The Army of the Twelve Monkeys

30 Apr 2008

‘I like monkey,’ Mao-be chirped as he scooped meat with his fingers from inside a skull. ‘The brains are the best,’ he enthused, his mouth full.

Mao-be and his friend Noe-be were chomping at the well-charred body of a monkey that they had caught that morning. Noe-be held a curled up tail: ‘This is also tasty – like beef but sweeter’.

The two men were in their mid-twenties and wore T-shirts and jeans when we spoke during lunch at their camp, a ramshackle collection of small wooden shelters on the edge of the rainforest. Mao-be and Noe-be were part of around 500 remaining members of an endangered tribe, the Nukak-Makú,
nomadic hunter-gatherers who live near the Guaviare river, deep in the Amazon jungle in southern Colombia. The two men had become the tribe’s spokesmen in dealings with the outside world.

Noe-be found my fascination with their lunch of barbecued monkey somewhat unsettling and he became embarrassed. ‘Although it looks human, we don’t confuse it with a human head,’ he reassured me. The monkey is roasted whole, like a suckling pig, strapped over a rotating spit. Special attention is applied to cooking the head. ‘You have to cook it a long time because inside the brain is raw and the head is more resistant to cooking’.

Noe-be offered me a handful of brain. I hesitated. I pride myself on eating different food during my travels; I’ve tasted scorpion in China, giraffe in Kenya, dog in Korea and snake’s blood in Vietnam. But on this occasion, aid workers at the camp intervened and said that eating monkey causes schizophrenia. Nukak Indians were known to experience a high incidence of depression and suicide was, sadly, all too common. Without conclusive medical evidence, the local belief was that eating monkey led to mental illness. After a pause, I smiled politely and declined the offer, feeling somewhat relieved that others had forced the decision. Noe-be shrugged and then gobbled the chunk of pale pink meat.

Earlier that day I’d arrived at the Nukak camp as sunlight crept through the clouds and shards of orange lit the nearby forest. Mao-be and Noe-be were wearing only loincloths and women were decorating men’s faces with dye from red berries. The Nukak have broad, sculptured faces with no eyebrows and little facial hair. This dawn ritual was part of the preparations for the daily hunting expedition. On that morning, I was joining the dozen or so hunters and they requested that I have my faced painted. The Nukak believe that painting their faces is a sign of friendship; it also allows them to kill monkeys within a strict moral code that is approved by their gods.

It is a culture where the monkey is both revered and eaten as part of a ritual of atonement with nature. I was surprised to see Nukak children play with baby monkeys, which are treated as pets. Dozens roamed inside the camp. The Nukak treat monkeys with tenderness and reverence until the moment when they kill them for food. In their mythology, the Nukak climbed from a world underground and today’s life is within an intermediate world, which they must share with monkeys. The Guaviare River is seen as the ‘father’ of their nation; its lakes are the ‘mother of life’. Their spiritual goal is to pass into the higher world where men posses supernatural powers.

The Nukak’s traditional way of life is largely untouched since the dawn of man. The first contact the group made with the outside world was in 1988, when about thirty Indians emerged from the jungle and walked into a nearby town. They were naked and carrying blowpipes; the townspeople and the Indians stared at each other in disbelief.

Their civilisation was to change forever. The sudden collision of cultures has ravaged the Nukak. The Indians had no resistance to influenza. Initially, every member of the tribe over 40 died from the disease.

Before then, as nomads, they moved around at will, sleeping on hammocks constructed from giant palms. Now, half of the world’s remaining population of Nukak Indians lived in this makeshift camp. Many had recently fled the jungle because of Colombia’s intractable civil war. The battlefield between Leftist guerrillas and government forces has moved deeper into the jungles and coca growers have cut down large swathes of the forest where the Nukak once roamed.

Once they leave the jungle, the Nukak see the outside world and believe its inhabitants posses a magical power. When they see a torch, they think its owners have harnessed the power of the sun. They watch planes fly overhead and believe they run on invisible roads constructed in the sky.

One of the first things they learn from aid workers is to cover their bodies. One teenage girl in the camp was given a wedding dress by a Christian charity and told that she should not walk around naked. The next is the desire for possessions. One Nukak man listed words he had learnt in Spanish, which have no equivalent in his own language; ‘clothes, trousers, shoes, soap, cologne .’

The monkey, however, remains central to the Nukak’s culture and their understanding of the survival of their race. They still hunt with traditional blowpipes. In one corner of the camp, a group of men were coating darts with a poison made from plants found on the forest floor. Known as curare, this natural toxic blocks receptors in the brain and causes muscles to relax. Within minutes, the victim loses control of his limbs and while remaining conscious, is unable to move.

The hunt began with a tiring, four-hour trek across streams deep into the jungle. The Nukak moved effortlessly through the undergrowth in the humid, tropical heat, while I trailed behind, panting and tripping over vines. When the hunters spotted a monkey in the canopy, they stopped suddenly. They mimicked a monkey call. With their blowpipes aimed, there was a sudden ‘putt-putt’ sound, followed by smiles and congratulations. As I peered up, wiping away sweat from my eyes, I saw far above a monkey struck with two darts. The monkey was dangling with both arms from a branch. It also seemed that it was carrying something. Slowly, one arm fell to its side. The strength was sapping from its body and within five minutes, the monkey fell some 30 metres to the ground.

As we approached, I saw that the monkey had been carrying one of its young. One of the Nukak then picked up the baby monkey, which seemed unscathed by the fall but was still clinging to its paralysed mother. He cradled it in his arms while another hunter pulled out a club and beat its mother to death.

We returned to the camp with half a dozen dead monkeys and were greeted by a throng of half-naked children, some with pet monkeys on their shoulders.
The baby monkey was brought to one of the women in the tribe. What happened next was amazing. Without speaking, she pulled the baby monkey to her breast and fed it with her mother’s milk.

‘We take care of the babies. We will see them grow and then let them free again,’ Mao-be explained. ‘It’s natural to do this. We need to make sure that monkeys will be there for our children to survive.’

A few weeks after I left, I heard that Mao-be had walked into the jungle with a bottle of curare, the plant toxin used for the poison darts. He drank the bottle and was found dead the next morning. There had been accusations that he had pilfered some of the donations to the tribe to buy clothes and alcohol and was unable to deal with the dishonour.

As our world faces the moral and economic implications of tampering with nature – in the form of climate change, the industrial rearing of animals and genetically modified plants – we could learn much from the Nukak’s relationship to the world around them. The Nukak understand that monkeys provide a natural, sustainable supply of food and this was respected within their culture.

Sadly, after making contact with a consumer society that places little value on sustainability, the Nukak’s world is disintegrating. The United Nations warns that within little more than a generation, they and their culture face extinction.

Taken from the latest issue of the Italian magazine Slowfood (number 33)

Phil Rees is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster

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