Elizabeth Steen of Knoxville Will Return to Tropical Jungles to Explore Fatal "River of Death"
by George Ann and Bill Kueneman.
Knoxville, Ia., Sept. 9 (1926? Probably from the DesMoines Register)
Rio Das Mortes-the river of death-from which no explorer has yet returned is the goal of Miss Elizabeth Kilgore Steen when she sails again for South America to resume her study of primitive arts.
Miss Steen, who comes from Knoxville, where Dr. George K. Cherrie and Dr. William T. Hornaday, famous scientists were reared, is the first white woman to penetrate the Brazilian jungle and visit the primitive inland tribes.
Rio das Mortez is a tributary of the Araguaya river and part of the great Amazon river system. The jungle surrounding it is so dense that the only possible mode of travel is by canoe with death lurking on every side. Eyes may peer through the dense growth, blue smoke arises in ominous signals and the traditional shower of poisoned arrows greet any intrepid explorer, but the Iowa girl is determined to continue her study of the savage tribes inhabiting the region.
Miss Steen recently returned from her first visit to the Brazilian jungles culminating intensive study of primitive ornaments in England, France, Germany and Austria. Overruling all the objection to a woman entering the dangerous interior, Miss Steen secured permission from government officials to make the trip and two government representatives to accompanied her.
She traveled first by train, then by motor truck, by mule, canoe and finally by foot until her expedition reached the Botocudos, a head hunting tribe touched by civilization only a short time previous. Efforts were made to secure a woman to accompany Miss Steen, but a prevalent feminine weakness, fear of snakes, kept them away. Other terrors of the jungle, treacherous savages, wild animals, fatal disease, were of secondary importance.
There are in these regions huge boa constrictors, measuring from fifteen to thirty-five feet in length; cascavels or rattlers whose bite is so deadly that death comes to its victim five minutes after its strike; there are water moccasins that make water travel dangerous; and tiny vipers whose fangs are more feared than the larger snakes because they are difficult to see and never give warning.
Miss Steen's jungle traveling outfit consisted of linen riding suits, heavy shoes and high puttees while her baggage was limited to the barest necessities.
Few people understand the greatness and the endless opportunities in South America, says Miss Steen. There are millions of square miles without a single white man, but populated by hundreds of tribes. Many of the tribes visited by the Iowa woman had seen white men, but never a white woman. The Botocudos were only two years from head hunting and cannibalism. Most of them go unclothed even if the government does provide them with clothing.
Life there is pitifully short. A woman is old at thirty years and one living to be nearly fifty is unheard of. Men are nearly as short lived. They reach maturity in early life-10 or 12 years of age. Some of the women wear blocks in their mouths which cause the lower lip to protrude in a ghastly manner, one of the customs handed down for centuries. These are often suspended from the ears, too. By bribery Miss Steen induced one woman to remove the blocks from her mouth and ears. Her lips and ears hung in shapeless masses and (although she was entirely naked) she was extremely embarrassed until the blocks were replaced .
The travelers subsisted on native fare while in the jungle. This was chiefly black beans, rice and coffee. Other native foods are toads, cats, jaguars, insects, plants and edible clay, but Miss Steen abstained from eating them. Angle worms are considered a special delicacy and salt is believed unhealthful.
One dish Miss Steen did eat, however, was roasted ants which she said tasted like roasted nuts except for a slight acid flavor. Mangoes, which grow on trees and look like melons are greatly enjoyed. Mamao is another favorite. The natives have an innate distrust for the white man and are very treacherous, Miss Steen says. Consequently only the more adventurous men volunteer for the work of colonization.
The first step of the colonizer according to Miss Steen, is to leave gifts of brightly colored trinkets in the path of the savages. If these are gone when the white man returns two or three weeks later, he leaves more. If these are taken and a gift left in their place, the colonizer is overjoyed. But to venture onward after the gifts have been refused means certain death.
In this way the savages and white men become acquainted, the former venturing out from their shelter, clutching the bows which shoot poisoned arrows. The white man must not go to the Indian camp without an invitation or the penalty is death. The process of getting into a tribal camp sometimes takes as long as four years. Miss Steen says. It is painstaking work, calling for the highest amount of courage and tact and only a few men are appointed by the Brazilian government for the task.
Most of Miss Steen's explorations were made in the state of Minas Geraes which she describes as one of the most beautiful regions in the world. The whole landscape is covered with trees and foliage. There is an abundance of beautiful birds, handsomely colored parrots, parakeets and cockatoos; monkeys chatter unceasingly. Entwined about the trees may be great snakes, a sloth and in the path dazzling skinned lizards, all blending into a color scheme of paradise.
