rivers are drinkable, but hard and unsuited for washing. The Bermejo brings down an enormous amount of sediment, which is deposited with. such, extraordinary rapidity that it must be considered a peculiarly strong feature of the mechanical work of the river, by which its geological formations are made and unmade. This swift precipitation of its detritus, which, it replaces by an increasing abrasion of the banks, goes on in the Bermejo, even when at its height and when in the exercise of its greatest carrying power, with, a speed equal to the square of its normal current. I have seen this river eat away an entire point of land, and by way of compensation deposit, just a turning below, an amount of detritus sufficient to form a similar promontory, which in one season of low water became covered with a thick and luxuriant growth of red willow. The Pilcomayo is to a great extent unknown, and in one section that is quite unknown is invested with a mythical halo in the shape of a tradition that it disappears. An apparent disappearance is a phenomenon which seems to have taken place with some rivers. The upper Paraguay, as I have witnessed, has been known to flow, as if absolutely lost for many miles, beneath a matted covering of living and dead vegetation several feet in depth. In the year 1858 one of these growths, under the influence of an extraordinary inundation, broke loose and drifted two thousand miles, down to Buenos Ayres, where it brought up, with many wild animals and reptiles that had taken refuge there from the almost universal deluge. The Pilcomayo is not affected in this way, and I believe that it not only does not become lost, but that there are no insuperable obstacles to its navigation. At the point where it is supposed to be lost, it begins a very erratic wandering—after running a few miles to the southeast, it suddenly turns to the north, leaving several minor branches looking in the opposite direction. It then returns as rapidly to its general southeast course, and, while subject to overflows, the main body of it flows on in a natural bed uninterruptedly to its mouth.[2]

Several attempts have been made to explore this river. The story of one that was undertaken under the Bolivian Government has been told with such exaggerations as almost mark it a work of fiction, by Lieutenant Van Nivel. A tragic interest attaches to the expedition of Dr. Crévaux, of the French Geographical Society, who undertook to work along the banks of the river. The party were enticed inland by the savages and murdered. A later Bolivian expedition of one hundred troops, accompanied by a French traveler, M. Thouar, were harassed but not actually attacked by the savages, and, after wandering considerably out of their course, succeeded in reaching the Paraguay, having traversed the Chaco in a southeast direction more or less along the river, but without in any manner elucidating its geography.[3]

The Bermejo River in 1869-'70 became deflected from its ancient course and actually wandered about for a long time before finding a new bed. It formed for the time being an island nearly two hundred miles in length by an average of fifteen miles in width. This change of bed in our times enables us to understand the mechanical work which this and the Pilcomayo rivers have carried on for many centuries, resulting in the production of the rich alluvial lowlands of the Gran Chaco. It is an interesting fact that the Bermejo in this as in other changes of less magnitude has manifested a tendency to swerve to the eastward sufficiently marked to suggest the idea of some physical cause.

The Bermejo, like the Pilcomayo, has been the object of many expeditions to open up its waters to navigation. Between 1853 and 1858 my father. Captain Page, under the auspices of the United States Government, explored the fluvial system of the Rio de la Plata, and, with the assistance of a staff of competent officers, made extensive collections in botany and natural history, which were deposited at the Smithsonian Institution. He made track surveys of all the rivers so far as he examined them, and established wherever he went those positions which are the standards to this day used in the cartography of those countries. In' the course of these explorations he twice entered the Bermejo and once the Pilcomayo, ascending the former to a distance of nine hundred miles by river course, and turned back, paradoxical as it may seem, on account of the excess of water which had flooded the country, fearing that his steamer, in case of a sudden fall, the course of the river being unrecognizable, would be left stranded in the interior. This was the only expedition up the Bermejo undertaken with purely scientific views. Its results are embodied in the book, "The La Plata, Argentine Confederation, and Paraguay."

The author was commissioned in 1885 to examine the Bermejo and report upon its navigability. He started on the 25th of June. The way for the first three hundred miles from the mouth of the river was interrupted by obstructions caused by the wrecked vessels of former exploring expeditions; the falls of Yzo, a sharp incline of some two feet in the mile over about that extent, which causes the water to run swiftly and eddy around and look formidable to the uninitiated; and the argillaceous bars. The most formidable barrier of the last class was overcome by fixing a chain-drag with four pickaxes fastened uprightly in it, which was drawn forward and backward over the clay, marking a scratch

from Sucre, in Bolivia, to Puerto Pacheco on the Paraguay. Both projected routes proved impracticable from want of water, and M. Thouar is said to be satisfied that the only feasible route from Bolivia to the Paraguay lies by way of the Pilcomayo.—Editor, from "La Nature." which. the water in a few hours washed out into a navigable channel.