But danger lurks everywhere. The heat is oppressive, like a continuous Turkish bath, and the millions of mosquitoes and other insects make it necessary for all white members of the party to keep coats buttoned to the chin, wear gloves and net veils.
One all night trip Miss Steen describes graphically.
"The native guide, barefooted and carrying a torch headed the procession cutting our way with a 'faca' a three foot knife. An eerie feeling came over me. The pat pat of a wild animal following us could be heard. A wild cat crossed the path snarling viciously as it retreated. A snake awakened by the light moved sluggishly across in front of us. The knowledge that jaguars were following us was uncomfortable. Suddenly a piercing scream of a dying animal was heard. What it was we did not learn."
Among the many curious and interesting things she learned was a recipe for aboriginal home brew. The Indians make the concoction from mandioca, a poison plant similar to the potato. It is grated by rubbing over thorny bark and then the juice is pressed out of the gratings. The poison in the juice is boiled out and the pulp given to a group of natives. Each takes a portion and chews it vigorously. After each has masticated his and thoroughly, he passes it on to the next who also chews it. It is allowed to dry after it has passed in and out of several mouths. The drink is made by mixing the dry pulp and the boiled juice and is said to have the same effect as American bootleg liquor.
One of the unique customs Miss Steen describes is that surrounding the birth of a child. Immediately after being told he has become a father, the head of the family takes to his bed to rest after the ordeal of becoming a parent. The idea is that the spirit of the child comes from the father and he must be careful or it will leave the newborn babe and return.
Twins are considered very immoral among some of the South American Indian tribes. Miss Steen says because the father believes he can be the parent of only one child. The sad part of this savage belief is that the mother must put one child to death. However, in other tribes, twins are believed to possess magic power.
Murder, strangely, is a matter to be settled between families, according to Miss Steen. Thus one killing may develop a feud of the worst kind.
Women's rights are unknown among the savages. The woman are classed with the slaves, have no privileges and must do all the work around the camp. Until a boy reaches the age of eight, he must eat with the women who always dine after the men have finished. They pick up the left over scraps, turn their backs on the men and eat. No woman will allow her husband or any other man to see her partaking of food.
The natives eat with their fingers usually although one tribe uses an eating brush, Miss Steen says. They have no regard whatever for sanitation. While most tribes are removed from cannibalism, fat from the bodies of their enemies is always added to the food served after a victory.
The men have their secret societies which serve to keep the women in subjection. When the "secretary" of the tribe starts the "bull roarer" going, women and children must run from camp and hide because it announces the meeting of the secret group. Any woman or child returning before they are supposed to or witnessing part of the ceremony is immediately slain. The "bull roarer" is a simple device made from wood, attached to a long string and produces a terrifying noise when it is whirled.
On her way back to civilization after two months in the hot, steaming jungles, Miss Steen passed through many semi native towns. One of the members of her party visited a store and after waiting several minutes for someone to appear, saw the object he wanted on a high shelf. He reached for it and encountered the cool coil of a huge snake. The reptile uncoiled itself to its full twelve feet of length, swaying back and forth, while the man made for the door. Then the storekeeper who had been asleep appeared and shouted for the customer to return. "Come back! That's only my house cat."
Miss Steen explains that the snake is one of a species of the boa known as the "giboia" and is easily tamed. Although it grows to lengths of twenty to twenty-five feet it is very peaceable and has never been known to attack a man. Thus it is used as a house cat--being a demon mouser.
The large boa constrictor, called the "sucari" is the terror of the jungle, growing to immense size. The story is told of the missing money carrier who was swallowed by the huge reptile. Inside the snake was found the hapless native and his money, but the life had been crushed from him.
While in Brazil Miss Steen visited a coffee plantation about as large as the state of Connecticut. It boasts a town of 100 homes, movies, churches and schools. The children, members of high castes, are taught from the early years to be leaders. At the age of 10 they have as much poise and dignity as the average American man. The daughters of the fazenderos are taught to be queens.
Returning to Rio de Janeiro, Miss Steen journeyed by river boat. By chance the same steamer carried four prisoners, revolutionists, who were being taken to Rio for execution. One of them had a tiny monkey, not more than six inches tall, which he presented to Miss Steen.
The Iowa explorer will go to San Jose, Cal., for the winter where she will teach art and organize her plans for penetrating further into the valley of the River of Death.
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