At about three hundred miles above the mouth of the Bermejo the author entered the Teuco, or the channel opened by the erratic waters of that river when they departed from their original bed. In many places along the old bed successive annual floods have covered with rich deposits the low-lying lands, leaving the tops of large trees peering above the surface. It would be impossible for the least sentimental not to admire and feel the influence of those rich woods, clothed in perpetual verdure, the trees entwined by the Paraguay jasmine, with its delicate white and blue flowers, whose fragrance is perceived as you run along the banks, and covered with other climbers, parasites, and orchids in great variety. There is a certain richness of growth in these wilds, filled with the native pineapple, which is unlike the rankness of the Brazilian tropical vegetation, so suggestive of jungle fevers, A Mr. Plaisant, in 1854, by direction of the Minister of Commerce of France, made an analysis of the woods of Paraguay, which practically may be said to be identical with those of the Chaco, and he concluded that they might be advantageously employed to take the place of those used in Europe for cabinet work. Many of them are certainly very beautiful; the tatané (Porliera hygrometrica) compares favorably with the bird's-eye maple; the palo rosa, the Guayacan Cesalpinea melanocarpa, a variety of Lapachos, the urundey, curupáy, and cumpayná, the quebracho, with a hundred others, all of hard, indestructible wood, when used in the earth or water, and which would hold their own with any of the woods of Europe or Asia. Mr. Plaisant classified thirty-nine species of superior quality, useful for naval construction and cabinet work, exclusive of a great number which had special applications for medical and domestic use. Most of the trees I have enumerated are actually used in Argentina in great quantities for ship-building, fencing, telegraph-lines, and railway sleepers. The three species of algarroba produce the long locust-pod, a staple article of food with the Chaco Indians, who pound it up and make it into a very sustaining bread. They also brew from it an intoxicating beverage, under the influence of which they become dangerous. The pod is very fattening food for cattle and horses, having a great percentage of saccharine matter. The presence of the algarroba is an indication of high land not subject to overflow. The alba species is employed extensively in the manufacture of hubs and furniture; its bark is good for tanning purposes, and a majority of the window and door frames of the older houses of Buenos Ayres are made of it. The "palo santo," holy wood, or lignum vitæ, is seen in quantities north of the twenty-sixth parallel. Its wood, which is extensively used for blocks and bushings, is so full of resinous matter that it will burn like a candle.

Among the useful plants is the caraguatá, of the family of the Bromeliaceæ, which grows generally within the range of the forests, and from which the Indian obtains a strong fiber useful for many domestic purposes. It is said to be the fiber known to European manufacturers as Batista Anana. The caraguatá has also a faculty of catching and retaining water, whereby the Indians are afforded means of slaking their thirst in seasons of drought. Among a hundred edible wild fruits may be named the chañar; the vinal; the guayabo, a fine fruit; the ubagay, a passion-flower, which gives a large but rather insipid fruit; and the manduvira, a wild almond. Several Lacteas produce a fine fruit, and the woods are full of the wild pineapple.

The exploitation of the timber industry has occupied several thousand people, and has been the means of reducing to a quasi-civilization many hundreds of the aborigines. This has led to the development of the Austral Chaco along the borders of the Paraná, where are now many small towns and large agricultural colonies, prosperous beyond their own hopes, and connected by rail and telegraph. Two of these colonies are owned by Englishmen; and the word of the proprietor of one of them is given that the Indians are of the best laborers, being the most docile and steady, although a trifle more indolent than the civilized workmen. As I continued my ascent of the Bermejo, with but little other interruption than was occasioned by the draught of my vessel, I always found large masses of Indians at the low passes, which are indeed their fishing-grounds; at these points, which were numerous in the upper Teuco, they would wait, evidently in expectation of some catastrophe or something giving them a chance to make an attack. They were usually on these occasions made up with their war-paint, and many of them decorated with ostrich-feathers, but they generally kept their arms out of sight, though doubtless handily within reach; and they would come to us with articles for barter, consisting of dried fish, necklaces, a few bows and arrows and war-clubs, the skins of wild animals, and the animals themselves. I was never attacked, though often threatened.

It is a safe prediction that this region has a great future, possessing as it does an equable climate, tempered by the prevailing southeast and southwest winds, with just enough of the warm and relaxing weather to give a zest to the enjoyment of the other kind and stimulate vegetable growth; a climate which throughout the whole extent of its territories suits admirably the sons of southern Italy, and in its southern section has been proved to suit the hardier men of England and the United States. The soil is good, and compares well with the lands of southern and western Buenos Ayres, having in its favor, for agricultural purposes, a far better climate; and is adapted to the growth of cotton, tobacco, the castor-oil plant, the olive, barley, sorghum, Indian corn, rice, the manioc, and many other products of temperate and intertropical climates. Cattle thrive in all the Chacos, attaining an extraordinary development in size, especially among the Indian herds, where they depend exclusively upon the grasses and wild fruits such as the palm and locust. The grasses are varied and abundant, and include many of the species highly thought of in Buenos Ayres, which is the pre-eminent cattle-growing section just now of the Argentina.—Abridged for the Popular Science Monthly from the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society.


  1. Mr. Clements Markham said, in the discussion on Captain Page's paper, that the Gran Chaco was a most important region, lying between the plateaus of the Andes on one side, and the great fluvial highway of riches. In the Quichua language "chacu" meant a hunt, but under the government of the Incas of Peru the word was used for that festival when they surrounded and numbered their flocks. It was a counting of wealth. Hence the Hatun chacu, or Gran chacu, was so named by the Incas, because those vast, forest-covered regions to the cast of their mountain homes were a source of wealth to them in wild animals, precious drugs, and the highly prized harvests of coca. In the distant future the channels which flowed from the homes of the Incas across the Gran Chaco were destined to bring down the produce of the Andes to markets beyond the Atlantic, but that time had not yet arrived, although the speaker believed it was near at hand.—Editor.
  2. Colonel Church remarked, in the discussion, that the Argentine Republic seemed to be divided into two sections—that of the Pampas, without forest, and that of the Chaco, which was a forest-covered country. Curiously enough, the rains of the Chaco district did not occur during the rainy periods of the Pampas district; but from November to May there was a veritable downpour, and the country became flooded, filled with lagoons, with here and there an island or small hill. At the head-waters of the Bermejo there was on such occasions a lagoon forty leagues across. It was a very difficult problem to him how the Pilcomayo and the Bermejo could ever be usefully navigated. The former, one hundred and eighty leagues above its mouth, filtered itself through a sandy swamp one hundred miles in diameter, while above this swamp it was filled with falls, rapids, sand-banks, and snags. The bed of the latter oscillated backward and forward to the extent of thirty or forty miles, carrying with it great trunks of trees of very hard wood, the specific gravity of which exceeded that of water. The rainy season was succeeded by one so dry that animal life almost perished for lack of water. There was a distance of twelve hundred and fifty miles along the Bermejo to its mouth in which it received but one branch.—Editor.
  3. Dr. Crévaux, already distinguished for his work in exploring the boundary of Guiana and Brazil, was commissioned to endeavor to reach the opposite side of the Amazon Valley by way of the upper Paraguay. At Buenos Ayres the members of the local Geographical Society interested him in the idea of tracing the course of the Pilcomayo. So, instead of ascending the Paraguay, he went by railway to Tucuman, crossed the Bolivian border on the 16th of January, 1882, and made his way to Father Doroteo's mission, San Francisco, on the Pilcomayo. At about the same time a military expedition sent against the Toba Indians of the Chaco to punish them for some depredations had returned, bringing seven children as prisoners. It was deemed best to send a messenger to them—a Toba woman named Galla or Petrona, who had lived for some time at the mission—to learn how they would receive the explorers. The messenger did not return, but, as was afterward learned, instigated the Indians to murder Dr. Crévaux and his companions. The party, numbering twenty persons, without waiting longer, started on the 19th of April. On the 27th of the same month they were all massacred but one.

    M. Thouar started from Santiago in May, 1883, on hearing that the Tobas held as prisoners two survivors of the Crévaux expedition. Following Crévaux's steps from Tarija and the advanced post of Caiza, he reached the scene of the massacre and founded there toward the end of August the colony Crévaux. He learned, from a number of the aborigines whom he interrogated, that none of the Crévaux expedition survived; but, not satisfied with what the Indians affirmed, he plunged into the unknown region and undertook with fifty Bolivian soldiers to descend the Pilcomayo in the midst of the hostile tribes. His party, which was weakened from time to time by desertions, descended the right or Argentine bank of the river, plunged through deep, brackish marshes, narrowly escaped a surprise by two thousand Indians, repelled an attack by eight hundred of them, found further traveling through the swamps impracticable, and crossed over to the other side of the river; and, finally, in October, having reached the beginning of the great delta of the Pilcomayo, gave up the attempt to follow the river further, and took the shortest course for the Paraguay, which they reached after a month's journeying in great suffering. M. Thouar returned to the exploration in 1885, and, starting from the southern part of the delta, went up by land eighty leagues to the place where he had left the Pilcomayo on his former expedition, and thence descended the river in a canoe to its mouth. After this he was engaged by the Bolivian Government in two attempts to find a route for a wagon-road